nihilism unbound: john zerzan on the spirit of our age


The theories of the anarcho-primitivist John Zerzan derive in part from the negative dialectics of Theodor Adorno, as well as concepts from other Frankfurt School theorists, including their analyses of alienation and society, art and culture, and so on. Zerzan posits for humanity a pre-historical golden age, which lasted until the advent of our original sin — the emergence of symbolic thought or “culture.” The little humanity we have left will soon be totally eclipsed by the dominance of robotic and cyborg technologies and virtual reality simulations: “Progress has meant the looming specter of the complete dehumanization of the individual and the catastrophe of ecological collapse.” (Running On Emptiness, p. 79).

The Age Of Nihilism

 

Technological mediation and separation continue on their emptying ascendancy, embodying so well capital’s impoverishing penetration of every level of life on this planet. But there are signs that an era of unchecked cynicism, engendered by this rampant advance of techno-capital, is finally being challenged. The challengers, moreover, are quickly deepening their understanding of how fundamental the challenge must be if it is to succeed.

 

With this in mind, the following comments on nihilism may well be less apropos than they would have been even a year or two ago. For the focus of this essay is passive nihilism, rather than the probing, critical variety, which is the active nihilism now emerging as a force to be reckoned with. Nonetheless, the question of how and why an enfeebling ethos of meaninglessnessand indifference came to predominate may still be of some interest.

 

In Fathers and Sons, Turgenev described the nihilist as one "who looks at everything critically … who does not take any principle for granted, however much that principle may be revered." But during the same period, Dostoevsky portrayed modern, passive nihilism in Notes from Underground. Its protagonist was merely disgruntled, and lacked the passion and conviction necessary to hold convention to the flame of critique.

 

During the following century, it appears, the sense that nothing matters became widespread. One current among others, quite obviously, but a growing one. Nothing counts more than anything else, so nothing really counts. Nietzsche had said that nihilism "stands at the door" of modern civilization, and that door opened wider as the important sources of meaning and value steadily revealed themselves as inconsequential and irrelevant, unequal to the rigors of modern life.

 

Heidegger found in nihilism "the fundamental movement of the history of the West," and what was the bane of the nineteenth century became, by the 1990s, a banality. Nihilism, in the current postmodern clime, is simply the matter-of-fact state of mind of our period—so widespread today is the attitude that little or nothing is compelling, authentic, or makes a difference. Distinctions of value or meaning and the value or meaning of distinctions are less and less persuasive. There is a cultural exhaustion in the movement through decadence into nihilism. According to John Gray, nihilism constitutes modernity’s "only truly universal inheritance to humankind."

 

That inheritance has accelerated, it seems, since the failure of the movement of the 1960s, when belief in continuous Progress had reached its peak. As utopian oases dried up, a desert of inertia and pointlessness spread. By the ’80s, with nothing to look for and nowhere to go, youth were tagged as slackers, Generation X, etc. In the summer of 1990, the New York Times called kids the generation "that couldn’t care less."

 

With young people looking ahead to a lifetime of strain and empty consumerism, it should surprise no one that teens’ suicide rate has tripled in the past 30 years. Or that network television now offers what amount to "snuff" programs for the jaded and bored, as the population in general experiences its life-world as more and more of a vacuum in every way. A melancholy escapism flowers in this Dead Zone, this Nowhere.

 

Development is a given; this cancer of a system would soon collapse without its steady onslaught. It continues its onrush into the hypermodern vista of high-tech unreality. Nietzsche saw nihilism as a consequence of the erosion of the Christian world view. But this is a superficial judgment, in many ways confusing effect with cause.

 

A deeper causative factor is the march of technology, in the direction of the complete industrialization of society. From the present apex of cultural homogenization and standardized life, this is easier to see than it was for Nietzsche more than a century ago. The hollowing out of the substance and texture of daily existence is being completed, a process intimately related to the near impossibility of experiencing the world without technological mediation. The overall destruction of experience speaks to the deprivation at the heart of both technology and nihilism,

 

With this absence of unmediated personal experience at the heart of technological progress, skyrocketing levels of stress and depression cannot be surprising. Technology mediates between individuals and nature, ultimately abolishing both. With the triumph of technology, autonomy regresses and negates itself. The promises have all been lies. One is the promise of connection, so mercilessly (though inadvertently) mocked in a recent TV commercial: "I’ve got gigabytes. I’ve got megabytes. I’m voice-mailed. I’m e-mailed. I surf the Net. I’m on the Web. I am Cyber-Man. So how come I feel so out of touch?"

 

A set-up whose essence is efficiency is already fundamentally nihilist. Technical rules are rapidly supplanting ethical norms by making them irrelevant. What is more efficient or less efficient holds sway, not some moral consideration, even as the systemic goals of techno-capital are shaped by the evolution of its technology. Production, based on mastery and control, becomes more visibly a process of humanity devouring itself.

 

When powerlessness prevails, a generalized sense of paranoia is not an illogical symptom. Similarly, a current and telling form of cynicism is technological fatalism ("There’s nothing we can do about it"), further exposing the tendency of cynicism to shade into conformity. As Horkheimer and Adorno observed, "technological rationale is the rationale of domination itself."

 

Understanding and responsibility succumb to an ever-increasing fragmentation, a division of labor that is always unequal and alienating. The only wholeness resides in the fundamental system that turns all else into parts. As the moral self recedes, it becomes harder to grasp the relationship of these parts to one another and to see what they are part of. Domination and nihilism’s crisis of meaning are inseparably entwined.

 

For Heidegger, technology constitutes the final phase of nihilism. Under its sign all talk of freedom, happiness, emancipation becomes a mockery. In fact, technology itself becomes the ideological basis of society, having destroyed the possibility of other, overt forms of justification. Engagement or belief are hardly necessary for technology’s effective rule. In this way the nagging problem of declining participation in the system can be mitigated, or deferred.

 

Technology is the embodiment of the totalizing system of capital, and media is an indispensable, ever more defining bridge between technology and the commodity system. If the high-tech information explosion cancels all meaning in a meaningless noise, the mass-entertainment industrial complex pumps out increasingly desperate diversions to a society of relentless consumerism.

 

"Infotainment" and McJournalism are the latest pop culture products of nihilism. Why bother with truth if nothing can be done about reality anyway? And yet media, like technology, is always promising solutions to problems it has created, or worsened. One example among many is the significant rise in teen smoking in the 1990s despite an enormous media campaign aimed at reducing teen smoking. Strangely enough, beefing up the media does not combat alienated behaviors.

 

In the United States, and soon to spread elsewhere as not less than a function of development, we witness the recent transition to an amusement society of commodified spectacles and simulations. The eclipse of nonmediated reality feeds still greater urges to escape an emptied everyday life. Massified culture works in favor of distraction, conformity, and culturally enforced stupidity. The consequent lack of authenticity produces a mass turn-off, not unrelated to the decline of literacy.

 

The collapse of the distinction between reality and simulation in the world of representation can be seen as the ultimate failure of the symbolic. Art, music, and other forms of symbolic culture are losing their power to pacify and console us. Simulation technologies are just the most recent steps away from lived life, toward represented life. Their failure to satisfy means that the system must turn, increasingly, to containment and control.

 

To protect the desolate society an alternative to that society is safely set up, by means of image technologies. As the social dimensions of human life disappear along with meaning and value, a consumer society in cyberspace becomes the next stage of human existence. We are moving steadily toward the goal of complete illusion—virtual life in a virtual reality.

 

Under the Juggernaut, the subject is not supposed to have any sense of social causality, structure, coherence, or motive. Virtual Reality’s merely surface experience is exactly mirrored by postmodernism’s fascination with surfaces. As the culture that can just barely still be called one, postmodernism celebrates its own depthlessness, and is thus nihilism’s essential accomplice. It comes to pervade society when too many have given up hope that they can plumb the depth and roots of the whole. Postmodern perspectives are grounded in the incapacity to specify why change might be desirable or how it might come about.

