Archive for the ‘consciousness’ Category
I’ve seen the first three episodes of HBO’s new series Tell Me You Love Me. It’s a show about hyperconscious sex, or the lack of sex under the conditions of hyperconsciousness. True to form, I can’t stop thinking while I watch it – it is almost as if the entertainment value that has always been present with the HBO shows has shrunk to zero – this one exists exclusively as a conversation piece, grist for the critical mill, etc. For now, a few scattered notes, though I’m going to try to say something more cohesive about it soon.
1) The much-discussed full-frontalism, and the anti-eroticness of it, incessantly calls to my mind the bit toward the beginning of Women in Love when Birkin freaks out at Hermione…
‘Spontaneous!’ he cried. ‘You and spontaneity! You, the most deliberate thing that ever walked or crawled! You’d be verily deliberately spontaneous–that’s you. Because you want to have everything in your own volition, your deliberate voluntary consciousness. You want it all in that loathsome little skull of yours, that ought to be cracked like a nut. For you’ll be the same till it is cracked, like an insect in its skin. If one cracked your skull perhaps one might get a spontaneous, passionate woman out of you, with real sensuality. As it is, what you want is pornography–looking at yourself in mirrors, watching your naked animal actions in mirrors, so that you can have it all in your consciousness, make it all mental.’
Not an easy passage to teach, for obvious reasons – but it probably is the start of the social story of which Tell Me You Love Me is a contination, the deathtrap of sex after the failure of repression. But on the other hand, one starts to wonder if what we’re witnessing with this show isn’t the birthpangs of a new paradigm of pornographic convention / cliché. For the barely legal, see now couples struggling to get pregnant, anything but lost in the moment, pleasure the last thing on their minds. Where oral and the money shot were, from here on out will have awkward sexual avoidance by exhausted forty-somethings. For girl on girl on guy action, we now offer only awkward, issueless attempts at masturbation in the bathroom before she gives up and goes back to checking the mommyblogs. For jouissance, we will pick up numbing, boring anxiety, the shrink’s office, and people who wear sweat-pants to bed.
Could happen. Keep me posted, porn-fans.
2) Like therapy itself, the show can handle what happens or doesn’t happen in the bedroom, but completely sidesteps the role that work might have in provoking all of this dysfunction in the real world. The sex-avoiding middle aged guy and his (assuredly) stalled career, the question of what the baby-desperate lawyer woman will do if she and he Cruisey husband succeed in bringing his totally motile sperm to her healthy eggs, the anxieties settling into a career path and all that that means today that surely should accompany the worries about stapling yourself to one person sexually for the rest of your life – all this is held off screen, at least three episodes in. That is not what the show is about, not because, I believe, these things are any less interesting, but because they just plain don’t give themselves to a properly dramatic arc anymore, as they did in the high period of the Bildungsroman. A good dollop of therapy with the late-boomer lady isn’t going to clear up the rationalization of the sex-fearing guy’s shitty life at the office.
3) And this relates to both 1 and 2: reentering the bourgeois home this late in the game and on these terms urges upon us the sense that the mythemes that organize Freud’s work on this household need updating, for they are drawn from a period of repressive self-distraction and euphemism (we wanted to do what we could not even say) whereas we live in an era of hyperconscious anxiety (we don’t want to do what everyone constantly does or at least talks about incessantly). Instead of Oedipus and all his pals, we live in the shadow of the law of diminishing sexual returns, the parable of the “feminization” of culture and the accompanying sperm death, the golden rule of the incompatibility of pleasure and planning, ecstasy and anticipation. The shift is at root a shift in temporalities – where the unmastered past was the former antagonist, now it is the present that has flattened and emptied itself once and for all.
4) It is a show, in the end, about people who don’t want to have sex, though society expects them to want it. This is interesting. It is like peeking in on the affective state of someone suffering from a migraine, someone in the hot and sexless minutes after a terrible spousal fight about sex. It feels strange – and meaningful – to observe yourself getting pleasure out of the watching of it.
