The current crisis is the same as the one that threatened human nature at the time of the establishment of Christianity.
The Apogee of Civilization Is a Crisis
Each time a vast movement of civilization has developed, in Egypt or in the Greco-Roman world, in China or in the Occident, the values that brought men together at the dawn of each upheaval, the taboo or sacred acts, places, names, and laws, have slowly lost, more or less on the whole, a part of their efficacious force and their ability to inspire awe. The simple fact of the movement itself was decomposition and, in this sense, civilization can be seen as synonymous with sickness or crisis. The two meanings, passive and active, of the word critical questioned and questioning-adequately and clearly account for the identification that must be made between a developing civilization and crisis. On the passive side, there is the crisis of the conventions-the royal or divine sovereignty - that constitute the foundations of the human aggregate; on the active side, there is the individual critical attitude toward these conventions: the individual thus develops in a corrosive way, at the expense of society, and the facilitated individual life sometimes takes on a dramatic meaning. The figure of the living community little by little loses its tragic appearance-both puerile and terrible-which reached each being in his most secretly lacerated wound; it loses the power of provoking the total religious emotion that grows to the point of ecstatic drunkenness, when existence is avidly opened before it.
But because the material organization that has developed demands the conservation of social cohesion, this cohesion is maintained by all the means at the disposal of its principal beneficiaries; when communal passion is not great enough to constitute human strengths, it becomes necessary to use constraint and to develop the alliances, contracts, and falsifications that are called politics. When human beings become autonomous they discover around themselves a false and empty world. The awareness of being a dupe before administrative impudence (and also before terrifying displays of individual satisfaction and stupidity) succeeds the strong and painful feeling of communal unity. The vast results of long centuries of struggle, of prodigious military or material conquest, have always led conquering peoples - whether in the West, or among the Egyptians or the Romans -to a failed and disappointing world, flattened by interminable crises. Through an extreme malaise and through a confusion in which everything appears vain and nearly disastrous, there grows the obsession with.
The Recovery of the Lost World
Decomposition can affect, at the same time, economic activity, the institutions of authority, and the principles that establish moral and religious attitudes. Disintegrated societies, obscurely attempting to regain their cohesion, can still be devastated by a multiplicity of useless endeavors: brutal force and intellectual pedantry, both equally blind, find the road wide open before them. The excessive and shattered joy of great disasters can therefore relieve existence, like a hiccup. But behind the facade constituted by affirmations of strength, reason, and cynicism, there is a yawning void, and whatever continues gives way more and more to the feeling that something is missing. Nostalgia for a lost world can be clothed in numerous forms, and generally it is the feat of cowards, who only know how to moan for what they claim to love, who avoid or know how not to find the possibility of FIGHTING. Behind the facade, there is first of all only nervous depression, violent but incoherent noise, aesthetic reverie and chatter. When a man among others, in this world in which a simple representation of the act has become an object of nausea, tries to enter into combat for the "recovery of the lost world," he creates a void around himself, he meets only the infinite evasion of all those who have taken upon themselves the task of knowledge and of thought-for it is almost impossible to imagine a man thinks without having the constant worry of elminating from the course of his reflections everything that could condense and threaten to explode. Because he could not confuse emasculation with knowledge, and because his thought was open to a lucid explosion that could not stop before exhausting his resources - becoming the hero of everything human that is not enslaved-Nietzsche collapsed in humuliating solitude. The destiny of human life, since it is linked to what is most significant for all men, has perhaps never known a moment that justifies a greater uneasiness than the one in which Nietzsche, alone and in a fit of madness, embraced a horse in the streets of Turin.