 

Postmodernism is fundamentally the collapse and refusal of the chance to understand the totality. This indeed is the postmodern boast, mirroring the fragmentation of life instead of challenging it. Its "politics" is that of pragmatism, the tired liberalism that accommodates to the debased norm.

 

Deconstruction, for example, treats every moral statement as an endlessly manipulable fragment that possesses neither meaning nor intrinsic worth. Rem Koolhaus formulates the overall PM subjugation as follows: "According to Derrida we cannot be Whole, according to Baudrillard we cannot be real, according to Virilio we cannot be There."

 

Postmodernism, it might be argued, expresses fewer illusions, but the basic ones remain unchallenged. Its exhausted, ironic cynicism is prostrate before the nihilist ascendancy. What could be more passive than critique-less postmodernism double talk—an ideology of acquiescence.

 

Falsely laying claim to the protection of the particular as against the universal, postmodernism presents no defense whatsoever against the most universalizing force of all, technology. In the guise of particularity it incarnates nothing less than the realization of technology’s universalizing Midas touch.

 

Postmodernism emphasizes plurality, accessibility, absence of boundaries, endless possibility. Just as consumerist society does. And just as speciously. Where culturally a glut of meaningless information and incoherent fragments hold sway, the glut of ersatz commodities provides a perfect economic parallel. The liberty that remains to us is essentially the freedom to choose among brands A, B, and C, and the KFC in Tienanmen Square expresses domination as surely as the suppression of human rights protesters there in 1989.

 

"Systematic consumer segmentation and micro-marketing" is the dominant model of individualism today in the nihilist ethos of listless yet restless buyers. In fact, in an overwhelmingly commodified existence, consumption becomes the number one form of entertainment. Little wonder that academic journals now seriously discuss not only the McDonaldization of society but also its Disneyization, while life is largely defined in terms of consumer styles. The cognitive and moral focus of life becomes that of consumer behavior—including, it should be noted, voting and recycling.

 

Nihilism has effectively leached out the substance and texture from the life-world in the painful progression by which capital and technology have reduced and debased everything in their way. There is no exit from the closed system except by the elimination of that system.

 

Civilization begins by myth and ends in radical doubt, to paraphrase E.M. Cioran. This may remind us that cultural radicalism, which has become such a convention, feeds the dominant system rather than undermining it. Culture, born of alienation, needs alienation to go on. We must challenge the idea of symbolic culture as well as the reality of high-tech barbarism.

 

Nihilism is not a one-way street with no return, rather a route that has revealed the ensemble of domination for what it is. There are now very visible signs of the possibility of breaking its hold, redeeming its long, dark night.

 

2000

 

—from John Zerzan, Running On Emptiness: The Pathology of Civilization (Feral House), 2002, pp. 109 – 114.

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levinas on existence: “imagine all beings, things and persons, reverting to nothingness”


From Emmanuel Levinas, Existence And Existents:

  

2. EXISTENCE WITHOUT EXISTENTS 

Let us imagine all beings, things and persons, reverting to nothingness. One cannot put this return to nothingness outside of all events. But what of this nothingness itself? Something would happen, if only night and the silence of nothingness. The in-determinateness of this “something is happening” is not the indeterminateness of a subject and does not refer to a substantive. Like the third person pronoun in the impersonal form of a verb, it designates not the uncertainly known author of the action, but the characteristic of this action itself which somehow has no author. This impersonal, anonymous, yet inextinguishable “consummation” of being, which murmurs in the depths of nothingness itself we shall designate by the term there is. The there is, inasmuch as it resists a personal form, is “being in general.”

We have not derived this notion from exterior things or the inner world — from any “being” whatever. For there is transcends inwardness as well as exteriority; it does not even make it possible to distinguish these. The anonymous current of being invades, submerges every subject, person or thing. The subject object distinction by which we approach existents is not the starting point for a meditation which broaches being in general. 

We could say that the night is the very experience of the there is, if the term experience were not inapplicable to a situation which involves the total exclusion of light. 

When the forms of things are dissolved in the night, darkness of the night, which is neither an object nor the quality of an object, invades like a presence. In the night, where we are riven to it, we are not dealing with anything. But this nothing is not that of pure nothingness. There is no longer this or that; there is not “something.” But this universal absence is in its turn presence, an absolutely unavoidable presence. It is not the dialectical counterpart of absence, and we do not grasp it through thought. It is immediately there.

There is no discourse. Nothing responds to us, but this silence; the voice of this silence understood and frightens like the silence of those infinite spaces Pascal speaks of. There is, in general, without it mattering there is, without our being able to fix a substantive to this term. There is is an impersonal form, like in it rains, or it is warm. Its anonymity is essential. The mind does not find itself faced with an apprehended exterior. The exterior — if one insists on the term — remains uncorrelated with an interior. It is no long given. It is no longer a world. What we call the I is itself submerged by the night, invaded, depersonalized, stifled by it. The disappearance of all things and of the I leaves what cannot disappear, the sheer fact of being in which one participates whether one wants to or not, without having taken the initiative, anonymously. Being remains, like a field of forces, like a heavy atmosphere belonging to no one, universal, returning in the midst of the negation which put it aside, and in all the powers to which that negation may be multiplied.

There is a nocturnal space, but it is no longer empty space, the transparency which both separates us from things and gives access to them, by which they are given. Darkness fills it like a content; it is full, but full of the nothingness of everything. Can one speak of its continuity? It is surely uninterrupted. But points of nocturnal space do not refer to each other as illuminated space; there is no perspective, they are not situated. There is a swarming of points.

Yet this analysis does not simply illustrate Professor Mosch Turpin’s thesis, in the Tales of Hoffman, that night is the absence of day. The absence of perspective is not something purely negative. It becomes an insecurity. Not because things covered by darkness elude our foresight and that it becomes impossible to measure their approach in advance. For the insecurity does not come from the things of the day world which the night conceals; it is due just to the fact that nothing approaches, nothing comes, nothing threatens; this silence, this tranquility, this void of sensations constitutes a mute, absolutely indeterminate menace. The indeterminateness constitutes its acuteness. There is no determined being, anything can count for anything else. In this ambiguity the menace of pure and simple presence, of the there is, takes form. Before this obscure invasion it is impossible to take shelter in oneself, to withdraw into one’s shell. One is exposed. The whole is open upon us. Instead of serving as our means of access to being, nocturnal space delivers us over to being.

The things of the day world then do not in the night become the source of the “horror of darkness” because our look cannot catch them in their “unforeseeable plots”; on the contrary, they get their fantastic character from this horror. Darkness does not only modify their contours for vision; it reduces them to undetermined, anonymous being, which sweats in them.

One can also speak of different forms of night that occur right in the daytime. Illuminated objects can appear to us as though in twilight shapes. Like the unreal, inverted city we find after an exhausting trip, things and beings strike us as though they no longer composed a world, and were swimming in the chaos of their existence. Such is also the case with the “fantastic,” “hallucinatory” reality in poets like Rimbaud, even when they name the most familiar things and the most accustomed beings. The misunderstood art of certain realistic and naturalistic novelists, their prefaces and professions of faith notwithstanding, produces the same effect: beings and things that collapse into their “materiality,” are terrifyingly present in their destiny, weight and shape. Certain passages of Huysmans or Zola, the calm and smiling horror of de Maupassant’s tales do not only give, as is sometimes thought, a representation “faithful to” or exceeding reality, but penetrates behind the form which light reveals into that materiality which, far from corresponding to the philosophical materialism of the authors, constitutes the dark background of existence. It makes things appear to us in a night, like the monotonous presence that bears down on us in insomnia.The rustling of the there is … is horror. We have noted the way it insinuates itself in the night, as an undetermined menace of space itself disengaged from its function as receptacle for objects,as a means of access to beings. Let us look further into it.

