Volume 9, Number 3 (October 2012)
Author: Dr. Bradley Kaye
No one dreams of the blue flower anymore (Benjamin, in Sulfur: 32)
We are now awakening from a dream that has become a nightmare” (Zizek addressing Occupy Wall Street Protesters, October 9, 2011).
Are we sane enough to put forth the theory that all is an illusion? Or that we can somehow awaken from this socially constructed dream known as capitalism? Indeed, in the realm of politics, there are certain delusions that circulate through the social bodies of the polis that lead us to believe in a positive reality ‘out there’ – in the great beyond. Yet, what if in this era of spin, and manipulative rhetorical flourishes, much pomp and circumstance has replaced what in the classical world constituted the substance of political formations. All is illusion, and perhaps there is no extirpation from this ever-widening gyre of conscious simulacrums and fascistic ersatz outside the nexus of commodity-fetishism. In a sense, the hyperreal is always already mapping upon the terra firma of capitalism and forces our amnesia that the world was once differently configured. We may have gradually lost sight of the imaginative possibilities inherent in dreaming. In taking Baudrillard seriously, we might think about how we are awash in illusions and hyperrealities that deaden our ability to dream of worlds constructed otherwise.
We have lost track of the origin(s) – and metaphysically we drift into the realm of infinite and eternal becoming. No beginning and no end in the sense of striated time that comes to a close after beginning, but rather merely being – all is illusion; and always was, and maybe it always will be. The dream awakens us to our soporific nightmares, which implicate us in an un-winnable chess game of historical materialism played by a puppet and a dwarf, yet we never see the dwarf pulling the strings behind the mirror.
As Gilles Deleuze knew, and perhaps Walter Benjamin knew quite well himself, the game played by political elites is Chess, but the game played by guerillas and those positing a counter-hegemony is Go. In Go, all illusion is implacable, and time is infinite. Any piece can become any other piece. Beings are constantly becoming. The chessboard of the city becomes a homogeneous space defined as a total environment subsuming subjects in environment, transport, labor, leisure, play, and culture. The tactical response to this is the Go of the Zapatistas a-centered political ontology.
So, the true question of ethics, and politics is not the old-fashioned debate on the articulation between the descriptive and the normative, because no social order is inherently good in and of itself. The much more fundamental question to deal with is the relationship between ethics, as Ernesto Laclau puts it, as the moment of madness in which the fullness of society shows itself as both impossible and necessary, and the ontic descriptions of our material conditions are the raw materials for incarnating, in a transient way, the universality of an elusive fullness that is ‘yet to come.’ Libidinal investments push and pull this process along, and for Baudrillard it is the mediation of production that impedes its complete expression.
In this paper I theorize politics neither as it is, nor as it should be. I point to how one might reconfigure the game if we consider Jean Baudrillard the only sane person left in a worldwide asylum where the lines between patient and doctor have been effaced (and perhaps never existed at all). To do this, we have to turn to work on dreams, and think through the possibilities that history is a hallucination.
Dreams and madness do not necessarily create eccentricities that are equal. Both posit a sense of uncertainty. The affective uncanny ‘un-home-ness’ is what places figures like Michel Foucault, Ludwig Binswanger, and Jean Baudrillard in a category with one another. This paper thinks through various conceptual juxtapositions on the political ramifications of dreams, madness, and hallucinations in the oeuvres of these thinkers. This paper is not about clarifying, or producing the proper interpretation of Baudrillard, but about exploring his obfuscations and the labyrinthine manner in which he dissimulates reality. In my opinion, a politics based on the work of Jean Baudrillard is about pushing reality even further in the direction of opacity rather than clarity and transparency. His work dovetails nicely with Foucault’s work on heterotopias constituted as antithetical to utopias.
I appropriate Foucault/Binswanger’s conceptualization of Dreaming into a political theory (taking into account what Guattari said – Madmen Hallucinate History) – and see what happens by juxtaposing Difference and Repetition (areas where Deleuze deals with groundlessness in metaphysics) with Baudrillard’s theory of simulations/simulacrums.
In Dream and Existence Foucault explored the very real possibility that there is literally no horizon differentiating the illusory state when a subject sleeps, and the wakened delusions one endures in a soporific existential state called life. In fact, this text must be considered a touchstone for Baudrillard’s later work on Simulations and Simulacrum during the early 1980’s. Out of this nexus, we see the grandiose ethos of deconstructive pathos being pushed into the forefront of critical theory, wherein objective or even materialist notions of reality are called into question.
The social importance of this work is to hopefully give a voice to a population that has historically been silenced, precisely because they/we have been codified as pathological: the mad (with all of our heterogeneous modes of expression as beings-in-the-world). If pathos has been historically situated as a silence, then we must begin to grapple with the very real possibility that psychology will never be able to accommodate within its space that which constitutes the absence of the signatory, to say nothing of the absence of a referent. This writing may become a historical outlier, externality, or clothing with which to construct a new methodological dressage towards the silence that has been construed as ‘pathos/madness.’ Baudrillard speaks on behalf of the disenfranchised, the mad, and the pathological justifiably alienated from an otherwise dysfunctional capitalist regime of exploitation, greed, and nihilistic pleasure seeking. Baudrillard is the theorist who thinks through a politics of pathos in an empowering way, as an always already unthinkable silence that is all around at all times.
