This article was originally delivered as ‘From a Tickle to an Inferno: The Theory of Jouissance in Psychoanalysis’ to the School of the Freudian Letter, Cyprus, May 2015.
We are at the Catholic University of Louvain in the early 1970s. The lecture Lacan is about to give is the only known recorded instance of his appearance in front of a public audience. He enters to applause, jokes with the crowd, and his performance thereafter is extremely theatrical. Later, the camera will capture some equally dramatic interventions from the audience.
When things quieten down Lacan recounts the story of a patient who, “a long time ago had a dream that the source of existence would spring from her forever more. An infinity of lives descending from her in an endless line.”
After a pause, the question he shouts at his audience, emphatically, is:
“Est-ce que vous pourriez supporter la vie que vous avez?”
– “Can you bear the life that you have?”
This is the essence of jouissance.
The life that Lacan talks about here is not our day-to-day lives, replete with the little dramas of our jobs, friends, and family relationships, but the excess of life commensurate with going beyond the pleasure principle. Life itself, as he describes it at one point, is simply an “apparatus of jouissance”.
Two Definitions of Jouissance. And What it ‘Feels Like’
Here are two definitions of jouissance as a way to orientate ourselves in this topic. We will come back to them in everything that follows:
1. Jouissance as an excess of life
2. Jouissance as an enjoyment beyond the pleasure principle.
As an ‘excess of life’ Lacan describes it in Seminar VII as a “superabundant vitality” (Seminar VII, 18th May 1960). It cannot be correlated to affect, or to an emotion.
As an enjoyment that goes beyond the pleasure principle he describes it in Seminar X, beautifully, as a “backhanded enjoyment”. (Seminar X, 23rd January 1963).
But in order to understand jouissance we have to understand what it ‘feels like’. Lacan expresses this in a sharp analogy in Seminar XVII: jouissance “Begins with a tickle and ends with blaze of petrol”. (Seminar XVII, p.72).
Finding the Idea of Jouissance in Freud
Jouissance is a Lacanian notion, but where can we find its heritage in Freud’s work? Let’s briefly retrace this in three stages:
1. Early Freud
We can start with the idea of the pleasure principle, foundational from Freud’s early writings. It is essentially an economic principle to limit a quanta of excitation and is therefore presented by Freud as a principle of constancy or inertia. The job of the pleasure principle is to regulate an increase or decrease of tension on a pleasure-unpleasure scale. This picture becomes more complex over time, up to the point of Instincts and their Vicissitudes (Triebe und Triebschicksale) in 1915, where he portrays a very complicated relation between pleasure and unpleasure (SE XIV, 121 and accompanying footnote).
From the outset the excitation, or energy of the drive, has a sexual colouring – libido. Freud sees this as its essential feature. But in the Écrits Lacan notes – in a beautiful expression – that this sexual colouring is nothing more than “the colour of emptiness, suspended in the light of a gap” (Écrits, 851-852). We will return to this idea.
Concurrent to the theoretical orientation Freud found in the pleasure principle is another idea from the early part of his work – that the symptom is a sexual act. In other words, that it represents an enjoyment, and a specifically sexual enjoyment.
This idea seems odd. A symptom is surely a problem, a suffering. The symptom goes beyond the pleasure principle and expresses itself in a disturbance, an unlust. But Freud saw that in the early examples his hysterical patients presented with, the complaint, the suffering, expresses itself in a paradoxical way, as if two wishes were simultaneously expressed. As if, he believed, the symptom was a compromise between two contradictory desires. Take the example of one hysterical patient: with one hand she pulls off the dress, with the other she puts it back on.
There is a wonderful example of this in the Rat Man case history. As he is describing the great obsessional thought which haunted his patient, Freud observed:
“His face took on a very strange, composite expression. I could only interpret it as one of horror at pleasure of his own of which he himself was unaware.” (SE X, 166-167).
Broadly speaking, in this period we have the development of libido theory in the context of the theory of narcissism from 1914, and the metapsychological papers of 1915 (SE XIV). Although Freud has used the term ‘libido’ since his first writings on anxiety in the late 1890s, by this point he increasingly emphasises the quantitative aspect of libido. When he comes to write the Group Psychology papers in 1921 (SE XVIII) he refers to a “quantitative magnitude” to libido. Freud’s project between these years is to develop an economic model in which ego-libido and object-libido are balanced against each other, with one rising as the other falls. However, the transformation of a quantitatively high degree of tension produced by the damming-up of the libido in the ego produces unpleasure. Its outlet is found in the attachment of libido to objects in the external world. As Freud summarises,
“A strong egoism is a protection against falling ill, but in the last resort we must begin to love in order not to fall ill, and we are bound to fall ill if, in consequence of frustration, we are unable to love”(SE XIV, 85).
Love is thereby the antidote to a kind of caustic narcissism that we can see as correlated to Lacan’s idea of jouissance. Lacan echoes Freud’s words in these terms in the early sixties when he says that “Only love allows jouissance to condescend to desire” (Seminar X, 13th March 1963).
3. Late Freud
In this period the two fundamental drives – Eros and the death drive – are introduced in place of the libido theory from the 1920 ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ article onwards (SE XVIII). But from a Lacanian perspective we might be inclined to question the dualism this supposes. If jouissance is an experience of an excess of life, is the death drive not actually its opposite?
This idea seems to run counter to the whole of psychoanalytic metapsychology: what place for psychical conflict if the death drive is just an excess of life? It is as if Freudian theory has to maintain a place for a basic dualism animating internal conflict – whether that dualism is located between desire and defence; between the sexual and self-preservative instincts; between the ego, id, and super-ego; or between eros and the death drive. A conflictual dualism lies at the aetiology of the neuroses and animates their insistence. Indeed, it is from conflict that the symptom gains its strength, satisfying both sides of this conflict – for example, desire and defence – through a compromise formation. Ultimately Freud comes to believe that the struggle between different thoughts, desires, and fantasies is a reflection of a struggle between drives (SE XI, 213).
But at the end of his life, in ‘An Outline of Psychoanalysis’, things get a little trickier. It would seem initially that the dualism is maintained at the level of the id on one side, and the ego/super-ego on the other. The id does not care whether you live or die – it just cares about satisfaction; the ego/super-ego’s job is to moderate the ways by which this satisfaction is achieved, and thus it inherently limits satisfaction. This is how Freud expresses the difference in the opening lines of that paper:
“The power of the id expresses the true purpose of the individual organism’s life. This consists in the satisfaction of its innate needs. No such purpose as that of keeping itself alive or of protecting itself from dangers by means of anxiety can be attributed to the id. That is the task of the ego, whose business it also is to discover the most favourable and least perilous method of obtaining satisfaction, taking the external world into account” (SE XXIII, 148).
But what animates the id and the ego are instincts (drives), thereby taking the topography to another level:
“The forces which we assume to exist behind the tensions caused by the needs of the id are called instincts. After long hesitancies and vacillations we have decided to assume the existence of only two basic instincts, Eros and the destructive instinct. The contrast between the instincts of self-preservation and the preservation of the species, as well as the contrast between ego-love and object-love, fall within Eros.” (SE XXIII, 148).
So we have the Freudian dualism manifested across two levels, as it were:
Psychical agency-level – Id vs ego/super-ego
Instinctual or drive level – Eros vs the death drive
But then Freud says something extraordinary:
“In biological functions the two basic instincts operate against each other or combine with each other. Thus, the act of eating is a destruction of the object with the final aim of incorporating it, and the sexual act is an act of aggression with the purpose of the most intimate union. This concurrent and mutually opposing action of the two basic instincts gives rise to the whole variegation of the phenomena of life” (SE XXIII, 149).
It would be too easy to think that Freud’s words here refer only to the pure satisfaction of basic biological functions, like eating to satisfy hunger, and that in the service of this need the two instincts combine. But if Freud’s work teaches us anything it is that Freud never subscribed to a definition of satisfaction as simply the sating of a need. Satisfaction is much more problematic for him. We have only to think about cases where an act that ostensibly satisfies a need exceeds that satisfaction, not just to the point of pleasure, but beyond it (in alcoholism, or binge-eating, to use Freud’s model of oral satisfaction above). The qualification Freud introduces in this passage complicates the picture greatly, as if we take him seriously it means that the dualism is really maintained only at the id vs ego/super-ego level; at the Eros vs death instinct level there is not necessarily any opposition – they can work against each other or with each other, he says. And this is why as Lacanians we can defend the thesis that the death drive can be manifested as an excess of life, correlate to the “superabundant vitality” in his definition of jouissance (Seminar VII, 18th May 1960).
What’s more, Freud says that we don’t even have to think of the death drive as an instinct of destruction: “So long as that instinct [the destructive instinct/drive] operates internally, as a death instinct, it remains silent; it only comes to our notice when it is diverted outwards as an instinct of destruction.” (SE XXIII, 150). This would help us understand why people who seem to be ruled by the death drive in cases of excessive jouissance are not violent or unpredictable. They can destroy themselves without destroying others.
Although people usually talk about the idea of the death drive as being a destructive or aggressive drive, Freud is careful to point out that “It is not a question of an antithesis between an optimistic and a pessimistic theory of life” (SE XIII, 242). The two fundamental drives are much more mixed together than any simplistic duality would suggest. And this is what is expressed in the concept of jouissance, which we can perhaps see Freud struggling to articulate in dualistic terms at the end of his life.
The Connections between Freud and Lacan
So where does Lacan stand in all of this? Where can we locate his concept of jouissance in the issues that Freud was battling with?
Lacan maintains his dialogue with Freud on these issues throughout his life, referencing the same conceptual vocabulary that Freud used to express the complicated relation between pleasure, unpleasure, and the drives when he is developing his notion of jouissance.
The pleasure principle is his starting point, and the long discussions with colleagues such as Mannoni, Valebrega, and Pontalis on the meaning of the term are a constant feature of the first part of Seminar II.
In (Seminar XIV) he gives what we can view as some substance to the notion of jouissance – what it actually ‘is’. There he tells his audience that jouissance is an ousia – a term borrowed from Aristotle’s book on the Categories – to mean an essence, related to being, at the level of the body ((Seminar XIV, 31st May 1967). And we know it in relation to the pleasure principle – it marks its traits but also marks its limits.
Lacan concurs with Freud’s definition of the pleasure principle as “a principle of the least tension, of the minimum tension that needs to be maintained for life to subsist”… but, he adds, that “jouissance overruns it” (Seminar XVII, p.45-46).
This quote from Seminar XVII in the late 1960s encapsulates the two definitions of jouissance that we started with: as an enjoyment beyond of the pleasure principle, and as an excess of life.
However Lacan’s idea of jouissance evolves over the course of his work, and in the early Seminars he does not use the term to describe this kind of malevolent enjoyment as he will come to do later. Instead in Seminars I, II and III we largely find references to the ‘jouissance’ of the master and slave, drawn from the influence Kojeve’s teaching of Hegel’s slave-master dialectic had on Lacan. Jouissance here is presented either as enjoyment or usufruct rights over the other. It is a jouissance linked to the body, but the body of the other realised in terms of the fruits of the other’s labour. It is not until Seminar VII that we find Lacan start to talk about jouissance as malevolent or evil (Seminar VII, 20th March 1960)
But we can see that even at this stage he is clear that jouissance is a phenomena at the level of the body. This idea continues throughout his work, and in Seminar XIV from 1967 we find Lacan stating not only that the body is the locus of jouissance, but that it is also the place where the Freudian ideas of Eros and Thanatos connect to each other, where they coincide.(Seminar XIV, 24th May 1967).
Jouissance and Desire
As an excess of enjoyment – an enjoyment that may not even be consciously experienced as such – jouissance is the most powerful counterforce to the work of a psychoanalysis. So what protects against or limits jouissance? The first answer is desire, and this is one of the ways that Lacan defines the latter. In the Écrits he writes that “Desire is a defense, a defence against going beyond a limit in jouissance” (Écrits,, 825). What this means is that rather than indulging a passion for jouissance, the metonymy of desire protects against going beyond a certain limit of pleasure, from going beyond what he calls in Seminar XIII the foyer brulant, or the burning hearth (Seminar XIII, , 23rd March 1966).
From early on in his work Lacan presents the symptom as a machine for ciphering unconscious desire, ensuring its repetition under a multitude of guises. Symptoms may perform different functions for different people, and perhaps a different function for the same person at different points in their life. They are not inherently a bad thing. But the symptom also carries with it a malignant jouissance. Insofar as the work of a psychoanalysis may involve supporting a symptom, or even helping to develop one that works better for a person, the criteria for a good symptom is one that will allow you to sustain your desire in its precariousness, rather than hooking you into a negative infinity around the object a (an idea we will explain below). In Seminar VI Lacan talks about these types of symptoms as “phantasmagoria”, a term which brings to mind a shifting series of illusions which are neither enjoyed too much nor too little. “Symptoms which are nevertheless so little satisfying in themselves”, as he describes them – not grossly unpleasurable, nor excessive, but simply “so little satisfying” (Seminar VI, 10th June 1959.) The task of a psychoanalysis then would be to enable the subject to walk the line between the tickle of the symptom and the inferno of jouissance (Seminar XVII, p.72).
Is Desire a Defence against Jouissance?
However, three caveats to this idea that desire is a defence against jouissance:
Firstly, that desire provides an insufficient satisfaction. As Lacan says in Seminar XI, “The subject will realise that his desire is merely a vain detour with the aim of catching the jouissance of the other” (Seminar XI, 183-184).
Secondly, desire can be a defence against jouissance but – as Lacan says about the hysteric in Seminar VI – jouissance can be a defence against desire. We can think about how Lacan understands the strategy of the hysteric in this regard. Speaking about hysterical subjects, Lacan makes the point that “here jouissance is precisely to prevent desire in situations that she herself constructs” (Seminar VI, 10th June 1959.) The hysteric does not necessarily want to stifle desire, but – as Lacan puts it here – to “prevent desire coming to term in order that she herself will remain what is at stake”, in other words, to keep desire going. Why does she want to keep it going? Because it is her being that is at stake, a being that exists to elicit the desire of the Other. This is a crucial clinical point therefore in being able to differentiate the ‘savage’ jouissance seen in some cases of psychosis from the ‘strategic’ jouissance which Lacan detects in hysterical subjects.
Thirdly, that desire cannot be an antidote to jouissance because it is not qualitatively equivalent to it. Jouissance is of a different nature to desire insofar as is at the level of the drive. In Seminar VII Lacan describes jouissance as “not purely and simply the satisfaction of a need but as the satisfaction of a drive” (Seminar VII, 209), whereas desire emerges from the split between this need and the demand for it to be satisfied, which is addressed to the Other. More simply, to explain this difference Lacan describes a sort of canyon, where “desire reveals certain ridges, a certain sticking point”, but in which jouissance “presents itself as buried at the centre of a field and has the characteristics of inaccessibility, obscurity and opacity” (Seminar VII, 209). Another more poetic formulation is given to this difference in the Écrits, where Lacan sums up the relation between desire and jouissance by describing the
“Misadventure of desire at the hedges of jouissance, watched out for by an evil god. This drama is not as accidental as it is believed to be. It is essential: for desire comes from the Other, and jouissance is located on the side of the Thing.” (Écrits, 853)
If we were looking for a dualism in Lacan to parallel what Freud is trying to construct perhaps we can find it between jouissance and desire.
Jouissance, Transgression, and Prohibition
So, if desire can’t put a satisfactory limit to jouissance, what can?
One of Freud’s ideas is that culture itself puts a break on our ability to obtain full jouissance, full enjoyment. The exemplar of this is the prohibition on incest. But Lacan contradicts this. In the Écrits he says that jouissance is usually forbidden to the subject, but not because of “bad societal arrangements”. He calls people who believe this “fools”. The Other is to blame, but as the Other does not exist we instead put the blame on ourselves and call it Original Sin (Écrits, 820). In Seminar IX Lacan is more explicit. The Other does not prohibit, he says. The Other – the Other as the Law – is a metaphor for prohibition rather than the cause of it. What looks like a prohibition from the Other is actually an impossibility of accessing the jouissance of the Thing (Seminar IX, 14th April 1962).
Lacan does say however is that jouissance is prohibited [interdite] for he who speaks, as such (Écrits, 821). What does he mean by this? It is not law or culture that makes jouissance forbidden to the subject, but rather a natural limit to pleasure itself. The law or culture “makes a barred subject out of an almost natural barrier”, he says in the Écrits.
“We must keep in mind that jouissance is prohibited [interdite] to whoever speaks, as such—or, put differently, it can only be said [dite] between the lines by whoever is a subject of the Law, since the Law is founded on that very prohibition
[….] But it is not the Law itself that bars the subject’s access to jouissance—it
simply makes a barred subject out of an almost natural barrier. For it is pleasure that sets limits to jouissance, pleasure as what binds incoherent life together, until another prohibition – this one being unchallengeable — arises from the regulation that Freud discovered as the primary process and relevant law of pleasure.” (Écrits, 821).
The idea here is that we cannot go beyond a certain level of pleasure before we hit a wall of pain, the experience of jouissance. And what marks this limit is termed in psychoanalysis ‘castration’.
What is castration? Rather than being the removal of the genitals, Lacan sees it as a process by which a sacrifice is given a mark. This mark is a lack, something with a negative attached to it. The name Lacan gives to this is the phallus – the phallus not as the penis, but as the mark of a lack:
“… The sole indication of this jouissance in its infinitude, which brings with it the mark of its prohibition, and which requires a sacrifice in order to constitute this mark: the sacrifice implied in the same act as that of choosing its symbol, the phallus. This choice is allowed because the phallus—that is, the image of the penis—is negativized where it is situated in the specular image.” (Écrits, 822).
As the mark of a lack, the phallus allows us to enjoy only partially, with a ‘paltry’ jouissance. Lacan says that the phallus reduces jouissance to an auto-erotism (Écrits, 822). (Whether there is another kind of jouissance that is particular to women or to the mystic is something for speculation, but not something we’ll go into depth with here. For more on that point, see this article).
Nonetheless, Lacan hints that there is a way to use prohibition to augment this phallic, or paltry, jouissance. Prohibition, he believes, is the all-terrain vehicle that allows us to overcome some of the limits in jouissance – to stop our journey being just a series of well-trodden satisfactions.
“If the paths to jouissance have something in them that dies out, that tends to make them impassable, prohibition, if I may say so, becomes its all-terrain vehicle, its half-track truck, that gets it out of the circuitous routes that lead man back in a roundabout way toward the rut of a short and well-trodden satisfaction” (Seminar VII, 177).
But rather than trying to ‘maximise’ our paltry jouissance through transgression when we feel we are not enjoying enough, if prohibition comes from a natural barrier to pleasure rather than a Law imposed by the Other, then surely transgression itself is a sham? Enjoyment is not about transgression – if there’s really no law to transgress how can we do so? Lacan expresses this nicely in Seminar XVII:
“We don’t ever transgress. Sneaking around is not transgressing. Seeing a door half-open is not the same as going through it….”
And he then adds a crucial twist:
“There is no transgression here, but rather an irruption, a falling into the field, of something not unlike jouissance – a surplus” (Seminar XVII, p.20).
It is with this surplus that jouissance obtains a kind of ‘life of its own’. The excess invades or ‘irrupts’ as he puts it here, and leave us a surplus jouissance. Despite this ‘paltry’ phallic jouissance that we castrated subjects have to deal with, an excess of enjoyment – a plus de jouir – is generated in the place of castration. He calls this a compensation for a loss, and we can think of it as a kind of ‘plus of a minus’ – what he names in Seminar VII as “something that necessitates compensation… for what is initially a negative number” (Seminar VII, p.50).
But then Lacan issues a warning: you have to get rid of this surplus – “it is very urgent that one squander it”, he says in Seminar XVII – or you’re in big trouble:
“What’s disturbing is that if one pays in jouissance, then one has got it, and then, once one has got it it is very urgent that one squander it. If one does not squander it, there will be all sorts of consequences.” (Seminar XVII, p.20)
The term ‘squander’ here is an interesting one. Just as to squander money implies to frivolously spend it without care as to where it goes, so an ‘urgent squandering’ of jouissance implies the importance of finding an outlet without too much regard for how or where it gets expended. Any serviceable route to its evacuation is preferable to living with excess jouissance.
Jouissance and The Thing
This brings us to the idea of the Thing – das Ding – which Lacan goes on and on and on about in Seminar VII, from 1959-1960. It somewhat morphs into the theory of the object-cause of desire from then on, starting with the notion of agalma in Seminar VIII the following year, and then being more fully developed into object a around Seminars X and XI, and over the course of the rest of his work.
To explain the Thing and its relation to jouissance, here are two diagrams to illustrate the encounter with jouissance when we go beyond the pleasure principle.
This first diagram shows the path of the drive around the object, represented by a. The course of the drive is a kind of elliptical orbit around the object, rather than a straight line by which it would reach it. It is flung back around the object at the moment it is closest to it.
What this attempts to show is that the beyond of the pleasure principle is something internal to it. It is an internal flaw in the pleasure principle rather than something that intervenes from outside to limit pleasure (for example, the law or prohibition). As Slavoj Zizek writes,
“The space of the drive is as such a paradoxical, curved space: the object a is not a positive entity existing in space, it is ultimately nothing but a certain curvature of the space itself which causes us to make a bend precisely when we want to get directly at the object.” (Enjoy Your Symptom, p.56-57).
But even if this trajectory around the object produces displeasure (frustration, exhaustion) there is a kind of satisfaction found in this nonetheless. This is one way of understanding jouissance. Freud tells us that the drive is indifferent to its object, and can be satisfied without obtaining it (sublimation). It is not the object itself that is of importance, but what Joan Copjec describes as,
“a particular mode of attainment, an itinerary the drive must undertake in order to access its object or to gain satisfaction from some other object in its place. There is always pleasure in this detour – indeed this is what pleasure is, a movement rather than a possession, a process rather than an object” (Copjec, UMBR(a): Polemos, 2001, p.150).
The ultimate example of this is courtly love. The Lady in courtly love represents this kind of curved space towards the object. You cannot approach her directly, only in detours and ordeals. The Lady is less a substance than a semblance. You write a song about her rather than having sex with her. Any attempt to reach her is doomed to fail because her bodily materiality is really just a lure, a lure which is illustrated by the curvature of the drive: an attempt at a direct encounter, but one which cannot but miss.
Here is the second diagram, based on Lacan’s ideas on the Thing – das Ding – in Seminar VII.
If we were to give a brief explanation of the Thing it would go something like this: the Thing is less a ‘thing’ than a point, though it is unreachable as both. We know the Thing only through our proximity to it, where the pursuit of a desired object in the service of the pleasure principle shades off into jouissance, up to the point that it implies what Lacan says – in no uncertain terms – is “the acceptance of death” (Seminar VII, p.189). Desire itself can be distinguished from jouissance. Lacan says in Seminar X that jouissance aims at the Thing (Seminar X, 23rd January 1963), whereas desire aims only at the promulgation of desire.
The first ring in the diagram is that of the good. In Seminar VII Lacan presents the good as the first barrier of protection against the jouissance of the Thing. This is what he believes Freud was getting at in Civilisation and its Discontents. Except that loving one’s neighbour neglects the fact that the neighbour’s jouissance poses a problem for your love (Seminar VII, p.187).
When we overcome the demands of the good we overcome a certain conception of ‘the good’ that Lacan wishes to distinguish from that of psychoanalysis. This might be the teleological good, the moral good, or simply the ‘good’ life of blameless bourgeois domesticity. Whatever, this entails the traversal of shame, the second ring.