More to come…
I’ve found my question for the next "youtube" debate in a weird article about Hillary Clinton’s letters to a penpal during college from Sunday’s NYT.
Ms. Rodham skates earnestly on the surface of life, raising more
questions than answers. “Last week I decided that even if life is
absurd why couldn’t I spend it absurdly happy?” she wrote in November
of her junior year. “Then, of course, the question naturally bellows operationally define ‘happiness’
Hillary Rodham, acknowledged agnostic intellectual liberal, emotional
I’d love to hear how she would answer this today. Actually, I wouldn’t.
* As you’ll notice, if you follow the link, the NYT has edited the paragraph I am quoting in the current web version. For clarity, it seems, but I much prefer the clotted, weird sentence that we get here in full.
A paragraph from Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Tess has just read a letter that her mother has written her in response to a request for advice on how to deal with her imminent marriage to Angel and the nasty event in her past:
She was recognizing how light was the touch of events the most oppressive upon Mrs Durbeyfield’s elastic spirit. Her mother did not see life as Tess saw it. That haunting episode of bygone days was to her mother but a passing accident. But perhaps her mother was right as to the course to be followed, whatever she might be in her reasons. Silence seemed, on the face of it, best for her adored one’s happiness: silence it should be.
The difference between Tess and her mother in terms of the significance that they find in this event is not simply a question – for Hardy or for Tess – of simple psychological makeup. Rather, it is a historical question. Hardy takes great pains to establish the vast generational difference between the mother and daughter as no mere matter of the conflictual divergence of child from parent. They are rendered as members of different species, very nearly, sundered from each other by the enormous acceleration of the rate of historical change.
Between the mother, with her fast-perishing lumber of superstitions, folk-lore, dialect, and orally transmitted ballads, and the daughter, with her trained National teachings and Standard knowledge under an infinitely Revised Code, there was a gap of two hundred years as ordinarily understood. When they were together the Jacobean and the Victorian ages were juxtaposed.
This second paragraph is easy enough to understand. There is a very real gap between the two in terms of education and, it follows, discourse, knowledge. But the first paragraph suggests something more, something that rings very true while it, in a sense, defies explanation. The first paragraph – which registers the fact that what was a “haunting episode” for Tess is nothing more than a “passing accident” for her mother – emblematizes the pervasive modern sense that “today” “we” feel things more deeply than those that came before. That life – and the experiences that fill it – are more vivid, pressing, and real than they once were. That our lives matter to us in a way that theirs do not.
I would argue that this is a fundamental experience of modernity. Not the fact that things matter more to us than to others, but simply the sense that they do. We cannot truly know what it felt like to starve, to be raped, to lose a child at birth back then (or – as I’ll explain – over there) – we only know or think we know that we feel equivalent experiences more now than they did then. For a sixteenth-century peasant farmer to starve must have been hard, for sure; but for “us” to starve today would be unbearable, would cut to our exquisitely developed nerves.
Is it simply that life is improving, and with life, expectations? For Tess’s mother and her generational cohort, was being raped by the son of the Good Family nearby a rite of passage of sorts, an fact of life trivial enough to be universal and thus unworthy of excessive contemplation? There is no sign in Hardy that this in fact is the case. No, it has to be something that’s changed in us… a heightened sensitivity, a doubling-up of feeling that comes of consciousness itself?
Is it in a fact the sense that we are more fully-conscious than they were. The injury would cut the skin, and hurt, but today, bathed in consciousness, we not only feel the cut but feel ourselves feeling the cut. We don’t doubt that the women and the men of the past were conscious… to some degree. Perhaps only minimally-conscious, or so weathered by pain and lack that a sort of callus developed over their sensitive parts, a callus that never has a chance to form today. No, let’s stick with the minimal-consciousness idea, as it jives with so much else that we know – or can assume – about the men and women of the past, who knew no future, could anticipate no change, and filled the hole between birth and death, if they bothered to fill it at all, with the mind-evactuating hum of religious dogma, another anaesthetic – an “opiate” in fact.
