Tuesday, 27 November 2012

From a Dead Place ...

The words are barely discernible, thin, fragile shapes formed out of the hoarse yet bellicose raging of a desiccated, cadaverous throat, leprous, shredded; its death-rattled breath conveyed by the thundering vibrations of drums breathlessly pummelled without pause. There is no rock ‘n’ roll backbeat here, just a furious cacophony.  Voice smashed and sliced open by explosions of percussion challenging the darkness, buzzing guitar chords rising and falling up the scale, lurching, striving like a swarm of ravenous insects dipping and swerving in the frozen, airless void, defying gravity, seeking the taste of death ...
From Scott Wilson (ed) Melancology: Black Metal and Ecology, Zero Books, forthcoming in 2013.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Melancholia, Messianic Banquets and the 19th Hole

‘It is in the Eschaton that history surpasses its limitations and is seen for what it is’
Jacob Taubes, Occidental Eschatology

‘The earth is evil. We don’t need to grieve for it; nobody will miss it. Life on earth is evil’.
Justine, Lars von Trier, Melancholia.

From the writing on the wall at Belshazzar’s feast to the vision of Ezekiel and the messianic banquets in Isaiah, Luke, even the Last Supper itself, where ever there’s an apocalypse or revelation of the end, there is always it seems an eschatological banquet. Ritual feasts and banquets mark points of personal or interpersonal transition, social change, the movement from stranger to guest, enemy to partner, weaning, weddings, funerals and so on. As such they are like the Eschaton which while enabling the possibility of time and history, is not itself, as Jacob Taubes argues, subject to history since it is its eternal end, condition and point of transformation.
Appropriately dominated by a register of orality and consumption, its mise-en-scene a luxury hotel and golf resort, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia is organized around a series of eschatological banquets: a wedding breakfast, an end-of-the-world or death breakfast and the special meal of a meatloaf that tastes of ashes. Along this locus of eating and disgust, the paper will discuss eschatology in relation to Melancholia as an essential fantasy which (again following Taubes) can be seen as both a screen and condition for ideas of freedom, revolution and even self-consciousness. Von Trier’s film depicts what Freud calls in his essay ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ a ‘mental constellation of revolt’ in the context of the voracious orality of a consumer culture whose acme and unsurpassable limit is represented in the film by the luxury golf course and the 19th hole. The prominence of the latter, clearly signalled at the beginning and end of the film, indicates that the film’s register is phantasmatic and symbolic rather than realist, golf now become the pinnacle of (post)human culture, a pointless yet snobbish pursuit that nevertheless seems to sustain desire and negativity at the End of History, in the manner of Alexandre Kojève’s admiration for the Japanese. The film also juxtaposes scientific and religious versions of and responses to the imminent catastrophe of the earth’s demise and these will be discussed in relation to two quite recent eschatologies – the Messianism of Quentin Meillassoux whose ‘hyper chaos’ promises the coming of a God hitherto alien to this world, and the nihilism of Ray Brassier which regards the inevitability of extinction as an essential condition for a thinking of scientific realism without illusion, that is outside of the human-world correlation. 
In contradistinction to the religious and scientific thinking above, however, and in the context of Melancholia’s delineation of an essentially oral ontology, this paper will discuss the locus of the mouth as a site of multiplicity and a power of transformation in the base materialism of the depths that are both interior and exterior to time and history.

Culture, Politics, Eschatology: A Symposium

Department of English & Creative Writing, Department of History, Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion,Department of Sociology, the Lancaster Institute for the Contemporary Arts and the Journal for Cultural Research.