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was leo strauss really a straussian?

An overview of Leo Strauss by two of his former students who reject the widespread conception that Strauss was a conservative or reactionary whose ideas derived from the thought of Nietzsche and Heidegger. Instead, they assert that Strauss’ animating idea was for a return to the ancients, since the relativism and, ultimately, the nihilism of modernity undermined the possibility not just of politics but of philosophy itself.  

 

Strauss’s Philosophical Project 

From reading the popular press (or, to speak more precisely, semipopular press) like the New York Times and the New York Review of Books in the thirty-some years since Strauss’s death, one would think that he had attained prominence in the United States primarily as a conservative political ideologue. Although he was a Jew who emigrated from Germany to flee the National Socialists, Strauss has even been castigated as a Nazi. Despite the portrayal of Strauss as the intellectual source of the “neoconservative” foreign policy of the Bush administration, he said and wrote very little about American politics. He did express his opinion that liberal democracy was much better than the totalitarian alternatives confronting it in the twentieth century; but as an émigré, he often stated, he was not really qualified to comment on American politics. Also, his chief concerns lay elsewhere, with the question of the character and fate of philosophy. “He rarely left the esoteric world of high thought, preferring to construct a history of political philosophy.” And that, we maintain, is where Strauss’s significance primarily lies. He presented a novel diagnosis of what is often called the crisis of the West but which could also be dubbed the end of philosophy.

 He tried not merely to revive but to reform this distinctive form of intellectual activity, which, he argued, defines Western civilization. Strauss’s signature idea was his call for a return to the ancients, his appeal for a reconsideration and reappropriation of the political philosophy of the classics: the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and so on—a group of writers Strauss thought of as “Socratics” because they followed the path of thought opened up by Socrates. Strauss did not begin with a commitment to ancient philosophy, although, as his youthful attachment to Plato indicates, he was seized by an admiration for them, or at least for Plato, from an early age. It was only when he was well along in life, sometime in his thirties, that Strauss concluded that a return to the ancients was both possible and desirable. Like most German students of philosophy of his day, he began as a student of modern philosophy. Having studied with Ernst Cassirer and Edmund Husserl, Strauss met and came to admire Martin Heidegger, who later became the founder of existentialism. He also read Friedrich Nietzsche very seriously in his younger days. His attempt to return to the ancients represented a break not only with these particular thinkers, but with modern philosophy in its entirety.

 The important story about Strauss is the story of his call for this return—how he came to formulate it as a philosophic project, what he saw to be the barriers to such a return (barriers that made the very idea of return unthinkable to most of his contemporaries), what he meant by calling for return, and what the chief consequences of his call for return were. His main impetus for returning to the ancients was a growing dissatisfaction with the various manifestations of modern philosophy, including dissatisfaction with the great modern critics of modern philosophy, Nietzsche and Heidegger. In response to that dissatisfaction, he came to a new or at least very untraditional understanding of the ancients; he rediscovered an older and very nonstandard tradition of Platonism, which, in his opinion, contained a superior understanding of ancient philosophy. It also opened up an understanding of ancient philosophy that was immune to the critiques to which it had been subjected by modern thinkers, from Machiavelli in the sixteenth century to Heidegger in the twentieth. Their criticism of ancient philosophy failed, he came to believe, because they never understood correctly the doctrines they were criticizing. The ancients to whom Strauss wanted to return were thus very different from the ancients as depicted in the textbooks.

The first and perhaps chief consequence of Strauss’s recovery of the ancients was therefore a reconceiving of the entire philosophic tradition. Not only did he come to understand the classics differently from the way they had been understood, but he also radicalized a commonplace distinction between ancients and moderns. With the emergence of modern philosophy, Strauss believed, there had occurred a cataclysmic break with the older philosophy, a break of such magnitude that all that came after was simply a working out of the implications of that break. In the Straussian frame, the difference between ancients and moderns became decisive; Strauss sided with the ancients and traced the ills of modern philosophy and many of the ills of modern politics to that break with ancient philosophy and the consequences of that break.

Part of Strauss’s new grasp of the ancients was an appreciation of political philosophy, of politics, and of the relation between politics and philosophy as a central theme of Socratic philosophy. Strauss had noted already that the greatest philosophers of the first half of the twentieth century, those dominant when he formulated his philosophic project (Henri Bergson, Alfred North Whitehead, Edmund Husserl, and Martin Heidegger), all lacked a political philosophy or any serious philosophic reflections on politics. Another way to formulate Strauss’s signature doctrine, then, is as a call for the rebirth of political philosophy. In this reborn political philosophy, a philosophy that took its bearings from Socrates, not Nietzsche or Heidegger, Strauss believed he had discovered a far more adequate grasp of politics than that prevalent in the academy (social scientific political science) or in political life (ideologized politics). The reconceptualization of the philosophic tradition was thus to be at the same time a reorientation of thinking about politics. Strauss’s project was, to say the least, ambitious.

Although Strauss has recently become famous, if not infamous, the world was slow to take notice of him. One reason the significance of Strauss’s work is only now coming to be properly or truly appreciated in the United States is that many American intellectuals became aware of the arguments against which he positioned himself, in particular the thought of Martin Heidegger, only after Strauss’s death. Living and writing in America, Strauss wanted to respond to Heidegger, but he did not want to propagate Heidegger’s thought by explicating his turgid prose. As a Jew who had fled Hitler’s Germany, Strauss was all too aware of the unsavoury political associations of Heidegger’s Nazi-sympathizing thought. Strauss therefore directed his arguments against what he called “radical historicism,” by which he meant Heidegger. Few of his American readers understood whom or what Strauss actually had in mind.

 

Strauss’s Departure from Heidegger and Nietzsche

Strauss opposed Heidegger, at least in part, because, as he saw it, he and Heidegger had begun with the same philosophical problem or source—the challenge posed by Friedrich Nietzsche. In classes at the University of Chicago in the mid-1960s, Strauss suggested that the best introduction to Heidegger’s thought was to be found in his lectures on Nietzsche, first published in German in 1962. Whereas most others would look to Being and Time, Strauss thought Heidegger’s confrontation with Nietzsche was most revealing of Heidegger’s project.

Strauss himself had been enthralled at an early age with the author he had read furtively in gymnasium. Indeed, Nietzsche exercised a powerful intellectual influence on him for quite some time. In a letter he wrote to Karl Loewith in 1935, Strauss stated that “Nietzsche so dominated me between my 22nd and 30th years, that I literally believed everything that I understood of him.” By the time he wrote to Loewith, however, Strauss had discovered that he agreed with Nietzsche only in part. Like Nietzsche, Strauss “wanted to repeat antiquity . . . at the peak of modernity.” Like Nietzsche, that meant, Strauss wanted to revive a truly noble form of human existence. But Strauss had come to believe that the polemical character of Nietzsche’s critique of modernity had prevented him from realizing his intention. Strauss came, moreover, to have a very different notion of the peak of antiquity, or the most noble form of human existence. Whereas Nietzsche praised blond beasts and Caesar with the soul of Christ, Strauss tried to revive Platonic political philosophy and the Platonic hero, Socrates, who was not a great favorite of Nietzsche’s. In contrast to Nietzsche, Strauss never praised ancient generals and statesmen such as Pericles or Caesar, nor their modern imitators such as Napoleon. He wanted to revive ancient political philosophy, not ancient politics.

