Sunday, 22 February 2015

Assemblages of Desire

In his L'Abécédaire interview, Deleuze is asked about his concept of desire. He says that, in short, desire is never for a single object. I always desire an assemblage. Not just the coffee, but the cafe facing the street, the notebook on the table, the clink of cups, the steam from the machine, the image of myself sat in the cafe writing, constellated doubtless with other images  - of other writers, sat in cafes; a way of life, bohemia. Desire is creative, in constructing these assemblages, in moving from object to object, spinning its web, weaving its world, blossoming and expanding. To say I desire a coffee is a metronome; it is to desire all of these things, and it's to desire a certain self, a certain world.

But I thought of this as I was reading the paper this morning, and saw an advert for haagen dazs ice cream. Black and white, a couple (of course) snuggled in a duvet eating the product. And the tag line: "Your heart knows when it's real, so do your taste buds". And in smaller letters at the bottom of the page: "Nothing is better than real". Certainly, advertisers are in agreement with Deleuze in the sense that they present us with assemblages: we are invited to desire not just the ice-cream, but the lazy Sunday morning, the ubiquitous ideal of The Couple - the measure of all things in much popular culture, the post-coital haze, indulgence (the indulgence of staying in bed and the 'indulgence' of a pot of ice cream are referred through one another), the elegance and sophistication vaguely connoted by black and white phtography, and so on...  Our gaze is immediately deflected through the ice cream onto all these other things, so that the ice cream is only a sign and promise of these other things. In turn, this series of things only makes sense within the bigger language of advertsing, to which any individual advert must plug in.

What advertising does is to confiscate for itself the creativity of desire, and to offer it back to us as a ready-made, as manufactured assemblage which it then invites us to consume. This locking down of desire into ready-made significances is, in fact, the opposite of desire.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Dexter and Jouissance

 The premise of Dexter is an improbable one. The eponymous main character works for the Miami police department, but is also a 'serial killer', rutualistically murdering criminals who have escaped the justice system. What's more remarkable is that as a viewer we identify with Dexter. We are not so much sickened and horrified by his activities, as we doubtless would be in reality; rather is he the object of our investment and compassion. There are at least a couple of reasons for this, and these tell us something about how fictional worlds operate.

In a fictional world, I argue, we clearly don't respond to a phenomenon as we would in the real world.  We are more likely to see it in terms of the metaphorical or general category that it sketches or stands for. Thus, in the real world we would always be horrified by someone who, while leading an ostensible 'normal' life, was also a habitual killer, who derived enjoyment from his activities. In Dexter, this horror has been suspended.  Dexter's murderous noctural activity has become in effect just 'his thing', his particular form of idiosyncratic enjoyment which he cannot relinquish, like book collecting, or motorbikes. Killing is Dexter's jouissance.

By Jouissance is meant a specific form of enjoyment. Not enjoyment as we might speak of enjoying a glass of wine, for example, where we can point to positive qualities which account for our enjoyment - fruityness, dryness and so on. Jouissance is something more compulsive, stupid and unaccountable. The idea is that in fact all of us have these idiotic knots of enjoyment, perverse and idiosyncratic, that we are not finally able to share with others. As such these knots bar our full inclusion within the human community. In extreme cases, they can eclipse the rest of our life, as Zizek puts it:
 Someone can be happily married, with a good job and many friends, fully satisfied with his life, and yet absolutely hooked on some specific formation ("sinthome") of jouissance, ready to put everything at risk rather than renounce that (drugs, tobacco, drink..) [..] It is only in this "sinthome" that the subject encounters the density of his being - when he is deprived of it, his universe is empty.
Jouissance in this sense is always anti-social, and there is always a tension between it and the laws of the symbolic community, the norms and rules of social enjoyment. In so far as these last consitute the 'human community' as we experience it, none of us are entirely human.

This, finally, is the story of Dexter: one individual's slow and gradual 'becoming human'. And his ritualised killings are, first and foremost, that which separates him from the human community. When we first encounter him, he can feel almost nothing. He mimics the rules of human interaction. But at crucial intervals, emotion breaks through - he is able to acheive sexual intimacy, love of family, and so it goes on. The overarching story is that of the crises and shifts through which Dexter moves towards 'humanity'. But this gradual induction into the human community is the journey of the human subject itself - initially detached from the human community, proceeding by imitation and awkward adaptation, feeling that there is something that cannot be communicated to others, attached to its peculiar enjoyments.

