Monday, 14 November 2011

Musca amusica and the sound of Ba’al Zebûb’s ascension

Halo of Flies Over My Head
I am decaying Satan's Wrath
The one to walk planet earth alone
Spreading disease, death and war ... Impaled Nazarene, ‘Halo of Flies’ All That You Fear (2004)

Attractive to the flies ... I am their mephitic trough ... a buzzing which engulfs all ...
Through compound eyes / I envision eternity
Lugubrum, ‘Attractive to Flies’, De Vette Cueken (2004)

Flies are a frequent trope in both black and death metal. For the latter, buzzing flies pullulating over a rotting corpse lyrically figures death metal’s pulverizing a-subjective affections of the body; for the former, flies are related to a metaphysical problem bound up not so much to the paradoxical notion of the death of God but the death and deification of Satan.

While there are numerous reference to flies in the various genres of metal (perhaps since Iron Maiden) the ultimate reference is to Satan or Beelzebub as ‘Lord of the Flies’, or as Malkuth put it, ‘Great Black Goat God (Lord of the Flies)’ (1994). A Hebrew insult at the followers of the God Baal, ‘dung flies’, ‘ba’al’ ‘zebub’ emerges in the Christian tradition, sometimes as another name for Satan himself, but more interestingly as an angel who successfully stages his own infernal rebellion, displacing Satan to second spot just above Euronymous, according to Weyer’s demonology. Beelzebub, Lord of the Flies, then, is also a figure for the overthrow or overcoming of Satan and the ascension of some other order, the order of dung flies.

The reference is picked up in metal (from Iron Maiden, across numerous genres) where there are also gestures towards Golding’s famous novel in which Satan is already a rotting animal’s head: the sacrificial offering to the Beast misperceived as the Beast itself. Or rather become the beast through the hideous teeming acephalic noise of the flies that swarm about its decapitated head. The process of self-identification and self-transcendence that hold the God-Satan-Man triad together is transformed through consumption. Flies, not Man, maketh the Beast, but first through turning the flesh into ‘a mephitic trough’, a Styx of digestive liquid’ (Lugubrum) in which ‘Transformed man [is] dethroned’, Nominon, ‘Hordes of Flies’ (2005). For Nominon, then, the process of complete post-parasitical transformation – ‘Innate insects part of me /Parasite inside eating me / Host of flies born inside – sees the Satanic ‘Beast’ (the satanic multiple) resurrected from the swarming darkness of base matter where death has no dominion: ‘Absence of life I am the lord of flies’. Companion species, no doubt, since the migration of homo sapiens from Africa, musca domestica have lodged in the margins of human civilization, incubating and pupating in its shit and garbage, feeding on wounds and rotting flesh, defecating and vomiting waste matter teeming in deadly bacteria and viruses: typhoid, cholera, dysentery, tuberculosis. In black metal’s buzzing, musca domestica musica, flies are both the locus of amusical ex-sistence and figure of Satan’s divine inexistence and return. ‘Through compound eyes / I envision eternity’.
My abstract for PEST, Black Metal Theory Symposium Date: Sunday 20 November 2011, 14.00-Close
Location: The Pint Bar, Eden Quay, Dublin, Ireland

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Science and Truth

(On an unconscious that isn’t one, but something of the one)

The apparent contradiction in the UK government’s decision to cut all funding to Arts, Humanities and Social Science subjects at University in order to open them to market forces while protecting Maths, Engineering and Science betrays something more interesting than the limits of pure competition theory or ultimate market failure. This decision shows that neoliberalism is an art of government, of course, as much as a mechanism of economic growth (as Foucault anticipated in the late 1970s), but perhaps more profoundly, it shows that in the UK at least, science is now the official bearer of truth. The decision concurs with Steven Hawking’s view that science is all we need to answer the big questions of philosophy, and the latter can fight for its survival among the other idols of the marketplace. Science has even superseded literature, Darwin having displaced Shakespeare as the touchstone of National Genius.

Scientific truth is not, of course, an effect of individual genius, but is grounded in scientific method and in the production of a number of (mathematical) correspondences that appear to cohere with certain regularities generated by nature or the real. Science does not speak the truth since these regularities are not found in language but in numbers or formulae. What or where is a truth that no longer speaks – not even of itself in the guise of a metalanguage? Is it a truth that counts, or is counted, or that counts itself (as truth)? For science to tell the truth, numbers would have to speak, a goal that the psychotic mathematician John F Nash Jr. set for himself (Nasar, 2001: 336), the same Nash whose famous ‘equilibrium’ is supposed to justify both the economic efficiency and the social benefits of neoliberalism. Naturally, the Browne Reports’ prioritisation of Science and Technology is not just recognition of the burden of truth and destiny that these subjects now seem to bear, but about generating another set of numbers that will reproduce and sustain the current system of social and economic relations.

For those of us brought up under the shadow of Matthew Arnold in the tradition of literary and cultural studies this decision shows that the governing class in the UK has finally given up on the idea that liberal culture has an essential ‘social mission’ or ideological function, as Althusserians used to say. Of course this has been evident for a long time. Even as some of us were busy deconstructing the ‘Shakespeare Myth’ back in the 1980s the governing idea of the University was already moving away from Culture to Excellence, an essentially vacuous term under which the University was transformed from a pedagogical institution to a mechanism for the exchange of information whose governing structure, if not metaphor, is the networked computer. Disciplines became stripped down to a set of equivalent ‘key skills’ to be cashed into the service economy. As we all know, the ability to savour poetic ambiguity, where it occurs, is a fringe benefit relative to a student’s aptitude for ppt presentations.

The neoliberal experiment in government has sought to construct a very different kind of subject to the subject of liberal culture, leaving the latter to withdraw to centres of privilege and heritage sites. As with other state institutions, the ‘privatization’ of Universities has been steadily achieved through the introduction of internal markets and mechanisms such as KPIs and PRP that formally assume a subject of pure self-interest that needs to be governed by the imposition of goals and targets that are continually assessed in the running commentary of internal audit, the latter having no external rationale or reference other than the economic efficiency or ‘value for money’ that is calculated on the basis of the same imaginary interests. This process reinforces and locks-in competition as a formal principle. The ultimate biopolitical aim, or effect, is to produce (economic) life according to mathematizable models. In this way governance manufactures the kind of data-producing subjects it wants even as it justifies itself scientifically in the name of economic reason.

Alongside the credence given to Hawking’s and others view that science has rendered philosophy pointless, another symptom of the belief that science bears the burden of truth is the rise of quasi-scientific approaches to the Humanities. And here I do not just mean sociobiology, evolutionary psychology and so on, but the work of a new generation of academics producing varieties of, for example, ‘cognitive literary criticism’ and ‘evolutionary literary theory’ which look ‘to the cognitive neurosciences for finer-grained descriptions of the workings of language, consciousness and subject-formation than those supplied by influential but inadequate post-structuralist theories’ (Richardson, 2007: 553).

But if the idea is to save the Humanities by imitating scientific methods, it is doomed from the start because its object, the manifest image of the conscious, language-defined human being, is itself unscientific. Ever since the post-linguistic turn of the 1980s and the rapid development of cognitive neuroscience, scientists have become increasingly sceptical about the utility and even ‘reality’ of ‘top-down concepts, such as thinking, consciousness, motivation, emotion, and similar terms’, doubting that they ‘can be mapped onto corresponding brain mechanisms with similar boundaries as in our language’ (Buzáki, 2006: 19). The once notorious eliminative materialism of Paul and Patricia Churchland that famously denounced and rejected the ‘folk psychological’ mysticism of conventional concepts ‘such as belief, desire, pain, pleasure, love, hate, joy, fear, suspicion, memory, recognition, anger, sympathy, intention and so forth’ (Churchland, 1998: 3), has become standard. Everything that goes on in the Arts and Humanities is essentially delusional, a tissue of semblance.

At their most provocative, the Churchlands claim not only that the folk psychology model that informs Humanities and Social Science is empirically false, but it is also damaging, chronically defective (12). Cognitive neuroscience knows very well that brains are not simply hard-wired, but need to develop. They must become subject to processes of learning in order to function appropriately and efficiently. Trillions of new synaptic connections need to be made between neurons ‘so that incoming sensory vectors are automatically and almost instantaneously transformed into appropriate “prototype” vectors at the higher populations of cortical neurons’ (14). This is ‘learning’. What learning is not, however, is ‘assembling a vast mass of sentences’ because the ‘basic unit of occurrent cognition is not language-based, but rather the high-dimensional neuronal activation vector (that is, a pattern of excitation levels across a large population of neurons)’. And ‘the basic unit of cognitive processing is apparently not the inference from sentence to sentence, but rather the synapse-induced transformation of large activation vectors into other such vectors’ (10). Since human languages are pre-eminently the accumulated archive of ancient folk psychologies, superstitions, misconceptions, misperceptions, myth, narratives reproducing basic cognitive errors, they are hopeless vehicles for learning, incapable of producing appropriate neuronal activation vectors and need to be eliminated. Folk psychology is simply bad theory that results in the bad human behaviour we see all around us and should be replaced by a theory based in the grey matter of the brain, an eliminative materialist ‘successor theory’ (35). The excitement of the Churchlands concerns their promise of a ‘superior social practice’ that will come with the displacement of FP by a theory based in a properly scientific account of ‘human cognition and mental activity’ (35). The disappointment is always that their social imagining falls back on a kind of liberal pragmatism expressing a pious hope that ‘a deeper understanding of the springs of human behaviour may thus permit a deeper level of cognitive interaction, moral insight, and mutual care’ (35), without explaining why the former should imply the latter. As Freud might have noted, one could just as well recoil in horror.