The symposium’s theme is the continuing cultural and political relevance of eschatology. In recent years, diverse contemporary commentators have attended to eschatology. The symposium takes its cue from the work of three in particular, Jacob Taubes, Giorgio Agamben and Michel Foucault. Originally published in 1947, Taubes’ Occidental Eschatology (2009) is a classic study of the legacy of Judaeo-Christian eschatological theology for radical politics in modernity. His The Political Theology of Paul (2004), published posthumously from lecture notes, remains a highly influential recuperation of the radical implications of Paul’s theology. Agamben’s The Time that Remains (2005) continues Taubes’ project with a stunning reading of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans in relation to the messianic thinking of Walter Benjamin. His more recent The Kingdom and the Glory (2011), a genealogical study of the contemporary polity and its operation on an economic model, contests Foucault’s own, influential analysis of the same polity and its mode of operation by recovering their theological foundations. Foucault, for his part, maintained that ‘the new historicity of raison d’etat excluded the empire of the last days; it excluded the kingdom of eschatology. Against this theme, which was formulated at the end of the sixteenth century and is still with us today, counter-conducts develop that make it a principle to assert the coming of a time when time will end ... an eschatology in which civil society will prevail over the state’.
Storey Institute, 21-22 September 2012, Lancaster UK
Confirmed Speakers:
Gil Anidjar, Columbia University
Agata Bielik-Robson, University of Nottingham
Ward Blanton, University of Glasgow
Kathleen Davis, University of Rhode Island
Ziad Elmarsafy, University of York
Yvonne Sherwood, University of Glasgow
Scott Wilson, Kingston University

Confirmed respondents:
Arthur Bradley, Bulent Diken, Michael Dillon, Charlie Gere, Paolo Palladino, Thomas Rohkrämer and Yoke-Sum Wong.


Saturday, 14 July 2012

Melancholia and the cinema of depths

Now, the history of depths begins with what is most terrifying: it begins with the theatre of terror whose unforgettable picture Melanie Klein painted.

Gilles Deleuze, Logic of Sense

There’s a resemblance between the two planets and Justine’s tits. Can you see that? ... when they were kind of getting very close. That’s a very important point.

Lars von Trier, Criterion Forum.
As its soundtrack suggests, Melancholia is a romance, but a romance between two sisters and two planets, apparently ‘good’ ones and ‘bad’ ones, set in a Kleinian cinema of terror. Appropriately dominated by a register of orality and consumption, its mise-en-scene a luxury hotel and golf resort, the film is organized around various scenes of eating: a wedding breakfast, an end-of-the-world or death breakfast and the special meal of a meatloaf that tastes of ashes. This paper will argue that the film depicts what Freud calls in his essay ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ a ‘mental constellation of revolt’ in the context of the voracious orality of a consumer culture whose acme and unsurpassable limit is represented in the film by the luxury golf course and the 19th hole. The prominence of the latter, clearly signalled at the beginning and end of the film, indicates that the film’s register is largely (or simultaneously) phantasmatic rather than realist. Here I will suggest that deliberately or not, the film’s narrative tells a very Kleinian story of psychic development from the earliest sadistic/oral, paranoid-schizoid phase of the infant’s relation with the mother’s breast through the ‘depressive position’ that enables the process of ‘identification’ (in Justine’s case with the planet) necessary for the passage to ‘symbolization’. The latter figured, no doubt, by Justine again in the erection of the ‘magic cave’ that provides the space for the ironic ‘happy ending’ of the sisters’ reconciliation and successful fulfilment of maternal responsibility. But beyond this simple allegory, my paper will consider whether Melancholia, through its technical means, seeks to produce a ‘kleinmatic’ cinema of depths.
Ashes to Ashes: The Ethics, Depths, and Image of Melancholia
Panel Proposal for the 2012 Film-Philosophy conference with Felicity Colman and Richard Rushton

Saturday, 12 May 2012

MOUTH (coming soon)

The broached year
with its mouldering crusts
of delusion bread [Wahnbrot].

Drink from my mouth.

Paul Celan

Celan’s unnamed poem that begins ‘The broached year’ might be approached as a condensed iteration of his famous holocaust poem Todesfuge or Deathfugue where the command given is to drink the blackmilk of daybreak. The figure of the mouth appears in Celan as the last site of pleasure, and indeed of ethics, in a post-apocalyptic world. If the broached year only offers delusion bread or literally ‘crazy bread’, then drink from another’s mouth. Thus Celan inverts Adorno’s infamous dictum, no poetry after Auschwitz. From now on, there is only poetry, only the figure of the mouth. Edia Connole and Scott Wilson in MOUTH follow this ethical demand, drink from my mouth, as the only possibility of love. We are sure you will love what they offer to you if you manage to open your mouth and hear them…