The Fascist Solution
But the close connection between the will to regain lost life and enervating mental depression is not only the occasion for tragic failures: it constitutes an incentive to grasp at the vulgar and facile solutions whose success at first seems assured, to the exclusion of all others. Since it is a question of regaining what existed in the past, and whose elements are dying or dead, it is simplest to revive, in favorable circumstances, what already exists. It is easier to restore than to create, and since the necessity of a renewed social cohesion can, at certain moments, be felt in the most pressing way, the first movement of recomposition takes place in the form of a return to the past. The crudest and most directly usable fundamental values are capable, in bitter and hateful crises, of taking on a dramatic meaning that seems to restore real color to communal existence, whereas on the whole it is a matter of an operation in which the affective values set in motion are in large part used for ends other than themselves. The RECOMPOSITION OF SACRED VALUES starts when the boots of human existence are repaired, and it can obediantly march straight ahead once again under the whip of hard necessity. The reestablished Pharaohs and Caesars, the heads of the revolutionary parties that today have bewitched half the inhabitants of Europe, have answered the desire to base life again on an irrational urge. But the amount of constraint necessary for the maintenance of too rapidly imposed edifices indicates their profoundly disappointing character. To the extent that there persists a nostalgia for a community through which each being would find something more tragically taut than anything to be found in himself-to this extent the concern for the recovery of the lost world, which played a role in the genesis of fascism, has as its outcome nothing other than military discipline and a limited calm, produced by a brutality that destroys with rage everything it lacks the power to captivate.
But what is adequate to a possibly dominant faction is nothing more than sundering and deception when one considers the entire living community of beings. The community does not demand a fate similar to that of the different parts it brings together, but it demands as an end that which violently unifies and asserts itself without alienating life, without leading it to the repetition of emasculated acts and of external moral formulae. Brief bursts of fascism, set off by fear, cannot deceive such a true, wild, and avid demand.
From the Caesarian Heavens to the Dionysian Earth: The Religious Solution
If one now imagines the obsession that dominated Nietzsche's life, it seems clear that this common obsession with the lost world, which grows greater in profound depression, can necessarily be followed in opposite directions. The confusion between two responses to the same void, the apparent similarity of fascism and Nietzsche, then becomes easily understandable: any resemblance is reduced to identical traits appearing in two opposites.
Among the various oppositions that maintain the existence of men under the harsh law of Heraclitus, none is truer or more ineluctable than the one that opposes the Earth to the heavens, to the "need to punish" the dark demands of tragedy; on one side are constituted the aversion to sin and the light of day, glory and military repression, the imprescriptible rigidity of the past; on the other, the grandeur of auspicious nights, of avid passion, of the obscure and free dream power is given to movement and, in that way: its numerous. appearances may be, it is torn from the past and projected into the apocalyptic forms of the future. On one side a constitution of communal forces riveted to a narrow tradition-parental or racial-constitutes a monarchical authority and establishes itself as a stagnation and as an insurmountable barrier to life; on the other, a bond of fraternity, which may be foreign to the bond of blood, is established between men, who among themselves decide upon the necessary consecrations: and the goal of their meeting is not a clearly defined action, but life itself - LIFE, IN OTHER WORDS, TRAGEDY.
It is true that, when it comes to man, there are no examples of a real form representing, to the exclusion of the other, one of the possible directions of life: these directions are nevertheless easy to determine and describe. On the whole, they set the Chthonian and Uranian world of mythic Greece (and, in the phases of recomposition of each great civilization, in clearer and clearer way, the properly religious movements-Osirian, Christian, or Buddhist) in opposition to the development of the character of the military sovereign.
The thing that has prevented people from immediately seeing how Nietzsche's representation of values opposes the eternal resumption of military monarchy-a resumption that takes place with an empty regularity, without ever providing anything new-has been Nietzsche's effort to point out the deepest differences less between Dionysianism and Bismarckian National Socialism (a movement which, for good reason, he saw as negligible) than between Dionysianism and Christianity. And the possibility of error is even greater in. that the critique of Christian falsehoods led Nietzsche to rail against any renunciation of power, leading in that way to a confusion between the sphere of military solidification and ossification and that of tragic liberty. And even greater in that there can be no question of renouncing a hard-won human virility: the scorn for Caesarian acts, deprived of all human meaning, will no longer lead to the acceptance of boundaries that these acts claim to impose on life; a religious movement that develops in the present world no more has to resemble Christianity or Buddhism than Christianity and Buddhism resembled polytheism. It is because of this necessary dissimilarity that Nietzsche set aside, for good reason, the word religion, which alone lends itself to a confusion almost as unfortunate as the confusion between Nietzschean Dionysianism and fascism-and a word that can only be used, in the present world, in defiance.