My parents, for instance, do not whine about the place that they live. To me my life will have been lived in vain if I do not ultimately and for the most part live just where I want to iive. My father didn’t require fulfillment from his work as I do from mine, just money. I also require if not an ideal marriage at least one grounded in a sort of soul-to-soul contact, a deeper sympathy – ultimately, “real love.” My parents, clearly, did not require this. While I love my child dearly, at time I rage inside for my lost youth, freedom that has disappeared never to return. My wife does as well, but I am fairly certain that my mother did not. The suffocation of childrearing seemed perfectly natural, the only thing for her, right?
And just imagine for a second the simplicity and happy austerity of grandparents… Like children, even when they were in the prime of life.
Sometimes, when the pressures and dissatisfactions mount up, when I very nearly can’t take it anymore because I literally can’t think about anything but what it wrong with everything and everything that is still to be done – I am overworked and undersatisfied, things were better back then and might never be good, really good, again – I put myself in my place by thinking “Just how shitty would it be, really, if you were elsewhere and in other conditions – the conditions of perhaps most people in the world. If it wasn’t just taken for granted that you would eat and stay warm and that this child you have would survive and prosper. If there were bombs falling or strangers in uniform at the door. Or were diseased and dying young. Imagine that – and then complain!”
It works for awhile, but it is not in any way a permanent fix.
Is this – all this – what Hardy / Angel Clare means by the “ache of modernism” that they find in Tess? That despite her meagre origins, she somehow feels it too?
Angel, however, saw her light summer gown, and he spoke; his low tones reaching her, though he was some distance off.
“What makes you draw off in that way, Tess?” said he. “Are you afraid?”
“Oh no, sir … not of outdoor things; especially just now when the apple-blooth is falling, and everything is so green.”
“But you have your indoor fears–eh?”
“I couldn’t quite say.”
“The milk turning sour?”
“Life in general?”
“Ah–so have I, very often. This hobble of being alive is rather serious, don’t you think so?”
“It is–now you put it that way.”
“All the same, I shouldn’t have expected a young girl like you to see it so just yet. How is it you do?”
She maintained a hesitating silence.
“Come, Tess, tell me in confidence.”
She thought that he meant what were the aspects of things to her, and replied shyly –
“The trees have inquisitive eyes, haven’t they?–that is, seem as if they had. And the river says,–’Why do ye trouble me with your looks?’ And you seem to see numbers of tomorrows just all in a line, the first of them the biggest and clearest, the others getting smaller and smaller as they stand farther away; but they all seem very fierce and cruel and as if they said, ‘I’m coming! Beware of me! Beware of me!’ … But you, sir, can raise up dreams with your music, and drive all such horrid fancies away!”
He was surprised to find this young woman–who though but a milkmaid had just that touch of rarity about her which might make her the envied of her housemates–shaping such sad imaginings. She was expressing in her own native phrases–assisted a little by her Sixth Standard training–feelings which might almost have been called those of the age–the ache of modernism. The perception arrested him less when he reflected that what are called advanced ideas are really in great part but the latest fashion in definition–a more accurate expression, by words in logy and ism, of sensations which men and women have vaguely grasped for centuries.
Still, it was strange that they should have come to her while yet so young; more than strange; it was impressive, interesting, pathetic. Not guessing the cause, there was nothing to remind him that experience is as to intensity, and not as to duration. Tess’s passing corporeal blight had been her mental harvest.
They are perfect for each other, these two. A love story not unlike my own. They take everything very seriously, too seriously. The fact is that the world exists for them - what happens happens because they are there, at the summation point of history, to feel it, to suffer from it.
Only now does the strange paragraph before Angel’s assignment of the “ache” to his soon-to-be wife start to make sense….
One way the “ache of modernism” become political is Oscar Wilde’s way in the “Soul of Man Under Socialism”:
The chief advantage that would result from the establishment of Socialism is, undoubtedly, the fact that Socialism would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody. In fact, scarcely anyone at all escapes.
