Inhuman Rights

As the traditional left goal of economic equality was abandoned, it was superseded by emphatic allegiance to “human rights”, which is now taught in school as a veritable religion. The vague notion of human rights was somehow associated with the “free movement” of everything and everybody. Indeed the official EU dogma is protection of “free movement”: free movement of goods, people, labor and (last but certainly not least) capital. These “four freedoms” in practice transform the nation from a political society into a financial market, an investment opportunity, run by a bureaucracy of supposed experts. In this way, the European Union has become the vanguard experiment in transforming the world into a single capitalist market.
Diana Johnstone

Absolute

Huysmans dismissed him as a pompous fanatic. Baudelaire acknowledged him as his intellectual tutor. I think Joseph de Maistre is worth reading as an antidote to deconstruction.

The problem with deconstruction is that it has come to be associated with a knee-jerk liberalism that finds hysteric fault with every manifestation of authority and, therefore, tends toward a paralytic anarchist cult of consensuality and victimhood. To me, this is a deconstruction afraid to pursue its logic to the end, which ought to be its self-nullification. What deconstruction should reveal, ultimately, is the indispensability (as opposed to lamentability) of violence and privilege in the construction and maintenance of effective civilizational myths.

This is what Maistre does. And he does it by ruthlessly judging high-sounding ideas of emancipation by their outcome. Rather than attempt an impotent philosophical demolition of rationalism and the incipient bourgeois democratic ethos, he ties them to the bloody disorder ushered by the collapse of the Ancien Régime. And ultimately, he puts his faith not in the rhetorical power of his words but in the social and spiritual calamities that attend the destruction of the old patriarchal order. The people “have only seen the Revolution; they must feel it and enjoy, so to speak, its bitter consequences.”

Enjoy.

Spell

To me, Watteau is the painter who most profoundly understood femininity and went furthest in developing the means to pictorially represent it.

One of the things he figured out is the connection between femininity and veiling. He reveals this intuition through the attention he lavishes on gowns and the dazzling (one might say blinding) shimmeriness of silk, for femininity ultimately is the power to cast a spell, to blind. But at an even more exquisite level, he reveals it through his fascination with women seen from behind. (And please, enough about the male gaze. The male gaze is a feminist fiction. When I involuntarily gaze at a woman, I forget who I am. I am absorbed in her.)

A beautiful woman with her face turned away is like the promise of happiness. Or heartache. Or both. Something to linger on, a ready-made allegory of aesthetic experience. When she turns her face to us, we are obligated to strike a complementary pose, to reveal our desire to her and to ourselves; we can no longer admire disinterestedly.

In the modern period, only Gerhard Richter’s Betty achieves the same tender regard for femininity that Watteau made the staple of his short career.

Desublimation

In retrospect, Michael Fried’s stance against “theatricality” and the literalization of the object can be read as a last-ditch defense against the impending desublimation of the art object. While Fried’s position was perhaps vitiated by his embrace of Anthony Caro’s gentrified constructivism as an alternative to minimalist vacuity, his thoughts on the dire consequences of literalism bear rereading.

I read Fried’s notion of “theatricality” as a euphemism for perversion. The literalization of the object, its “subjective destitution” in Lacanese, is a formula for its transformation into an object that imposes itself on the viewer as an ordeal. Of course, this “real” object of minimalism is no more real than any other object. Its stripped-down “realness” is merely the artifact of an ostentatiously performed debasement, a maneuver that is the hallmark of perversion. This becomes fully evident when the literalized, debased object is the body.  Literalizing the body involves subjecting it to endless masochistic indignities in an effort to establish its dissociated materiality. Chris Burden’s early performances come to mind. Or Marina Abramović’s.

Despite what Hal Foster claimed, desublimation did not constitute a “return of the Real” because the Real is just what the frame of art rigorously excludes. Art only admits fictions and, when the efficiency of the modernist fiction of autonomy begins to wane, it is replaced by the fiction of an abolished fiction, the fiction of producing the “real.”

