Everything is on show, nothing counts

27Jan10

In my previous post I talked about the demand that everything/everyone be made transparent. This can be seen everywhere from CCTV and these new police-drones, to the relentless rise of how-to guides and self-help books, the paradigm of confession, governmental and corporate transparency (which is only ever ideological in form, there is no real transparency involved), identity politics and so on. That transparency has taken a deep root in our subjectivity has particular outcomes.

In Nina Power’s (Infinite ThoughtOne Dimensional Woman there is some discussion of the extent to which this demand reaches into the economically colonised sphere of ‘the personal’.  As she sees it everything that we are or possess, from our hairstyle, our mode of speech, our thoughts and so on are incorporated into our position as (potential) workers. In order to get a job today it is not enough to have the required skills and experience, it is also essential that one appear, behave and general comport oneself in the world in a particular way. As someone studying nursing I am especially familiar with this, the NMC (nursing’s governing body) explicitly lays down a ethos by which nurses must live at all times and in all places. In Power’s words ‘everything counts, up to and including one’s most basic subjective and physical attitudes. Everything is on show, nothing counts.’

For Power, when everything becomes transparent in this manner a direct consequence is that the language of objectification (especially in regard to women, as Power’s is a feminist text) becomes meaningless; it is obsolete as there is nothing that is being objectified. If there is anything subjective left, it is perhaps too minimal to resist. Crucially, this shows us how the ideology of transparency is intimately bound to capitalism: make yourself transparent to capital, so that it may approve and you go on surviving. That there is nothing beneath that has been objectified means that there is no beach beneath the pavement, there is no uncontaminated zone of authentic subjectivity. Under this regime of absolute visibility everything that was constitutive of a veiled of interiority that one could claim one alone had sovereign access to is gone. Everything internal is instantly and necessarily communicable; the inner life is rendered into an image to project. As with the contemporary architecture of  urban financial centres, the threshold that separates what is interior from what is exterior is made of clear glass.

The colonisation of everyday life by capital has been noted time and again, with many of the features of this blurring being working voluntary overtime, being constantly connected via the internet or a mobile phone, working from home and so forth. Effectively the ‘privacy’ that we used to enjoy has disappeared as it has become more and more transparent to the demands of capital. There is no longer a home that is not also a workplace, and the sociological idea of the ‘third place’ (a place of respite that is neither ‘work nor family’ wherein the worker can recharge their vitality in order to be able to continue selling it) is also all but gone. In the becoming-capital of all things, all things also become capitalised. This is how I read Jacques Camatte’s phrase ‘material community’; capitalism gives itself a vitality, a life, by fully absorbing the human being. This colonisation of everyday life is the colonisation of the soul. The death of the soul which, paradoxically, comes to be seen as the real and most emphatic expression of the one’s self. In some areas of the world of work, where creativity and intellect are relied upon, my interiority becomes that of capital/for-capital  so that I can only experience my ‘truest self’ qua this exhaustion and so identify and feel freest where I am being hollowed.

This is a two-way process of becoming. To abuse Virilio’s words, this kind of transparency is a process wherein the ‘subject or subjugated observer thus becomes inseparable from the observed object.’  We are subjugated by the demand of transparency, for the obliteration of distinctions, and as such become inseparable from capital, or rather we are becoming-inseparable. One benefit of this is that we can no longer simply pretend to ourselves that capitalism is out there or that we have ever existed outside of capital. Our immanence with it can no longer be denied.

Yet at the same time if the demand is that we become transparent to all, even too ourselves as the depth and richness of our inner life is drained like  a Ballardian swimming pool, then in putting everything on display it is clear that everything is made commensurate and exchangeable. The becoming-CV of the human being is also the flattening out of all subjective qualities, distinctions and history around some general equivalence ; before you’re year spent in Peru helping orphans might have been an existential adventure that brough shape and focus to your life but now it is just another hook to get a job, more or less commensurate with my ability to communicate in sign language. Everything is on show and therefore nothing counts.

As the abused Virilio quotation shows we are still in the position of subjugated observers, that is we are still, despite our awareness (or perhaps due to the grip of ‘ironic’ positions because of it) completely enthralled within an interpassivity where we can only look on.

