History, Myth and the Time of Struggle

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In our times, the idea of development, of evolution, has almost completely penetrated social consciousness, only in other ways, and not through Hegelian philosophy. Still, this idea, as formulated by Marx and Engels on the basis of Hegel’s philosophy, is far more comprehensive and far richer in content than the current idea of evolution is. A development that repeats, as it were, stages that have already been passed, but repeats them in a different way, on a higher basis (“the negation of the negation”), a development, so to speak, that proceeds in spirals, not in a straight line; a development by leaps, catastrophes, and revolutions; “breaks in continuity”; the transformation of quantity into quality; inner impulses towards development, imparted by the contradiction and conflict of the various forces and tendencies acting on a given body, or within a given phenomenon, or within a given society; the interdependence and the closest and indissoluble connection between all aspects of any phenomenon (history constantly revealing ever new aspects), a connection that provides a uniform, and universal process of motion, one that follows definite laws — these are some of the features of dialectics as a doctrine of development that is richer than the conventional one. (Lenin, “The Marxist Doctrine”)

I.

In the second chapter of Difference and Repetition, Deleuze breaks the flow of his argument to deliver something of a digression. Titled ‘Note on the Three Repetitions’, the digression tracks a tripartite model of historical repetition occurring across a range of different philosophical and theoretical approaches to the phenomenon of historical development. Deleuze’s goal, which he ultimately finds to be tenuous and problematic, is to uncover a commonality in the figures, so scattered and dispersed across time and place he offers up: the medieval millenarian Joachim of Fiore, Enlightenment philosopher Giambattista Vico, and Pierre-Simon Ballanche, a largely forgotten French philosopher who managed, intriguingly enough, to settle himself in the double-pincer of both the progressive and counterrevolutionary camps in the wake of the French revolution. The primary anchor for these three figures, however, is Marx, and most specifically the Marx of the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), with his formula—one that, Deleuze says, has yet to be properly understood by historians—that “all great world-historical facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice… the first time as tragedy, the second as farce”.

Also Deleuze summarizes, Marx here draws forth two forms of historical repetition that run in different directions, but are yet aligned in the sense that they appear as distinction moments in the series (or, more properly, the circuit) that composes historical evolution. The tragic moment is a tragic metamorphosis: a repeating occurs that unleashes something new into history, producing a jagged fracture between the emergent time and what came before. The farcical or comic moment, however, is a repetition that “falls short” and fails to offer any sort of “authentic creation” (D&R, 114). In Marx’s schema, itself a dynamic confrontation of Hegel’s own insights concerning historical repetition with Aristotle’s distinction between the tragic and the comic (which ultimately pivoted on whether or not the characters were a ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ type, respectively), the tragic precedes the comic, thus providing the provocative diagram of the comic as a repetition of the tragic, a repetition of the repetition, which can only ever fail…

In Deleuze’s hands, this order is reversed, and he presents the tragic as succeeding the comic in the most generalized, abstracted form of the series. In the matrix of historical production, the comic does easily follow the tragic, but in the abstract form the ultimate metamorphosis comes in the aftermath of the failure of attempted transformation. From here, we close in on Deleuze’s ultimate goal, the revelation of the third moment in the series, which is the Eternal Return, difference-in-itself, which comes clashing through the spiroform of the comic-tragic to open the very possibility of the future (understood, in the case of Vico and others, the resetting of the cycle in order for it to advance, itself a distinctly spirodynamic formulation). This curious temporal architecture, however, is not the chief concern here, though its ghost continues to hover close, just out of sight. Its mention here is only to install it in the back of the mind. Instead, it is Marx’s own treatment of the tragic-comic cycling in the context of historical evolution, as well as the commentary offered by Harold Rosenberg—American Trotskyite and art critic (known for his early commentaries on what would later be called abstract expressionism) and Deleuze’s primary interlocutor when discussing the Eighteenth Brumaire—that should be stressed at the current juncture.

As Deleuze notes, Rosenberg foregrounds the importance of myth in his discussion of the tragic-comic repetition (this discussion, incidentally, is to be found in his essay ‘The Resurrected Romans’, though it can also be found in the volume of collected writings called The Tradition of the New (highly recommended)). It is the myth that loops together the strange dynamism of historical repetition with what is perhaps the most famous insight from the Eighteenth Brumaire: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past”. The present, and the possibilities of the future contained in the present, are colonized by the past. Historical lock-in reigns supreme and the “tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living”. In the grip of possession, the revolution that is capable of creating the new—by which we mean a temporal order distinct from the present—itself “conjure[s] up the spirits of the past to their service”.

