In the psychoanalytic movement there were a number of dark horses, but none are darker than Wilhelm Reich. At one time he was Freud’s favourite and headed the Vienna seminar group which dealt with therapeutic practice. By the time he died he had been imprisoned for selling sheds that promised to cure cancer, had burned his books and therapy centre, and spent a number of years travelling around the desert shooting his sex-energy through sky-trumpets to make clouds. His works have had occasional influence – his Mass Psychology of Fascism was apparently hurled at police during May ’68 and his “orgone” theory of energy was incorporated into Scientology – although he has yet to be reintroduced to academic circles. To be honest, I don’t personally have any desire to see him return. I do, however, highly recommend his book, The Function of the Orgasm.
The Reverend Cornelius Blow once said that great men do not write their own books but have books written about them. Indeed, as academics write “intellectual biographies” that explain great thinkers’ ideas by plotting their development against important moments in the subject’s life, so particularly egotistical and/or marginalised figures attempt to do the same thing for themselves. The result in a case like Reich’s is a fascinating inversion of the “great genius” narrative. All along the world was calling him crazy… and it turns out they were right. Although reading The Function of the Orgasm, you’d never know it. In fact, the act of reading the book is a great practice in practical scepticism. The thing with Reich, it turns out, is that he had a tendency to be way ahead of his time on a regular basis and in a number of things has been proved in the right. The question for the reader is where to draw the line. What is radical / possible / questionable / total bollocks? We’ll return to the bollocks momentarily…
The psychoanalysts whose names are still remembered all worked together when it came to the central theory but are today better identified by their individual “heresies” from Freud’s initial concepts of the Oedipus complex, sexuality and the unconscious. Adler dropped sexuality and replaced it with a desire for power. Jung made the unconscious a “collective” entity within cultures rather than individuals and replaced sexuality with spiritual energy. Otto Rank fixated on returns to the womb and Freud did the opposite, positing a “death drive” to account for the things “sexuality” couldn’t seem to explain. Reich, however, pretty much tows Freud’s original line throughout his dealings with the psychoanalytical movement – even after Freud himself has given it up. His research specialised on the orgasm. If neurosis was based on sexual traumas and inhibitions then unhealthy minds would be unable to achieve “orgastic satisfaction” and will adapt “repressed/repressive” character traits based on their sexual hang-ups.
Interestingly, it is Reich’s “orthodoxy” that appears to hold him back as psychoanalysis moves on. Where most analysts were starting to consider the “genital” bit of sexuality metaphorical and the “unconscious” a scientifically mappable, empirically verifiable entity, Reich believed the unconscious to be a working metaphor for the inconsistencies between people’s thought patterns and their physical sexual desires. Stop me if I’m wrong here, but on this part of the argument I think I’m taking Reich’s side. In fact, it’s almost trite these days to point out that the people’s attitudes to sex tend to get increasingly weirder the less of it they have; just look at the church.
Another place where Reich was on the right side of history was in his social concerns. Being more interested in the practical side of psychoanalysis than the theory he set up a number of clinics to help develop new types of therapy – some of which were free. As the result of doing so he found that mentally ill people living in crippling poverty or wageslavery tended to have illnesses rooted in their living conditions, as did women in oppressive marriages or from violently patriarchal families. Where the conservative Freud talked about the “reality principle” and aimed at bringing people back into line with “civilisation” as it was, Reich wanted to overhaul society by improving housing, increasing worker’s pay (ideally through socialist revolution), liberating women, and legalising homosexuality. During Hitler’s rise to power, Reich even took to pamphleteering against “fascist repression”. In a rather tragic touch of desperate naiveté, part of his plan to end the “nationwide neurosis” involved providing free contraception to all that wanted it.
In a way, it’s this kind of desperate longing to free the world from oppression that can be seen to lead to his “madness”. The book carries you through his clinical experiences into his anti-fascist experiences and out the other side having acquired a lot of social theorising on the way through that is too sympathetic to his point at the time for the reader to properly consider. However, it’s this subtle change that spell’s the doom for Reich as a thinker: he goes from having a theory, testing it and adjusting it to having a theory and then just going out and looking for evidence that proves it.
Pretty soon after this point Reich decides that nervous ticks “prove” that the body is a “bladder” of sexual energy that needs to be regularly released through orgasm. The character of a repressed person is “armour” made of past experiences that stops the bladder emptying as “proved” by the movements of particular types of amoebas. Reading some very early papers on the workings of nerves, the “orgone energy” that fills the bladder is “proved” to be electrical. (“Orgone energy” is blue by the way, and fills the cosmos – and you know what else is blue? The sky. Yeah. I know. Mind = blown.)The book also begins to fill with jargon-terms for barely explicable things and endless diagrams and lists that, when they do make sense, seem wildly arbitrary – as if someone asked you to separate animal noises according to whether they are red or blue. Some of the little asides that are thrown in are fascinating just because you begin to wonder whether there’s an element of truth to them in their pure obscurity. One of my favourites is his passing comment that Chinese people can’t breathe very deeply. Why would anyone think that? Well, Buddhism celebrates calmness which represses orgone energy and deep breathing is necessary for orgasms… this aside was casually brought in as if to cite some widely held bit of common knowledge.