Madness and Reason constitute a rather shoddy subject-object distinction. The goal of this work is to argue that this split is insurmountable, even though the distinction is illusory – a paradox at the heart of existence.
II. Dream and Existence
One of the major contributions to philosophical discourse given by 60’s theory is the belief that subjectivity is never a-historical. Truth does not exist timelessly, but historically, and is always already enmeshed in ideologies that push and pull consciousness as if by manifold lines of flight. Yet, as this process continues, reproducing norms and anomalies (a-nomos subjects) what authenticity is constituted via dissimulation, and artifice. It is the mask that doubles as a face that brings out the hidden self through a carnivalesque un-concealment. In subject formations, there is no possibility the reinscription of the process of repetition in the metaphysical logic of identity. In madness,
the ‘barred subject’, which prevents the process of interpellation from chaining the individual entirely to a situated position, introduces a new era of indeterminacy which makes possible, among other things, parodic and ironic performances. The structuring of power creates the conditions of its essential restructuring as a non-totalizing totality.
Hyperreality is when politics becomes modeled on parodic performances, and this means that there is a distance between the actions being performed and the rules being enacted. People vote, but there is a real sense that it is totally useless because the state offers us nothing but farcical explications said in all austere seriousness. We have visions of Hollywood movies playing out while we see political violence unfold. The representations have stood in for the Real for so long that the traumatic kernel in our collective subconscious has been effaced by illusions. Yet, there is an imminent liberation occurring in this epoch. A power that is total is no power at all. When power is finite (finito, finished) it withers away and dies.
However, one remnant of modernity that was torn asunder by postmodern theorists such as Jean Baudrillard, was the premise that the subject has an ontological center that if discovered would reveal the hidden kernel of our truest self. It is nothing more than a replication of the predominant cultural models that have been accepted by the subject as if they were real. If this is true, then there is no subconscious depth to be plumbed, and our subjectivity is a series of surfaces layered as versatile strata.
As Jean Baudrillard spent his life explaining, there is a disconnection between signifier and signified. What we see, or seem to see by virtue of being in our culture, is a sanitized variation of what is actually occurring. It is as if all we see, or seem to see rests upon no ground. Life has become a dream within a dream.
Exactly the same logic applies with madness. Once someone is ‘cured’ and returned to hum drum daily existence of work, and legitimated as a rational, reasonable, ‘sane’ subject, they are no longer Mad. By extension once this happens the subject is no longer revolutionary, because his radical difference is mollified by normative domestications of the panopticon’s omnipresent schemas. It is because the mad scare the heck out of mainstream society that they/we are one possible revolutionary subject. Once we are accepted, we are no longer revolting, but middle class and stale.
Deviance and abnormality posit a peculiar sense of fear in mainstream society who tries to capture and tame its most dangerous monsters. Our chimeras are what resemble us the most. The monster is the body of possibility. Not in the sense of a teratology (the study of monsters) to know about them/us as some epistemological object. Rather to realize that nothing can be known about the mad. If we could master madness it would no longer be scary and revolting. If we knew about the monster it would no longer mystify. Once madness is mastered (In the sense of the Master/Slave Dialectic) it becomes what I call Sane-itized. It is the madman beckoning the moon beyond the gates of civil society that interests me here – and I believe this is the way Jean Baudrillard theorized about madness in his oeuvre as well.
For instance, in the asylum, the biggest misapprehension is that “I am King” – yet, who is to say that someone who convinced the rest of the world that he or she is indeed a King, or Queen, is any less deluded. It is merely that the madman masquerading as a sovereign, collecting taxes, deciding to fight wars, has infected us with their delusions of grandeur. A mutually agreed upon misapprehension does not make a truth. It simply makes the delusion that much more nefarious because it circulates as if it were True (with a capital T; true for everyone). Delusions wearing the masks of Truths, that is how I posit the political, not just now, in our current age, but as long as there have been sovereigns and subjects.
In fact, upon reading Ludwig Binswanger’s Dream and Existence, we are faced with the politics of post-Obama despair. I find this quote fits snugly into the contemporary American political zeitgeist:
When we are in a state of deeply felt hope, or expectation and what we have hoped for proves illusory, then the world – in one stroke – becomes radically ‘different.’ We are completely uprooted, and we lose our footing in the world. When this happens, we say later – after we have regained our equilibrium – that it was ‘as though we had fallen from the clouds’ (Foucault and Binswanger, 1993: 81).
To me this quote strikes at the heart of contemporary American politics. One can be manipulated by fear (in the case of Bush Jr.) as well as hope. In my opinion, the latter is much more sadistic, because it promises salvation and gives us the expectation that our material conditions will improve. When these conditions stay the same we fall into despair, much like awakening from a dream. Once this hope turns to despair we are thrown into existential dread. By dread I mean being completely subsumed by a collective negative affective state without any possibility of transcendence. In essence, there is no world ‘out there’ to which we can escape because in post-hope despair, our crestfallen-ness brings us further into the darkness where we sleep. We have nothing left to give, because the no-thing is within us. Our libidinal investments base themselves upon nihilistic anticipation of exuberant releases of energy (aka. Lyotard’s definition of credit-capital – literally giving nothing so that it becomes something, a commodity, and ultimately a profit, and then capital, and the vicious circle reproduces itself ad nausea).