In his restaging of Marx’s argument, Rosenberg describes how “In the act of creating new social forms men had ceased to behave ‘realistically’. They lost touch with the time and place they occupied as living men—they became, more or less automatically, actors playing a part” (The Tradition of the New, 154). The revolutionaries were thrown out of joint with their time, not out individual volition or collective choice, but because of the historico-temporal wall that conditioned their range of actions—and, as a result, their very identities melted away, precisely in order to gain new ones as mythic characters. “Social reality”, wrote Rosenberg, “gave way to mimesis because history did not allow humans to pursue their own ends… It was the pressure of the past that took revolutions out of the ‘naturalistic’ prose of the everyday and gave them the form of a special kind of dramatic poetry” (The Tradition of the New, 154-155). Or, as Marx himself put it:

Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793-95. In like manner, the beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue.

When we think about this conjuring up of the dead of world history, a salient difference reveals itself. Camille Desmoulins, Danton, Robespierre, St. Just, Napoleon, the heroes as well as the parties and the masses of the old French Revolution, performed the task of their time – that of unchaining and establishing modern bourgeois society – in Roman costumes and with Roman phrases. The first one destroyed the feudal foundation and cut off the feudal heads that had grown on it. The other created inside France the only conditions under which free competition could be developed, parceled-out land properly used, and the unfettered productive power of the nation employed; and beyond the French borders it swept away feudal institutions everywhere, to provide, as far as necessary, bourgeois society in France with an appropriate up-to-date environment on the European continent.

Revolution, then—and it is important that what Marx is describing here are the bourgeois revolutions, which set in motion the historical mission of capital—blows across the desert of history in the form of a mythic wind that bears within itself a complex and knotted time structure. The future is obstructed by the domination of the present by the past, but it is exactly through a return to the past, the resurrection of something in the past in the form of some weird simulation, that breaks these temporal bindings. Once these loops have been followed, the time of the myth melts away and history restabilizes; what was previously out of joint is recoded, and the dramatic character masks are discarded for those of the everyday. As for Marx, his pen betrays a sense of a restlessness in the face of this transference into the epoch of bourgeois harmony:

Once the new social formation was established, the antediluvian colossi disappeared and with them also the resurrected Romanism – the Brutuses, the Gracchi, the publicolas, the tribunes, the senators, and Caesar himself. Bourgeois society in its sober reality bred its own true interpreters and spokesmen in the Says, Cousins, Royer-Collards, Benjamin Constants, and Guizots; its real military leaders sat behind the office desk and the hog-headed Louis XVIII was its political chief. Entirely absorbed in the production of wealth and in peaceful competitive struggle, it no longer remembered that the ghosts of the Roman period had watched over its cradle.

Rosenberg suggests that because of this, the subversiveness of history, with its ruses and capacity for sudden reversals, is to be understood as ironical. One is transformed into oneself by being transformed into something else—and it is in this sense that history defeats the actors that seek to break from it. For this reason, he continues, the myth itself is denigrated: “Marx, having admitted the myth into history, refuses to concede to it the power to affect history’s direction” (The Tradition of the New, 161). It’s hard to see, however, how Roseneberg stands to make this claim, given precisely the function of the myth that he draws out from the pages of the Eighteenth Brumaire. In the case of the bourgeois revolutions the myth appears as the vital component in engendering a direction to history; primary to their enrapturing by its templex machinery, the revolutionaries were paralyzed. Men might not make history as they choose, but history proceeds immanently through their actors, perhaps precisely because of the twists, reversals, catastrophic breaks and bizarre surprises that constantly dog the smooth expectations of how events will play out. The myth, for the revolutionaries, was the fuel needed for combustion, for the cascade of cruel ironies that propel pre-history towards its conclusion.

The dissipation of the myth and the advent of the ‘new normal’ of the bourgeoisie is what sets the stage for the comic repetition. Marx saw this shambolic ghost appearing in history in his own moment, as the radical spirits attempted to recreate the events of the French Revolution during the course of the revolution of 1848. The repetition of the repetition:

From 1848 to 1851, only the ghost of the old revolution circulated – from Marrast, the républicain en gants jaunes [Republican in yellow gloves], who disguised himself as old Bailly, down to the adventurer who hides his trivial and repulsive features behind the iron death mask of Napoleon. A whole nation, which thought it had acquired an accelerated power of motion by means of a revolution, suddenly finds itself set back into a defunct epoch, and to remove any doubt about the relapse, the old dates arise again – the old chronology, the old names, the old edicts, which had long since become a subject of antiquarian scholarship, and the old minions of the law who had seemed long dead. The nation feels like the mad Englishman in Bedlam who thinks he is living in the time of the old Pharaohs and daily bewails the hard labor he must perform in the Ethiopian gold mines, immured in this subterranean prison, a pale lamp fastened to his head, the overseer of the slaves behind him with a long whip, and at the exits a confused welter of barbarian war slaves who understand neither the forced laborers nor each other, since they speak no common language. “And all this,” sighs the mad Englishman, “is expected of me, a freeborn Briton, in order to make gold for the Pharaohs.” “In order to pay the debts of the Bonaparte family,” sighs the French nation. The Englishman, so long as he was not in his right mind, could not get rid of his idée fixé of mining gold. The French, so long as they were engaged in revolution, could not get rid of the memory of Napoleon, as the election of December 10 [1848, when Louis Bonaparte was elected President of the French Republic by plebiscite.] was proved. They longed to return from the perils of revolution to the fleshpots of Egypt, and December 2, 1851 [The date of the coup d’état by Louis Bonaparte], was the answer. Now they have not only a caricature of the old Napoleon, but the old Napoleon himself, caricatured as he would have to be in the middle of the nineteenth century.

It is at this point that Deleuze’s third repetition—which he identifies not only with Nietzsche’s Eternal Return, but also (with varying degrees of asymmetry) the turning of Vico’s ricorso and Ballanche’s third age, characterized by regicide, the late-stage voyage of Oedipus and the reign of the “Man without a Name”—hovers closer. For Marx, comic repetition is doomed to failure because what is not needed is a repetition of the repetition, but something that angles beyond the historical space-time of bourgeois society: proletarian (the class without a name?) revolution, not a bourgeois one.

In Rosenberg’s reading, the proletarian revolution is viewed at this point as proceeding through a repudiation of the myth’s essential role. “The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future”, wrote Marx. “The former revolutions required recollections of past world history to in order to smother their own content”. To this, Rosenberg adds that “[d]eprived of the myth the proletarian revolution would have to take place without passion, or with a kind of passion altogether different from the ecstasy of the doubled time which ‘drugged’ the revolutionary middle class” (The Tradition of the New, 163). This reading, however, seems to run into two problems. In the first case, it’s not clear that myth itself vanishes from Marx’s account, as for Marx the term ‘poetry’ acts as a cipher for what Rosenberg identifies as the myth. In the Eighteenth Brumaire, the poetry which flavors the proletarian revolution—which is to say, of course, what lends it its passions—flows not from the past from the future: the future-myth. This leads us, quite naturally, to the second case, which is that the temporality of proletarian revolution is still seen by Marx as a time doubled, one that is out of joint. It’s a restaging of the incredible temporal schizzing that opens the preamble of the Communist Manifesto: “A specter is haunting Europe—the specter of communism”.

II.

Dickering over this sort of minutia in Rosenberg’s reading of Marx is ultimately immaterial, particularly when we contextualize these multi-faceted mechanisms into the present moment. When Marx described the poetry or myth of communist futurity igniting the passion of revolution in the present, comic repetition was viewed as occurring within a historical trajectory that still maintained a telic structure, albeit one that, as Etienne Balibar describes in The Philosophy of Marx, forced him back to his drawing boards and notebooks. But even as he was plunging himself into the white-hot maelstrom of churning industrialization and the delirious loops of commodity circulation, he could glimpse the ghost of the possible futures radiating backwards into the darkness of bourgeois society. It was, in fact, the maelstrom and the loops themselves that allowed this light to pierce the vale, drawing the class war towards itself…

This situation is, of course, not reflective of current postmodern conditions. Much more of this is to be said in a series of in-progress posts, but what is worth remarking on is that the present, while shut off from the radiance of the future, does not appear as being colonized by the past. Instead, past, present and future all appear as if smeared across a singular, infinite field, in turn effectively obliterating the time-structure of history by cancelling out all three. One might reach for Zizek’s handy quote about imagining the end of the world being easier than imagining the end of capitalism, but this seems radically insufficient in grappling with the endless scroll of postmodernity. Imagining isn’t enough, for it already conjures a faint outline of the necessary time-structure—one must push through from imagining to believing. It’s readily apparent that belief in the end of capitalism, despite the rapid cooling of its revolutionary flames, isn’t accessible in any meaningful sense. By the same token, it’s hard to see that people truly believe in the end of the world—at best, there is a great pretending to believe in the end of the world, which is something entirely different from believing that one believes in the end of the world, much less the end of capitalism.† If one finds exaggeration in these words, a quick assessment of the relationship between climate discourse and action is recommended (going in a somewhat but intimately related direction, see the splintering conversations unfolding here, here and here—to which some posts in the immediate future will be dedicated).