Strauss came to question not only the adequacy of Nietzsche’s understanding of the ancients, but also his analysis of the modern crisis. The date at which Strauss says that he ceased to believe everything he understood of Nietzsche coincides roughly with the publication of his own first book, Spinoza’s Critique of Religion (1930). Strauss’s study of Spinoza led him to conclude that the early rationalist modern critics of scriptural religion had failed in their effort to prove that revelation was false, because revelation had never claimed to rest on, or be available to, human reason; and human reason had never been able to generate a comprehensive account of the whole that left no room for the biblical God. “If one wished to refute orthodoxy,” Strauss maintained, “there remained no other way but to attempt to prove that the world and life are perfectly intelligible without the assumption of an unfathomable God. . . . Man had to establish himself theoretically and practically as the master of the world and the master of his life; the world created by him had to erase the world merely ‘given’ to him.” Merely showing, as Spinoza had done, that statements in the Bible were contradictory or anachronistic did not prove that they were not the word, or accurate depictions of the acts, of an omnipotent and unfathomable God. To show that miracles were impossible, modern rationalists had to give a systematic explanation of everything that had occurred or could occur. Unable to do so, Enlightenment thinkers had attempted by means of mockery “to ‘laugh’ orthodoxy out of a position from which it could not be dislodged by any proofs supplied by Scripture or by reason.” By the twentieth century modern rationalism in the combined form of natural science, progressive politics, and industrial technology had shown that it could not describe or remake the world in completely rational form. In Nietzschean terms, Strauss’s study of Spinoza had convinced him that God was by no means necessarily or evidently dead, either as a philosophically disposed-of entity, or as an object of human attachment and belief.

Nietzsche had insisted that the denial of God was a requirement of intellectual honesty, or probity, which, he thought, was our last virtue. Probity constituted a kind of spiritual courage or, in Heideggerian terms, resolution to face the utter meaninglessness of human life and the world. But, Strauss objected in his 1935 book Philosophy and Law, if the world is utterly meaningless, if there is no truth, then there is no basis for Nietzsche’s obligation to declare it or to live by it. According to Nietzsche, the intellectual probity that required him to posit and declare that God is dead was a product of the Christian conscience turning against itself. However, Strauss again pointed out, if there is no God, there is no ground or reason to have, or to listen to, such a conscience. Nietzsche’s own philosophy was based on the same scripturally derived morality he himself had declared to be invalid once the ground of that morality, faith in God, was eroded. Strauss thus attempted to move beyond Nietzsche, for Nietzsche’s philosophy was paradoxically grounded or generated by the very commitments he renounced. Nietzsche was, in this sense, deeply incoherent.

The antagonism to religion characteristic of modern philosophy that Nietzsche had made manifest was not a result simply of the demands of reason, Strauss concluded. The late modern philosophical critique had established, if anything, the limits of reason, and that conclusion made even more incredible the claims of reason to disprove revelation. Rather than constituting a logical conclusion, modern philosophical atheism rested on an act of will. Modern philosophers, even those prior to Nietzsche, had insisted that there was no superhuman, independently existing order or source of morality, because they wanted to improve the human condition. To improve that condition significantly, Strauss maintained, they thought it would be necessary to manipulate nature, even to transform it entirely. But nature would not and could not be manipulated so long as it was regarded as the product of a divine creation. To remake the world, modern thinkers were led to deny the Creator God.

Strauss thus began to suspect, as Heidegger was to argue later, that the core or essence of modern philosophy was technological. But, whereas Heidegger argued that the technological grasp of beings was a necessary result of a fateful dispensation of “Being” itself, Strauss saw it to be the result of a fateful choice. The crisis of modernity was not so much scientific in origin as it was moral and political. The modern attempt to improve and elevate human life threatened to end, as Nietzsche had so powerfully shown, in the utter degradation of human life in the “last man” or in mass society. Once human beings ceased to recognize any superhuman goals or standards by which their efforts could be judged, they stopped striving for anything beyond comfortable self-preservation. As a consequence, their lives lost all nobility. The early modern political philosophers had made the acquisition of power a means to the end of relieving the general human condition; the acquisition of virtue was no longer viewed as an end in itself, and the ancient conception of human excellence as the form of human life worth living had been lost.

 

Strauss’s Analysis of the Contemporary Crisis

The point of departure for Strauss’s call for a return to the ancients was the congeries of ill effects of modernism that he called “the crisis of our time.” The crisis was both announced and partly provoked by Nietzsche and his successors such as Heidegger. As Strauss understood it, the crisis was constituted by the triumph of “radical historicism,” which he thought to be ultimately another name for nihilism. Radical historicism was radical not merely in reductively insisting that all thought reflected its age, or that no thought could escape the limitations inspired by its historical situation. It was radical also in denying that there were any permanent realities whatever. The consequences of this denial were very grave, Strauss thought. On the one hand, there was the contention we now identify with postmodernism: the denial of “foundations” for knowledge or truth. That denial meant the end of philosophy as it was known from Thales to the twentieth century. The “end of philosophy” meant the replacement of the quest for truth with the positing of conventions, or the consensus of “communities” of “knowers,” or mysterious dispensations of fate, or poetry, or pragmatic effectiveness as the measure of a “truth” that could only be written in quotation marks. On the other hand, Strauss thought, the “crisis of our time” was more narrowly political and moral; because it heralded the “end of philosophy,” it also produced a deep-going relativism, denying the possibility of trans-historical truth with respect to moral phenomena. The loss of faith in moral and political truth had two apparently opposite but intimately connected and unfortunate consequences, as Strauss saw it. One was that it encouraged a kind of decisionism, such as is found in many continental philosophic movements of the twentieth century, existentialism for example. In the face of the groundlessness of moral and political choice, what counts is “commitment,” the decision itself, not the substance of what is decided for. Intrinsic merits of political and moral choices were held to be beyond debate: justice, moderation, and sobriety, traits once held to be sine qua nons of responsible action, were not merely no longer favored; they were positively disfavored as signs of lukewarmness or weakness of will. Understanding them to be responding in this way to “the crisis of our time,” Strauss was not surprised to see great thinkers at the “end of philosophy,” like Heidegger, support Hitler and the Nazis.

The other political and moral outcome of radical historicism was loss of faith in any moral truths and the adoption of a passionless lack of commitment to anything but toleration. Strauss never denied that toleration was a virtue, but he shared, in this case, Nietzsche’s revulsion against the “last man,” who said “we invented happiness” but who knew nothing of striving, of the search for excellence, of sacrifice or commitment to anything beyond reality T.V. or Monday Night Football. This lack of commitment, which Strauss’s student Allan Bloom called “flatness,” not only emptied human life of its higher callings, but also endangered the societies that fell prey to it, because life poses challenges not well met by those who look no further than comfort and entertainment.

Strauss came to see that this crisis, in both its philosophical and its political aspects, derived from modern philosophy’s great act of rebellion against classical philosophy and biblical religion. The founders of modernity, thinkers like Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Spinoza, set mankind on a path that, via an almost inexorable dialectic, produced the end of philosophy and the “last man” as announced and diagnosed by Nietzsche. If modernity was at the bottom of the problem, then, Strauss concluded, the proper response was a retreat or a return to premodernity. Strauss’s first efforts at return were to call for a return not to the ancients themselves, but to the “medieval enlightenment,” as developed by the Jewish thinker Moses Maimonides, to whom he paid abiding and recurrent attention throughout his long scholarly career. Strauss’s turn to Maimonides proved, however, to be a step on his way to Plato and Socrates.

—from Catherine H. Zuckert, Michael Zuckert, The Truth about Leo Strauss: Political Philosophy and American Democracy, (2006), pp 30-36.

 

 

 

 

robbe-grillet on film: “reality… is problematic. we run up against it as against a wall of fog”

 


The history of cinema is still rather short, yet it is already characterized by discontinuities and reversals. The majority of contemporary films that now pass for masterpieces would have been rejected by Eisenstein and rightly so as altogether worthless, as the very negation of all art.