It is not, I would think, in the direction of moral pragmatism that the utopia promised by the faith in science lies. Far from diverting the techno-scientific drive, the financial crisis of 2008 has of course further entrenched the attempt by the forces of neoliberal governance to account for and speculate upon the economic effects of human cognitive processes both individual and collective. The hope is that the market mechanism can be enhanced through the elimination of irrational human impulses (greed, fear, panic etc.) that are based on the manifest image of human motives and behaviour based in language. Rather, through being reconstituted within the conceptual framework of completed neuroscience, economic theories can become much more powerful and more substantially integrated within physical science generally. The promise appeals to the demand for increased economic performance, as brains directly interact with each other via screens and scanners for the satisfaction of the numbers.

Given that consciousness is now regarded as too ‘top-down’ a concept to be scientifically operative and too inefficient in matters of optimal performance (as sports people know, the ‘zombie’ brain is the key to high achievement, Ramachandran, 2005: 83), there would not seem much potential for an unconscious, political or otherwise. For psychoanalysis, of course, the unconscious is the seat of truth, at least insofar as it articulates the truth that the subject doesn’t know that it knows. ‘“I, truth, speak ...”’, wrote Lacan, evoking ‘the unnameable thing that, by virtue of its ability to pronounce these words, would go right to the being of language – if we are to hear them as they are to be pronounced: in horror’ (Lacan, 2006: 736). The unconscious can no longer be defined simply against the (self) consciousness of speaking beings, but also the functional nonconsciousness calculated by numbers. ‘I, truth, speak’, but the prosopopeia now addresses a prosopagnosia that can no longer perceive in a face anything other than an abstract form correlated to the oscillations of neuronal assemblies that might be mapped onto ever-shifting profiles, markers of nodal points of data predicated on an empty mediating space for the exchange of biometric and economic information. Truth shimmers in every upgrade of Facebook ...

While the stream of numbers slide over the real, or the ‘noumenon that, for as long as pure reason can remember, has always kept its mouth shut’ (Lacan, 737), those speaking beings still on the language side of things might ask: what numberless horror is produced or encountered in the slippage, the something of the one (1+) that foams in excess of formulae? Fortunately, it seems, while the noumenon does not speak, it bites, or at least according to some, even as its fangs hook into the ‘technocosm’.

The Browne Report’s indifference to the fate of Arts and Humanities relative to the economic imperative demanded of Science and Technology is something I assume that Nick Land and his acolytes are gleefully cheering in technoecstasy. ‘We no longer judge such technical developments from without, we no longer judge at all, we function: machined/ machining in eccentric orbits about the technocosm. Humanity recedes like a loathsome dream’. (Land, 1992: 223). LOL.

György Buzáki (2006), Rhythms of the Brain OUP.
Patricia & Paul Churchland (1998), On the Contrary, MIT.
Jacques Lacan (2006), Écrits, Norton.
Nick Land (1992), ‘Circuitries’, PLI, 217-235.
Sylvia Nasar (2001), A Beautiful Mind, Touchstone.
V.S. Ramachandran (2005), Phantoms in the Brain. Harper Collins.
Alan Richardson (2007), Literary Theory and Criticism: An Oxford Guide, OUP.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Heavy Metal and the Other Side of Culture

Abstract for The Home of Metal Conference, 1st-4th September 2011.

‘Technology's progression, over man machines reign
Enslaved without compassion, new masters of (the) earth we dwell
Human life is worthless, in this automated living hell’.
Bolt Thrower, ‘Profane Creation’ War Master 1991.
‘We no longer judge such technical developments from without, we no longer judge at all, we function: machined/ machining in eccentric orbits about the technocosm. Humanity recedes like a loathsome dream’.
Nick Land, ‘Circuitries’, (1992).

This talk looks at two moments in the history of the non-relation between metal and academia that find coincidentally their location in Birmingham and the Midlands: heavy metal and cultural studies; Grindcore/death metal and the Warwick philosophy group associated with Nick Land in the early 1990s.

It is well known that both heavy metal and Cultural Studies emerged in the Midlands in the 1960s. But if they were born in the same town, the movements associated with Stuart Hall and Ozzy Osbourne have had little to do with one another, perhaps because Cultural Studies academics saw, in heavy metal, only a monocultural (predominantly white, male) form unsuitable as a vehicle for political transformation. Ironically, Cultural Studies’ development into the study of identities established in consumable differences stands accused of preparing the ground for a different kind of political transformation that has resulted in the full marketization of the Humanities. Metal, meanwhile, over the same period, has become the name under which multiple styles, scenes and festivals have articulated the pleasures, desires, discontents and demands of numerous people across Europe and the rest of the world. As I have suggested elsewhere, metal could be regarded (in the language of Cultural Studies) as the popular cultural, counter-hegemonic form par excellence in so far as national and regional varieties of DM, BM, Viking, folk, doom, ambient and so on have become the positive reverse of the absence of any political alternative to the ‘globalatinization’ represented by institutions like the EU, on the one hand, and neoliberal consumer culture on the other.

Metal as an explicitly political form derives from the legacy of Grindcore, particularly Napalm Death, who in some ways provide a point of punk-inspired cross-over into Cultural Studies-style political investment in popular culture, but from a position of deep ambivalence towards humanity, if not a profound anti-humanism. At the same time in Warwick’s philosophy department, in the circle around Nick Land, the writings of Nietzsche and Bataille were re-animated to inform an extreme, nihilist version of Deleuze and Guattari that celebrated the destructive forces of global capitalism as the most radical form of ‘machinic desire’. Death metal bands like Coventry’s Bolt Thrower, meanwhile, echoed Land’s contention that ‘war in its intensive state is desire itself, convulsive recurrence, unilateral zero’. Exulting in the destruction of liberal culture and the universal humanities, Land’s acolytes breathlessly embraced the promise of techno-science, particularly digitalization, as represented in cyberpunk, Blade Runner and The Terminator movies. As dated as some of it seems now, this imagination provided the impetus for developing a ‘para-academic’ space on the network that provided some of the most interesting and innovative models for the survival of thought in the ruins of the university, in virtual spaces where much of the new academic interest in metal currently resides. Contemporary academic interest in metal follows this logic and is the effect of a generation of graduates, metallectuals on the margins of the Academy, for whom metal’s ‘unemployed negativity’ provides the most appropriate vehicle with which to articulate not just their discontent and contestation of the violence of neoliberal subjectification in state institutions, but also and as such to forge a different form of intellectual life on the other side of culture.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Popular Culture and World Politics IV

23-25 November 2011 at University of Lapland, Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland
Plenary Speakers:
Tiziana Terranova, Napoli, Italy
Scott Wilson, Kingston, UK

If you are interested in attending this conference please visit our
website at
The deadline for abstract submissions is June 30th.

We study popular culture to understand the representational practices through which power relations are constructed worldwide, and grasp the aesthetic practices through which the intolerability of power relations are given political expression, and out of which new political subjectivities and peoples are brought into being. Deconstructing the former is integral to the processes of struggle by which we can contribute to the composition of the latter.

The Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Lapland, is pleased to invite you to continue this effort at the Popular Culture and World Politics Conference (PCWP 4) to be held in Rovaniemi, Finland, 23-25 November 2011. The conference is the fourth in a groundbreaking series of annual events that began in the University of Bristol in 2008. Since then the series has developed into an exciting annual event which attracts scholars, practitioners and artists from throughout the world and across the disciplines and fields to debate and discuss the world politics of popular culture.

This year, the conference will be held on the ultra-northern verges of Europe, in Lapland, which occupies liminal space in-between popular imaginaries of Western modernity and Arctic wilderness.

The three-day conference will attract papers and presentations from thinkers whose work is inspiring contemporary forays into the relations between politics and culture across the humanities, social sciences and the arts. Invited keynote speakers include Tiziana Terranova (Napoli, Italy) and Scott Wilson (Kingston, UK).

With this Call for Papers we invite participation in all possible forms. In addition to panels and individual papers, we welcome proposals for art exhibitions, screenings, performances or other modes of expression. In so doing we hope to build the event into a rich experience which involves not only talking about popular culture but also experiencing, sensing, feeling, producing and, in most cases, enjoying it.

Suggested themes for panels, papers and other presentations include
(but are not limited to):

- Challenging the theory/practice divide
- Aesthetics and the constitution of new subjectivities
- Decolonizing methodologies
- Popular culture and climate change
- The politics of Santa Claus
- Representation and race
- Senses, sensibilities and the redistribution of the sensible order
- Art and political activism
- Popularization of indigenous cultures
- Imaginaries of hope in contemporary politics
- Aesthetics of security
- War and media
- The politics of cinema
- Digital aesthetics
- The biopolitics of popular culture

All other themes will be entertained too.

If you are interested in attending this conference please visit our website at and submit a brief abstract of your paper, panel proposal (including the names and titles of each presentation) or artistic contribution (max. 450 words). We will inform you about the outcome of your abstract submission by the end of August 2011.


