January 24th, 2011

S.C. Hickman

Alphonso Lingis: The Sensual Carnality of Objects

"To actually name an object is to suppress three-quarters of the sense of
enjoyment of a poem, which consists in the delight of guessing one stage
at a time: to suggest the object, that is the poet’s dream… There must always
be a sense of the enigmatic in poetry, and that is the aim of literature."
     - Stephen Mallarme

The buried shrine shows at its sewer-mouth’s
Sepulchral slobber of mud and rubies
Some abominable statue of Anubis,
The muzzle lit like a ferocious snout...
     - Mallarme at the Tomb of Baudelaire

"Let the cold flow with its silence of scythes,
I’ll not ululate here in a ‘no’ that’s empty..."
    - Mallarme, My Books

Mallarme tells us that "to suggest the object, that is the poet's dream", and, one might add - the philosopher's too. Could there be a carnal aesthetics of objects, and if so - What would would be its guiding principles? Theories of art and theories of aesthetics have their own convoluted histories, but what about the carnality of objects as art? What would a theory of the deanthropomorphizing of art theory and aesthetics look like? How could such a thing affectively shape itself within our current discourse? Shifting the center of art appreciation from the human self beyond the self-world gap and into the world of objects would entail turning the human consciousness inside out, exteriorizing its force into the carnality of existence. And rather than sitting back in passive delight of some beautiful sublime artifact to be contemplated in a private, withdrawn state, one would need to move outward into the world of objects, participate in their very emergence and creation. But is such a thing possible? Can we think the impossible - think the outside, discover the face of faces that exist not for us, but in their own carnality, in their own sensuous realm of allure?

                                                            *   *   *

"We think with the objects we love; we love the objects we think with."
     - Sherry Turkle

"A face faces to express meanings. A face faces to express subjective feelings. More than "express" - there are no meanings without a blank wall on which signs are inscribed and effaced; there is no self-conscious consciousness without black holes where its states of pleasure and displeasure turn."
    - Alphonso Lingis, Dangerous Emotions

Even the simplest objects suggest a metaphysical carnality of cosmic proportions to Alphonso Lingis. Take a face for instance:

"A face is a field that accepts some expressions and connections and neutralizes others. It is a screen and a framework. To be confronted with a face is to envision a certain range of things that could be expressed on it and to have available a certain range of things one address to it. One sees what one might say, what one should not have said." [1]

Between the multitude and the despot we discover the carnal parade of stars and the emergence of the objects that have shaped life into a series of adventures. The despot gives birth to linear progression and organization: in "his words, one meaning, one direction, is fixed. The words the despot utters are directives, imperatives." (ibid.) On the other hand the multitude laughs, weeps, blesses, and curses, and what manifests itself in these strange affects is "fields of force and radiation, not inner states of self-consciousness." (ibid.) Only on the "blank wall of the face of the despot, there are black holes dark as night in which his eyes and his ears are suspended." This is the black power of self-consciousness, the disease of one who would rule a multitude. Within the hollow pits of these black holes a "spiral of subjectivity turns... a movement turning on itself and existing for itself. There the sound and fury of the multitude are directed to a pleasure and  displeasure that turns on itself and sanctions and blames." (ibid.) This is power, this is god made flesh: the "authority of the despot is the black holes in his face." (ibid.) To face such a face is to be judged.  By arbitrary dictates he "operates by binary oppositions, dichotomies and bipolarities: No. Yes." (ibid.) He is the first computer: the artificial progenitor of death-in-Life.

The despot imposes history on his subjects, forces them to account for their actions and be judged by the memory of their past actions. No longer merged with the rhythms of existence, no longer swallowed up in the patterns of the natural they suddenly discover the "blank surfaces of faces." And they "are these blank walls for signs - nothing but subjects of discourse, coding, ordering their animal bodies." (ibid.) Bound within the unbounded gaze of the despots circle of surveillance, they too begin to "exercise surveillance over their movements." (ibid.) Now they will give an account to the temporal movements of their animal bodies, judged before the council of the "black holes of their own looks, where these movements are subjected to judgment, to yes and to no." (ibid.)  

Then the faces appear on screens of electronic signals shifting, flickering, under the digital dreamscapes of modern technology. The multitude vanishes before this strange oscillating world: one "does not see, divine, or touch the nervous circuitry, the thin strands of muscles, and the inner rivers coursing billions of enzymes, bacteria, and macrophages in a depth behind this black wall; the face is all surface, a signboard on which succession of words will appear. ... The blank wall of the face is perforated with black holes; in them the eyes turn, sanctioning or censuring, yes, no." (ibid.)