 

We should reread today the famous manifesto Eisenstein and Pudovkin wrote in the 1920s on the sound film. At a time when, in Moscow, a brand new American invention was being announced that would permit the actors on the screen to speak, this prophetic text warned vigorously and with extraordinary clarity of vision against the fatal abyss into which cinema was in danger of sliding: Since the illusion of realism would be considerably strengthened by giving the characters a voice, cinema could let itself be led down the cowardly path of glib superficiality (a temptation that never stops menacing us) and from then on, the better to please the multitudes, could remain content with an allegedly faithful reproduction of reality. It would thus surrender all claims to the creation of genuine artworks works in which that reality would be challenged by the very structures of the cinematic narrative.

 

Now, what Eisenstein demanded, with his customary vehemence, was that sound be used to create, on the contrary, new shocks: To the shocks between sequences created by montage (which links, according to relations of harmonic resonance or of opposition, the sequences to one another) should be added the shocks between the various elements of the sound track and still others between sounds and simultaneously projected images. As one may have expected, good Marxist-Leninist that he was, he called upon the sacrosanct "dialectic" in order to support this thesis.

 

But Communist ideology alas! could not save the Soviet cinema (which today is one of the worst in the world) from falling into the snares of glibness. In fact, good old "bourgeois realism" triumphed everywhere in the West as well as the East, where they simply rebaptized it "socialist." Eisenstein and his friends were rapidly subjected to the new universal norm: The montage of the visual sequences of their films (¡Que viva México! for example) was redone by the right-thinking bureaucracy, and all the sounds were made to follow obediently the recorded images.

 

Even in France, it was a theoretician of the extreme Left, André Bazin, who, merrily letting the dialectic go by the board, became the spokesman of illusionist realism, going so far as to write that the ideal film would entail no montage whatsoever, "since in the natural reality of the world there is no montage"! Thus, the numerous and fascinating forms of expression created in Russia and elsewhere during the silent era were summarily repudiated as if they were nothing but childish stammerings born of a merely rudimentary technique. Sound, wide screens, deep focus, color, long-duration reels all of these have allowed us to transform cinema today into a simple reproduction of the world, which, in the final analysis, is tantamount to forcing cinema as an art to disappear.

 

If today we want to restore its life, its former power, and its ability to give us veritable artworks, worthy of vying with fiction or painting of the modern era, then we must bring back to film work the ambitiousness and prominence that characterized it in the days of silent film. And so, as Eisenstein urges, we need to take advantage of every new technical invention, not in order to subject ourselves even further to the ideology of realism but, quite the opposite, to increase the possibilities of dialectical confrontation within film, thereby intensifying the "release of energy" that is just what such internal shocks and tensions allow for.

 

From this point of view, the alleged realism of contemporary commercial films, whether they be signed by Truffaut or by Altman, appears as a flawless totalitarian system, founded on hackneyed, stereotyped redundancy. The least detail in every shot, the connections between sequences, all the elements of the sound track, everything, absolutely everything must concur with the same sense and meaning, with a single sense and meaning, and with good old common sense. The immense potential richness that is concealed in this stuff of dreams these discontinuous, sonorous images must be utterly reduced, subjected to the laws of normative consciousness, to the status quo, so that, at any cost, meaning may be prevented from deviating, swarming, bifurcating, going off in several directions at once, or else getting completely lost. The technicians on the set or in the various recording studios are there precisely to see to it that no imperfections and divergences ever occur.

 

But what is the significance of this will-to-reduction? What it all means, in the final analysis, is that reality and a living reality at that is reduced to a reassuring, homogeneous, unilinear story line, a reconciled and compromised, entirely rational story line from which any disturbing roughness has been purged. Plainly put, realism is by no means the expression of the real, of what is real. But rather, the opposite. Reality is always ambiguous, uncertain, moving, enigmatic, and endlessly intersected by contradictory currents and ruptures. In a word, it is ”incomprehensible." Without a doubt, it is also unacceptable whereas the first and foremost function of realism is to make us accept reality. Realism, therefore, has a pressing obligation not only to make sense but to make one and only one sense, always the same, which it must buttress tirelessly with all the technical means, all the artifices and conventions, that can possibly serve its ends.

 

Thus, for example, prevailing film criticism may blame a certain detective film for lack of realism, ostensibly because the murderer’s motives are not clear enough, or because there are contradictions in the scenario, or because there remain lacunae in the causal chain of events. And yet, what do we actually know about nonfictional attempts to solve real crimes? Precisely that uncertainties at times essential ones always persist until the end, as do unsettling absences, "mistakes" in the protagonist’s behavior, useless and supernumerary characters, diverging proofs, a piece or two too many in the puzzle that the preliminary investigation in vain tries to complete.

 

Reality, then, is problematic. We run up against it as against a wall of fog. Meanwhile, our relation to the world becomes still more complicated because, at every moment, the world of realism presents itself to us as if it were familiar. We become so used to it that we hardly see it: It is our habitat, our cocoon. Yet, actually, we stumble against what’s real with a violence we never get used to a violence that no amount of previous experience can ever assuage so that reality remains for us irremediably foreign and strange. The German words heimlich and unheimlich, which both Freud and Heidegger have used, though in different but here overlapping contexts, give indeed an idea of this lived opposition fundamental because it is inescapable between the strange and the familiar. Both the psychoanalyst and the philosopher insist that the familiarity we think we have with the world is misleading (i.e., ideological, socialized). To acknowledge and explore (even to the point of anguish) the world’s strangeness constitutes the necessary starting point for creating a consciousness that is free. And one of the essential functions of art is precisely that it assumes this role of revealing the world to us. This explains why art does not attempt to make the world more bearable (which undoubtedly is what realism does), but less so: because its ultimate ambition is not to make us accept reality but to change it.

 

the iconic imagery of Last Year at Marienbad

read more…

a recent translation of heidegger on “the poets of the desolate”—rilke and hölderlin

"where the poet belongs in the destiny of the world’s night . . ."

like you, i recall how my teacher in my german-language kindergarten would often quote this famous passage of herder’s, that dreary proto-champion of the teutonic volk:

 

 

Herder writes in his Reflections on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind (Samtliche Werke, ed. Suphan, vol. XIII, p. 355):

 

A breath of our mouth is the picture of the world, the type of our thoughts and feelings in the soul of another. Every human thing that man has ever thought, willed, done, and will do upon earth has depended on the movement of a bit of air; for we would all still be wanderers in the woods if this divine breath had not inspired us and hovered on our lips like a charm.

 

The breath by which those who risk more risk more does not only or primarily mean the hardly noticeable (because fleeting) measure of a difference; rather, it signifies directly the word and the essence of language. The ones who by a breath risk more risk it with language. They are the saying ones who are saying more. For this one bread by which they risk more is not just saying in general;rather, the one breath is an other breath, a saying other than what human saying usually is. The other breath no longer solicits for this or that objective thing; it is a breath for nothing. The saying of the singer says the integral entirety of worldly existence that grants its space invisibly in the world inner space of the heart. Song does not even pursue first what is to be said. Song is the belonging in the entirety of the pure attraction. To sing is drawn [gezogen] from the draft [Zag] of the wind of the unheard center of full Nature. Song is itself: "A wind."

 

So, then, the poem in its poetry does after all unambiguously say who they are who risk more than life itself does. They are the ones who "by a breath risk more." There is a point to the ellipsis that follows in the text of the poem after "by a breath risk more." It says what is silently withheld.

 

Those who risk more are the poets, but poets whose song turns our defenselessness into the open. Because they reverse the departure against the open and inwardly remember its unwholeness [Heil-loses] into the integral [heile] whole, these poets sing the integral in disintegration [im Unhezlen das Heile]. The remembering reversal that is made inward has already overtaken the turning away against the open. It is "ahead of all departuren” and surmounts, in the world inner space of the heart, everything objective. The reversing inward remembrance is the risk that is dared out of the essence of man in that he has language and is the one that says.