The last ring or barrier is that of beauty. And it is the most odd. In his discussion of Sophocles’ Antigone in Seminar VII Lacan is very interested in the few words that Antigone says at the graveside of her brother. Her desire to bury him is what Lacan seizes on as the exemplar of the ethical act. What she wants for her dead sibling is the minimal sign that the body is registered in the symbolic, and this is why his burial is so important for her. Indeed, burials are important for all of us. Anthropologically, rituals around the burial of the dead are one of the few common practices linking all human cultures throughout history.
Beauty as the Veil of Horror
In the moments before she is entombed alive Sophocles has the chorus talk about Antigone’s beauty. This is a term that is especially odd in this context and there is debate about whether Lacan translated it correctly. Nevertheless, his idea is that the ultimate barrier between death and life is the screen or veil of beauty which separates – is to final limit to – the horror of the Thing (Seminar VII, 248).
This idea of beauty as the final veil before the horror of death comes up again and again in Sade’s work. Lacan references him heavily in Seminar VII. Sadean victims rarely die – they endure all manner of painful tortures but retain their pristine beauty nonetheless. The image of the crucifixion shows this as well for Lacan (Seminar VII, 261-262). Throughout these examples runs the same thread: a barrier of beauty before we reach the horror of the Thing. This is the space between two deaths that Lacan talks about in Seminar VII.
There is a nice anecdote about the Velvet Underground singer Lou Reed that illustrates this idea of beauty veiling the horror of the Thing. For the purposes of hotel registers when on the road Reed would adopt the pseudonym Raymond Chandler. Asked what he liked about the noir genius of the detective story he replied, “Biting humor and succinctness”. When asked for an example he gave the line ‘That blonde is about as beautiful as a split lip.’
Sublimation as Raising the Object to the Dignity of the Thing
There is also a special role for sublimation in the proximity to the Thing. In Seminar VII Lacan says that we can’t ever reach the Thing, and so as a compensation for that inaccessibility we sublimate:
“We have at present reached that barrier beyond which the analytical Thing is to be found, the place where brakes are applied, where the inaccessibility of the object as object of jouissance is organised. It is in brief the place where the battlefield of our experience is situated… in order to compensate for that inaccessibility, all individual sublimation is projected beyond that barrier…. The last word of Freud’s thought, and especially that concerning the death drive, appears in the field of analytical thought as sublimation” (Seminar VII, 203).
Lacan’s famous definition of sublimation as raising the object to the dignity of the Thing has precisely this meaning. The Lady in courtly love, and ‘the ‘broad’ in Lou Reed’s anecdote, are examples of this.
The Burning Bush and the Madonna
When the veil of beauty is removed we arrive at the Thing. In the term ‘Thing’ we can hear the resonance of the Kantian thing-in-itself (Ding an sich, “thing-as-such” or “thing per se”). Lacan’s idea is that the Thing is brutal and raw in its immediacy; it cannot be substituted for or assimilated to anything else. As an example, he describes Moses’ encounter with the burning bush in the old testament:
“Moses the Midianite seems to pose a problem of his own – I would like to know whom or what he faced on Sinai and on Horeb. But after all, since he couldn’t bear the brilliance of the face who said to him “I am what I am” we will simply say at this point that the burning bush was Moses’ Thing, and leave it there.” (Seminar VII, p.174 – see also Seminar VII, p.180).
Another example of the immediacy of the Thing comes from the Dora case. Describing to Freud how she sat transfixed in front of the painting of the Madonna in a Dresden gallery, she cannot find the words to describe it except than as itself:
“When I asked her what had pleased her so much about the picture she could find no clear answer to make. At last she said: ‘The Madonna’.” (SE VII, 96).
Jouissance and Anxiety
The confrontation with the Thing provokes anxiety. Again and again in Seminar X Lacan talks about anxiety as the middle term between jouissance and desire.
Jouissance – Anxiety – Desire
What Lacan had to say about the relation between anxiety and desire in Seminar X is well-known. The confrontation with the Other’s desire is like being in front of a female praying mantis – you know that the female bites the head off her partner after sex; and you know you are wearing a mask; but you do not know whether it’s the mask of a male or female praying mantis (Seminar X, 14th November 1962). But what does he have to say about the relation of anxiety and jouissance?
Here we can return to the topic of castration. Lacan’s idea in Seminar X is that castration covers the anxiety presented by the actualisation of jouissance (Seminar X, 5th June 1963). Let’s look at this in relation to what one of his smartest followers, Piera Aulagnier, had to say about jouissance and sex.
Lacan gives her the floor for a session in Seminar IX in 1962. Aulagnier is interested in what difference there is between masturbation and sex. And the answer she proposes is that in sex both partners have to accept their castration. If either partner is focussed only on the partial object there is no recognition of theirs or the other’s subjectivity. This creates a situation analogous to the story of the preying mantis from Seminar X that we touched on above – you have no idea what you are for the other person. For Aulagnier, this generates anxiety, and so castration is necessary to avoid it (Seminar IX, 2nd May 1962).
But then Aulagnier says something brilliant about castration: rather than being the fear that the penis will be cut off, the real fear is that the penis will remain but that everything else will be cut off. This would make it impossible for the subject to be recognised as a subject which, as we have seen, is the most anxiety-provoking of experiences because you would not know what you are for the Other. We are back to the praying mantis.
Modalities of Jouissance
Although the experience of jouissance will be different for each subject, let’s conclude by looking at some of what Lacan has to say about the character of jouissance in different subjective structures.
Firstly, for the neurotic, the greatest fear is that he will be forced to sacrifice his castration to the jouissance of the Other (Écrits, 826). The neurotic not only believes very strongly in the Other, but believes the Other demands his castration so as to serve the Other’s enjoyment.
For the pervert, secondly, the situation is a little more complex. Taking the example of sadism, Lacan argues that rather than being the master of his object, the sadist actually serves his own master. We find again here the theme of alienation from one’s enjoyment that Lacan thought was so interesting in Kojeve’s work on Hegel’s slave-master dialectic. The sadist is simply the agent of the jouissance of the Other. “I will ask you to look at my article Kant avec Sade”, Lacan says in Seminar XI, “where you will see that the sadist himself occupies the place of the object, but without knowing it, to the benefit of another, for whose jouissance he exercises his action as sadistic pervert.” (Seminar XI, 185). The sadist’s partner does not matter as such, only insofar as it is what he believes the Other wants.
Aulagnier however goes further. She argues that the pervert obtains jouissance by identifying with an object that produces the jouissance of the phallus. But there are two crucial modifications in her argument compared to Lacan’s. Firstly, in her view this object is not the partner but a material object which is used to procure the jouissance of a phallus which is not the sadist’s own. We can think of all the iconography of sadism – whip, chains, and so forth – as examples of this object. Secondly, that the jouissance the sadist aims at is not for the Other as such, but for an anonymised phallus. Her remarks are worth quoting in full:
“The pervert neither has nor is the phallus: he is this ambiguous object which serves a desire which is not his: his jouissance is in this strange situation where the only identification possible to him is as an object which procures the Jouissance of a phallus, but he doesn’t know to whom this phallus belongs. One could say that the desire of the pervert is to respond to the demand of the phallus. To take a banal example I would say that in order for the Jouissance of the sadist to appear, another is pleasured by the fact that he the pervert makes himself into a whip. If I speak of phallic demand, which is a kind of play on words, it is because for the pervert the other exists only as the almost anonymous support of a phallus for whom the pervert performs his sacrificial rights. The perverse response is always a negation of the Other as subject. The perverse identification is always to this object which is the source of the jouissance for a phallus which is as powerful as it is phantasmatic.” (Piera Aulagnier’s presentation in Seminar IX, 2nd May 1962)
Thirdly, to take just one example of psychosis, we can look at the work done on autism by the Belgian clinic Le Courtil. This is something we have looked at before on this site in regards to topology but to summarise that article briefly in the context of jouissance, autistic subjects face being overwhelmed by a jouissance at the level of the body that they have great difficulty defending against. Why? The topological approach in psychoanalysis answers this in terms of weak separation axiom. In short, a difficulty dealing with certain kinds of spatial realities.
Finally, the inability to manage a jouissance in the body also manifests itself very forcefully in addiction. Rik Loose’s work here is key. He argues that the addict short-circuits castration to go straight to the object:
“ … Addiction can produce pleasures for the subject in a manner that is independent of the Other and […] can provide the illusion that there is a pleasure to be obtained that is not curtailed or limited by the social bond. This allows one to understand that some addictions function as a social “short-circuit” symptom and contains the desire to pursue a pleasure beyond normal pleasure. This is a form of addiction that tries to break away from the “cut” of castration, that is to say, it tries to regain what had to be given up, or was lost, as the result of castration”. (Loose, The Subject of Addiction: Psychoanalysis and the Administration of Enjoyment, p.69.)
The real question is what kind of object is aimed at by the addict? In his paper ‘From saying to doing in the clinic of alcoholism and addiction’, Eric Laurent offers the answer that the object of addiction is not a substance but a semblance. Irrespective of the particular drug the addict depends on, the drug is not what the subject is really interested in when it comes to the ‘hit’. For Laurent, addiction is not about pleasure but the ‘verification of the colour of emptiness’.
“The first thing that drug addiction teaches psychoanalysis is that the object is a semblance, not a substance. It is precisely in drug addiction that we can find the most strongly sustained effort to incarnate the object of jouissance in an object of the world…. The true object of jouissance – if that word means anything – is death. The quest is not, as some say, for ‘some pleasure’; the quest is more precisely for the verification of the colour of emptiness [see E852, below] surrounding jouissance in the human being.” (Eric Laurent, ‘From saying to doing in the clinic of drug addiction and alcoholism’, in the Almanac of Psychoanalysis – Psychoanalytic stories after Freud and Lacan, p.138-139.)
Dealing with Jouissance
So what we can we learn from all of this about treating, managing, or otherwise dealing with jouissance? By way of summary we can highlight three points from Lacan’s work that can serve as a general guide:
1. Embrace castration by positivising a lack. The ethical dimension of this lesson is to not cede your desire; and to desire means to take lack as your object.
2. Mastering jouissance means loosening the bonds to the semblance, the unattainable object that is infinitely deferred. This means not becoming stuck in the paradoxical curvature of the space of jouissance that we sketched out above. This leads only to a kind of ‘negative infinity’.
3. Evacuate jouissance to the margins of your life in a fashion that would mimic the classical Freudian model of castration as the evacuation of jouissance to the margins of the body.
The philosophy behind these three lessons is encapsulated in one of the most beautiful lines from the Écrits, which ends ‘The Subversion of the Subject’ paper:
“Castration means that jouissance has to be refused in order to be attained on the inverse scale of the Law of desire.” (Écrits, 827).
By Owen Hewitson, LacanOnline.com
The article is taken from:
by Steven Craig Hickman
The deadlock of accelerationism as a political strategy has much to do with the aesthetic failure of transgression. They are really two sides of the same process. The acceleration of capitalism itself in the decades since 1980 has become a classic example of how we must be careful what we wish for— because we just might get it. As a result of the neoliberal “reforms” of the past thirty-five years or so, the full savagery of capitalism has been unleashed, no longer held back by the checks and balances of financial regulation and social welfare. At the same time, what Boltanski and Chiapello call the “new spirit of capitalism” successfully took up the subjective demands of the 1960s and 1970s and made them its own. Neoliberalism now offers us things like personal autonomy, sexual freedom, and individual “self-realization”; though of course, these often take on the sinister form of precarity, insecurity, and continual pressure to perform. Neoliberal capitalism today lures us with the prospect of living, in James’s words, “the most intense lives, lives of maximized (individual and social) investment and maximized return,” while at the same time it privatizes, expropriates, and extracts a surplus from everything in sight.
In other words, the problem with accelerationism as a political strategy has to do with the fact that— like it or not— we are all accelerationists now. It has become increasingly clear that crises and contradictions do not lead to the demise of capitalism. Rather, they actually work to promote and advance capitalism, by providing it with its fuel. Crises do not endanger the capitalist order; rather, they are occasions for the dramas of “creative destruction” by means of which, phoenix-like, capitalism repeatedly renews itself. We are all caught within this loop. And accelerationism in philosophy or political economy offers us, at best, an exacerbated awareness of how we are trapped.
Aesthetic accelerationism, unlike the politico-economic kind, does not claim any efficacy for its own operations. It revels in depicting situations where the worst depredations of capitalism have come to pass, and where people are not only unable to change things but are even unable to imagine trying to change things. This is capitalist realism in full effect. Aesthetic accelerationism does not even deny that its own intensities serve the aim of extracting surplus value and accumulating profit. The evident complicity and bad faith of these works, their reveling in the base passions that Nietzsche disdained, and their refusal to sustain outrage or claim the moral high ground: all these postures help to move us toward the disinterest and epiphenomenality of the aesthetic. So I don’t make any political claims for this sort of accelerationist art— indeed, I would undermine my whole argument were I to do so. But I do want to claim a certain aesthetic inefficacy for them— which is something that works of transgression and negativity cannot hope to attain today.
—Steven Shaviro, No Speed Limit: Three Essays on Accelerationism
The Article Is Taken From:
by Guy Debord
Our central purpose is the construction of situations, that is, the concrete construction of temporary settings of life and their transformation into a higher, passionate nature. We must develop an intervention directed by the complicated factors of two great components in perpetual interaction: the material setting of life and the behaviors that it incites and that overturn it.
Our prospects for action on the environment lead, in their latest development, to the idea of a unitary urbanism. Unitary urbanism first becomes clear in the use of the whole of arts and techniques as means cooperating in an integral composition of the environment. This whole must be considered infinitely more extensive than the old influence of architecture on the traditional arts, or the current occasional application to anarchic urbanism of specialized techniques or of scientific investigations such as ecology. Unitary urbanism must control, for example, the acoustic environment as well as the distribution of different varieties of drink or food. It must take up the creation of new forms and the détournement of known forms of architecture and urbanism—as well as the détournement of the old poetry and cinema. Integral art, about which so much has been said, can only materialize at the level of urbanism. But it can no longer correspond with any traditional definitions of the aesthetic. In each of its experimental cities, unitary urbanism will work through a certain number of force fields, which we can temporarily designate by the standard expression district. Each district will be able to lead to a precise harmony, broken off from neighboring harmonies;or rather will be able to play on a maximum breaking up of internal harmony.
Secondly, unitary urbanism is dynamic, i.e., in close touch with styles of behavior. The most reduced element of unitary urbanism is not the house but the architectural complex, which is the union of all the factors conditioning an environment, or a sequence of environments colliding at the scale of the constructed situation. Spatial development must take the affective realities that the experimental city will determine into account. One of our comrades has promoted a theory of states-of-mind districts, according to which each quarter of a city would tend to induce a single emotion, to which the subject will consciously expose herself or himself. It seems that such a project draws timely conclusions from an increasing depreciation of accidental primary emotions, and that its realization could contribute to accelerating this change. Comrades who call for a new architecture, a free architecture, must understand that this new architecture will not play at first on free, poetic lines and forms—in the sense that today’s “lyrical abstract” painting uses these words—but rather on the atmospheric effects of rooms, corridors, streets, atmospheres linked to the behaviors they contain. Architecture must advance by taking as its subject emotionally moving situations, more than emotionally moving forms, as the material it works with. And the experiments drawn from this subject will lead to unknown forms. Psychogeographical research, “study of the exact laws and precise effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, acting directly on the affective deportment of individuals,” thus takes on its double meaning of active observation of today’s urban areas and the establishment of hypotheses on the structure of a situationist city. Psychogeography’s progress depends to a great extent on the statistical extension of its methods of observation, but principally on experimentation through concrete interventions in urbanism. Until this stage, the objective truth of even the first psychogeographical data cannot be ensured. But even if these data should turn out to be false, they would certainly be false solutions to a genuine problem.
Our action on deportment, in connection with other desirable aspects of a revolution in customs, can be defined summarily as the invention of a new species of games. The most general aim must be to broaden the nonmediocre portion of life, to reduce its empty moments as much as possible. It may thus be spoken of as an enterprise of human life’s quantitative increase, more serious than the biological processes currently being studied. Even there, it implies a qualitative increase whose developments are unforeseeable. The situationist game stands out from the standard conception of the game by the radical negation of the ludic features of competition and of its separation from the stream of life. In contrast, the situationist game does not appear distinct from a moral choice, deciding what ensures the future reign of freedom and play. This is obviously linked to the certainty of the continual and rapid increase of leisure, at a level corresponding to that of our era’s productive forces. It is equally linked to the recognition of the fact that a battle over leisure is taking place before our eyes whose importance in the class struggle has not been sufficiently analyzed. To this day, the ruling class is succeeding in making use of the leisure that the revolutionary proletariat extracted from it by developing a vast industrial sector of leisure that is an unrivaled instrument for bestializing the proletariat through by-products of mystifying ideology and bourgeois tastes. One of the reasons for the American working class’s incapacity to become politicized should likely be sought amidst this abundance of televised baseness. By obtaining through collective pressure a slight rise in the price of its labor above the minimum necessary for the production of that labor, the proletariat not only enlarges its power of struggle but also widens the terrain of the struggle. New forms of this struggle then occur parallel with directly economic and political conflicts. Revolutionary propaganda can be said until now to have been constantly dominated in these forms of struggle in all countries where advanced industrial development has introduced them. That the necessary transformation of the base could be delayed by errors and weaknesses at the level of superstructures has unfortunately been proven by some of the twentieth century’s experiences. New forces must be hurled into the battle over leisure, and we will take up our position there.
A first attempt at a new manner of deportment has already been achieved with what we have designated the dérive, which is the practice of a passionate uprooting through the hurried change of environments, as well as a means of studying psychogeography and situationist psychology. But the application of this will to ludic creation must be extended to all known forms of human relationships, and must, for example, influence the historical evolution of emotions like friendship and love. Everything leads to the belief that the main insight of our research lies in the hypothesis of constructions of situations.
A man’s life is a sequence of chance situations, and if none of them is exactly similar to another, at the least these situations are, in their immense majority, so undifferentiated and so dull that they perfectly present the impression of similitude. The corollary of this state of affairs is that the singular, enchanting situations experienced in life strictly restrain and limit this life. We must try to construct situations, i.e., collective environments, ensembles of impressions determining the quality of a moment. If we take the simple example of a gathering of a group of individuals for a given time, and taking into account acquaintances and material means at our disposal, we must study which arrangement of the site, which selection of participants, and which incitement of events suit the desired environment. Surely the powers of a situation will broaden considerably in time and in space with the realizations of unitary urbanism or the education of a situationist generation. The construction of situations begins on the other side of the modern collapse of the idea of the theater. It is easy to see to what extent the very principle of the theater—nonintervention—is attached to the alienation of the old world. Inversely, we see how the most valid of revolutionary cultural explorations have sought to break the spectator’s psychological identification with the hero, so as to incite this spectator into activity by provoking his capacities to revolutionize his own life. The situation is thus made to be lived by its constructors. The role of the “public,” if not passive at least a walk-on, must ever diminish, while the share of those who cannot be called actors but, in a new meaning of the term, “livers,”1 will increase.
Let us say that we have to multiply poetic objects and subjects (unfortunately so rare at present that the most trifling of them assumes an exaggerated emotional importance) and that we have to organize games of these poetic subjects among these poetic objects. There is our entire program, which is essentially ephemeral. Our situations will be without a future; they will be places where people are constantly coming and going. The unchanging nature of art, or of anything else, does not enter into our considerations, which are in earnest. The idea of eternity is the basest one a man could conceive of regarding his acts.
Situationist techniques have yet to be invented, but we know that a task presents itself only where the material conditions necessary for its realization already exist, or are at least in the process of formation. We must begin with a small-scale, experimental phase. Undoubtedly we must draw up blueprints for situations, like scripts, despite their unavoidable inadequacy at the beginning. Therefore, we will have to introduce a system of notation whose accuracy will increase as experiments in construction teach us more. We will have to find or confirm laws, like those that make situationist emotion dependent upon an extreme concentration or an extreme dispersion of acts (classical tragedy providing an approximate image of the first case, and the dérive of the second). Besides the direct means that will be used toward precise ends, the construction of situations will require, in its affirmative phase, a new implementation of reproductive technologies. We could imagine, for example, live televisual projections of some aspects of one situation into another, bringing about modifications and interferences. But, more simply, cinematic “news”-reels might finally deserve their name if we establish a new documentary school dedicated to fixing the most meaningful moments of a situation for our archives, before the development of these elements has led to a different situation. The systematic construction of situations having to generate previously nonexistent feelings, the cinema will discover its greatest pedagogical role in the diffusion of these new passions.
Situationist theory resolutely asserts a noncontinuous conception of life. The idea of consistency must be transferred from the perspective of the whole of a life—where it is a reactionary mystification founded on the belief in an immortal soul and, in the last analysis, on the division of labor—to the viewpoint of moments isolated from life, and of the construction of each moment by a unitary use of situationist means. In a classless society, it might be said, there will be no more painters, only situationists who, among other things, make paintings.
Life’s chief emotional drama, after the never-ending conflict between desire and reality hostile to that desire, certainly appears to be the sensation of time’s passage. The situationist attitude consists in counting on time’s swift passing, unlike aesthetic processes which aim at the fixing of emotion. The situationist challenge to the passage of emotions and of time will be its wager on always gaining ground on change, on always going further in play and in the multiplication of moving periods. Obviously, it is not easy for us at this time to make such a wager; however, even were we to lose it a thousand times, there is no other progressive attitude to adopt.
The situationist minority was first formed as a trend within the lettrist left wing, then within the Lettrist International, which it eventually controlled. The same objective impulse is leading several contemporary avant-garde groups to similar conclusions. Together we must discard all the relics of the recent past. We deem that today an agreement on a unified action among the revolutionary cultural avant-garde must implement such a program. We do not have formulas nor final results in mind. We are merely proposing an experimental research that will collectively lead in a few directions that we are in the process of defining, and in others that have yet to be defined. The very difficulty of arriving at the first situationist achievements is proof of the newness of the realm we are entering. What alters the way we see the streets is more important than what alters the way we see painting. Our working hypotheses will be reconsidered at each future upheaval, wherever it may come from.
We will be told, chiefly by revolutionary intellectuals and artists who for reasons of taste put up with a certain powerlessness, that this “situationism” is quite disagreeable, that we have made nothing of beauty, that we would be better off speaking of Gide, and that no one sees any clear reason to be interested in us. People will shy away by reproaching us for repeating a number of viewpoints that have already caused too much scandal, and that express the simple desire to be noticed. They will become indignant about the conduct we have believed necessary to adopt on a few occasions in order to keep or to recover our distances. We reply:it is not a question of knowing whether this interests you, but rather of whether you yourself could become interesting under new conditions of cultural creation. Revolutionary artists and intellectuals, your role is not to shout that freedom is abused when we refuse to march with the enemies of freedom. You do not have to imitate bourgeois aesthetes who try to bring everything back to what has already been done, because the already-done does not make them uncomfortable. You know that creation is never pure. Your role is to search for what will give rise to the international avant-garde, to join in the constructive critique of its program, and to call for its support.
excerpt from the book: Guy Debord and The Situationist Internationalist
An already old and corrupt nation, courageously shaking off the yoke of its monarchical government in order to adopt a republican one, can only maintain itself through many crimes; for it is already in crime, and if it wants to move from crime to virtue, in other words from a violent state to a peaceful one, it would fall into an inertia, of which its certain ruin would soon be the result.
What looks like politics, and imagines itself to be political, will one day unmask itself as a religious movement.
