deleuze on crime fiction: the brilliance of james gunn’s deadlier than the male

Bookseller Photo

Gilles Deleuze, The Philosophy of Crime Novels1


La
Série Noire is celebrating a momentous occasion—its release of #1000. The coherence, the idea of this collection owes everything to its editor. Of course everyone knew something about cops, criminals, and their relationship, even if it was only from reading the papers, or the knowledge of special reports. But literature is like consciousness, it always lags behind. These things had not yet found their contemporary literary expression, or they hadn’t attained the status of common-place in literature. The credit for closing this gap at a particularly favorable moment goes to Marcel Duhamel.2 Malraux had this insight to offer in his preface to the translation of Sanctuary: "Faulkner knows very well that detectives don’t exist; that police power stems neither from psychology nor from clarity of vision, but from informants; and that it’s not Moustachu or Tapinois, the modest thinkers of the Quai des Orfevres, who bring about the apprehension of the murderer on the loose, but rank-and-file cops"…. La Série Noire was above all an adaptation of Sanctuary for a mass market (look at Chase’s No Orchids for Miss Blandish), and a generalization of Malraux’s preface.

In the old conception of the detective novel, we would be shown a genius detective devoting the whole power of his mind to the search and discovery of the truth. The idea of truth in the classic detective novel was totally philosophical, that is, it was the product of the effort and the operations of the mind. So it is that police investigation modeled itself on philosophical inquiry, and conversely, gave to philosophy an unusual object to elucidate: crime.

 

There were two schools of truth: 1) the French school (Descartes), where truth is a question of some fundamental intellectual intuition, from which the rest is rigorously deduced; and 2) the English school (Hobbes), according to which truth is always induced from something else, interpreted from sensory indices. In a word, deduction and induction. The detective novel reproduced this duality, though in a movement which was proper to the literary genre, and has produced famous examples of each. The English school: Conan Doyle gave us Sherlock Holmes, the masterful interpreter of signs, the inductive genius. The French school: Gaboriau gave us Tabaret and Lecoq; and Gaston Leroux, Rouletabille, who with "a circle between the two lobes of his forehead," is always invoking "the right track of reason" and explicitly opposing his theory of certainty to the inductive method, the Anglo-Saxon theory of signs.

 

The criminal side of the affair can also be quite interesting. By a metaphysical law of reflection, the cop is no more extraordinary than the criminal—he, too, professes allegiance to justice and truth and the powers of deduction and induction. And so you have the possibility of two series of novels: the hero of the first is the detective, and the hero of the second is the criminal. With Rouletabille and Cheri-Bibi, Leroux brought each series to its perfection. But never the twain shall meet: they are the motors for two different series (they could never meet without one of them looking ridiculous; cf Leblanc’s attempt to put Arsene Lupin together with Sherlock Holmes).’ Rouletabille and Cheri-Bibi: Each is the double of the other, they have the same destiny, the same pain, the same quest for the truth. This is the destiny and quest of Oedipus (Rouletabille is destined to kill his father; Cheri-Bibi attends a performance of Oedipus and shouts: "He’s just like me!"). After philosophy, Greek tragedy.

 

Still we mustn’t be too surprised that the crime novel so faithfully reproduces Greek tragedy, since Oedipus is always called on to indicate any such coincidence. While it is the only Greek tragedy that already has this detective structure, we should marvel that Sophocles’s Oedipus is a detective, and not that the detective novel has remained Oedipal. We should give credit where credit is due: to Leroux, a phenomenal novelist in French literature, who had a genius for striking phrases: "not the hands, not the hands," "the ugliest of men," "Fatal-itas," "men who open doors and men who shut traps," "a circle between two lobes," etc.

 

But the birth of La Série Noire has been the death of the detective novel, properly speaking. To be sure, the great majority of novels in the collection have been content to change the detective’s way of doing things (he drinks, he’s in love, he’s restless) but keep the same structure: the surprise ending that brings all the characters together for the final explanation that fingers one of them as the guilty party. Nothing new there.