Fried’s response to the alignment of art with perversion was correct in its assessment of the impoverishment that would result. The putative de-aestheticization of the art object did not bring “art” closer to “life.” It brought it closer to shit.

In Memoriam

Painting survives because the subject survives.

To put it another way: As a technology of “representation,” painting is obsolete. Photography supplanted that role as soon as it was mature enough to become the dominant mode of image circulation. Although, subsequently as, among others, Gerhard Richter revealed, painting becomes a means of arresting photography’s arrested images and reintroducing into the forensic record a mournfulness that photography would otherwise disavow. (Photography a perversion? Perhaps.) As an adjunct of photography, painting delays the reception of the photograph, subjects it to an extended and fascinated gaze, lingers on a surface that repels lingering; it counters photography’s power to distract. The blurring in Richter’s paintings is not merely a simulation or evocation of the photographic field. It is also allegorical of the slipperiness of the photograph, of the way that the closeness of the photographic signifier to the referent tends to encourage the same hasty viewing that takes in the latter as we restlessly scan the world with our unfocused predatory eyes looking for prey or threat and quickly filtering out everything that doesn’t qualify. There’s an inherent banality to the photograph that can only be set aside by the intervention of painting but always at the risk that the photograph will banalize the painting, that the photograph will devour the painting rather than be disarticulated by painting.

But painting’s relationship with photography is not the primary reason for painting’s survival.

Painting continues because it is unique as a medium in its ability to retain the memory of its own hesitant, agonized elaboration within its body. Not as a supplement (say, as a collection of photographs of its various states) but integrally, as the layers it absorbs into itself. This gives painting a special ability to allegorize both body and interiority. One need not equate interiority with authenticity to recognize that painting’s ability to construct interiority has libidinal significance for the subject, which would otherwise lack the fictional means to compel acknowledgment.

Painting persists as symptom of the subject’s desire to mark itself, suffer its marking, and enjoy its marked suffering.

Lamentable Identities

The Democratic Party has lost its ability to pose as the party of labor and the middle class. Firmly controlled by Wall Street and California billionaires, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) strategy of identity politics encourages any identity except that of wage earners. The candidates backed by the Donor Class have been Blue Dogs pledged to promote Wall Street and neocons urging a New Cold War with Russia.

They preferred to lose with Hillary than to win behind Bernie Sanders. So Trump’s electoral victory is their legacy as well as Obama’s. Instead of Trump’s victory dispelling that strategy, the Democrats are doubling down. It is as if identity politics is all they have.

Michael Hudson

Actually, there is no “as if.” Identity politics is all the Democrats have. The problem is that by now, it is readily apparent that the liberal notion of “inclusion” operates strictly in favor of the advancement of the already privileged: “underpaid” and “underrepresented” Hollywood actors, corporate execs held down by glass ceilings, administrators and bureaucrats eager to convert their “marginal” status into promotional entitlement. Identity politics plays well with hipsters and sentimentalists who vote with their “feelings.” But liberal identity politics have helped coalesce a counter, illiberal identity politics, a right-wing mirror image rooted in nativist ideology. This is hardly surprising. Nationalism begats nationalism and identity politics was merely liberal cover for various forms of tribal separatism used to obscure more fundamental divisions of class. The United States is now itself susceptible to the sort of tribal conflict it has fostered abroad, most notably in the Middle East. In 2008, the day of reckoning seemed to have arrived for capitalism, but it has been deferred in favor of a potentially more barbaric conflict between various deluded identity groups. At a press conference in 1974, Lacan predicted the future “triumph of religion” as a reversal of modernity. Some 50 years later, what seems to be coming to pass is the triumph of tribalism, which is perhaps the most fundamental form religion can assume.