Prof. Julian Reid and Dr. Laura Junka-Aikio
University of Lapland, Rovaniemi, Finland

Monday, 11 April 2011

Rhythm and Event

Abstracts by 31 July to and

Sunday, 27 March 2011

I Only Want To Be With You (Songs from the Tarantinian Ethics)

True romance leads beyond narcissism. ... In True Romance the point at which one sees oneself from the position of the other is also the point of death and disappearance. Death intervenes to demonstrate the imbalance of romantic fantasy, even as the other’s pain and suffering prove that fantasy with a vengeance. Death is thus the limit and fulfilment of romantic desire, introducing an absence that allows the fantasy to thrive, unimpeded by reality: ‘What they need is not one another’s presence, but one another’s absence’ (1993: 42). Indeed, for Lacan, ‘between the object as it is structured by the narcissistic relation and das Ding, there is a difference ...’ (Lacan, 1992: 98). The difference is crucial. If death is on the agenda for Mickey and Mallory only in so far as it is the death of others, or the living death of a lobotomy, then absence and obstacles are crucial to sustaining their passion. True love blossoms and burns most after they have been imprisoned, the screenplay suggests, in Mickey’s letters and Mallory’s songs that are addressed to the silence that is the support of their fantasy. The other’s absence seems to have little bearing on their passion, while the bars of the prison only serve to affirm it.

We stare at McClusky and Scanetti for a second. Then, like a bull, we charge/dolly straight at them. Mallory screams out of shot. We smash head first into the bars. Mallory’s POV flings up, looking at the ceiling, then falls backward.


Jesus Christ!


Don’t worry about it. She does that all the time. (Tarantino, 1995b: 15-16)

‘For what is love other than banging one’s head against a wall’, comments Lacan, ‘since there is no sexual relation?’ (1982: 170). For Lacan, the imagined, absolute and ideal union driving love’s fantasy remains impossible because it is an effect of signification: it is the Other, the locus of desire and object of demand, that is addressed in love, not a real person. For Lacan, using courtly poetry as his example,

the being to whom it is addressed is nothing other than being as signifier. The inhuman character of the object of courtly love is plainly visible. This love that led some people to acts close to madness was addressed at living beings, peoples with names, but who were not present in their fleshly and historical reality . . . they were there in any case in their being as reason, as signifier. (Lacan, 1992: 214-5)

The address to the other thus moves beyond the other towards the Other, demanding of the Other recognition and love for the totality of the subject’s being. But as it remains the locus of difference and desire, the Other cannot reply other than by signifiers, the very marks of separation. The absence of any reply to the subject’s exorbitant demand leaves only signifiers as the obstacles to true union, obstacles that exacerbate desire. Courtly love, for Lacan, exemplifies the detours provoked by this absence of relation: ‘it is an altogether refined way of making up for the absence of sexual relation by pretending that it is we who put an obstacle to it’ (1982: 141). The barriers thus work to preserve the illusion that, beyond them, beyond words, beyond life itself, an idealised union is possible.

But the bars of signification also open a gap between self and other, introducing a cause that belongs to neither one nor the other. The difference between the amorous couple is temporal. Writing on Tristan and Isolde, Maurice Blanchot discusses the nostalgic anticipation of the continually delayed arrival of love’s impossible presence:

the fulfillment of all veritable love which would consist in realizing itself exclusively according to the mode of loss, that is to say realizing itself by losing not what has belonged to you but what one has never had, for the ‘I’ and the ‘other’ do not live in the same time, are never together (synchronously), can therefore not be contemporary, but separated (even when together) by a ‘not yet’ which goes hand in hand with an ‘already no longer’. (Blanchot, 1988: 42)

For Lacan, it is also a matter of the dislocation of the lovers’ spatial relation: ‘when in love I solicit a look, what is always profoundly unsatisfying and always missing is that – You never look at me from the place which I see you’ (1977b: 103). The fantasy is never complete, difference ultimately eludes love’s capture. Love opens beyond the other, the imagined object of love; it ‘can be posited only in that beyond where, at first, it renounces its object’ (1977b: 276). That is, love moves from the other to the Other, the locus of speech and signification, and manifests a gap between the real being and the subject of signification. For Denis de Rougemont, lovers are prisoners, possessed by a power they neither know nor control: ‘They are prisoners of “exquisite anguish” owing to something which neither controls – some alien power independent of their capacities, or at any rate of their conscious wishes, and of their being in so far as they are aware of being’ (39-40). Perhaps this accounts for Mickey’s extraordinary self-possession in the State Penitentiary. Since he is already imprisoned in love, there is no such thing as prison, it is already an environment familiar to him, a familiarity that abolishes the locks and the steel bars. Indeed, the presence of the real prison supports his self-possession since it realises the shackles of love’s ‘alien power’ in concrete form, thereby rendering it, too, familiar. With Mickey the prison only serves to replace, as banal obstacle, the sense of the ‘alien power’ of love that, for Blanchot, is an undefinable strangeness that haunts and thwarts shared love as it:

excludes mutuality as well as unity where the Other would blend with the Same. And this brings us back to the foreboding that passion eludes possibility, eluding, for those caught by it, their own powers, their own decision and even their ‘desire’, in that it is strangeness itself, having consideration neither for what they can do nor for what they want, but luring them into strangeness where they become estranged from themselves, into an intimacy which also estranges them from each other. (Blanchot, 1988: 43)

The strange, alien, uncanny power emerges, however, in writing, in the epistolary romance Mickey narrates to Mallory but cannot send.

For Mallory, this alien power also comes from the signifier, from the words of the songs she sings: ‘She starts moving her body to music only she can hear, then begins to sing the song “Groove Me” in a slow a cappella, using the cell as her stage and a man who isn’t there as her audience’ (1995a: 24). The songs express her pain, suffering and separation: ‘Love is a hurtin’ thang’; ‘Long Time Woman’. Another song she is reported to sing is ‘I Only Want to Be with You’.

The title and hook-line, ‘I Only Want to Be with You’, inscribes desire within love. The total, singular and exclusive desire of love is bound up with being, or rather, as the title suggests, with the lack in being, the ‘want-to-be’, or want of being. Thus, the absence of the other and the absence of being remain at the centre of love’s expression and the song’s performance of total desire. Punctuated throughout the song, various declamatory statements lay out the co-ordinates of love’s desire: the unconditional, ‘It doesn’t matter where you go or what you do’; the ever vigilant, ‘I want to be beside you everywhere’; the fateful, that is, accidental and inevitable, ‘I fell into your open arms/ And I didn’t stand a chance’; mutual possession, ‘I only know I never want to let you go’, ‘That ever since we met you’ve had a hold on me’; the acknowledgement that love takes the singer beyond knowledge and possibility, ‘I never knew I could be in love like this’; and beyond care, ‘As long as we’re together, honey, I don’t care’; and finally beyond reason to truth ‘It’s crazy, but it’s true/ I only want to be with you’ (Mike Hawker/Ivor Raymonde. Springfield Music Ltd.). The song also calls up that alien power beyond immediate, specular visibility, ‘Cos you started something, oh can’t you see’, and begins by speaking of that object inaccessible to knowledge, the some thing in you more than you that impels love, ‘I Don’t know what it is that makes me love you so’, an object which opens the address to the Other who is beyond reply though who is determinedly, if perhaps unsuccessfully, buttonholed, ‘Now listen, honey’.

The strangeness of the amorous relation as it is broached by the song is inscribed in the very terms of address, in the function of the shifter ‘you’. Between the impersonated object of love and the demand for love from the Other, gaps appear. This is because, as Lacan observes, ‘the you in its verbalized form does not at all coincide with the pole we have been calling big O’ (1992: 270). The I-you structure of address, moreover, discloses ‘a distance that’s not symmetrical, a relationship that isn’t reciprocal’ (1992: 274). Nonetheless, the structure manifests the effects of signification on the subject, effects that evoke a superegoic function: ‘it’s the you that says you in us, this you that always makes itself more or less discreetly heard, this you that speaks alone ...’ (Lacan, 1992: 275), that is, the discourse of the Other. ‘Present as a foreign body’, the you manifests ‘something completely uncertain and problematic in this fundamental communication’ in which ‘the I is essentially fleeting in nature and never entirely sustains the thou’ (1992: 287). Similarly, the you remains ‘unsecured in the substratum of discourse’ and depends on the effects of metaphor to provide a temporary quilting point to sense and meaning: ‘the you is the hooking of the other in the waters of meaning’ (1992: 299). ‘Now listen, honey ...’ Thus in love’s communication, like ‘I only want to be with you’, the you and the I, one and other, remain at some distance: ‘this you presupposes an other who, in short, is beyond him’ (1992: 300). It is a distance, a gap that lies not only between inside and outside, but one that remains internal to love’s discourse, implicated in its signification to the extent that both I and you, subject and other, are separately rendered uncertain, subjected to the shifting course of signification that, ruffled by love, never runs smooth.

