Archive for December, 2010

The Coming Insurrection?

Sunday, December 5th, 2010

Signandsight seems somewhat unamused by a pamphlet that goes by the name of the The Coming Insurrection:

"The text is a form of re-import. Much of it stems directly – not from Houellebecq – as Rühle and Minkmar blindly copy from the France correspondent of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, but from the Nazi-tainted theorists Heidegger and Carl Schmitt.

These influences are also present through their most zealous imitator, Giorgio Agamben, in the explicit reference to his book "The Coming Community". Agamben and the two Germans are held in unquestioning veneration as father figures in the world of coming insurrections.

In this intellectual milieu it is commonplace to interpret the everyday life, and especially the everyday technological life of western democracy as totalitarian; it is the principle rhetorical device of this text and one to which the SZ article unwittingly alludes. In 1948 Heidegger raged: "Agriculture is now a motorized food industry, the same thing in its essence as the production of corpses in the gas chambers and the extermination camps." And in 1995, the Heidegger student Agamben wrote in his magnum opus "Homo sacer": "In modern democracies it is possible to state in public what Nazi biopoliticians did not dare to say. " With the help of Carl Schmitt’s theories on the "state of emergency" and Foucault’s concept of biopolitics, he places human rights and race laws, intensive care units and concentration camps on a par.

It is not only Agamben’s friendship with Julian Coupat, the likely author of "The Coming Insurrection" that locates it within this school of thought. The book is a practical – and alarmingly naive – translation of Agamben’s theories. The way to combat the so-called “normalisation of life” in modern societies, is to seek out invigorating salvation in a "state of emergency", a far cry from democracy, rule of law and the market economy – this idea of a better age minus all coordinates of the present day comes from Schmitt and Heidegger, as does the search for hidden totalitarianism within democracy. The latter was a strategical necessity for both Nazi theorists, in order retroactively to relativise their collaboration. No one can seriously claim these are "left-wing" ideas."

The parallels to Heidegger aren’t without merit, but the problem is that the text does read as far-left (its condemnation of democracy being largely predicated on describing it as an incubator for fascism). While Heidegger did dislike modern technological and industrial societies, that dislike did not manifest in Nazism itself, while Heidegger was far from calling for the establishment of communes. If there are parallels to far-right ideas, then it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that there differences were overstated in the first place. The attitude to violence in the text is Zizekian, the attitude to power and the self Foucauldean and the attitude towards revolution recalls Deleuze. Here’s a summary of what the text actually says:

"The sphere of political representation has come to a close. From left to right, it’s the same nothingness striking the pose of an emperor or a savior, the same sales assistants adjusting their discourse according to the findings of the latest surveys… Europe is now a continent gone broke that shops secretly at discount stores and has to fly budget airlines if it wants to travel at all. No "problems" framed in social terms admit of a solution. The questions of "pensions," of "job security," of "young people" and their "violence" can only be held in suspense while the situation these words serve to cover up is continually policed for signs of further unrest… As an attempted solution, the pressure to ensure that nothing happens, together with police surveillance of the territory, will only intensify.

The more I want to be me, the more I feel an emptiness. The more I express myself, the more I am drained. The more I run after myself, the more tired I get. We cling to our self like a coveted job title. We’ve become our own representatives in a strange commerce, guarantors of a personalization that feels, in the end, a lot more like an amputation. We insure our selves to the point of bankruptcy, with a more or less disguised clumsiness… France wouldn’t be the land of anxiety pills that it’s become, the paradise of anti-depressants, the Mecca of neurosis, if it weren’t also the European champion of hourly productivity. Sickness, fatigue, depression, can be seen as the individual symptoms of what needs to be cured.

In reality, the decomposition of all social forms is a blessing. It is for us the ideal condition for a wild, massive experimentation with new arrangements, new fidelities. The famous "parental resignation" has imposed on us a confrontation with the world that demands a precocious lucidity, and foreshadows lovely revolts to come. In the death of the couple, we see the birth of troubling forms of collective affectivity, now that sex is all used up and masculinity and femininity parade around in such moth-eaten clothes, now that three decades of non-stop pornographic innovation have exhausted all the allure of transgression and liberation.

Here lies the present paradox: work has totally triumphed over all other ways of existing, at the very moment when workers have become superfluous. Gains in productivity, outsourcing, mechanization, automated and digital production have so progressed that they have almost reduced to zero the quantity of living labor necessary in the manufacture of any product. In corporations, work is divided in an increasingly visible way into highly skilled positions of research, conception, control, coordination and communication which deploy all the knowledge necessary for the new, cybernetic production process, and unskilled positions for the maintenance and surveillance of this process. The first are few in number, very well paid and thus so coveted that the minority who occupy these positions will do anything to avoid losing them. They and their work are effectively bound in one anguished embrace.