In an early work entitled Dream, Imagination, and Existence, Michel Foucault explored the very real possibility that there is literally no horizon differentiating the illusory state when a subject sleeps, and the wakened delusions one endures in a soporific existential state called life. In fact, this text must be considered a touchstone for Baudrillard’s later work on Simulations and Simulacrum during the early 1980’s. Out of this nexus, we see the grandiose ethos of deconstructive pathos being pushed into the forefront of critical theory, wherein objective or even materialist notions of reality are called into question.
Throughout Dream, Imagination, and Existence, Foucault reminds me in this text, of the great words spoken by the young ambitious Friedrich Nietzsche, “truth is an illusion we have forgotten is such” (On Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense). Then again in The Will to Power: “When one has grasped that the “subject” is not something that creates effects, but only a fiction, much follows” (Nietzsche; 1968: 297).
Foucault and Baudrillard were both avid readers of Deleuze who pulls the rug out from underneath metaphysics by positing the eternal recurrence as caves upon caves, and draws upon the Nietzsche of The Will to Power. Metaphysicians are those thinkers: “Who indeed refuses to be drawn out of the cave, finding instead another cave beyond, always another in which to hide” (Deleuze, 1994: 67).
And the rug pulled out from underneath the political subject creates a hopeful anticipation of “universal ungrounding” (ibid.) One need not posit a clearing, but rather a vacuum into which signification fills the void. An illusion of the grandest kind, because with this un-grounding there is the thrown-ness into yet another ground, and another, and another, until we realize the entire precipice rests upon ethereal air. The Nothing is what grounds that which has no ground. As Irigaray once said of Heidegger; “As long as Heidegger does not leave the “earth,” he does not leave metaphysics.” (Irigaray, 1999:2).
The most intriguing truth Jean Baudrillard uncovered was it is not illusion that conceals reality, but reality that conceals that there is none. In essence, there is no ‘terra firma’ upon which to stand, and we are left with an oceanic sense of uncertainty. The Wizard of Oz is not behind the curtain, pulling levers, but behind the curtain lays another curtain and another, and another. In my opinion, Jean Baudrillard, while disabusing himself of such labels, was by all technical standards an anarchist. By this I mean anarchism as ‘an-arche-ism’ with the root of the word being an-arche, which literally means anti-foundational. The political theory offered by Baudrillard is almost always posited against any sort of metaphysical foundation, and by extension demystifies political structures formed on their basis, ultimately un-concealing their foundationless illusionary base of power.
And again, in one of the most brilliant flashes of genius in Anti-Oedipus:
Courage consists, however, in agreeing to flee rather than live tranquilly and hypocritically in false refuges. Values, morals, homelands, religions, and these private certitudes that our vanity and our complacency bestow generously upon us, have as many deceptive sojourns as the world arranges for those who think they are standing straight and at ease, among stable things (Deleuze and Guattari, 1984:341).
An existential collapse of the psyche occurs when hope is lost. The materialist notion that the world conforms to an outside realm beyond the context of human minds is called into question, and quite cogently. It is the prison-house historical materialism that weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. We are thrown into the uncertainty of a world that is unstable. It is the realm of stability that is the illusion – entropy and madness are the authentic ways of being when one begins to search for the truth.
Dreams are not always about wish fulfillment as Freud postulated in The Interpretation of Dreams (Freud, 1900). They can be about repetition of particularly important moments in life that recur through daydreaming. As Ludwig Binswanger posited in his Dream and Existence (Foucault and Binswanger, 1993), dreaming can be a way of existentially ascending upward towards ‘heaven’ and staving off the inevitable trek downwards into the underworld of suffering, pain, and anxiety that besets us all at some point. At times we must posit, do we dream our dreams, or do they dream us?
It is the Cantorian proof that there are always bigger and smaller infinities. When one seeks the truth, one digs up much earth and finds little. Once we gather the courage to scale the mountaintop, it is invigorating because we can see everything all around us. However, it is daunting in a cosmic sense, because there are always more mountains out beyond the last range we can see. What lies beyond the edge of the universe? After we travel through an infinite amount of space, there will always be another bigger infinity to travel through, and another, and another. Time works exactly the same way. What happened prior to the big bang? What happened before God was born? There is always another God, another universe, another big bang, because time is infinite. Infinities go on forever. Infinities are stratified as well. Bigger and bigger infinities go on and on alongside smaller and smaller ones, and this led Cantor to become deeply depressed, ultimately devolving into a serious psychosis.
When one ponders the true nature of reality the authentic response is entropic madness. What I call the madness of chaotic decay. Reality is not locked in where everything takes its proper place, but rather a random assortment of chaotic atoms smashing into one another haphazardly. Matter does not know its place: it is malleable, slippery, and ultimately simulating form when we look closer, it slides in and out of existence like a flickering wave. It is the belief that one is in, what social theorists call the Iron Cage of Rationalism that must be deconstructed to liberate subjects from within.
