Sunday 05.29.05 — Picnic / Discussion — The Coming Community by Giorgio Agamben — Part 2

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Sunday 05.29.05 — Picnic / Discussion — The Coming Community by Giorgio Agamben
part 2
7. The Anonymous Community by Helen Petrovsky
8. Interview with Jean-Luc Nancy
9. Some Related Links / Texts
7. The Anonymous Community by Helen Petrovsky
“Post Soviet Culture + Theory” (sponsored by the Duke University Institute for Critical Theory, February 25-26, 2005)
Why anonymous community? I would first of all like to clarify the meaning of these terms since they have been extensively used (and perhaps abused) in way too many contexts. They have been assigned a value-judgment, have indeed become domesticated. For community, in its ordinary usage, stands for a group, an identity and a belonging. No matter how fuzzy or indeterminate its actual contours may be. Anonymity, for its part, is something that we, individuals, as members of highly developed societies, are taught to scorn and avoid – the very ethics of social existence demands achievement and success, therefore a radical breakaway from hopeless anonymity. Indeed, what could be worse than remaining just “anyone”?
But let us try to reverse the perspective. Let us try to develop a non-substantive view of community and to speak up for anonymity. Let us come up with an apology of both. In my task I am greatly aided by the already existing thinking on community. I am referring to a constellation of thinkers, itself a community, who have been the first to raise these issues. Bataille, Nancy and Blanchot – a helpful point of reference, the beginning of a thinking of community. (However, as I hope to show later, there are other beginnings, and that is what makes the task so challenging for us today – finding insights related to a different time and place but already imbued with the same passion, already mapping out a future commonality of thinking, if I am permitted to say so.) These three thinkers have posed a type of adhesion that precedes all socially definable or established forms. A belonging without any guarantee of belonging. Community, according to this reading, always already exists and yet remains unattainable. It exists as the ultimate possibility of cohesion, which no single existing society can ever implement. Or, to be more exact, it harbors this possibility which reminds of itself in various forms. (According to Nancy, it can be traced in the very myth of community that societies so painstakingly produce and maintain; then in what he calls “literary communism”, or the continuity of writing cutting across the variety of literary institutions; also, in the non-dialectical nature of love which poses a challenge to thinking as such; and, finally, in the decline, the disappearance of divine names, which opens onto the advent of nothing other than community.)
To sum it up, or to give a new take on the subject, community is that which is devoid of any communitarian “essence”. Indeed, no such thing exists. If we think of a “place” for community, it remains “in between” – shapeless, it is rather about the “between”, as in the phrase “between us” or “between you and me”. An interval which never ceases to create a bond without actually bonding; a touch, provided that it happens at the very limit where singularities (unlike subjects) communicate. However, community is also about questioning communication and communion. And, therefore, about resuscitating the once lost unity – that of non-alienated, “intimate” life. (Here is where Bataille’s problematic predictably comes in: in the blue of noon – a powerful recurring metaphor – the individual remembers: it is some sort of awakening, a deja-vu, opening onto the lost immanence of being. In this immanence, one might say in this impossible community, men are unaware of the limiting laws of production – they are both “sacred” and “bare”.)
In any case, we are invited to think community as having no substance, therefore never reduced to any one of its possible representations, and as resolutely avoiding closure. I would like to pick on these challenging insights in order to suggest a reading of community that will hopefully link it to some of our own basic concerns. Given that “we” are historical beings undergoing a certain moment in our no less historical lives. A moment for which definitions, no matter how tentative, already abound: the post-modern and even the post-post-modern, the post-industrial, the post-historical (another variant of history?), and, on a more modest scale, the post-Soviet itself. I would like to analyze this moment by discussing “anonymous communities”, incomplete and indefinable collectives attested to primarily by their fantasy lives.
Needless to say that art has the greatest capacity for revealing the truth of the moment. In my own research I have been particularly indebted to some of the current practices of photography where it reaches the very edge of visibility. No longer simply showing what is to be seen, photography triggers off collective fantasizing – but it does so in a necessary way. For our access to history, indeed our experience of history, is mediated through these fantasies which seem to condense and materialize, in an almost impossible way, the very conditions of seeing. Photography, therefore, simultaneously renders the visible and the conditions of visibility, and in this it is undoubtedly historical.
What are these imagining collectives? And whence the necessity of such imagination? Here, finally, we must return to anonymity. Instances of anonymity are many. The most striking one, perhaps, is what has been pejoratively called the banal by being implicitly set against the individual and the uncommon. However, the banal seems to map out a new space of commonality which does not reduce to the artifacts of the banal and to their use in common. What banality points to is a new form of subjectivity emerging in “post-societies”, call them whatever you will. Or, to be more accurate, to a new form of partaking – that of the stereotypes. In terms of photography and its theorizing it would most certainly mean this: “my” photograph as the epitome of individual affect, the site of a non-written personal story (to remember Barthes’ astonishing project), gives way to “whatever” photograph pointing to an affectivity which is a priori shared. And the “bleak”, interchangeable surface of “whatever” photograph is precisely the space of anonymous freedom.
