Sunday, June 23, 2013

why I am not Nietzchean / why I am Hegelian

I'm losing patience with Bataille's chapter on Nietzsche. Maybe this is because of Bataille's interpretation, but it fits with just about everything else I've ever heard or read people to say about Nietzsche, so I think what's really going on here is that I just don't get Nietzsche.

What I understand about Nietzsche is mostly what I remember from reading him as a kid. Like almost all the male philosophy majors I've ever come across, reading Nietzsche propelled me into philosophy. Raised in a fairly ordinary conformist, authoritarian, white US way, Nietzsche was subversive, a vicarious expression of my own inarticulate rage, a source of quotations to use in aggressive confrontations. He seemed to provide a way out, an alternative to the oppressive regime of God-Father-State-Capital. And maybe he does.

From what I understand, though, his alternative is an affirmation of sovereign will toward life, no matter what. This is usually taken to mean embracing the urgency of the present (and eternal) moment, with no time to reason through options. There are no reasons, and there are no options, to this embrace. Reason, as Nietzsche might himself have said, paraphrasing ironically, is always too late to the scene to provide real guidance. When we imagine that reason guides us in those moments, either we fool ourselves into believing our own post hoc rationalizations, or we let others fool us into servility to their God, Law, or System.

I can't take it seriously (and I can't take Bataille taking it seriously, seriously -- of which more in a moment). Bataille suggests there is a basic and binary choice about how to live: either objectively, for the sake of something, for which we produce and accumulate and save; or subjectively, for the sake of nothing, consuming without end, in sovereign transgression.

When I get the rare chance to talk to anyone about Hegel, I tell them that the most important thing to remember about Hegel is that for him, every dichotomy is a false dichotomy. Notice how Bataille's Nietzschean gambit lines up productivity and accumulation with servility specifically to God-Father-State-Capital, as though the only end there could be would be so external and extrinsic. (By the way, you could just as well replace Capital with Communism, which Bataille does consider an objectifying and enslaving end as well.)

The thing is, I'm with Hegel, and not just on this. Nietzsche and his progeny (hah! Take that!) declare independence from the slow, inexorable, tedious workings of a System by fiat: "God is dead" or "the king is dead" or "let's have an orgy" or whatever. But Bataille's Nietzschean concept of sovereignty is set in the context of a world of Hegelian industry. Sovereignty only has meaning in that context, in opposition to a System of production and accumulation -- it depends on it, in order for there to be anything to consume and expend. It can never be more than a momentary explosion, and not a way of life (except for that one solitary exception, who would be absolutely appalling to live with or witness).

I'm with Hegel because I believe that what I do adds something, whether or not I determine what it is, or can even tell, to the world as a whole. I'm with Hegel because I believe that reason, however late arriving, is the way the whole makes sense, not just to us but for itself. I'm with Hegel because I spend nearly every moment of consciousness and nearly every watt of my energy being productive (though that's a psychological condition, not a philosophical one).

Mostly, I'm with Hegel because I am a pessimist like he was, because I believe that this productive activity and effort of reasoning continue toward this end that they will never reach, because every current state of events and every current state of knowledge will fall to the negation of contingency, ground to dust under necessity, to become the ground of the next state, and the next. I have no choice but to produce, and what I produce will necessarily be annihilated.

From this angle, sovereignty looks like the happy child's playful destruction of toys.


A quick note on Bataille's notion of sovereignty: I see him combining Nietzsche and Hegel in a very peculiar way. Bataille's sovereignty is negative through and through, because, despite his protestations, it's clear that sovereign expenditure does work and has meaning. As he notes about the impurity endemic to all that is human, a human attempt at sovereignty would also be impure. There would be an exception to this exceptional subjectivity, a leak of objectivity and production. For instance, sacrificial expenditures by Aztecs, as he interprets them in volume one, are all in the name of and in service to gods, but the gods are also in service to something else -- the earth, sun, and moon provide for the people's needs. Despite himself, Bataille's got a system in which expenditure and production are two strokes, like systole and diastole (a metaphor he uses as well -- take that!).

Friday, June 21, 2013

miraculous consumption and sovereign pleasure

Bataille relates sovereign expenditure and enjoyment to a "miraculous" moment of consumption without return or remainder. In very simple terms, Bataille operates with a dichotomous opposition between productive, accumulative labor, in which human beings become objects (and, I would add, become abject) and, on the other hand, unproductive consumption which is the sovereign pleasure of subjects. If you're familiar with the terms, it's very like Hegel's master-slave relation.

What makes it possible for sovereign enjoyment to be unproductive is not only that the master does no work, not only that the servile productive classes provide everything, even the recognition of the sovereign's subjectivity (i.e., mastery), but moreover that the pleasure of the sovereign has a certain temporality. Time, in a way, stands still for sovereign enjoyment, in as much as the moment of enjoyment does not lead anywhere.

For instance, contrast sexuality with eroticism. Sexuality and eroticism involve a lot of the same apparatus and operations, but with different ends and in different contexts. Sexuality is regular, regulated, and productive--for instance, it pertains to the lives of married couples, lives of accumulation (of beings, e.g.). Eroticism is exceptional, transgressive, and never for the sake of production. Erotic pleasure is of the moment, is entirely within that moment, and has no extension. It is a final, total moment of consumption.

This is miraculous, which I think requires two things. First, it must be the case that this moment of pleasure in consumption exceeds or transgresses the order of production, the commonplace or everyday. Second, this moment exceeds or transgresses the order of ordinary time. It breaks with normal time, and in doing so marks a limit of the accumulation of history. It is not led to nor leads to historical events. (The death of the king, which is sometimes an occasion of grotesque festival and universal orgy, does not lead to those transgressions. The transgressions are an upsurge that is outside of the ordinary time of regimes.)