At this seemingly intractable impasse, another strange twist presents itself: the mythic loop that was unique to the bourgeois revolution, which the proletarian revolution was meant to eschew, appears as the potential ground for an exit from postmodernity (which is to say that it appears as the precondition for the proletarian revolution). After the repeat failures of the postmodern politics of the occupation and the multitude, which for Fredric Jameson entailed the replacement of the “politics of duration” with the “politics of the instant” (An American Utopia, 13), a falling backwards in time is required in order to actualize the future—and once this formula is in play, so too is the specter of the myth.

The time-structure was recognized, perhaps inadvertently, by Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek in their 2013 #Accelerate Manifesto, where they wrote of the “need to revive the argument that was traditionally made for post-capitalism: not only is capitalism an unjust and perverted system, but it is also a system that holds back progress” (it’s telling that this manifesto was penned in part as a direct reaction to the politics of the occupation and multitude). While there’s much to quibble about concerning the distinction between Williams and Srnicek’s mode of analysis and conclusions and that of Marx—and this blog certainly veers hard to the latter—this is far less important than the signal that is covertly bleeding through their words. It’s a signal that is picked up by Nick Land, who sees in their retroprogressivism a left-wing mirror-image to the temporalities of Neoreaction, which itself conforms quite well to time-tangledness captured by Marx in the Eighteenth Brumaire. Citing the same quote as above, Land points out that

it’s a revival, it’s a return to tradition, it’s an invocation of postcapitalism, it’s absolutely templex in this sense of being deeply ambiguous or schizoid in terms of its temporal structure. And I think this goes deep into their project. The project of left accelerationism as outlined in the MAP is retroprogressivist, and actually has exactly the same retroprogressivist time structure as right accelerationism in the sense that it is both kind of hyper-futurist and drawn back particularly to something like the 1920s. It’s like art deco, it’s a return to this point at which modernization was lost. Obviously from the right it’s lost because of the New Deal and the destruction of classical liberalism. From the left it’s lost by the disappointments of Soviet Communism and the betrayal from that point of view of these socialist dreams contemporary with the Bolshevik revolution.

Elsewhere we can find the instructive identification of Williams and Srnicek’s marriage of the “command of The Plan” to the “improvised order of The Network” with an abstracted view of the developmentalist moment in the evolution of modernity—and here, too, the signal holds (indeed, the sort of socialist dreams identified by Land above flood through the developmentalist imperative as much as capital itself).

Left accelerationism never elevated itself to the level capable of breaking postmodernity. Even as they actively identified their project as hyperstitional, a tool to bootstrap a future-oriented movement into existence, the escalation via self-excitation never same: its function as myth was not realized. Two reasons that bear immediately on matters here. The first of these is movement from mythopoesis to myth construction,† † which can be traced along a line running from the engagement with the time-structure to its subsequent abandoning in later iterations of the program. The second is the issue of an evolving technocratic orientation, which follows in parallel to the two previous transition. While it is indeed present in the Manifesto—developmentalism, it seems, is always shot through with technocratic impulses of varying degrees—its appearance in the guise of The Plan is mitigated by The Network. The Manifesto proposes their marriage, but perhaps a more interesting and instructive way of viewing it would be as two elements in constant tension, not unlike the Maoist dialectical formula of the Two proceeding from the One (it’s not by coincidence that the formula originates not with Mao, but in Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks). This tension ultimately falls away, and with it dissipates the very thing that the myth is supposed to infuse itself with: the class war.

In a post on ‘left hyperstition’ Mark Fisher took up Badiou’s demand for “great fictions” capable of engendering “great politics” with the following “intensely compressed suggestions”:

The first hypothesis we might hazard is that, counter-intuitively, only fictions are capable of generating belief. ‘The final belief must be in a fiction,’ Badiou quoted Wallace Stevens as writing. The belief at stake is clearly not a propositional but an attitudinal belief; which is to say, not a belief that a particular factual state of affairs obtains but belief as a set of commitments.

Secondly, since capitalism is itself inherently fictional, it is essential that counter-capitalist fictions be produced. Fiction here would not mean an ‘imaginary’ (in a Lacanian or any other sense) alternative but an already-operative generator of possibilities.

Fiction ensures that things are not only themselves. Capital is the most effective sorcery operative on the planet at the moment because it is adept at transforming banal objects into a sublimely mysterious commodities. Trans-substantiation. The allure of the commodity arises from the non-coincidence of the object with itself. (cf Zizek’s famous analysis of the ‘nothingness’ of Coke.) Anti-capitalism needs to take the form not only of a demystifying, depressive desublimation but of the production of alternative modes of sublimation.