There is no use showing pictures. Or at least almost none. What I am talking about has little to do with the material certitude of an image. It has to do with the image coming into visibility when it is recognized by a fantasizing collective. And such recognition is twofold. On the one hand, the image crystallizes into a meaningful whole, i.e., emerges precisely as image, whereas on the other, it gives rise to a fleeting collective which recognizes itself in the image. Neither viewer as such nor the fantasizing collective exist prior to these dreams. We may say that fantasies return or, better still, are restored to the dreaming collective, for what is recognized is exactly this mode of being-in-common. There is no other “content” to dreams except for affective partaking.
But let us not be entirely hostile to material surfaces. Surfaces, objects, artworks are the sites where fantasies, however temporarily, reside. The latter are just so many displacements of representation, of the represented. But, as I have tried to indicate, fantasizing is connected to a certain moment when the very understanding of the passing time undergoes dramatic changes. Discontinuous and out of joint, time today is either reified by being sliced into decades, which, as a way of grasping one’s own immediate past and present, is itself a form of historical consciousness (here I am referring to Fredric Jameson’s seminal interpretation). Or, time is, so to say, enhanced, rendered whole in one’s imagination. Reified time is the presentation of a space or unit, whereas time whose wholeness is achieved through the workings of imagination is an attempt to come to terms with nothing other than experience. Fantasies are the simple indication that experience took place. However, by the same token, they are never arbitrary.
What is at stake is indeed experience. Anonymity as shared experience. Examples of negative anonymity are too painful and too shocking to be cited in passing. Yet, everyone is well aware of this anonymity-to-death which still has to be tackled theoretically. Anonymity-to-death, I will remind, is a polemical figure that Giorgio Agamben addresses to Heidegger who, with his philosophy of being-to-death, implicitly asserts the value, as well as the dignity of the individual faced with this “decision”. The reality of concentration camps, however, points to a different mode of existence, in actual fact of survival, – one in which the symbolic value of death itself is brutally denied. Negative anonymity, therefore, has to do with the utter loss of “humanity” or what undeniably appears as such. However, in these wholly indistinguishable faces, in these violently wasted lives something remains – indeed a “remnant”, to use Agamben’s term. It is a blank – in life and in death, in memory, as well as in language. Yet, being constitutive of post-war subjectivity, the remnant is precisely what guarantees our humanity. Agamben refers to the structure of shame. But I will stick to experience.
Experience is something which remains essentially un(re)presentable. Given we are not talking about the experience that is accumulated and stored. Experiential knowledge; positive knowledge; the continuous flow of human memory enriched by experience – we are referring to no such thing. Obviously, there are less traumatic examples of experience and likewise of anonymity than the one I cited a moment ago. But what appears indisputable for all the cases in question is that experience calls for translation. Otherwise it runs the risk of perpetrating a nightmare coupled and eventually replaced with just another ressentiment. Or, this experience will simply fall into oblivion together with the collectivity to which it occurred. Collective experience or the experience of a collective demands articulation. To link this to my preceding argument – it has to be recognized.
So let us once again return to anonymity. Anonymity has always been treated as that homogeneous backdrop against which individuation takes place. Forms, subjects and values would, moreover, come into being by virtue of surpassing this inertness, by way of leaving it behind. Therefore, it would be something like a springboard for future social incarnations and, on a different level, would serve as metaphor for the unpleasantly amorphous. (Think of the “anonymous reader” – there is nothing more disconcerting, even now, than the so-called anonymous reader, someone no true writer or academic, for that matter, would really want to address. Art in general, to be sure, has been a form of individuation par excellence, a way of positing values; and this has been done against (both in contradistinction and in opposition to) something which remains stubbornly indifferent or inert – shall we say “anonymous”?) But let us think of anonymity as standing outside the binary division: if we still choose to call it background, then there will be no figure to set it in contrast against. Or, rather, every figuration would appear as a fold of the anonymous, while anonymity would be reminiscent of a primary element engendering the world itself.
Synonymous with experience, anonymity belongs neither to presence nor to re-presentation. As such, it cannot be represented. But what is represented, especially today, can point to anonymity as an essentially shared experience. What is the Soviet? (The exploration is facilitated by our addressing the topic retrospectively.) What is the world which has crossed the threshold of globalization? What is the world for which this definition remains empty, providing not even the slightest hint at a descriptive discourse? What is private life in the obvious absence of privacy? These and other related questions spring from an unresolvedness – there in no answer to them, at least no answer coming from “us” who are undergoing this kind of experience. But while being “in” (or “inside”) experience, we do form transient communities irrespective of our actual social identifications. Experience, to be sure, cuts across accepted identifications by suspending and dramatically reworking them all. It opens onto a space of commonality (likewise of communality), a space interspersed and laden with affect.
Anonymity, therefore, has nothing indistinct or obscure about it. It is, on the contrary, the moment of greatest clarity that one could possibly expect: on the one hand, it indicates a primary bond apropos experience, a bond already in place; while on the other, it shows that there is no ready-made collective which would neutralize and thus forget this experience by way of assimilating it. Anonymity is a flash of the false and living memory of a community that is being reborn.