But the fully developed madness isn’t what makes Reich’s book a good read. It actually gets a bit depressing, especially when he gets on to his plan to cure cancer. It’s rather the parts immediately following his expulsion from the Psychoanalytical Society due to his anti-fascist publications. Filled with a revolutionary zeal, Reich begins to make logical jumps in the interests of his Big Idea. They’re the kind of jumps that every academic has made at some point but, without his peers to check his excesses, Reich never returns to check his workings and so spirals off into fantasy. The error that stood out most for me comes as part of his work on whether the “libidinal fluid” hypothesised by Freud is at work in the genitals during sexual arousal. A laudably empirical study. However, for the interests of finding a balance on his table of results for “smooth-muscular softening” in a certain part of the vagina (I couldn’t quite work out which part he was referring to myself) he opposes it to a “smooth-muscular softening” of the testes during arousal. Reich - a human male in possession of a pair of testicles that have been on his person every day of his life – believes that the movement of the scrotum is solely related to arousal. Even the most genitally unaware male in the world can disprove this scientifically simply by taking a hot bath on a cold day. I may not be an expert on “orgone energy” or “smooth-muscular softening”, but I know bollocks and, dear sir, that is bollocks.
Nevertheless, it’s that kind of credulity testing that makes Reich’s The Function of the Orgasm a great experiment in reading. In fact, if it wasn’t for his attempt to be scientific I doubt whether the weaknesses in Reich’s argument would have been enough to keep him out of academia. One needs only to look at the return of Lacan in theorists like Zizek to see the value placed on “social psychoanalysis”. Considering some of the conservative places that psychoanalysis leads today, an alternative-timeline Wilhelm Reich that gave up seeing his work as a hard science and switched to writing social theory would at least offer a radical alternative. But maybe that’s why I could enjoy reading Reich’s book? Reich was mad and Reich is dead. Now he only matters to mad people or dead people. (And I don’t mean the mentally ill here – they’ve luckily been kept well away from psychoanalysts for a long while now). It’s now possible to read Reich knowing that his opinions have no influence and whatever you think about them doesn’t matter that much. It’s a perfect, frustration-free environment to test your critical skills so that, come the next Big Idea, you’ll be sharp enough to point out the bollocks but (perhaps more importantly nowadays) also be able to judge the merits too. With contemporary thought in the state it’s in, I foresee wading through a lot of bollocks before any solutions present themselves.
(Quick comment prior to this blog post - I wrote this during the heat of the riots and the vicious backlash. I did not place it upon my blog at that time due to a genuine fear that the publication of a dissenting voice may lead to state persecution, if not arrest. These fears remain, yet my cowardice doesn't. I apologise for such gross hypocrisy and also for the hyperbole here, but these are times wherein such things are rife - this is, however, no excuse.)
I am deeply shocked and morally sickened by this country following yesterday’s riots. Yet it is not the criminals that illicit this response in me but you, the British people. A more bloodthirsty gnashing of hysterical teeth I could not imagine from this nation that so often praises its own liberalism. Previously sane people are now calling for martial law, suspension of communications, rubber bullets and water-cannons, curfews, an end to human rights, a restoration of the death penalty, bringing back the cane, an outright genocide aimed at wiping out the entire working class. Yes, some of these are meant more seriously than others, but not one of these things should ever be meant any way but ironically by anyone with an ounce of sense and humanity. We should look on these things as the backward, totalitarian methods that they are. We should consider them on a par with thumbscrews – which, judging by the internet and the radio, some of you are probably in favour of, you Nazi bastards.
Wow, that’s a lot of hate in that paragraph. Well let me tell you that it’s a tense time for the person seeking freedom right now. Here’s a handy set of reasons why it’s not a good idea to demand the state conduct violence upon your behalf:
The moment the state operates it sets a precedent. Today they may be rioters that are shot with rubber-bullets and hosed down with water-cannons (both weapons that are potentially lethal and often maim very seriously) but tomorrow they will be protesters. They will be trying to stop a war, or protect equal rights, or perhaps even complain about police shooting someone dead, and they will be treated with as much violence as you would wish upon these rioters.
Once a liberty goes, it goes forever. It will not come back for many, many years and most likely it will take numerous deaths to get it back. Our freedoms are considerable (not perfect, however) in this country, yet each has been won through generations of suffering and struggle. What may seem a justifiable action now in emergency circumstances will erode a right that it will be incredibly difficult to win back. The basic rights to communication, fair trials, free association, free speech, free movement – these will go the moment a curfew or some other draconian measure is enforced. If you wish these stripped from other people, you do not deserve them yourself.
If the police are not accountable to law then they are no better than the criminals they arrest. We, as a society, employ police so that they can exert the amount of force our laws have seen fit to grant them in order to maintain those same laws. A member of the police does not act as a free individual but as an organ of the state. To respond to extreme violence with extreme violence illegitimates power – it is a declaration of a fascist state, the act of fighting against which is in fact the only moral choice. According to many comments I’ve seen, a lot of people would welcome this state of lawless oppression. Just for this instance, you say? Oh, my wonderful imaginary reader, once you grant the police power, they will use it to its fullest extent – it is inherent in their nature.
But what good are these liberties? They don’t defend us from crime! No. They don’t. Yet they determine what crime is, and how we deal with it. In doing so, they determine what is not a crime – and what is not a crime is what makes up society. Like the prime minister of Norway, we must now ask for more democracy and more freedom, not less. We must refuse to move an inch when it comes to freedom – and we must demand more of it. Otherwise, the next person to be “mown down” or “strung up” will be you.