 

What the new literary use and exploitation of cops and criminals taught us is that police activity has nothing to do with a metaphysical or scientific search for the truth. Police work no more resembles scientific inquiry than a telephone call from an informant, inter-police relations, or mechanisms of torture resemble metaphysics. As a general rule, there are two distinct cases: 1) the professional murder, where the police know immediately more or less who is responsible; and 2) the sexual murder, where the guilty party could be anyone. But in either case the problem is not framed in terms of truth. It is rather an astonishing compensation of error. The suspect, known to the cops but never charged, is either nabbed in some other domain than his usual sphere of criminal activity (whence the American schema of the untouchable gangster, who is arrested and deported for tax fraud); or he is provoked, forced to show himself, as they lie in wait for him.

 

With La Série Noire, we’ve become accustomed to the sort of cop who dives right in, come what may, regardless of the errors he may commit, but confident that something will emerge. At the other extreme, we’ve been allowed to watch the meticulous preparation of a sting operation, and the domino effect of little errors that loom ever larger as the moment of reckoning approaches (it’s in this sense that La Série Noire influenced cinema). The totally innocent reader is shocked in the end by so many errors committed on both sides. Even when the cops themselves are hatching a nasty plot, they make so many blunders, they defy belief.

 

This is because the truth is in no way the ambient element of the investigation: not for a moment does one believe that this compensation of errors aims for the discovery of the truth as its final objective. On the contrary, this compensation has its own dimension, its own sufficiency, a kind of equilibrium or the reestablishment of it, a process of restitution that allows a society, at the limits of cynicism, to hide what it wants to hide, reveal what it wants to reveal, deny all evidence, and champion the improbable. The killer still at large may be killed for his own errors, and the police may have to sacrifice one of their own for still other errors, and so it is that these compensations have no other object than to perpetuate an equilibrium that represents a society in its entirety at the heights of its power of falsehood.

 

This same process of restitution, equilibrium or compensation also appears in Greek tragedy (Aeschylus, for example). The greatest novel of this kind, and the most admirable in every respect, is not part of La Série Noire: it’s Robbe-Grillet’s Les Gommes, which develops an incredible compensation of errors whose keynotes are an Aeschylean equilibrium and an Oedipal quest.

 

From a literary point of view, La Série Noire made the power of falsehood the primary detective element. And this entails another consequence: clearly, the relation between cop and criminal is no longer one of metaphysical reflection. The interpenetration is real, and the complicity deep and compensatory. Fair’s fair, quid pro quo, they exchange favors and no less frequently betrayals on the one side and the other. We are always led back to the great trinity of falsehood: informant-corruption-torture. But it goes without saying that the cops do not of their own accord initiate this disquieting complicity. The metaphysical reflection of the old detective novel has given way to a mirroring of the other. A society indeed reflects itself to itself in its police and its criminals, even while it protects itself from them by means of a fundamental deep complicity between them.

 

We know that a capitalist society more willingly pardons rape, murder, or kidnapping than a bounced check, which is its only theological crime, the crime against spirit. We know very well that important political dealings entail any number of scandals and real crimes; conversely, we know that crime is organized in business-like fashion, with structures as precise as a board of directors or managers. La Série Noire introduced us to a politics-crime combo that, despite the evidence of History past and present, had not been given a contemporary literary expression.

 

The Kefauver report,4 and especially the book by Turkus, Societe anonyme pour assassinats, were the source of inspiration for many of the texts in La Série Noire. Many writers did little more than plagiarize them, or rather they turned them into popular novels. Whether it’s the Trujillo regime, or Battista, or Hitler, or Franco—what will be next when everyone is talking about Ben Barka—that begets a hybrid that is properly Série Noire; whether it’s Asturias writing a novel of genius: M. le President,5 or whether it’s people sitting around trying to figure out the secret of this unity of the grotesque and the terrifying, the terrible and the clownish, which binds together political power, economic power, crime and police activity—it’s all already in Suetonius, Shakespeare, Jarry, Asturias: La Série Noire has recycled it all. Have we really made any progress in understanding this hybrid of the grotesque and terrifying which, under the right circumstances, could determine the fate of us all?