Spectators of Cindy Sherman’s famous “Film Stills” dating from the late seventies insisted on having seen “those movies”. Of course, it was impossible to attribute them exactly – and a viewer is not an art historian, after all. The tremendous success of these photos lies in the fact that they were recognized – by the so-called ordinary people. What Sherman managed to produce was a dreaming collective – a collective dreaming history itself whose experience is strongly mediated by the movies. “A democracy of glamour” – this is how Laura Mulvey has defined this imaginary construct of the 50s. Something close and even stored in memories and at same time endlessly remote, for the experience of time is itself from now on imagistic, cinematic. But again, this is not a pictured image. Rather, it is a crudely constructed representation which gives way to collective fantasizing. The image is forgotten inasmuch as something else attaches itself to its surface – this something, this invisible supplementation is precisely the way in which Sherman’s pictures form a space of commonality. Such commonality, to be sure, is profoundly affective. For the image of that time is itself a shared experience of history.
The cruder the image, the better for our common dreams. The material surface is just the site of so many ruins. However, they are brought to bear on a greater, indeed a seamless whole because each one of these details, in its turn, has been touched and magnified by so many aspiring glances. What the viewer “sees”, therefore, is nothing other than this aura – a detail which is already sublated, transfigured, suffused by the dreamworlds of others. (I am here referring to a term coined by Susan Buck-Morss, as well as to a phenomenon she has so originally analyzed precisely by putting it into a historical perspective.) In other words, instead of categorizing his or her historical experience, the viewer allows it to “float” in its pre-semantic openness and over-abundance.
This same kind of exploration seems to have been carried out by my compatriot Boris Mikhailov. Mikhailov, however, not so much plays on the cinematic-historical as he traces lines of continuity for Soviet experience, or the experience of the Soviet, to be more accurate. I would take the liberty of summing up his work as follows. Experience never allows for a plenitude of meaning. While it is taking place, it lacks in meaning, it is meaningless, in fact. At best, we can hope to focus on what Raymond Williams has so aptly called “structures of feeling” – a form of sensibility still in the making. Needless to say that structures of feeling are short-lived. They may roughly indicate a decade or a generation. Also, they are quite diffuse. But what they do point to is a collectivity having its emotional, i.e., fantastic, phantasmatic stakes in the passing moment. And this exactly is what is lost in the master narratives of history. Barthes, as we remember, was scandalized by the irretrievable loss of the “unknown” individual, as well as his or her emotion. His great book on photography is an affirmation of filial love. But no less can one be scandalized and saddened by the loss of whole collectives whose only “objective” quality would consist in a shared affective being.
To return to Boris Mikhailov and his lifelong endeavor. What he has been trying to do is to translate this blank or omission – the emotional lives of the generations which are closest to us. Of our fathers and grandfathers. What do we know about them? What will we store in our memories, especially if historical memory in my country was as such at one point denied? How can we hope to preserve the truth of “their” moment if we know very little about it, almost nothing at all? Again, I am not referring to a knowledge of facts and of dates. I am talking of the experience of the Soviet with a special emphasis on both of these words. And if I have already briefly spoken on experience, let me now concentrate on the Soviet. The Soviet that Mikhailov is showing us – and here lies the greatest paradox of his photography – is in fact the doubling of representation and its visible signs (which are also signs of the Soviet: ethnographic details, culturally coded landscapes, etc.) with the invisible which allows for this very reading to take place. Only the punctum, to use Barthes’ term, or the implied photographic reference has to do with an a priori collective. What is posited here, in other words, is a spectator who does not exist in some sort of contemplative isolation (the paradigm of classical art). On the contrary, in order to “see”, you must already be part of a dreaming collective. For these pictures, very much like Sherman’s, become truly visible through a shared affectivity which resurfaces in them.
I am not talking of empathy. Contemporary works of art are not empathetic. Their stakes are much higher. They allow you to enter a space of commonality which is the very condition of seeing and likewise recognition. And they do so in various ways. To return one last time to Boris Mikhailov. If the continuity of experience ever takes place (something I mentioned above), it is by setting against each other, i.e., juxtaposing or putting into play two types of experience. The Soviet reaches plenitude in the post-Soviet and, presumably, vice versa. And it is by making both form a constellation, in the Benjaminian sense, that we can hope to uncover the meaning of this historical eventuality. At a moment when our “own” past seems to be completely disowned – for what are we, bearers of a post-Soviet identity? – we can hope to come closer to that other “omission” which is the life of our fathers.
The anonymity of the Soviet. For it to be discovered as such, in its non-alienating aspect, it has to be both hidden and shown. What is this “other” of the Soviet which transforms all visible signs crowded in a photograph into a historically meaningful image? I would tentatively call this “other” forces of the private. It is not just private life rendered visible in the captured moment – be it swimming, celebrating, picking mushrooms and the like. It is that which never enters visibility but which seems to blast wide open, to strangely decode all public (but also private) spaces. The thrust of life itself, if you will, or that primary distinction – forces of the private versus substance and representation – which accounts for visibility. Such forces work their way through and even across existing social forms and definitions. They contextualize our vision of the Soviet in a very special way. It is by imagining or rather fantasizing their existence, something prompted by the changing nature of the Photo, that we, today, succeed in recognizing and acknowledging “that” moment.