Signposts are everywhere. The multitude is bombarded with signs that guide its every move. No longer the signs of natural things guiding it in the fields of force of planetary life, instead the "citizens do not lean against, entwine, fondle, and smell one another's bodies, feeling the streams and cascades and backwaters pulsing within; they deal with the blank walls of faces..." (ibid.)

 Now the multitude has to face each other on the blank walls and question on another: a "question is not a supplication, an entreaty, nor a velleity for knowledge just put out in the air; it is already an order, a command." (ibid.) "Facing one another, we require responsibility." (ibid.) Suddenly the "I" of the utterance must be responsible to its past utterances, and we must now have a motive for changing our minds. "To find our identiy in facing others is to exist and act under accusation." (ibid.) The animal must be hidden, clothed. The talking head becomes the despot of the body's skin "from its pulsations, flexions, and exudations and makes it a surface for the display of meaning." (ibid.) 

Yet, in the depths below the body's skin "there emerges an exposed and susceptible carnality. From behind the carapace of clothing, all the animals within migrate to the face, sole surface of exposure, to connect with the animals outside. The lips crave contact with the lips of the dolphin, the nose brushes the whiskers nose of the Siamese cat, the cheeks seek the caresses of ferns in the forest night." (ibid.) In such a face as this our eyes cross over "instead of seeing ourselves in them", and we "see the mane of the centaur-woman billowing across the windy prairie, sunlight dancing across the wrinkles of the old woman feeding pigeons..." (ibid.) And on the cheeks and lips of a woman "sand dunes... gelatinous crystals of the eyes in which we see the effulgence of stars that burned out millions of light-years ago..." (ibid.)

Under the surface of the face we scour for signs we find the carnality and vulnerability of the body's skin. "And is there not always joy in the face before us, even joy in suffering?"  And as he affirms in a final aphoristic surge: "In the midst of grief and torment there is an upsurge of force that affirms the importance and truth of what one is tormented by, of what one grieves over.This upsurge of force that affirms itself unrestrictedly is joy - joy at having known what is now lost, and joy in finding us." (ibid.)


1. Alphonso Lingis. Dangerous Emotions ( University of California Press 2000) 

S.C. Hickman

Philosophy and Magnanimity - The Generous Gesture - Style without Style

"You, researchers and consolidators of knowledge have only turned the ways of the universe into a spider web to trap your prey: that is because your soul does not fly like eagles over abysses."
     - Friedrich Nietzsche

Philosophers can sometimes rise toward that great souled magnanimity that shows greatness of mind, that elevation or dignity of soul, which encounters danger and trouble with tranquility and firmness, which raises the possessor above revenge, and makes him delight in acts of benevolence, which makes him disdain injustice and meanness, and prompts him to sacrifice personal ease, interest and safety for the accomplishment of useful and noble objects. [1] Aristotle described the magnificent man in terms of wealth and economy, as one in which the poor man is left outside the gate of virtue for the simple reason that the "poor man cannot be magnificent, since he has not the means with which to spend large sums fittingly; and he who tries is a fool, since he spends beyond what can be expected of him and what is proper, but it is right expenditure that is virtuous." [2] Yet, he admits, too, that magnificence is an attribute of that most prestigious expenditure of all - honor (i.e., those connected with the gods-votive offerings, buildings, and sacrifices-and similarly with any form of religious worship, and all those that are proper objects of public-spirited ambition, as when people think they ought to equip a chorus or a trireme, or entertain the city, in a brilliant way.)  Yet, this magnificence is seen to be a material thing, a gesture of excess in which only those who belong to the club of the rich can participate in, for as he states it: "great expenditure is becoming to those who have suitable means to start with, acquired by their own efforts or from ancestors or connexions, and to people of high birth or reputation, and so on; for all these things bring with them greatness and prestige."