Simon Critchley & Jamieson Webster

Thursday, 16 February 2012

The Number and the Beast

Quentin Meillassoux’s follow up to After Finitude, Le Nombre et la sirène (2011), seeks to ground his idea of the absolute in the secrecy of numerical code in an elaborate commentary on Stéphane Mallarmé’s (1895) ‘Un coup de dés’ (1895). Through a painstaking task of counting and re-counting the words of the poem, Meillassoux lights upon the number 707 which he finds is both a cipher for the future of poetry and a figure for chance itself. Poised between the ‘7’ that is the sign of chance and the ‘7’ of the classic French alexandrine meter is the 0 that symbolizes the abyss that yawns open in the absence of God, giving way to the eternal contingency of hyperchaos.

Given the question raised by the poem concerning ‘LE NOMBRE’ of the ‘ultérieur démon immémorial’ and its existence, and whether or not it is an hallucination éparse d’agonie, and moreover notwithstanding Meillassoux’s painstaking attempts to count it, this intensely symbolist poem is no doubt also referring to another literary demon. Indeed, not simply a demon but the apocalyptic beast of the sea that is encoded with another number that its author calls on the reader to enumerate: ‘Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man: His number is 666’ (Rev.13:18). A dice throw that did not abolish chance might be one that came up six after six after six, for as Meillassoux insists absolute chance – contingency – has nothing to do with probability (see Meillassoux, 2008: 105). 666. These were the numbers that came up for Francesco Petrarch the poet, with devastating effects. The code for all blasphemy, persecution and evil, for hatred and the apocalypse, is also the code for love and the love of perfection, for Divine form. Is this pure chance?

With reference to Meillassoux’s text, Mallarme’s and others in the canon for whom the numerological drive is central (Dante, Petrarch), this paper speculates on the form and affects of numbers as a particulate system heterogeneous to language. As such it will consider the essential meaninglessness of numbers, whose enigmas yet inflame the amorous intensities of poets, mystics and psychotics. It will also consider how far away this is from the claims made for mathematical knowledge of the universe and its laws, as if algebraic formulae were likewise the means through which God speaks to scientists in His own language. In the absence of God and indeed faith in science, yet giving up on neither perhaps, we can no doubt take number 666 as another sign – not necessarily of contingency, but of that base matter that inhabits the horror of its Idea.

Abstract for ‘Thinking the Absolute: Philosophy, Speculation and the End of Religion’ conference, June 29 – 1 July, Liverpool Hope University, UK. You can register here

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Facebook: the structure that took to the streets

‘In a lot of ways, Facebook is more like a government than a traditional company. We have this large community of people, and more than other technology companies we’re really setting policies’. Mark Zuckerberg.

The news that Facebook has a population greater than the US and the EU put together (BBC2 04.12.11) reminds us that the company’s aspirations tend towards a proximate ‘statehood’ than simply profit. As such, its ‘revolutionary’ potential is not neutral. The question therefore concerns what kind of social bond or social contract it instantiates. A very good indication is outlined at the beginning of David Kirkpatrick’s The Facebook Effect (2010), the authorized history of the company. He tells the story of a campaign against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) which again reminds us that Facebook’s political utility is perfectly equivocal such that it can just as easily become a tool for counter-revolution, for popular revolt in support of a weakened and ineffective state.

“Oscar Morales was fed up,” begins the book, because the Columbian’s holiday period, like much of the country apparently, was being disturbed by “the suffering of a little boy named Emmanuel” who was being held hostage along with his mother Clara Rojas and others including the politician Ingrid Betancourt by FARC. Expectation was high that at least little Emmanuel, if not all the hostages, would be released by Christmas 2007 as a result of negotiations between the guerrillas and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. By the New Year the boy still hadn’t been released, but to everyone’s surprise in early January the Colombian President Alvaro Uribe announced that Emmanuel was no longer in the hands of the FARC, but in foster care. For Morales and many others, this was the last straw. “People were happy because the kid was safe, but we were so fucking angry [...] we felt assaulted by the FARC. How could they dare negotiate for the life of a kid they didn’t even have? People felt this was too much. How much longer was the FARC going to play with us and lie to us?”.