THE CRITICAL PHASE OF A CIVILIZATION'S DECOMPOSITION IS REGULARLY FOLLOWED BY A RECOMPOSITION, WHICH DEVELOPS IN TWO DIFFERENT DIRECTIONS: THE RECONSTITUTION OF RELIGIOUS ELEMENTS OF CIVIL AND MILITARY SOVEREIGNTY, TYING EXISTENCE TO THE PAST, IS FOLLOWED OR ACCOMPANIED BY THE BIRTH OF FREE AND LIBERATING SACRED FIGURES AND MYTHS, RENEWING LIFE AND MAKING IT "THAT WHICH FROLICS IN THE FUTURE," "THAT WHICH ONLY BELONGS TO A FUTURE."
The Nietzschean audacity demanding for the figures it creates a power that bows before nothing-that tends to break down old sovereignty's edifice of moral prohibition-must not be confused with what it fights. The marvelous Nietzschean KINDERLAND is nothing less than the place where the challenging of every man's VATERLAND takes on a meaning that is no longer impotent negation. It is only after Zarathustra that we can "ask our children's forgiveness for our having been the children of our fathers." The very first sentences of Nietzsche's message come from "realms of dream and intoxication." The entire message is expressed by one name: DIONYSOS. When Nietzsche made DIONYSOS (in other words, the destructive exuberance of life) the symbol of the will to power, he expressed in that way a resolution to deny to a faddish and debilitating romanticism the force that must be held sacred. Nietzsche demanded that the possessors of today's shattering values become dominant-and not that they be dominated by a heaven laden with the need to punish.
The god of the Earth, DIONYSOS, was the son of Semele, the Earth, and Zeus, god of the Heavens. The myth has it that Semele, pregnant with Dionysos, wanted Zeus to appear to her clothed in the attributes of his power; she was reduced to flames and ashes by the heavenly thunder and lightning she had so imprudently provoked. Thus the god was born of a lightning-torn womb.
In the image of the one he wanted to be to the point of madness, Nietzsche is born of the Earth torn open by the fire of the Heavens, he is born blasted by lightning and in that way he is imbued with this fire of domination that becomes the FIRE OF THE EARTH.
WHEN THE SACRED-NIETZSCHEAN-FIGURE OF TRAGIC DlONYSOS RELEASES LIFE FROM SERVITUDE, IN OTHER WORDS, FROM THE PUNISHMENT OF THE PAST, HE RELEASES IT AS WELL FROM RELIGIOUS HUMILITY, FROM THE CONFUSIONS AND TORPOR OF ROMANTICISM. HE DEMANDS THAT A BRIllIANT WILL RETURN THE EARTH TO THE DIVINE ACCURACY OF THE DREAM.
The Performance of Numantia
The opposition of Heaven and Earth has ceased to have a meaningful, communal, and immediately intelligible value. When it appears, it comes up against the desires of the intellect, which no longer knows what such an antiquity is supposed to mean, and which refuses to admit as well that mythological entities can have, at the present time, in a world saturated with science, any meaning at all. But if one considers an everyday reality, only favorable circumstances are needed for men, who are obviously a long way from madness, to enter lucidly into the world of the infernal spirits-and not only men, but the vulgar political passions that animate them.
When Marquino, coming forward in his cowl, calls forth the most somber things of the world, the figures he invokes with terrible names ...waters of the black lagoon... cease to be empty and powerless representations. For, in Numantia's agony, within the walls and under the naked rock of the Sierra, it is the Earth that is there: the Earth that opens to return the cadaver to the world of the living, the Earth that opens to the living, thrown by delirium into death. And even though this Earth breathes Fury and Rage, even though it appears in the screams of children slaughtered by their fathers, of wives slaughtered by their husbands, even though the bread it brings the starving man is soaked in blood, the feeling its presence inspires is not horror. Because those who belong to it (and thus who belong to frenzy) bring back to life, before our eyes, all of lost humanity, the world of truth and immediate passion for which nostalgia has always been felt. And it is impossible to break apart a profoundly constituted and bound figure. Just as the Romans, commanded by the implacable authority of a leader, are associated with the glory of the sun, in the same way the Numantines, WITHOUT A LEADER, WITHOUT A HEAD, are located in the region of the Night and of the Earth, in the region haunted by the phantoms of the Tragedy-Mother. And insofar as agony and death have entered the city, this city becomes the image of everything in the world that can demand a total love; insofar as this city dies, all the nostalgia for the lost world can now be expressed by the single name, NUMANTIA.