From Fred Botting and Scott Wilson, The Tarantinian Ethics, Sage, 2001

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Songs from the Tarantinian Ethics: Oral Pleasure and ‘Son of a Preacher Man’

Tarantino’s movies are concerned both with consumption and critical discourse. The most seductive element of his movies is often considered to be his dialogue. Speech is privileged to an unusual degree, and his screenplays are not surprisingly highly valued by actors for the opportunities they allow ... in chapter one, speech is associated with law and transgression. Antwan Rockamorra’s castrating encounter with paternal law, in the shape of an outraged Marsellus Wallace, is manifested in the shape of a ‘speech impediment’ caused by a lacerating fall through a greenhouse. The object immediately referred to as lost at the beginning of Pulp Fiction, is the voice, a voice lost in the silent intimacy of Antwan’s gift of a foot massage to Mia Wallace. Antwan’s lost voice underscores the importance of speech generally, which is offered, in Pulp Fiction and in Reservoir Dogs where Blonde removes the ear of the captured cop, as key to the ethical relation, the privileged mode of exchange with the Other. Consequently, many scenes in Pulp Fiction are dominated by an often disembodied voice that, in one way or another, lays down the law. ...

... The most highly developed and significant scene, however, in which a voice frames, interrogates, directs and deploys a body within its power occurs when Vincent goes to call on Mia Wallace. ... in the scene it is no longer the content of Mia’s speech that becomes important, but the positioning and eroticisation of her voice. Mia is removed from the place of the unattainable ding of the courtly relation to become the voice of a new, feminised superego while her gaze is located at the empty heart of a panopticon. She is still situated, imaginarily, in the position of the phallus, but not in the form of a definite image or object. Rather than an object, Mia is now the unseen origin of an imagined gaze that speaks. Mia surveys Vincent through a bank of security monitors while addressing him through an intercom. When she is perceived, she appears as a metaphor in the shape of a disembodied, obscene mouth giving oral pleasure to a microphone. At this point also, it becomes clear that the soundtrack is now directly addressing the eroticised relationship between speech and moral law.

It is Hurley and Wilkin’s ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ sung by Dusty Springfield: ‘the only one who could ever reach me / was the son of a preacher man / The only boy who could ever teach me / was the son of a preacherman’. The oddly un-courtly aspect of Mia is that she is neither silent, iconic nor inscrutable. On her date with Vincent, she doesn’t engage him in the coded, seductive play of courtship; indeed she doesn’t tempt him into doing anything; on the contrary, in the up-front forthright manner for which American women are rightly celebrated, she tells him to do everything.

Perfectly at home in Jack Rabbit Slim’s, Mia instructs Vincent on the law of desire, ‘it’s more exciting when you don’t have permission’, even as she gives him permission, becoming the law herself (61). Which is to say that she does not merely permit but positively orders him, in the face of his resistance, to dance publicly with her; she is the trophy she instructs Vincent to win for herself: ‘No, no, no, no, no, no, no. I do believe Marsellus, my husband, your boss, told you to take me out and do whatever I wanted. Now, I want to dance. I want to win. I want that trophy’ (65). They dance to the answer to the question of who to prefer out of Elvis and The Beatles – Chuck Berry – and they win. It is Mia who impales the father on his own law, using his own commands as the means to his cuckoldry, turning transgression into an imperative.

It is the link between speech, desire, orality and the pleasure-imperative that, if anything, links Mia with the other female characters, Fabienne and Esmarelda Villalobos. It is of course ‘oral pleasure’ that Fabienne demands of Butch, a request with which he complies on condition that she ‘kiss it’ in return (101). This exchange establishes a certain mutuality to their relationship, but further, in the context of Tarantino’s scirpts thus far, it frames that mutuality within a clearly defined ethic of romantic sexual conduct.

This ethic is more fully elaborated in the second scene [excised from the Tony Scott film] of True Romance where the importance of providing the woman with oral service is forcefully debated, along with its history and its implications for race. Appropriately enough, the question is discussed by three pimps. Drexl, the white wannabe black man, and Big D are explaining the law to Floyd.


Shit, any nigger say he don’t eat pussy is lyin’ his ass off.


I heard that.


Hold on a second, Big D. You sayin’ you eat pussy?


Nigger, I eat everything. I eat the pussy. I eat the butt. I eat every motherfuckin’ thang.


Preach on, Big D. (Tarantino, 1995b: 8)

For Floyd, the very idea is humiliating, shameful, and, moreover, an indication of the moral degeneration inflicted on black men by the dominant white, pussy-eating ideology of America, bringing oppression into every sphere. Floyd continues,

There used to be a time when sisters didn’t know shit about gettin’ their pussy licked. Then the sixties came an’ they started fuckin’ around with white boys. And white boys are freaks for that shit ... Then, after a while sisters get used to gettin’ their little pussy eat. And because you white boys had to make pigs of yourselves, you fucked it up for every nigger in the world everywhere ... Now if a nigger wants to get his dick sucked he’s got to do a bunch of fucked-up shit. (1995b: 8-9)

Given Drexl’s evangelical acclamation – ‘preach on’ – to Big D, and Floyd’s gloss on the racial history of pussy consumption, it is possible to give a Tarantinian interpretation of ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ that makes sense of its emphasis on orality and erotic moral instruction. It is clearly the song, conveyed by the sixties’ premier white soul singer, of a young black woman’s initiation, by a white boy, into the delights of oral pleasure: ‘The only one who could ever reach me / was the son of a preacherman / The only boy who could ever teach me /was a sweet lovin’, / sweet talkin’ / son of a preacherman’. While the endless consumption of dicks in ‘Like a Virgin’ testifies to the jouissance demanded by the Other-as-great-fucker (‘Big D’), the oral adoration given to what Jules in Pulp Fiction calls ‘the holiest of holies’ (Tarantino, 1994b: 20), while it confirms the castrating power of the father, sacralises the law of the Other as female, subjecting the father to the general imperative of consumption.

It is a law that has, moreover, become internalised as the quintessentially American superegoic, moral imperative to consume and enjoy for the Other at the expense of one’s own pleasure or that of one’s partner. The law is of course the same for oral consumption in general. While it is Fabienne who, with her breakfast order of ‘a big plate of blueberry pancakes with maple syrup, eggs over easy and five sausages ... a tall glass of orange and a black cup of coffee ... [and] a slice of blueberry pie to go with the pancakes. And on top, a thin slice of melted cheese’ sets the incredible standard demanded by the Other (1994b: 108-9), edible consumer products are frequently cited and – with Jules’s objection to pork excepted – universally and unreservedly affirmed: ‘Uuummmm, that’s a tasty burger’ (26), ‘Uuuuummmm, hits the spot!’ (27), ‘Goddamn! That’s a pretty fuckin’ good milkshake’ (58), ‘Goddamn Jimmie, this is some serious gourmet shit’ (146). Repeated utterances such as these underscore the importance of giving and affirming the oral pleasure of American ideology.

From Fred Botting and Scott Wilson, The Tarantinian Ethics (Sage, 2001).

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Songs from The Tarantinian Ethics: Madonna's pain and the ear of the Other

Pain, the other’s pain, underlines the simultaneously human and inhuman relation between White and Orange: it culminates in a tragically human and inescapably ethical sacrifice of life for the other. Through pain one reaches the limit, the Thing, that articulates ethics and desire:

In brief, Kant is of the same opinion as Sade. For in order to reach das Ding absolutely, to open the flood gates of desire, what does Sade show us on the horizon? In essence, pain. The other’s pain as well as the pain of the subject himself, for on occasions they are simply one and the same thing. To the degree that it involves forcing an access to the Thing, the outer extremity of pleasure is unbearable to us. (Lacan, 1992: 80)

It is pain that guarantees the human relationship. For White, pain proves the authenticity of Orange: ‘that kid in there is dying from a fuckin’ bullet that I saw him take. So don’t be calling him a rat’ (Tarantino, 1994a: 28). Pain draws the subject to the point of death and thereby draws out the truth, just as it does when White’s sacrifice places him in an identical position to Orange.

The ethical question of the other’s pain is raised at the beginning of the film by Mr Brown in his infamous ‘Madonna speech’. His interpretation highlights the function of metaphor by suggesting, emphatically, that ‘the whole song is a metaphor for big dicks’. In so doing, his reading of ‘Like a Virgin’ squarely refutes the version offered by Mr Blonde who proposes, romantically, that ‘it’s about a girl who is very vulnerable and she’s been fucked over a few times. Then she meets some guy who’s really sensitive…’(3). Dismissing this, Brown underscores the crucial experience of pain:

Now she’s gettin’ this serious dick action, she’s feelin’ something she ain’t felt since forever. Pain ... It hurts like the first time. The pain is reminding a fuck machine what it was like to be a virgin. Hence, ‘Like a Virgin’. (4-5)

The pain differentiates machine from human, innocent from habitue, recalling something that has been lost. At its crudest, the reading of ‘Like a Virgin’ affirms phallic law in its most brutal, literal rendering of a subjection. But the loss of an innocent, virginal state as a result of this encounter metaphorically signifies, for the position of the interpreter, a different traumatic, castrating encounter with phallic law. What is raised in the interpretation is the spectre of lack, of subjection to law. For the woman, the experience of pain broaches the Thing at the extremity of pleasure, a pleasure enjoyed, not by the interpreter, Mr Brown, but by another, the Other:

The real father, Freud tells us, is a castrating father. In what way? Through his presence as real father who effectively occupies that person with whom the child is in a state of rivalry, namely, the mother. Whether or not that is the case in experience, in theory there is no doubt about it: the real father is elevated to the rank of Great Fucker – though not, believe me, in the face of the Eternal, which isn’t even around to count the number of times. Yet doesn’t this real and mythical father fade at the moment of the decline of the oedipus complex into the one whom the child may easily have already discovered at the relatively advanced age of five years old, namely, the imaginary father, the father who has fucked the kid up. (Lacan, 1992: 307-8)