Today solitary, you who live apart, you one day will be a people. Those who have designated themselves will one day be a designated people, and from this people will be born the life that goes beyond man.
It is necessary to produce and to eat: many things are necessary that are still nothing, and so it is with political agitation.
Who dreams, before having struggled to the end, of relinquishing his place to men it is impossible to look at without feeling the need to destroy? If nothing can be found beyond political activity, human avidity will meet nothing but a void.
WE ARE FEROCIOUSLY RELIGIOUS and, to the extent that our existence is the condemnation of everything that is recognized today, an inner exigency demands that we be equally imperious.
What we are starting is a war.
It is time to abandon the world of the civilized and its light. It is too late to be reasonable and educated-which has led to a life without appeal. Secretly or not, it is necessary to become completely different, or to cease being.
The world to which we have belonged offers nothing to love outside of each individual insufficiency: its existence is limited to utility. A world that cannot be loved to the point of death-in the same way that a man loves a woman represents only self-interest and the obligation to work. If it is compared to worlds gone by, it is hideous, and appears as the most failed of all. In past worlds, it was possible to lose oneself in ecstasy, which is impossible in our world of educated vulgarity. The advantages of civilization are offset by the way men profit from them: men today profit in order to become the most degraded beings that have ever existed.
Life has always taken place in a tumult without apparent cohesion, but it only finds its grandeur and its reality in ecstasy and in ecstatic love. He who tries to ignore or misunderstand ecstasy is an incomplete being whose thought is reduced to analysis. Existence is not only an agitated void, it is a dance that forces one to dance with fanaticism. Thought that does not have a dead fragment as its object has the inner existence of flames.
It is necessary to become sufficiently firm and unshaken so that the existence of the world of civilization finally appears uncertain.
It is useless to respond to those who are able to believe in the existence of this world and who take their authority from it; if they speak, it is possible to look at them without hearing them and, even when one looks at them, to "see" only what exists far behind them. It is necessary to refuse boredom and live only for fascination.
On this path, it is vain to become restless and seek to attract those who have idle whims, such as passing the time, laughing, or becoming individually bizarre. It is necessary to go forward without looking back and without taking into account those who do not have the strength to forget immediate reality.
Human life is exhausted from serving as the head of, or the reason for, the universe. To the extent that it becomes this head and this reason, to the extent that it becomes necessary to the universe, it accepts servitude. If it is not free, existence becomes empty or neutral and, if it is free, it is in play. The Earth, as long as it only gave rise to cataclysms, trees, and birds, was a free universe; the fascination of freedom was tarnished when the Earth produced a being who demanded necessity as a law above the universe. Man however has remained free not to respond to any necessity; he is free to resemble everything that is not himself in the universe. He can set aside the thought that it is he or God who keeps the rest of things from being absurd.
Man has escaped from his head just as the condemned man has escaped from his prison. He has found beyond himself not God, who is the prohibition against crime, but a being who is unaware of prohibition. Beyond what I am, I meet a being who makes me laugh because he is headless; this fills me with dread because he is made of innocence and crime; he holds a steel weapon in his left hand, flames like those of a Sacred Heart in his right. He reunites in the same eruption Birth and Death. He is not a man. He is not a god either. He is not me but he is more than me: his stomach is the labyrinth in which he has lost himself, loses me with him, and in which I discover myself as him, in other words as a monster.
What I have thought or represented, I have not thought or represented alone. I am writing in a little cold house in a village of fishermen; a dog has just barked in the night. My room is next to the kitchen where Andre Masson is happily moving around and singing; at this very moment, as I write, he has just put on the phonograph a recording ofthe overture to Don Giovanni; more than anything else, the overture to Don Giovanni ties my lot in life to a challenge that opens me to a rapturous escape from the self. At this very moment, I am watching this acephalic being, this intruder composed of two equally excited obsessions, become the "Tomb of Don Giovanni." When, a few days ago, I was with Andre Masson in this kitchen, seated, a glass of wine in my hand, he suddenly talked of his own death and the death of his family, his eyes fixed, suffering, almost screaming that it was necessary for it to become a tender and passionate death, screaming his hatred for a world that weighs down even on death with its employee's paw-and I was no longer able to doubt that the lot and the infinite tumult of human life were open to those who could no longer exist as empty eye sockets, but as seers swept away by an overwhelming dream they could not own.
Tossa, April 29, 1936
excerpt from the book: Visions of Excess (Selected Writings, 1927-1939) by Georges Bataille
WERE there any limits to Vaughan's irony? When I returned from the bar he was leaning against the windowsill of the Lincoln, rolling the last of four cigarettes with the hash kit kept in a tobacco bag in the dashboard locker. Two sharp-faced airport whores, barely older than schoolchildren, were arguing with him through the window.
'Where the hell do you think you were going?' Vaughan took from me the two wine bottles I had bought. He rolled the cigarettes on to the instrument binnacle, then resumed his discussion with the young women. They were arguing in an abstract way about time and price. Trying to ignore their voices, and the massed traffic moving below the supermarket, I watched the aircraft taking off from London Airport across the western perimeter fence, constellations of green and red lights that seemed to be shifting about large pieces of the sky.
The two women peered into the car, sizing me up in a one-second glance. The taller of the two, whom Vaughan had already assigned to me, was a passive blonde with unintelligent eyes focused three inches above my head. She pointed to me with her plastic handbag.
'Can he drive?'
'Of course - a few drinks always make a car go better.'
Vaughan twirled the wine bottles like dumb-bells, herding the women into the car. As the second girl, with short black hair and a boy's narrow-hipped body, opened the passenger door, Vaughan handed a bottle to her. Lifting her chin, he put his fingers in her mouth. He plucked out the knot of gum and flicked it away into the darkness. 'Let's get rid of that - I don't want you blowing it up my urethra.
Adjusting myself to the unfamiliar controls, I started the engine and crossed the forecourt to the slip road. Above us, along Western Avenue, the traffic stream edged its way towards London Airport. Vaughan opened a wine bottle and passed it to the blonde sitting beside me in the front seat. He lit the first of the four cigarettes he had rolled. Already one elbow was between the dark-haired girl's thighs, raising her skirt to reveal her black crotch. He drew the cork from the second bottle and pressed the wet end against her white teeth. In the rearview mirror I could see her avoiding Vaughan's mouth. She inhaled the cigarette smoke, her hand resting on Vaughan's groin. Vaughan lay back, inspecting her small features with a detached gaze, looking her body up and down like an acrobat calculating the traverses and impacts of a gymnastic feat involving a large amount of complex equipment. With his right hand he opened the zip of his trousers, then arched his hips forward to free his penis. The girl held it in one hand, the other steadying the wine bottle as I let the car surge away from the traffic lights. Vaughan unbuttoned her shirt with his scarred fingers and brought out her small breast. Examining the breast, Vaughan gripped the nipple between thumb and forefinger, extruding it forward in a peculiar manual hold, as if fitting together a piece of unusual laboratory equipment.
Brake-lights flared twenty yards ahead of me. Horns sounded from the line of cars in the rear. As their headlamps pulsed I moved the shift lever into drive and pressed the accelerator, jerking the car forward. Vaughan and the girl rolled back against the rear seat. The cabin was lit only by the instrument dials, and by the headlamps and tail-lights in the crowded traffic lanes around us. Vaughan had freed both the girl's breasts, nursing them with his palm. His scarred lips sucked at the thick smoke from the crumbling butt of the cigarette. He took the wine bottle and raised it to her mouth. As she drank he lifted her legs so that her heels rested on the seat, and began to move his penis against the skin of her thighs, drawing it first across the black vinyl and then pressing the glans against her heel and ankle bone, as if testing the possible continuity of these two materials before taking part in a sexual act involving both the car and this young woman. He lay against the rear seat, left arm stretched above the girl's head, embracing this slab of over-sprung black vinyl. His hand was raised at right-angles to his forearm, measuring out the geometry of the chromium roof sill, while his right hand moved down the girl's thighs and cupped her buttocks. Squatting there with her heels under her buttocks, the girl opened her thighs to expose her small pubic triangle, the labia open and protruded. Through the smoke lifting from the ashtray Vaughan studied the girl's body in a good-humoured way.
Beside him, the girl's small, serious face was lit by the headlamps of the cars creeping forwards in the traffic files. The damp, inhaled smoke of burnt resin filled the interior of the car. My head seemed to float on these fumes. Somewhere ahead, beyond these immense lines of nearly stationary vehicles, was the illuminated plateau of the airport, but I felt barely able to do more than point the large car along the centre lane. The blonde woman in the front seat offered me a drink from the wine bottle. When I declined she leaned her head against my shoulder, giving a playful touch to the steering wheel. I put my arm around her shoulder, aware of her hand on my thigh.
I waited until we stopped again, and adjusted the driving mirror so that I could see into the rear seat. Vaughan had moved his thumb into the girl's vagina, forefinger into her rectum, as she sat back with her knees against her shoulders, drawing mechanically at the second of the cigarettes.
His left hand took the girl's breast, his ring- and forefingers propping up the nipple like a miniature crutch. Holding these elements of the girl's body in his formalized pose, he began to rock his hips back and forth, driving his penis into the girl's hand. When she tried to move his fingers from her vulva Vaughan knocked her hand away with his elbow, holding the fingers securely in her body. He straightened his legs, rotating himself around the passenger compartment so that his hips rested on the edge of the seat. Braced on his left elbow, he continued to work himself against the girl's hand, as if taking part in a dance of severely stylized postures that celebrated the design and electronics, speed and direction of an advanced kind of automobile.
This marriage of sex and technology reached its climax as the traffic divided at the airport overpass and we began to move forwards in the northbound lane. As the car travelled for the first time at twenty miles an hour Vaughan drew his fingers from the girl's vulva and anus, rotated his hips and inserted his penis in her vagina. Headlamps flared above us as the stream of cars moved up the slope of the overpass. In the rear-view mirror I could still see Vaughan and the girl, their bodies lit by the car behind, reflected in the black trunk of the Lincoln and a hundred points of the interior trim. In the chromium ashtray I saw the girl's left breast and erect nipple. In the vinyl window gutter I saw deformed sections of Vaughan's thighs and her abdomen forming a bizarre anatomical junction. Vaughan lifted the young woman astride him, his penis entering her vagina again. In a triptych of images reflected in the speedometer, the clock and revolution counter, the sexual act between Vaughan and this young woman took place in the hooded grottoes of these luminescent dials, moderated by the surging needle of the speedometer. The jutting carapace of the instrument panel and the stylized sculpture of the steering column shroud reflected a dozen images of her rising and falling buttocks. As I propelled the car at fifty miles an hour along the open deck of the overpass Vaughan arched his back and lifted the young woman into the full glare of the headlamps behind us. Her sharp breasts flashed within the chromium and glass cage of the speeding car. Vaughan's strong pelvic spasms coincided with the thudding passage of the lamp standards anchored in the overpass at hundred-yard intervals. As each one approached his hips kicked into the girl, driving his penis into her vagina, his hands splaying her buttocks to reveal her anus as the yellow light filled the car. We reached the end of the overpass. The red glow of brakelights burned the night air, touching the images of Vaughan and the young woman with a roseate light.
Controlling the car, I drove down the ramp towards the traffic junction. Vaughan changed the tempo of his pelvic motion, drawing the young woman on top of himself and extending her legs along his own. They lay diagonally across the rear seat, Vaughan taking first her left nipple in his mouth, then the right, his finger in her anus, stroking her rectum to the rhythm of the passing cars, matching his own movements to the play of light sweeping transversely across the roof of the car. I pushed away the blonde girl lying against my shoulder. I realized that I could almost control the sexual act behind me by the way in which I drove the car. Playfully, Vaughan responded to different types of street furniture and roadside trim. As we left London Airport, heading inwards towards the city on the fast access roads, his rhythm became faster, his hands under the girl's buttocks forcing her up and down as if some scanning device in his brain was increasingly agitated by the high office blocks. At the end of the orgasm he was almost standing behind me in the car, legs outstretched, head against the rear seat, hands propping up his own buttocks as he carried the girl on his hips.
Half an hour later I had turned back to the airport and stopped the car in the shadows of the multi-storey carpark facing the Oceanic Terminal. The girl at last managed to pull herself from Vaughan, who lay exhausted against the rear seat. Clumsily, she reassembled herself, remonstrating with Vaughan and the drowsy blonde in the front seat. Vaughan's semen ran down her left thigh on to the black vinyl of the seat. The ivory globes searched for the steepest gradient to the central sulcus of the seat.
I stepped from the car and paid the two women. When they had gone, carrying their hard loins back to the neon-lit concourses, I waited beside the car. Vaughan was staring at the terraced cliff of the car-park, his eyes following the canted floors, as if trying to recognize everything that had passed between himself and the dark-haired girl.
excerpt from the book: Crash by J.G.Ballard
by J.G. Ballard
The evening deepened, and the apartment building withdrew into the darkness. As usual at this hour, the high-rise was silent, as if everyone in the huge building was passing through a border zone. On the roof the dogs whimpered to themselves. Royal blew out the candles in the dining-room and made his way up the steps to the penthouse. Reflecting the distant lights of the neighbouring high-rises, the chromium shafts of the callisthenics machine seemed to move up and down like columns of mercury, a complex device recording the shifting psychological levels of the residents below. As Royal stepped on to the roof the darkness was lit by the white forms of hundreds of birds. Their wings flared in the dark air as they struggled to find a perch on the crowded elevator heads and balustrades.
Royal waited until they surrounded him, steering their beaks away from his legs with his stick. He felt himself becoming calm again. If the women and the other members of his dwindling entourage had decided to leave him, so much the better. Here in the darkness among the birds, listening to them swoop and cry, the dogs whimpering in the children's sculpture-garden, he felt most at home. He was convinced more than ever that the birds were attracted here by his own presence.
Royal scattered the birds out of his way and pushed back the gates of the sculpture-garden. As they recognized him, the dogs began to whine and strain, pulling against their leads. These retrievers, poodles and dachshunds were all that remained of the hundred or so animals who had once lived in the upper floors of the high-rise. They were kept here as a strategic food reserve, but Royal had seen to it that few of them had been eaten. The dogs formed his personal hunting pack, to be kept until the final confrontation when he would lead them down into the building, and throw open the windows of the barricaded apartments to admit the birds.
The dogs pulled at his legs, their leads entangled around the play-sculptures. Even Royal's favourite, the white alsatian, was restless and on edge. Royal tried to settle it, running his hands over the luminous but still bloodstained coat. The dog butted him nervously, knocking him back across the empty food-pails.
As Royal regained his balance, he heard the sound of voices surging up the central stairway a hundred feet behind him. Lights approached through the darkness, a procession of electric torches held at shoulder height. The beams of light cut through the night air, scattering the birds into the sky. A portable casette player boomed out its music over the clicking of dumb-bells. As Royal paused behind an elevator head, a group of his top-floor neighbours erupted on to the roof. Led by Pangbourne, they spread in a loose circle across the observation deck, ready to celebrate a recent triumph. Without Royal's approval or foreknowledge, a raid had taken place on the floors below.
The gynaecologist was in high excitement, waving the last stragglers up the staircase like a demented courier. From his mouth came a series of peculiar whoops and cries, barely articulated grunts that sounded like some Neanderthal mating call but, in fact, were Pangbourne's rendering of the recorded birth-cries analysed by his computer. These eerie and unsettling noises Royal had been forced to listen to for weeks as members of his entourage took up the refrain. A few days earlier he had finally banned the making of these noises altogether-sitting in the penthouse and trying to think about the birds, it unnerved him to hear the women in the kitchen next door emitting these clicks and grunts. However, Pangbourne held regular sessions in his own quarters at the opposite end of the roof, where he would play through his library of recorded birth-cries for the benefit of the women crouching in a hushed circle on the floor around him. Together they mimicked these weird noises, an oral emblem of Pang-bourne's growing authority.
Now they had left Royal, and were giving full vent to everything they had learned, hooting and growling like a troupe of demented mothers-to-be invoking their infants' birth-traumas.
Waiting for the right moment to make his entrance, Royal heeled the alsatian behind a tattered awning that leaned against the elevator head. For once he was glad that he was wearing his tuxedo-the white safari-jacket would have stood out like a flame.
Two "guests' had been picked up, a cost-accountant from the 32nd floor with a bandaged head, and a myopic meteorologist from the 27th. The woman carrying the cassette player, he noted calmly, was his wife Anne. Sloppily dressed, her hair in a mess, she lolled against Pang-bourne's shoulder and then wandered about in the circle of torch-light like a moody trollop, brandishing the cassette player at the two prisoners.
"Ladies… please, now. There's more to come." Pang-bourne calmed the women, his slim fingers like brittle sticks in the confused light. The portable bar was lifted upright. A table and two chairs were set beside it, and the guests uneasily took their seats. The cost-accountant was trying to straighten the unravelling bandage around his head, as if frightened that he might be called upon to play blind man's buff. The meteorologist squinted shortsightedly into the torchlight, hoping to recognize someone among those takingpart in this revel. Royal knew everyone present, his neighbours of the past year, and could almost believe that he was attending one of the many cocktail parties held on the roof that summer. At the same time he felt that he was watching the opening act of a stylized opera or ballet, in which a restaurant is reduced to a single table and the doomed hero is taunted by a chorus of waiters, before being despatched to his death.
The hosts at this party had been drinking long before their two guests arrived. The jeweller's widow in the long fur coat, Anne with her cassette player, Jane Sheridan waving a cocktail shaker, all were lurching about as if to some deranged music only Royal was unable to hear.
Pangbourne called for quiet again. "Now-keep our guests amused. They're looking bored. What are we playing tonight?"
A medley of suggestions was shouted out.
"Flying School, doctor!"
Pangbourne turned to his guests. "I rather like Flying School… Did you know we've been running a flying school here? No-?"
"We've decided to offer you some free lessons," Anne Royal told them.
"One free lesson," Pangbourne corrected. Everyone sniggered at this. "But that's all you'll need. Isn't it, Anne?"
"It's a remarkably effective course."
"Solo first time, in fact."
Already, led by the jeweller's widow, they were dragging the injured accountant towards the balustrade, everyone tripping over the bloodstained bandage unwrapping around his head. A pair of tattered papier-mâché wings, part of a child's angel costume, were fastened to the victim's back. The grunting and hooting began again.
Dragging the reluctant alsatian after him, Royal stepped into view. Involved in their imminent execution, no one noticed him. As casually as he could muster, he called out, "Pangbourne…! Dr Pangbourne…!"
The noise slackened. Torch-beams flicked through the darkness, whipping across Royal's silk-lapelled dinner-jacket, fixing on the white alsatian trying to escape between his feet.
"Flying School! Flying School!" The sullen chant was taken up. Looking down at this unruly gang, Royal could almost believe that he was surrounded by a crowd of semi-literate children. The zoo had rebelled against its keeper.
Hearing Royal's voice, the gynaecologist turned from his prisoner, whose bandage he had expertly refastened. Wiping his hands, he strolled across the roof, almost mimicking Royal's casual saunter. But his eyes were examining Royal's face with a wholly professional curiosity, as if he had already decided that its expression of firm determination could be readjusted by cutting a minimum number of nerves and muscles.
The chant rose into the air. The torch-beams beat rhythmically across the darkness, striking Royal's face. He waited patiently for the clamour to subside. As Anne broke away from the crowd and ran forward he raised the chromium cane, ready to strike her. She stopped in front of him, smirking as she fluffed up her long skirt in a provocative gesture. Suddenly she turned the cassette player to full volume and thrust it into his face. A gabble of birth-cries filled the air.
"Royal…" the jeweller's widow shouted warningly. "Here's Wilder!"
Startled by the name, Royal flinched back, thrashing at the darkness with the chromium cane. The torch-beams swerved around him, the shadows of the overturned chairs swinging across the concrete roof. Expecting Wilder to lunge at him from behind, he stumbled across the awning and entangled himself in the dog's lead.
He heard laughter behind him. Controlling himself with an effort, he turned to face Pangbourne again. But the gynaecologist was walking away, looking back at him without hostility. He waved to Royal with a quick movement of his hand, as if flicking a dart at him, dismissing him for ever. The torches swung away from Royal, and everyone returned to the more serious business of tormenting the two guests.
Royal watched from the darkness as they argued over the prisoners. The confrontation with Pangbourne was over-or, more exactly, had never taken place. A simple ruse had unnnerved him, leaving him with the uncertainty of whether or not he really feared Wilder. He had been humiliated, but in a sense this was only just. The gynaecologist was the man for their hour. No zoo would survive for long with Pangbourne as its keeper, but he would provide a node of violence and cruelty that would keep alive in others the will to survive.
Let the psychotics take over. They alone understood what was happening. Holding to the alsatian, Royal let the dog drag him away towards the safety of the darkness near the sculpture-garden. The white forms of the birds were massed together on every ledge and parapet. Royal listened to the whimpering dogs. He had no means now of feeding them. The glass doors of the penthouse reflected the swerving birds, like the casements of a secret pavilion. He would close down his apartment, block the staircase and retreat to the penthouse, perhaps taking Mrs Wilder with him as his servant. Here he would preside over the high-rise, taking up his last tenancy in the sky.
He unlocked the gate of the sculpture-garden and moved through the darkness among the statues, releasing the dogs. One by one they scrambled away, until only Royal and the birds were left.
excerpt from the book: High Rise by J.G.Ballard
by Guy Debord
First, we believe that the world must be changed. We desire the most liberatory possible change of the society and the life in which we find ourselves confined. We know that such change is possible by means of pertinent actions.
Our concern is precisely the use of certain means of action, along with the discovery of new ones that may more easily be recognized in the sphere of culture and manners but that will be implemented with a view to interaction with global revolutionary change.
In a given society, what is termed culture is the reflection, but also the foreshadowing, of possibilities for life’s planning. Our era is at heart characterized by the great distance at which revolutionary political action lags behind the development of the modern potentialities of production, which demands a superior organization of the world.
We are living through a fundamental historical crisis, in which the problem of the rational control of new productive forces, as well as the formulation of a civilization on a global scale, are each year expressed more clearly. Yet the action of the international workers’ movement, on which depends the initial defeat of the exploitative economic infrastructure, has only achieved scattered half-successes. Capitalism is devising new forms of struggle (state intervention in the market, growth in the distribution sector, fascist governments); it is relying on the deterioration in workers’ leadership; it is masking the nature of class oppositions by means of various reformist tactics. In this way, it has up to the present been able to preserve familiar social relations in the great majority of highly industrialized countries, thus depriving a socialist society of its essential material foundation. On the other hand, underdeveloped or colonized countries, which have been engaged en masse over the past decade in a more comprehensive battle against imperialism, are about to achieve a very important victory. Their successes are worsening the contradictions of the capitalist economy and, primarily in the case of the Chinese revolution, are furthering a revival of the entire revolutionary movement. This revival cannot be content with reforms in the capitalist or anticapitalist countries, but, on the contrary, must everywhere amplify conflicts that lead to the questioning of power.
The disintegration of modern culture is the result, on the level of ideological struggle, of the confused paroxysm of these conflicts. The new desires in the course of delineation are conceived in an awkward position: while the era’s resources permit their realization, the obsolete economic structure is incapable of exploiting those resources. At the same time, the ruling class’s ideology has lost all consistency thanks to the bankrupting of its successive conceptions of the world, a situation that inclines it to historical uncertainty; thanks as well to the coexistence of reactionary thoughts that have developed over time and that are, in principle, opposed to one another, like Christianity and social democracy; likewise, thanks to the fusion of contributions from several civilizations that are foreign to the contemporary West and whose value has only recently been recognized. The main goal of the ideology of the ruling class is thus to sow confusion.