 

So it is that La Série Noire has transformed our imaginings, our evaluations of the police. It was high time. Was it good for us to participate as "active readers" in the old detective novel, and thereby lose our grip on reality and thus our power of indignation? Indignation wells up in us because of reality, or because of masterful works of art. La Série Noire indeed seems to have pastiched every great novelist: imitation Faulkner, but also imitation Steinbeck, imitation Caldwell, imitation Asturias. And it followed the trends: first American, then it rediscovered French crime.

 

True, La Série Noire is full of stereotypes: the puerile presentation of sexuality, or what about the eyes of the killers (only Chase managed to lend a particular cold life to his killers, who are headstrong and non-conformist). But its greatness belongs to Duhamel’s idea, which remains the driving force behind recent releases: a reorganization of the vision of the world that every honest person has concerning cops and criminals.

 

Clearly, a new realism is insufficient to make good literature. In bad literature, the real as such is the object of stereotypes, puerile notions, and cheap fantasies, worse than any imaginative imbecile could dream up. But more profound than either the real or the imaginary is parody. La Série Noire may have suffered from an over-abundant production, but it has kept a unity, a tendency, which periodically found expression in a beautiful work (the contemporary success of James Bond, who was never integrated into La Série Noire, seems to represent a serious literary regression, though compensated for by the cinema, a return to a rosy conception of the secret agent).

 

The most beautiful works of La Série Noire are those in which the real finds its proper parody, such that in its turn the parody shows us directions in the real which we would not have found otherwise. These are some of the great works of parody, though in different modes: Chase’s Miss Shumway Waves a Wand; Williams’s The Diamond Bikini; or Hime’s negro novels, which always have extraordinary moments. Parody is a category that goes beyond real and imaginary. And let’s not forget #50: James Gunn’s Deadlier than the Male.

 

The trend in those days was American: it was said that certain novelists were writing under American pseudonyms. Deadlier than the Male is a marvelous work: the power of falsehood at its height, an old woman pursuing an assassin by smell, a murder attempt in the dunes—what a parody, you would have to read it—or reread it—to believe it. Who is James Gunn anyway? Only a single work in La Série Noire appeared under his name. So now that La Série Noire is celebrating the release of #1000, and is re-releasing many older works, and as a tribute to Marcel Duhamel, I humbly request the re-release of my personal favorite: #50.

 

Notes:

 

1. Arts et Loisirs, no. 18, 26 janvier-1 fevrier, 1966.

2. In 1945, the novelist Marcel Duhamel created "La Série Noire" at Gallimard; it is a series dedicated to the crime novel, which he headed till 1977.

3. Maurice Leblanc, Arsene Lupin contre Sherlock Holmes, 1908, reedited by Livre de Poche.

4. In 1952, a democratic senator issued a report on organized crime in America.

5. M. le President (Paris: Flammarion, 1987).

 

—from Gilles Deleuze, Desert Islands and Other Texts, 1953-1974. Edited by David Lapoujade. Translated by Michael Taormina. Semiotext(e) Foreign Agents Series (2004), pp 81–85.


 

boredom / happiness studies: adorno on the fetishism of suntanning & schopenhauer


An archetypal instance is the behaviour of those who grill themselves brown in the sun merely for the sake of a sun-tan, although dozing in the blazing sunshine is not at all enjoyable, might very possibly be physically unpleasant, and certainly impoverishes the mind. In the sun-tan, which can be quite fetching, the fetish character of the commodity lays claim to actual people; they themselves become fetishes. The idea that a girl is more erotically attractive because of her brown skin is probably only another rationalization. The sun-tan is an end in itself, of more importance than the boy-friend it was perhaps supposed to entice. 