‘Like a Virgin’ is about the ‘Great Fucker’: ‘it’s about some cooze who’s a regular fuck machine. I mean all the time, morning, day, night, afternoon, dick, dick, dick, dick, dick, dick, dick, dick, dick, dick, dick’ (Tarantino, 1994a: 4). As ‘fuck machine’ the woman testifies to the jouissance demanded by the Other, the great fucker and castrating father. The myth of the phallus as embodiment of the Other’s jouissance is thus promoted in this reading of ‘Like a Virgin’. It is a reading endorsed by the director who, as actor, performs the speech: ‘I have no doubt in my mind she [Madonna] is going to come to me and say: “Quentin, you’re a hundred per cent right, that’s exactly what the song’s about. And I was laughing my ass off when all these fourteen-year-old girls were singing it.”’ The certainty, however, even as it anticipates authorisation, was deluded: Madonna inscribed a copy of her album Erotica ‘To Quentin – it’s about love, not dick’ (Bernard, 1995: 193). The interpretation, countermanded by an inscription of authority, discovers itself to be fantastical. [NOTE]

But what the interpretation discloses, significantly, is the realm of fantasy determined by the Thing: ‘Freud placed in the forefront of ethical enquiry the simple relationship between man and woman. Strangely enough, things haven’t been able to move beyond that point’ (Lacan, 1992: 87). For Lacan, the relation between the sexes is a nonrelation, a relation only to the objet a which is, precisely, not one, but ‘something of the One’ (1982: 139). Indeed, the nonrelation between Madonna’s and Tarantino’s versions of the song charts an insurmountable difference between male and female fantasy: the myth of the phallus embodied or literalised, is opposed to the myth of romantic union, the phallus idealised. It is a point that, strangely, cannot be surmounted since it figures the gap between the sexes as Thing. Sexual difference is the point on which symbolic castration turns, the point of lack, the very gap, the site of loss and separation marked by the objet a. The differentiating effects of the castrating father thus enjoin the male subject to, and bar him from, the jouissance of the Other.

Since Dogs is framed by the elevation of the great fucker at the beginning of the film and the Other’s explosive assertion of power at its end, in the shape of the LAPD, the position of Joe appears tenuous. Throughout the film, he assumes the role of paternal metaphor: the one who lays down the law, who knows the robbers ‘as men’, who knows their real names, and who is invoked as the one that will take care of things. But his plan is ruined by one Thing: his blindness to Orange. His authority is questioned, his rules broken, his law collapses, the supposed father killed. What Orange introduces and the film dramatises is this collapse, its implosion. The fragmentation, the repetitions and regressions circulate around the central absence that Joe’s law cannot fill. For Lacan, it is ‘the foreclosure of the Name-of-the-Father in the place of the Other’ and ‘the failure of the paternal metaphor’ that defines psychosis:

We will take Verwerfung, then, to be foreclosure of the signifier. To the point at which the Name-of-the-Father is called – we shall see how – may correspond to the Other, then, a mere hole, which, by the inadequacy of the metaphoric effect will provoke a corresponding hole at the place of the phallic signification. (Lacan, 1977a: 201)

It is precisely around such a hole that Reservoir Dogs turns.

Scene here

But there is one figure for whom there are no holes: Mr Blonde. ‘I guarantee we’ve got a rat in the house’, says Pink. ‘What would ever make you think that?’ replies Blonde. Supremely indifferent to their predicament and unconcerned about his part in it, he replies to the accusations about his trigger-happy response to the alarm sounding with a statement of fact: ‘I told ‘em not to touch the alarm. They touched it. I blew ‘em full of holes. If they hadn’t done what I told ‘em not, they’d still be alive today’ (Tarantino, 1994a: 59). Callously indifferent, ‘a fucking psycho’, he has one thing in his favour, as Pink observes: ‘Right now, Mr Blonde is the only one I completely trust. He’s too fuckin’ homicidal to be workin’ with the cops’ (44). Pink’s vote of confidence is subsequently underscored by the flashback entitled ‘Mr Blonde’. With an almost filial relation to Joe and a fraternal relation to Eddie, the loyalty of Blonde is beyond question: ‘... you don’t lie to a man who’s just done four years in the slammer for ya’, Joe comments to Eddie (50). Unimpeachable in the eyes of the Other, Joe and Pink, Blonde is distinguished as psychotic: he has foreclosed any relation to the Other, ‘his shooting spree in the store’ defining him as a subject of pure expenditure. Without reference to a reality or any law, his actions situate him beyond reason, subject only to his own sovereign pleasure. ‘First off, I don’t have a boss,’ he informs the captured cop. He then goes on:

Now I’m not gonna bullshit you. I don’t really care about what you know or don’t know. I’m gonna torture you for a while regardless. Not to get information, but because torturing a cop amuses me. There’s nothing you can say, I’ve heard it all before. There’s nothing you can do. Except pray for a quick death, which you ain’t gonna get. (1994a: 61)

Without point, use or purpose beyond the value of amusement, the torture scene presents psychosis as that which is detached from any reference to law, usefulness or meaning. Hence the importance of the organ he severs from the body of the captured cop. The ear is what connects the subject to the voice of the Other: in Reservoir Dogs it is presented as an ethical, human organ, the one that, in the absence of visual orientation, connects others to the screaming voice of Orange’s pain. Moreover, the ear is what connects subjects in the film to the Other, the world outside the drama which intrudes from the airwaves in the form of K-Billy’s voice. Blonde switches on the radio, before opening his razor: ‘Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right. Here I am, stuck in the middle with you’ (63), he mouths, assuming the place, the words of the Other. These words signify, for the psychotic, the redundancy of the Other: there is no law, no paternal metaphor, only jokers and clowns. Blonde, moreover, is deaf to the cop’s pleading. Without compassion, he has no relation to the other or the Other and, by severing the other’s ear situates the cop in an identical position, cut off from all law or protection. ‘Mr Blonde just stares into the cop’s / our face, singing along with the seventies hit. Then he reaches out and cuts off the cop’s / our ear’ (63). The script includes the audience in this scene of utter subjection to irrational, tyrannical and ruthless violence. However, in the film, the camera pans away, separating the cop from ‘us’ as ‘we’ effectively turn away from the amputation in an act that may produce relief in not seeing, having no mirror to see an unbearable infliction of pain.

But the moment is heard. It is an ethical moment, opening morality to its own desire. ‘Was that as good for you as it was for me?’ Blonde asks the cop off screen, but it is to ‘us’ that the disembodied voice is really addressed, as we-the-camera stare into the vacant space at the back of the warehouse. Well was it? Yes, clearly, but in a different way. For the audience the (missed) spectacle of the ear amputation is a moral moment that calls up and frustrates moral desire, activating a prurience in withdrawal and disappointment; it is ethical in the way it opens a gap in the moral gaze, leaving an imaginary residue and a sound when it is the real thing that is wanted, the point of abhorrence that is also the place of absolute moral enjoyment and execration.

Tarantino explains just how deliberate, and deliberately moral, was his seduction and thwarting of the audience during this scene. It appears to have been designed precisely to produce this sort of disturbance between desire, morality and the law. As he says in the interview featured on the video of Reservoir Dogs.

In the infamous ‘torture’ scene the use of the song ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’ – which is a kind of bouncy, kinda cool song – not only does it not lighten up the scene, it makes the scene even harder to watch. You’re sitting there and you’re watching it, then all of a sudden this tune comes on and you’re tapping your toes, it’s real catchy and everything, Michael Madsen starts doing his little dance, and then ... BOOM! The hard stuff starts. You’re sitting there watching this [hard] stuff, but it’s already too late, you’re already a co-conspirator. You enjoyed the song, you enjoyed his dance, now you’ve got to take the hard stuff. And that’s what makes it so disturbing.

The ‘hard stuff’ introduces the kernel, the hard core, of subjective existence, that which remains least avowable to subject, the objet a. The scene is so traumatic because its use of the song calls up an unconscious self-reproach in the audience that invites an aggressive response, a response, furthermore, that takes its support in a disappointed prurience. Perhaps that is why this scene has become so notorious, has been so singled out with so much moral outrage and so many calls for censorship: and yet it is all directed towards an act that is missing, that has already been censored.

Aesthetic violence, then, becomes ethical if it opens a gap within representation which questions the complicity of desire and law. Aesthetic violence and the violence of aesthetics manifests both a hole in the real and a corresponding rupture in the fabric of the symbolic, the locus of law. In the encounter with the hole all (paternal) metaphors appear inadequate as, in the figure of Blonde, all reason fails and all meaning falters in the face of an absolute negativity that goes beyond, even as it constitutes, the possibility of ethics. The negativity that comes to the fore in Reservoir Dogs pertains to desire that is moral in so far as it appears useless and ineffective: ‘the desire of the Other is apprehended by the subject in that which does not work, in the lacks of the discourse of the Other ...’ (Lacan, 1977b: 214). Desire surpasses the position of the one supposed to be master, Joe, as his own self-reproach acknowledges. For Pink, the desire for the money prevents him walking away from the job. Desire exceeds the Other, it seems, as it raises the problem of the Good alongside that of goods; desire serves no purpose, accedes to no law other than that of desire, attenuating another economy beyond that of meaning and regulated exchange.