And we do so by switching on to “them”, by creating some sort of a circuit. “We” and “they” are interchangeable. Or rather “we” and “they” form the only possible continuity of history, a history yet to be written. Which is not to say that this history will be written. It is unwritten precisely inasmuch as it avoids closure by speaking for and in the name of an indeterminate collective – the anonymous community. Yet, this possibility is itself historical. It opens up in a time of so many devastating ends and endings and is thus a promise. Something is still promised to us.
In the remaining time let me very briefly and, therefore, irresponsibly sketch out other instances of a thinking of anonymity, at least of a thinking that seems to contain this potential. In a book which by the standards of our time is old (but not outdated) – I am referring to the “Differend” published in 1984 and to a subsequent study “L’enthousiasme” (1986) – Jean-Francois Lyotard examines Kant’s “critique” of history. He is specifically interested in the strange status of what Kant calls Begebenheit and what is translated as “sign of history”. Kant’s task, it should be explained, is to answer the question (against the Faculty of Law, and there is indeed an ongoing conflict) whether it can be affirmed that the human race is constantly progressing toward the better. The requested demonstration is complicated by the fact that neither progress, nor the human race, being objects of Ideas, can be presented directly. Which is only aggravated by the phrase itself having an explicit bearing on the future. Moving away from any intuitive given (Gegebene), Kant comes up with his most intriguing concept of Begebenheit, an event or “act of delivering itself which would also be an act of deliverance, a deal [une donne]” (the Crakow manuscript calls it Ereignis). This event would merely indicate and not prove that humanity is capable of being both cause and author of its progress. Moreover, the Begebenheit must point to a cause such that the occurrence of its effects remains undetermined with respect to time. Being on the side of freedom, it may therefore intervene at any time in the succession of events.
I will hasten at this point just to show where and how exactly Kant comes up with his answer to the problem. He does find an index, a Begebenheit of his time, which for him, predictably enough, is the French Revolution. However, he makes a necessary and exciting detour. For the Begebenheit, strictly speaking, is neither momentous deed nor occurrence, but “the mode of thinking (Denksungsart) of the spectators which betrays itself publicly in [the] game of great upheavals…”. This “mode of thinking” is simultaneously universal (albeit not lacking in partiality) and moral (at least in its predisposition), in a word, progress itself. As for the French Revolution, whose outcome remains unknown, it “nonetheless finds in the hearts of all spectators (…) a wishful participation that borders closely on enthusiasm, the very expression of which is fraught with danger”; this sympathy, however, springs from nothing other than the moral predisposition of the human race.
Lyotard, a profound scholar of Kant and the sublime, immediately stops to analyze this enthusiasm which is expressed by so many “disinterested” national spectators. For him it is a “modality of the feeling of the sublime”, in fact extreme and paradoxical: an abstract presentation which presents what is beyond the presentable (“presentation of the Infinite”). Bordering on dementia, itself an Affekt (an extremely painful joy), enthusiasm is condemnable as pathological from the point of view of ethics, yet aesthetically it is sublime, because, says Kant, “it is a tension of forces produced by Ideas, which give an impulse to the mind that operates far more powerfully and lastingly than the impulse arising from sensible representations”. Now, the Begebenheit, or sign of history, continues Lyotard, can be understandably found on the side of audiences watching great historical upheavals – firstly, revolutions themselves are like spectacles of nature, they are formless and thus account for an experience of the sublime; secondly, the spectators, as opposed to direct participants, are not empirically implicated and therefore, so to say, corrupt. However, being in the “theater hall” is an unprecedented privilege. For the feeling of the sublime experienced by the spectators spreads out toward “all the national stages” – in other words, is potentially universal. This universality, as Lyotard goes on to show, is of a very special nature, for, quite unlike cognitive phrases, the feeling of the sublime “judges without a rule” (italics added). Its a priori is not a rule universally recognized, but one that awaits its own universality. Universality in abeyance, in suspense (universalite en souffrance), a promise of universality. Which necessarily brings us to sensus communis. Characteristic of the aesthetic judgment, this common or communal sense is an “indeterminate norm” in that it does not guarantee that “everyone will agree to my judgment…”. But, as a faculty of judgment, it does take account of the “mode of representation of all other men”. To finish the argument, enthusiasm as a probative Begebenheit (and also a pure aesthetic feeling) calls upon a consensus which ends up being nothing other than “a sentimental anticipation of the republic” (in the form of a de jure undetermined sensus).
Here I will stop. I will only point to the one important consequence that follows. The universality invoked by the sublime (as well as by the beautiful), concludes Lyotard, is merely an Idea of community, for which no proof, that is, no direct presentation exists or will ever be found. What there does exist, however, is a bond, a bond of “communicability” between two parties to a conflicting phrase, and this bond retains “the status of a feeling”. Communicability, one might say, is a way of “logging onto” the phrase of taste and thus of informing it with varying degrees of heterogeneity. For Lyotard sensus communis (in aesthetics) signifies an “appeal to community” (italics added) which is carried out a priori and judged without any rule of direct presentation. What is a priori shared is “feeling”.