   
Adorno on the evils of suntanning:

The act of dozing in the sun marks the culmination of a crucial element of free time under present conditions – boredom. The miracles which people expect from their holidays or from other special treats in their free time, are subject to endless spiteful ridicule, since even here they never get beyond the threshold of the eversame: distant places are no longer – as they still were for Baudelaire’s ennui – different places. The victim’s ridicule is automatically connected to the very mechanisms which victimize. At an early age Schopenhauer formulated a theory of boredom. True to his metaphysical pessimism he teaches that people either suffer from the unfulfilled desires of their blind will, or become bored as soon as these desires are satisfied. The theory well describes what becomes of people’s free time under the sort of conditions of heteronomy, and which in new German tends to be termed Fremdbestimmtheit  (external determination). In its cynicism Schopenhauer’s arrogant remark that mankind is the factory product of nature also captures something of what the totality of the commodity character actually makes man into. Angry cynicism still does more honour to human beings than solemn protestations about man’s irreducible essence. However, one should not hypostatize Schopenhauer’s doctrine as something of universal validity or even as an insight into the primal character of the human species. Boredom is a function of life which is lived under the compulsion to work, and under the strict division of labour. It need not be so. Whenever behaviour in spare time is truly autonomous, determined by free people for themselves, boredom rarely figures; it need not figure in activities which cater merely for the desire for pleasure, any more than it does in those free time activities which are reasonable and meaningful in themselves. Even fooling about need not be crass, and can be enjoyed as a blessed release from the throes of self-control. If people were able to make their own decisions about themselves and their lives, if they were not caught up in the realm of the eversame, they would not have to be bored. Boredom is the reflection of objective dullness.


Adorno on DIY (home improvement?):

 

‘Do it yourself ’, this contemporary type of spare time behaviour fits however into a much more far-reaching context. More than thirty years ago I described such behaviour as ‘pseudo-activity’. Since then pseudoactivity has spread alarmingly, even (and especially) amongst those people who regard themselves as anti-establishment. Generally speaking there is good reason to assume that all forms of pseudo-activity contain a pent-up need to change the petrified relations of society. Pseudo-activity is misguided spontaneity. Misguided, but not accidentally so; because people do have a dim suspicion of how hard it would be to throw off the yoke that weighs upon them. They prefer to be distracted by spurious and illusory activities, by institutionalized vicarious satisfactions, than to face up to the awareness of how little access they have to the possibility of change today. Pseudo-activities are fictions and parodies of the same productivity which society on the one hand incessantly calls for, but on the other holds in check and, as far as the individual is concerned, does not really desire at all.

 

—excerpted from Adorno’s essay “Free Time,” in his The Culture Industry: Selected Essays On Mass Culture (1991).

 

Read "Free Time," IF YOU DARE!

siegfried kracauer on memory and photography

Siegfried Kracauer in 1930.


Forced to leave fascist Germany in 1933, Siegfried Kracauer (1889-1966) began a period of exile that would last the rest of his life. It was thus in Paris and then, after 1941, in New York that he would write the works for which he is known in the Anglo-American realm: a "social biography" of Jacques Offenbach (Orpheus in Paris, 1937), a study of Weimar film (From Caligari to Hitler, 1947), an aesthetics of cinema (Theory of Film, 1960) and a meditation on the philosophy of history (History: The Last Things before the Last, 1969). What Kracauer abandoned in Frankfurt and Berlin was not only his native language but also a career as one of the major cultural critics of the Weimar Republic. Trained as both an architect and a sociologist, in the mid-1920s Kracauer became one of the editors of the feuilleton (arts and culture) section of the important, left-liberal Frankfurter Zeitung, a paper in which he eventually published nearly two thousand articles on a remarkably wide range of subjects. While many of these were more or less incidental journalistic pieces, others, such as "Photography," were sustained philosophical reflections. It was in these pages that Kracauer effectively pioneered the genre of sociological film criticism, undertook a pathbreaking series of analyses of the new "employee-class" (collected in 1930 in a book entitled Die Angestellten), and published major essays on Kafka, Benjamin, Weber, Scheler, the Buber-Rosenzweig translation of the Bible, the genre of biography, to name just a few. Together with his friends Adorno, Benjamin, and Bloch, whose work he published regularly in the feuilleton section, Kracauer also wrote philosophical and sociological analyses of daily-life phenomena in the tradition of his teacher Georg Simmel. In these quotidian micrologies focusing, for example, on the architecture of cinema pal- aces, unemployment offices and arcades, on travel and dance troupes, best-sellers and boredom, on neon-light displays and mass sports events, Kracauer developed a genre motivated by the following programmatic insight: "One must rid oneself of the delusion that it is the major events which have the most decisive influence on people. They are much more deeply and continuously influenced by the tiny catastrophes which make up daily life." The publication in translation of a collection of these essays from the Weimar period entitled The Mass Ornament will finally make available this important and until recently largely unknown facet of Kracauer’s work.