Between Superegos

… men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbour is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus. Who in the face of his experience of life and of history, will have the courage to dispute this assertion? As a rule this cruel aggressiveness waits for some provocation or puts itself at the service of some other purpose, whose goal might also have been reached by milder measures. In circumstances that are favorable to it, when the mental counter-forces which ordinarily inhibit it are out of action, it also manifests itself spontaneously and reveals man as a savage beast to whom consideration towards his own kind is something alien.
–Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, 1930

A rhetorical advantage that conservatives enjoy is that unlike liberals they are not required to indulge in the absurdity of attributing liberating agency to the superego. Liberalism always seems to impose a tighter knot of restrictions than the one it gets rid of. The liberal superego simultaneously goads toward enjoyment and makes enjoyment impossible–since enjoyment must never infringe on the rights of easily injured others. In practice, this means that liberalism installs the sensitivities of a vocal and sanctimonious elite as the margins of allowable discourse. In the name of freeing us from our hangups, this “countercultural” elite has instead surrounded us on all sides with an ever-encroaching minefield of impermissible thoughts and turns of phrase. In so doing, it has also created endless possibilities for the kind of transgression that fuels the careers of  “politically incorrect” charlatans.

By contrast, the old hangups now seem more tolerable because more “honest.” The old, pre-liberal superego seems less fiendishly paradoxical. It did not promise happiness and then restrict enjoyment to the insipid, latté-fied, dis-gendered (“gender neutral”) pleasures that liberals permit themselves. It did not promise us freedom from sexual inhibition and then deny us the pleasure of objectifying our sexual objects. It did not enjoin us to be nonconformists while prohibiting all but a few tepid idiosyncrasies.

The old superego was brazenly prohibitive and judgmental. It promised not happiness but respectability. But since it derived its authority from tradition, it could not survive the ancien regime. The contemporary superego derives its authority from a diffuse expertocracy whose prejudices and superstitions are rendered invisible through pseudo-scientific consensus.

A revolt against this expertocracy is currently under way. Liberalism has peaked. Disenchantment with it can only grow because at root the disenchantment with liberalism expresses a powerful sexual disenchantment.  Liberalism can be understood as an attempt to dephallicize enjoyment, to remove from sexuality every trace of aggression. But this is impossible to do without eradicating sexuality. The West prides itself with its permissiveness, and yet what it permits is actually quite meager: a joyless enjoyment enervated by endless considerations of mutuality that leave no room ultimately for anything but onanism, an enjoyment that in Zizek’s words, is the sexual equivalent of Diet Coke. Or worse: for liberalism typically demands that the sacrifice of enjoyment be itself experienced as enjoyment. It universalizes the hysteric mode of enjoyment as the only permissible one.

Populism is tainted with its own brand of hysteria and Freud himself was wary of it. In Civilization and its Discontents he noted that the social regulation of aggression aims at social harmony but produces a masochistic cult of the death drive. Current events do not augur a resolution of this impasse.

Postmodern Modernism

Postmodernism is a fiction that covers up modernism’s abandonment of its utopian pretensions. What was involved was hardly a paradigmatic shift or rupture. It was, rather, modernism’s reconciliation with its own longstanding service to the bourgeoisie. The “post” in postmodernism asserts the supersession of modernism even as it betrays the continuity of the modernist obsession with supersession.

In the early days of its ascent to power, the bourgeoisie was a revolutionary class. This was acknowledged by the authors of the Communist Manifesto. The early avant-garde catered to this self-consciously progressive elite by accentuating the anti-canonical radicality of its artistic products.

By the middle of the 20th century, the bourgeoisie had thoroughly consolidated its power and was ready to smugly enjoy its reflection in the mirror of art. Modernism’s revolutionary pose could be dispensed with.

It was Andy Warhol’s moment, in which we continue to abide.

Art learned to glorify what exists, the ready-made, the status quo. The modernist subversion of canonicity had come full circle.

Underlying the continuity between modernism and postmodernism is a more fundamental one: the continuity of bourgeois hegemony, to whose aggrandizement modernism and postmodernism have been equally devoted. What distinguishes them is strictly a distinction between how the bourgeoisie wanted to see itself in its adolescence and how it came to see itself in its decadence. Modernism heroicized the nascent bourgeoisie’s insurrectionary will. When the bourgeoisie was safely and formidably ensconced as the new ruling class, postmodernism came along to glamorize its cold cynicism.