What needs to be criticized is the classical paradigm implying that politics is a game played via cause and effect. Rather, in my opinion, politics expresses merely intuitive forces similar to our consciousness during a lucid dream. One can still hold onto a viable political sense of agency. In fact, I would even go so far as to say, the recourse to pathos is necessary to overcome the objective-logocentrism of materialism, and that this is the only way to stir up an agent of change. As Foucault famously said, to paraphrase, there are no historical facts, only interpretations. Metaphysics and by extension politics, stands upon weak legs, the ego is a mask for other masks, a disguise under other disguises. Reality is a farce akin to a clown that walks on with a limp on one green and one red leg (Deleuze, 1994: 110). The subject happily ascends into nowhere and now-here (Butlerian Erewhons) or despairingly descends down the precipice into the abyss (that Nietzsche says also looks into you).
What exists currently in the world is a dream-like delusion, somewhat akin to historical materialism, where masses of people live under the presumption that ‘they/we’ are freely creating our lives. In actuality our choices have been mass- produced by the horizons of the marketplace. Coke/Pepsi, Liberal/Conservative, Ford/Chevy, Pizza with pepperonis or mushrooms, Yankees/Red Sox, so on and so forth. These are choices in the absence of true choice. The Matrix is still lurking, and as Foucault claimed, in political theory we have yet to cut off the head of the king. This is because we still know our place. The entropy has yet to fully kick in. Ironically, it is always already at work.
What is deeply disturbing to me is that the madness of politics goes on as if it were normal, sane, and even necessary. For instance, during the French Revolution, while France was adjusting to a new set of choices asserted by what the people called Democracy with the radical ethos of “liberty, equality, and fraternity,” a basic presumption that Monarchy was obliterated had started to seep into the collective consciousness. Foucault is brilliant on this point, the biggest delusion experienced by the mad who were festering in asylums at the time was “I am the king.” Positing a certain hallucination of history that is not external to history, but actually within and identical to history.
The transition from Monarchy to Democracy created new symptomatic versions of the history it was allegedly transcending. It reminds me of the famous quote from Deleuze and Guattari, capitalism is a motley painting of all that has hitherto ever existed. And in actuality, I am positing a much more critical point here, and that is the distinction between the madman who festers in the asylum, who claims, “I am king,” but who ultimately has no power, is almost identical to the actual King of France. The only distinction is that the actual King of France has somehow convinced the rest of the world that he is indeed the King. The emperor, as the famous story goes, has no clothes, and is only the King if the rest of the people agree that indeed they want to become his subjects, and go on serving as if this were natural. The biggest delusion is not the subjugated subject, the madman hallucinating history who says, “I am king” and convinced no one of this fact, but the much more dangerous King who controls the military and gets the world to actually believe he is the King of France.
As Louis Althusser claimed, rightly, I might add, ideology does not necessarily work at the level of beliefs, but rather behaviors. How a
mode of production gets at us all from within, the sheer sinister brilliance of the immanence of power, where the subjugated subject tries to flee the police officer, and actually could get away, except he turns to look back, an admission of guilt, when the police officer calls out: “Hey, you there!” The state functions exactly the same way. As one giant police force that homogenizes through antagonisms eliding the antagonism that could ultimately be transformative: class conflict and the breakdown of what Marx called the cash-nexus of capitalism. Why must we refer to ourselves as laborers? Why must we be convinced that using money is the only way to conduct an economy? These are the basic illusions we all live with as if the machines were controlling our libidinal investments and were are merely brains in vats like in the Matrix films.
A true democratic choice exists only when people start to assert that this temporal continuum of production-distribution-consumption, what Marx called the capitalist syllogism, can stop. We are only free insofar as we can choose to live outside of this particular mode of production. A subject realizes freedom by asserting that capitalists do not own labor but actually cannot exist without it. Labor is what builds their mansions, and pulls the levers that elected them into office, and works the irrational mechanisms of the state bureaucracy, and so on. The first step is to actually take the time to decode how power get gnaws at the subject from within. To deconstruct the fascism of daily life, as Foucault called it, by creating phatic social relations based on mutual trust. Benefiting each according to needs, not merely by abilities.
A depense as Georges Bataille called it, where one gives a gift without expecting anything in return. And to do this with trust, where the subject does not have to fear being taken advantage of, or being exploited. Where the hierarchical nature of social relations are relegated to the minor terms of our daily lives, rather than being the major terms in the binary oppositions that compose contemporary capitalism.
Being ensconced in hyperreality is to completely erase the political forces that cause omni-crises akin to dreaming. Dreaming is not merely a hermeneutic of symbols. Rather, the meaning of the dream continually deploys itself from the cipher of experience, to the modalities of existence, and back again. The dream does not necessarily reveal an underlying hidden kernel repressed within the latent subconscious only to become manifest while asleep. It does, however, create a nexus of meanings by which hermeneutical alignments from our waking lives can graft themselves upon the no-thingness of the dreams haphazard partial objects. The dream does not really symbolize anything necessarily potent to foreshadow some provocative event yet to come, but rather emanates from a desire to make sense, align, and put the disorder into its proper place, again.