You don’t have to be a Marxist to see that poverty caused these riots. Why would anyone do this unless they felt as if they had no place within society? How could they? It is inconceivable. That doesn’t make them right – it makes them very wrong in fact – but it does prove what decreasing our freedom leads to. These people are crushed beneath the weight of poverty and can only see a way of getting free through operating outside society, as criminals. They have as little respect for their own lives as they do for others’. How could someone consider themself so worthless? Only if all potential is lost, when they are a slave to conditions set entirely against them.
This is why we must demand more freedoms – freedom from poverty and disease, the rights to work, housing, food, healthcare, education, direct democracy and democracy within the workplace. Only by fighting for these freedoms can we bring an end to oppression, both physical and mental, and finally live in peace together. For until we have overcome jealousy and anger then we shall never conquer hate. Until we are all free to live in society then there shall always be those outside it, attacking it, and making life worse for all of us.
 Both things I’ve seen seriously posted online by serious people I used to respect.
I am thrust into the conclusion that without David Cameron I would not be the theorist I am today. A terrible concept perhaps, but like all concepts of any worth it both springs from solid grounding and indicates the way forth to better, firmer, more fertile grounds…
The theory that I have written so far was passed around our bi-monthly discussion group where fellow PhD researchers comment on each other’s progress. Although I felt my grounding of the novel in its actual being (rather than ephemeral thought) was reasonably sound on logical principles, I was hoping for some help in connecting it to “culture” – something I’m also chasing in terms of actual being but haven’t fleshed out systematically. Well, this is the problem I wanted help with, although it wasn’t the problem I encountered.
Too hugely egotistically to complain at the time, the real problem was the fact that everybody agreed with the completed part of the theory (oh, sweet applause!) without really seeing the point of the incomplete part, or treating it as a different theory altogether. For me, though, without the link to “culture” this is barely a theory at all. Something had happened that had made analysing the novel seem pointless in-itself yet massively vital for social progress as a whole. At the same time it struck me that although I could still see this, the drive towards it was far murkier and fuzzy than I remembered it was during writing.
So, I went back to context. At what point did these ideas form into recognisable shapes that could be formulated properly? Well, in short, between the end of November 2010 and mid January 2011 – the era of state violence and student aggression. Tramping snowed-in streets between political meetings had seemed to be getting in the way of my work at the time, but its message, motives and movement clearly filtered through. Complex ideas simplified, got cut, else proved their necessity when faced with the most brutal counter-arguments. What initially took months of pondering and page after page of writing was boiled down to 3,000 words that, if they didn’t find a suitable reason for existence, would end up being thrown out too. The moment was revolutionary – everything said was political, and our survival depended on its defence.
Conflict that with now – why so weary am I? The movement has lost energy, but not ground, and much that we looked forward to has actualised – the support of the unions, if not student ones, for example. But where are the sites? What was police-lines, snowy streets and heated arguments is now the organised march and the booked communal-space. Just as violence fails to erupt on the streets, it also fails to erupt where it previously shouldn’t. The endless calls for solidarity have dried up as the factions are now separate and content with that. The Roscoe “autonomous students” won’t share a room with the SWP – now neither drive towards protest in any meaningful capacity. What has gone is the state of emergency. Without constantly being faced by arguments you disagree with it is remarkably hard to form a cohesive argument. Too much will be left to slide, remain unstable, carried on by prejudice.
In spite of common sense, then, it would seem that it was the huge, pointless arguments that provided the strength of the left. Solidarity is an important concept as it asks not for people to agree but only that they barely tolerate each other – if it is not being called for then there is too much agreement going on; we will lose our focus, our creativity, we’ll get ideologically flabby. That is why I should really thank David Cameron; if it wasn’t for his single-minded determination to destroy the country then I’d never get any decent work done. God bless the mental neoliberal prick.
“Are you a Marxist?” she asked me. “I… don’t know” I replied. Why the hesitation? What would I have said if I’d had the chance to think it over? Well, I guess I would have said “I’m a theorist”, or maybe given a less pretentious shrugging of the shoulders. As it turned out, she was SWP and it therefore, necessarily, a priori, followed that she immediately became far less interested in speaking to me. It struck me that I’d unwittingly walked into a den of reverse-McCarthyism. If you aren’t with us you’re against us. Exterminate all rational thought. Cake or death?
Of course, orthodoxy to a particular party line isn’t really that intimidating in the flesh – it just seems a bit childish and cliquey. It demonstrates either a self-limiting of thoughts based on emotional preference or, as is often the case with conservatives, a fully-fledged state of denial. It’s why I’ll probably never join a political party no matter how much I’m in favour of their particular policies. There’s too much of the ideological fuzziness. Calling the SWP a Marxist Party is surely just as much a mixing of philosophical jurisdictions as calling the Tories a Keynesist Party, or the Lib Dems a Millist Party?