In culture—and in using this word we are continually leaving aside its scientific or pedagogical aspects, even if ideological confusion makes them felt at the level of grand scientific theories or broad notions of education; culture for us refers rather to a compound of aesthetics, feelings, and manners, that is, to a period’s reaction to everyday life—confusionist counterrevolutionary processes consist of, simultaneously, the partial annexation of new values and a deliberately anticultural production utilizing the means of large-scale industry (novels, cinema), the natural result of the mindlessness of youth trapped in schools and families. The ruling ideology arranges the trivialization of subversive discoveries, and widely circulates them after sterilization. It even succeeds in making use of subversive individuals: when dead, by doctoring their works; when alive, thanks to the general ideological confusion, by drugging them with one of the blind mystical beliefs in which it deals.
It so happens that one of the contradictions of the bourgeoisie in its stage of elimination is its respect for intellectual and artistic creation in principle, while at first opposing its creations and then making use of them. It needs to preserve the sense of critique and research among a minority, but only with the condition that this activity be directed toward strictly separated utilitarian disciplines, dismissing all comprehensive critique and research. In the cultural sphere, the bourgeoisie strives to divert the taste for the new, which has become dangerous for it, toward certain debased forms of novelty that are harmless and muddled. Through the commercial mechanisms that control cultural activity, avant-garde tendencies are cut off from the constituencies that might support them, constituencies that are already limited by the entirety of social conditions. People from these tendencies who have been noticed are generally admitted on an individual basis, at the price of a vital repudiation; the fundamental point of debate is always the renunciation of comprehensive demands and the acceptance of a fragmented work, open to multiple readings. This is what makes the very term avant-garde, which when all is said and done is wielded by the bourgeoisie, somewhat suspicious and ridiculous.
The very notion of a collective avant-garde, with the militant aspect that it entails, is a recent product of historical conditions that are leading simultaneously to the need for a consistent revolutionary cultural program, and to the need to struggle against the forces that are preventing the development of this program. Such groups are led to transpose a few of the organizational methods created by revolutionary politics into their sphere of activity, and in the future their actions will no longer be able to be conceived without a link to political critique. In this respect, there is a noticeable advance from futurism, dadaism, and surrealism to the movements formed after 1945. All the same, however, one discovers at each stage the same universal will for change, and the same quick breakup when the incapacity to change the real world profoundly enough leads to a defensive withdrawal into the very doctrinal positions whose inadequacy had just been revealed.
Futurism, whose influence was propagated from Italy in the period preceding the First World War, adopted a disruptive attitude toward literature and the arts, an attitude that did not fail to provide a large number of formal novelties but that was founded only on an exceedingly oversimplified use of the idea of technological progress. The childishness of the futurists’ technological optimism evaporated along with the period of bourgeois euphoria that sustained it. Italian futurism plummeted from nationalism to fascism without ever achieving a more complete theoretical vision of its time.
Dadaism, contrived in Zurich and New York by refugees and deserters of the First World War, wished to be the refusal of all the values of bourgeois society, whose bankruptcy had just become so glaringly evident. Its drastic expressions in postwar France and Germany focused mainly on the destruction of art and writing and, to a lesser extent, on certain forms of behavior (intentionally idiotic shows, speeches, walks). Its historical role was to have dealt a mortal blow to the traditional conception of culture. The almost immediate breakup of dadaism was necessitated by its wholly negative definition. However, it is certain that the dadaist spirit has determined a part of all the movements succeeding it; and that an aspect of negation, historically associated with dadaism, must end up in every subsequent constructive position as long as those positions manage to resist being swept up by the force of social conditions that would impose the mere repetition of crumbling superstructures, whose intellectual verdict has long since been declared.
The creators of surrealism, who had participated in the dada movement in France, did their best to define the grounds for a constructive action starting from dada’s emphasis on moral revolt and the extreme erosion of traditional means of communication. Arising from a poetic application of Freudian psychology, surrealism extended the methods it had discovered to painting, to film, and to some aspects of everyday life—and then, in a diffuse form, it extended them much further. Indeed, for an enterprise of this nature, it is not a question of being absolutely or relatively right, but of succeeding in catalyzing for a certain time the desires of an era. Surrealism’s period of progress, marked by the liquidation of idealism and a momentary rallying to dialectical materialism, ceased soon after 1930, but its decay only became manifest at the end of the Second World War. Since that time, surrealism had spread to a rather large number of countries. It had, moreover, inaugurated a discipline whose severity must not be overestimated, moderated as it often was by commercial considerations, but which nevertheless remained an effective means of struggle against the confusionist mechanisms of the bourgeoisie.
The surrealist program, asserting the sovereignty of desire and surprise, offering a new practice of life, is much richer in constructive possibilities than is generally thought. Certainly, the lack of material means of realization seriously limited the scope of surrealism. But the spiritualistic outcome of its first agitators, and above all the mediocrity of its epigones, oblige us to search for the negation of the development of surrealist theory in its very origin.
The error that is at the root of surrealism is the idea of the infinite wealth of the unconscious imagination. The reason for the ideological failure of surrealism was its having wagered that the unconscious was the long-sought chief power of life. It was its having consequently revised the history of ideas, and its having stopped there. We now know that the unconscious imagination is poor, that automatic writing is monotonous, and that the whole genre of the “unusual,” which the changeless surrealist trend ostentatiously parades, is extremely unsurprising. Strict fidelity to this style of imagination ends by reducing itself to the very opposite of the modern conditions of the imaginary, that is, to traditional occultism. The extent to which surrealism has remained dependent upon its hypothesis regarding the unconscious can be measured in the work of theoretical investigation attempted by the second-generation surrealists: Calas and Mabille link everything to the two successive viewpoints of the surrealist experience of the unconscious—the first to psychoanalysis, the second to cosmic in- fluences. As a matter of fact, the discovery of the role of the unconscious had been a surprise, an innovation, and not the law of future surprises and innovations. Freud had also ended by discovering this as well when he wrote, “Everything conscious wears out. What is unconscious remains unvarying. But once it is set loose, does it not fall into ruins in its turn?”
Resisting an apparently irrational society in which the rupture between reality and still loudly proclaimed values was carried to ridiculous lengths, surrealism made use of the irrational to destroy that society’s superficially logical values. The very success of surrealism played a big part in the fact that the former’s ideology, in its most modern aspect, has renounced a strict hierarchy of artificial values, but makes open use, in its turn, of the irrational and of surrealist survivals at the same opportunity. The bourgeoisie must above all avert a new departure of revolutionary thought. It was conscious of the threatening nature of surrealism. It enjoys certifying, now that it has been able to disperse it into standard aesthetic commerce, that surrealism reached the furthest point of disorder. It thus cultivates a manner of nostalgia for surrealism, at the same time that it disparages all new enquiry by automatically reducing it to surrealist déjà- vu, i.e., to a failure that for it can no longer be questioned by anyone. Rejection of the alienation of the society of Christian morality led a few men to a respect for the fully irrational alienation of primitive societies; that’s all. It is necessary to go further and rationalize the world more, the first condition for making it exciting.
excerpt from the book: Guy Debord and Situationist International
It is true that this return to the old human house is perhaps the most upsetting moment of a life devoted to the succession of disappointing illusions. As a strange step draws nearer to it, the old house of myth appears no less deserted than the "picturesque" rubble of temples. For the representation of the myth that expresses the totality of existence is not the result of any current experience. The past alone, or the civilizations of "backward" peoples, have made possible the knowledge but not the possession of a world that seems henceforth inaccessible. It is possible that total existence is nothing more for us than a simple dream, nourished by historical descriptions and by the secret gleams of our passions. Contemporary men can master only a heap that represents the debris of existence. This recognized truth, however, quickly appears at the mercy of the lucidity controlled by the need to live. At the very least a first experience should be followed by failure before the denier acquires the right to sleep guaranteed by his denial. The methodical description of the experience to be attempted indicates, moreover, that it only demands attainable conditions, The "sorcerer's apprentice," first of all, does not encounter demands that are any different from those he would encounter on the difficult road of art. Inconsequential fictional figures are no less exclusive of determined intention than are arid mythical figures. The requirements of mythological invention are only more rigorous. They do not refer-as a rudimentary conception would have it-to obscure faculties of collective invention. But they would refuse to see any value in figures whose share of willed arrangement has not been set apart with the rigor proper to sacred feeling. From beginning to end, moreover, the "sorcerer's apprentice" must accustom himself to this rigor (supposing that it does not respond to his most intimate command). Secrecy, in the domain where he advances, is no less necessary to his strange procedures than it is to the transports of eroticism (the total world of myth, the world of being, is separated from the dissociated world by the very limits that separate the sacred from the profane). The "secret society" is precisely the name of the social reality constituted by these procedures. But this novelistic expression must not be understood, as it usually is, in the vulgar sense of a "spy ring." For secrecy has to do with the constitutive reality of seductive existence, and not with some action contrary to the security of the State. Myth is born in ritual acts hidden from the static vulgarity of disintegrated society, but the violent dynamism that belongs to it has no other object than the return to lost totality; even if it is true that the repercussions are decisive and transform the world (whereas the action of parties is lost in the quicksand of contradictory words), its political repercussion can only be the result of existence. The obscurity of such projects only expresses the disconcerting reorientation necessary at the paradoxical moment of despair.
excerpt from the book: Visions of Excess by Georges Bataille
by J.G. Ballard
Soon after two o'clock in the afternoon four days later, Richard Wilder returned from his television station and drove into the parking-lot beside the high-rise. Reducing speed so that he could relish to the full this moment of arrival, he sat back comfortably behind the wheel and looked up with a confident eye at the face of the apartment building. Around him the long ranks of parked cars were covered with a thickening layer of dirt and cement dust, blown across the open plazas of the development project from the road junction under construction behind the medical centre. Few cars now left the parking-lot, and there were almost no free spaces, but Wilder drove up and down the access lanes, stopping at the end of each file and reversing back to his starting point.
Wilder fingered the freshly healed scar on his unshaven chin, relic of a vigorous corridor battle the previous night. Deliberately he reopened the wound, and glanced with satisfaction at the point of blood on his finger. He had driven from the television station at speed, as if trying to emerge from an angry dream, shouting and sounding the horn at other drivers in his way, cutting up one-way streets. Now he felt calm and relaxed. The first sight of the line of five apartment buildings soothed him as usual, providing a context of reality absent from the studios.
Confident that he would find a free space, Wilder continued his patrol. Originally he had parked, along with his neighbours on the lower floors, in the ranks along the perimeter of the parking-lot, but during the previous weeks he had been moving his car nearer to the building. What had begun as a harmless piece of vanity-an ironic joke at his own expense-had soon taken on a more serious role, a visible index of his success or failure. After several weeks dedicated to his ascent of the building he felt entitled to park in those files reserved for his new neighbours. Ultimately he would reach the front rank. At the moment of his triumph, when he climbed to the 40th floor, his car would join the line of expensive wrecks nearest to the apartment block.
For several hours the previous night Wilder had reached the 20th floor and even, during the few minutes of an unexpected skirmish, the 25th. By dawn he had been forced to retire from this advance position to his present base camp, an apartment on the 17th floor owned by a stage manager at the television station, a former drinking companion named Hillman who had grudgingly accepted this cuckoo in his nest. The occupation of a floor, in Wilder's strict sense of the term, meant more than the casual seizure of an abandoned apartment. Dozens of these were scattered throughout the high-rise. Wilder had imposed on himself a harder definition of ascent-he had to be accepted by his new neighbours as one of them, the holder of a tenancy won by something other than physical force. In short, he insisted that they need him-when he thought about it, a notion that made him snort.
He had reached the 20th floor as a result of one of the many demographic freaks that had confused his progress through the building. During the running battles that had filled the night he found himself helping to barricade the damaged door of an apartment on the 20th floor owned by two women stock-market analysts. After trying to brain him with a champagne bottle as he pushed his head through the broken panel, they had welcomed Wilder's easy-going offer to help-he deliberately was never more calm than at these moments of crisis. In fact, the older of the two, a spirited blonde of thirty, had complimented Wilder on being the only sane man she had met in the high-rise. For his part, Wilder was glad to play a domestic role rather than the populist leader and Bonaparte of the elevator-lobby barricades, instructing an ill-trained militia of magazine editors and finance company executives in how to storm a defended staircase or capture a rival elevator. Apart from anything else, the higher up the building he climbed, the worse the physical condition of the residents-hours on the gymnasium exercycles had equipped them for no more than hours on the gymnasium exercycles.
After helping the two women, he spent the period before dawn drinking their wine and manoeuvring them into making the suggestion that he move into their apartment. As usual, he gestured grandly with his cine-camera and told them about his television documentary on the high-rise, inviting them to appear on screen. But neither was particularly impressed by the offer. Although the lower-level tenants were keen to take part in the programme and vent their grievances, the people living on the upper floors had appeared on television already, often more than once, as professional experts on various current-affairs programmes. "Television is for watching, Wilder," one of the women told him firmly, "for appearing ON".
Thirty feet away, as Wilder drove around the parking-lot, determined to find a rank in keeping with his new station, a bottle shattered across a car roof, vanishing in a brittle cloud-burst. The bottle had been dropped from a height, conceivably from the 40th floor. Wilder slowed his car almost to a halt, offering himself as a target. He half expected to see the white-jacketed figure of Anthony Royal standing in one of his messianic poses on the parapet of his penthouse, the white alsatian at his heels.
During the past days he had caught several glimpses of the architect, standing high above Wilder at the top of a staircase, disappearing in a commandeered elevator towards the fastnesses of the top floors. Without any doubt, he was deliberately exposing himself to Wilder, tempting him upwards. At times Royal seemed to be uncannily aware of the confused image of his natural father that hovered in the attics of Wilder's mind, glimpsed always in the high windows of his nursery. Had Royal set out to play this role, knowing that Wilder's confusions about his father would deflect his resolve to climb the building? Wilder drummed his heavy fists on the steering wheel. Each night he moved closer to Royal, a few steps nearer their ultimate confrontation.
Broken glass crackled under his tyres, as if unzipping the treads. Directly ahead of Wilder, in the front rank reserved for the top-floor residents, was a free space once occupied by the dead jeweller's car. Without hesitating, Wilder spun the wheel and steered into the open space.
"Not before time…"?
He sat back expansively, gazing with pleasure at the garbage-strewn wrecks on either side. The appearance of the space was a good omen. He took his time getting out of the car, and slammed the door aggressively. As he strode towards the entrance he felt like a well-to-do landowner who had just bought himself a mountain.
In the entrance lobby a group of down-at-heel 1st-floor residents watched Wilder stride past the elevators to the stairway. They were suspicious of his movements around the building, his changing allegiances. During the day Wilder spent a few hours with Helen and his sons in the and floor apartment, trying to rally his increasingly withdrawn wife. Sooner or later he would have to leave her for ever. In the evenings, when he renewed his ascent of the high-rise, she would come alive a little, perhaps even speak to him about his work at the television studios, referring to programmes on which he had worked years before. The previous night, as he prepared to leave, settling his sons and testing the locks on the doors, Helen had suddenly embraced him, as if wanting him to stay. The muscles of her thin face had moved through an irregular sequence of tremors, like tumblers trying to fall into place.
To Wilder's surprise, when he returned to the apartment he found Helen in a state of high excitement. He made his way around the garbage-sacks and barricades of broken furniture that blocked the corridor. Helen and a group of wives were celebrating a minor triumph. The tired women with their unruly children-the civil war within the high-rise had made them as combative as their parents-formed a wistful tenement tableau.
Two young women from the 7th floor, who had once worked as teachers in the junior school, had volunteered to reopen the classes. From their uneasy glances at the vigilante group of three fathers-a computer-time salesman, a sound man and a travel-agency courier-standing between them and the door Wilder guessed that they were the victims of a less than gentle abduction.
"I can barely believe it-I'll be free of the boys for an hour or two."
"Where are these classes being held?"
"Here-for thenext two mornings. It's the least I can do."
"But you won't be away from the boys at all. Well, anything's better than nothing/
Would she ever abandon the children? Wilder asked himself. It was all she thought about. As he played with his sons he seriously considered taking them with him on his climb. He watched Helen making a nervous effort to tidy the apartment. The living-room had been ransacked during a raid. While Helen and the boys sheltered in a neighbour's apartment, most of the furniture had been broken, the kitchen kicked to a shambles. Helen carried the wrecked chairs from the dining-room, lining them up in front of Wilder's broken-backed desk. The tilting chairs leaned against each other in a scarecrow parody of a children's classroom.
Wilder made no effort to help. He watched her thin arms dragging at the furniture. At times he almost suspected that she was deliberately exhausting herself, and that the bruises on her wrists and knees were part of an elaborate system of conscious self-mutilation, an attempt to win back her husband-each day when he returned home he half expected to find her in an invalid chair, legs broken and trepan bandage around her shaven head, about to take the last desperate step of lobotomy.
Why did he keep coming back to her? His one ambition now was to get away from Helen, and overcome that need to return to the apartment each afternoon and whatever threadbare links it maintained with his own childhood. By leaving Helen he would break away from the whole system of juvenile restraints he had been trying to shake off since his adolescence. Even his compulsive womanizing was part of the same attempt to free himself from the past, an attempt that Helen brought to nothing by turning a blind eye. At least, however, his affairs had prepared the ground for his ascent of the high-rise, those literal handholds which would carry him on his climb to the roof over the supine bodies of the women he had known.
He found it difficult now to feel much involvement with his wife's plight, or with her neighbours and their narrow, defeated lives. Already it was clear that the lower floors were doomed. Even their insistence on educating their children, the last reflex of any exploited group before it sank into submission, marked the end of their resistance. Helen was even being helped now by the women's group from the 29th floor. During the noon armistice the chil-dren's-story writer and her minions moved through the apartment building, offering help to abandoned or isolated wives, sisters of sinister charity.
Wilder went into his sons' bedroom. Glad to see Wilder, they banged their empty feeding-bowls with their plastic machine-pistols. They were dressed in miniature paratroopers' camouflage suits and tin helmets-the wrong outfit, Wilder reflected, in the light of what had been taking place in the high-rise. The correct combat costume was stockbroker's pin-stripe, briefcase and homburg.
The boys were hungry. After calling to Helen he returned to the kitchen. Helen was slumped on her knees in front of the electric cooker. The door was open, and Wilder had the sudden notion that she was trying to hide her small body in the oven-perhaps cook herself, the ultimate sacrifice for her family.
"Helen…" He bent down, surprised by the slightness of her body, a collection of sticks inside her pallid skin. "For heaven's sake, you're like…"
"It's all right… I'll have something later." She pulled herself away from him, and began to pick without thinking at the burnt fat on the oven floor. Looking down at her huddled at his feet, Wilder realized that she had momentarily fainted from hunger.
Wilder let her subside against the cooker. He scanned the empty shelves of the pantry. "Stay here-I'll go up to the supermarket and get you something to eat." Angry with her, he snapped, "Why didn't you tell me you were starving yourself?
"Richard, I've mentioned it a hundred times."
She watched him from the floor as he hunted in her purse for money, something Wilder had found less and less use for recently. He had not even bothered to pay his latest salary cheque into his account. He picked up his cine-camera, making sure that the lens shroud was in place. As he looked back at Helen he noticed that her eyes were surprisingly hard within her small face, almost as if she was amused by her husband's dependence on the fictions of this elaborate toy.
Locking the apartment door behind him, Wilder set off in search of food and water. During the afternoon lull, one access route to the 10th-floor supermarket was still allowed the tenants in the lower section of the apartment building. Most of the stairways were blocked by permanent barricades-living-room furniture, dining-tables and washing-machines piled high between the steps and ceilings. More than a dozen of the twenty elevators were out of order. The remainder functioned intermittently, at the whim of any superior clan.
In the lobby Wilder peered cautiously up the empty shafts. Sections of metal railing and water pipes crisscrossed the shafts, inserted like stop indicators to prevent the cars moving up or down, and almost formed a staircase of their own.
The walls were covered with slogans and obscenities, lists of apartments to be vandalized like an insane directory. By the stairwell doors a military-style message in sober lettering pointed to the one safe staircase to be used during the early afternoon, and the obligatory curfew time, three o'clock.
Wilder raised his camera and stared at the message through the view-finder. The shot would make a striking opening title sequence for the documentary on the high-rise. He was still aware of the need to make a visual record of what had happened within the apartment building, but the resolve had begun to fade. The decline of the apartment building reminded him of a slow-motion newsreel of a town in the Andes being carried down the mountain slopes to its death, the inhabitants still hanging out their washing in the disintegrating gardens, cooking in their kitchens as the walls were pulverized around them.
Twenty of the floors in the high-rise were now in darkness at night, and over a hundred apartments had been abandoned by their owners. The clan system, which had once given a measure of security to the residents, had now largely broken down, individual groups drifting into apathy or paranoia. Everywhere people were retreating into their apartments, even into one room, and barricading themselves away. At the 5th floor landing Wilder paused, surprised that there was no one around. He waited by the lobby doors, listening for any suspicious sound. The tall figure of a middle-aged sociologist, garbage-pail in hand, emerged from the shadows and drifted like a ghost along the refuse-strewn corridor.
For all the building's derelict state-almost no water was flowing, the air-conditioning vents were blocked with garbage and excrement, rails ripped off the staircase balustrades-the behaviour of the residents during the daylight hours for the most part remained restrained. At the 7th-floor landing Wilder stopped and relieved himself against the steps. In a way he was surprised by the sight of the urine running away between his feet. However, this was the mildest display of crudity. During the brawls and running battles of the night he was aware that he took a distinct and unguilty pleasure in urinating wherever he cared, defaecating in abandoned apartments regardless of the health hazards to himself and his family. The previous night he had enjoyed pushing around a terrified woman who remonstrated with him for relieving himself on her bathroom floor.
Nonetheless, Wilder welcomed and understood the night-only in the darkness could one become sufficiently obsessive, deliberately play on all one's repressed instincts. He welcomed this forced conscription of the deviant strains in his character. Happily, this free and degenerate behaviour became easier the higher he moved up the building, as if encouraged by the secret logic of the high-rise.
The 10th-floor concourse was deserted. Wilder pushed back the staircase doors with their shattered glass and walked out on to the shopping mall. The bank had closed, along with the hairdressing salon and the liquor store. The last supermarket cashier-the wife of a cameraman on the 3rd floor-sat stoically at her check-out point, presiding like a doomed Britannia over a sea of debris. Wilder strolled around the empty shelves. Rotting packs floated in the greasy water at the bottom of the freezer cabinets. In the centre of the supermarket a pyramid of dog-biscuit cartons had collapsed across the aisle.
Wilder filled a basket with three of the cartons and half a dozen cans of cat-meat. Together they would keep Helen and the boys alive until he could break into an apartment and raid a food cache.
"There's nothing here but pet food," he told the cashier at the check-out. "Have you stopped ordering?"
"There's no demand," she told him. She played absent-mindedly with an open wound on her forehead. "Everyone must have stocked up months ago."
This was not true, Wilder reflected as he walked away towards the elevator lobby, leaving her alone on the huge concourse. As he knew full well, having broken into any number of apartments, few people had any reserve supplies whatever. It was as if they were no longer giving any thought to what they might need the next day.
Fifty feet away, beyond the overturned hair-driers lying outside the salon, the elevator indicator lights moved from right to left. The last public elevator of the day was winding itself up the building. Somewhere between the 25th and 30th floors it would be brought to a halt at the whim of a look-out, marking the end of the mid-day armistice and the beginnings of another night.