If class struggle is to be re-ignited—and make no mistake, this conflagration is necessary to end postmodern decadence—this line appears as a fertile zero for its emergence. And that, as we have seen, is a question of time.

____________

† After some though, it occurs to me that the distinction drawn here, between an ineffective pretending-to-believe versus an effective believing-to-believe, is in need of further elucidation and clarification, as what is common to each is unbeliefIn his discussion of the film The Skeleton Key (link above), Fisher draws out how the main character is forced into a situation in which they must act as if they believe (in this case, old hoodoo rituals), which in proper Pascalian form leads them to real belief (correspondent with the realization of a ‘truth’ wholly distinct from that offered by cool postmodern skepticism). In this case, it is indeed the pretending to believe that makes it possible believe—behavior, even if one is acting under the auspices of a fiction, allows for actualization. From this position, my distinction between the two becomes untenable. Perhaps we should look instead to an active-passive axis, as opposed to the hard distinction between pretending and faith-before-faith.

† †  Another way the distinction between mythopoeisis and myth-construction (which no doubt bears on the complicated relationship between unbelief and belief touched on above) can be worked through is by looking at the following comments by Xenogoth in his post ‘Comrades’:

As with Mark and Jodi, I don’t agree that we need to change the word “communism” at all, not least because of its past associations. To call it something else is to desire something else, as Dean pointed out. It makes sense in the most rudimentary of ways and its structure, even at the level of its etymology, is perfect for encapsulating what is desired.

This was a big deal for me during my postgraduate studies — a new awareness of the importance of the “com-” prefix to the etymology of leftist discourses. A basic and simple point perhaps but one which, through its very simplicity, was very powerful to me. It’s everywhere. Communism, community, communication, commune, comrade, complement, complete, compassion, commemoration. It means “with”, “together”, “in association” whilst likewise denoting an intensity and a fulfilment, and an awareness of this has enriched my understanding of all of these words above. So the word “communism” doesn’t need changing one bit. It is “the communist myth” that must be challenged.

What is being described here as the “communist myth”, which XG analyzes in Barthesian terms, would correspond here to myth-construction. This is because the naturalistic sense that the ‘myth of communism’ is imbued with must be assessed from a temporal view. Simply put, it is always inscribed retrospectively, a tradition cobbled together from the (un)ground of postmodernism itself. This is not unlike the diagnosis of the various fundamentalisms as postmodern projects, as offered by Hardt and Negri: “visions of a return to the past are generally based on historical illusions… It is a fictional image projected onto the past, like Main Street U.S.A. at Disneyland, constructed retrospectively through the lenses of contemporary anxieties and fears” (Empire, 148). They will, of course, ultimately affirm the postmodern condition, leading them to precisely the faulty politics outlined above—and it is exactly the dialectic of myth construction and mythopoiesis that allows us to deepen and complicate their astute analysis.

Mythopoiesis, in contrast to myth-construction, can be rendered as thus: abandoning the retroactive myth that cements the tradition as timeless block, fixed in place, a spatialized time (which itself is the very core of the postmodern condition), and a return to a living, mutable tradition, the sort that exists where space is annihilated by time. Or, more simply: not going back to find bits and pieces for recombination, but going back in order to make possible the truly new.

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Close Encounters (Notes)

Screenshot from 2017-07-05 18-23-57

The ‘Hynek scale’ is a tool used for assessing the typology an encounter with the UFO. Initially developed by J. Allen Hynek, an astronomer, UFOlogist and adviser to a series of US Air Force UFO studies (Project Sign, which ran from 1947-1949; Project Grudge, 1949-1952, and Project Blue Book, 1952-1969), the scale is divided amongst Distant Encounters (DE-) and Close Encounters (CE-). Although Hynek’s initial developments divided each into three primary categories, four additional CE types have been since added by later researchers.

The breakdown:

DE-1: Appearance of lights (and lights in motion)  in the nighttime sky that cannot be explained easily by ordinary light sources.

DE-2: Daytime sighting of an inexplicable object that may (or may not) move at immense speeds – metallic saucers or cigar-shaped crafts, primarily.

DE-3: Radar confirmation of unidentified flying objects that occur subsequently with eyewitness confirmation.

CE-1: Close witnessing of a UFO with no interaction, either with the witness or the external environment.

CE-2: Encounter with a UFO that entails some sort of interaction with the environment – strange electrical phenomenon (car ignition problems, radio interferences etc), burn marks on the ground, crop circles, etc.

CE-3: Confirmation of (usually humanoid) occupants of the UFO, which may or may not entail contact or communication.

CE-4: The abduction event proper, in which the witness is taken aboard of the UFO (and often experimented upon).

CE-5: Direct communication between the ‘aliens’ and the humans.