That was a little misjudged comedic hyperbole for you there, my sumptuous imaginary reader, but I think you get where I’m coming from. Oh, you don’t? Well, allow me to continue. It’s my contention that Karl Marx was a theorist, not a politician. Where other theories of society begin with the sacred notion of the individual, Capital begins with the exchange of commodities. It’s a philosophical building-up from first principles as sound (if not moreso) as Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding or Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason – the arguments are even structured relatively similarly. The revolutionary point being that societies aren’t collections of individuals, individuals are formed by societies. Marxist argument, from these principles, can safely do away with epistemological speculations as the singular human understanding has little significance when we regard society as a whole. The point of all this, that which carries Marx beyond my conception of him as a philosopher into other’s conception of him as a politician, is the fact that the epistemological “what people think” is inherently ideological and must be seen as such.
Now this is where Marxism draws its strength, but where manifold variants of leftism fall flat. We see it when we argue that education is a right; art and culture are worthwhile for their own sake; the forests are what make our country great; the NHS is a wonderful tradition; bankers and MPs are crooked liars and cheats; libraries and post offices are pillars of the community; the police ought to be respectable. As lovely as these things are, these arguments are the same arguments used by reactionaries since time immemorial. The high, clear air of sweet-smelling, creamy old England. “But isn’t this just the language of politics?” you ask, my phantasmic friend. You’re very pretty you know, and may be right...
The right have stopped playing this game though. “Duty” and “honour” and all that bollocks have been steamrollered under the ideological imperative to privatise. It’s not just luck that it’s worked either. Try telling, as I have, some drunken old landlord that education is a right when it’s what “my ‘ard earned taxes done paid for” – he doesn’t give a shit about Milton. No, we must defend society through our superior thought. Privatisation will not improve the economy, it will damage it, and the reason they want it is that deregulation places power in the hands of owners over citizens. Their NHS plans will not only add to this evil “bureaucracy” that they pretend to hate so much, but will also be more expensive and less effective. The arguments are simple. The tories are wrong because they make no economic sense. Having an ideology of the free market does not equate to an understanding of economics – it actually hampers that understanding.
And in case there’s anyone left who really believes that politics is anything but economics, then I’d ask them to look to Egypt. If we fought a war in Iraq to bring “democracy” to the Middle East – costing us billions in cash and thousands of human lives – why are we so reticent to accept democracy when it’s given to us for free? The West does not believe in democracy, it avoids it at all costs. The West actively installs and supports dictators around the world whilst giving only the bare resemblance of power to people in its own countries. But then I’m anti-humanist, so it doesn’t matter much to me either way. The people must have the power because it is logical. All domination and exploitation is inherently self-contradictory and massively flawed. The highest ethical impulse is that against hypocrisy. If these thoughts are Marxist then call me a Marxist. If not then just call me “anarchist”, everyone else does…
So it comes around to that time of year again. Time of our own traditions, those inherited, and those mashed together over countless generations down shifting cycles of the human unconscious. Yes, the mass of Christ – the weight of his sufferings and the density of his flesh. Nom-noms.
In my nightly wanderings around the works of Frazer I’ve come across many an interesting scene that will perhaps add weight to last year’s Jungian ramblings. May the myth of Persephone serve as an example. Ovid’s version, if failing memory serves me, depicts the abduction of a daughter from a mother and the ensuing custody battle. Frazer expands on this by drawing on the “eastern” version of the myth in which two lovers are separated. Being a season-based myth, the emphasis is thus moved from the nurturing vision of mother-earth to the impregnating actions of the seed-sower. What interested me, however, was that both versions utilised the pomegranate as a more-or-less arbitrary symbol: it both grew in the underworld and represented through seeds the many hungry days of winter. The version taught to me both at school and, more memorably, by my grandmother instead stated that it was Persephone’s eating of the pomegranate that doomed her to life in the underworld. In the land of Milton then, it would be fair to say that Eve’s original sin has jumped on an otherwise Hellenic bandwagon. Or sleigh, as they’d have had back then…
Forgive me, my comely and insatiable imaginary reader, for the roundabout way I’m taking – I only wish to demonstrate how imprecise and over-presumptive my method is here. You see, Christmas is a time of baffling complexity in terms of its symbolism (if can even be called that). The Christian nativity is second only to the book “Revelations”, or maybe “Ezekiel”, as far as Biblical weirdness goes. The three (important kabbalic/pythagorean number) magi standing beside shepherds has some Christian merit I guess; “tending of the flock” being a central doctrine, as well as its sense of egalitarianism. That hardly provides an overt for them though.
Once I return to Frazer and read of the Thracian celebrations of Dionysus – almost identical to the nativity in terms of setting, time of year, and dramatis personae – a consistent theme seems to emerge. The shepherds tend their flocks that they may be harvested. One magus brings myrrh; an embalming resin. The stable is depicted traditionally as filled with animals, many of which serve only as food, with the babe placed in the manger, or feeding trough. In essence, all the signs point to the inevitable death and consumption of the newborn. The Theban Dionysian ritual sees an old man become a cow that it might be torn apart to reveal an infant. The Christian ritual of eating body and drinking blood is perhaps tamer, but only as it happens so regularly and, for Protestants at least, is reduced to symbol.
Both myrrh and frankincense, as resin, are also the blood of trees. Yet the tree is traditionally an element of springtime symbolism eg/ the maypole. Here the Thracian myth goes whole-hog and employs a giant wicker phallus, but lets not get dragged into Freud. I think the key issue here is one aptly demonstrated by the Tate’s new tree; the tree is always an evergreen. Where spring is happily to be spotted in the greening of an oak, so is winter to be bravely weathered by the pine. Although usually depicted as an ash - the life-tree, Yggdrasil of Norse mythology, would be well-suited to this role. Standing as the eternal symbol of constant being, Yggdrasil stands for a gleaming permanence amongst the anthropophagic flux.