Re-collecting the disturbances that we try to push to the margins of our mind, by positing that reality exists. In fact, as Baudrillard once famously claimed, it is not the illusion that hides the true nature of reality, but reality that elides the fact that there is nothing real at all. Upon this ground of nothingness one constructs whole monumental edifices that correlate to something passing as reality. The biggest trick the bourgeoisie plays on the rest of us is getting us to inscribe their reality upon our dark blank slate selves. (W)holeness passes as reality, while the dark milieu within escapes our daily lives in the corridors of marketplace wishes, supple consumer fantasies. These delusions are so much more problematic than the everyday nihilism correlating to the hopelessness that nothing will exist 6 trillion years from now when the Milky Way vanishes into a Supernova. When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back, and only then do you see into your true essence, a black (w)hole and nothing more. The unconscious is such a black hole, because it belongs to the symbolic, as well as the imaginary order in which the subject is immutably situated. As if a unity exists to reconnect with in the cosmos, ideology is the ‘for they know not what they do’ of metaphysics, a falling into comfortable laissez-faire nostalgia. It is like political déjà vu as remembrance of a half forgotten dream.
The current revolutionary insurgency does not posit merely a breakthrough of the illusion, but rather a ciphering of meaning within its midst. There may be no outside at the end of history, but the realization that we can connect in small pockets, through say the vast popularity of Occupy Wall Street, and that we can somehow become empowered to choose the mechanisms of our own desire gives me great hope. Revolution is the struggle to destroy an entire edifice of power. To do this, we must begin by decoding the ways power gets hold of us from within. We bridge this gap by realigning ourselves with the nothing. Positing a meaning to our dreams can only make me believe that the police will be close at hand. Intentions without remembering the meaning of the dream it inspired, can be a liberation of sorts, because it does not posit a telos (an end, a goal, a conclusion), but rather a process. And what is human history, but the movement from one epistemological hallucination to another, and this is what social scientists call progress. To sit still in stasis and reject all objects like a Buddhist in the mountains is to extirpate oneself from objective knowledge, the biggest delusion of them all.
The refusal of work can be the shock to the system that puts the machine into hiatus. The death of the machine can appear in a dream with another face. The face of taboo. Reinstated in its expressive base, the dream is cut off from any objective indication, and is patently absurd. No external context can restore it to its truth. An agent based on spectacle and absurdity emerges out of the ashes, and true free-play begins.
Disengaged with objective meaning, the subject is liberated as a simple being-in-the-world. It is not as if there is a thing called ‘world’ that inscribes the subject from ‘out there’ beyond the borders of the self. Nothing outside of our minds can be known as things-in-themselves unless our minds are immanently connective with the world, which inscribes us alongside Others. We see the emptiness of the mind through careful meditation. Plus, its co-inscription along with the world does not ‘run alongside us’ as Heidegger would have us believe, but gets us from within.
As Marx also noticed, when we speak of production, we always have in mind production by social individuals. Desire is never extracted from social context. Desire can be modified to suit radically different constructions. The world is not alongside the subject, but each mutually inscribes its Other from within simultaneously.
What is up appears down, and vice versa. Not even a God can save us from this despair. A prophetic dream constituted the baseline encounter with God vicariously through imagination. Dreams, like hallucinations, are the concrete terrain of revelation. In an empirical dungeon of positivism where mystics and witches are cast aside in the name of Enlightenment variations of History, one can no longer patch together the lonesome universe into solidarity with something more. There is no transcendental realm beyond the material with which the cosmos is formed. Pure immanence can only mean that God is not external, but internal to the workings of the cosmos in a metaphysical materialism. With the death of God, we are all fundamentally bound to the immanence of matter. Yet nothing cosmically matters, except what we create. As Heidegger once said, god did not create humans in his image, humans created god in their image.
How can the murky truth of the world gather itself together into universal cohesion of dreams like instincts, libidinal investments, and desires? The good is good, not because it is instinctual, or conforms to a categorical a-priori truth, or is objectively right, but rather, because we desire it thus. Transcendental a-priori truths are a trick of the bourgeoisie. For Aristotle, the dream plunges the soul into the Kosmos, it becomes immersed in it, and mingles in an aquatic union. To be baptized in the mystical while asleep is to dream not to wake up, but to awaken not to know the difference anymore. It is like in the film Inception, where the architecture of the mind crumbles and turns inward. The folding immerses the variegated strata in the mystical sub-conscious. Freud called this the oceanic sense, and it is nearly impossible to live without that feeling of the uncanny. Oceanic sense constitutes a negative utopia in the mind.
To begin to deterritorialize is the liberation that expunges the self with dreaming again. It is not re-membering (in a phallic sense), or re-collecting (in a vulgar economic sense), but rather escaping into the dream via lines of flight. Inward is the only way out. The world is not going to conform to the realm of my wishes, and Kafka’s saying goes, in a battle between the world and yourself, always bet on the world, they have you outnumbered. The politics of transcendentalism is dead. Out there is long gone. As Emile Cioran correctly said, everything is pathology except indifference. It is always the people with guns who bring utopia to everyone who propagate destruction. Pathos is an illness that inspires the meta-narratives bringing destruction and chaos cloaked in meaningfulness. A hermeneutical circle that turns vicious. Yet, the point is not to act in solitude as the existentialists argued, but in solidarity where in being-together the collective can outnumber the world, and our atomism does not overtake us in despair.