This other economy is one of pure expenditure, the explosive expenditure on which the movie climaxes. In Blonde’s irrational, amoral, purposeless violence, it mimics the consumption of commodified culture; it is ‘a shooting spree in the store’, the absolute expenditure, without return, of the consumer’s shopping spree. Excessive expenditure leaves the subject of desire wanting only to the extent that it wants for nothing or, in Felix Guattari’s words, wants only the absolute Other, the ‘diamond of unnameable desire’ (1984: 8), the point of its own extravagant consumption and non-return. The exorbitance of the subject’s desire charts a trajectory that is heterogeneous: toward a sacred point and enmired in utter profanity, a locus of shit and the sacred. Indeed, if Reservoir Dogs has any reference it is, perhaps, to the condition of sovereignty and abjection, to what, in a restricted economy of use and exchange, is held in reserve, the surplus, the profit and the value that serves no useful function, unemployable and unworkable, the dogs, the remains, leftovers of another world of desire, the thieving rabble, the detritus and utter waste of expenditure.

[NOTE]The authority of Mr Brown’s reading is countermanded in the text by Joe in his guise as real father. Mr Brown’s reading is continually being interrupted by Joe as he flicks through an old address book that seems to consist entirely of a list of women’s names, his old flames perhaps. ‘Toby’ … ‘Toby Chew’ … and so on. Just at the point where Mr Brown offers up his conclusion in triumph, Joe declares the reading ‘Wong’. Mr Brown immediately reacts ‘Fuck you, I’m right!’ (Tarantino, 1994a: 5). This demonstrates that the real father of the unconscious knows, even though it doesn’t know it knows. (Hager Weslati)

from Fred Botting & Scott Wilson, The Tarantinian Ethics, London: Sage, 2001

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Quentin Tarantino and Cinema's Other Enjoyment

The London Graduate School and the London Society for the New Lacanian School present a Symposium on Quentin Tarantino and psychoanalysis beyond the paternal principle.1-6pm 4th April, Institute for Contemporary Arts, The Mall, London

Register here

‘Daddy’s dead. Noooo!’ (Tarantino, From Dusk Till Dawn) Tarantino’s movies frequently turn on the abjection of a paternal figure (Marcellus Wallace, Jacob Fuller, Bill, Stuntman Mike), who loses his place and authority to become a redundant figure of consumption and expenditure. Tarantino’s movies themselves, in their restless play of reflexive images and references, are always seeking to produce the maximum in cinematic affect irrespective of the aesthetic unities of generic form, symbolic consistency, realism. This symposium explores the suggestion that Tarantino’s movies best symptomatise a tendency in Hollywood generally where cinema is no longer a vehicle of (anti)Oedipal desire, but a febrile, speculative generator of thrills, pleasures and anxieties swarming along an accelerating death drive which is itself death proof. In Tarantino’s film of the same name, for example, the impotence of itinerant ex-stuntman Mike is the condition of a romance between two iconic automobiles, vehicles not of male potency but an altogether Other jouissance.

Véronique Voruz, the London Society of the New Lacanian School

Marie-Hélène Brousse, practising psychoanalyst in Paris, a member of the École de la Cause freudienne and of the World Association of Psychoanalysis.

Gérard Wajcman, writer, psychoanalyst, curator and art critic. He teaches at the Department of Psychoanalysis of Paris 8 University and is a member of the École de la Cause Freudienne and the World Association of Psychoanalysis.

Hager Weslati, London Graduate School, Kingston University.

Fred Botting, London Graduate School, Kingston University, co- author of the Tarantinian Ethics (Sage, 2001)

Scott Wilson, London Graduate School, Kingston University, co- author of the Tarantinian Ethics (Sage, 2001)

BROUSSE, Marie-Hélène,
Marie-Hélène Brousse is a practising psychoanalyst in Paris, a member of the École de la Cause freudienne and of the World Association of Psychoanalysis. She is an associate professor at the Department of Psychoanalysis of Paris 8 University. She has contributed numerous articles to Lacanian studies, among others in Reading Seminars I and II (SUNY Press: 1996), Reading Seminar XI (SUNY Press: 1995), The Later Lacan (SUNY Press: 2007), and is a regular keynote speaker in the Freudian Field and in universities in Spain, Italy, South America and Australia.

Gérard Wajcman is a writer, psychoanalyst, curator and art critic. He teaches at the Department of Psychoanalysis of Paris 8 University and is a member of the École de la Cause Freudienne and the World Association of Psychoanalysis. He also directs the Research Centre on the History and Theory of the Gaze. Recent publications include: L’œil absolu (Paris: Denoël, 2010), L’objet du siècle (Verdier, 1998), Collection (Nous: 1999), Fenêtre, chroniques du regard et de l’intime (Verdier: 2004), Les animaux nous traitent mal, photographies de Tania Mouraud (Gallimard, 2008).

Fred Botting is Professor in the School of Humanities, Kingston University, London. His two most recent books are Limits of Horror (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008) and Gothic Romanced (London: Routledge, 2008). He is co-editor (with Scott Wilson) of Bataille: A Critical Reader (London: Blackwell, 1998). His research interests include cultural and critical theory (psycho- and schiz-analysis); Bataille and general economy; romanticism and postmodernism; techno-poiesis; uncanny media (gothic technologies; cybergothic; neuromanticism); smoking, sublimity, consumption and horror.

Scott Wilson is Professor in the School of Humanities, Kingston University, London. His two most recent books are: The Order of Joy: Beyond the Cultural Politics of Enjoyment (SUNY Press, 2008) and Great Satan’s rage: American negativity and rap / metal in the age of supercapitalism (Manchester University Press, 2008). He is co-editor (with Michael Dillon) of the Journal for Cultural Research (Taylor & Francis) and co-editor (with Fred Botting) of The Bataille Reader (Blackwell). His research interests include cultural & critical theory, particularly psychoanalysis and the legacy of Georges Bataille. He is currently working on a book on the audio unconscious.

Hager Weslati is lecturer in Critical Theory and American Studies in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Kingston University, London. Her teaching is at the interface of philosophy/ literature; and media/culture. Her research interests are focused on interpretations of Hegelian philosophy and on the critical theories of space with particular interest in nomadology, heterotopias and mobility. Her book chapters include “Travel in Disguise: On Travel Writing and Cultural Governance” in Not So Innocent Abroad: the Politics of Travel and Travel Writing (CSP, 2009); “Deserts in Literary and Religious Fundamentalism” in Literary Encounters of Fundamentalism (Heidelberg UP, 2008); “Aporias of the As If: Derrida’s Kant and the Question of Experience” in Derrida After Kant (Clinamen, 2003). Articles include: “La pensée du désert: the Paradox of Theory and the Narrative of Boom and Bust in Cultural Studies” Tropismes (October, 2010); articles on Lacanian psychoanalysis, philosophy and transference in Journal for Cultural Research ( January, 2007) and Anamorphosis. A Journal of the Lacanian School of Psychoanalysis and the San Francisco Society for Lacanian Studies. Her translations include articles by Jean Joseph Goux, (in Cultural Values, 1997) and Georges Bataille (in Parallax, 2001). Her current book project is titled “Absolute Error: The Kojevean Century and the Idea of Europe”.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Black Metal Theory @ Kaleidoscope

Francesco Tenaglia interviews me about Black Metal Theory Symposium II: Melancology here

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Neroplatonism 14.01.11

Text for the paper given at Speculative Medievalisms, Anatomy Theatre, 14 January 2011.

‘Perception is purely a matter of phantoms. Only now and then does this situation break down and lead to two real objects indirectly affecting one another by means of a third. And this is one form of what I call “allure”’. Graham Harman, ‘Offshore Drilling Rig’, Circus Philosophicus.

I Preamble: Bataille and AJ Ayer

I should begin with an apology that I am neither a medievalist nor a speculative realist; I have no authority here. I was invited to participate by Nicola Masciandaro on the basis of my interest in Georges Bataille (who was indeed a medievalist), and whom Nicola suggested might have something to contribute in this area.

But at the same time it is important to note that Bataille is also taken to represent the worst excesses of correlationism not least because of a now notorious conversation with AJ Ayer, in which were also present Merleau Ponty and the physicist (and co-author of The Accursed Share) Giorgio Ambrosini. This conversation, which went on until 3am, involved a (no doubt increasingly drunken) argument as to whether or not you could say that the ‘sun existed before man’. This conversation is cited for example by Simon Critchley in his review in the TLS of Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude, the founding text of Speculative Materialism.

The anecdote is recounted by Bataille himself in a short lecture called ‘The Consequences of Nonknowledge’. The reason for the anecdote is not, however, to ridicule Ayer or English philosophy, but on the contrary to disclose the limits of Hegel and Absolute Knowledge. While, on the one hand, there is no question that the statement ‘the sun existed before man’ ‘indicates the perfect non-sense that a reasonable proposition can assume’ since there cannot be an object without a subject, on the other hand this very non-sense makes us uneasy. We should also note what the sun means for Bataille in relation to ‘man’. ‘Man’ has worshiped the sun, bathed in it, sacrificed for it, organized all its ‘heliocentric’ philosophical metaphors around it, turned it into the Apollonian symbol of order, reason, form, illumination, enlightenment and so on; ‘Man’ is inconceivable without the sun and vice versa.