I’m getting pushed for time so may as well try and eke out a few more observances about the remaining elements. Now, I’ve said I wouldn’t get into Freud but it’s in Totem and Taboo that some of the implications of Frazer are drawn out on the subject of parenthood. Why is he “Father” Christmas? It could be argued that the term is historically a term of respect (perhaps like “grandpa” would be now, though it’d be hard to not make it sound sarcastic). If we’re talking historically, however, St. Nicholas has pretty much nothing to do with this odd character – albeit his namesake. Rather than Freud then, lets turn to Levi-Strauss and, less so, Frazer again. The notion of fatherhood is often ignored and sometimes not even understood by the tribespeople they studied. Women simply became pregnant and families extended through the maternal line. The father is negligible – a belief shared by the Jews and, to drag us back, perhaps then an influence on the creation of the Virgin Mary?
It’s here that I must stop myself. I fear a bottle of wine and increasing liberties regarding synchronic notions has left me pondering whether Father Christmas is actually Jesus’ dad. Perhaps a better path would be to follow the line of presents and dinner (offerings/sacrifices), or maybe some “Santa Claus” Germanic track? Maybe something to do with Coca-Cola or the fact that I’ve never really liked Christmas that much anyway…
Anyway, anyway… this has been a long one for you, my intrepid imaginary reader. You must be tired. Do come join me in bed. Or, failing that, consider that there is a strange sublimity in all man’s works, even at their most ridiculous. Surely that’s a better reason for the season? Well screw it then, I’ll return to Bakhtin…
In the spirit of the disconnected ramble that was the previous rant, I write now on a certain synchronicity of mind. An acausal connectivity principle that flirts with Hume’s associationism before swiftly dropping back into the philosophical equivalent of Bosch’s hell. Yes, thought is an odd thing that one rarely contemplates in a spirit of problem solving, more likely our pronouncements on thought are closer to platitudes than real beliefs. Without doing a Woody Allen and “looking inside the soul of the guy sat next to me”, I can only base my thoughts on contemplation in personal experience, or more rightly experiences; my personal idea associations bearing no resemblance to linearity in either their content, my consciousness of them, or the time of their occurrence.
Contemplation itself can hardly be called a singular event – cut to a cartoon image of chin-rubbing, brow-furrowing, straining to turn on a floating lightbulb. No, much of our thought is unconscious; this is why it’s best to take breaks during periods of complex mental work. The action of “sleeping on it” is often when the great connection is made and the bridge into comprehension and understanding is quickly burned behind you, making you feel as if the problem was simple all along.
In laying our solutions over problems, in the manner of early Deleuze, we constitute the problems themselves via their solutions. Causality is projected backwards and “thought patterns” are formed. An expert on trees wouldn’t have become an expert on roots and then worked his way up to leaves. As more knowledge is added, it lays itself over previous knowledge, obscuring our memory of the chance accumulations that are inherent in learning and replacing them with a causal, linear narrative.
Yet these “patterns”, as selections made through judgements of meaning-value, must surely occur throughout all thought then, not simply education? In Vonnegut’s masterpiece Slaughterhouse 5, a scene in which three Germans stare, slack-jawed, out across the annihilated city of Dresden gives Billy Pilgrim, the main character, the uncanny sensation of there being something missing. Many years later, on the day of his marriage, he hears a trio of barbershop singers whose song is retroactively placed in the mouths of the three Germans, completing the image. The acausal connectivity of thought is here traced via meaning-value again, yet arbitrarily, between decades. The fragments of the past that unite with the future are the essence of these patterns (be they conscious or not), and their meaning-value is embedded in the sensation of recurrence.
Marcus Aurelius describes the existence of all times in one moment, Nietzsche the finite universe that must “eternally return” in its vastness, Deleuze’s “Aion” places all pasts and futures in the present – all these theorists effectively do the same thing; posit meaning as the circular time of recurrence. I suffer from a similar mental tick, although rather than philosophise, I tend to distrust it. You see, when I remember past events, regardless of their importance or when they occurred, I keep experiencing the sense of having done them before I did them. Something I experienced for the first time (something I could never have previously experienced before) is remembered as being a repetition. The feeling is that of déjà vu – except it isn’t so at the time, only afterwards in memory.
As I said, I refuse to be Woody Allen, so here I will intrepidly utilise my subjective mental obscurities to suggest to you, my lovely invisible reader, that the sensation of recurrence is the Deleuzean double present (Aion-Chronos), hotwired by chance. Our thought becomes like our face when we see it from an odd angle in a photograph; the mirror-face that we carry as the image of ourselves is presented from a new angle, a photo-face that occurs simultaneously with the mirror-face without changing or destroying it, despite its difference (its difference being that it is exactly the same). The seamless process of problem-solution “patterns” is confused, split and doubled, revealing products of the mind’s fractal workings in a self-contained recurrence. Recurrence is not repetition, but a meaning-connection/selection essentially acausal.