Without thinking, Wilder quickened his pace. He reached the doors as the elevator paused at the 9th floor to discharge a passenger. At the last moment, as it resumed its ascent, Wilder pressed the button.
In the few seconds that remained before the doors opened he realized that he had already decided to abandon Helen and his sons for good. Only one direction lay before him-up. Like a climber resting a hundred feet from the summit, he had no option but to ascend.
The elevator doors opened. Some fifteen passengers faced him, standing rigidly together like plastic mannequins. There was a fractional movement of feet as a space was made for Wilder.
Wilder hesitated, controlling his impulse to turn and run down the staircase to his apartment. The eyes of the passengers were fixed on him, wary of his indecision and suspecting that it might conceal a ruse of some kind.
As the doors began to close Wilder stepped forward into the elevator, the cine-camera raised in front of him, and began once again his ascent of the high-rise.
excerpt from the book: High Rise by J.G. Ballard
by Jose Rosales
Could she be a member of the black bloc?
In the 1 July copy of the German newspaper Taz one finds the statements of two leftist organizations –Campact and Interventionistische Linke – each of which expresses their desire to be distanced from anything seen as ‘criminal’, and especially anything that can be associated with the black block. In the words of one Interventionistische Linke representative:
‘We want a colorful event. [But] Black is too colourful.’ A scene such as this seems to be something of a tradition within the German (reformist) left and rehearses a similar situation when, during the 1988 convention of the World Bank and IMF in Berlin, the Greens sought out discussions with world leaders while the Autonomen rejected any type of cooperation/reformism. Unlike today, one opens the September 1988 issue of Der Spiegel with a different tone being expressed regarding the arrival of world financial leaders to the capital: “While the Greens met to discuss alternatives to the existing world financial system…the Autonomen declined to cooperate with reformists vis-à-vis the IMF. Der Spiegel quoted one radical as saying: “A death machine can only be combated.” Just as it was the case for this ‘radical’ in 1988 so too is it the case for those of us in Hamburg. In light of all the media attention leading up to the G20 summit, all one can really gather from these reports is the anticipation of any agreement between the Merkel-Macron alliance and Trump, and the arrival of the ‘black block’ and their riots. However it must be said: against the temptation of treating riots as something that detracts from the legitimate form of peaceful protest, or as something doomed from the start due to a perceived limitation inherent to the riot-form, Hamburg should receive the G20 and its affiliates in nothing but riotous fashion. As Joshua Clover has helpfully shown in his study on the historical relation between the riot and the strike, riots are a mode of struggle that simultaneously address themselves to police, the state, and capital. That is to say, riots are not simply ephemeral and spontaneous expressions of discontent but are ‘a mode of survival that seeks to resolve the crisis of the reproduction of labor within the spheres of circulation and consumption.’ To détourn Stuart Hall’s formulation: riots are a mode through which class struggle is lived.
Regarding the police, however, riots respond to the reality of the function of policing understood as ensuring the security of an economic system that was born from, and needs to maintain, the subjugation of people of color, the poor, queers, women, migrants, and refugees. That is, the job of the police isn’t to ‘protect and serve’, or to help any citizen whatsoever when they are in danger, but rather, to secure, defend, and maintain lucrative economic conditions at the national level for value production, as well as enforcing the illegality of subsistence outside the legally acceptable market of waged-labour. Again, it is this defense of capital and criminalization of those who resist becoming part of surplus populations that is being encountered once more in Hamburg. And as if to corroborate this claim of the police’s inherent role in the protection of capital, Timo Zell, a spokesman for the Hamburg police helpfully puts to rest any remaining doubts: this year’s G20 will be “the biggest operation in the history of Hamburg’s police.” It is because riots are a form of struggle that is equally anti-state, anti-police, and anti-capitalist, that the particular combination of police and capital at this week’s G20 summit should be nothing short of a riotous affair.
So if riots should break out, don’t be fooled into thinking that these are the problematic ‘far left elements’ of this week of protests; that there has ever been such a thing as a ‘good’, as opposed to a ‘bad’, demonstrator. It is the State that divides the masses between the good-citizen and bad-criminal, especially since it is with these so-called ‘bad’ and ‘criminal’ elements that anti-police and anti-state struggles are most effective. And, in fact, there has never been such a thing as a good protester as opposed to a bad one, just as there has never been such a thing as a good cop as opposed to a bad cop: in the confrontation with 20 world leaders there are only those who are for and against the G20’s raison d’état (securing the existence and relative stability of global capital); there are only those who aim to preserve this world and those who want nothing short of bringing about its swift end. Even though it was the Invisible Committee who recognized the emerging consensus among various leftist currents regarding slogans such as ACAB or tactics such as riots, it is them who have also made recent attempts to reiterate the need for bringing about an end to this world with other slogans such as tout le monde déteste la police. While this slogan in English would read ‘everyone hates the police’, we find that a more literal translation is appropriate: the whole world hates the police.
The whole world hates the police because the police are the ones who, anywhere and everywhere, ensure the ‘stability of the global economy’, who call for ‘peaceful and reasonable protest’, and who even claim that hosting the G20 in a big city shows the world Germany’s celebration of liberal rights despite the fact that the police have built detention centers and prisons specifically for those arrested during the protests and at the camps. If police officers can prepare spaces of confinement for those who exercise their state sanctioned ‘rights’ (the right to voice dissent through public assembly being the most relevant liberty in question vis-à-vis Hamburg) it is only because the kind of society afforded by Capital and its nation-states is one where the State claims to act as the guarantor of a set of universal rights while simultaneously arresting its citizens when the exercise of these rights conflict with the interests of the State. Thus, what should be obvious by now is the fact that everyone on the streets of Hamburg are all potential criminals from the point of view of the police, the state, and of capital. It is for this reason that we should not be duped by a discourse on the ‘good’ as opposed to ‘bad’ elements of the demonstration, since everyone is potentially already one of the ‘bad ones.’ And what of the reports predicting the biggest black bloc in history? Surely those individuals who are only recognizable by their all black, masked up, attire would qualify as the rogue elements of civilized protest? For us, however, it would be better to ask the following: is there really such a thing as this so-called ‘black bloc’ that we hear of so often and have allegedly witnessed on our computer screens? We ask this for the simple reason that, to this day, we are not certain if we have ever seen a black bloc.
THE BLACK BLOC WILL NEVER HAVE BEEN IN HAMBURG
Already in 2007, the ready-made artist Claire Fontaine identified why we feel the need to inquire into the existence or non-existence of this thing called black bloc. As Fontaine writes, ‘the black bloc is you, when you stop believe in it.’ And what led Fontaine to draw such a conclusion about this thing we hear so often about are the very reasons that allow us to say, in good faith, that we haven’t seen a black bloc. For us as well as Fontaine, the black bloc is defined as ‘that which exists insofar as everyone stops believing in its existence’ because, today, it seems one can encounter the black bloc everywhere one goes. This includes everything from the evening news („4 February 2007, on the 8 o’clock news I see what appears to be a male figure…throwing stones in a night lit by flames. He is wearing a very elegant Dolce & Gabbana bomber-jacket with a big silver D&G on the back and an immaculate white ski-mask“) to mundane yet unexpected places such as the storefront signs at the Palais de Tokyo („While my eyes follow the footsteps of customers going to the Black Bloc boutique at the entrance to the Palais de Tokyo…Agamben’s words about the souls in Limbo automatically pops into my head: ‚like letters without addresses…they remained without destiny“).
While not in Hamburg, one can still find the black block at the Palais de Tokyo
In other words, the black bloc exists insofar as we understand that it is a word without image, a word that can be tied to any number of images and regardless of whether the images we associate with this term contradict the very things it comes to signify. If it is to be anything, the black bloc primarily exists as a word without image:
…giving a place like that a name that evokes transgression or even the destruction of merchandise, while here we are selling our merchandise at high prices and we’re loving it. Or maybe the black bloc sounded a bit like the opposite of the white cube, or the idea of a block bloc is suggestive, martial, what do I know?…It’s not just appearances one shouldn’t trust, one shouldn’t trust words either. Or more specifically, the link we imagine exists between words and images…For example, we believe we’ve found the illustration of this concept in photographs of marching people dressed in black, black bloc is a word with an image. The term black bloc alludes to a manifestation of desire for collective opacity, a will not to appear and to materialise affects that are increasingly hard to take. The black bloc is not a visual object, it’s an object of desire.
Thus, it is not a question of what black bloc really means, in essence or in the final analysis, and rather a question of subjective utterance: who is it that speaks about a so-called black bloc, and by doing so conjures up a correlating image to give meaning to their discourse? And for Fontaine, it is the State that has a vested interest in constructing a discourse that connects word with image; a discourse that thereby ensures that when we speak of the black blocs we are speaking of a particular image of existence:
Instead let’s ask what ‚this is the black bloc‘ means? Who says that? Wouldn’t that be a definition like an imaged filmed from a window, like the one from the 8 o’clock news…a definition shot from above, taken from the viewpoint of a watchtower, from some panopticon? What we are describing is always a block of ant-men, cockroach-men, a black block, which is black like the earth because it is seen from afar. But the carabinieri, they are also a black bloc. Baudelaire said that his contemporaries dressed in dark clothes that no painter enjoyed depicting, were an army of undertakers, that they were all celebrating some funeral. Enamoured undertakers, revolutionary undertakers.
Just as we shouldn’t be fooled by the State’s discourse on ‘riots’ and its participants from the ‘hardcore fringe of the left’, we shouldn’t be duped into the State’s paranoia surrounding the arrival of the black bloc as well; especially since it is the State that has constructed what this term has come to be known as in the popular imagination. That is, the ‘black bloc’ that we have come to know through news reports and media outlets are the images of window smashers characterized as rogue individuals acting opportunistically in the midst of the majority of good, peaceful, law abiding citizens. And, according to the State, it is these individuals that come to stand in for what it once meant to dress in all black. If this is so, then what it means to dress in all black, to wear masks, to de-arrest friends and fight to ensure their safety, what it means to engage in our mutual defense and a collective attack against the various ways this world does violence to us, this too, means that these modes of composition are not the black bloc. It means that this thing we do with each other in the night where all demonstrators look alike isn’t and in fact never was the black bloc. Today, then, it would be better to say that the ones who arrive in Hamburg dressed in all black, who take to the streets to protect their friends and comrades, that they too are not the black bloc. And if these actions and images are not the black bloc, then, we would do well to recognize the fact that, perhaps, the black bloc will never have been in Hamburg at all. So, the next time you read some article about the black bloc at this years G20, or when you overhear some strangers talking about masked up hooligans destroying the city, or when you see images taken by helicopter of far away bodies shown to be causing chaos in the streets, remember that you are hearing about something other than what dressing in all black actually meant; and particularly what it meant not for the ‘black bloc’ but for what, at one time, went by another name:
On the other hand, schwarze Block means something, it roots us in a history of resistance bound with the two 20th century Germany’s […] I could tell you that schwarze Block was a tactical form, that it was a means of preventing the police from identifying and isolation who committed what gesture during a riot. I could tell you that dressing in black meant: we are all comrades, we are all in solidarity, we are all alike, and this equality liberates us from the responsibility of accepting a fault we do not deserve; the fault of being poor in a capitalist country, the fault of being anti-fascist in the fatherland of Nazism, the fault of being libertarian in a repressive country. That it meant: nobody deserves to be punished for these reasons, and since you are attacking us we are forced to protect ourselves from violence when we march in the streets. Because war, capitalism, labour regulations, prisons, psychiatric hospitals, those things are not violent, however you see those of us who want to freely live our homosexuality, the refusal to found a family, collective life and abolition of property as the violent ones. So, if you want to arrest me instead of my comrade just because we are wearing the same clothing, go ahead, I accept that, I don’t deserve to be punished because he doesn’t deserve it either… I could go on like this, and even provide you with more specifics, by supplementing it with the history of demonstrations, of victories, with dates to back it all up and everything, like the time a band was playing around the rioters in the deserted streets, or the time when the police took off running… I could go on for pages and pages, but that’s not the issue here. All this isn’t the black bloc.
DURING the following days I hired a series of cars from the studio rental company, choosing every available variant of the automobile, from a heavy American convertible to a high-performance sports saloon and an Italian micro-car. What began as an ironic gesture intended to provoke Catherine and Renata - both women wanted me never to drive again - soon took on a different role. My first brief journey to the accident site had raised again the spectre of the dead man and, more important, the notion of my own death. In each of these cars I drove along the accident route, visualizing the possibility of a different death and victim, a different profile of wounds.
Despite the efforts made to clean these cars, the residues of the previous drivers clung to their interiors - the heelmarks on the rubber mats below the driving pedals; a dry cigarette stub, stained with an unfashionable lipstick shade, trapped by a piece of chewing gum in the roof of the ashtray; a complex of strange scratches, like the choreography of a frantic struggle, that covered a vinyl seat, as if two cripples had committed rape on each other. As I eased my feet on to the control pedals I was aware of all these drivers, of the volumes their bodies had occupied, their assignations, escapes, boredoms that preempted any response of my own. Aware of these overlays, I had to force myself to drive carefully, as I offered the possibilities of my own body to the projecting steering columns and windshield vizors.
At first I aimlessly followed the perimeter roads to the south of the airport, feeling out the unfamiliar controls among the water reservoirs of Stanwell. From here I moved around the eastern flank of the airport to the motorway interchanges at Harlington, where the rush-hour traffic leaving London swept me back in a huge tidal race of metal along the crowded lanes of Western Avenue. Invariably, at the hour of my accident, I found myself at the foot of the flyover, either wrenched past the collision site as the traffic jerked away towards the next traffic lights, or stalled in a massive jam ten insane feet from the precise impact point.
When I collected the American convertible, the rental company salesman remarked, 'We had a job cleaning it up, Mr Ballard. One of your TV companies was using it - camera clamps on the roof, all over the doors and bonnet.'
The notion that the car was still being used as part of an imaginary event occurred to me as I drove away from the garage in Shepperton. Like the other cars I had hired, this one was covered with scratches and heelmarks, cigarette burns and scuffings, translated through the glamorous dimension of Detroit design. On the pink vinyl seat was a deep tear large enough to take a flagstaff or, conceivably, a penis. Presumably these marks had been made within the context of imaginary dramas devised by the various companies using the car, by actors playing the roles of detectives and petty criminals, secret agents and absconding heiresses. The worn steering wheel carried in its cleats the grease of hundreds of hands held there in the positions dictated by the film director and the cameraman.
As I moved in the evening traffic along Western Avenue, I thought of being killed within this huge accumulation of fictions, finding my body marked with the imprint of a hundred television crime serials, the signatures of forgotten dramas which, years after being shelved in a network shake-up, would leave their last credit-lines in my skin.
Confused by these beckoning needs, I found myself in the wrong traffic lane at the junction with the motorway interchange. The heavy car, with its powerful engine and over-sensitive brakes, reminded me that I was being too ambitious in thinking that I could fit my own wounds and experience into its mastodonic contours. Deciding to hire a car of the same model as my own, I turned into the airport access road.
A massive traffic jam blocked the tunnel entrance, and I pulled across the oncoming lanes and drove into the airport plaza, a wide area of transit hotels and all-night supermarkets. As I drove out of the filling station nearest the tunnel slip-road I recognized the trio of airport whores strolling up and down a small traffic island.
Seeing my car, and presumably thinking that I was an American or German tourist, the eldest of the three women came across to me. They paced about on this traffic island in the evening, gazing at the speeding cars as if trying to pick up travellers waiting to cross the Styx. The three of them - a talkative brunette from Liverpool who had been everywhere and done everything under the sun; a timid and unintelligent blonde, whom Catherine clearly fancied from the way she often pointed her out to me; and an older, tired-faced woman with heavy breasts who had once worked as a filling-station attendant at a Western Avenue garage - seemed to form a basic sexual unit, able in one way or another to satisfy all comers.
I stopped by the traffic island. The older woman came forward as I nodded to her. She leaned against the offside door, her strong right arm pressing against the chromium window pillar. As she stepped into the car she signalled with her hands to her two companions, whose eyes were flicking like windshield wipers across the light-impacted glass of the passing cars.
I followed the traffic stream through the airport tunnel. The woman's hard body beside me in the rented American car, unknown star of so many second-rate television serials, made me suddenly aware of my aching knees and thighs. Despite its servo-brakes and power steering, the American car was exhausting to drive.
'Where are we going?' she asked as I left the tunnel and headed towards the terminal buildings.
'The multi-storey car-parks - the top decks are empty in the evening.'
A loose hierarchy of prostitutes occupied the airport and its suburbs - within the hotels, in discotheques where music was never played, conveniently sited near the bedrooms for the thousands of transit passengers who never left the airport; a second echelon working the terminal building concourses and restaurant mezzanines; and beyond these an army of freelances renting rooms on a daily basis in the apartment complexes along the motorway.
We reached the multi-storey car-park behind the airfreight building. I drove around the canted concrete floors of this oblique and ambiguous building and parked in an empty bay among the cars on the sloping roof. After tucking the banknotes away in her silver handbag, the woman lowered her preoccupied face across my lap, expertly releasing my zip with one hand. She began to work systematically at my penis with both mouth and hand, spreading her arms comfortably across my knees. I flinched from the pressure of her hard elbows.
'What's the matter with your legs - have you been in an accident?'
She made it sound like a sexual offence.
As she brought my penis to life I looked down at her strong back, at the junction between the contours of her shoulders demarked by the straps of her brassière and the elaborately decorated instrument panel of this American car, between her thick buttock in my left hand and the pastel-shaded binnacles of the clock and speedometer. Encouraged by these hooded dials, my left ringfinger moved towards her anus.
Horns sounded from the concourse below. A flashbulb flared over my shoulder, illuminating the startled face of this tired prostitute with her mouth around my penis, faded hair spilling through the chromium spokes of the steering wheel. Pushing her aside, I peered over the balcony. An airline coach had rammed the rear of a taxi parked outside the European Terminal. Two taxi-drivers and a man still carrying his plastic briefcase were lifting the injured driver from his cab. A huge traffic jam of buses and taxis blocked the concourse. Flashing its headlamps, a police car climbed on to the sidewalk and moved through the passengers and porters, knocking over a suitcase with its fender.
Distracted by a flicker of movement in the chromium windshield pillar, I looked to my right. Twenty feet away across the empty parking bays a man with a camera sat on the bonnet of a car parked against the concrete balcony. I recognized the tall man with the scarred forehead who had watched me near the accident site below the flyover, the doctor in the white coat at the hospital. He released the opaque bulb from the flashlight and kicked it away under the cars. As he pulled the film from the back of his polaroid camera he eyed me without any particular interest, as if well-used to seeing prostitutes and their customers on the roof of this multi-storey car-park.
'You can finish. That's all right.' The woman was now searching my groin again for an errant penis. I beckoned to her to sit up. When she had straightened her hair in the rear-view miffor she left the car without glancing at me and walked to the elevator shaft.
The tall man with the camera sauntered across the roof. I looked through the rear window of his car. The passenger seat was loaded with photographic equipment - cameras, a tripod, a carton packed with flashbulbs. A cine-camera was fastened to a dashboard clamp.
He walked back to his car, camera held like a weapon by its pistol grip. As he reached the balcony his face was lit by the headlamps of the police car. I realized that I had seen his pock-marked face many times before, projected from a dozen forgotten television programmes and news-magazine profiles - this was Vaughan, Dr Robert Vaughan, a one-time computer specialist. As one of the first of the new-style TV scientists, Vaughan had combined a high degree of personal glamour - heavy black hair over a scarred face, an American combat jacket - with an aggressive lecture-theatre manner and complete conviction in his subject matter, the application of computerized techniques to the control of all international traffic systems. In the first programmes of his series three years earlier Vaughan had projected a potent image, almost that of the scientist as hoodlum, driving about from laboratory to television centre on a high-powered motorcycle. Literate, ambitious and adept at self-publicity, he was saved from being no more than a pushy careerist with a Ph.D. by a strain of naive idealism, his strange vision of the automobile and its real role in our lives.
He stood by the balcony, looking down at the collision below. The headlamps illuminated the hard ridges of scar tissue above his eyebrows and mouth, the broken and re-set nose bridge. I remembered why Vaughan's career had come to an abrupt end - halfway through his television series he had been seriously injured in a motorcycle crash. All too clearly his face and personality still carried the memory of that impact, some terrifying collision on a motorway in the North when his legs had been broken by the rear wheels of a truck. His features looked as if they had been displaced laterally, reassembled after the crash from a collection of faded publicity photographs. The scars on his mouth and forehead, the self-cut hair and two missing upper canine gave him a neglected and hostile appearance. The bony knuckles of his wrists projected like manacles from the frayed cuffs of his leather jacket.
He stepped into his car. This was a ten-year-old model of a Lincoln Continental, the same make of vehicle as the open limousine in which President Kennedy had died. I remembered that one of Vaughan's obsessions had been Kennedy's assassination.
He reversed past me, the left fender of the Lincoln brushing against my knee. I crossed the roof as he swept away down the ramp. This first meeting with Vaughan remained vividly in my mind. I knew that his motives for following me had nothing to do with revenge or blackmail.
excerpt from the book: Crash by J.G.Ballard
by Mark Fisher
What is the eerie, exactly? And why is it important to think about it? As with the weird, the eerie is worth reckoning with in its own right as a particular kind of aesthetic experience. Although this experience is certainly triggered by particular cultural forms, it does not originate in them. You could say rather that certain tales, certain novels, certain films, evoke the feeling of the eerie, but this sensation is not a literary or a filmic invention. As with the weird, we can and often do encounter the sensation of the eerie “in the raw”, without the need for specific forms of cultural mediation. For instance, there is no doubt that the sensation of the eerie clings to certain kinds of physical spaces and landscapes.
The feeling of the eerie is very different from that of the weird. The simplest way to get to this difference is by thinking about the (highly metaphysically freighted) opposition — perhaps it is the most fundamental opposition of all — between presence and absence. As we have seen, the weird is constituted by a presence — the presence of that which does not belong. In some cases of the weird (those with which Lovecraft was obsessed) the weird is marked by an exorbitant presence, a teeming which exceeds our capacity to represent it. The eerie, by contrast, is constituted by a failure of absence or by a failure of presence. The sensation of the eerie occurs either when there is something present where there should be nothing, or is there is nothing present when there should be something.
We can grasp these two modes quickly by means of examples. The notion of an “eerie cry” — often cited in dictionary definitions of the eerie — is an example of the first mode of the eerie (the failure of absence). A bird’s cry is eerie if there is a feeling that there is something more in (or behind) the cry than a mere animal reflex or biological mechanism — that there is some kind of intent at work, a form of intent that we do not usually associate with a bird. Clearly, there is something in common between this and the feeling of “something which does not belong” that we have said constitutes the weird. But the eerie necessarily involves forms of speculation and suspense that are not an essential feature of the weird. Is there something anomalous about this bird’s cry? What exactly is strange about it? Is, perhaps, the bird possessed — and if it is, by what kind of entity? Such speculations are intrinsic to the eerie, and once the questions and enigmas are resolved, the eerie immediately dissipates. The eerie concerns the unknown; when knowledge is achieved, the eerie disappears. It must be stressed at this point that not all mysteries generate the eerie. There must be also be a sense of alterity, a feeling that the enigma might involve forms of knowledge, subjectivity and sensation that lie beyond common experience.