III. Symbolic Exchange and Death
In most of the work presented by Jean Baudrillard, he often argues that political realms carved out in the classical period have been transformed into zones of signs. Media, advertising, and films are codes to be deciphered, but so are cars, home décor, and city graffiti. Various points along a continuum posit a multiplicity of signs that socialize subjects, bombarding it from all sides. The subject is literally awash in signs. Just like Foucault argues in his conceptualizing of dreams, there is nothing more than a social hermeneutics. Hermeneutics being the meaning of the signs as socially constructed. The image we represent of the sign is exhausted in the multiplicity of meanings. Its morphological structure has a temporal rhythm of development, and the world within which it is situated, is nothing more than allusions to this meaning.
In drawing upon Marx, Baudrillard claimed that production, distribution, and consumption formed a perfect syllogism reproducing each other seamlessly, but that the edifice of capital erodes itself. The socialization posited by capital also gives us exploitation and mass interdependence, putting everyone in a precarious position. In capitalism, everyone is commutable, like models themselves. Within the social mechanisms constituting the mode of production labor is nothing more than a set of interchangeable machine parts. In the density of images, meaning finds a way to elude itself time and time again. Sign-values are slippery and perpetually circulating new meanings to overcome the old ones in the planned obsolescence of capitalism.
For the most part, Baudrillard shies away from discussions of organic unities in favor of simulated reifications. The commodity form has become instilled with sign-values disseminated through mass media, the state, and other apparatuses. Yet, for Baudrillard, no value can be added to circulation through production. At his most economical theorizing he argues in Symbolic Exchange and Death:
Today everything has changed again. Production, the commodity form, labor power, equivalence, and surplus-value, which together formed the outline of quantitative, material, and measurable configuration, are now things of the past. Productive forces outlined another reference which, although in contradiction with the relations of production, remained a reference, that of social wealth. An aspect of production still supports both a social form called capital and its internal critique called Marxism. Now, revolutionary demands are based on the abolition of the commodity law of value (Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, cited in Rivkin and Ryan:491).
We are literally afloat in a sea of signs. The metaphysical ground of capital, the production-distribution-consumption syllogism, is now completely elided by mass production of signs and symbols. If we view our lives as simulated consumerists walking through a shopping center, or a supermarket, or a mega mall, we are literally reducing our subjectivity to an oneiric vacuum. All that is solid melts into air.
The political theory set forth by Jean Baudrillard constantly revolved around the premise that the system is meaningless even though it is constantly circulating signs. Meaning is always deferred in the sign. Consumption is deferred, that is the pleasure intrinsic to the object is deferred. Meaning is closed into the narrow space of the metaphysics of value. The truth constitutes deconstructing this metaphysics even though we are basking in chronic signification. Material signs refer to a continuously open ended signifying chain which is perhaps approaching infinity.
In taking a cue from Luce Irigaray, existence must be theorized as something other than merely substantive, at the behest of thinking air, lightness, and subjectivity as nothingness (no-thing-ness) vapor. To do this is to become a nihilist and the most dangerous insurgent there is, because for the nihilist, the falcon no longer hears the falconer, the widening gyre has exceeded the realm of the objective.
What if this mad dance of the world is actually ethereal physis masquerading as logos. Certain power formations (like electricity as power) flow through circuits, relays, and networks, creating the various subjectivities that do exist. When this happens, the possible subjectivities that may exist are closed off. All we have are representations (re-presentations) that appear to us as natural and given.
We are left with merely a reply to the void engulfed by memory (re-membering and re-collection). What may emerge is a playful experience of subjective states, phatic at times, yet mostly in isolation. The hope is to understand the phatic ‘being-with’ and ‘being-in-common’ in its unfolding as a situation subjects have willed thus.
Humans have known since Antiquity, that in dreams we confront ourselves as we are, and as we shall be. We see what we have done, and what we are going to do, and as Foucault says, “discovering there the knot that ties his freedom to the necessity of the world” (Foucault, 1957:47). The dream constitutes a radical subject, and a pseudo-freedom of incoherence, broken from representation and the resolution to the hermeneutics of life in the polis. Like in films, dreams create a world where the imagination literally runs wild. Often, this penetration of the political into the psychical creates a subsumed subject reified as mere instrument of the State.
Jean Baudrillard makes this point quite eloquently in his nihilistic style: “The only real cultural practice, that of the masses, ours (there is no longer any difference), is a manipulative, aleatory practice, a labyrinthine practice of signs, and one that no longer has any meaning” (1981:65). The lack of meaning is what brings us together, not substantive statements defining some residual sense of community. It is reminiscent of my favorite line from Jacques Lacan’s Seminar on “The Purloined Letter”; Lacan describes the letter by saying: “For the signifier is a unique unit of being which, by its very nature, is the symbol of but an absence. This is why we cannot say of the purloined letter that, like other objects, it must be or not be somewhere but rather that, unlike them, it will be and will not be where it is wherever it goes” (Lacan, 2006:17).
Politics is never about becoming the next philosopher king. My goal is not the whispering of sweet nothings into the ears of the Sovereign, but rather inspiring new ways of configuring the world. I am not interested in meager descriptions of this world as it is, and the distractions of realism, but rather how it can be, should be, must be, if only in our minds. Escapism gets a bad reputation.