This is the reason that thought, in itself, doesn’t make “thinkers”. “e=mc2” could have been daydreamed by a shoeshine boy in 1840s London, “to be or not to be” may be a throwaway comment made in 700 years time when all fiction has been long eradicated, none of it matters. Thought itself doesn’t matter, neither its content nor its action; it only functions as true meaning on a cultural level, on a level of fame, hegemony, threats and bargaining. In such a way does Bernard K. Smith (“that’s Smith with an “I”) lament his greatest ideas being stolen, taken into the past and made by others, in the excellent youtube series/channel Church of Blow.
Continuation, then, is more of a habit in life; a tendency rather than its true being. The narratives that we construct, verifiable or not, are only what I previously described as islands of “Laputan meaning” for the reason that such is the way the human mind works. Synchronicity of mind, its endless collisions of thought, this is the nature of possible worlds now that Godfrey has popped his clogs
Perhaps it would be fitting to end with a note on the Lamed Wufniks. These are the 36 great individuals whose influence on the human race is paramount at this time. They tend to have little power, they never know of each other, and we will never hear of them, not until the far future, if ever at all. In all likelihood, they don’t know that they are one themselves. I doubt that I’m one of them, but perhaps you are, my beautiful imaginary follower? If so, could you put in a good word for me to the future? Much obliged.
I apologise, my fair imaginary reader, for the downward turn in quality of these blogs at the moment. Well, perhaps the quality isn’t lacking, my genius being as it is and all, yet the imaginative drive behind them seems to be lacking. I’m writing a lot more on the short story front, expanding the Jerusalem Artichoke project by 5 characters a day, but still my mind is drawn to the events of my personal life which are so unspeakably dull that I couldn’t possibly bear to mention them somewhere such as this blog. Nevertheless, consider this an apology for a mind unfocused. A lapse of stoicism…
It does strike up an interesting question though, as to what is the ideal situation in which to cultivate mental productions. For me it’s summarised by the lifestyles of the great Enlightenment thinkers. One must firstly have access to a certain level of financial stability, from which the possibility of sedentary life emerges and then, presumably, have access to a broad network of intellectuals with which to argue and, in spite of yourself, actually learn from. But then this is similarly the culture that Voltaire famously said needed religion in order to put up with its constant indigestion. Living on a diet of meat, beer, pastry and endless gravy would certainly cripple me; although hopefully only in the hilarious style of Matt Bramble in Smollett’s The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker.
Nietzsche (who may in fact be the real supplier of the Voltaire quote above; his having written on the same subject has gotten me a little confused…) often talked of his “sick health”, a “healthy sickness”. His need of the perfect climate, company and diet in order to think. Saying that, an aphorism a day isn’t exactly what my northern family would call “hard graft”. The idea that one must be sick in order to be creative is an interesting one though. In Earthly Powers Burgess writes of a young poet who assumes a phlegmatic constitution in order to resemble Keats… a curious parallel of the “rock star” lifestyle if ever there was one.
For me, the later Romantic poets are a lot like the late period Romans in this capacity. Works like Byron’s Don Juan or any of Shelley’s tiringly majestic masterpieces fill me with the same sense of distanced appreciation that I get from Petronious or Seneca, despite them being almost incomparable stylistically. I’m drawn to stoicism the same way that I’m drawn to hedonism. Both seem to be a way of seeing the Self as an Other so that the Self can engage in its own annihilation. It’s deeply solipsistic, borderline ascetic, and no doubt connected to some spiritual drive; for these reasons it also makes you an incredibly unpleasant person to be around.
Speaking of Stoicism, I’m currently reading into its philosophical development post-Plato in the hope of developing my quasi-Deleuzian idea of the Reading Event, and I’m coming up against a few troublesome walls. The fundamental stoic principle reduces Cause and Effect into State of Affairs and Events; the Effects come from the causes but aren’t “caused” by them. The Event of a war is distinct from the State of Affairs surrounding physical mutilation of children. The two may be linked, yet war is never killing and killing is never war, they cannot be linked under the same ground. Now this principle comes rather close to the McHalean version of postmodernism, it comes close to the genealogical morals of Nietzsche, but strangely it doesn’t come that close to the modern conception of Stoicism.
Perhaps my trouble with Stoicism, my lapse that resulted in this blog, is rather the revenge of causality. As I wander the countryside, considering the age of trees, the tracks of previous generations, bizarre chemical chance… the State of Affairs is severed almost via an act of self-hypnotism. Sketching some of the varying elements that make up multiplicities both captures them in conjecture and releases them in unknowables. It’s a fast track to understanding, albeit a tenuous one. But then Events appear, romance and responsibilities, and the emotions that I refuse ownership of under any name but “chemicals” or “guts” all start to dance…
I put it to you, my imaginary buddy, that peace, homely calm, stability, eudemonia, all these and many more are only forms of self-hypnotism. The common attributes of passion are given as those of madness, of unpredictability and chaos, but for all that they’re still universal. The wise men, the thinkers, they are the ones who are mad, if madness is taken to be something that goes against nature, or the status quo. It’s the “love affair with knowledge”. It’s the “there goes another novel”. It’s watching the slow minutes that you used to take such joy in filling all shrivel up and drop off. In the words of Captain Beefheart, “Someone’s had too much to think”… Roll on uni, bring me back the lines of the dead that I may prostrate myself at their festive altars…
This week I’ve written a double-header of blogs, partly to get through the topic I’m writing on, partly to put me in credit for when I begin writing up my next essay and don’t have time to write one. Where the last blog was a determined sniffing-out of meaning-in-itself, this one is the inevitable sneeze that such an activity will provoke. In short, the delicate savours are about to get covered in snot.