Now and then, in the course of the century, a great man of science, like Darwin; a great poet, like Keats; a fine critical spirit, like M. Renan; a supreme artist, like Flaubert, has been able to isolate himself, to keep himself out of reach of the clamorous claims of others, to stand ‘under the shelter of the wall,’ as Plato puts it, and so to realise the perfection of what was in him, to his own incomparable gain, and to the incomparable and lasting gain of the whole world. These, however, are exceptions. The majority of people spoil their lives by an unhealthy and exaggerated altruism – are forced, indeed, so to spoil them. They find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation. It is inevitable that they should be strongly moved by all this. The emotions of man are stirred more quickly than man’s intelligence; and, as I pointed out some time ago in an article on the function of criticism, it is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought. Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.
They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor.
But this is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible. And the altruistic virtues have really prevented the carrying out of this aim. Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realised by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it, so, in the present state of things in England, the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good; and at last we have had the spectacle of men who have really studied the problem and know the life – educated men who live in the East End – coming forward and imploring the community to restrain its altruistic impulses of charity, benevolence, and the like. They do so on the ground that such charity degrades and demoralises. They are perfectly right. Charity creates a multitude of sins.
Another way – a more recent way – the ache becomes political informs the novels of Michel Houellebecq, in which each moment of discomfort, each disappointment, generally erotic but also drawn from other categories of experience, adds another wire, another sprocket, to the edifice called “post-humanity” that he is steadily building, fantasizing into existence. When it is built, we will be able – so Houellebecq claims – to retreat back into the slumber of the ages, the quiescence of mindless and well-oiled simplicity.
But of course, as we have heard, “modernity” is not just a temporal field, but also a geographical determination. We are not only more modern that those that came before, but also those who live elsewhere. We cannot stop telling ourselves this, as it is the story that explains everything at once, why things are the way they are, and why we are permitted to do the things that we do. It permits the equal sign to stand where ordinarily it could not. And it enables us to explain certain psycho-sociological aporia that otherwise would stick in the craw.
We cannot stop telling ourselves this.
I had to look it up too…
Apophenia: In psychology, the perception of connections and meaningfulness in unrelated things. Apophenia can be a normal phenomenon or an abnormal one, as in paranoid schizophrenia when the patient sees ominous patterns where there are none.
You find the strangest stuff when googling around. I needed a definition of “autotelic,” which comes up all the time in the Kant that I’m reading now. And I found this, a paper from the Sony Computer Research Lab. Here’s the abstract:
The dominant motivational paradigm in embodied AI so far is based on the classical behaviorist approach of reward and punishment. The paper introduces a new principle based on ’flow theory’. This new, ‘autotelic’, principle proposes that agents can become self-motivated if their target is to balance challenges and skills. The paper presents an operational version of this principle and argues that it enables a developing robot to self-regulate his development.
I haven’t read the paper yet, and who knows if I ever will, but it sounds like an application of modern “human resource” management techniques to inanimate, yet incipiently thinking, things. Why offer a reward when the work is a reward in and of itself? Why “manage” when they can be taught – can be expected – to manage themselves?
I am, quite happily, heading far afield from my usual paths of thought and research. Summer-time. Reading Charles Stross’s Accelerando, which you can read right this very minute via a download from Stross’s personal site.
This free ebook edition is made available by kind consent of my publishers, Ace and Orbit, under a Creative Commons license with certain restrictions attached. In particular, you may not create derivative works or use the work for commercial gain.
That’s putting your CC money where your CC mouth is.
In fact, the epigraph of the second section comes from John Von Neurmann, of the Von Neumann bottleneck below…
Life is a process which may be abstracted from other media.
– John Von Neumann
Anyway, I’m through the first section of the novel and will try to report a bit more as I get further in. But for now, a paragraph or two from wikipedia on Von Neumann’s economic work, and the minimax concept:
His first significant contribution was the minimax theorem of 1928. This theorem establishes that in certain so-called zero sum games (games in which the winnings of one player are equal and contrary to the losses of his opponent) involving perfect information (in which, that is, each player knows a priori both the strategies of their opponent as well as their consequences), there exists one strategy which allows both players to minimize their maximum losses (hence the name minimax). In particular, for every possible strategy of his own, a player must consider all the possible responses of his adversary and the maximum loss that he could derive. He then plays out the strategy which will result in the minimization of this maximum loss. Such a strategy, which minimizes the maximum loss, is called optimal for both players just in case their minimaxes are equal (in absolute value) and contrary (in sign). If the common value is zero, the game becomes pointless.