Of course, it is no discovery that Kant opens space for a thinking of community. But thinking Kant according to this exigency is quite another matter. I would claim that this very “retrospection” is a sign of change – if not a Begebenheit in the proper sense, then at least something that emerges from within contemporaneity and that tends to be associated with the present-day “condition”. There is much to discuss inside, as well as beyond the Kantian framework. Let us simply bear in mind the following. Community is never there, that is, it is not objectifiable. Not only does it remain unpresentable but it cannot be, properly speaking, achieved – even the French Revolution is meaningful to the extent to which it is anticipatory of the republic. (Community, let me note in passing, is on the side of that very eventuality which is dispersed in time: Kant’s Begebenheit is what he explicitly calls “signum rememorativum, demonstrativum, prognosticon”, a sign recalling, showing, and anticipating all at once.) Yet, there must be something that allows for a discourse of the community even though community itself cannot but fail. (And, one must add, it is always failed – always on the edge of language, always indicating an “other” space, always, in a word, anonymous.) We must be able to deliver its message and its promise. For Kant, as Lyotard convincingly shows, the problem is resolved by the affective paradox of the sublime. A feeling is shared about a formless something that alludes to the beyond of experience, yet, the feeling itself constitutes an “as-if presentation” (be it the Idea of civil society or that of morality), and it emerges right there where the Idea cannot be presented, i.e., in experience. (Of course, the Kantian understanding of experience is significantly different from what was said about it earlier above. Rather, the Begebenheit itself would be synonymous to that experience.)
So, let me emphatically repeat that community calls for translation. And it keeps producing its “as-if presentations” in so many various ways. I have chosen to speak of photography and the virtual affective collectives that it brings into being. Which, of course, is just another name for anonymity. But anonymity is not timeless, to be sure. Rather, it is a way of approaching the post-Soviet, being an image of that experience (its “as-if presentation”) and perhaps a sign. But in the same fashion anonymity indicates the emergence of a new subjectivity in our not so divided world – and it is the task of the scholar to formulate its definition.
8. Interview with Jean-Luc Nancy
From: Multiple Meaning.
Techno: An Artistic and Political Laboratory of the Present
Michel Gaillot
Éditions Dis Voir
Q: Innovative in its aesthetics (the ‘mix’), in its relationship to new technologies, and in the way it positions itself with respect to the political, techno nonetheless preserves a certain archaic aspect, ‘archoriginal,’ so to speak, to the extent that in there subsists, or rather resurges, behavior peculiar to the ‘festive,’ in the general sense (Dionysia, bacchanalia, the carnival, etc.), as we see it at work in traditional societies. Do you think that these behaviors or tendencies have somehow exhausted themselves, or become anaesthetized – at least in the West? Haven’t they become reified into leisure or commodity spectacle, that is, into mere spectacle where the fête, the festivity, has lost its power of bonding and sharing, and in one sense is no more than a mere parody of itself – or, to use the Situationist vocabulary, a ‘simulation’ or ‘simulacrum’?
A: I must first point out that I am totally incompetent as far as the technique and aesthetics of techno are concerned. I have no hearing or vision, nor any technical knowledge of what it represents. That aside, I would say the way you put the question immediately poses a problem for me. You said ‘innovative in its aesthetics, techno nonetheless preserves an archaic aspect,’ and then asked, ‘Isn’t this aspect of traditional festivals that had exhausted itself, and is now reappearing or being brought back?’ But I wonder whether that opposition between ‘innovative’ and ‘archaic,’ linked by ‘nonetheless’ – as if innovation couldn’t somehow be archaic – isn’t something that should be questioned from the start. Because even when I try to envision what you said, a certain ‘return of the archaic,’ why must it be thought of as happening ‘despite innovation’? Shouldn’t we be asking whether innovation isn’t precisely what is needed, not in order for the archaic to return, but to cast into a new light something that in fact belongs to an order, layer, or stratum fundamental to experience? Then with respect to that ‘nonetheless,’ consider, if you will, the hypothesis that there is in fact a great deal of cohesion between innovation and what you call ‘archaism’ (although perhaps, rather than calling it ‘archaic, it would be better to call it ‘archoriginal,’ something that has never taken place, will perhaps never take place, but which underlies our whole experience of being-together.
Q: Well, that’s something like what I meant when I said the innovation of techno lay in the capacity it has, or is, to bring back, or into a new light.
A: I agree with you there. But it’s important to stress the link between innovation and this ‘return’ – the return as itself something new, the return of the new, or something that has never taken place. Perhaps that means the real question we should be asking is, ‘What is it that risks, or might risk, being nothing but ‘return,’ and thus nostalgia [nostos in Greek means ‘return’ – trans.], a nostalgia for things tribal and archaic, for the idea that there may have been something like an unmediated fête – when, as you point out, there is in all archaic festivals we know of a sacred dimension missing in techno. So we cannot go on speaking of ‘return’; otherwise it would be, as you imply towards the end of your question, a parodied or simulated return, the return of a simulated sacred.