Ingeniously, Dexter turns the extremely pathological  - the serial killer - into a figure for the human as such.We are all pathological subjects trying to become human, perversely clinging on to our jouissance. AS such, we are on DEexter's side.

Monday, 1 December 2014


And the Father’s ‘syntax’, the idiosyncratic way that he had disturbed and reinvented the world, would live on in one sense only briefly, in the fenced garden, the memories of M., his Mother, his Sister, his Uncle, in the anecdotes told to him at the funeral, when a man from his Father’s work, from twenty years ago, had approached him and said “I don’t need to ask who you are, you’re obviously the son.” No one had been around to translate into language that peculiar form of life. It didn’t matter. For his Father, in creating and then re-tracing the lines, the signature of his character, the paths and waterways of his nature, had placed, in the great ledger of Being, an unannulable proof. His life would always be, eternally, one of the possible lives, something which, even if no-one remembered it would be memorable, even if no-one remembered it would not have been sunk with death’s sudden flood.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

A Hesitation Before Birth

  A theatre director who has to create everything from scratch, he even has to father the actors. A visitor is denied admittance on the grounds that the director is engaged in important theatre business. What is it? He is changing the nappies on a future actor.
 The idea of someone who before he can begin, first has to make himself: someone who is stuck in the lumber-room of preparation.
 .......In the Great Account of my life,it is still reckoned as if my life were first beginning tomorrow,and in the meantime it is all over with me.
In Kafka, there is a kind of induction into the world, a 'primal baptism' which somehow he has missed, and this oversight, this failure to assume full existence, is irreversible and ongoing. "Still unborn and compelled to walk the streets." Or, famously, "My life is a hesitation before birth".

There are other writers who are similarly, creatures of the anteroom, waiting behind the door, inhabiting a kind of pre-life. There is, for example, something very similar thing in Schulz:

There are things that cannot ever occur with any precision. ... They are merely trying to occur, they are checking whether the ground of reality can carry them. And they quickly withdraw, fearing to lose their integrity in the frailty of realisation.

 There is a kind of writing that prefers the limbo of the unfulfilled, the incomplete, the antechamber of existence. Beckett seems to fall into this category. In Texts for Nothing, for instance, there are many formulations like this:  "Where would I go if I could go," "Leave, I was going to say leave all that.." In the latter, we think we are looking at an enjoinder - Leave! - venture forth (or/and 'jettison, reject'), but only for a fraction of a second. It's immediately recuped as a merely quoted word, as an unfulfilled intention. The French Comment C'est contains both 'Commence!' and 'How it is', as if the command to begin is at once countermanded by resignation ('that's just the way things are'). We are with him in the anteroom of unfulfilled intentions, of things that have failed to come into being, grown sick and bodiless.

We are dealing with an aesthetic of failure, in which the very inability to acheive embodiment is embodied in a text. 

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Returning to Palestine

I’ve been reading a number of books on Palestine and the establishment of the state of Israel recently. My grandfather was stationed there after the Second World War, so it’s always been a subject that I’ve read about and returned to.  It is of course, still, one of the most politically charged areas of historiography, because the interpretations at stake are not simply of archival interest. Many of those interpretations and narratives are the ideological supports of present belief and policy. Often the war of interpretation concerns questions over ‘fact’ and the marshaling of fact. But prior to the marshaling of facts are framing assumptions which seldom make themselves visible, so that as long as the frame is uncontested, the marshaling and bandying of facts will only reinforce the frame. 

Some years ago a book was published by Joan Peters with the title “From Time Immemorial”.  Outside the U.S., and to a lesser degree within it, the book has been comprehensively dismantled by serious scholars of Middle East history. It is riddled with errors and misrepresentation. Peters falsifies or, through simple inexperience, misunderstands the available data to suggest that Palestinian Arabs are a comparatively recent arrival, and this with a view to invalidating their claims to the land. This is a curious argument, not so much because it is clearly false at a factual level, but because it would certainly also disqualify the claims of the Jewish settlers who arrived in increasing numbers from the late nineteenth century.