An example of the second mode of the eerie (the failure of presence) is the feeling of the eerie that pertains to ruins or to other abandoned structures. Post-apocalyptic science fiction, whilst not in itself necessarily an eerie genre, is nevertheless full of eerie scenes. Yet the sense of the eerie is limited in these cases, because we are an offered an explanation of why these cities have been depopulated. Compare this with the case of the abandoned ship the Marie Celeste. Because the mystery of the ship — what happened to the crew? What made them leave? Where did they go? — has never been resolved, nor is ever likely to be, the case of the Marie Celeste is saturated in a sense of the eerie. The enigma here, evidently, turns on two questions — what happened and why? But structures whose meaning and purpose we cannot parse pose a different kind of enigma. Faced with the stone circle at Stonehenge, or with the statues on Easter Island, we are confronted with a different set of questions. The problem here is not why the people who created these structures disappeared — there is no mystery here — but the nature of what disappeared. What kinds of being created these structures? How were they similar to us, and how were they different? What kind of symbolic order did these beings belong to, and what role did the monuments they constructed play in it? For the symbolic structures which made sense of the monuments have rotted away, and in a sense what we witness here is the unintelligibility and the inscrutability of the Real itself. Confronted with Easter Island or Stonehenge, it is hard not to speculate about what the relics of our culture will look like when the semiotic systems in which they are currently embedded have fallen away. We are compelled to imagine our own world as a set of eerie traces. Such speculations no doubt account for the eeriness that attaches to the justly famous final image of the original 1968 version of Planet of the Apes: the remains of the Statue of Liberty, which are as illegible from the perspective of the film’s postapocalyptic and indeed post-human far future as Stonehenge is to us now. The examples of Stonehenge and Easter Island make us realise that there is an irreducibly eerie dimension to certain archaeological and historical practices. Particularly when dealing with the remote past, archaeologists and historians form hypotheses, but the culture to which they refer and which would vindicate their speculations can never (again) be present.
Behind all of the manifestations of the eerie, the central enigma at its core is the problem of agency. In the case of the failure of absence, the question concerns the existence of agency as such. Is there a deliberative agent here at all? Are we being watched by an entity that has not yet revealed itself? In the case of the failure of presence, the question concerns the particular nature of the agent at work. We know that Stonehenge has been erected, so the questions of whether there was an agent behind its construction or not does not arise; what we have to reckon with are the traces of a departed agent whose purposes are unknown.
We are now in a position to answer the question of why it is important to think about the eerie. Since the eerie turns crucially on the problem of agency, it is about the forces that govern our lives and the world. It should be especially clear to those of us in a globally tele-connected capitalist world that those forces are not fully available to our sensory apprehension. A force like capital does not exist in any substantial sense, yet it is capable of producing practically any kind of effect. At another level, had not Freud long ago shown that the forces that govern our psyche can be conceived of as failures of presence — is not the unconscious itself not just such a failure of presence? — and failures of absence (the various drives or compulsions that intercede where our free will should be)?
excerpt from the book: The Weird And The Eerie by MARK FISHER
All day Richard Wilder had been preparing for his ascent. After the noise-filled night, which he had spent calming his sons and giggling wife, Wilder left for the television studios. Once there, he cancelled his appointments and told his secretary that he would be away for the next few days. While he spoke, Wilder was barely aware of this puzzled young woman or his curious colleagues in the nearby offices-he had shaved only the left side of his face, and had not changed his clothes since the previous day. Tired out, he briefly fell asleep at his desk, watched by his secretary as he slumped snoring across his unread correspondence. After no more than an hour at the studios, he packed his briefcase and returned to the high-rise.
For Wilder, this brief period away from the apartment building was almost dreamlike in its unreality. He left his car in the parking-lot without locking it and walked towards the entrance, a growing sense of relief coming over him. Even the debris scattered at the foot of the building, the empty bottles and garbage-stained cars with their broken windscreens, in a strange way merely reinforced his conviction that the only real events in his life were those taking place within the high-rise.
Although it was after eleven o'clock, Helen and the children were still asleep. A film of white dust covered the furniture in the lounge and bedrooms, as if he had returned to the apartment and its three sleepers after an immense period of time had condensed around them like a stone frost. Wilder had blocked the air-conditioning vents during the night, and the apartment was without sound or movement. Wilder looked down at his wife, lying on the bed surrounded by the children's books she was reviewing. Aware that he would be leaving her in a few hours, he regretted that she was too weak to come with him. They might have climbed the high-rise together.
Trying to think more clearly about his ascent, Wilder began to clean the apartment. He stepped out on to the balcony and swept up the cigarette butts and broken glass, condoms and torn newspapers thrown down from the floors above. He could no longer remember when he had made his decision to climb the building, and had little idea of what exactly he would do when he finally got there. He was also well aware of the disparity between the simple business of climbing to the roof-a matter of pressing an elevator button-and the mythologized version of this ascent that had taken over his mind.
This same surrender to a logic more powerful than reason was evident in the behaviour of Wilder's neighbours. In the elevator lobby he listened to the latest rumours. Earlier that morning there had been a serious brawl between the 9th- and llth-floor tenants. The 10th-floor concourse was now a no-man's land between two warring factions, the residents of the lower nine floors and those in the middle section of the building. Despite the harassment and increasing violence, no one was surprised by these events. The routines of daily life within the high-rise, the visits to the supermarket, liquor store and hair-dressing salon continued as before. In some way the high-rise was able to accommodate this double logic. Even the tone of voice of his neighbours as they described these outbreaks of hostility was calm and matter-of-fact, like that of civilians in a war-torn city dealing with yet another air-raid. For the first time it occurred to Wilder that the residents enjoyed this breakdown of its services, and the growing confrontation between themselves. All this brought them together, and ended the frigid isolation of the previous months.
During the afternoon Wilder played with his sons and waited for the evening to come. Helen moved silently around the apartment, barely aware of her husband. After the fit of compulsive laughter the previous evening, her face was waxy and expressionless. Now and then a tic flickered in the right apex of her mouth, as if reflecting a tremor deep within her mind. She sat at the dining-table, mechanically straightening the boys' hair. Watching her, and unable to think of what he could do to help her, Wilder almost believed that it was she who was leaving him, rather than the contrary.
As the light began to fade, Wilder watched the first of the residents return from their offices. Among them, stepping from her car, was Jane Sheridan. Six months earlier, Wilder had broken off a brief affair with the actress, ironically enough because of the effort involved in reaching the 37th floor. He had found it difficult to be himself in her apartment. All the time he was conscious of the distance to the ground, and of his wife and children far below him, deep in the lowest seams of the building like the exploited women and child labourers of the nineteenth century. Watching television during their sexual acts in her chintz-lined bedroom, he felt as if he were high over the city in a lavish executive airliner fitted with boudoir and cocktail bar. Their conversations, even their diction and vocabulary, had become as stylized as those of strangers in adjacent aircraft seats.
The actress walked to the private entrance of the upper-floor elevator lobby, picking her way casually through the broken bottles and empty cans. A single journey to her apartment would carry him, like a ladder in a board game, virtually to the top of the high-rise with one throw of the dice.
Helen was putting the boys to bed. She had moved the wardrobe and dressing-table around their beds, in an attempt to shield them from the noise and disturbances which the night would bring.
"Richard…? Are you going…?"
As she spoke she emerged briefly from the deep well inside herself, aware for these few seconds that she and her sons were about to be left on their own.
Wilder waited for this moment of lucidity to pass, knowing that it would be impossible to describe his self-imposed mission to Helen. She sat silently on her bed, a hand resting on the pile of children's books, watching him in the mirror with an unchanging expression as he stepped into the corridor.
Wilder soon found that it was more difficult than he had assumed to climb to the 37th floor. The five top-floor elevators were either out of order or had been taken to the upper levels and parked there with their doors jammed open.
The 2nd-floor lobby was crowded with Wilder's neighbours, some in office suits, others in beach wear, arguing with each other like disgruntled tourists caught by a currency crisis. Wilder pushed through them to the staircase, and began the long climb to the 10th floor, where he stood a better chance of finding an ascending elevator.
When he reached the 5th floor he met the dozen members of the airline pilots' raiding party returning from another of their abortive missions. Angry and shaken, they shouted at the people jeering down at them from the stairwell above. The entrance to the 10th-floor concourse had been blocked by desks and chairs taken from the junior school and flung down the stairs. The raiding party, made up of parents of the children attending the school, had tried to replace the desks, harassed by residents from the middle floors waiting impatiently for the liquor store to be re-stocked.
Wilder pressed on past them. By the time he reached the 10th floor the opposing group had moved off in a posse. Wilder stepped over the broken desks lying on the steps, pencils and crayons scattered around them. Wishing that he had brought his camera with him, he noticed two 18th-floor residents, a chemical engineer and a personnel manager, standing by the door. Each had a cine-camera and was carefully filming the scene below, following Wilder as he climbed towards them.
Leaving them to complete these dubious private news-reels, Wilder pushed back the swing doors, and looked out at the deck of the shopping mall. Hundreds of residents jostled against each other, pulling and shoving among the wine-bins and shelves of detergent packs, wire trollies locked together in a mesh of chromium wire. Voices rose in anger above the singing of the cash registers. Meanwhile, as these scuffles took place, a line of women customers sat under the driers in the hairdressing salon, calmly reading their magazines. The two cashiers on evening duty at the bank impassively counted out their bank-notes.
Giving up any attempt to cross the concourse, Wilder turned into the deserted swimming-pool. The water level was down by at least six inches, as if someone had been stealing the yellowing fluid. Wilder walked around the pool. An empty wine bottle floated in the centre, surrounded by a swill of cigarette packs and unravelling cigar butts. Below the diving-boards a newspaper hung slackly in the water, its wavering headline like a message from another world.
In the 10th-floor lobby a crowd of residents pressed impatiently against the elevator doors, their arms laden with liquor cartons and delicatessen purchases, raw materials for the aggressive parties of that evening. Wilder returned to the staircase. Somewhere above him these passengers would step out of their elevators and give him a chance to get aboard.
He climbed the steps two at a time. The staircase was deserted-the higher up the building the more reluctant were the residents to use the stairs, as if this in some way demeaned them. As he pressed on upwards Wilder peered through the windows at the car-park sinking from view below. The distant arm of the river stretched towards the darkening outline of the city, a signpost pointing towards a forgotten world.
As he turned into the final stretch of steps to the 14th floor, picking his way among the discarded cans and cigarette packs, something moved above his head. Wilder paused and looked up, his lungs pumping in the silence. A kitchen chair whirled through the air towards his head, hurled down by an assailant three floors above. Wilder flinched back as the steel chair struck the railing, glancing against his right arm before spinning away.
Wilder crouched against the steps, shielding himself below the overhang of the next floor. He massaged his bruised arm. At least three or four people were waiting for him, ostentatiously tapping their clubs on the metal railing. Fists clenching, Wilder searched the steps for a weapon. Danger in the streets of the sky-his first impulse was to rush the stairs and counter-attack. With his powerful physique he knew that he could put to flight any three residents of the high-rise, these under-exercised and overweight account executives and corporation lawyers egged on into this well-bred violence by their pushy wives. However, he calmed himself, deciding against a frontal attack-he would reach the top of the high-rise, but by guile rather than by brute force.
He moved down to the 13th-floor landing. Through the walls of the elevator shaft he could hear the rails and cables humming. Passengers were stepping out of the elevators on to their floors. But the doors into the 13th-floor lobby had been bolted. A face frowned out at him, a well-groomed hand curtly waved him away.
All the way down to the 10th floor the communicating doors had been locked or barricaded. Frustrated, Wilder returned to the shopping mall. A large crowd was still waiting by the elevators. They formed clearly demarked groups from different floors, each commandeering its own transit system.
Wilder left them and strode towards the supermarket. The shelves had been stripped, and the staff had left after locking the turnstiles. Wilder vaulted over a check-out counter and made his way to the store-room at the rear. Beyond the pyramids of empty cartons was one of the three service cores of the high-rise, containing a freight elevator, and the water, air-conditioning and electrical supply trunks.
Wilder waited as the elevator descended cumbrously down its shaft. The size of a carrier's aircraft lift, it had been designed to carry kitchen-appliance islands, bathroom units, and the huge pop-art and abstract-expressionist paintings favoured by the residents of the high-rise.
As he pulled back the steel grille he noticed a thin-shouldered young woman hiding behind the control panel. She was pallid and undernourished, but she watched Wilder with interest, as if glad to welcome him to this private domain.
"How far do you want to go?" she asked him. "We can travel anywhere. I'll ride with you."
Wilder recognized her as a masseuse from the 5th floor, one of the vagrants who spent their time wandering around the high-rise, the denizens of an interior world who formed a second invisible population. "All right-what about the 35th floor?"
"The people on the 30th are nicer." Expertly she pressed the control buttons, activating the heavy doors. Within seconds the elevator was carrying them ponderously aloft. The young masseuse smiled at him encouragingly, alive now that they were moving. "If you want to go higher, I'll show you. There are a lot of air-shafts, you know. The trouble is, dogs have got into them-they're getting hungry…"
An hour later, when Wilder stepped out into the lavishly carpeted lobby of the 37th floor, he realized that he had discovered a second building inside the one that he had originally occupied. He left behind the young masseuse, endlessly climbing the service shafts and freight wells of the high-rise, transits that externalized an odyssey taking place inside her head. During his roundabout route with her-changing to a second freight elevator to climb three floors to the 28th, moving up and down a maze of corridors on the borders of hostile enclaves, until finally taking an upper-level elevator a journey of one storey-Wilder had seen the way in which the middle and upper levels of the building had organized themselves.
While his neighbours on the lower floors remained a confused rabble united only by their sense of impotence, here everyone had joined a local group of thirty adjacent apartments, informal clans spanning two or three floors based on the architecture of corridors, lobbies and elevators. There were now some twenty of these groups, each of which had formed local alliances with those on either side. There was a marked increase in vigilante activity of all kinds. Barriers were being set up, fire-doors locked, garbage thrown down the stairwells or dumped on rival landings.
On the 29th floor Wilder came across a commune composed exclusively of women, a cluster of apartments dominated by an elderly children's-story writer, a woman of intimidating physique and personality. Sharing an apartment with her were three air-hostesses from the 1st floor. Wilder walked gingerly down the corridor between their apartments, glad of the company of the young masseuse. What unsettled Wilder, as the women questioned him in pairs from their half-open doors, was their hostility to him, not only because he was a man, but because he was so obviously trying to climb to a level above their own.
He stepped out with relief into the deserted lobby of the 37th floor. He stood by the staircase doors, suspicious that no one was guarding the lobby. Conceivably the residents here were unaware of what was going on beneath their feet. The carpets in the silent corridors were thick enough to insulate them from hell itself.
He walked down the corridor towards Jane Sheridan's apartment. She might be surprised to see him, but Wilder was confident that he would spend the night with her. The next day he would move in permanently, and visit Helen and the boys on his way to and from the television studios.
As he pressed the bell he could hear her strong, masculine voice through the door, its tone familiar from countless television costume-dramas. At last the door opened, held on its latch chain. When she looked out at Wilder, recognizing him immediately, he knew that she had been waiting for him to arrive. She was detached and uneasy at the same time, like a spectator forced to watch someone about to be involved in an accident. Wilder remembered that he had given his destination to one of the women's vigilante groups.
"Jane, you're expecting me. I'm flattered."
"Wilder… I can't-"
Before Wilder could speak the door of the next apartment opened sharply. Staring at Wilder with undisguised hostility were a tax specialist from the 40th floor and an over-muscled choreographer with whom Wilder had often heaved a medicine ball in the 10th-floor gymnasium.
Realizing that his arrival had been anticipated by all these people, Wilder turned to leave, but the corridor behind him was blocked. A group of six residents had emerged together from the elevator lobby. They wore track suits and white sneakers, and at first sight looked like a middle-aged gymnasium dumb-bell team, each carrying his polished wooden clubs. Leading this antique but spritely troupe, which consisted of a stockbroker, two paediatricians and three senior academics, was Anthony Royal. As usual he wore his white safari-jacket, a costume which always irritated Wilder, the kind of garment that might be affected by an eccentric camp-commander or zoo-keeper. The corridor lighting flushed his blond hair and picked out the scars on his forehead, a confusing notation that hung like a series of mocking question marks over his stern expression. As he approached Wilder the chromium walking-stick flicked in his hand like a cane. Wilder watched the polished shaft catch the light, looking forward with pleasure to wrapping it around Royal's neck.
Although well aware that he had been trapped, Wilder found himself laughing aloud at the sight of this lunatic troupe. When the lights failed, first dipping warningly and then going out altogether, he backed against the wall to allow the group to pass. The wooden clubs clicked around him in the darkness, beating out a well-rehearsed tattoo. From the open door of Jane Sheridan's apartment a torch flared at him.
Around Wilder the dumb-bell troupe was beginning its act. The first clubs whirled in the torch-light. Without any warning, he felt a flurry of blows on his shoulders. Before he fell Wilder seized one of the clubs, but the others struck him to the carpeted floor at Anthony Royal's feet.
When he woke he was lying outstretched on a sofa in the ground-floor entrance lobby. Fluorescent lights shone around him, reflected in the glass ceiling-panels. With their toneless glow they seemed to have been shining for ever somewhere inside his head. Two residents returning late to the high-rise waited by the elevators. Holding tightly to their briefcases, they ignored Wilder, whom they clearly assumed to be drunk.
Aware of his bruised shoulders, Wilder reached up and nursed the swollen mastoid bone behind his right ear. When he could stand, he wandered away from the sofa towards the entrance and steadied himself against the glass doors. The lines of parked cars stretched through the darkness, enough transport to evacuate him to a thousand and one destinations. He walked out into the cold night air. Holding his neck, he looked up at the face of the high-rise. He could almost pick out the lights of the 37th floor. He felt suddenly exhausted, as much by the building's weight and mass as by his own failure. His casual and unthought-out attempt to scale the building had ended humiliatingly. In a sense he had been rejected more by the high-rise than by Royal and his friends.
Lowering his eyes from the roof, he saw that his wife, fifty feet above him, was watching from the balcony of their apartment. Despite his dishevelled clothes and bruised face she showed no concern, as if she no longer recognized him.
excerpt from the book: High Rise by J.G.Ballard
by Mark Fisher
It is odd that it has taken me so long to really reckon with the weird and the eerie. For although the immediate origins of this book lay in fairly recent events, I have been fascinated and haunted by examples of the weird and the eerie for as long as I can remember. Yet I had not really identified the two modes, still less specified their defining features. No doubt this is partly because the major cultural examples of the weird and the eerie are to be found at the edges of genres such as horror and science fiction, and these genre associations have obscured what is specific to the weird and the eerie.
The weird came into focus for me around a decade ago, as the result of two symposia on the work of H.P. Lovecraft at Goldsmiths, University of London; while the eerie became the major subject of On Vanishing Land, the 2013 audio-essay I produced in collaboration with Justin Barton. Appropriately, the eerie crept up on Justin and me; it had not been our original focus, but by the end of the project we found that much of the music, film and fiction that had always haunted us possessed the quality of the eerie.
What the weird and the eerie have in common is a preoccupation with the strange. The strange — not the horrific. The allure that the weird and the eerie possess is not captured by the idea that we “enjoy what scares us”. It has, rather, to do with a fascination for the outside, for that which lies beyond standard perception, cognition and experience. This fascination usually involves a certain apprehension, perhaps even dread — but it would be wrong to say that the weird and the eerie are necessarily terrifying. I am not here claiming that the outside is always beneficent. There are more than enough terrors to be found there; but such terrors are not all there is to the outside.
Perhaps my delay in coming round to the weird and the eerie had to do with the spell cast by Freud’s concept of the unheimlich. As is well known, the unheimlich has been inadequately translated into English as the uncanny; the word which better captures Freud’s sense of the term is the “unhomely”. The unheimlich is often equated with the weird and the eerie — Freud’s own essay treats the terms as interchangeable. But the influence of Freud’s great essay has meant that the unheimlich has crowded out the other two modes.
The essay on the unheimlich has been highly influential on the study of horror and science fiction — perhaps, in the end, more because of Freud’s hesitations, conjectures and rejected theses than for the actual definition he provides. The examples of the unheimlich which Freud furnishes — doubles, mechanical entities that appear human, prostheses — call up a certain kind of disquiet. But Freud’s ultimate settling of the enigma of the unheimlich — his claim that it can be reduced to castration anxiety — is as disappointing as any mediocre genre detective’s rote solution to a mystery. What enduringly fascinates is the cluster of concepts that circulate in Freud’s essay, and the way in which they often recursively instantiate the very processes to which they refer. Repetition and doubling — themselves an uncanny pair which double and repeat each other — seem to be at the heart of every "uncanny" phenomena which Freud identifies.
There is certainly something that the weird, the eerie and the unheimlich share. They are all affects, but they are also modes: modes of film and fiction, modes of perception, ultimately, you might even say, modes of being. Even so, they are not quite genres.
Perhaps the most important difference between the unheimlich on the one hand and the weird and the eerie on the other is their treatment of the strange. Freud’s unheimlich is about the strange within the familiar, the strangely familiar, the familiar as strange — about the way in which the domestic world does not coincide with itself. All of the ambivalences of Freud’s psychoanalysis are caught up in this concept. Is it about making the familiar — and the familial — strange? Or is it about returning the strange to the familiar, the familial? Here we can appreciate the double move inherent to Freudian psychoanalysis: first of all, there is estrangement of many of the common notions about the family; but this is accompanied by a compensatory move, whereby the outside becomes legible in terms of a modernist family drama. Psychoanalysis itself is an unheimlich genre; it is haunted by an outside which it circles around but can never fully acknowledge or affirm. Many commentators have recognised that the essay on the unheimlich itself resembles a tale, with Freud in the role of the Jamesian unreliable narrator. If Freud is an unreliable narrator, why should we accept that his own tale should be classified in terms of the category that his essay proposes? What if, instead, the whole drama of the essay consisted in Freud’s attempts continually to contain the phenomena he explores within the remit of the unheimlich?
The folding of the weird and the eerie into the unheimlich is symptomatic of a secular retreat from the outside. The wider predilection for the unheimlich is commensurate with a compulsion towards a certain kind of critique, which operates by always processing the outside through the gaps and impasses of the inside. The weird and the eerie make the opposite move: they allow us to see the inside from the perspective of the outside. As we shall see, the weird is that which does not belong. The weird brings to the familiar something which ordinarily lies beyond it, and which cannot be reconciled with the “homely” (even as its negation). The form that is perhaps most appropriate to the weird is montage — the conjoining of two or more things which do not belong together. Hence the predilection within surrealism for the weird, which understood the unconscious as a montage-machine, a generator of weird juxtapositions. Hence also the reason that Jacques Lacan — rising to the challenge posed by surrealism and the rest of aesthetic modernism — could move towards a weird psychoanalysis, in which the death drive, dreams and the unconscious become untethered from any naturalisation or sense of homeliness.
At first glance, the eerie might seem to be closer to the unheimlich than to the weird. Yet, like the weird, the eerie is also fundamentally to do with the outside, and here we can understand the outside in a straightforwardly empirical as well as a more abstract transcendental sense. A sense of the eerie seldom clings to enclosed and inhabited domestic spaces; we find the eerie more readily in landscapes partially emptied of the human. What happened to produce these ruins, this disappearance? What kind of entity was involved? What kind of thing was it that emitted such an eerie cry? As we can see from these examples, the eerie is fundamentally tied up with questions of agency. What kind of agent is acting here? Is there an agent at all? These questions can be posed in a psychoanalytic register — if we are not who we think we are, what are we? — but they also apply to the forces governing capitalist society. Capital is at every level an eerie entity: conjured out of nothing, capital nevertheless exerts more influence than any allegedly substantial entity.