This said, I would make another observation, given the conditions we have just outlined: Yes, there is something like ‘return,’ but I think this something is not strictly proper to techno. It is contemporary with rock, in more than one respect, even. But for me it’s a very difficult question, because I myself am no doubt insufficiently contemporary with rock music. I grew up and lived in a completely different climate and social milieu. I only became familiar with rock music much later, when it had already become a cultural phenomenon. Rock seems to me an undeniably enormous phenomenon. It is not a coincidence that it began and developed at the same time as another kind of great convulsion, of our society and civilization, began and developed. And at one particular moment, in 1968, it caused a rupture in many areas. So in one way, I have a hard time seeing any difference between rock and techno. Obviously I also tend (though at some remove, based on what I may have heard elsewhere and also perhaps of my age) to think of techno as a degeneration of rock, a musical degeneration. And also perhaps a degeneration in that rock once seemed to (and did, in certain respects) bring with it commitment and certain message.
Q: It’s true that on the last point there is an important difference. And that’s why I formulate my question around the aesthetic innovativeness of mixing, which doesn’t strictly speaking come out of rock, which was rather opposed to the empire of the machine, or its political position, since techno doesn’t have a message and distances itself from any ideology, the exact opposite of rock.
A: I’m not sure about that, since rock doesn’t seem that much opposed to the machine. It quickly took up the use of electric instruments, even if it didn’t in fact use mixing and sampling. And at the same time, it used the acoustic amplification at concerts. One might even say that the most innovative of all, even before rock, was jazz, as it came to be played by small bands.
Q: Yes, that was very innovative, because jazz, and then rock, at least at first, before they both became cultural phenomena, both brought out this festive power.
A: Right.
Q: There are many similarities, but the main point that differentiates techno from rock in this context is the lack of a position, of commitment, or of any ideological and political demands, and therefore of an appeal to any kind of communitarian development. You don’t have any of that in techno, and despite all that, as I said, it nonetheless preserves an archaic aspect that calls on the original source of being-in-common. In this sense it seems to me in these festivals, in raves – contrary to what we are told most of the time – some kind of common space and time opens up where it’s as if individuals, through the music or the dancing, or because of singular and unusual context of these fêtes, are siphoned into a ‘with,’ a ‘together,’ or a ‘share’ other than the one that usually binds them to social space.
A: I, too, would say these feasts of communal intoxication, of breaking away from the conditions of everyday life, of intoxication in the broad sense of the term, ‘enthusiasm,’ in a shared space, as you call it, sharing nothing, perhaps, but a space and time removed from our daily servitude, have always occurred. When you mention archaic feasts, one could say this archaism has always been present in popular or folk festivals and town dances. And although it now seems quite ridiculous to speak of ‘dances,’ I think that these dances, like the celebrating on the Bastille Day, for example, still partake of it. But let us see if we can express more precisely what has happened to this general festivity, since I quite agree that some lack of it must have been felt, which engendered or released something that with rock became much more visible than before. But a lack of what, given that there have always been dances and festivals? I think that now it might come from the fact that the festive is less and less inscribed within a ritual framework. There is a general social ceremonial, one which definitely cannot be considered separate from religious and familial feasts, first communions, weddings, funerals, as well as dances and fairs. The more one tries to describe all of this with some precision, the more one is drawn back into a world that is rural or based in the village, where you have the market-fair and parish feasts, along with something more familiar we are so quick to make jokes about, namely the tournaments, whether bowling or boules, or the picnics sponsored by the local fishing club, or whatever. Most of these things continue to exist and I’m sure still have a role to play.
Q: But doesn’t all that tend to be transformed into leisure?
A: I completely agree that a portion of it has been drawn into leisure, but another portion of it has, I think, been preserved along with its ritual and repetitive role. But at the same time the general framework of this rituality has disappeared. It may have disappeared for two major reasons: one is the disappearance or religious frameworks along with all the religious feasts; the second is an overwhelming tendency toward the disappearance of rural society, and with it the fact that things no longer happen in small social units like villages.
Q: But conversely, can it not be said that this is linked to an increase in leisure, as well as to the commercial exploitation of that leisure – a ‘spectacular’ exploitation consisting of the absorption of those festive zones into leisure and their integration into an economic logic.
A: Yes, OK. But I just meant that while I am not opposed to speaking of ‘commercial exploitation’ or ‘spectacular commodity,’ I would like to bring in some qualifications. Of course the market and the market economy that profits from everything has taken over this long with everything else…
Q: That’s how rock was spent…
A: Yes, rock was obviously spent that way. But that makes for great difficulties for the effectiveness of techno, for it is very difficult to grasp techno in childbirth, and still virginal with respect to the market. Very, very quickly – as soon as it arose – it has already been drawn in.
Q: I’m not so sure that’s generally true. In the beginning, at least, it was something outside all the traditional sites of spectacle…
A: Yes, as far as the festiveness of the rave goes. But what about the music itself?
Q: As far as the music goes, people started these small record labels and produced their own music, just as punk did, in order to have to deal with the record industry and the big companies.