In fact, this book can only be understood as part of a bigger ideological project. There is a long tradition of Zionist writers and politicians for whom the Palestinian Arabs are not a 'legitimate people' (Avraham Stern), have no true bond to the land of Palestine, or simply don't exist. This tendency, to discriminate between a true people and a false people, one with real and ancient ties and another with recent superficial ties, and to assume that only the people with ancient ancestry have rights and entitlements has its roots in 19th century nationalism. It is an anti-enlightenment and racist doctrine. It's political consequences have been appalling. But this is the frame within which the marshaling of facts takes place.

In fact, like the Jewish population of Palestine, some Arabs (and other non-Jews) had been there for generations and some were more recent additions. It actually does not matter. If you've lived and worked in a land even for one generation, or less, and you are part of the majority population of that land, then you have a right to be consulted about the partition of that land, you certainly have a right not to be expelled or 'transferred' somewhere else, or, of you flee in conditions of war, you have a right to return to your homes. And so finally, the whole debate as to which 'people' has the longest ancestry, which ‘people’ has the more atavistic attachment, is false and pernicious at its very inception. The framing assumptions are false. 
The notion of ‘a people’, is also made to do much more ideological work. It was Gilles Deleuze, among others, who pointed out that for mainstream Zionism, there was and is no Palestinian people, but only “Arabs”, who “being only Arabs in general... must go merge with other Arabs.” The Arab people are only attached to ‘Arab land’, which spans Syria, Iraq, the Lebanon etc, and so can they be moved indifferently between those places. In reality, people are attached to this olive grove, this field, this neighbourhood with its coffee shop, and not to abstractions such as ‘Arab land’ or the “Arab people”. Similarly, I am attached to certain parts of London, not, as a European, to Europe in general so that I might be re-settled anywhere within it.  But in the politicised historiography of the Middle East, it is abstractions that walk the earth, not flesh and blood individuals and communities, just as it as an abstract earth.  If you are dealing only with the abstractions of ‘Arab territory’ and the ‘Arab people’ then this enables you to justify transfer and dispossession. 

In pro-Zionist historiography, one frequently hears comments like this: "it has become fashionable to examine Israel's war of independence from an Arab perspective"; "the new historians were effectively reiterating the standard Arab narrative of the conflict, in an attempt to give it academic respectability." Note firstly that there is no "Palestinian" perspective. It has once again been collapsed in the abstract empty category of the "Arab". Let us ascend from the abstract to the concrete and ask what exactly constitutes an "Arab perspective". Is it a Palestinian villager who fled in 1948 with their memories and oral testimony, is it a senior academic Arab-Israel academic at a university in the U.K, and so on? The Arab perspective will soon fragment into the variousness of acutal human beings. Note also that the "Arab" perspective can only be 'given' respectability from the outside. It has none in itself. These are again, framing assumptions rather than stated beliefs. But they are more than that, because they are part of the intellectual armory that helps perpetuate and ongoing injustice.

Friday, 22 August 2014

The Lemon Tastes Yellow: Digressions Around Sartre

I wanted to write something about a passage in Sartre where he says something like "the lemon tastes yellow", except I couldn't remember where I'd read it. It's actually from Being and Nothingness, and memory had amended it:
The lemon is extended through all its qualities, and each of its qualities is extended through each of the others. It is the sourness of the lemon which is yellow, it is the yellowness of the lemon which is sour. We eat the colour of the cake, and the taste of the cake is the instrument through which its shape and its colour are revealed to what we might term the alimentary intuition. 

It's one of those passages that we 'get' on first reading - a brief flash of sense - but can't then translate it into 'ordinary language'. The question is how we tackle ideas with this rather torsive phrasing.  If we're being a hard-nosed literalist we say it's simply nonsense. Colour is one thing and taste another, and although there's something called synesthesia, that's a rather exceptional and special case.

But this hard-nosed literalist response is something we're happy to suspend if we're dealing with poetry or fiction. In literary writing "the lemon tastes yellow" is certainly something we'd allow without demanding paraphrase* . With literature we turn ourselves to the new direction from which meaning arrives. (We might compare Beckett's metaphorical use of the square root of minus one in Texts for Nothing versus Lacan's use if it in psychoanalysis. The latter is typicaly condemned as a nonsensical misuse of mathematical formulae, whereas Beckett's is an inspired analogue of the self - something at once non-existent but necessary). But, and especially in poetry, 'meaning' is also somethin rather different. The 'meaning', or sense, of a line of poetry, comes in an instant and has a peremptory finality. It names something with exactidude and justice to such a degree that paraphrase neither has nor wants an answer. This instantaneous flash of sense, which illuminates mind and body at once, is indeed part of the attraction of poetry.