Morales set up a Facebook Group called Un Millon Voces Contra Las FARC (A Million Voices Against FARC). Information about the Group and its plea was rapidly distributed through Facebook’s ‘social graph’, and in a few weeks the Group had thousands of members, and a large demonstration was organised. The demonstration attracted the attention of the Press as indeed did the novel means of its organization and the campaign spread further – in the process expanding the number of Facebook users since it was new to Columbia and associated only with ‘kids’ (4). The very visibility of the numbers of the Group emboldened the campaigners –“Facebook gave Columbia’s young people an easy, digital way to feel comfort in numbers to declare their disgust” – and the site itself provided a key point of organization and liaison. “Facebook was our headquarters ... It was the newspaper ... the central command ... the laboratory” (Morales quoted by Kirkpatrick, 5). President Uribe eventually succeeded in negotiating the release of the hostages but the Facebook campaign and the demonstration were credited with applying pressure on the FARC. Oscar Morales’s “group and the subsequent demonstration made him into a national and international celebrity” (6).

The anecdote illustrates nicely how Facebook establishes a social bond though the production of ‘faces’: the new technology of the social networking site enables Oscar Morales to become the face of the protest against FARC, and ultimately achieve ‘celebrity’. In Seminar XVII Lacan famously organizes the social bond across four terms:

agent other
truth production

It is clearly Facebook and the Group it enables (Un Millon Voces Contra Las FARC) that is the ‘agent’ here, addressed to the ‘other’ whose reference is FARC. The authority and ‘truth’ of the Facebook Group is grounded in the number of members of the Group galvanized in relation to the guerrillas. Although they were in the thousands rather than millions (there not being enough Facebook users in Columbia at the time), millions of people did demonstrate in cities across Columbia, inspired by the Group. In contradistinction to the inhuman facelessness of FARC, then, Facebook produces Oscar Morales as the (human) face of a Group actually made up of thousands of other faces like so many pixels or the digital code into which the face dissolves in the original Facebook logo.

The four main forms of the social bond for Lacan are the discourses of the Master, the Hysteric, the University and the Analyst. It seems to me that Facebook, appropriately given that it was developed at Harvard, is an example of University discourse in which knowledge (S2), supported by the signifier of the master (S1), is in the position of agent which, through its address to the lack constitutive of desire (objet petit a), produces the subject ($).

A certain modification is necessary however in order to discuss Facebook as a form of social bond with regard to this structure. Facebook is certainly a product of the University, but does not so much represent the ‘knowledge’ of the University as its ‘information’; it is not the agent of operative knowledge, but operative information. As such the structure can organize all the rankable degrees of University life on the same plane from social grooming to academic and professional achievement.

Famously, Facebook was developed at Harvard in a kind of perversion of its bureaucratic procedures. All Universities, colleges and fraternities had a ‘facebook’ of passport-style photographs that are held along with other information as a record of its staff and students. Zuckerberg and his colleagues, initially through Facemash leading to theFacebook used these procedures as a means for student enjoyment: self-promotion, narcissism, dating, voyeurism and so on. From the very beginning there was something ‘superegoic’ in the way in which its ‘obscene’ content (the inspired by the initial idea of comparing female students’ faces to farm animals for example) was conveyed by the apparent neutrality of bureaucratic form. Accordingly, the signifier (S1) that is the governing support of Facebook (S2) is not the name of a Master or a governing Idea of the University (Truth, Culture, Excellence), but a number (1) that stands for numbers generally, metrics, statistics, quantification and so on. The ‘knowledge’, then, if there is any, is statistical information that is operative through the manipulation of computerized data through the use of algorithms. With the Oscar Morales story, number (Un Millon Voces) provides the hyperbolic, even performative command that brings the Group into being as a mass, and its authority as a number provides its ‘comfort’ and security.