 

Modern man, however, is called the one who wills. The ones who risk more are the ones who will more, in that they will in another mode than the deliberative self-assertion of the objectification of the world. Their willing wills nothing of this nature. If will remains only self-assertion, they will nothing. They will nothing in this sense because they are more willing. They comply rather with the will which, as the risk itself, draws all the pure forces unto itself as the pure whole attraction of the open. The willing of those who risk more is the willingness of those who say more, who are resolute [ent-schlossen], no longer shut [verschlossen] in departure against the will by which being wills beings. The willing essence of those who risk more says more sayingly (in the words of the Ninth Elegy):

 

Earth, isn’t it this your will: invisibly

to rise within us? — Isn’t it your dream

to be invisible one day? — Earth! invisible!

What, if not transformation, is your urgent mission?

Earth, dear one, I will.

 

In the invisibility of world inner space, as the unity of which the angel appears, the wholeness of worldly beings becomes evident. Only in the widest compass of the whole is the holy able to appear. Because they experience unwholeness as such, poets of the kind who risk more are underway on the track of the holy. Their song sanctifies over the land. Their song celebrates the unbrokenness of the globe of being.

 

The unwhole, as the unwhole, traces for us what is whole. What is whole beckons and calls to the holy. The holy binds the divine. The divine brings God closer.

 

Those who risk more experience defenselessness in unwholeness. They bring mortals the track of the fugitive gods in the darkness of the world’s night. Those who risk more, as singers of what is whole, are "poets in a desolate time."

 

The distinctive mark of these poets consists in the fact that for them the essence of poetry has become worth questioning, since they are poetically on the track of that which, for them, is to be said. On the track to what is whole, Rilke arrives at the poetical question: when may song be that sings essentially? This question does not stand at the beginning of the poetic path, but rather at the point where Rilke’s saying arrives at the poetic vocation of the poetry that answers to the coming world-era. This era is neither decay nor decline. As destiny it lies in being and lays claim to man.

 

Hölderlin is the forerunner of the poets in a desolate time. That is why no poet of this era can overtake him. The forerunner, however, does not go away into a future, rather he arrives from it in such a way that in the advent [Ankunf] of his words alone the future [Zukunf] presences. The more purely the advent takes place, the more essentially, the more essenced, it remains.

 

The more what is coming is secretly conserved in the foretelling, the purer the arrival. That is why it would be erroneous to say that Hölderlin’s time would come only when "everyone" understands his poetry. It will never come in such a deformed way. Its own desolation is what puts at the disposal of the era the forces by which, knowing not what it is doing, the era prevents Hölderlin’s poetry from becoming timely. The forerunner [Erganger] can as little be overtaken as he can pass away [verganglich ist], for his poetry remains as something that has been in an essential way [Ge-wesenes]. What essences [das Wesende] in the advent gathers itself back into destiny. What does not fall into the course of passing away [Zrgehen] overcomes at the start all that is transient [Verganglichkeit]. What has merely passed away is already, in advance of its passing away, without destiny. What has been in an essential way, by contrast, is the destining. In what we suppose is eternity, something merely transitory [Vergiingliches] has been concealed, put away into the void of a now without duration.

 

If Rilke is a "poet in a desolate time," then only his poetry will answer the question why he is a poet, what it is his song is underway to, where the poet belongs in the destiny of the world’s night. This destiny will decide the question of what within his poetry remains destining.

frederic jameson on the disappearance of the individual subject and the practice of pastiche

"Cultural production is thereby driven back inside a mental space which is no longer that of the old monadic subject but rather that of some degraded collective ‘objective spirit’: it can no longer gaze directly on some putative real world, at some reconstruction of a past history which was once itself a present; rather, as in Plato’s cave, it must trace our mental images of that past upon its confining walls. If there is any realism left here, it is a ‘realism’ that is meant to derive from the shock of grasping that confinement and of slowly becoming aware of a new and original historical situation in which we are condemned to seek History by way of our own pop images and simulacra of that history, which itself remains forever out of reach." 


—Frederic Jameson


The disappearance of the individual subject, along with its formal consequence, the increasing unavailability of the personal style, engender the well-nigh universal practice today of what may be called pastiche. This concept, which we owe to Thomas Mann (in Doktor Faustus), who owed it in turn to Adorno’s great work on the two paths of advanced musical experimentation (Schoenberg’s innovative planification and Stravinsky’s irrational eclecticism), is to be sharply distinguished from the more readily received idea of parody.

To be sure, parody found a fertile area in the idiosyncracies of the moderns and their "inimitable" styles: the Faulknerian long sentence, for example, with its breathless gerundives; Lawrentian nature imagery punctuated by testy colloquialism; Wallace Stevens’s inveterate hypostasis of nonsubstantive parts of speech ("the intricate evasions of as"); the fateful (but finally predictable) swoops in Mahler from high orchestral pathos into village accordion sentiment; Heidegger’s meditative-solemn practice of the false etymology as a mode of "proof" . . . All these strike one as somehow characteristic, insofar as they ostentatiously deviate from a norm which then reasserts itself, in a not necessarily unfriendly way, by a systematic mimicry of their willful eccentricities.

Yet in the dialectical leap from quantity to quality, the explosion of modern literature into a host of distinct private styles and mannerisms has been followed by a linguistic fragmentation of social life itself to the point where the norm itself is eclipsed: reduced to a neutral and reified media speech (far enough from the Utopian aspirations of the inventors of Esperanto or Basic English), which itself then becomes but one more idiolect among many. Modernist styles thereby become postmodernist codes. And that the stupendous proliferation of social codes today into professional and disciplinary jargons (but also into the badges of affirmation of ethnic, gender, race, religious, and class-factional adhesion) is also a political phenomenon, the problem of micropolitics sufficiently demonstrates. If the ideas of a ruling class were once the dominant (or hegemonic) ideology of bourgeois society, the advanced capitalist countries today are now a field of stylistic and discursive heterogeneity without a norm. Faceless masters continue to inflect the economic strategies which constrain our existences, but they no longer need to impose their speech (or are henceforth unable to); and the postliteracy of the late capitalist world reflects not only the absence of any great collective project but also the unavailability of the older national language itself.

In this situation parody finds itself without a vocation; it has lived, and that strange new thing pastiche slowly comes to take its place. Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique, idiosyncratic style, the wearing of a linguistic mask, speech in a dead language. But it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without any of parody’s ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter and of any conviction that alongside the abnormal tongue you have momentarily borrowed, some healthy linguistic normality still exists. Pastiche is thus blank parody, a statue with blind eyeballs: it is to parody what that other interesting and historically original modern thing, the practice of a kind of blank irony, is to what Wayne Booth calls the "stable ironies" of the eighteenth century.

It would therefore begin to seem that Adorno’s prophetic diagnosis has been realized, albeit in a negative way: not Schönberg (the sterility of whose achieved system he already glimpsed) but Stravinsky is the true precursor of postmodern cultural production. For with the collapse of the high-modernist ideology of style — what is as unique and unmistakable as your own fingerprints, as incomparable as your own body (the very source, for an early Roland Barthes, of stylistic invention and innovation) — the producers of culture have nowhere to turn but to the past: the imitation of dead styles, speech through all the masks and voices stored up in the imaginary museum of a now global culture.