. . . Memory
encompasses neither the entire spatial appearance nor the entire temporal course of an event. Compared to photography memory’s records are full of gaps. The fact that the grandmother was at one time involved in a nasty story that is being recounted time and again because one really doesn’t like to talk about it-this doesn’t mean much from the photographer’s perspective. He knows the first little wrinkles on her face and has noted every date. Memory does not pay much attention to dates; it skips years or stretches temporal distance. The selection of traits that it assembles must strike the photographer as arbitrary. The selection may have been made this way rather than another because disposition and purposes required the repression, falsification, and emphasis of certain parts of the object; a virtually endless number of reasons determines the remains to be filtered. No matter which scenes a person remembers, they all mean something that is relevant to him or her without his or her necessarily knowing what they mean. Memories are retained because of their significance for that person. Thus they are organized according to a principle that is essentially different from the organizing principle of photography. Photography grasps what is given as a spatial (or temporal) continuum; memory-images retain what is given only insofar as it has significance. Since what is significant is not reducible to either merely spatial or merely temporal terms, memory-images are at odds with photographic representation. From the latter’s perspective, memory-images appear to be fragments but only because photography does not encompass the meaning to which they refer and in relation to which they cease to be fragments. Similarly, from the perspective of memory, photography appears as a jumble that consists partly of garbage.


The meaning of memory-images is linked to their truth content. As long as they are embedded in the uncontrolled life of the drives they are inhabited by a demonic ambiguity; they are opaque like frosted glass that hardly a ray of light can penetrate. Their transparency increases to the extent that insights thin out the vegetation of the soul and limit the compulsion of nature. Truth can only be found by a liberated consciousness that assesses the demonic nature of the drives. The traits that consciousness recollects stand in a relationship to what has been perceived as true, the latter being either manifest in these traits or shut out by them. The image in which these traits are to be found is distinguished from all other memory-images, for unlike the latter it preserves not a multitude of opaque recollections but instead elements that touch upon what has been recognized as true. All memory-images are bound to be reduced to this type of image, which may rightly be called the last image, since in it alone does the unforgettable persevere. The last image of a person is that per- son’s actual "history." In this history, all characteristics and determinations that do not relate in a significant sense to the truth intended by a liberated consciousness drop out. How a person represents this history does not depend purely on his or her natural constitution nor on the pseudo-coherence of his or her individuality; thus only fragments of these assets are included in his or her history. This history is like a monogram that condenses the name into a single graphic figure that is meaningful as an ornament. Eckart’s monogram is fidelity.* Great historical figures survive in legends that, however naive they may be, strive to preserve their actual history. In authentic fairy tales, the imagination has intuitively deposited typical monograms. In a photograph a person’s history is buried as if under a layer of snow…


* The German mythological hero, faithful protector, and counselor Eckart warns the Nibelungen at the border of the Rüdegers Mark of the threatening Hunn danger. Kracauer here plays on the association of Eckart and fidelity as manifest in Ludwig Tieck’s 1799 fable "Tannenhauser and the Faithful Eckart" and Goethe’s 1811 text entitled "The Faithful Eckart."