Von Neumann eventually improved and extended the minimax theorem to include games involving imperfect information and games with more than two players. This work culminated in the 1944 classic The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (written with Oskar Morgenstern).
Sounds almost like a materialist ethics, a morality of realism.
There’s got to be something to say about this. I’m going to save it away for future use, but it’s certainly a symptom of something, no?
What needs to be thought through, perhaps, is not so much the idea of some sort of collective consciousness, some sort of transindividual noosphere, as they have it, which surely exists on some level interesting or utterly banal, but what is at stake in materializing it? Why do we need it to exist “out there,” “in the air,” measurable at times of affect and panic like 9/11. What is it that we don’t or can’t believe about ourselves that he need nodes collecting data, mining out the possibility that we are all in it together?
In the worst case, perhaps it comes out like this:
The car had gone, but it had left a slight ripple which flowed through glove shops and hat shops and tailors’ shops on both sides of Bond Street. For thirty seconds all heads were inclined the same way–to the window. Choosing a pair of gloves–should they be to the elbow or above it, lemon or pale grey?–ladies stopped; when the sentence was finished something had happened. Something so trifling in single instances that no mathematical instrument, though capable of transmitting shocks in China, could register the vibration; yet in its fulness rather formidable and in its common appeal emotional; for in all the hat shops and tailors’ shops strangers looked at each other and thought of the dead; of the flag; of Empire. In a public house in a back street a Colonial insulted the House of Windsor which led to words, broken beer glasses, and a general shindy, which echoed strangely across the way in the ears of girls buying white underlinen threaded with pure white ribbon for their weddings. For the surface agitation of the passing car as it sunk grazed something very profound.
The GCP people have a page on the “Poetic History” of their project (links funny – go look around. Or don’t.) And they totally miss all the good (complicating?) stuff like this…
Von Neumann bottleneck
The separation between the CPU and memory leads to what is known as the von Neumann bottleneck. The throughput (data transfer rate) between the CPU and memory is very small in comparison with the amount of memory. In modern machines, throughput is very small in comparison with the rate at which the CPU itself can work. Under some circumstances (when the CPU is required to perform minimal processing on large amounts of data), this gives rise to a serious limitation in overall effective processing speed. The CPU is continuously forced to wait for vital data to be transferred to or from memory. As CPU speed and memory size have increased much faster than the throughput between the two, the bottleneck has become more and more of a problem.
The term “von Neumann bottleneck” was coined by John Backus in his 1977 ACM Turing award lecture. According to Backus:
“Surely there must be a less primitive way of making big changes in the store than by pushing vast numbers of words back and forth through the von Neumann bottleneck. Not only is this tube a literal bottleneck for the data traffic of a problem, but, more importantly, it is an intellectual bottleneck that has kept us tied to word-at-a-time thinking instead of encouraging us to think in terms of the larger conceptual units of the task at hand. Thus programming is basically planning and detailing the enormous traffic of words through the von Neumann bottleneck, and much of that traffic concerns not significant data itself, but where to find it.”
And now Woolf in To the Lighthouse:
How then did it work out, all this? How did one judge people, think of them? How did one add up this and that and conclude that it was liking one felt or disliking? And to those words, what meaning attached, after all? Standing now, apparently transfixed, by the pear tree, impressions poured in upon her of those two men, and to follow her thought was like following a voice which speaks too quickly to be taken down by one’s pencil, and the voice was her own voice saying without prompting undeniable, everlasting, contradictory things, so that even the fissures and humps on the bark of the pear tree were irrevocably fixed there for eternity.
Thinking about literary modernism – “stream of consciousness” narration and the like – as a problem of bandwidth or “data transfer rate,” just as, in a sense, consciousness itself is during this period, for Freud and Bergson and others, an issue that boils down to how many sense impressions / repressed memories can fit through the very narrow pipe. Woolf struggles in To the Lighthouse to get it all down, chokes the text with data, so that across (despite) all the abundance of detail we feel all that is being left out, all that can’t make it into the text.