Thirty years of "crisis," mass unemployment and flagging growth, and they still want us to believe in the economy. We have to see that the economy is not "in" crisis, the economy is itself the crisis. Nobody respects money anymore, neither those who have it nor those who don’t. When asked what they want to be some day, twenty percent of young Germans answer "artist." Work is no longer endured as a given of the human condition. The accounting departments of corporations confess that they have no idea where value comes from. The market’s bad reputation would have done it in a decade ago if not for the bluster and fury, not to mention the deep pockets, of its apologists. It is common sense now to see progress as synonymous with disaster.

There is no "clash of civilizations." There is a clinically dead civilization kept alive by all sorts of life-support machines that spread a peculiar plague into the planet’s atmosphere. At this point it can no longer believe in a single one of its own "values", and any affirmation of them is considered an impudent act, a provocation that should and must be taken apart, deconstructed, and returned to a state of doubt. Today Western imperialism is the imperialism of relativism, of the "it all depends on your point of view." No social order can securely found itself on the principle that nothing is true.

Non-Propositional Religion

Sunday, December 5th, 2010

My attitude towards religion has always been a predominantly adversarial one, viewing the central tenets of the major monotheisms as repressive and authoritarian, something to be consigned to history and forgotten. However, I’ve never had any particular view about the existence of any deity; I was more concerned with the doctrinal content of the various religions. I shared with Nietzsche the assumption that any deity was unlikely to exist in any form that could be intelligible to us, which left his representations as dangerous fictions. The problem lies with what remains after the doctrinal elements have been dismissed:

"Every age has to redefine what is the essence of Christianity. Asking the question, can you follow Christ and give up being a Christian, strikes a chord with those of us who do take Christ seriously but don’t want to be branded with other people’s ideas of how a ‘Christian’ is defined… The question being asked by many of those stepping back from organised religion is perhaps more radical. Is Christian life essentially a religion at all? Jesus was critical of formal religion that was only for show. St Paul’s passionate teaching, following his conversion, is centred on a personal relationship with Christ – we take on ‘the mind of Christ’ not a dress code or rule book. For centuries the Christian mystical tradition has mapped the interior journey as a way to uncover the ‘inward eye’ that Jesus insisted we need in order to perceive his truth.

Much of the teaching of Jesus is about being open to a new way of seeing reality – being somehow more radically ‘awake’. His questions, like those of the Zen masters, shock us into a new level of consciousness. He is more concerned with how we find self-knowledge and inner transformation than fulfilling the letter of the law… Anne Rice is serious enough about her personal relationship with Christ to feel impelled to detach herself from the public face of religion. No doubt it is her own conscience speaking. Perhaps we just need to acknowledge that we need a new container for the shift in consciousness that is present in the Christian mind as well as in the minds of those outside the church searching for spiritual values and meaning."

Part of the reason for this discussion lies with Karen Armstrong’s account of religion:

"Karen Armstrong takes the reader through a history of religious practice in many different cultures, arguing that in the good old days and purest forms they all come to much the same thing. They use devices of ritual, mystery, drama, dance and meditation in order to enable us better to cope with the vale of tears in which we find ourselves. Religion is therefore properly a matter of a practice, and may be compared with art or music. These are similarly difficult to create, and even to appreciate. But nobody who has managed either would doubt that something valuable has happened in the process. We come out of the art gallery or concert hall enriched and braced, elevated and tranquil, and may even fancy ourselves better people, though the change may or may not be noticed by those around us.

This is religion as it should be, and, according to Armstrong, as it once was in all the world’s best traditions. However, there is a serpent in this paradise, as in others. Or rather, several serpents, but the worst is the folly of intellectualising the practice. This makes it into a matter of belief, argument, and ultimately dogma. It debases religion into a matter of belief in a certain number of propositions, so that if you can recite those sincerely you are an adept, and if you can’t you fail. This is Armstrong’s principal target. With the scientific triumphs of the 17th century, religion stopped being a practice and started to become a theory – in particular the theory of the divine architect… So what should the religious adept actually say by way of expressing his or her faith? Nothing. This is the ‘apophatic’ tradition, in which nothing about God can be put into words. Armstrong firmly recommends silence, having written at least 15 books on the topic."

The problem is that Armstrong’s account does to a large extent seem like an exercise in misdirection, defending religion against accurate criticisms by redefining it in a form that bears no resemblance to what is commonly practised. Armstrong’s Durkheimite argument about religion being an essentially social construct seems correct to me, but a large part of that communal aspect is concerned with the authoritarian enforcement of collective norms. In other words, doctrine, quite the opposite of any form of negative theology. In historical terms, Luther’s invocation of Sola fide shifted religion from the social sphere to the personal one, something rather more compatible with Armstrong’s negative theology than medieval Catholicism, even if it weakened the emphasis on practice. The Durkheimite aspect of Armstrong’s thesis also works against her broader argument in other respects; adherents of her negative theology have little reason to follow church ceremonies and institutions, leaving behind those who represent everything Dawkins has been criticising. As the Church of England gradually modernises its believers have no real need for it, either drifting into the secular life it has become indistinguishable from or joining other more reactionary and repressive sects, such as the Catholic church.