Fellow Marple resident, the General (musician, Charlie Brooker lookalike and test-card maker extraordinaire), unites his many projects under the banner of Funsville Memetic Laboratories (http://www.oodletuz.fsnet.co.uk/index.html). The paradox of this title is the unity of “Fun” and “Memes”; the seemingly organic and spontaneous experience of fun being related to the ultradarwinist catch-all theory of memes with its undertones of self-perpetuating cultural viruses. Yet this is not only paradoxical in that ultradarwinists are perhaps the least fun people on the planet, yet also because it unites the meaning-routes of threats and bargaining.
Returning to the pre-Enlightenment ideal of God and meaning as a unity, Pascal is the ultimate demonstration. Inherent within his Wager is the need for God’s existence to be pushed onto the masses by force, whilst the ruling elite are free to create reasons and arguments for God. Yet, as Zizek points out in The Plague of Fantasies, the ruling elite, in order to create reasons for God, must already have accepted his existence in a similar fashion as the masses. In order to bargain with the meaning of God, one must have already succumbed to the threats that impress meaning into God.Similarly, Deleuze describes education as the process of learning both problems and solutions simultaneously. Long multiplication, for example, is the form of maths that is being learned – the actual answers are only of secondary importance; their truth, according to Kant, being a priori. The double learning of problem-solutions operates through social threat. “Education, education, education” being the all important signifier your value during the process of social integration designates arbitrary power-force as implicit in problem-solution forms. The first road to meaning is the road of threat (as any good Catholic will tell you).Once we become “educated”, however, the boundaries shift to bargaining. The techniques I listed last blog as conductors of the power-force of floating meaning are essentially the very forms impressed by threat - except now, as a member of the educated elite, we find that these forms are malleable. The forms, long-rooted in the Laputan soil of meaning, can be bent into any shape desired within the realms of existing problem-solution and then presented to others in the form of bargaining. Academia is thus the great Laputan marketplace where form is bartered for meaning.
Carroll presents this aspect of meaning-in-itself aptly through the form of nonsense. Alice is threatened by Humpty Dumpty for he is the “Master” that creates meaning for words and she, as the uneducated, must accept them, no matter how ridiculous (a process similarly utilised by Carroll himself in the nonsense of Jabberwocky). Yet, we find ourselves asking, what would happen were two Humptys to meet? Well, if they were Oxfordian Scholastics then they would merely argue over Mastery – but if they were true academics of the Enlightenment mode then we would be sure to see an extraordinary display of bargaining commence, and all of it over the meaning of nonsense words.This bargaining over meaning is essential to maintain its power-force. The victory of liberalism/free-market capitalism over totalitarianism is assured by it. The ultimate fascist Icon is presented by Carroll in the Red Queen of Through the Looking Glass – her rule is based on the arbitrary threat of beheading, her own reasoning based on equally arbitrary emotions. The fluctuation of this power seems to lack the force of meaning (her random emotion seems barely human) and, as such, creates an unbearably uncanny mirror once held up to meaning-in-itself.
This brings me back to Funsville Memetic Labs and its central paradox – the paradox of simultaneous threats and bargaining. Fun, as the social emotion of enjoyment, is seemingly organic but (as anybody knows who has been to a party with people they are barely acquainted with) is impressed by social threat. Without the fun-meaning, the party-form would cease to be. Yet, once the meaning is entrenched through the problem/solution of party/fun, then we can begin the bargaining for meaning in our interpretations. Up steps Lacan’s superego - “Enjoy!” - swiftly followed by Dawkins’ meme - “Evolve!” – brisk on his heels is Marx – “Surplus-Capital!”
…and the train rolls on through the night, an inky void of blackness clawing at the windows and everywhere the stale smell of steam.
In Anthony Burgess’ grand-scale novel of the ‘80s Earthly Powers the main character’s homosexuality is explained in terms of Freudian “inversion” by a retired doctor. The character, Toomey, questions as to whether the doctor really believes that he can only sleep with men because he is irredeemably in love with his mother, to which the doctor replies that the theory is “useful as meaning” and, having retired to become a writer, that’s all that really matters to him.
I’ve often thought that an in-depth Foucault-esque “archaeology” should be written on meaning-in-itself. It would perhaps be the next logical step of transcension for western philosophy. Socrates transcended the world by introducing the forms, Kant withdrew into pure reason, Heidegger into Being and time, then Derrida finally transcended everything but pre-existing thought systems and left us with a philosophy of quotations. Obviously I’m simplifying, although I still think it would be useful to really corner “meaning” so that it is no longer a grounded principle dependent upon Godlike truth (much like the Monty Python film intro where the words “Meaning of Liff” need to be zapped by God to properly spell out “Life”).
Derridean “force” and Deleuzian “intensity/extensity” are perhaps the closest I’ve found to an inherent principle of meaning-in-itself, although I’m sure there’s plenty out there. The first move was probably Nietzsche’s Dionysian that rests between subject and object. Yes, the concept of meaning certainly operates as proto-elemental force, a strong savour of the Void. After all, “we’re dealing only in savours” here like Mrs. Woolf.