The tragedy of Numantia is great because in it one is confronted not only with the death of a certain number of men, but with the entry of death into the entire city: it is not individuals who are dying, but an entire people. That must be disconcerting, and in principle it must make Numantia inaccessible, because the game destiny plays with men can only appear to most of them clothed in the brilliant colors of individual existence.
Moreover, what is currently in the air-if one is speaking of collective existence-is the poorest thing one can imagine, and no representation can be more disconcerting than one that presents death as the fundamental object of the communal activity of men, death and not food or the production of the means of production. No doubt such a representation is based on the totality of religious practices of all ages, but there has been a predominant tendency to see the reality of religion as a surface reality. In the existence of a community, that which is typically religious, in the sure grip of death, has become the thing most foreign to man. No one thinks any longer that the reality of a communal life-which is to say, human existence-depends on the sharing of nocturnal terrors and on the kind of ecstatic spasms that spread death. Thus the truth of Numantia is even more difficult to grasp than that of an individual tragedy. It is religious truth-in other words, that which in principle rejects the inertia of men living today.
The idea of a fatherland - which appears as a constituent of dramatic action has only an external meaning, if one compares it to this religious truth. Whatever their appearance, the symbols that govern the emotions are not among those that serve to represent or maintain the military existence of a people. Military existence even excludes any dramatization of this kind. It is based on a brutal negation of any profound meaning of death and, if it uses cadavers, it is only to make the living march in a straighter line. The most tragic performance it knows is the parade and, due to the fact that it excludes all possible depression, it is incapable of basing communal life on the tragedy of dread. In this sense the fatherland, condemned to accept as its own a brutal military poverty, is far from equal to the communal unity of men. In certain cases it can become a force of attraction destroying the other possibilities, but since it is essentially constituted by armed force, it can give to those who submit to its force of attraction nothing that satisfies the great human hungers, because it subordinates everything to a particular utility. On the contrary, it must force its half-seduced lovers to enter the inhuman and totally alienated world of barracks, military prisons, and military administrations. In the crisis currently depressing existence, the fatherland even represents the greatest obstacle to this unity of life that-it must be forcefully said-can only be based on a communal awareness of profound existence, the emotional and riven play of life with death.
Numantia, which is only the atrocious expression of this play, cannot have any more meaning for the fatherland than it has for the individual who suffers alone. But Numantia, in fact, took on for those present at the spectacle a meaning that had to do neither with individual drama nor with national feeling, but with political passion. This was made possible by the war in Spain. That is an obvious paradox, and it is possible that such a confusion is as lacking in importance as the confusion of the inhabitants of Saragossa, who presented the tragedy during a siege. Numantia, today, has been performed not only in Paris, but in Spain, in burned-out churches, without any other decor than the traces of the fire, and without any other actors than red militiamen. The fundamental themes of a remote existence, the cruel and unalterable mythological themes developed in the tragedy-are they not, however, as foreign to the political spirit as they are to the military spirit?
If it were necessary to hold to current appearances, the answer would have to be in the affirmative. Not only does a politician, of whatever party, find repugnant the consideration of profound realities, but he has accepted, once and for all, the game of alterations and compromises that makes possible precarious power alliances, and that makes impossible the formation of a true heartfelt community.
In addition, among the various convulsive conflicts in history, the one currently sundering the totality of civilized countries-the conflict between antifascism and fascism-appears the most corrupt. The comedy which-under the pretense of democracy-opposes German Caesarism with Soviet Caesarism, shows what frauds are acceptable to a mob limited by misery, at the mercy of those who basely flatter it.