CE-6: Direct communication and engagement between the aliens and the humans that results in long-term injury or even death.

CE-7: The production of an alien-human hybrid through experimental breeding techniques.

After CE-4 comes CE-5 to -6. Schwa-mask peels off, and you’re heading into faceless horror, worm-spillage, losing focus. (1)

The transition from Close Encounter 4 – abduction as such – to CE 5-6 is a switch from the thematics of Science Fiction to those of cyberpunk or cybergothic. At CE5-6, the question of what is experienced is inextricably bound up with the question of what experience itself is, since the events undergone seem to constitute what Templeton calls a “Transcendental Occurrence” a change in the nature of time itself, registering as Freudo-Barkerian trauma. (2)

With the Transcendental Occurrence – the encounter with the Dweller on the Threshold, Yog-Sothoth, the Positive Zero – in mind, consider these AQ equivalences that rotate like beacons:

66 = FEAR = LOL = NET

69 = GATE  = KALI = KATA = LSD 25 = UFO = WAR

96 = DEMON = DJINN = FATES = METAL = PEST = WWW

99 = SCHWA = QABBALA = THETA = XXX

Spooky link round-up from the Sarkon zone:

Cybernetics came from UFOs: letter concerning the flying saucer crash recovery team.

Cybernetics came from UFOs, round 2: delirious conspiracy theory from Jack Shulman of the American Computer Company concerning the Roswell Crash, Bell Laboratories, AT&T and the secret history of the semiconductor.

The real Control Society: Jacques Vallee on UFOs and a cybernetic ‘control system’ – grist for the simulation hypothesis mill? (Bonus: Vallee puts on his accelerationist hat, 1, 2 and 3)

The real Control Society, round 2: Vallee hangs out at ARC.

Trauma Core

0D1

This evening I had a chance to finish reading Mark Fisher’s phd thesis Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction. Weaving together the CCRU-era emphasis on capital’s radical deterritorializing edge with foreshadows of the critique honed in his later writings (the concept of ‘capitalist realism’ even makes a brief appearance), Fisher bounces Deleuze and Guattari’s nomad thought and Baudrillard’s cool pessimism off on another to explore the uncanniness creeping in through ultra-late cybernetic capitalism. This uncanniness is explored, as the title of the thesis suggests, through the lenses of “gothic materialism. Fisher:

Gothic Materialism is flat with its material; it names both the mode of analysis and what is to be analyzed. It does not arbitrarily conjoin materialism with the Gothic, but insists that all effective materialism must lead Out towards a non-organic (dis)continuum. Amongst other things, the Gothic can serve as the proper name for this continuum, and cyberpunk is the registering of its arrival on the terminal shores of a wired humanity. Whilst an organicist left finds in cyberpunk the quietist collapse of transformative political projects into a “hardboiled” “survivalist” hyper-nihilism, Gothic materialism locates in Baudrillard’s ecstatic communication, Gibson’s hyperspace, Jameson’s total flow, and Cronenberg’s Videodrome the map of a hypermediatized capitalism that is decoding privatized subjectivity.

Gothic materialism converges with matters of great interest to this blog, particularly where the collision of the “non-organic (dis)continuum” – or, to put it more succinctly, if not redundantly, the anorganic continuum – and cyberculture collide. Cyberpunk isn’t just a hyperstitional space unveiling capital’s templex invasion of the future; it is also in open transit with a deeply alien force. Xenogenetic mutagens range freely through the folding and unfolding of time, an encounter with which is illustrated in the CCRU’s depictions of the cybergothic. The term exhibits the same heat-fucked temporality as retroprogressivism and neoreaction: a looping together of futurity (cyber, progress, neo-) with the past (gothic, retro-, reaction). As Iris Carver wrote some twenty years ago: “Think of cyberspace as a black-mirror. It is where time flips over: collide with it and you travel backwards. As telecommerce accelerates us into the net, it seems that things of ever deeper antiquity awaken, and begin their return. So say the Cybergoths.”

Near the conclusion of Flatline Constructs, Fisher elaborates on the double nature of the black-mirror, placing on one side of it cyberspace (putting special emphasis on its independent economic function), and on the other the zone where cyberspace undergoes “black out”: the “catatonic ‘neuro-electronic void’… the image of the noumenal event horizon which we cannot go”. The time-shattering flip from one side to the other is the plummet into the deeper darkness of the anorganic continuum, described by Deleuze and Guattari as the ‘gothic line’ that gives rises to the “prodigious idea of Nonorganic Life” (ATP 411). Schizophrenia’s intensive voyages move in the direction of this line, taking “the schizo as close as possible to matter, to a burning, living center of matter” (AO 19). Nonorganic life, matter’s burning, living core – the anorganic continuum snakes through the fissure between the dead and the living and problematizes each. It is the plane of unlife, or as it might be called alternatively and without contradiction, the plane of undeath.