(I’m not going to bring it all into this post, but searching for the word “word” in the text is, well, very revealing…)
And something else – thinking about this bit from the quote above:
Not only is this tube a literal bottleneck for the data traffic of a problem, but, more importantly, it is an intellectual bottleneck that has kept us tied to word-at-a-time thinking instead of encouraging us to think in terms of the larger conceptual units of the task at hand.
And this, from Lukács:
The greatest discrepancy between idea and reality [in the novel of romantic disillusionment] is time: the process of time as duration. The most profound and most humiliating impotence of subjectivity consists not so much in its hopeless struggle against the lack of idea in social forms and their human representatives, as in the fact that it cannot resist the sluggish, yet constant process of time; that it must slip down, slowly yet inexorably, from the peaks it has laboriously scaled; that time – that ungraspable, invisibly moving substance – gradually robs subjectivity of all its possessions and imperceptibly forces alien contents into it. That is why only the novel, the literary form of the transcendent homelessness of the idea, includes real time – Bergson’s durée – among its constitutive principles.
The novel – or really, literature in general – now as the materialization of the human inability to think/say/write more than one word at a time. Only now, with machines that promise/threaten/already do “think” or “process” everything all at once, once and for all, can we see the secret pathos that lives within the form.
As of now, the computer retains its romanesque form, its all too human handicap (from Wikipedia again):
Cache between CPU and main memory helps to alleviate some of the performance issues of the von Neumann bottleneck. Additionally, the developement of branch prediction algorithms has helped to mitigate this problem. It is less clear whether the intellectual bottleneck that Backus criticized has changed much since 1977. Backus’s proposed solution has not had a major influence. Modern functional programming and object-oriented programming are much less geared towards pushing vast numbers of words back and forth than earlier languages like Fortran, but internally, that is still what computers spend much of their time doing.
Two passages. The first from Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles:
“The trees have inquisitive eyes, haven’t they?–that is, seem as if they had. And the river says,–’Why do ye trouble me with your looks?’ And you seem to see numbers of to-morrows just all in a line, the first of them the biggest and clearest, the others getting smaller and smaller as they stand farther away; but they all seem very fierce and cruel and as if they said, ‘I’m coming! Beware of me! Beware of me!’ … But YOU, sir, can raise up dreams with your music, and drive all such horrid fancies away!”
And the second from Woolf’s To the Lighthouse:
In spring the garden urns, casually filled with wind-blown plants, were gay as ever. Violets came and daffodils. But the stillness and the brightness of the day were as strange as the chaos and tumult of night, with the trees standing there, and the flowers standing there, looking before them, looking up, yet beholding nothing, eyeless, and so terrible.
Twin horrors of the modern period: the “horrid fancy” of human immanence within nature, and, on the other hand, the “terrible” realization of its cyclical continuance without human eyes to see it. In both cases, the horror is predicated on a strange conjunction of consciousness, unconsciousness, and time…
It is significant, I think, that “anthropomorphic” has no inverse, no opposite. There is no word, that is, for the attribution of inhuman characteristics to humans or humanity.
From Martha Nussbaum’s “The Window: Knowledge of Other Minds in Virginia
Woolf’s To the Lighthouse,” located here if you have access to this sort of thing.
Mrs. Ramsay protects her private self. But we notice that it is not the same neatly shaped conscious self that she might communicate to others. Her solitude is not formed for or toward the outer world. We reach here an especially deep difficulty in the way of knowing another mind. What we usually think of as “the mind”–that is, its conscious mental acts, acts that could at least putatively be rendered in language and communicated to another- -are only, perhaps, a part of the mind, a part bound up with the outer world of “being and doing,” a sort of marshaling of the mind preparatory to communication.