All of these entwined movements directly point to the death of interiority as it has been conceived to this point. I think that we should be quick to add to this that when the interior, subjective world is evacuated in this way we are left  inside  the post-traumatic field of negative space that I have outlined in previous posts here, here and here.

The manner in which we become inseparable from the object can be seen in the fact that any and all of our innermost desires, our ‘true desires’ in the words of Hakim Bey, are already found outside of us- a fact that Zizek’s Pervert’s Guide to the Cinema hammers home in its discussion of cinema as a class room in which we learn how to desire. Advertising and pornography are the industries of desire which reach into our heads and extracts our ‘true desires’, presenting them to us as such. The internet, with its vast sprawl of underground websites, present us with a world in which anything is possible. Notably, the Griefer campaigns in Second Life that demanded that the imagination be left unpoliced (a defence for Second Life   being a playground for all paraphilias and violent behaviours) and the infamous 4chan’s rule of the internet that ‘if it exists there is porn of it.’ Whatever can be desired already has been, is already desired for you.  In Power’s book there is a section entitled ‘You are like an advert for yourself,’ but under contemporary capital this ‘like’ cannot be maintained. We are the adverts. Ballard maintained that the world is already a fiction and that the only reality we had was inside our heads- now it is even more so the case that this reality, which is clearly not some reservation free from outside contaminants. There is no reality behind the illusion and when our illusions, our imaginary and symbolic life world in our heads, which structure our reality, are reduced to the point of this evacuation we are left with something that approaches little more than a desolate battleground.

In my previous posts on Cantcopewontcope’s negative space pornography I remarked that there was what seemed a passing resembling to Hitler’s paintings. A more apt comparison would be the art of Paul Nash, such as the image ‘We are making a new world’, above. Here the landscape is the scarred and twisted terrain of no-man’s land- both a place familiar to Nash personally as a soldier in WWI and also a powerful metaphor for the post-traumatic psyche. No man’s land is understood as a zone that cannot be occupied, it is an empty, horrific gulf between two opposing camps that cannot be crossed safely. It is the non-place of the post-traumatic, the self-cancelling primal scene of an all-pervading trauma. Everything organic and originary is bent out of shape, twisted and mangled, there are unexploded bombs that wait in silence; it is a scene composed of the debris of violence, a place described by Wilfred Owen as the ‘abode of madness’. This is the negative space.

Yet the sun still shines. Whether it is shining in judgement or whether it is a beacon of hope is almost irrelevant; the two are now reversible as hope becomes a faith generated by critique; a faith without assurance. This is perhaps what Nash meant when he said

I am no longer an artist. I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth and may it burn their lousy souls.

This is as good our resistance seems to be at this historical juncture – feeble and inarticulate but laced with a corrosive truth. Perhaps this is all that any kind of ‘vanguard’ can be within this juncture, a witness to the events that refuse to unfold.  With the sun we rise on a landscape of empty death.

In the previous post I spoke of a kind of militarisation of the psyche. Here we can see that we are locked in a social war that is also a psychic war, a war over the soul. If Bataille could claim that I MYSELF AM WAR, today there is the more modest claim that I myself am a no-man’s land. The fight for autonomy must be the fight to reclaim our own subjectivity. Perhaps the way out is only to bear witness and await some eschatological moment of rebirth, but this seems altogether an endorsement of the passivity that capitalism and the politics of the state-form thrive on.

It has been remarked that Nash’s later paintings were saturated with a mood of anxiety based on the sensation of the presence of something alien; isn’t this the condition of contemporary alienation? Not the feeling of a lack, of something missing but the sense that something has penetrated us deeply and lodged there. It is not that we are not-at-home (which is nothing new anyway) but that something is not-at-home-within-us, there is this ‘foreign dimension which intrudes’ (Zizek). It is the excesses to which we are exposed, our virtually complete saturation by them that disintegrates our sense of reality and effectiveness to act. The question is whether or not we should attempt to purge ourselves of whatever it is that has invaded us, stolen our inner worlds, or whether or not this inland colonisation cannot be reclaimed and redirected by us? There is a sense in which I think this must be concomitant with any project of political organisation as all projects passed, which have sought to regain some lost moment, inevitably fail or end in horror. Perhaps our political task is to wrest this emptiness for ourselves.