The metaphysical scandal of capital brings us to the broader question of the agency of the immaterial and the inanimate: the agency of minerals and landscape for authors like Nigel Kneale and Alan Garner, and the way that “we” “ourselves” are caught up in the rhythms, pulsions and patternings of non-human forces. There is no inside except as a folding of the outside; the mirror cracks, I am an other, and I always was. The shudder here is the shudder of the eerie, not of the unheimlich.
One extraordinary example of the displacement of the unheimlich by the eerie is D.M. Thomas’ novel The White Hotel. The novel first of all seems to be about a simulated case study of a fictional patient of Freud’s, “Anna G”. The poem by Anna G which begins the novel seems at first sight to be saturated with erotic hysteria, as Thomas’ Freud proposes in the Case History which he writes. Freud’s reading threatens to dissipate the oneiric atmosphere of Anna G’s poem, and also establish to a direction of explanation: from the present to the past, from the outside to the inside. Yet it turns out that the seeming eroticism is itself an obfuscation and a deflection from the poem’s most intense referent, which is to be found not in Anna G’s past, but in her future — her death at the massacre at Babi Yar in 1941. The problems of foresight and fate here bring us to the eerie in a disturbing form. Yet fate might be said to belong to the weird as well as the eerie. The soothsaying witches in Macbeth, after all, are known as the Weird Sisters, and one of the archaic meanings of “weird” is “fate”. The concept of fate is weird in that it implies twisted forms of time and causality that are alien to ordinary perception, but it is also eerie in that it raises questions about agency: who or what is the entity that has woven fate?
The eerie concerns the most fundamental metaphysical questions one could pose, questions to do with existence and non-existence: Why is there something here when there should be nothing? Why is there nothing here when there should be something? The unseeing eyes of the dead; the bewildered eyes of an amnesiac — these provoke a sense of the eerie, just as surely as an abandoned village or a stone circle do.
So far, we are still left with the impression that the weird and the eerie have primarily to do with what is distressing or terrifying. So let us end these preliminary remarks by pointing to examples of the weird and the eerie that produce a different set of affects. Modernist and experimental work often strikes us as weird when we first encounter it. The sense of wrongness associated with the weird — the conviction that this does not belong — is often a sign that we are in the presence of the new. The weird here is a signal that the concepts and frameworks which we have previously employed are now obsolete. If the encounter with the strange here is not straightforwardly pleasurable (the pleasurable would always refer to previous forms of satisfaction), it is not simply unpleasant either: there is an enjoyment in seeing the familiar and the conventional becoming outmoded — an enjoyment which, in its mixture of pleasure and pain, has something in common with what Lacan called jouissance.
The eerie also entails a disengagement from our current attachments. But, with the eerie, this disengagement does not usually have the quality of shock that is typically a feature of the weird. The serenity that is often associated with the eerie — think of the phrase eerie calm — has to do with detachment from the urgencies of the everyday. The perspective of the eerie can give us access to the forces which govern mundane reality but which are ordinarily obscured, just as it can give us access to spaces beyond mundane reality altogether. It is this release from the mundane, this escape from the confines of what is ordinarily taken for reality, which goes some way to account for the peculiar appeal that the eerie possesses.
Introduction from the book: The Weird And The Eerie by MARK FISHER
by J.G. Ballard
Whatever plans he might devise for his ascent, whatever route to the summit, it was soon obvious to Wilder that at its present rate of erosion little of the high-rise would be left. Almost everything possible was going wrong with the services. He helped Helen straighten the apartment, and tried to jerk some sense of vitality into his dormant family by drawing the blinds and moving noisily around the rooms.
Wilder found it difficult to revive them. At five-minute intervals the air-conditioning ceased to work, and in the warm summer weather the apartment was heavy with stagnant air. Wilder noticed that he had already begun to accept the foetid atmosphere as normal. Helen told him that she had heard a rumour from the other residents that dog excrement had been deliberately dropped into the air-conditioning flues by the upper-level tenants. Strong winds circulated around the open plazas of the development project, buffeting the lower floors of the apartment building as they swirled through the concrete legs. Wilder opened the windows, hoping for some fresh air, but the apartment soon filled with dust and powdered cement. The ashy film already covered the tops of cupboards and bookshelves.
By the late afternoon the residents began to return from their offices. The elevators were noisy and overcrowded. Three of them were now out of order, and the remainder were jammed with impatient tenants trying to reach their floors. From the open door of his apartment Wilder watched his neighbours jostle each other aggressively like bad-tempered miners emerging from their pit-cages. They strode past him, briefcases and handbags wielded like the instruments of an over-nervous body armour.
On an impulse Wilder decided to test his rights of free passage around the building, and his access to all its services, particularly the swimming-pool on the 35th floor and the children's sculpture-garden on the observation roof. Taking his camera, he set out for the roof with the older of his two sons. However, he soon found that the high-speed elevators were either out of order, under repair, or kept permanently at the top floors with their doors jammed open. The only access to them was through the private outside entrance to which Wilder did not have a key.
All the more determined now to reach the roof, Wilder waited for one of the intermediate elevators which would carry them as far as the 35th floor. When it arrived he pushed his way into the crowded cabin, surrounded by passengers who stared down at Wilder's six-year-old son with unfeigned hostility. At the 23rd floor the elevator refused to move any further. The passengers scrummaged their way out, drumming their briefcases against the closed doors of the elevators in what seemed to be a ritual display of temper.
Wilder set off up the stairs, carrying his small son in his arms. With his powerful physique, he was strong enough to climb all the way to the roof. Two floors above, however, the staircase was blocked by a group of local residents-among them the offensive young orthodontic surgeon who was Robert Laing's neighbour-trying to free a garbage-disposal chute. Suspicious that they might be tampering with the air-conditioning ducts, Wilder pushed through them, but was briskly shouldered aside by a man he recognized as a newsreader for a rival television company.
"This staircase is closed, Wilder! Can't you get the point?"
"What?" Wilder was amazed by this effrontery. "How do you mean?"
"Closed! What are you doing up here, anyway?"
The two men squared up to each other. Amused by the announcer's aggressive manner, Wilder lifted the camera as if to film his florid face. When Crosland waved him away imperiously, Wilder was tempted to knock the man down. Not wishing to upset his son, who was nervous enough already in this harsh atmosphere, he retreated to the elevator and returned to the lower floors.
The confrontation, however minor, had unsettled Wilder. Ignoring Helen, he prowled around the apartment, swinging the camera to and fro. He felt excited in a confused way, partly by his plans for the documentary, but also by the growing atmosphere of collision and hostility.
From the balcony he watched the huge, Alcatraz blocks of the nearby high-rises. The material about these buildings, visual and sociological, was almost limitless. They would film the exteriors from a helicopter, and from the nearest block four hundred yards away-in his mind's eye he could already see a long, sixty-second zoom, slowly moving from the whole building in frame to a close-up of a single apartment, one cell in this nightmare termitary.
The first half of the programme would examine life in the high-rise in terms of its design errors and minor irritations, while the remainder would then look at the psychology of living in a community of two thousand people boxed up into the sky-everything from the incidence of crime, divorce and sexual misdemeanours to the turnover of residents, their health, the frequency of insomnia and other psychosomatic disorders. All the evidence accumulated over several decades cast a critical light on the high-rise as a viable social structure, but cost-effectiveness in the area of public housing and high profitability in the private sector kept pushing these vertical townships into the sky against the real needs of their occupants.
The psychology of high-rise life had been exposed with damning results. The absence of humour, for example, had always struck Wilder as the single most significant feature-all research by investigators confirmed that the tenants of high-rises made no jokes about them. In a strict sense, life there was "eventless". On the basis of his own experience, Wilder was convinced that the high-rise apartment was an insufficiently flexible shell to provide the kind of home which encouraged activities, as distinct from somewhere to eat and sleep. Living in high-rises required a special type of behaviour, one that was acquiescent, restrained, even perhaps slightly mad. A psychotic would have a ball here, Wilder reflected. Vandalism had plagued these slab and tower blocks since their inception. Every torn-out piece of telephone equipment, every handle wrenched off a fire safety door, every kicked-in electricity meter represented a stand against de-cerebration.
What angered Wilder most of all about life in the apartment building was the way in which an apparently homogeneous collection of high-income professional people had split into three distinct and hostile camps. The old social sub-divisions, based on power, capital and self-interest, had re-asserted themselves here as anywhere else.
In effect, the high-rise had already divided itself into the three classical social groups, its lower, middle and upper classes. The 10th-floor shopping mall formed a clear boundary between the lower nine floors, with their "proletariat" of film technicians, air-hostesses and the like, and the middle section of the high-rise, which extended from the 10th floor to the swimming-pool and restaurant deck on the 35th. This central two-thirds of the apartment building formed its middle class, made up of self-centred but basically docile members of the professions-the doctors and lawyers, accountants and tax specialists who worked, not for themselves, but for medical institutes and large corporations. Puritan and self-disciplined, they had all the cohesion of those eager to settle for second best.
Above them, on the top five floors of the high-rise, was its upper class, the discreet oligarchy of minor tycoons and entrepreneurs, television actresses and careerist academics, with their high-speed elevators and superior services, their carpeted staircases. It was they who set the pace of the building. It was their complaints which were acted upon first, and it was they who subtly dominated life within the high-rise, deciding when the children could use the swimming-pools and roof garden, the menus in the restaurant and the high charges that kept out almost everyone but themselves. Above all, it was their subtle patronage that kept the middle ranks in line, this constantly dangling carrot of friendship and approval.
The thought of these exclusive residents, as high above him in their top-floor redoubts as any feudal lord above a serf, filled Wilder with a growing sense of impatience and resentment. However, it was difficult to organize any kind of counter-attack. It would be easy enough to play the populist leader and become the spokesman of his neighbours on the lower floors, but they lacked any cohesion or self-interest; they would be no match for the well-disciplined professional people in the central section of the apartment building. There was a latent easy-goingness about them, an inclination to tolerate an undue amount of interference before simply packing up and moving on. In short, their territorial instinct, in its psychological and social senses, had atrophied to the point where they were ripe for exploitation.
To rally his neighbours Wilder needed something that would give them a strong feeling of identity. The television documentary would do this perfectly and in terms, moreover, which they could understand. The documentary would dramatize all their resentments, and expose the way in which the services and facilities were being abused by the upper-level tenants. It might even be necessary to foment trouble surreptitiously, to exaggerate the tensions present in the high-rise.
However, as Wilder soon discovered, the shape of his documentary was already being determined.
Fired by his resolve to fight back, Wilder decided to give his wife and children a break from his ceaseless pacing. The air-conditioning now worked for only five minutes in each hour, and by dusk the apartment was stuffy and humid. The noise of over-loud conversations and record-players at full volume reverberated off the balconies above them. Helen Wilder moved along the already closed windows, her small hands pressed numbly against the latches as if trying to push away the night.
Too preoccupied to help her, Wilder set off with a towel and swimming trunks to the pool on the 10th floor. A few telephone calls to his neighbours on the lower floors had confirmed that they were keen to take part in the documentary, but Wilder needed participants from the upper and middle levels of the high-rise.
The out-of-order elevators had still not been repaired, and Wilder took to the stairs. Sections of the staircase had already been turned into a garbage-well by the residents above. Broken glass littered the steps, cutting his shoes.
The shopping mall was crowded with people, milling about and talking at the tops of their voices as if waiting for a political rally to start. Usually deserted at this hour, the swimming-pool was packed with residents playing the fool in the water, pushing each other off the tiled verge and splashing the changing stalls. The attendant had gone, abandoning his booth, and already the pool was beginning to look neglected, discarded towels lying in the gutters.
In the showers Wilder recognized Robert Laing. Although the doctor turned his back on him Wilder ignored the rebuff and stood under the next spray. The two men spoke briefly but in non-committal terms. Wilder had always found Laing good company, with his keen eye for any passing young woman, but today he was being standoffish. Like everyone else he had been affected by the atmosphere of confrontation.
"Have the police arrived yet?" Wilder asked above the noise as they walked to the diving-boards.
"No-are you expecting them?" Laing seemed genuinely surprised.
"They'll want to question the witnesses. What happened, in fact? Was he pushed? His wife looks hefty enough-perhaps she wanted a quick divorce?"
Laing smiled patiently, as if this remark in doubtful taste was all he expected of Wilder. His sharp eyes were deliberately vague, and remained closed to any probing. "I know nothing about the accident, Wilder. It may have been suicide, I suppose. Are you personally concerned?"
"Aren't you, Laing? It's odd that a man can fall from a window forty floors above the ground without there being any kind of investigation…"
Laing stepped on to the diving board. His body was unusually well muscled, Wilder noticed, almost as if he had been taking a good deal of recent exercise, doing dozens of push-ups.
Laing waited for a clear space in the crowded water. "I think we can rely on his neighbours to look after everything."
Laing waited for a clear space in the crowded water. "I think we can rely on his neighbours to look after everything."
Laing looked down at Wilder with sudden interest. He shook his head firmly. "I'd forget all about it-if I were you, Wilder." He stepped to the end of the board, sprang twice and made a hard, neat dive into the yellowing water.
Swimming by himself at the shallow end of the pool, Wilder watched Laing and his party of friends playing about in the deep end. Previously Wilder would have joined them, particularly as there were two attractive women in the group-Charlotte Melville, whom he had not seen for several days about their projected parents' association, and the tyro alcoholic Eleanor Powell. Wilder had obviously been excluded. Laing's pointed use of his surname marked the distance between them, like his vagueness about the dead jeweller, and his sidestepping of the television documentary, in which he had once been keenly interested-if anything, Laing's approval had inspired Wilder to develop the idea into a provisional treatment. Presumably Laing, with his excessive need for privacy, had no wish to see the collective folly of the residents, their childish squabbles and jealousies, exposed on the nation's television screens.
Or was there some other impulse at work-a need to shut away, most of all from oneself, any realization of what was actually happening in the high-rise, so that events there could follow their own logic and get even more out of hand? For all his own professed enthusiasm about the documentary, Wilder knew that he had never discussed it with anyone who did not live inside the apartment building. Even Helen, talking to her mother that afternoon on the telephone, had said vaguely, "Everything's fine. There's some slight trouble with the air-conditioning, but it's being fixed."
This growing defiance of reality no longer surprised Wilder. The decision that the chaos within the high-rise was a matter for the residents themselves explained the mystery of the dead jeweller. At least a thousand people must have seen the body-Wilder remembered stepping on to the balcony and being startled, not by the sight of the dead man, but by the huge audience reaching up to the sky. Had anyone notified the police? He had taken it for granted, but now he was less sure. Wilder found it hard to believe that this sophisticated and self-important man would commit suicide. Yet no one was in the least concerned, accepting the possibility of murder in the same way that the swimmers in the pool accepted the wine bottles and beer cans rolling around the tiled floor under their feet.
During the evening, Wilder's speculations took second place to the struggle to preserve his sanity. After settling the two boys in their bedroom, he and his wife sat down to dinner, only to find that a sudden electricity failure had plunged them into darkness. Sitting opposite each other at the dining-room table, they listened to the continuous noise from the corridor, their neighbours arguing in the elevator lobby, transistors blaring through open apartment doors.
Helen began to laugh, relaxing for the first time in weeks. "Dick, it's a huge children's party that's got out of hand." She reached out to calm Wilder. In the faint light that crossed the room from the nearby high-rise her slim face had an almost unreal calm, as if she no longer felt herself to be part of the events taking place around her.
Restraining his temper, Wilder hunched heavily in the darkness over the table. He was tempted more than once to plunge his fist into his soup. When the lights returned he tried to telephone the building manager, but the switchboard was jammed with calls. At last a recorded voice told him that the manager had fallen ill, and that all complaints would be played through and noted for future attention.
"My God, he's actually going to listen to all these tapes-there must be miles of them…"
"Are you sure?" Helen was giggling to herself. "Perhaps no one else minds. You're the only one."
The tampering with the electricity system had affected the air-conditioning. Dust was spurting from the vents in the walls. Exasperated, Wilder drove his fists together. Like a huge and aggressive malefactor, the high-rise was determined to inflict every conceivable hostility upon them. Wilder tried to close the grilles, but within minutes they were forced to take refuge on the balcony. Their neighbours were crowded against their railings, craning up at the roof as if hoping to catch sight of those responsible.
Leaving his wife, who was wandering light-headedly around the apartment and smiling at the spurting dust, Wilder went out into the corridor. All the elevators were stationary in the upper section of the building. A large group of his neighbours had gathered in the elevator lobby, pounding rhythmically on the doors and complaining about various provocative acts by the residents on the floors above.
Wilder pushed his way towards the centre, where two airline pilots were standing on a lobby sofa and selecting the members of a raiding party. Wilder waited his turn, trying to catch their attention, until he realized from the excited talk around him that their mission consisted solely of going up to the 35th floor and publicly urinating into the water.
Wilder was about to argue with them, warning that a childish act of this kind would be counter-productive. Until they were organized the notion of a punitive expedition was absurd, as they were far too exposed to retaliation. However, at the last moment he turned away. He stood by the doors to the staircase, aware that he no longer felt committed to this crowd of impulsive tenants egging each other on into a futile exercise, Their real opponent was not the hierarchy of residents in the heights far above them, but the image of the building in their own minds, the multiplying layers of concrete that anchored them to the floor.
A cheer went up, followed by a chorus of catcalls. An elevator was at last descending from the 35th floor, the indicator numerals flashing from right to left. While it approached, Wilder thought of Helen and the two boys-he knew already that his decision to dissociate himself from his neighbours had nothing to do with any feelings of concern for his wife and children.
The elevator reached the 2nd floor and stopped. As the doors opened there was a sudden hush. Lying on the floor of the cabin was the barely conscious figure of one of Wilder's neighbours, a homosexual air-traffic controller who dined regularly in the 35th-floor restaurant. He turned his bruised face away from the watching crowd and tried to button the shirt torn from his chest. Seeing him clearly as the crowd stepped back, awed by this evidence of open violence. Wilder heard someone say that two more floors, the 5th and 8th, were now in darkness.
excerpt from the book: High Rise by J.G.Ballard
J. G. Ballard
I BEGAN to understand the real excitements of the car-crash after my first meeting with Vaughan. Propelled on a pair of scarred and uneven legs repeatedly injured in one or other vehicle collision, the harsh and unsettling figure of this hoodlum scientist came into my life at a time when his obsessions were self-evidently those of a madman.
As I drove home from the film studios at Shepperton on a rain-swept June evening, my car skidded at the intersection below the entrance to the Western Avenue flyover. Within seconds I was moving at sixty miles an hour into the oncoming lane. As the car struck the central reservation the off-side tyre blew out and whirled off its rim. Out of my control, the car crossed the reservation and turned up the high-speed exit ramp. Three vehicles were approaching, mass-produced saloon cars whose exact model-year, colour schemes and external accessories I can still remember with the painful accuracy of a never-to-be-eluded nightmare. The first two I missed, pumping the brakes and barely managing to steer my car between them. The third, carrying a young woman doctor and her husband, I struck head-on. The man, a chemical engineer with an American foodstuffs company, was killed instantly, propelled through his windshield like a mattress from the barrel of a circus cannon. He died on the bonnet of my car, his blood sprayed through the fractured windshield across my face and chest. The firemen who later cut me from the crushed cabin of my car assumed that I was bleeding to death from a massive open-heart wound.
I was barely injured. On my way home after leaving my secretary Renata, who was freeing herself from an unsettling affair with me, I was still wearing the safety belt I had deliberately fastened to save her from the embarrassment of embracing me. My chest was severely bruised against the steering wheel, my knees crushed into the instrument panel as my body moved forwards into its own collision with the interior of the car, but my only serious injury was a severed nerve in my scalp.
The same mysterious forces that saved me from being impaled on the steering wheel also saved the young engineer's wife. Apart from a bruised upper jawbone and several loosened teeth, she was unharmed. During my first hours in Ashford Hospital all I could see in my mind was the image of us locked together face to face in these two cars, the body of her dying husband lying between us on the bonnet of my car. We looked at each other through the fractured windshields, neither able to move. Her husband's hand, no more than a few inches from me, lay palm upwards beside the right windshield wiper. His hand had struck some rigid object as he was hurled from his seat, and the pattern of a sign formed itself as I sat there, pumped up by his dying circulation into a huge blood-blister – the triton signature of my radiator emblem.
Supported by her diagonal seat belt, his wife sat behind her steering wheel, staring at me in a curiously formal way, as if unsure what had brought us together. Her handsome face, topped by a broad, intelligent forehead, had the blank and unresponsive look of a madonna in an early Renaissance icon, unwilling to accept the miracle, or nightmare, sprung from her loins. Only once did any emotion cross it, when she seemed to see me clearly for the first time, and a peculiar rictus twisted the right side of her face, as if the nerve had been pulled on a string. Did she realize then that the blood covering my face and chest was her husband's?
Our two cars were surrounded by a circle of spectators, their silent faces watching us with enormous seriousness. After this brief pause everything broke into manic activity. Tyres singing, half a dozen cars pulled on to the verge and mounted the central reservation. A massive traffic jam formed along Western Avenue, sirens wailed as police headlamps flared against the rear bumpers of stalled vehicles tailing back along the flyover. An elderly man in a transparent plastic raincoat was pulling uneasily at the passenger door behind my head, as if frightened that the car might throw a powerful electric charge into his thin hand. A young woman carrying a tartan blanket lowered her head to the window. Only a few inches away, she stared at me with pursed lips, like a mourner peering down at a corpse laid out in an open coffin.
Unaware of any pain at that time, I sat with my right hand holding a spoke of the steering wheel. Still wearing her seat belt, the dead man's wife was coming to her senses. A small group of people – a truck driver, an off-duty soldier in uniform and a woman ice-cream attendant – were pressing their hands at her through the windows, apparently touching parts of her body. She beckoned them away, and freed the harness across her chest, her capable hand fumbling with the chromium release mechanism. For a moment I felt that we were the principal actors at the climax of some grim drama in an unrehearsed theatre of technology, involving these crushed machines, the dead man destroyed in their collision, and the hundreds of drivers waiting beside the stage with their headlamps blazing.
The young woman was helped from her car. Her awkward legs and the angular movements of her head appeared to mimic the distorted streamlining of the two cars. The rectangular bonnet of my car had been wrenched off its seating below the windshield, and the narrow angle between the bonnet and fenders seemed to my exhausted mind to be repeated in everything around me – the expressions and postures of the spectators, the ascending ramp of the flyover, the flight paths of the airliners lifting from the distant runways of the airport. The young woman was carefully steered from her car by an olive-skinned man in the midnight-blue uniform of an Arab airline pilot. A thin stream of urine trickled involuntarily between her legs, running down on to the roadway. The pilot held her shoulders reassuringly. Standing beside their cars, the spectators watched this puddle forming on the oil-stained macadam. In the fading evening light, rainbows began to circle her weak ankles. She turned and stared down at me, a peculiar grimace on her bruised face, a clear confusion of concern and hostility. However, all I could see was the unusual junction of her thighs, opened towards me in this deformed way. It was not the sexuality of the posture that stayed in my mind, but the stylization of the terrible events that had involved us, the extremes of pain and violence ritualized in this gesture of her legs, like the exaggerated pirouette of a mentally defective girl I had once seen performing in a Christmas play at an institution.