Nevertheless a reality exists which, behind this facade, is in contact with the most powerful secrets of existence; anyone who wants to enter this reality need only take in the opposite way what is generally accepted. If the image of Numantia expresses the grandeur of a people struggling against oppression by the powerful, it reveals at the same time that the struggle currently engaged in most often lacks any grandeur: the antifascist movement, if it is compared to Numantia, appears to be an empty mob, a vast decomposition of men linked only by what they refuse.
There is only illusion and comfort in admiring Numantia because one sees in it an expression of the current struggle. But tragedy confronts the world of politics with an evident truth: the battle joined will only take on a meaning and will only be effective to the extent that fascist wretchedness comes face to face with something other than troubled negation-namely, the heartfelt community of which Numantia is the image.
The principle of this reversal can be expressed in simple terms. CAESARIAN UNITY, ESTABLISHED BY A LEADER-A HEAD-IS OPPOSED BY THE HEADLESS COMMUNITY, BOUND TOGETHER BY THE OBSESSIVE IMAGE OF A TRAGEDY. Life demands that men gather together, and men are only gathered together by a leader or by a tragedy. To look for a HEADLESS human community is to look for tragedy: putting the leader to death is itself tragedy, it remains a requirement of tragedy. A truth that will change the appearance of human things starts here: THE EMOTIONAL ELEMENT THAT GIVES AN OBSESSIVE VALUE TO COMMUNAL LIFE IS DEATH.
The Dionysian Mysteries
This "Dionysian" truth cannot be an object of propaganda. And since, by its own movement, it calls forth power, it gives meaning to the idea of an organization revolving around profound mysteries.
"Mystery" here has nothing in common with a vague esotericism: it is a question of lacerating truths that absorb those to whom they belong, truths that the mob does not seek, and away from which it even tends to move. The disintegration-movement of this mob can only be countered by a crafty deliberation, by what revolves once again around figures of death.
It is only on this open route, where everything is disorienting to the point of drunkenness, that Sade's paradoxical assertions cease to be, for whoever accepts them, a mockery and an implacable judgment.
For men who do not want to follow a consistent and difficult path, what could the following quote mean?
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 ...
Or this one...
From these first principles, there follows ... the necessity of softening laws, and above all of annihilating for all time the atrocity of the death penalty, because the law, which in itself is cold, cannot be accessible to the passions that legitimate in man the cruel activity of murder.
Still, those are the least clearly inhuman of Sade's assertions. How could his bloody doctrine have a meaning for anyone who, finding it right, does not live it in trembling? For "killing for pleasure" would only be a literary provocation, and the most inadmissible expression of hypocrisy, if consciousness were not driven by it to a point of extreme lucidity. The awareness of the fact that the pleasure of killing is the truth, charged with horror, for one who does not kill, can remain neither obscure nor tranquil, and it forces life into an unlikely, frozen world, where it tears itself apart.
What else could be the meaning of the fact that, for a number of years, some of the most gifted men did their utmost to shatter their own intellects, hoping in this way to make the intellect itself explode? Dada is generally seen as an unimportant failure, whereas, for others, it becomes liberating laughter, a revelation that transfigures human being.
And as for Nietzsche's glances into the abyss, isn't it time to call to account those for whom they have only been the object of an eclectic curiosity? Many realities are subject to the law of all or nothing. This is the case with Nietzsche. The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola would be nothing if they were not meditated in the greatest silence (and meditated, they are a prison without an exit). What Nietzsche shattered can only be opened to those carried forward by the need to shatter; the others do to Nietzsche what they do to everything else: nothing has meaning for them, and everything they touch decomposes. It is a law of present-day life that an ordinary man must be incapable of thinking about anything at all, and be tied down in every way by completely servile occupations, which drain him of reality. But the existence of this man will end up crumbling into dust, and one day he will no longer be astonished when a living being does not see him as the ultimate limit of things.
excerpt from the book Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, (1927-1939), Georges Bataille
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