—from Siegfried Kracauer, “Photography.” Translated by Thomas Y. Levin. Critical Inquiry, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Spring, 1993), pp. 421-436.


make-believe gloabl summit with foucault, barthes, lacan and lévi-strauss


One day, way back in the 20th century, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Roland Barthes sat under an equatorial tree, living in their own imagined primitive past, discussing Global Studies. “What,” asked Barthes, “might the four of us contribute to a field that analyzes the world as a global system, stitched together—as Michael Curtin deftly puts it—by trade protocols, governance covenants, and communications networks?” Lévi-Strauss checked his notes, Lacan thought introspectively, and Foucault answered complicatedly. Each spoke of the cultural schemes that inform public policy and that structure debate about contemporary life. Let me summarize their conversation—translated from French.


On public issues of human rights, health, trade and transit, and environment—key foci of Global Studies—all agreed (though Lacan sat quietly) that global market integration between 1880 and 1914 and again beginning in the late 1970s drove a convergence of cultural practices that intensified human connectivity. In other words, this quartet concurred with what Suzanne Berger would later argue (2003): that 21st-century globalization had historical precedent, and that contrary to the classical idea of law as the rule of reason over human action, global norm-making is shaped by a few key ideas—including liberal-democratic ideas about resource distribution, social justice, equity, and popular sovereignty, which are themselves at the core of a few liberal democracies, including but not limited to the US, UK, France, and Germany.


—from
Amy Stambach, “What 20th-Century Theorists Have to Say about Our World Today.” global-e: A Global Studies Journal, Volume 3 Issue 8 (August 2009).


Read the rest
here.

maurice blanchot on authorial anxiety and the inevitability of writing

Maurice Blanchot conceives of the author’s relation to the book as one of incomprehension, inevitable alienation, and ultimate failure: hence the ongoing need to repeat, to write yet again.  

 


THE ESSENTIAL SOLITUDE 

 

lt seems we have learned something about art when we experience what the word solitude designates. This word has been tossed around much too freely. Yet what does it mean to “be alone”? When is one alone? As we ask ourselves this question’ we should not simply return to thoughts that we find moving. Solitude on the level of the world is a wound we do not need to comment on here.

 

Nor do we have in mind the solitude of the artist, the solitude which he is said to need if he is to practice his art. When Rilke writes to the Comtesse de Solms-Laubach (August 3, 1907): “Except for two short interruptions, I have not pronounced a single word for weeks; at last my solitude has closed in and I am in my work like a pit in its fruit,”‘ the solitude he speaks of is not essentially solitude: it is self-communion.

 

The Solitude of the Work

 

In the solitude of the work — the work of art, the literary work — we see a more essential solitude. It excludes the self-satisfied isolation of individualism, it is unacquainted with the search for difference; it is not dissipated by the fact of sustaining a virile relationship in a task that covers the mastered extent of the day. The person who is writing the work is thrust to one side, the person who has written the work is dismissed. What is more, the person who is dismissed does not know it. This ignorance saves him, diverts him and allows him to go on. The writer never knows if the work is done. What he has finished in one book, he begins again or destroys in another. Valéry, who celebrates this privilege of the infinite in the work, still sees only its easiest aspect: the fact that the work is infinite means (to him) that although the artist is not capable of ending it, he is nevertheless capable of turning it into the enclosed space of an endless task whose incompleteness develops mastery of the spirit, expresses that mastery, expresses it by developing it in the form of power. At a certain point, circumstances — that is, history — in the form of an editor, financial demands, social duties, pronounce the missing end and the artist, freed by a purely compulsory outcome, pursues the incomplete elsewhere.

 

According to this point of view, the infinity of the work is simply the infinity of the spirit. The spirit tries to accomplish itself in a single work, instead of realizing itself in the infinity of works and the movement of history. But Valéry was in no way a hero. He chose to talk about everything, to write about everything: thus, the scattered whole of the world diverted him from the rigor of the unique whole of the work — he amiably allowed himself to be turned away from it. The etc. was hiding behind the diversity of thoughts, of subjects.