To search for nothing, nothingness or absence is a good type of nihilism, a Nietzschean, active nihilism, not a pessimistic nihilism. (Baudrillard)

An initial strategy seems obvious, even if it cannot undo the immersion into negative-space, one which might be termedbecoming-opaque. A strategy that involved becoming opaque is ambiguous at the moment but it might well include something similar to the injunction by the Invisible Committee in The Coming Insurrection:

Visibility must be avoided. But a force that gathers in the shadows can’t escape it forever. Our appearance as a force has to be held back until the opportune moment. Because the later we become visible, the stronger we’ll be. And once we’ve entered the realm of visibility, our days are numbered; either we’ll be in a position to pulverize its reign quickly, or it will crush us without delay.

Does this mean a strategy of withdrawal, a kind of slip back into the world of establishing temporary autonomous zones or an embrace of the politics of exodus? Might it include  a reclamation of the negative space itself, a kind of progressive psychopathology or accelerationism such as Benjamin Noys advocates? A Weilian/gnostic self-negation? It is hard to imagine how post-traumatic symptoms such as depression, panic and irrational anger and violence and perhaps depersonalisation and derealisation might be channelled into an anarchist or communist project, or one that is at least aligned with these movements without at least entertaining some idea of psychopathology and/or mysticism. Some would say that if we make any withdrawal we are cutting ourselves off in isolation but it is easily forgotten that every separation is a link, and every breakdown in the social assemblage is an invitation for reorganisation.

Any politics of exodus departs from the kind of directly negational politics of the past wherein an antagonism is maintained and intensified. Instead the antagonism is created through the ‘engaged withdrawal’ from the state, a moving away or breaking out of the confines of the state-form into what Virno calls the founding of a Republic. This project of founding-leave-taking is supposed to break with the coordinates of political action as we find them where we must make demands of power (finite or infinite) in order to achieve even the slightest reform and confuse the enemy. This is one strategy we could call opaque, the figure of which might be the guerilla who does not identify as an enemy, who is one among others, indistinguishable in the great swarm of the city, and thereby cannot be known; the one who in his opacity precisely refuses the game as defined by his enemy and in doing so confuses all those who inhabit the field of the political. All the fun of the old game of friend/enemy is mixed up and denied. As Virno has indicated the abandonment of the frontal figuration of political action allows us to reactivate an idea of friendship that is not purely reactive but which takes the form of an imaginative chain of active solidarity, and this involved a labour of discovery and more than simple passive voicing of ‘our solidarity with group x.’ Instead it positions itself within an understanding of solidarity as an active process of conspiratorial complicity.

If the post-traumatic subject is hegemonic in its emergence then I believe that it heralds the psychic conditions in which a ‘morally free psychopathology of metaphor, as an element in one’s dreams’ (Ballard) can take hold. Just as in The Drowned World our job is not to flee with the powers that be, to follow authority into some comfortable ethics of recovery, instead we have to remain behind in the mutating landscape in our heads and all around us in order to grasp its possibilities. I contest that the only way to do this is through an exodus, which cannot be understood as an escaping but a burrowing deeper into the reality of the situation we find ourselves in; our own traumatised world. In short, the gamble has to be that psychopathology can be useful.

It also seems to me that at some point any project basing itself from with the posttraumatic must reckon with the literary figure of Septimus Smith, especially as his suicide points to a rather despairing figure for any politics that might come from it.  I hope to have something on that in the future. I am very aware that this could be seen as an attempt to use one nihilism against itself, but throughout these posts on negative space I have always asserted that there is we have always lacked substance, lack is not the problem the problem is instead excess and this is to push Baudrillard beyond himself: it is not that there is no longer any ontologically secret substance, there never has been. If this is a nihilism then it is an optimistic one:

The way towards attaining substance (whether we call it liberation or happiness) must be through the negativity of our own ecstatic state of dissolution. To become opaque, so that things might count and make a difference.

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