A: Yes, but what I meant is that commodity exploitation is one thing, you could say, but that what makes it possible is another. We must admit that we are in a period which has recognized there was no such thing as a socialist economy, or in any case there hasn’t been one. It’s not a socialist economic system, or a political one, for that matter that collapsed. There was no socialist economy; there was just state capitalism, a monopoly capitalism of the state. I absolutely do not mean that everything about the market is good, nor that we should justify or praise the market because there is nothing else. But I do think that for us, the question of capitalism has now, or at least recently, been posed in some other way, if it is no longer posed as the overthrow of capitalism by some other economic and political form that will come from within or without and lead to its destruction. I think this is very important, because it means (and I see that we all, each and every one of us, have a hard time thinking this through, and there are very few who risk talking about it) that perhaps we have been brought closer to Marx, closer to the letter of Marx. For him socialism was to emerge, through the impulse of revolutionary will, out of the transformation of capitalism itself and its crises, which were tied to progress in the means of production. From this point of view, there are issues about which we might feel even more Marxist, especially about the realization of the global marketplace of which Marx spoke. It’s not very original to say so, and it has been more and more often written, at least in recent years, that Marx described what he did not yet have before his eyes. On the one hand, the realization of the global marketplace, even if he couldn’t measure the power of a fully realized globalization or what it can do (and which we now know better); on the other, the self-transformation of capitalism through crises. From Marx we may get the impression (although it also depends on how you read the text) that this self-transformation leads to a point of extreme fragility, to where capitalism might also be destroyed through a proper political understanding of the moment, where you can drive a lance into a machine that has been sufficiently ill. But there is also enough in Marx that can be analyzed as capitalist self-development. It is also certain that Marx poorly judged the capacity of capitalism to bounce back from its own crises. This already happened with the great crisis of 1929 and the New Deal, and now we see capitalism since the New Deal somehow endlessly absorbing its crises, creating others but organizing itself better and better to bounce back from them.
I have take this whole rather long detour to say, in a manner both abusive and allusive, that if we do not take a clear, not to say revolutionary, position from which we define and denounce exploitation and propose something else, then it complicates the question a great deal, at least initially.
Q: But in this sense it seems to me that with techno, unlike with what we saw with rock music, there is no rejection of capitalism as a whole. There is simply a rejection of the complete appropriation and co-optation of festive spaces by a marketplace which tends to transform them into spectacular commodities. However, this rejection does not take place in the name of a totality of existence, so to speak, but only for this festive zone, a zone of excess, what Georges Bataille called ‘expenditure.’
A: Yes, I think that’s true; that may be what’s at stake with techno, as with many other artistic behaviors, to the extent that there are no longer any grand acts or gestures of decisive refusal. One might say that in art these gestures no longer really exist. This is another time. But I think it quite interesting to try to think what a time that no longer has room for radical critique means. Radical critique no longer knows in the name of what it is to be made, since it can no longer be made in the name of another history, or another subject of history. So then there’s this great suspense, where it is not forbidden to take up space or to take on form, but which obviously makes the whole thing quite fragile, or at least ephemeral, since the time when techno can really happen outside of everything else is quickly over.
Usually critics say this is nihilism, there are no more values, that is, there is no longer any difference, because saying there are no values means saying there is no difference in values. But somehow we always have proof that this is not true. For example, techno comes along and says, this is a value; it is a value because it is not spectacle, because it is not leisure. Then, of course, this very fact, this proposition, can itself take on a commodity value. For the moment I don’t see any possibility – except as a major risk, a defeat, a funeral of the first rank – of holding up as a value the counter-value of techno festiveness, because you can only do that by keeping the techno space strictly separate and secret. You fall back on being a secret society, so you have to manage to do it all clandestinely. But that necessarily goes against the very imperatives of techno, namely that anyone can come, that you have to let a certain number of people know, and so on.
Q: That has already happened. There are now two currents in techno. On the one hand, a current that is more or less separate, separated in any case, from a commercial context, organizing what they call ‘free parties’ or ‘teknivals,’ outdoors or in places they keep a secret until the last minute. And on the other hand is the official current, where show-business professionals organize techno events the same way they used to organize rock concerts, in the same venues and costing just as much, even more. So you go from parties that are free to ones that are very expensive, and you don’t get the same people at all.
A: That’s interesting. But couldn’t there be a kind of growing taste for secrecy or – how to put it? – for celebrating the secret as such, or the initiation, since you have to be in on it. Which brings with it the danger of this kind of thing, namely that in a world like ours there is no initiation which does not presuppose some kind of private appropriation, fundamentally very violent, even if there is no appropriation of property. Or the risk of sanctifying something, even if it’s not a person or an institution. It might well be even the very idea of the festive, the secret feast. For example, you were talking about the deep forest. But it was always the forests where secret societies met, whether brigands or Druids, people who communicated with fairies. This said, it is quite telling that this split is occurring, or even, according to what you said, has already happened with techno.
Q: But don’t raves attest to a recurrence or the resistance of the festive, of Bataille’s expenditure, as if humans needed to apportion themselves, to invent, singularly or collectively, zones of excess?