This situation evidently determines what the architecture historians call "historicism," namely, the random cannibalization of all the styles of the past, the play of random stylistic allusion, and in general what Henri Lefebvre has called the increasing primacy of the "neo." This omnipresence of pastiche is not incompatible with a certain humor, however, nor is it innocent of all passion: it is at the least compatible with addiction — with a whole historically original consumer’s appetite for a world transformed into sheer images of itself and for pseudo-events and "spectacles" (the term of the situationists). It is for such objects that we may reserve Plato’s conception of the "simulacrum," the identical copy for which no original has ever existed. Appropriately enough, the culture of the simulacrum comes to life in a society where exchange value has been generalized to the point at which the very memory of use value is effaced, a society of which Guy Debord has observed, in an extraordinary phrase, that in it "the image has become the final form of commodity reification" (The Society of the Spectacle).

The new spatial logic of the simulacrum can now be expected to have a momentous effect on what used to be historical time. The past is thereby itself modified: what was once, in the historical novel as Lukacs defines it, the organic genealogy of the bourgeois collective project — what is still, for the redemptive historiography of an E. P Thompson or of American "oral history," for the resurrection of the dead of anonymous and silenced generations, the retrospective dimension indispensable to any vital reorientation of our collective future — has meanwhile itself become a vast collection of images, a multitudinous photographic simulacrum. Guy Debord’s powerful slogan is now even more apt for the "prehistory" of a society bereft of all historicity, one whose own putative past is little more than a set of dusty spectacles. In faithful conformity to poststructuralist linguistic theory, the past as "referent" finds itself gradually bracketed, and then effaced altogether, leaving us with nothing but texts.

Yet it should not be thought that this process is accompanied by indifference: on the contrary, the remarkable current intensification of an addiction to the photographic image is itself a tangible symptom of an omnipresent, omnivorous, and well-nigh libidinal historicism. As I have already observed, the architects use this (exceedingly polysemous) word for the complacent eclecticism of postmodern architecture, which randomly and without principle but with gusto cannibalizes all the architectural styles of the past and combines them in overstimulating ensembles. Nostalgia does not strike one as an altogether satisfactory word for such fascination (particularly when one thinks of the pain of a properly modernist nostalgia with a past beyond all but aesthetic retrieval), yet it directs our attention to what is a culturally far more generalized manifestation of the process in commercial art and taste, namely the so-called nostalgia film (or what the French call la mode retro).

Nostalgia films restructure thewhole issue of pastiche and project it onto a collective and social level, where the desperate attempt to appropriate a missing past is now refracted through the iron law of fashion change and the emergent ideology of the generation. The inaugural film of this new aesthetic discourse, George Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973), set out to recapture, as so many films have attempted since, the henceforth mesmerizing lost reality of the Eisenhower era; and one tends to feel, that for Americans at least, the 1950s remain the privileged lost object of desire7 — not merely the stability and prosperity of a pax Americana but also the first naive innocence of the countercultural impulses of early rock and roll and youth gangs (Coppola’s Rumble Fish will then be the contemporary dirge that laments their passing, itself, however, still contradictorily filmed in genuine nostalgia film style). With this initial breakthrough, other generational periods open up for aesthetic colonization: as witness the stylistic recuperation of the American and the Italian 1930s, in Polanski’s Chinatown and Bertolucci’s Il Conformista, respectively. More interesting, and more problematical, are the ultimate attempts, through this new discourse, to lay siege either to our own present and immediate past or to a more distant history that escapes individual existential memory.

Faced with these ultimate objects — our social, historical, and existential present, and the past as "referent" — the incompatibility of a postmodernist "nostalgia" art language with genuine historicity becomes dramatically apparent. The contradiction propels this mode, however, into complex and interesting new formal inventiveness; it being understood that the nostalgia film was never a matter of some old-fashioned "representation" of historical content, but instead approached the "past" through stylistic connotation, conveying "pastness" by the glossy qualities of the image, and "1930s-ness" or "1950s-ness" by the attributes of fashion (in that following the prescription of the Barthes of Mythologies, who saw connotation as the purveying of imaginary and stereotypical idealities: "Sinité," for example, as some Disney-EPCOT "concept" of China).

The insensible colonization of the present by the nostalgia mode can be observed in Lawrence Kasdan’s elegant film Body Heat, a distant "affluent society" remake of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, set in a contemporary Florida small town a few hours’ drive from Miami. The word remake is, however, anachronistic to the degree to which our awareness of the preexistence of other versions (previous films of the novel as well as the novel itself) is now a constitutive and essential part of the film’s structure: we are now, in other words, in "intertextuality" as a deliberate, built-in feature of the aesthetic effect and as the operator of a new connotation of "pastness" and pseudohistorical depth, in which the history of aesthetic styles displaces "real" history.

Yet from the outset a whole battery of aesthetic signs begin to distance the officially contemporary image from us in time: the art deco scripting of the credits, for example, serves at once to program the spectator to the appropriate "nostalgia" mode of reception (art deco quotation has much the same function in contemporary architecture, as in Toronto’s remarkable EatonCentre).8 Meanwhile, a somewhat different play of connotations is activated by complex (but purely formal) allusions to the institution of the star system itself. The protagonist, William Hurt, is one of a new generation of film "stars" whose status is markedly distinct from that of the preceding generation of male superstars, such as Steve McQueen or Jack Nicholson (or even, more distantly, Brando), let alone of earlier moments in the evolution of the institution of the star. The immediately preceding generation projected their various roles through and by way of their well-known off-screen personalities, which often connoted rebellion and nonconformism. The latest generation of starring actors continues to assure the conventional functions of stardom (most notably sexuality) but in the utter absence of "personality" in the older sense, and with something of the anonymity of character acting (which in actors like Hurt reaches virtuoso proportions, yet of a very different kind than the virtuosity of the older Brando or Olivier). This "death of the subject" in the institution of the star now, however, opens up the possibility of a play of historical allusions to much older roles — in this case to those associated with Clark Gable — so that the very style of the acting can now also serve as a "connotator" of the past.

Finally, the setting has been strategically framed, with great ingenuity, to eschew most of the signals that normally convey the contemporaneity of the United States in its multinational era: the small-town setting allows the camera to elude the high-rise landscape of the 1970s and 1980s (even though a key episode in the narrative involves the fatal destruction of older buildings by land speculators), while the object world of the present day — artifacts and appliances, whose styling would at once serve to date the image — is elaborately edited out. Everything in the film, therefore, conspires to blur its official contemporaneity and make it possible for the viewer to receive the narrative as though it were set in some eternal thirties, beyond real historical time. This approach to the present by way of the art language of the simulacrum, or of the pastiche of the stereotypical past, endows present reality and the openness of present history with the spell and distance of a glossy mirage. Yet this mesmerizing new aesthetic mode itself emerged as an elaborated symptom of the waning of our historicity, of our lived possibility of experiencing history in some active way. It cannot therefore be said to produce this strange occultation of the present by its own formal power, but rather merely to demonstrate, through these inner contradictions, the enormity of a situation in which we seem increasingly incapable of fashioning representations of our own current experience.

As for "real history" itself — the traditional object, however it may be defined, of what used to be the historical novel — it will be more revealing now to turn back to that older form and medium and to read its postmodern fate in the work of one of the few serious and innovative leftist novelists at work in the United States today, whose books are nourished with history in the more traditional sense and seem, so far, to stake out successive generational moments in the "epic" of American history, between which they alternate. E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime gives itself officially as a panorama of the first two decades of the century (like World’s Fair); his most recent novel, Billy Bathgate, like Loon Lake addresses the thirties and the Great Depression, while The Book of Daniel holds up before us, in painful juxtaposition, the two great moments of the Old Left and the New Left, of thirties and forties communism and the radicalism of the 1960s (even his early western may be said to fit into this scheme and to designate in a less articulated and formally self-conscious way the end of the frontier of the late nineteenth century).