Democritus once said that "magnanimity consists in enduring tactlessness with mildness". Another concept or precept of impret is that of generosity - that of the victor for the defeated. Alphonso Lingis speaks of this sort in his book Dangerous Emotions relating the story of Tomas Borge one of the surviving Sandinista's who'd been imprisoned for years in the dungeons of Somoza's prisons. He relates:

"After the Sandinista victory in 1979, Tomas Borge was selected by his comrades to be Minister of Interior. A few months later, his subordinates informed him that among the captured agents of Somaza's Guardia Nacional were the three men who had tortured him during the years of his incarceration. He wen at once to the prison where they were held and ordered them to be brought before him. He looked intently at them, and verified that they were indeed his torturers. Then he ordered them to be liberated." [3]

Lingis tells us that the name for such a gesture is Justice, a magnanimity that allows for even the liberation of its own enemies, and was named by Nietzsche who wrote, "with 'everything is paid for, everything must be paid for,' ends winking and letting those incapable of paying their debt go free: it ends, as does every good thing on earth, by overcoming itself. this self-overcoming of justice: one knows the beautiful name it has given itself - mercy." Lingis goes on to show how Nietzsche used the figure of the Lion with his parasites riddling his flesh as an illustration of such justice, saying the "lion does not rage against them: "What are my parasites to me? ... May they live and prosper: I am strong enough for that!"

I sometimes wish that philosophers would learn from that lesson. I find too often that many philosophers will fall prey to a dark and vitriolic acetic askesis, sinking into a black hole of despair then bounding back like scorpions against those poor unfounded acusations from a graduate's feeding frenzy upon their hard earned commerce in philosophical speculation. And instead of being magnanimous toward these graduates, whose lack of tact and skill affords only a minor note in a long line of imbrications, will - instead of enduring such tentative and unskilled onslaught - lash back in a vitriolic, petty, stingy, and spiteful tirade and folly of vacuous invective, one that is both unbecoming of the profession to which they purport to be its noble representatives as well as a vain and prideful fall into that most human of traits: vanity at one's own estimation and self-worth. Why is this? Why do academic philosophers of supposed high standing decide to degrade themselves in useless attacks on graduates at the expense of their own dignity, and thereby casting doubt upon their own noble profession and philosophical stance?

I have seen this over and over as I've studied philosophy over a period of time. What is it that forces a philosopher to suddenly fall into that trap of consolidating his authority and knowledge, then to only attack those who do not fit into his current scheme of theoretical speculation? Why do philosophers even take the time to ferret out and expose the enemies in their midst with such rancorous and persistent fortitude? Do such philosophers have certain doubts about their own philosophical speculations? Do they see some dark hidden blind spot in their own system, one hidden and withdrawn from view like some real object, evading and evasive of any and all penetration? Do such philosophers fall into the spider web of their own vanity, waver within its meshes and then try to find a way out by exposing those who would penetrate and access this vacuous sphere of intelligibility?  

I'm reminded of Bruce Lee at this point who developed a "style without style" he called Jeet Kune Do, which allowed for the use of different tools for different situations. His situational fighting technique was broken down into that of ranges of power: kicking, punching, trapping and grappling. In it there was no fixed or patterned stance as it is with all classical forms of martial arts, instead he called his the art of interception, or attacking your opponent while he was about to attack. He often called it the "art of expressing the human body". He believed in spontaneity, and that an opponent would be unable to predict his next move, only react to it. He considered the a great martial artist one who could "Be Water": move fluidly and without hesitation. He often termed his form of martial art a "combat realism": he insisted that martial arts techniques should be incorporated based upon their effectiveness in real combat situations. Real combat training situations allow the student to learn what works, and what doesn't. The critical point of this principle is that the choice of what to keep is based on personal experimentation with various opponents over time. It is not based on how a technique may look or feel, or how precisely the artist can mimic tradition. In the final analysis, if the technique is not beneficial in combat, it is discarded. Lee believed that only the individual could come to understand what worked; based on critical self analysis, and by, "honestly expressing oneself, without lying to oneself." [4]

After having been a practitioner of the traditional forms of Northern Shaolin Longfist Mantis systems since my early twenties I've entertained a mixture of interplay between diverse cultures and philosophies within my own thought and life. Both streams of Western and Eastern modes of thought and practice have filtered through my mind and body over a period of time. I've learned to let those infractions from those of lesser caliber of mind and body go silently by, without reaching after that dark and forbidding need to attack them for a perceived infraction against my own mental or physical health. If one is settled into one's total being one need be nothing but magnanimous toward one's enemies and friends alike. The gesture of being noble toward one's enemies is a sign of greatness we all need in this day and age of petty politics and philosophical disputations that amount to nothing more than the vacuous things they are and have always been.