 

Nevertheless, the work — the work of art, the literary work — is neither finished nor unfinished: it is. What it says is exclusively that: that it is — and nothing more. Outside of that, it is nothing. Anyone who tries to make it express more finds nothing, finds that it expresses nothing. Anyone who lives in dependence on the work, whether because he is writing it or reading it, belongs to the solitude of something that expresses only the word being: a word that the language protects by hiding it or that the language causes to appear by is appearing into the silent void of the work.

 

The first framework of the solitude of the work is this absence of need which never permits it to be called finished or unfinished. The work can have no proof, just as it can have no use. It cannot be verified — truth can lay hold of it, renown illuminate it: this existence concerns it not at all, this obviousness makes it neither certain nor real, nor does it make it manifest.

 

The work is solitary in that does not mean that it remains incommunicable, that it lacks a reader. But the person who reads it enters into that affirmation of the solitude of the work, just as the one who writes it belongs to the risk of that solitude.

 

The Work, The Book

 

If we want to examine more closely what such statements suggest, perhaps we should look for their source. The writer writes a book, but the book is not yet the work, the work is not a work until the word being is pronounced in it, in the violence of a beginning which is its own; this event occurs when the work is the innermost part of someone writing it and of someone reading it. We can therefore ask ourselves this: if solitude is the writer’s risk,  doesn’t it express the fact that he is turned, oriented towards the open violence of the work, never grasping more than its substitute, its approach, and its illusion in the form of the book? The writer belongs to the work, but what belongs to him is only a book, a mute accumulation of sterile words, the most meaningless thing in the world. The writer who  experiences this void simply believes that the work is unfinished, and he believes that with a little more effort and the luck of some favorable moments, he — and only he — will be able to finish it. And so he sets back to work. But what he wants to finish, by himself, remains something interminable, it ties him to an illusory labor. And in the end, the work ignores him, it closes on his absence, in the impersonal, anonymous statement that it is-and nothing more. Which we express by remarking that the artist, who only finishes his work at the moment he dies, never knows his work. And we may have to reverse that remark, because isn’t the writer dead as soon as the work exists, as he himself sometimes foresees, when he experiences a very strange kind of worklessness.*

 

* This is not the situation of the man who works and accomplishes his task and whose task escapes him by transforming itself in the world. What this man makes is transformed, but in the world, and he recaptures it through the world, at least if he can recapture it, if alienation is not immobilized, if it is not diverted to the advantage of a few, but continues until the completion of the world. On the contrary, what the writer has in view is the work, and what he writes is a book. The book, as such, can become an active event in the world (an action, however, that is always reserved and insufficient), but it is not action the artist has in view, but the work, and what makes the book a substitute for the work is enough to make it a thing that, like the work, does not arise from the truth of the world; and it is an almost frivolous thing, if it has neither the reality of the work nor the seriousness of real labor in the world.

 

 

—from The Gaze of Orpheus and other Literary Essays, ed. P. Adams Sitney. Translated by Lydia Davis (1981). Originally published in Blanchot’s  L’Espace littéraire (1955).

 


deleuze on mcluhan & the future of literature

If Literature Dies, It Will Be Murder

 

People who haven’t properly read or understood McLuhan may think it’s only natural for audiovisual media to replace books, since they actually contain all the creative possibilities of the literature or other modes of expression they supersede. It’s not true. For if audiovisual media ever replace literature, it won’t be as competing means of expression, but as a monopoly of structures that also stifle the creative possibilities in those media themselves. If literature dies, it will be a violent death, a political assassination (as in the USSR, even if nobody notices). It’s not a matter of comparing different sorts of medium. The choice isn’t between written literature and audiovisual media. It’s between creative forces (in audiovisual media as well as literature) and domesticating forces. It’s highly unlikely that audiovisual media will find the conditions for creation once they’ve been lost in literature. Different modes of expression may have different creative possibilities, but they’re all related insofar as they must counter the introduction of a cultural space of markets and conformity—that is, a space of "producing for the market"—together.

 

— Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations, 1972-1990, p. 131

 

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.