Many philosophers tend towards the poetic. Not as an evasion of logic or plain sense. For them, the metaphor, the image, the paradox are ways of taking by surprise an Idea that would otherwise see us coming and take flight.  And these philosophers are the ones condemned by hard-nosed literalism and common sense. Sartre is one of them.

Associated thoughts:

1. Let's say we hear a record from our childhood, and experience a Proustian reprise of our world back then. I suggest it not that we're hearing some tones and sounds that then send us to our childhood, or onto which we then project the flavours of childhood. Rather do we directly hear our childhood.

In fact, hearing is perhaps always minimally synesthesiac in a way that's easy to understand. We hear the hardness of wood when its tapped against another surface, the brittleness of glass, the volume of something is reveaed when it hits the floor, its hollowness etc The squelch of a rotten fruit reveals its inner consistency. Sound complements touch. Each sense is a new revelation of the object, and so is the object equally distributed through these revelations.

2. The infectious contiguity of colour. It's most obviously noticeable in painting: the tone and mood of a colour changes radically according to what colours surround it. Each colour is infected by the others. Each colour is somehow distributed through the others. 

3. A more anecdotal approach concerns the impossibility of repeating a flavour from a trip abroad. There was a wine in Florence, which we had at a hilltop restaurant in Fiesole. I thought it was the best wine I'd ever tasted. Many months after we popped into a shop on the King's Road and saw the same wine, and took it home, eager to savour again that unique taste. Of course, it was very nice, but not at all the same. Something similar hasppens with cold beers tasted in hot dry countries. In fact, whenever I've come back from somwhere I've always made this mistake. A liqueur, in Prague, a coffee from Italy.. I want to reproduce the taste at home. To drink again that taste which always disappoints because there was never anything as discrete, as individualised as a taste. In fact, at the origin, all the elements interpenetrate. The wine, the breeze, the wild cat in the street below, the view over Florence. We think of the Experience as the sum total of its parts - the individual tastes and sensations. But in fact, what comes first is the Experience in its unity, which we then cut up into various individual tastses and sensations. There is perhaps a low-level synesthesia that inflects all our experience. Like the colours in a painting infecting oneanother.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

From Fargo to Byzantium

Both No Country for Old Men and the recent adaptation of Fargo feature a character who is, we might say, an implacable agent of Death. They travel in one undeviating direction and leave bodies in their wake. Yet both men, Malvo in Fargo and Chigurh in No Country, are strange attractors. We enjoy their time on screen. We don't find them repulsive or creepy. We don't simply want them eliminated as soon as possible.  Malvo has something of the charm and mandarin politeness sometimes ascribed to the devil. Chigurh seems irresistible both in his trajectory and in terms of his seduction of the viewer. We are drawn to him despite ourselves, or at least forgoe any kind of ethical judgement.

Why is this? The quick and not inaccurate first reply might be that we invest in characters who drive the narrative. When the hapless Lester comes into contact with Malvo, this is the chance conjugation that activates the story proper, and thence does the story follow Malvo like a detective following a lead.Malvo and Chigurh are force fields which disrupt the repetitions of the everyday so that something happens. And as a viewer we want events, so we go with the narrative prime movers. Something similar is true of Othello, whereby we're shoehorned into a kind of complicity with Iago at the price of our ethical judgement.We're made into daemonic accomplices and voyeurs of choreographed misfortune. 

The second response is both Malvo and Chigurh are not quite of the same world as the other characters. Or rather, and it amounts to the same thing, they aren't quite of the same genre. When, in No Country, The bewilded storekeeper is asked to toss a coin - unwittingly deciding whether he will live or die -  Chigurh becomes the shadow of Fate itself, or a cipher for the  arbitrary ambush of death that awaits us all. It’s as if - like in Greek mythology, where the Gods assume human form - something metaphysical shines through the fabric of the everyday world and breaks or interrupts that world from the outside. And because we are deprived of any biographical or psychological detail, they - Chigurh and Malvo- stand before us as abstract and pure as a command. In short, we can afford to like them because they verge on the allegorical. Like all allegorical figures, they point towards another level of existence from which we are separated by habit, by everyday life. 