The savour is perhaps strongest when we say that 1+1=2. It rings of truth, so smells of meaning. But perhaps this meaning is only lent to truth; it needn’t be implicit within it. The same smell of meaning lurked throughout the middle ages in that all-purpose Void-polyfiller, God. God’s smell lingers on throughout the Rationalists of the Renaissance – Leibniz and Spinoza with their syllogistic formulas of meaning that say that 1+1=God, even Galileo’s endless world-formulas are in on the action, never mind the original philosophical a priori – the Cogito.
The Empiricist break (be it Newtonian, Lockean or Humian) is perhaps, for a Brit, the most notable escape from this mathematical meaning into the realm of “common sense” – perhaps mirrored in the Rousseauist naturalism on the continent. The use of examples to back up scholarly argument is a product of the same pragmatist borrowing of meaning. It’s only a small step from here to Burroughs’ faith in a paranoia which grants meaning to infinite suspicions. Meaning thus functioning as the chemical faith of paranoia that finally refuses truth in favour of the safety of fear - vigilance.
Meaning-in-itself then, as it smells to me, is very much the engine that powers our floating Swiftian island of knowledge and power. Swift’s Laputa is the ultimate symbol of meaning – an island unattached to any ground which nevertheless supports endless roots of plants, trees, buildings, whose inhabitants are blind, deaf and dumb, only capable of living through their slavish servants. Of course, the key to Laputa’s power lies in its moving, elevated self-grounding that allows it to control all the lands below it through the threat of being crushed beneath it. Here, meaning floats, created by the very engines that it powers, denying the paradoxes of its own being through the self-omnipotent threat of destruction.
A void engine whose smell-steam lingers in threats and bargaining.
There’s an interesting debate going on about the Scottish Gaelic language (as apposed to the Irish). Here’s David Mitchell’s opinion www.youtube.com/watch?v=OvlQXPNwrqo. As a comedian/Oxford graduate, Mitchell does a good job of portraying the bourgeois ‘in-the-know’ attitude with a good mix of utilitarian common sense and a philanthropic view of diversity, all united with the comedian’s knack for cutting through the empty verbiage. If you need an example of why this is the dominant hegemonic attitude within Britain then all you have to do is browse the far less insightful opinions expressed in the comments beneath.
However, if we stand back from this specific debate (back into the space where a navel-gaser like me feels most comfortable) then we find that the Gaelic language debate is simply one extension of a far wider debate on language that’s been going on for over a hundred years. Is language in the speech or the writing? Saussure says the speech, but Latin still clings on as a workable academic language despite lacking a single native speaker. On the other hand, if all native French speakers disappeared for a thousand years would we still say “parleyvoo” or, more likely, end up pronouncing it “parlez vuse”?
Bertrand Russell, the pretentious quoter’s friend, raises an interesting point that we cannot ever really know whether man developed speech or writing first. People have presumed speech came first partly through underestimating the written (albeit pictographic) cultures of tribespeople perceived to be “less developed” and partly, like Rousseau, by judging culture to follow the model of young children who learn speech before writing. Yet even in the child analogy we can see how a pre-speech child will signify demands equally with sound symbols and physical symbols. If we expand this to the great apes (as our nearest evolutionary buddies) they can communicate using quite difficult concepts in captivity via pictographic machines, without ever pronouncing a single “mama”.
How does this affect the Gaelic language though? Well, if language is indeed as Mr Mitchell says it is, communication, then how could we account for the Gaelic, or English, language in the first place? Yes my examples are a little trivial but the key point is that the Saussurian model of language has been proven time and again to fail – like modern “information theory”, communication cannot exist without elements of “noise”, and why would pure communication produce “noise”? Derrida suggests that this is a product of writing being not so much related to communication as to wider images, ideas and intangible traces. As Woolf says, “we’re dealing only in savours”.
An example of how this non-communicative element of language operates could be seen in a comparison of the two traditionally opposing language representations – hieroglyphic/ideogrammatic (eg/Chinese text) and phonogrammatic (eg/ English). The English language, in the tradition of Latin and Greek, writes its words using the spoken syllables whereas Chinese constructs ideograms composed of four elements, expressed through imagery, and are meaningless out of context. As communication, English prospers, yet all its great poems are long, drawn out affairs compared to Chinese poetry. The inherent mystical ambiguity of Chinese language can be harnessed effectively in short bursts where even the great novels of the west eventually find that words fail. To see how close the English language can get to Chinese poetry its worth checking out Ezra Pound’s Cantos – though I can’t promise you’ll enjoy the experience.
So overall, language isn’t merely a means of communication, it’s a network of thoughts policed in such a way as to suggest a Jungian collective unconscious at work. Hegel could only have written Phenomenology of the Spirit in German, Sartre his Being and Nothingness in French, Locke his Essay Concerning Human Understanding in English. The real Gaelic question is whether people think with the language, not just think ‘in’ the language but think ‘with’ it? Is it used to construct people’s world perceptions? A language needs to be operated with to produce cultural difference, so without a base of speakers dating back to a certain time of cultural homogeneity then a language can be seen to fail in its task. Just as Irish and Welsh managed to turn away from extinction by invoking a spirit of cultural renaissance with ancient forgotten classics to discover, so must Gaelic spread interest in its own productions rather than simply its means. The Irish word for ‘arse’ may have certain philosophical implications but until you’ve read of the battle between Cu Chulainn and Fer Diad then its importance can’t really be understood.