Our original trauma must find something to hook into by echoing in the present. When the Wolf Man, Freud’s most famous case study, witnessed his parents engaged in coitus, it was not traumatic for him at age two. It was only after the kernel was replayed in his psyche over and over did it attach to other traumas playing on the surface of his conscious mind. His libidinal economy was mirrored back to him in a dream, manifesting as Wolves in a tree outside his bedroom window, when according to Freud, this represented a distortion of his ‘true’ unsettled feelings about seeing his parents copulating at an early age. The Wolves were open ended in the sense that his death drives emerged in a threatening manner in the primal scene of the dream as a re-presentation of an earlier trauma.
One might argue that if politics bears an affinity to a dream-work, then it is nothing other than a death-drive gone completely awry. Subjects are reproduced and interpolated through knowledge production and the mass control of information, but rather than there being a concealed a-priori kernel of intuition whereby a more human(e) subject lies dormant. In my opinion, the hyperreal has completely mollified any semblance of humanity, unless we work together.
I yearn for hope and a better tomorrow, and this infinite (in-finito, unfinished) ‘to-come’ often over-shadows the here and now. Yet my cynical side wants to claim that the government is an avatar sitting in place of mass agency merely instructing us on which objects to fear. All the extras are in place, the Republic functions because most Subjects continue living only slightly aware they/we float in a dream. We are still replaying the traumas of history (like the adult Wolf Man re-collecting his childhood) and projecting them upon the sovereign who feeds it back to us. The state is a funhouse mirror, representing (re-presenting), and reproducing Subjectivity as if it were natural. In the next section I will explore how dreams can be appropriated to critique this omnipresent disciplinary power.
IV. Dream Critiques of Disciplinary Power
It is the first rule of potlatch: one must dispose of the surplus preferably on something destructive. If there was no Las Vegas, one must be invented, which is the biggest delusion of them all.
One political hallucination is that in allegedly free market economies the M-C-M relation underpins the entire mode of production, and that this relation is the best way of ordering an economy. A subject truly capable of waking up from the slumbers of reason may realize the transformation of the M-C-M (money turns to commodities which grows the money into profits) into C-M-C relations (commodities are sold for money which is then transformed into more commodities, no surplus-value/profit is created, and nobody holds a superior economic position over anyone else, and all basic needs are met, true communism is achieved – vulgar Marxist utopia!).
Money capital (M) means liquidity, flexibility, freedom of choice. Commodity capital (C) means capital invested in a particular input-output combination in view of a profit. Hence, it means concreteness, rigidity, and a narrowing down or closing of options. M’ means expanded liquidity, flexibility, and freedom of choice. Marx’s formula tells us that capital does not invest money in particular input-output combinations with the goal of closing off choice. Rather, this is a negative side effect of having to put capital into something concrete. There is an uncanny jouissance involved with holding M (and M’) because money, in theory, can become anything, but there is also a correlative vacuum to liquidity where less is being produced. That is unless the markets can transform M into C. This is where the current financial crisis has led us in the Global Market. Lots of liquidity and the mass-circulation of speculative capital is happening, but there is not a lot of concrete production going on. Hence the unemployment rate has skyrocketed while capital is doing quite well. Those who own always come out on top, while those who sell their labor find themselves on the short end of the stick. Capital is doing well, the indicators of this are that the stock market has climbed back since it crashed in the late summer of 2008, but unemployment is still lagging behind. Labor is usually the last benefactor of a growth cycle in the economy.
Even more basic than positing a financial revolution, is merely remembering the illusion that states and private property are phantasmagorical. Resources like land, oil, and water can be held in common instead of privately bought and sold. The delusion of possession is rampant, and the panacea is awakening to something my four year old daughter understands but adults seem to willingly forget: The Earth Is a Common to be shared by everyone. No one can ever truly own it. We need to see it as a common home.
In fact, as Enrique Dussel articulates in a book that is sadly out of print, The Invention of the Americas, nations are imaginary social constructions with real effects (or phantasmagoria in sociology parlance). And as Pierre Clastres shows in his book, Society Against the State, there are numerous accounts of societies existing without central command systems like the State. For instance, the American Indians and the natives in Amazonia were more than likely living in Anarchy. The sovereign who has total power over life to the point where he or she can decide to kill people who disobey, that type of ‘command-obey’ political theory was totally foreign to those societies. David Graeber, the Anarchist Anthropologist, did a study of Madagascar in the mid-1990’s. In that study he claims Madagascar was an anarchist society without raising the black flag of resistance to announce that it had become such. People went on living without any central command telling them what to do. In fact, people continued to act as if there was a functioning government. Filing paperwork with bureaucratic institutions and such even though these political bodies had no authority to do anything substantive. According to Graeber even without a fully functioning state the people in Madagascar during the 1990’s went along perfectly fine.
The delusion is that nations exist. In actuality they are fantasies made up by power brokers whose colonial ideas have kept humanity divided. For centuries this has gone on so it appears natural (as in Human Nature). All of this occurs once the State exists. The State is an instrument of capital, and the state (as Antonio Negri rightly says) only serves the long-term interests of collective capital. Various social institutions like asylums, academies, barracks, and prisons are weapons used by the bourgeoisie against the proletariat to keep us divided. Fear is the biggest tactic the bourgeoisie uses to reify its power, and keep the masses in place. The biggest delusion is that so many people simply accept this situation as if it were necessary.