Bataille writes, ‘Honestly, it seems to me that insofar as we remain within discursive considerations, we might indefinitely say that there could not have been a sun before man; however, this also might make us uneasy: a proposition that isn’t logically doubtful, but that makes the mind uneasy, induces in us an imbalance: an object independent of any subject’ (Syst. Nonkn). It is this latter idea of an object independent of any subject that fascinates Bataille, as indeed it does Graham Harman, of course. The failure of language to convey that which isn’t logically doubtful in a form that is both perfect and yet non-sense opens up an abyss not just between French and English philosophy but between himself and the world: ‘I myself am in a world I recognise as profoundly inaccessible to me’.

[BTW. It is perfectly possible to posit that language itself pre-exists both man and the sun, logically, scientifically and speculatively in the sense that 1) language produces the very categories of subject and object, man and sun, that makes such differentiations possible, 2) in the sense that modern humans are an evolutionary product of the invention of language and other systems of signification and symbolization and that 3) there may well have been and currently may be very many cosmic languages out there.]

However, as we know, for Meillassoux the cosmos is ultimately only accessible through mathematics (the meaningless formulae through which God speaks to us in his own language, as Lacan would say). Only mathematics, perhaps, can grasp the laws and forms of the cosmos that are inaccessible to discourse (narrowly conceived) and pre-exist both ‘man’ and the sun. Since we must therefore also say that mathematics pre-exists man, what of that sonic form of maths known as music? Certainly, I would suggest, if we regard music as an open system with the minimal yet quite conventional definition of ‘organized sound’ where, of course, the principle of organization – form – does not originate in human culture. Again this idea is far from unknown; figures as diverse as Stockhausen and Steven Spielberg have speculated that aliens communicate through music.

II Base Idealism
The point I wish to make in this paper, speculatively and playfully titled ‘Neroplatonism’, is that it is the heteronomy of form itself that produces the ‘unease’ through which we do not not know the heterogeneity of objects and the world(s) they inhabit.

And here, for the purposes of this paper, I part company with Bataille even as I draw your attention to two short pieces by him. The first one, ‘Base Materialism and Gnosticism’, points to Bataille’s affinities with the Gnostics, close rivals with the Neoplatonists, but hostile, it is assumed, in part because the former regard base matter as an ‘active principle having its own eternal autonomous existence as darkness', a conception that perhaps could be said to currently have cosmic correlates in the mathematical intuition of dark matter and dark energy etc.

In contrast, it is often suggested that for the Neoplatonists matter is quite different and merely a passive receptacle or a question of simple privation. But on closer inspection this is not always the case. Plotinus states quite clearly that to call matter a receptacle or simply privation would be to define it, and matter is [under erasure] pure indeterminacy, formlessness; it is absolutely alien, other, a darkness within all perceptible darkness; matter lies beyond even the apprehension of shapelessness, colourlessness, sizelessness and so on. It is the Void, but the Void as a manner of being [under erasure] that is absolute difference as relationality.

Thus also for Bataille, the 20thC Gnostic taking up arms against latter day Platonists, base matter is bound up with formlessness: ‘All of philosophy has no other goal: it is a matter of giving a frock coat to what is, a mathematical frock coat. On the other hand, affirming that the universe resembles nothing and is only formless amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spit.’ (Georges Bataille, ‘Formless’).

An easy objection can be made to this, of course, whether or not one wears a mathematical frock coat. To say that the universe is something like a spider or spit is precisely to give it a form, the form of a spider or spit, of course. But here Bataille is ironically moving from the Gnostic tautology of ‘base matter’ to the more Neoplationic (or at least Petrarchan) realm of affect that can only be conveyed in oxymoron. Spit and spiders are formless forms in the sense that they are phobic objects whose powers of horror reduce many people to a state of abjection beyond all rational control or determination. This is the formlessness of the universe for Bataille, a formlessness that arises as an effect of a form that it is impossible to grasp, an impossibility precisely missed through mathematical formularization. A spider or a gob of spit is not its mathematical form even though it does indeed have a form and this form, beyond the threshold of sense, reduces us (or some of us) to formlessness.

Oxymoron, as the Petrarchan conceit par excellence, is a striking hyperbolic comparison in which, for example, the beloved’s black eyes are the formless forms of delightful agony; incomparably compared to the sun, the icy fire of the ‘bel nero’ of Laura’s eyes are the unfathomable source of the Petrarachan conception of love – a Neoplatonism that as such is always also a Neroplatonism: a Platonism that finds its truth in the black eyes of its beloved.

Neroplatonic love involves, to quote Rime 37 of Petrarch’s Canzionere, that ‘Strange pleasure that in human minds is often found, to love whatever strange thing brings the thickest cloud of sighs!’
[Novo piacer che ne gli ingegni / Spesse volte si trova, / D’amar qual cosa nova / Più folta schiera di sospiri accoglia!] Francesco Petrarch, Rime 37,

Now, as I understand it, speculative realism requires that one’s speculations be grounded in scientific realism, however elaborate they may become, such that, for example, allowing the realist contention that God does not exist does not preclude the possibility that he may come to be in the future. Following suit, then, and drawing on the medieval and renaissance convention of the ‘elaborate conceit’ that allows one to toy with the devices of science, I am going to suggest that Petrarchan Neroplatonism shows that love is not just a form of madness or folly (this is after all highly conventional), not just an affliction caused by an external nonhuman force (again this is a totally conventional idea), but that it is a neurological (or perhaps better, a ‘nerological’) condition that allows us to explore the heteronomy between form and perception. In this sense nerological love is a form of agnosia like amusia or prosopagnosia. These afflictions can be placed under the sign of oxymoron because the former denotes musical noise while the latter concerns faceless faces.

Amusia never concerns simply a case of tone deafness or indifference to music; it does not describe a world of silence so much as the perception of often agonizing noise where there is music. For Vladimir Nabokov, for example, listening to a string quartet felt like being ‘flayed alive’. While the experience is one of formlessness, what produces the experience is a specific form. It is not the nonperception of music, but the perception of music as painful noise. The notion of amusia also therefore presupposes that music can disclose a fissure in the brain’s model of external reality that frames phenomenal experience, hinting at a reality outside that model: the unknown impulse that generates painful ‘amusic’. The ‘malfunction’ of the system of perception and aural object recognition, the disjunction between the brain and its reality, is betrayed by the a-musical repetition of noise, then. Similarly, for prosopagnosia, the non-recognition of faces remains predicated upon an abstract model of the face. Confusion, distress, meaninglessness is predicated upon the perception of an abstract face-shape.

In its positing of a highly generic face comprised of a blazon of conventional features (golden hair, black eyes, ruby lips etc.), there could be said to be something prosopagnosic about the poetry of courtly love even though the praise of the beloved’s face is both the condition and the means of the production of poetic subjectivity. Further, it closely delineates love as an effect of a relation between form and perception, enhanced to a large degree by the influence of Neoplatonism that corresponds to the process whereby ‘object recognition is accomplished by repeatedly transforming the retinal imput into stimulus representations with increasingly greater abstraction’ (3). To quote Petrarchan scholar Isabella Bertoletti, ‘Petrarch relies on the enumeration of a limited number of formularized discrete physical attributes that he re-iterates hypnotically, attributes which never come together as a portrait’ (Bertoletti, ‘Mourning Laura’) This is exactly how people with prosopagnosia seek to recognise people in the absence of an ability to perceive the face as a whole.

In Neroplatonic love, then, we have the experience of agony, distress, catastrophe predicated not just on the general, abstract form of a beautiful face, but in particular, the piercing ‘bel nero’ of its gaze, to which the lover returns hypnotically. These eyes, the paradoxical light of the Ideal that emerges from impenetrable blackness only to reduce its object to formless agony, are both the cause and effect of the prosopagnosia of neroplatonic love.

Both amusia and prosopagnosia are examples of associative agnosia ‘in which perception seems adequate to allow recognition, and yet recognition cannot take place’ (Farah). In Tauber’s phrase, it involves ‘a normal percept stripped of its meaning’. Agnosias like amusia are useful for neuroscience in ascertaining the contingent and modular (evolutionary) nature of perceptual apparatuses and neural ‘knowledge’ systems that abstract and pattern the object-‘stuff’ of perception. At the limit, the loss of certain phenomenal ‘qualities’ may imply the emergence of new forms, and indeed new forms of knowledge (Metzinger).

Neuroscience, then, in its general discussion of the agnosias (and there are many different kinds) seems to be operating with quasi- if not neo-platonic categories that involve a clear distinction between form and matter or, in their words, between neuro-computational forms that give shape to the base ‘stuff’ of perception that lacks form. To quote Farah,

Early vision has been characterised as representing ‘stuff’ rather than ‘things’, meaning that the visual system initially extracts information about local visual properties before computing the larger scale structure of the image. In many ways, visual form agnosia can be described as preserved stuff vision in the absence of thing vision. What is striking about visual form agnosia is the complex nature of the stuff that can be represented in the absence of things. The perception of depth, velocity, acuity, and especially color (as opposed to wavelength), which are at least roughly intact in many visual form agnostics, requires considerable cortical computation. These computations yield a kind of rich but formless (my emphasis) goo, which requires some additional and separately lesionable grouping process to represent objects. (Farah, Visual Agnosia).