The Book of Daniel is not the only one of these five major historical novels to establish an explicit narrative link between the reader’s and the writer’s present and the older historical reality that is the subject of the work; the astonishing last page of Loon Lake, which I will not disclose, also does this in a very different way; it is a matter of some interest to note that the first version of Ragtime9 positions us explicitly in our own present, in the novelist’s house in New Rochelle, New York, which at once becomes the scene of its own (imaginary) past in the 1900s. This detail has been suppressed from the published text, symbolically cutting its moorings and freeing the novel to float in some new world of past historical time whose relationship to us is problematical indeed. The authenticity of the gesture, however, may be measured by the evident existential fact of life that there no longer does seem to be any organic relationship between the American history we learn from schoolbooks and the lived experience of the current multinational, high-rise, stagflated city of the newspapers and of our own everyday life.

A crisis in historicity, however, inscribes itself symptomatically in several other curious formal features within this text. Its official subject is the transition from a pre-World War I radical and working-class politics (the great strikes) to the technological invention and new commodity production of the 1920s (the rise of Hollywood and of the image as commodity): the interpolated version of Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas, the strange, tragic episode of the black protagonist’s revolt, may be thought of as a moment related to this process. That Ragtime has political content and even something like a political "meaning" seems in any case obvious and has been expertly articulated by Linda Hutcheon in terms of

its three paralleled families: the Anglo-American establishment one and the marginal immigrant European and American black ones. The novel’s action disperses the center of the first and moves the margins into the multiple "centers" of the narrative, in a formal allegory of the social demographics of urban America. In addition, there is an extended critique of American democratic ideals through the presentation of class conflict rooted in capitalist property and moneyed power. The black Coalhouse, the white Houdini, the immigrant Tateh are all working class, and because of this — not in spite of it — all can therefore work to create new aesthetic forms (ragtime, vaudeville, movies).10

But this does everything but the essential, lending the novel an admirable thematic coherence few readers can have experienced in parsing the lines of a verbal object held too close to the eyes to fall into these perspectives. Hutcheon is, of course, absolutely right, and this is what the novel would have meant had it not been a postmodern artifact. For one thing, the objects of representation, ostensibly narrative characters, are incommensurable and, as it were, of incomparable substances, like oil and water — Houdini being a historical figure, Tateh a fictional one, and Coalhouse an intertextual one — something very difficult for an interpretive comparison of this kind to register. Meanwhile, the theme attributed to the novel also demands a somewhat different kind of scrutiny, since it can be rephrased into a classic version of the Left’s "experience of defeat" in the twentieth century, namely, the proposition that the depolitization of the workers’ movement is attributable to the media or culture generally (what she here calls "new aesthetic forms"). This is, indeed, in my opinion, something like the elegiac backdrop, if not the meaning, of Ragtime, and perhaps of Doctorow’s work in general; but then we need another way of describing the novel as something like an unconscious expression and associative exploration of this left doxa, this historical opinion or quasi-vision in the mind’s eye of "objective spirit." What such a description would want to register is the paradox that a seemingly realistic novel like Ragtime is in reality a nonrepresentational work that combines fantasy signifiers from a variety of ideologemes in a kind of hologram.

My point, however, is not some hypothesis as to the thematic coherence of this decentered narrative but rather just the opposite, namely, the way in which the kind of reading this novel imposes makes it virtually impossible for us to reach and thematize those official "subjects" which float above the text but cannot be integrated into our reading of the sentences. In that sense, the novel not only resists interpretation, it is organized systematically and formally to short-circuit an older type of social and historical interpretation which it perpetually holds out and withdraws. When we remember that the theoretical critique and repudiation of interpretation as such is a fundamental component of poststructuralist theory, it is difficult not to conclude that Doctorow has somehow deliberately built this very tension, this very contradiction, into the flow of his sentences.

The book is crowded with real historical figures — from Teddy Roosevelt to Emma Goldman, from Harry K. Thaw and Stanford White to J. Pierpont Morgan and Henry Ford, not to mention the more central role of Houdini — who interact with a fictive family, simply designated as Father, Mother, Older Brother, and so forth. All historical novels, beginning with those of Sir Walter Scott himself, no doubt in one way or another involve a mobilization of previous historical knowledge generally acquired through the schoolbook history manuals devised for whatever legitimizing purpose by this or that national tradition — thereafter instituting a narrative dialectic between what we already "know" about The Pretender, say, and what he is then seen to be concretely in the pages of the novel. But Doctorow’s procedure seems much more extreme than this; and I would argue that the designation of both types of characters — historical names and capitalized family roles — operates powerfully and systematically to reify all these characters and to make it impossible for us to receive their representation without the prior interception of already acquired knowledge or doxa — something which lends the text an extraordinary sense of deja vu and a peculiar familiarity one is tempted to associate with Freud’s "return of the repressed" in "The Uncanny" rather than with any solid historiographic formation on the reader’s part.

Meanwhile, the sentences in which all this is happening have their own specificity, allowing us more concretely to distinguish the moderns’ elaboration of a personal style from this new kind of linguistic innovation, which is no longer personal at all but has its family kinship rather with what Barthes long ago called "white writing." In this particular novel, Doctorow has imposed upon himself a rigorous principle of selection in which only simple declarative sentences (predominantly mobilized by the verb "to be") are received. The effect is, however, not really one of the condescending simplification and symbolic carefulness of children’s literature, but rather something moredisturbing, the sense of some profound subterranean violence done to American English, which cannot, however, be detected empirically in any of the perfectly grammatical sentences with which this work is formed. Yet other more visible technical "innovations" may supply a clue to what is happening in the language of Ragtime: it is, for example, well known that the source of many of the characteristic effects of Camus’s novel The Stranger can be traced back to that author’s willful decision to substitute, throughout, the French tense of the passe compose for the other past tenses more normally employed in narration in that language.11 I suggest that it is as if something of that sort were at work here: as though Doctorow had set out systematically to produce the effect or the equivalent, in his language, of a verbal past tense we do not possess in English, namely, the French preterite (or passe simple), whose "perfective" movement, as Emile Benveniste taught us, serves to separate events from the present of enunciation and to transform the stream of time and action into so many finished, complete, and isolated punctual event objects which find themselves sundered from any present situation (even that of the act of story telling or enunciation).

E. L. Doctorow is the epic poet of the disappearance of the American radical past, of the suppression of older traditions and moments of the American radical tradition: no one with left sympathies can read these splendid novels without a poignant distress that is an authentic way of confronting our own current political dilemmas in the present. What is culturally interesting, however, is that he has had to convey this great theme formally (since the waning of the content is very precisely his subject) and, more than that, has had to elaborate his work by way of that very cultural logic of the postmodern which is itself the mark and symptom of his dilemma. Loon Lake much more obviously deploys the strategies of the pastiche (most notably in its reinvention of Dos Passos); but Ragtime remains the most peculiar and stunning monument to the aesthetic situation engendered by the disappearance of the historical referent. This historical novel can no longer set out to represent the historical past; it can only "represent" our ideas and stereotypes about that past (which thereby at once becomes "pop history"). Cultural production is thereby driven back inside a mental space which is no longer that of the old monadic subject but rather that of some degraded collective "objective spirit": it can no longer gaze directly on some putative real world, at some reconstruction of a past history which was once itself a present; rather, as in Plato’s cave, it must trace our mental images of that past upon its confining walls. If there is any realism left here, it is a "realism" that is meant to derive from the shock of grasping that confinement and of slowly becoming aware of a new and original historical situation in which we are condemned to seek History by way of our own pop images and simulacra of that history, which itself remains forever out of reach.

Notes

7. For further on the 50s, see chapter 9.

8. See also "Art Deco," in my Signatures of the Visible (Routledge, 1990).

9. "Ragtime," American Review no.20 (April 1974): 1-20.

10. Lynda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism (1988), pp.61-2.

11. Jean-Paul Sartre, "L’Etranger de Camus," in Situations II (Paris, Gallimard. 1948).

 

—from Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke UP, 1991.