Woolf’s depiction thus supports a view of consciousness similar to the one advanced by Nietzsche in Gay Science, where he depicts self-consciousness as a relatively late evolutionary arrival, useful only in connection with communication. Most of our mental life, he plausibly stresses, could be carried on without it, at a level of experience and awareness more like that we are accustomed to attribute to other animals. This account has recently received strong support from research in neuroscience and evolutionary biology.
Question: where would I look for some of this “research in neuroscience and evolutionary biology”? Any sort of Dawkinsite popularizations that would do the trick?
In addition to the Nietzsche, Nussbaum might have cited the fantastic stuff in Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle, toward the end, when he discusses consciousness as a somewhat superfluous late arrival on the scene (like life itself, like death). I’ll get the full quote when I can get upstairs to where the book is without waking up the teething infant, but for now, some of the surrounding materials:
For a long time, perhaps, living substance was thus being constantly created afresh and easily dying, till decisive external influences altered in such a way as to oblige the still surviving substance to diverge ever more widely from its original course of life and to make ever more complicated détours before reaching the aim of death.
The dominating tendency of mental life, and perhaps of nervous life in general, is the effort to reduce, to keep constant or to remove internal tension due to stimuli (the ‘Nirvana principle’, to borrow a term from Barbara Low).
Today’s art scene? Very difficult to judge, since celebrity and the media presence of the artists are inextricably linked with their work. The great artists of the past century tended to become famous in the later stages of their careers, whereas today fame is built into the artists’ work from the start, as in the cases of Emin and Hirst.
There’s a logic today that places a greater value on celebrity the less it is accompanied by actual achievement. I don’t think it’s possible to touch people’s imagination today by aesthetic means. Emin’s bed, Hirst’s sheep, the Chapmans’ defaced Goyas are psychological provocations, mental tests where the aesthetic elements are no more than a framing device.
It’s interesting that this should be the case. I assume it is because our environment today, by and large a media landscape, is oversaturated by aestheticising elements (TV ads, packaging, design and presentation, styling and so on) but impoverished and numbed as far as its psychological depth is concerned.
Artists (though sadly not writers) tend to move to where the battle is joined most fiercely. Everything in today’s world is stylised and packaged, and Emin and Hirst are trying to say, this is a bed, this is death, this is a body. They are trying to redefine the basic elements of reality, to recapture them from the ad men who have hijacked our world.
This opposition between “psychological depth” and the “aesthetic” is truly intriguing. It’s certainly not the way that I usually think of it – that we suffer from deprivation of psychological depth and an overabundance of the aesthetic. And if what I’ve argued recently about Proust – and really I mean eventually to say about most literary modernism in general – could it be that there’s been a reversal in the poles on this front over the past century?
Can art be a vehicle for political change? Yes, I assume that a large part of Blair’s appeal (like Kennedy’s) is aesthetic, just as a large part of the Nazi appeal lay in its triumph of the will aesthetic. I suspect that many of the great cultural shifts that prepare the way for political change are largely aesthetic. A Buick radiator grille is as much a political statement as a Rolls Royce radiator grille, one enshrining a machine aesthetic driven by a populist optimism, the other enshrining a hierarchical and exclusive social order. The ocean liner art deco of the 1930s, used to sell everything from beach holidays to vacuum cleaners, may have helped the 1945 British electorate to vote out the Tories.
Interesting, again, to think of Blair’s appeal as “aesthetic.” We’re familiar with fascism as the “aestheticization of politics,” per Benjamin and others, but neoliberal third way-ism? I sense that Ballard’s right about this too, but how would we describe the “aesthetic” that Blair personifies or plays upon? And this bit about art deco and the advent of the welfare state is wild:
I assume by “ocean liner art deco” he means the advertising posters, available for sale now at the “art store” in every mid-rent mall. What is it about these images, so aggressively futurial and devoid of human mess, that would point the way, in Ballard’s mind anyway, toward the nationalization of utilities and long-distance transportation?