Echidna Stillwell: My researches have led me to associate this Chthonian entity with the deep terrestrial intelligence inherent in the electromagnetic cauldron of the inner earth, in all of its intense reality, raw potentiality, and danger. According to the Nma she is the plane of Unlife, a veritable Cthelll – who is trapped under the sea only according to a certain limited perspective – and those who set out to traffick with her do so with the very greatest respect and caution.

Hence the centrality of the Freudian uncanny. Fisher argues that by boxing the uncanny into castration anxiety – fear of punishment by castration for the content of our repressed impulses – Freud is attempting to ward off the true horror that lurks down this road, one that gets to the fiery core of ultimate repression. Dolls coming to life, non-living living doubles, the sudden recognition of likeness in some alien artifact – these are all treated by Freud as the cataloging of childhood traumas and past events that are repeating themselves through life. It is thus a return to the same, or the familiar, even if it wears a mask. It is what Deleuze would describe repetition of the same – but in Fisher’s resistance to Freud’s oedipal recoding, the uncanny’s dreadful mask moves towards the repetition of difference-in-itself, as the anorganic continuum itself. The uncanny, by making something dead spring to life, is a sudden eruption of the undeath into the fragile stability of ‘ordinary’ reality.

While Fisher doesn’t pursue it, it seems to me that this helps us get at Deleuze’s reformulation of Freud’s death instinct. In Coldness and Cruelty, Deleuze had transformed the Thanatropic death instinct into the groundlessness that upheld Eros – “beyond the repetition that links, the repetition that erases and destroys” (C&C 114). In Difference and Repetition this connection is deepened by tying the death instinct to the time of the Eternal Return, that is, the temporal mechanism of difference-in-itself: “Time empty and out of joint, with its rigorous formal and static order, its crushing unity and its irreversible series, is precisely the death instinct” (D&R, 111).

In contrast is the death instinct of Beyond the Pleasure Principle, where Freud finds in the drive the striving to return to the same, in the guise of inorganic matter. Defining an instinct as “an urge inherent in organic matter to restore an earlier state of things”, Freud argued that if “the aim of all life is death”, the death instinct can be characterized the striving to “becoming inorganic once again” (BPP 30, 32). Life as disequilibria trying to loop back to homeostatic equilibrium – but other forces push back against the instinct to “ward off any possible ways of returning to inorganic existence other than those which are immanent in the organism itself” (BPP 33). Life is thus a series of ‘detours’ on the road to the actual event of dying itself, in which homeostasis is achieved.

Deleuze argues in Coldness and Cruelty that Freud contradicts himself at multiple points where the death drive is concerned, repeatedly crossing the line into repetition-of-difference in contrast to repetition-of-the-same, and that he has to fall back at each instant of doing so. This observation parallels Fisher’s arguments in Flatline Constructs that Freud must hold at bay the real source of uncanny dread by routing it back into the familiar. An example of such tension can be found in Freud’s himself complication of the organic/inorganic divide by suggesting that the living substance exhibits a “special envelope or membrane” that protects it from excesses of external stimuli, and that this membrane is “to some degree inorganic” (BPP 21). In this schema, the inorganic membrane is part of the infrastructure that carries out the warding-off of death and aids the ultimate flight into final death – yet by its very existence the categories of the organic and inorganic begin to crumble as the living substance begins morphing into an anorganic entity. By shifting the terrain from the base inorganic matter to an anorganic continuum, the body becomes not some radically distinct from the continuum – it’s continuous with it. This is what engenders the dread of the uncanny. It isn’t the repetition of childhood trauma, trauma being violent external stimuli that has pierced the inorganic membrane. It’s the repressed Secret that everything convergent upon – and emergent from – the anorganic plane of unlife, a trauma of the inside being unfold into its outside.

Professor Daniel Barker: Trauma is a body. Ultimately – at its pole of maximum disequilibrium – it’s an iron thing. At MVU they call it Cthelll: the interior third of terrestrial mass, semifluid metallic ocean, megamolecule, and pressure-cooker beyond imagination. It’s hotter than the surface off the sun down there, three thousand clicks below the crust, and all that thermic energy is sheer impersonal nonsubjective memory of the outside, running the plate-tectonic machinery of the planet via the conductive and convective dynamics of silicate magma flux, bathing the whole system in electomagnetic fields as it tidally pulses to the orbit of the moon. Cthelll is the terrestrial inner nightmare, nocturnal ocean, Xanadu: the anorganic metal-body trauma-howl of the earth, cross-hatched by intensities, traversed by thermic waves and currents, deranged particles, ionic strippings and gluttings, gravitational deep-sensitivities transduced into nonlocal electromesh, and feeding vulcanism … that’s why plutonic science slides continuously into schizophrenic delirium.