One can only agree with that great souled poet of wisdom's salve who wrote:

"A brave man thinks no one his superior who does him an injury; for he has it then in his power to make himself superior to the other by forgiving it."
      - Alexander Pope

1. Webster, N., Dictionary of the American Language, 1828. 
2. Aristotle, Nicomacheaen Ethics.4.iv (The Internet Classic Archive)
3. Alphonso Lingis, Dangerous Emotions, (University of California Press March 15, 2000)  
4. Lee, Bruce, Tao of Jeet Kune Do, (Ohara Publications 1975)
S.C. Hickman

The Bio(onto)tography of an Object

"We assume that life produces the autobiography as an act produces its consequences, but can we not suggest, with equal justice, that the autobiographical project may itself produce and determine the life and that whatever the writer does is in fact governed by the technical demands of self-portraiture and thus determined, in all its aspects, by the resources of his medium?"
    - Paul de Man, The Rhetoric of Romanticism

"The past went that-a-way. When faced with a totally new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear view mirror. We march backwards into the future."
     - Marshall McLuhan

Most of us live in a world of everyday objects that we neither question nor challenge as they infringe on our fleshly buffers, as they seek to penetrate our microbial life with their dark and secret designs. Most of us would tend to laugh at the thought that our bodies are nothing more than machines within machines within machines that seem to mindlessly, and without our mind being aware of their secret life and destinies live out their existence enfolded into our very vital and material or objectal lives. Do these objects exist independent of us? Do these macrophages that feed off our incorporation of other strange substances of the sun exist independent of us? Much rather are they not accomplices rather than parasites of our very being-in-the-world? Do they not exist like dark and shadowy phantoms or alien life forms, inhabiting us not as guests but as the very central fact of our interior life, the very secret powers and forces of our existence as creatures in the mysterious vacuum that is this space-time... shall, we say it - continuum? But isn't this just the point, that all thoughts of a continuum are by their very nature self-contradictory? A continuum to be one and whole, a totality, a matrix in which no part of which can be distinguished from neighboring parts except by arbitrary division. Is this not a reversion to a Lucretian universe of matter, a flat-ontology of some endless falling forward of particles without end, a clinamen of thought and matter enfolded in each other without outlet or recourse to some fabled exterior beyond all calculation? Or, even worse to some pre-Socratic dream of a ground, some final substrate just below all things that is the final and arbitrary endpoint beyond which all thought falters?

If one were to attempt the biography or ontography of an Object, or should we say the mimesis of an object in a detailed exposition of its emergence into this strange matrix of existence without ground or access, what would such a bio(onto)graphy entail?  But how could such a bio(onto)graphy begin? Are we not always out of relation with these strange objects? Isn't the very foundation of Object-Oriented philosophy based upon the basic premise that all real objects at all times are inaccessible to thought? That instead we are always and at all times only in touch with the real indirectly through the sensual medium or vicar of a vicarious buffer zone of sensual objects that are so to speak the phenomenal images or representatives or stand-ins for aspects or elements of this hidden force beyond thought's access? Since thought can never (no matter how much it may gain in its central involvement within a perspectival appraisal of the sensual dance of elements that arise within the sensual and carnal levels of being, and a connection with this object in its inner volcanic core)  ever gain access to the hidden, private life of this real object's hidden life. So what to do? Are we forever bound to the mediators of the real object's shifting dynamics or force? One almost wants to affirm with Paul de Man as he wrote in another context (that between ficiton and autobiography) and which I blatantly reformulate: it appears, then, that the distinction between a real object and a sensual object is not an either/or polarity, but that it is undecidable. But as he continues "is it possible to remain within an undecidable situation? As anyone who has ever been caught in a revolving door or on a revolving wheel can testify, it is certainly most uncomfortable, and all the more so in this case since this whirligig is capable of infinite acceleration and is, in fact, not successive but simultaneous. A system of differentiation based on two elements that, in Wordsworth's phrase, "of these [are] neither, and [are] both at once" is not likely to be sound" (172). [1]

Yet , this is not the whole story. For objects unlike texts do enter into relations indirectly. There is an alignment between objects involved in the process of translation in which they determine each other by mutual reflexive substitution. The structure implies differentiation as well as similarity, since both depend on a substitutive exchange that constitutes the object. This specular structure is interiorized in a sensual medium in which the real object declares herself the subject of her own understanding, but this merely makes explicit the wider claim to the agency of all objects that takes place whenever a real object is stated to be through inference and affective relation and assumed to be known to the extent that this is the case. Which amounts to saying that any object with a sensual face is, to some extent, exposed as the real object's bio(onto)graphical extension. 