It is this other neural grouping, or faculty of the mind, rather than perception per se, that has the facility of apprehending the form of things supposed to shape the base matter of perception. The question, therefore, concerns the formal relation between inside and outside. While apprehension of the order of things seems to be primarily a process of intellection, it would not be scientifically realist to presume that form is solely an effect or trick of the mind in contradistinction to the formless gooey stuff perceptible by our senses out there in the great outdoors. The dark matter of perceptible reality requires considerable computational power even before it can be rendered into the ‘formless goo’ out of which the faculty of the mind is able to perceive or apprehend or intuit the ‘platonic’ or mathematizable ideas that inhabit it, no doubt as an effect of evolutionary adaptation.
In this new neoplatonic neuroscience, then, reality is only perceptible as an Idea recognized by certain neural groupings in the brain out of the goo of spurious perceptions computed by other areas of the brain crunched from the mass of data introduced by the senses. The brain can only reconstruct or represent the Idea out of a mass of spurious computations of matter. Ironically, this structure is similar to the way Plotinus suggests we can intuit the existence of matter itself divest of any Idea or heterogeneous to any particular form.

In Plotinus’s account matter escapes all rational apprehension and can only be intuited, as Plato himself suggests, through ‘spurious reasoning’. In his account he relies on the metaphor of darkness:

The eye is aware of darkness as a base capable of receiving any colour not yet seen against it: so the Mind, putting aside all attributes perceptible to sense – all that corresponds to light – comes upon a residuum which it cannot bring under determination: it is thus the state of the eye which, when directed towards darkness, has in some way become identical with the object of its spurious vision (Plotinus, Enneads).

For matter to be intuited, therefore, both the eye and the Mind have to construct a (spurious) vision of darkness (or formless goo, let’s say) in order to sense something within it, the ‘darker’ darkness of matter itself. ‘With what is perceptible to it’, that is, the eye/mind, says Plotinus, ‘there is presented something else: what it can directly apprehend it sets on one side as its own; but the something else which Reason rejects, this, the dim, it knows dimly, this, the dark, it knows darkly, this it knows in a sort of non-knowing’ (Plotinus: 100).
What is interesting, then, about this new neoplatonic science with regard to agnosias like amusia and prosopagnosia is that it is the very form itself that produces the effect of formlessness or radical indetermination. Indetermination is determined, somehow, on the very basis of form; a deeper formlessness is determined by the very indetermination immanent to form: that is, impossibly, form is formlessness, music is noise, a face is a faceless void, and sovereign beauty the terror of indeterminate chaos.

III The Specious Vision of Death
At this point, if there were time, I would conclude with a commentary on Petrarch’s Rime 323 in the above terms. This is one of the most beautiful poems in the sequence, a Visions of Ruin poem that re-iterates Ovidian themes and images from Rime 23 but also laments the trauma of love in a fuller development of the lines from Rime 37 I quoted earlier where love’s strange pleasure is ‘to love whatever strange thing brings the thickest cloud of sighs!’ It is a poem, like all of them ultimately, about death and writing, [note Petrarch’s anticipation of Blanchot], it suggests, I could propose somewhat anachronistically, that poetry’s creation of a new or strange thing (cosa nova), that is to say new and strange thoughts and feelings in the formation of new neural circuits, arises as an effect of love’s trauma; the mental disorder or catastrophe that is love, and the death that it pre-figures and anticipates.

In Rime 323 the strange/new pleasure is elaborated in six emblematic visions of ruin and mourning traditionally associated with the death of Laura from the plague on 6 April 1348, the same date as his innamoramento, his falling in love, as he writes in Rime 211 (see also 336). [Note The convergence between the dates is also noted in 30, 50, 62, 79, 101, 107, 1 18, 122, 145, 212, 221, 266, 271, 278, 364, ranging from 1334 to 1358]. Six visions of ruinous beauty and the beauty of ruin offer complex forms of always reversible allegory. The hind, the ship, the laurel tree, the fountain, the phoenix and the Bella Donna are ‘all emblems for Laura [that] at sometime or other also stands for the lover, and vice versa’ (During). If Laura is the laurel, the lover turns into a laurel; if she is the beautiful deer he is hunting, he is an Acteaon (and, again, in 323 she is torn apart by dogs); if he becomes a fountain of tears, she is a fountain of inspiration (but is it Narcissus’ pool?) ... the myths are constantly being transformed’ (During). Narcissus is certainly referenced in the final emblem. While the snake bite of course recalls Eurydice, she falls bowed like a flower when plucked.

It has often been noted that the myth of Narcissus, from Ovid to Freud, provides the classical pattern for the psychic structure of love and love poetry. As it is indeed also the structure of Neoplatonism assuming we recognise the Neoplatonic universe as the Empire of the One. Speaking of which, I am fond of Lacan’s wry remark on the Platonism of scientific reason when he affirms that yes, of course, ‘we proceed on the basis of the One ... The One engenders science’, but not, he quickly adds, in the sense of measurement, that is not what is important. Rather, ‘what distinguishes modern science … is precisely the function of the One, the One in so far as it is only there, we can assume, to represent solitude – the fact that the One doesn’t truly knot itself with anything that resembles the sexual Other’ (1999: 128). The insistence of the Other which, as we know from Lacan, does not exist, is an effect of the ‘One-missing’ (1999: 129). It is for this very reason that the One can be said to be both transcendent and immanent to the many, the worlds of objects which exist but with which there is no relation. Or rather, there are only indirect relations by means of a third, the principle of the many (see also Lacan on Tao The Ching], the obscure form(s), both alluring and dissonant, that articulates the two and denotes the impossibility of their complementarity, harmony or synthesis.

‘Perception is purely a matter of [alluring] phantoms’ writes Graham Harman, by means of which two real objects indirectly affect one another in the absence of any direct relation or recognition (see also Harman, 51): a face, for example, and some water. Less often noted than its function as the paradigm of romance, the myth of Narcissus is the first recorded instance of prosopagnosia. Narcissisus’s love for his own reflection must be predicated on the fact that he fails to recognise the face as his own. And this is indeed how the myth is sometimes translated. Dryden for example writes,

For as his own bright image he survey'd,
He fell in love with the fantastick shade;
And o'er the fair resemblance hung unmov'd,
Nor knew, fond youth! it was himself he lov'd.
Ovid, Metamorphoses (trans. Garth, Dryden et al)

But after all, what kind of sublime idiot would pine away at an image if he knew it to be his own? At the heart of the myth of Narcissus, hidden it seems from view, is the tale of a profound alienation predicated upon a disjunction, a radical heteronomy between perception and form, eye and brain, subject and object. Yet Narcissisus looks upon himself as something strange and new, someone or something utterly not himself that he cannot not love even though it brings the thickest cloud of sighs (not least from the amusiac song of Echo’s echo of Narcissus’s amorous dissonance). Each of Petrarch’s reversible emblems in rime 323 take this Narcissistic structure but disclose the radical heteronomy at the heart of the myth.

The key to this is perhaps the emblem of the phoenix which, here, does not rise again from the ashes of death. Classical symbol of re-birth and resurrection, the phoenix is described in explicitly Neoplatonic form as the celestial immortality of Form itself, the Idea that breathes new life into dead matter. But here it commits suicide, destroys itself in the face of the preceding visions of ruin. ‘All things’, it seems, ‘fly towards their end’ even the Ideas that animate them. There is a darker principle that determines the fate even of form, the indeterminacy that is represented by the Idea of death. Death is only ever an Idea, of course (see Weslati); it is not something that we can actually experience. Death is the essential Idea through which we speaking beings console ourselves that this doesn't go on for ever. Death doesn’t mean anything to science; it is just the transformation of matter. The Idea of death is a spurious vision, but through it one ‘comes across a residuum which it cannot bring under determination’. Looking deep into the beautiful black, ‘bel nero’, eyes of death one becomes ‘somehow identical with the strange new thing [cose nove] behind it, the force of absolute exteriority that transforms the psyche: the indeterminate determination of all indeterminacy. ...

Given this radical indetermination, even death is not the end, as Petrarch writes in the final lines of Rime 328, in which the dead black eyes of Laura address his own eyes and speak to him, ‘Her beautiful eyes ... with chaste, strange shining said to my eyes: ‘Peace be with You, dear friends; never again here, no, but we shall see each other again elsewhere’
[Li occhi belli ... Dicean lor con faville oneste et nove: / “Rimanetevi in pace, o cari amici: Qui mai più, no, rivedremne altrove’ (328: 9, 12-14.)]

IV Coda
All kinds of speculative possibilities of the new and the strange glint in the bel nero eyes of death’s spurious vision, even eyes that speak, though whether they are speaking only of madness in grief, mourning and melancholy is another question. Throughout its history, of course, from the Troubadours to Andre Breton’s Amor fou, love has been regarded as a mental disturbance, madness, folly. One of the symptoms of love’s psychosis can be a numerological obsession with dates and numbers. April 6, the date of Petrarch’s innamoramento and Laura’s death from the plague in 1348, lies at the heart of the Canzoniere’s elaborate numerological system based around the number 6. For example in Rime 323, the six emblematic visions of Laura’s death are conveyed in 12 lines each (3+3x2); the whole sequence itself comprises of 366 poems, that’s 6x60+6. As my metal chums will know, that’s the Sign of the Beast. Appropriately, then, I shall round off my talk with a song, from Black Metal band 1349, named after the date the plague which killed Laura de Noves reached Norway, and which ‘welcomes the darkness that fills my soul / and is blessed by the madness of the Chaos star’ (1349, ‘Manifest’).