The trauma-core threatens the unitary self (as indicated in Anti-Oedipus by the proximity of the schizophrenia and the burning heart of ‘living matter’), just as Eternal Return, repetition-as-difference, dissolves it into the production of the New. Why must the unitary self – or, as Deleuze and Guattari call it, the “body-image” – hide this trauma away, repress it at all costs? Because it voids out the body-image’s interiority: being continuous with the plane of unlife breaks down the external source of trauma, predicated on the membrane that regulates passage from the inside to the outside, by unfoldng interiority into exteriority. The body-image becomes thrown back on what it has obscured, the Body without Organs. Or, in other words, it falls back on the primary process that has given rise to it: the anorganic continuum as auto-production.

In a passage that is as remarkable as it is horrifying, Deleuze and Guattari push deeper into the ruptures between life and death, the organic and anorganic, and along the way reveal the body-image as little more than a parasite on the gears of autoproduction. Taking their cue from Samuel Butler’s “The Book of the Machines”, which asserts that the mechanism-vitalism binary is annihilated under the absolute identity of the machinic and the organic, they write:

…it becomes immaterial whether one says that machines are organs, or organs machines. The two definitions are exact equivalents: man as a “vertebro-machinate mammal”, or as an “aphidian parasite of machines. What is essential is not the passage to infinity itself – the infinity composed of machine parts or the temporal infinity of animalcules – but rather in what this passage blossoms into. Once the structural unity of the machine has been undone, once the personal and specific unity of the living has been laid to rest, a direct link is perceived between the machine and desire, the machine passes to the heart of desire, the machine is desiring and desire, machined. Desire is not in the subject but the machine in the desire – with the residual subject off to the side, alongside the machine, around the entire periphery, a parasite of the machines, an accessory of vertebro-machinate desire. In a word, the real difference is not between the living and the machine, vitalism and mechanism, but between two states of the machine that are two states of living as well. (AO 285-286)

As Fisher notes, what is at stake here is “the delocalization of desire, and its fusion with generalized production”, a maneuver that sets in motion the articulation of this complex as traumatic, and its ultimate repression. The CCRU, following not just Deleuze and Guattari but J.G. Ballard, explore this through the frame of geotrauma, in which the body-image is exploded back onto the monstrous geological flux of deep-time (a prism that pulls together the materiality of the anorganic continuum with the empty time of the Eternal Return), where the grinding slowness of continental drift and the repetitive assault by catastrophic upheaval exerts a pressure that ravages and contorts the evolutionary process. In The Drowned World, Ballard describes the recording of these inhuman processes on the human spine:

The further down the CNS you move, from the hind-brain through the medulla into the spinal cord, you descend back into the neutronic past. For example, the junction between T-12 and L-1 is the great zone of transit between the gill-breathing fish and their air-breathing amphibians with their respiratory rib-cages, the very junction where we stand now on the shores of this lagoon, between the Paleozoic and Triassic eras.

Or, as Professor Barker sums up: “Geotrauma is an ongoing process, whose tension is continually expressed – partially frozen – in biological organization.” Cybernetics is another way to track this process; after all, it was Norbert Wiener who suggested it had “relegated” the vitalist/mechanist debate to “the limbo of badly posed questions” by contextualizing purposefulness in terms distinctly mechanistic terms. Push this a little further and we get to the true core that, in its immensity, shatters the confidence of the body-image’s agency by situating it in the multi-scaled cascades of self-organizing systems. Leveling: the cybernetics of technomic development burns out, more and more, the transcendent notions we had about the world, our place in it, and the interior functions of ourselves. A time-loop that bends the increasingly-close far-future to the deepest past.

Getting to this stage returns us back to the theme of the uncanny. Identifying the anorganic spectrum of systems as exhibiting purposeful behavior schizzes out notions of intelligence by making cyberpositivity transveral across many ruptured orders, imbuing them with a sense of uncanniness that cannot but actor as a destabilizing factor. The implications are of clear for the topics this blog relishes the most – capital, (already defined by Marx in terms of an unliving Gothic entity consuming society) and war (with its tendency towards non-human learning processes). But more at some other time!

Meanwhile, Thomas Murphy on Deleuze and Guattari’s anorganic mysticism:

Screenshot from 2018-03-12 11-02-42

Screenshot from 2018-03-12 11-03-16