Both in narrative and Symbolic terms, then, they have the same effect: They derail or disrupt the Everyday.  On the symbolic level, they seem bigger than, or of a different substance from, the world in which they are placed. They manifest a meaning, a value, a principle that the Everyday world cannot accomodate. On the narrative level, they make something happen and that something suspends the rules of normalcy.  Lester is an insurance salesman, an employment which, as much as "Accountant," is in almost every fictional world a by-word for the humdrum and the put-up-on Mr Average, a soul reconditioned and made quietly sad by the rhythms of the 9 to 5. Malvo is the force that breaks open the humdrum and releases a a different Lester.

Everyday life is typically buttoned to the normalcy of two (related) things which are always sacrosanct: a) the couple and b) the family. A is of course the nucleus of B. Anything which injures these two things is marked as Evil, and can unleash the most fearful retributive violence. Indeed, some films are almost entirely given over to such retribution, with legions of casualities on the way, and the family injury serving as little more than a pretext for this cathartic violence.Such retributive violence is often meted out against a killer designated as Evil or Creepy. And it might be worh pausing to consider why neither Malvo nor Chigurh are so represented. With the creepy killer there is typically an emphasis on their repulsive physicality  - a deformity, a lubricious mouth, a bulging eyes. Both Malvo and Chigurh are handsome. 'Creepy' killers are invariably castrated, defective beings. Their violence is a failed attempt to redress some more basic impotence or exclusion. With  Malvo and Chigurh their murderousness is almost an indication of the force that marries them to their purspose, like the flattened fence left by a tornado. What attracts us is their self-possesion, their ability to follow only their own rule. They do not deviate, they always return to their path. They are supremely free, in the sense of unbound to any social or ethical code, but free with the force of necessity. 
Malvo and Chigurh. are 'lone' without been 'loners'. And whereas the 'loner' serial killer is a reject, an item of trash discarded by the community, returning in mutant form, the Lone Agent (as we might call them), by contrast, was never part of the community in the first place. They are visitors, figures from another land, emissaries from Elsewhere. Where the creepy killer is pathetically parasitic on the society they attack, the Lone agent needs no one else. Their solitude is elective, an original state of nature. Whereas the 'creepy' killer is identified with sickness, the Lone Agent has a kind of vitality, an irrepressible resolve. 
The curious thing about Fargo is that we do not long for the return of the everyday. It's suspension is part of what attracts us to Malvo. The Everyday, the world of work and domesticity, is in Fargo never really that desirable a space. It is often reduced to parody by the benign, mild-mannered idiom of the characters themselves, the "Minneasota nice", an idiom which is also a restrictively sanguine and cosy world-view, unable to absorb or utter any trauma or radical Event. At the end of the series we see the detective Molly and her postman husband curled on the settee watching Deal or No Deal, where the element of chance in the latter is a like kitsch mirror of the more radical and terrifying Chance that has driven the narrative, the role of the dice on the table of the earth that infects our existence from the off. But finally, it stands before us as an image of the homeostasis of domestic life. And we long for a Malvo to set things in motion once again, we are sat waiting for the storm clouds and the rumble in the sky to fill the vacume.

The violence of our two Lone Agents is marked less as either Good nor Evil and more a principle of nature, a gale from the outside. We might also think of the ominous close of the Coen Brothers' re-telling of Job, A Serious Man, where, after fruitlessly seeking answers from a succession of sophistical and ineffectual Rabbis, there appears on the horizon, in the form of a tornado, what seems like the annihilating vacuume of god's implacable, and inexplainable force. The publicity poster for No Country for Old Men would seem to position Chigurh as something like that ominous dark weather. 

"That is no country for old men" begins Yeats's Sailing to Byzantium. With That he removes himself, and us, from the mortal country (This would place us among our fellow citizens), he points at it from another shore. His fidelity is to another place, a Byzantium. The image of such a place casts light and shadow over the actually existing world and reveals its imperfections. To remove ourself from this world - so it becomes a That rather than a This - doubtless always presupposes an such an Elsewhere, from which we travel again to our own country and find it lacking. And perhaps the reason why we find Malvo and Chigurh so attractive is that their destructiveness, which warps and destroys the socio-symbolic community, open up a space which is also an exit route to such an elsewhere.