September 23, 2011

Exodus from the Dead End of History, 2

Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:07 pm

In the interests of minimalism and dropping extra weight as we try to stay above water I would suggest that all the morality that we need can be summed up in the injunction not to feed your fantasies and addictions. Everything else, all the Judeo-Christian stuff, everything essential in modern ethics, would follow from that. Fantasies are the intellectual, addictions the physical, sides of losing oneself in a single feeling, which one is determined to repeat over and over again, with ever greater intensity and ultimately ever more desperate attempts to stave off vitiation and impotence. Fantasy is the deformation of the imagination: as the novelist Ronald Sukenick said, if you don’t use your imagination someone will use it for you—fantasy is someone using it for you, even if that someone is yourself. The imagination constitutes reality by providing the unseen background to some visible foreground while fantasy imposes the unseen on the seen, forcing the latter to conform. Addiction is the deformation of habit, which provides the continuity, fabric and rhythm of reality while addiction swallows reality up in the habit. Both fantasy and addiction are founded upon the conviction that one can be alone on the originary scene and have the object, unsullied, all to oneself.
Feelings can’t be maintained because they are here and gone—the same feeling never returns. You can attend to some feeling from some desire that the feeling intensifies, confirms, modifies and/or satisfies but then attend from the fading feeling back to the world from whence the desire emerged, at which point the feeling becomes a sign, part of what I call the “field of semblances.” The feelings we want to preserve intact are those which we can’t bear to allow contact with that world, and ultimately with ourselves as representatives of that world. Immersion in what is actually a pseudo-feeling wards off the terror of examining that feeling. Everyone has feelings like this and everyone feels the tug of fantasy and addiction; theories that are not so much evil but intent on ridiculing our belief in evil, like certain variants of post-structuralism, see fantasy and addiction as liberating subversions of metaphysical totalitarianism—there are probably always theories like this. Losing oneself in singular feelings complements the fear that one will be lost in the world, and the way to resist submersion in fantasy and addiction is to keep bringing one’s feelings out in the world where they can enter the field of semblances, which no one sign can dominate. I don’t mean confessing those feelings regularly—confession outside of carefully constructed sacramental constraints will usually be a kind of fantasy and will easily become addictive, because feelings can’t simply be transported in speech—if they are gone when they are gone, the feeling one confesses to having had is not the feeling one actually had. Rather, the point is to attend from the feeling to the world, to inflect the world with that feeling—whatever the feeling, because even frightening feelings can be balanced against a world modified to contain them. This implies a kind of transparency, through which whatever you do you show that it is yourself doing it. This is what keeps you in the world.
Aside from providing for a firm and easily explained basis for personal morality, the injunction not to feed your fantasies and addictions seems to me a way of getting at cultural and what the left used to call ideology critique. It’s silly to say that we are addicted to oil, since filling our cars only in very rare cases provides a “rush”; but it certainly makes sense to say that some people, or many people, or a representative sample of an entire society, are addicted to certain amusements or, more broadly, certain formulas, narrative, imagistic, ritualistic and verbal. I would hypothesize that fantasies and addictions fill the space left by the decline of what R.G. Collingwood (a reading of whose Principles of Art has helped inspire these reflections) calls “magic,” or the use of representations to produce certain feelings. Magic, as an organized, public practice, can be used to produce feelings that can be judged as harmful or helpful, but the God whose name is the declarative sentence, in his unfolding in Christianity and modernity, has ensured that magic is no longer an option for us, except in some very marginal and disreputable settings (the disenchantment of the world and all that). Magic corresponds to a gift economy and moral economy of honor, where individuals and groups structure their feelings and subsequent actions in direct response to those of other individuals and groups rather than in accord with abstract rules. Fantasy and addiction are readily fed by the market, and if the space they take up is not filled by some other way of organizing feelings, some other forms of experience, the market will not be sustainable. Those forms of experience must be disciplinary ones, sites of joint attention, where that joint attention can be further shared, restructured to welcome others, and for its most devoted practitioners at least, a site of the sacred, more valuable than life itself.
Such disciplinary spaces I would imagine as the first detachments of the exodus from the dead end of history I outlined in my previous post. They can take very simple forms. Imagine a town which has gone bankrupt and can no longer borrow money, and further assume that state and federal governments are similarly unwilling or unable to intervene. Let’s say some of the town’s citizens look into buying out their local government, and create a legal argument to the effect that the town as a whole is really the property of all its citizens, held in trust by the elected officials. They will organize a corporation that will take over and renegotiate the debt with the town’s creditors; as part of the package, the group of citizens arranges for various exemptions from state and federal mandates (environmental, labor, regulatory, etc.), on the model of those “free enterprise zones” we no longer hear about. All the citizens may not want to buy in, but now the town is private property (literally—the sidewalks and streets, the lakes and woods)—those others will be brought out, or will have no choice but to live in accord with the new rules. What would those new rules look like? There are more possibilities here than we can imagine, but we can assume they will emerge out of love for their town, and will elicit the cooperation of lawyers, architects, city planners and others driven by love for their professions and a desire for experimentation and exploration. The town will be studied by others, an object of new disciplinary sites, and a pole of attraction for others, who will begin questioning their arrangements. History, which perhaps would not have come to end after all, would be of interest as a set of alternatives to anyone’s conditions.
The chase after the singular feeling might also provide us with a new way to speak about that other old topic, nihilism. Nihilism sets in once public battles seem to be about nothing—a combat with no real victor, because victories that are muddied, or dissipate, or are endlessly re-litigated , can no longer be appreciated as a contest. Everything that goes into making up a contest—the carefully honed skills, the ups and downs, the strategies—is similarly deprived of any significance. The First World War is the model here, but that just revealed an existing condition. The Second World War was certainly “about” something, which is why every conflict since then has been framed as a replay. The Cold War wasn’t about anything for enough people. Victimary discourse is the clutching to that feeling of absolute identification with people absolutely victimized by unquestioned evil. There’s no rush like it. The exodus from the dead end of history will first of all have to restore a human scale to genuine combat—intellectual, political and moral combat. It will have to bring back a balance, a complementarity, between effort, risk and outcomes, along with commensurate canons of judgment.

Powered by WordPress