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

stress, anxiety, trauma, embodiment

I woke up around 1:30 AM, with my left hip/lower back in enough pain that I couldn't sleep. I blind-walked downstairs to fetch ibuprofen, and on the way started to feel the muscle tension in my back, shoulders, and legs.

No doubt there is a large knowledge base regarding the relationship between (psychological) anxiety and muscle tension. The physiology of stress is fairly well understood by now, and we are learning more and more about the psychiatry and psychology of anxiety, PTSD, and depression.

I'm considering it phenomenologically, and especially the connection between these two analytically separated ideas -- psychological state on one side, physiological state on the other. The scientific discourses do separate these, as an initial step, and seek to explain one in terms of the other: anxiety issues and issues from physiological tension, as we are taught in anxiety-management classes. Is anxiety the shortness of breath, or is it the mental state? And so the discourse leads to a chicken-and-egg conclusion.

Phenomenologically, we'd want to begin by setting aside what we think we know about how bodies and psyches work, and work together. We should also set aside any presupposition about causality, and about the separateness or connectedness of the mental and physiological (while, I suppose, taking note of the implicit mind-body dualism of this approach).

My shoulders are bunched, half-shrugging, turned inward and downward, into my chest. This curves my back and arches my neck slightly, pushing my chin down toward my chest as well. The inwardness of this posture debilitates outward-stretching movements of my arms--reaching upward, to the side, to the front--, as well as loose swinging from the shoulders, as for instance when walking. It debilitates breathing. It hypersensitizes the skin and nervous response to any touch.

My upper torso is collapsing in on itself, the tension in my back stiffening it against anything that could come its way. I'm turtling (as the hockey expression goes), metaphorically meaning that my back is carapace-like, a shield. It is as if the tension creates the shell.

When I tried stretching, it was difficult to release the hold that it seemed this posture had over me. While it feels as though I'm in a shell, it's a shell that confines and restrains me, snaps back into place, snatches back my limbs. I had to struggle against the retraction of major muscle groups from head to toe. I braced against a wall and twisted to stretch my hip, and this motion was blocked by my glutes and hamstrings to the point I had to concentrate on undoing their tension.

I was fighting against this rigidity, my body's own rigidity, which I did not deliberate upon and direct. What I do deliberately in stretching, in "dropping" my shoulders, breathing slowly and deeply, sighing, and so on, works toward realigning and reorienting. But soon, the posture overtakes me again.

But I am this posture; that is, this posture is an embodied expression of my being-in-the-world. When shielded from whatever blows I might receive, I'm shielded from perceiving (psychoanalytically we might reverse that and say I'm shielded from being perceived, which is an interpretation with a nice Merleau-Pontyian reversibility to it). The range of my projection into the world is shortened like my breath; what I can do is constrained within the limits of the shell of musculature. The posture is anxiety. It is embodied, habituated trauma, which is to say that it reenacts trauma.

A body in pain is shaped by pain, and so expresses pain in posture and motion. The expression of pain is pain. To have been subjected by trauma, to be constituted by undergoing trauma as a traumatized subject, means to be orientated traumatically. The trauma goes on, carries itself forward through the projection and expression of this embodiment, and the world is a world for trauma -- a pre-traumatized world that finds its correlative in the traumatized body.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013


I try to read sympathetically. I try to be open-minded with philosophy books. I also try to read books that are outside my usual field, because I hang onto an old-fashioned idea that philosophers ought to be engaged in philosophy rather than scholarship, and this calls on me to read outside my narrow academic field. So, I read some deconstruction, I read some critical theory, I read some contemporary philosophy based on the rejection of phenomenology. I have never been able to go anywhere with anything coming out of Gilles Deleuze, and what I'm reading now gives me some clues as to why.

Let me say, though, that as far as I understand it, the basic ideas in Deleuze's thought are attractive: we shouldn't be tied down to reified concepts and ossified theories; flux, change, and surface are more interesting than philosophy has traditionally held; notions like "the transcendental subject" are sometimes dangerous fictions. But I am not sure who, beyond a number of brick-intellected academic hacks, sincerely, resolutely, and constantly commits the fallacy of misplaced concreteness this critique implies. I have always taken it that when Husserl, for example, writes about the transcendental Ego, he's writing an account of consciousness, and not writing something that is literally the final word explaining the basic metaphysical being in the world. (I read Husserl this way for the simple reason that he tells you to.)

I would like, in 63% seriousness, to write a paper called "Deleuzians Should Shut The Fuck Up."

Erin Manning goes head first into Deleuze in Always More Than One. For this perspective, transcendental Being as “depth”=totalitarianism=fascism; this position is ascribed to no one in particular, except that, by omission, it appears to be anyone holding a position that does not follow the surface=transcendental field=a life (always italicized). This a life is not a particular life, but the immanence in any event, that is purely surface, does not have relation, is not human, and has no meaning. It is ineffable, an always-more-than that itself has no characteristics, and as soon as it is treated as inaugurating anything — a stable being, a stable meaning, the human, history, memory — it has lost it’s surface-ness. Meaning, the human, and particularization are all forms of fascistic thinking, it appears. What thought can do is to skate on this surface, but as soon as thought becomes transitive, as soon as it is intentional, as soon as it has some direction (some sens—pardon my French), it’s no longer thought but the metaphysics of Being, i.e., fascism.

This is precisely why Deleuzians should shut the fuck up. Thought that skates on the surface can’t say anything about the surface without gouging it. The ineffable is ineffable, so stop effing it!