As everyone knows there is something uncanny about passport photographs and their inability to deliver a satisfyingly narcissistic image of one’s face (enabling them to be compared to farm animals, for instance). I don’t recognize this image; it’s not me! It is as if the photo booth steals some aspect of the face essential to its enjoyment as a mirror image. The digital face-making, or prosopopeia of Facebook, is predicated upon a generalized prosopagnosia (or prosop – a – gnosia) where the a stands for the lost enjoyment stolen by the bureaucratic passport photograph. However, the theft of enjoyment in the Oscar Morales story concerns the fact that he and his countrymen were cheated by the FARC of the collective joy that would have been brought by the sight of the face of Emmanuel, his suffering relieved by his release on Christmas day. The fact that he was quietly released by the hostages into a foster home without fuss or announcement seems to have produced an irrational rage in the Columbians, strange given the possible alternative: “People were happy because the kid was safe, but we were so fucking angry” (Kirkpatrick, 1). It is therefore into this gap, marked in its absence by the suffering or joyful face of Emmanuel in the field of mediatized visibility, that Facebook pours its information, a million faces combining to producing Oscar Morales as Columbia’s first Facebook star, making him “a national and international celebrity” (6). As such, however, he inevitably loses something, loses his offline, off camera ordinariness, becoming vulnerable to the harsh light of media attention and expectation as a hero of political and moral virtue.

Lacan presented his theory of the four discourses in the context of the events of May 1968, most notably in a rowdy exchange with students at Vincennes. Memorably, Lacan claimed that “the aspiration to revolution has but one conceivable issue, always, the discourse of the master”. At the same time, as Matthew Sharpe notes, Lacan also made the claim that university discourse “is increasingly becoming the dominant form structure of social relations”. While Lacan initially had in mind “the societies of the now-former Soviet bloc”, Sharpe shows that new forms of advertising in their ‘superegoic’ appeal to transgressive (as opposed to officially sanctioned) enjoyment are organized according to the same structure, since advertising “faces, and educates, a more or less unformed, ignorant individual” which it compels to consider, “from a quasi-superegoic position of neutral self-observation ... what we really are and really want, beneath whatever social masks and roles we may from time to time have taken up”.

Since about 2008, Facebook’s core business, its means of making money, has been advertising, but it is claimed that this is purely a means rather than an aim, and in any case “the word advertising is really no longer the right word for what is going on at Facebook” (Kirkpatrick, 263). Rather, Kirkpatrick argues that Facebook provides a space in which producers and consumers interact to the point of becoming indistinct as mutual users of the site. From the beginning “Thefacebook had no content of its own. It was merely a piece of software – a platform for content created by its users” (31) in which marketers can now pay for visibility for their products but “can no longer control the conversation” about them (263). For Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook ‘monetization’ merely generates the revenue necessary for a much more profound social project. The company is “founded on a radical social premise – that an enveloping transparency will overtake modern life”, and this premise is the foundation of Facebook’s utopian promise. As the story of Oscar Morales relates, Facebook can be an effective tool working for popular causes in the aid of the state – no doubt in other states it can work against them. As such, however, Facebook is not a neutral ‘tool’ for the political expression of popular reason. It is a form that is itself transformative of other political structures, ushering in a new kind of governmentality. “In a lot of ways”, Zuckerberg argues, “Facebook is more like a government than a traditional company. We have this large community of people, and more than other technology companies we’re really setting policies”. While particular technology companies are always vulnerable to the rapid exploitation of new technological innovations and a certain boredom threshold concerning their formats, Facebook has it seems made a decisive breakthrough in its reformatting of the social bond. In its infinite streams of commentary, ‘likes’ and followers of Groups and interests, Facebook has transformed the meaning of ‘Friendship’ and opened it up so that a transparent – or ‘transparental’ – love has become the principle of a new technology of neoliberal governance. Whatever the fate of Facebook, for this model to become truly revolutionary would require a further turn clockwise towards the discourse of the Master in which love for the face of the ‘transparental’ One, the index of the multiple, supports the total operationalization of social reality without remainder other than the facelessness that is produced as its surplus and condition.

From Scott Wilson, ‘Prosopopeia to Prosopagnosia: Dante on Facebook’ in Glossator 5 (2011): 19-56.