My real fear is that boredom and inertia may lead people to follow a deranged leader with far fewer moral scruples than Richard Gould, that we will put on jackboots and black uniforms and the aspect of the killer simply to relieve the boredom. A vicious and genuinely mindless neo-fascism, a skilfully aestheticised racism, might be the first consequence of globalisation, when Classic Coke® and California merlot are the only drinks on the menu. At times I look around the executive housing estates of the Thames Valley and feel that it is already here, quietly waiting its day, and largely unknown to itself.
So… The distinction between the art deco liner, an announcement via capitalism’s marketing jabber of the possible subsumption of capitalism itself, and the jackboot and shiny leather belt, would seem to be essential. Between the commonplace object, like something out a children’s book, monumentalized and the banalization of the exotically vicious, the hideous adornment of the self in the sartorial correlative of the self’s worst impulses.
In short, an elective psychopathy will come to our aid (as it has done many times in the past) – Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, all those willed nightmares that make up much of human history. As Wilder Penrose points out in Super-Cannes, the future will be a huge Darwinian struggle between competing psychopathies. Along with our passivity, we’re entering a profoundly masochistic phase – everyone is a victim these days, of parents, doctors, pharmaceutical companies, even love itself. And how much we enjoy it. Our happiest moments are spent trying to think up new varieties of victimhood…
Starts to seem as though our task, if we have one, is to combat boredom, but in an (exacty, impossibly) right way….
From Walter Benjamin’s “The Image of Proust” in Illuminations:
What was it that Proust sought so frenetically? What was at the bottom of these infinite efforts? Can we say that all lives, works, and deeds that matter were never anything but the undisturbed unfolding of the most banal, most fleeting, most sentimental, weakest hour in the life of the one to whom they pertain? When Proust in a well-known passage described the hour that was most his own, he did it in such a way that everyone can find it in his own existence. We might even call it an everyday hour.
There are lots of different ways to describe Benjamin’s distinctive form of writing, his idiosyncratic form of thought. Some prefer the term “thetic,” which obviously works best with the pieces actually broken into theses, like the “Theses on the Philosophy” of history or the “Work of Art” essay. Others go with “dialectical,” which works as well, but perhaps distracts a bit from the actual contours of the texts.
This passage from the essay on Proust is a perfect example of what I would call Benjamin’s late and distinctive form. And it bears an amazing message, if you listen closely.
The third sentence takes up the blurring of the event, the significant occurrence, into the banal, the long durée, the everyday. For a gloss we can turn back just a bit for this:
Only the actus purus of recollection itself, not the author or the plot, constitutes the unity of the text. One may even say that the intermittence of the author and plot is only the reverse of the continuum of memory, the pattern on the backside of the tapestry.
In Proust’s work, then, we find a reversal of – or the surfacing of the reversal of – the conventional way that he conceive of novels. Rather than organizing the inchoate, the author and plot only interrupt, disrupt, punctuate the underlying continuum of infinite recollection. This reversal levels the finite event down into the infinite “unfolding” of time.
Well enough. But then back to the next sentence of the initial quote, which sends us in a very different direction:
When Proust in a well-known passage described the hour that was most his own, he did it in such a way that everyone can find it in his own existence. We might even call it an everyday hour.
Do you see it? The leap? From the dissolution of significance into the everyday, without a breath, into this – into the generalization of the particular, into communicability. We start with nihilism, neglect the anxious consideration of the abyss that we might expect, and turn in the next sentence to communication.
Reminds me, just this tiny passage, quite a bit of the move that’s being traced out here – the work that gives this blog its name.
The commodification of the human body, while subjecting it to the iron laws of massification and exchange value, seemed at the same time to redeem the body from the stigma of ineffability that had marked it for millennia. Breaking away from the double chains of biological destiny and individual biography, it took its leave of both the inarticulate cry of the tragic body and the dumb silence of the comic body, and thus appeared for the first time perfectly communicable, entirely illuminated. The epochal process of the emancipation of the human body from its theological foundations was thus accomplished in the dances of the ‘girls,’ in the advertising images, and in the gait of fashion models. This process had already been imposed at an industrial level when, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the invention of lithography and photography encouraged the inexpensive distribution of pornographic images: Neither generic nor individual, neither an image of the divinity nor an animal form, the body now become something truly whatever.