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S.C. Hickman

Slavoj Zizek: Living in the End Times - a Review - Part I

"Black will always have something melancholy in it..."
    - Edmund Burke

"We feel free because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom."
     - Slavoj Zizek

Welcome to the Apocalypse. Is the global capitalist system reaching an apocalyptic zero-point? Are the new riders of the purple sage, the four horseman of a new apocalypse rising in our midst, and if so who are they? Slavoj Zizek in his latest work Living in the End Times tells us they are comprised by the ecological crisis, the consequences of the bio-genetic revolution, imbalances within the system itself (intellectual property rights, resource wars over food, water, and materials), and the explosive growth of social divisions and exclusions. [1]

Are we living in fetishistic disavowal of the ultimate threat, that of some rogue nation rising up out of the hinterlands of unreason with a new mass weapon of destruction? He tells us this is already happening and no amount of pre-emptive strikes by the US and its allies to stop each new threat will succeed because they rely on an erroneous fantasmatic vision. (xi) We are all living under the sign of doom, a terminal condition that has no cure. But it does have an unexpected guide, a new Virgil of the black path through this hellish time, an unlikely match made in an impossible marriage with western thoughts on death: the saint of this new form of critique is Swiss-born psychologist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross who proposed her famous five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. He sees a comparison between these five figures of thought and the coming apocalypse of late-capitalism: the "first reaction is one of ideological denial: there is no fundamental disorder; the second is exemplified by explosions of anger at the injustices of the new world order; the third involves attempts at bargaining ("if we change things here and there, life could perhaps go on as before"); when the bargaining fails, depression and withdrawal set in; finally, after passing through this zero-point, the subject no longer perceives the situation as a threat, but as the chance of a new beginning - or, as Mao Zedong put it: "There is great disorder under heaven, the situation is excellent" (xi-xii).

His book will take us on a brief tour of this strange new hell on earth, guiding us through the five stages of the apocalypse as we move toward the zero-point of no return and out the other side in what he hopes will be an emancipatory world of enthusiasm, but only after the "traumatic truth is not only accepted in a disengaged way, but is fully lived: "Truth has to be lived, not taught. Prepare for battle!" Like a religious prophet, a nabi crying in the wilderness of the wastelands of late-capitalist culture and society he bursts through our sleeping ideologies breaking the vessels of our darkening minds against the the truth of our lived lives: "Why not a rather a depersonalized mystical experience in which I "step out of myself" and identify with the other's gaze? Likewise, if truth has to be lived, why need this involve a struggle? Why not rather a meditative inner experience? The reason is that the "spontaneous" state of our daily lives is a lived lie, to break out of which requires a continuous struggle" (xii).

We must once again become terrified our ourselves. To gain courage against the terror of the global order we must be shown the terror and shame within ourselves, and to do this one must not be afraid to learn from one's enemies. We must begin to study, not our own liberal progressives, and not the reactionary populists, but the ideologues of critical conservativism if we are ever to understand that strange beast - the truth of capitalism in our world today as the "institutionalization of envy" (xiii). The truth today must be one that is testable, one that is gaged against its truth-effect, its ability to unleash the forces within the multitude thereby transforming them into revolutionary subjects (xiii). He tells us there is a paradox: one must not only see it to believe it, but one must believe it to see it. Believing it to see it is a truth-event, as "opposed to knowledge" and is, like a Badiouian Event, "something that only an engaged gaze, the gaze of a subject who "believes in it," is able to see" (xiv).

He sees himself caught in a vice between two opposing camps, the extreme Left, who see him as a "covert Slovene nationalist and an unpatriotic traitor of my nation"; and, the extreme Right, who see him as "anti-Semitic and for spreading Zionist lies". Yet, from this he realizes as Sartre did during WWII that he is "on the right path, the path of fidelity to freedom" (xiv). Like a new born Spartacus of the people he strides tall against the worldly powers of global capitalism, and alluding to St. Paul's relevant new testament speech on our struggle against the powers that be Zizek translates it into our darker time's language: "Our struggle is not against actual corrupt individuals, but against those in power in general, against their authority, against the global order and the ideological mystification which sustains it" (xv).

To do this, to engage these global powers of authority and order we must enter that stage of struggle as defined by Alain Badiou as “Mieux vaut un désastre qu’un désêtre.”  Or, as Zizek says: better "to take the risk and engage in fidelity to a Truth-Event, even if it ends in catastrophe, than to vegetate in the eventless utilitarian-hedonist survival of what Nietzsche called the "last men" (xv). Against he liberal ideology of victimhood, and its corollary reduction of politics to avoiding the worst, and following a bland politics of the least bad option we should accept the struggle, rise up and regain our fidelity to freedom.

enough for now... I'll add in more as I continue my review in other essays:

I | II | III | IV | V

1. Zizek, Slavoj, Living in the End Times (Verso 2010)