Foucault postulated that disciplinary power produces the conditions for its own deviance and abnormality, which it then views as threatening. Disciplinary power intensifies relations within an entire social field. Foucault proposed three defining features of disciplinary power in its early historical formations.
First, hierarchical observation is “an apparatus in which the techniques that make it possible to see induced effects of power, and in which, conversely, the means of coercion make those on whom they are applied clearly visible.” The increasingly precise surveillance that was a product both of a novel architecture organized around institutional functions, and new types of mutual scrutiny between members of institutions it facilitated, allowed disciplinary power to become an integrated system in which power functions anonymously and no longer requires overt force to have its effects.
Second, normalizing judgment was enacted through the micromanagement of behavior areas of social life from which penalty had been previously absent. Although in the mental hospital there are explicit regulations, the order imposed through discipline is of a further order: it legislates “natural and observable processes” to ensure greater conformity to a norm. For this reason punishment is not only retaliatory but also corrective. Disciplinary power also functions through reward, making it possible to define behavior as falling along a spectrum of “good and bad.” “Through this micro-economy of a perpetual penalty operates a differentiation that is not one of acts, but of individuals themselves, of their nature, their potentialities, their level or their value.” This process of disciplinary power creates internally defined systems of meaning which are key to what Foucault would call, “normalization.” It generates both a hierarchy and a set of punishments and rewards that can be used to manipulate individuals within the hierarchy to ensure greater homogeneity.
Ideology cloaks itself in the guise of disciplinary power. Ideology is language, which forgets the essentially contingent, accidental relations between itself and the world, and comes instead to mistake itself as having some kind of organic, inevitable bond with what it represents. It forges bonds that are illusory, and represented as if natural simply because they are universal. Critical theory draws our attention to the fact that merely because a social belief is universal it is not necessarily natural. Universality is the elision of contingencies, a thought of ‘of course this is the way things must be’, or ‘it has always been this way,’ – wherein the subject lays in ideological terrain. Ideology is not a dream from which we can merely awaken, or a truth to be unmasked simply by clear-eyed attention to ‘real-life processes’, since that process puts structural semblances within its un-concealing, and includes falsity within its truth. This is the basic premise of Jean Baudrillard’s theory of simulacrum, and it requires a turn to disciplinary power to fully contextualize its gravity.
The third technique of disciplinary power is the examination. In ritualized forms of examination techniques incorporate the normalizing gaze as a mechanism of differentiation and evaluation. This technique gained ascendancy in the late 1700’s and fundamentally shifted the discourse of human sciences toward the development of knowledge through the exercise of power in these sub-populations. Disciplinary power is invisible yet renders its subjects hyper-visible in order to tighten its grip: “It is the fact of constantly being seen, of being able always to be seen, that maintains the disciplined individual in his subjection.”
The state implements this sort of disciplinary power through various apparatuses it controls, and essentially propagating its community with homogeneous subjects who are interpolated as individuals. Remember however, it was Marx who said the beacon of false consciousness was the explanation of social ills as individual flaws rather than societal forces formed collectively. If the individual is an illusion, then class-consciousness is the anodyne that will wake us up and create a counter-hegemonic bloc. I mean, in the sense of relays, networks, and disparately cohesive a-centered political ontologies akin to the Zapatistas in Chiapas. To quote Deleuze and Felix Guattari: “To reach, not the point where one no longer says I, but the point where it is no longer of any importance whether one says I” (1987:1)
We do not need another Stalin, or another petty bourgeois vanguard, but rather a Sub-Commander whose political resistance constitutes the breakdown of all hierarchical systems.
Effectively abolishing the conditions that manifest State-Command/Disciplinary-Power formations during the process of the revolution, a revolution that never fully ends (never reaches a telos: a goal, an end, or a conclusion). And a process that thinks through its death in a subjective sense. Once the subject group is no longer needed, once the strategy has been successful, and liberated, the group then reconfigures itself for another struggle, or disintegrates (much like Marx predicted the state would wither away after the communist revolution). The illusion is that there is some stable political ontology to fall back upon. Capitalism, according to Foucault and Deleuze, is always already forming an ‘acentered multiplicity possessing a finite number of states with signals to indicate corresponding speeds, from a war rhizome from a guerrilla point of view, without any tracing, without any copying onto a central order.” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987:1).
Neo-Classical Liberalism (with a capital) needs utopia. It needs to put people in their proper place. What is perceived as freedom is merely ignorance of the deterministic forces pushing and pulling subjects in ideological directions. Utopia is the logic of any meta-narrative that attempts give history a productive telos. However, this is the nightmare of our indebtedness to Modernity. This production of utopia will continue until it reaches its material limits. Or, as Baudrillard might have put it, the hyperreal lasts until the money runs out. Then the nightmare truly begins, and the slumber of reason will create monsters (politically, socially, and aesthetically). When the big crash happens, once the oil runs out, and it is not too far away, we will wish to still be asleep inside the Matrix. In the future we will yearn to have pleasant dreams again. Like with the American Dream, a dream about our pleasures typically climaxes too soon, because there is more to this universe than merely the temporal objective realm.
About the Author
Dr. Bradley Kaye is from the Philosophy department at Broome College, Binghamton, New York, USA.
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