I gripped the steering wheel in both hands, trying to keep still. A continuous tremor shook my chest, and almost stopped me from breathing. A policeman's strong hands held my shoulder. A second policeman placed his flat-peaked cap on the bonnet of the car beside the dead man and began to wrench at the door. The frontal impact had compressed the forward section of the passenger compartment, jamming the doors on to their locks.
An ambulance attendant reached across me and cut the sleeve from my right arm. A young man in a dark suit drew my hand through the window. As the hypodermic needle slid into my arm I wondered if this doctor, who seemed no more than an overlarge child, was old enough to have qualified professionally.
An uneasy euphoria carried me towards the hospital. I vomited across the steering wheel, half-conscious of a series of unpleasant fantasies. Two firemen cut the door from its hinges. Dropping it into the road, they peered down at me like the assistants of a gored bullfighter. Even their smallest movements seemed to be formalized, hands reaching towards me in a series of coded gestures. If one of them had unbuttoned his coarse serge trousers to reveal his genitalia, and pressed his penis into the bloody crotch of my armpit, even this bizarre act would have been acceptable in terms of the stylization of violence and rescue. I waited for someone to reassure me as I sat there, dressed in another man's blood while the urine of his young widow formed rainbows around my rescuers' feet. By this same nightmare logic the firemen racing towards the burning wrecks of crashed airliners might trace obscene or humorous slogans on the scalding concrete with their carbon dioxide sprays, executioners could dress their victims in grotesque costumes. In return, the victims would stylize the entrances to their deaths with ironic gestures, solemnly kissing their executioners' gun-butts, desecrating imaginary flags. Surgeons would cut themselves carelessly before making their first incisions, wives casually murmur the names of their lovers at the moment of their husbands' orgasms, the whore mouthing her customer's penis might without offence bite a small circle of tissue from the upper curvature of his glans. That same painful bite which I once received from a tired prostitute irritated by my hesitant erection reminds me of the stylized gestures of ambulance attendants and filling station personnel, each with their repertory of private movements.
Later, I learned that Vaughan collected the grimaces of casualty nurses in his photographic albums. Their dark skins mediated all the sly sexuality which Vaughan aroused in them. Their patients died in the interval between one rubber-soled step and the next, in the shifting contours of their thighs as they touched each other in the doors of emergency theatres.
The policemen lifted me from the car, their firm hands steering me on to the stretcher. Already I felt isolated from the reality of this accident. I tried to sit up on the stretcher, and swung my legs from the blanket. The young doctor pushed me back, hitting my chest with the palm of his hand. Surprised by the irritation in his eyes, I lay back passively.
The draped body of the dead man was lifted from the bonnet of my car. Seated like a demented madonna between the doors of the second ambulance, his wife gazed vacantly at the evening traffic. The wound in her right cheek was slowly deforming her face as the bruised tissues gorged themselves on their own blood. Already I was aware that the interlocked radiator grilles of our cars formed the model of an inescapable and perverse union between us. I stared at the contours of her thighs. Across them the grey blanket formed a graceful dune. Somewhere beneath this mound lay the treasure of her pubis. Its precise jut and rake, the untouched sexuality of this intelligent woman, presided over the tragic events of the evening.
CRASH (Chapter 2) by J. G. Ballard
Horror and the unknown or the strange are always closely connected, so that it is hard to create a convincing picture of shattered natural law or cosmic alienage or “outsideness” without laying stress on the emotion of fear.
At once as far as Angels kenn he views the dismal situation waste and wilde, a Dungeon horrible, on all sides round as one great Furnace flam’d, yet from those flames no light, but rather darkness visible serv’d only to discover sights of woe, regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace and rest can never dwell, hope never comes that comes to all; but torture without end…
—John Milton, Paradise Lost
Why do we fear darkness more than light? Why have we locked ourselves away from the unknown and strange, the weird and eerie? What do we fear in the darkest regions of space and time? Our reliance of sight, on our eyes has been central from the beginnings of philosophical reflection? Why? Even our colloquial sayings speak of such warm and kindred beings who are suddenly known by the “light in their eyes”. Why this fascination with light, eyes, knowledge? What if the tyranny and reliance of this one supreme sense has covered over aspects of the Real that could bring us another kind of knowledge, a non-knowledge at the heart of darkness?
In Aristotle’s Metaphysics knowledge and sight are supreme (”intellect is to the soul as sight to the body”):
ALL men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight. For not only with a view to action, but even when we are not going to do anything, we prefer seeing (one might say) to everything else. The reason is that this, most of all the senses, makes us know and brings to light many differences between things.1
This notion that the desire to know is a universal within all humans; that intellect, knowledge, and the discernment of difference among objects comes by way of this supreme physical sense – “makes us know and brings to light,” has been central to philosophy from the beginning. Even in Saint Augustine there was this acknowledgement that sight above all senses is central:
Since this is in the appetite for knowing, and since the eyes are the chief of our senses for acquiring knowledge, it is called in the divine language the lust of the eyes.
In his Summa theologiae, Saint Thomas Aquinas explains that reason is comprised of two powers: one cognitive, the other appetitive. The cognitive power is the intellect, which enables us to know and understand. The intellect also enables us to apprehend the goodness a thing has. The appetitive power of reason is called the will. Aquinas describes the will as a native desire for the understood good. That is, it is an appetite that is responsive to the intellect’s estimations of what is good or choiceworthy (ST Ia 82.1; QDV 3.22.12). On this view, all acts of will are dependent on antecedent acts of intellect; the intellect must supply the will with the object to which the latter inclines. In turn, that object moves the will as a final cause “because the good understood is the object of the will, and moves it as an end” (ST Ia 82.4).
For Aquinas the Will is the “Rational Appetite”. Thomas took himself to be following the lead of Aristotle. Yet he used the notion, which actually goes far beyond Aristotle, to develop a concept of how humans should live that at crucial points draws instead on Augustine and Plato. This Thomist conception of will, which has very much influenced our modern notions, is the foil against which Eckhart’s “live without why” is deployed. For Thomas the construct of will was complex and ambiguous: it included aspects of desire, deliberation, intention, choice, etc.
The primacy of intellect and perception over the appetitive will and desire has been central to Western metaphysics since Plato. Our reliance on the eyes as a supreme sense that works in alliance with our intellect in the pursuit of knowledge, understanding, and discernment or abstraction has held sway for as long. Plato has been the primal ancestor of the idea of perception as a force that is not merely receptive, but an active power of grasping the world.2 One difficulty stems from the fact that senses, as abstract entities, stand outside of the causal realm. The question then is how we can access these objects. Advocates of the Fregean sense view describe our access to senses by means of the metaphor of “grasping”—we are said to grasp the sense of an expression. In this sense “grasping” the sense of something in Frege’s view is then a matter of being able to understand the context within which it is expressed, etc. In this way grasping is just a metaphor for a cognitive intellects ability to see, perceive and relate to the sense data observed.
For Plato perception is a kind of intellection. It is a power intermingled with intellectual cognitive capacities, but with its own directionality and purpose. It is a power that ensures our access to the world and its intelligible order, and a power that can be developed and habituated by continuous perceiving and by rationally developing on what is perceived. It is a power through which human beings learn some of the most basic things in the world. In Plato’s Timeous the concept of Aisthêsis (sensations, perceptions) is the first capacity mentioned, belonging to all human beings, in a list of innate capacities, followed by “love mingled with pleasure and pain”, as well as fear and spiritedness. (AP, p. 13) In fact the concept of the telos and primacy of sight-seeing would come from a passage in Plato’s Timeous:
As my account has it, our sight has indeed proved to be a source of supreme benefit to us, in that none of our present statements about the universe could ever have been made if we had never seen any stars, sun or heaven. As it is, however, our ability to see the periods of day-and-night, of months and of years, of equinoxes and solstices, has led to the invention of number, and has given us the idea of time, and opened the part to inquiry into the nature of the universe. … … the god invented sight and gave it to us so that we might observe the orbits of intelligence in the universe and apply them to the revolutions of our own understanding. For there is a kinship between them, even though our revolutions are disturbed whereas the universal orbits are undisturbed. So once we have come to know them and to share in the ability to make correct calculations according to nature, we should stabilize the straying revolutions within ourselves by imitating the completely unstraying revolutions of the god. (47a1–7; b6–c4) (AP, p. 24)
My point in this post is not to trace the history of sight, seeing, grasping, etc. through each and every philosopher up to our own time (a task that would take a book to clarify), but to show how central this reliance of sensation, sight, intellect as cognitive and active perception have been primary to our pursuit and desire for knowledge and knowing. Most of the battles over the primacy of intellect (cognitive perception) or appetite-will (affective relations) would culminate in Kant’s so called Copernican Revolution and epistemic turn, which like that astronomer who overturned the Aristotelian cosmos, would overturn the ancient conceptual universe.
Since Kant’s time we’ve come to believe that sensation is passive and perception active. Sensation is something that happens when sense-organs are stimulated; perception is the awareness of the external world based on sensation, and usually involves contributions on the part of the subject, whether associational, inferential, neural, or through sensorimotor activity. (AP, p. 275) For Kant, that the faculty of sensibility is affected by objects. A cursory study of the poets of sensibility and romantic period will attest to this Kantian conception of the passivity of sensation. Yet, the intellect was seen to respond to these passive impressions with an active cognitive power. In Kant the faculty of sensibility is a “receptive” faculty. It produces sensations when it is affected by objects. In empirical cognition, these sensations yield an empirical intuition. Kant also speaks of a pure intuition, devoid of sensation. Sensation is called the “matter” of intuition. Intuitions also have “forms” into which sensations are organized: space and time. Kant sometimes says this organization is carried out by laws of sensibility, which seem to be laws for placing sensations in spatial and temporal relation to one another. Kant (at least sometimes) ascribes this synthesis to the activity of imagination. At a general level, then, Kant holds to a view in which sensations arise passively and are ordered by imagination and understanding to yield perception of objects. (AP, p. 282)
During those long centuries when the Aristotelian cosmos gave way to our modern dynamic and chaotic cosmos a division between common sense perception and those revealed by the sciences (after Galileo) would become prominent. Ever since Plato the senses had been castigated as unreliable, confused, and were prone to illusion, whereas the intellect and cognitive powers of the mind were active and shaping powers that could discern truth, knowledge, and difference. More and more over the centuries a skepticism of the senses and sensation would divide philosophers which would lead to some strange and bewildering problems.
In fact the basic problems of our contemporary moment come down to this conflict over perception. The antagonistic relations with Realist and Anti-Realist philosophes are more about this problem of consciousness and our views on epistemology vs. ontology, etc. than over the postmodern notions of historicism. It all comes down to the problem of objects: Do things exist independent of our Mind, or are they always already bound to us, for-us (i.e., Mind-dependent). Instead of digging any deeper into the history of this problem – due to time and space constraints – I want to finish with my own stance in regards to this whole tradition; or, what I’ve been calling dark realism.
In the seventeenth century we witness the demise of two core doctrines in the theory of perception: naive realism about color, sound, and other sensible qualities and the empirical theory, drawn from Alhacen and Roger Bacon, which underwrote it. This created a problem for seventeenth century philosophers: how is that we use qualities such as color, feel, and sound to locate objects in the world, even though these qualities are not real? This century witnesses the demise of two central elements in philosophical thinking about sensory perception, elements that go back at least to Aristotle. First is the view that the proper objects of each sense—qualities such as color and sound—are real members of the mind-independent world. The common sensibles such as size, shape, and motion are perceived by perceiving the proper sensibles. When color and the rest are ejected from the mind-independent world, philosophers find themselves compelled to offer a totally new account of how it is that the mind comes to the common ones. Is it by inferring size, shape, and motion on the basis of, say, color or felt pressure? Or is it a purely automatic operation, accomplished by divine decree? Our experience of the proper sensibles becomes problematic as well. How is it that a sensible quality like color gets ‘localized,’ that is, experienced as being on the surfaces of the body that causes it?3
The crisis also owes its origin to a second development. Since Galen, philosophers such as Ibn al-Hacen and Roger Bacon contributed to a unified program known as the ‘Baconian synthesis.’ This view posits species that pass into the eye and through the ventricles of the brain, ultimately uniting with species from the other senses in the organ of the common sense. Johannes Kepler in effect demolishes the Baconian synthesis. A new story has to be substituted; and it must be one that respects the new austerity of the world beyond the mind. (Ott, p. 1)
Theories of Perception have been with us from the beginning of philosophical reflection. If Aristotle is right then it is our reliance on the eye, on sight, on vision that has been central to metaphysics from the beginning. It’s the eye that allows us to see differences between things, to abstract out and differentiate the sensual qualities and profiles of objects, things, and entities. Since then the main problems over this reliance on sight is whether we are bound passively to the impression we receive from objects, or whether we actually construct and represent these objects by way of the brain’s pre-processing and structuring of these external things. Before Kant’s time most of this had come to a head in the reflections of empiricists and rationalists, the one relying on experience and sense-datum, the other relying on the intellect and cognitive powers of the Mind to construct the world by conforming it to the structuring processes of the Mind. As even John R. Searle as recently as 2015 in his book Seeing Things as They Are reminds us that,
The relationship between perceptual experiences and the real world—of which vision is the most important type of experience—was a major preoccupation, one may even say the major preoccupation, of Western philosophy for the three centuries after Descartes. Up to the twentieth century, epistemology was the center of philosophy and the mistakes that defined the field continue right up to the present time.4
My question is not to dispute this reliance on sight, eye, vision but rather to ask if this overpowering reliance has left out certain aspects of the Real which can never be seen or known through perception? What if most of reality is hidden, obscure, and outside our perceptual field of relations; along with being beyond the grasp of all the technics and mind-tools and heuristics, our conceptual frameworks and reflections? What if most of the Real is dark and unknown, and yet this very abyss of the Real thrusts itself at us at every moment of day or night, colliding with our body and interacting with our brain in inexplicable, strange, weird, and eerie ways that we’ve yet to understand or think about due to this bias of vision in philosophy?
William McNeill in his The Glance of the Eye: Heidegger, Aristotle, and the Ends of Theoryexplores the phenomenon of the Augenblick, or glance of the eye, in Heidegger s thought, and in particular its relation to the primacy of seeing and of theoretical apprehending (theoria) both in Aristotle and in the philosophical and scientific tradition of Western thought. McNeill argues that Heidegger s early reading of Aristotle, which identifies the experience of the Augenblick at the heart of ethical and practical knowledge (phronesis), proves to be a decisive encounter for Heidegger s subsequent understanding and critique of the history of philosophy, science, and technology. It provides him with a critical resource for addressing the problematic domination of theoretical knowledge in Western civilization.
What if this domination of theoretical knowledge is at the root of many of our problems in the sciences and philosophy, culture and even, – political concerns? In this sense Dark Realism is about challenging the domination of theory and critique that has been based on this reliance on eye, sight, and vision. What if what we need is non-knowledge rather than theoretical knowledge in the sense of opening up our bodies to the suppressed modes of sense and sensibility – our affective relations to the unknown as unknown. Maybe our body rather than our mind/intellect holds the key to the darker noumenal realms of the multidimensional Real that more and more is impinging on our lives, deeply influencing and affecting us through our senses and sensibility.
For far too long we’ve built up a cozy little world of human thought, a defense system of visual and perceptive relations, a mapping of the world and mind that helps defend us from the anxiety of the unknown and unknowable. Yet, once in a while chinks appear in the armor of this system of social relations, throwing us into that “cosmic alienage” of which H.P. Lovecraft’s character speaks. This sense of being caught between the wondrous and the uncanny, suddenly wandering in a weird and fantastic world of objects, things, and entities that we cannot reduce to our human relations, concepts, and perceptions. In such moments we feel the horror of things, a fear that an abyss or gap has opened up between us and the Real.
David Roden in Posthuman Life Dark Phenomenology, will both offer the perspective that ‘absence’ not ‘presence’ is key to our current understanding of how we build up our perceptions of the world. As David reports it “the problem of interpretation arises because there are empirical and theoretical grounds for holding that some phenomenology is “dark”. Dark phenomenology is experienced; but experiencing it offers no standard for its own description or interpretation.” (p. 76) Unlike Roden’s phenomenological approach which is still based in the phenomenological method that relies of one of several types of reduction: epoché, phenomenological, transcendental, and eidetic reductions. Instead following the carnal phenomenologists like Levinas, along with Merleau-Ponty, Alphonso Lingis, and Graham Harman maybe what we need to forget vision and seeing and once again relearn the affective regions of being, where the formless and non-objective materiality out of which all things come and to which they eventually return. This vague layer of existence is without substance and can be described as the ungraspable medium of pure quality from which we derive our sensual enjoyment of the world. Because it is prior to and conditions objectifying acts, it is more primordial than Husserl’s sensual objects. Another name for it is “sensibility.” And it is sensation that makes contact with it.5
This notion of contact, of touch has been a key to philosophy from its beginnings. Democritus, who explained sensation by the friction of atoms of different shapes and sizes, thought that all the senses were really only variations of the one sense of touch. Aristotle distinguished only four senses, since he was anxious to correlate the senses with the four elements – vision with water, sound with air, smell with fire and touch with earth, with taste being regarded only as a ‘particular form’ or ‘modification’ of touch. But Aristotle also suggested the necessity for a kind of sixth, quasi-sense, the sensus communis, the function of which was to mediate between the other five senses. Michael Serres in his book The Five Sense: The Philosophy of Mingled Bodies will discover this meta-sense even in the scholastics, and he will associate it with the skin, the epidermis; or, what Deleuze would term the ‘plane of immanence’ which pervades the body as the outer limit of sense.
Catherine Malabou in her forward to Tom Sparrow’s Plastic Bodies: Rebuilding Sensation After Phenomenology reminds us that phenomenology “made possible several claims about the body: that it is not the case that the body is the tomb of the soul, as Plato claimed; that it is not the case that the body is a neutral extension caught in the movement which animates it, as Descartes showed; and that the body is much more than the place of sensibility, as Kant defined it.”6 (PB, p. 15). Sparrow himself offers what he terms a post-phenomenological approach by which he means “a perspective which is not simply anti-phenomenological, but one which has gone through phenomenology and retained its kernel of truth, even if this kernel proves to be non-phenomenological in nature.” (PB, p. 16) This sense that we shouldn’t abandon such thinkers and Husserl or Heidegger, or even those like Derrida and others who were influenced by them, but rather that one has to push through them and either absolutize or reverse their stance toward a new sense and sensibility.
As Malabou with her concept of plasticity reiterates the materiality of the body must be rethought. “Sparrow argues that the phenomenological flesh in fact lacks matter. We need to reconceptualize matter. How can we avoid lapsing into both the naturalization and neutrality of the body? How can we conceive of matter without reverting to mechanism? In order to properly distinguish matter from mechanism, we will call this post-phenomenological materiality plasticity. Plasticity is thus defined as that which comes after the flesh.” (PB, p. 16)
In this sense the body as well as the mind is undergoing an erasure as concepts, even as our notions of matter and life have in modern physics and biology been undergoing a series of transformations, reversals, and weird relations in which concept of plasticity offers a way forward. Sparrow calls his project a speculative aesthetics, basing it on a new empirical turn toward sensation. For Sparrow sensation is something that happens below the phenomenal level, so at best it is a mediated datum of consciousness. Both Merleau-Ponty and Levinas recognized this. How, then, can we speak of this non-phenomenal sensation? Sparrow’s contention is that we experience it primarily through its effects and can thereby think it on the basis of these effects. Perception, passion, cognition, consciousness, identity, and freedom are some of these effects. These are indeed accessed phenomenally, but as products of sensation. This is not to say that sensation is their efficient cause, however. It is to say that sensation is their necessary condition. Sensation is thus an object as well-suited for speculation as it is for empirical analysis. (PB, p. 17)
Alphonso Lingis in Sensation: Intelligence in Sensibility that to “sense something is to catch on to the sense of something, its direction, or meaning”. 7 He goes on saying,
But to sense something is also to be sensitive to something, to be concerned by it, affected by it. It is to be pleases, gratified, contented, and exhilarated, or to be pained, afflicted, and wounded, by something. A sentient being does not innocently array object-forms about itself; it is not only oriented in free space by their sense, it is subject to them, to their brutality and their sustentation.
One may be receptive, passive, and sensitive, and, yet, this does not mean that sensibility is bound to the passive state, rather it moves with the “movement of existence, ex-ists” (S, p. 77). Beings both perceptible and imperceptible make an impression on our sensitive being because the active, self-propelling thrust of our being makes contact with them, with their volcanic forces that erupt into our lives as shocks unbidden. As Lingis says: “Sense-perceptions is in fact an apprehension of the forces of things, the possibilities that things are, an anticipation of the future of the environment, a clairvoyance” (S, p. 78). If as both Andy Clark (Surfing Uncertainty) and Jacob Hohwy (The Predictive Mind) argue that the brain is continuously modeling, simulating, predicting our environmental interactions of which we are for the most part completely unaware then this sense of anticipation and clairvoyance is part of this empirical sense apprehension taking place all the time.
If as R. Scott Bakker argues with his notion of “medial-neglect” of which I spoke of in my first post in this series then we are always in the dark, blinded both to the processes of this empirical registration and modeling simulation behind the gates of consciousness, and, as well, we are blind toward most of the surface tensions surrounding us in the environment due not to some inborn limitation, but to the very internal process of the brain itself which receives the empirical sense-data and then analyses it through neuroanalytical processing that finally delivers it to our conscious minds structured, and transformed through these very ill-defined processes. Looking to Kant to tells us about these processes would be like going back in pre-history to some early cave-dweller to ask them to describe modern atomic theory. Useless. The point is that we’ve moved on from Kant’s time, our sciences have now taken over this task of describing the way we perceive, the way we feel, the sense and sensibility of our bodily and mental registries. And, yet, there is something that exceeds this hard neurosciences, something that they cannot tell us. For all their descriptive power, with all the new technics and technologies of neuroimaging and the testing, interpretive, and analytical knowledge of the data they cannot explain the hard problem of consciousness, tell us why we are affected emotional beings, nor the intricacies of what lures us own, makes us angry of upset, joyous or tearful. They can describe how this works but not why, or what triggers these very real forces. We live in the darkness, act in the darkness, our ignorance surrounds us and drives us to question everything. As Lingis tells us,
It is because we are first stricken with the void, haunted by the death everywhere lurking in the interstices of the world, affected by its nothingness, that we are touched, affected by, stabilized and steered by things, that the things have sense for us. (S, p. 79)
Yet, Lingis is still caught in the phenomenological circle of correlationism for all his concern, this experience is bound for him to the “sense for us”. This anthropomorphism pervades the phenomenological fervor. We must de-center this need to explain everything under the banner of the human – for us, and instead begin to listen to the other in sense, to the things themselves as they make contact with us, impinge on our lives and existence – listen to the inhuman as it is for-itself not us. Allow things to think within us, speak within us, be as they are within us. Things exist without us, but we have not allowed them a voice as voicing in this contact that is a sensing.
In another passage Lingis speaks of Levinas whose “extended analysis of sensibility contains the bold and strange thesis that the exposure and subjection to being is itself subtended by an exposedness and subjection to alterity.” (S, p. 82) This sense of being open to the absolute alterity of things, exposing oneself to the Outside, the impersonal forces of the universe beyond our control or dominion, the impossible in its possibility. To enter the dark without imposing the human sovereign sense of our self-importance and superiority, or our human need to reduce everything to our own human proportions, our conceptual framework and enframing, maybe then we might begin to touch the face of existence on its own terms, begin to know and be known by that absolute alterity that both fascinates and horrifies us.
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