A: As far as this recurrence goes, resistance and recurrence, one can only say yes. They have always been, and perhaps always are, there. But what happened after rock music, and is perhaps starting up again in more radical fashion with techno, bears witness to impoverishment and loss on that level, which is felt as a lack within our societies. This is undeniable, and is surely one of the great issues for a West on the wane: how to recover this share of expenditure. We should perhaps take a closer look at the notion of ‘recovering,’ for even Bataille knew that all forms of glory and glorious sovereignty are fallen ones (after first thinking that they provided a solution to the question of expenditure). They correspond, as he says somewhere, to the ‘gigantic failure’ of all the royal and priestly sovereignties who in the end brought only wars and misery to the people. This is indisputable, but I would add that if the necessity of the festive is such that it becomes a necessity for society as a whole, then it follows that it follows that festivity occurring far outside social space, one that completely eludes, or tries to, society’s self-representation, runs the risk of becoming a festivity that fails in its own function. If we take the archaic feast as a point of reference or comparison, we realize that everyone is involved, even if everyone is not a dancer. For example, not everyone may wear a mask, but on the other hand everyone is there, present, and everyone sings (and also watches). It is difficult to determine to what extent there is no spectacle in traditional African feasts, like those of the Dogon, for example.
Q: Yes, there, too, we find a contagiousness through looking, through the spectacle, that is widely found in festivity.
A: That’s why I have reservations about a merely critical handling of the idea of spectacle. Not only is everyone there, but the fact that everyone is there means that the festivities are a part of the social apparatus. But what comes into play – and this is curious – is that when festivities become too great a part of the social apparatus, ‘we’ – those who expect a truly festive element – become dissatisfied because we pick up on the commodity co-optation. But I think, in spite of everything, it also means, and this needs to be said, that one cannot content oneself with situating the festive beyond the space of this cooptation, because then something of the representation of the festive for society will be lacking. When I say ‘representation,’ I mean it not in the secondary and subordinate sense, but simply that in its self-representation society must have an awareness of itself as a society of festivity as well. For example, society has an awareness of itself as a society of constraint: the constraint of work, of the police, of the traffic system. And it must also have an awareness of the festive in its self-awareness. Maybe the problem is that right now society doesn’t quite know how, or if, the festive fits into its self-awareness. Or that, rightly or wrongly, a part of our society likes to tell itself that it doesn’t fit, that it is just ‘commodity spectacle.’ Indeed, there may be – and I tend to think so – another form of the festive subconscious that sustains itself another way, sometimes even in very, one might say, perverse fashion. That is, there is at leas a part of our society which seems to take pleasure in or get off on the representation that our society has no festivity. This is a kind of nihilistic hyperconsumerism of nihilism itself, a way of gaily dancing on the edge of the volcano, which I think is then translated into certain artistic attitudes and positions.
From that point of view I not ready to simply endorse an opposition between leisure and the festive if one says, for example, that all of cinema, television, and sports, too, comes under leisure. I know that a well-prepared Guy Debord-type would say, ‘Of course we know very well the spectacle co-opts everything, and even operates its own critique in spectacular fashion.’ Yet I wonder whether that isn’t something on the order of Marx’s mistaking the capacity of capitalism to get through its crises. The fact that the ‘commodity spectacle’ may co-opt its own opposition and in turn make it into spectacle and commodity has now reached such a level of intensity that we can say of Debord, in spite of great difference in time, what we said of Marx. It was too soon for him to see how far it could go. It has now reached such a level intensity that there has been a change of nature not just degree. What we call co-optation (as if we knew what could preserve some authenticity with respect to this ‘co-optation’) is different in nature; it is not just the recuperation by evil of something authentically good. We are not either in one regime or the other, but somewhere beyond, elsewhere, where the two things coexist. For me it is a bit of a mystery, an enigma, but both total commodification and festivity co-exist, not total, but real.
All I mean is that there is something about the festive that seriously resists, even as it is caught in the mesh of the net. I would say as much of television, for example. It’s a little different, and I’m not saying that everything on television is quality. But there is something about television that binds people to each other, contrary to what we always imagine, people sitting alone in front of TV. People talk about it; they talk a huge amount about what they’ve seen on TV. I really think there is a collective existence to television – I don’t mean the content, which is another matter. There is a real collective existence there. And for once, this existence is also the existence of a place – maybe one can’t say ‘festive’ – but a place where there is something on the order of expenditure.
Q: Although techno wholly tends toward this festive community, right now there is kind of renunciation of politics, or at least of political commitment, or a stated and deliberate will to transform the social order. In that sense it is true that techno, unlike rock and rap music, is an apolitical movement. Yet to the extent that the apolitical constitutes a layer essential to, even originating or constituting our being-together, cannot one say that it is a response to another demand of that ‘with’ or of the political no longer based on the ideological, the utopian, or the contractual?
A: I notice in your question a kind of see-sawing on your part about politics, or about the use of the word ‘political.’ When you say ‘renouncing politics, or at leas political commitment’ in techno, that makes into an apolitical movement. There politics is characterized positively, in the very traditional way we always have; there is then a loss in something that is apolitical. What’s more, when you say ‘apolitical,’ you know very well you are basically on the verge of evoking what we have always said, that what is apolitical is in fact political, that is, necessarily always reactionary. But then you immediately talk about ‘the apolitical constituting a layer essential to, even originating or constituting our being-together…, a response to another demand of that ‘with’ or of the political,’ If we take that literally, what is striking is a kind of contradiction, or at least an oxymoron, since you literally say that the apolitical may be essential to or constitutive of the political. If I contract the sentence, that’s what I get. Except that when you say it, you say ‘of that ‘[being-] with or of the ‘political.” The equivalence indicates that you mean something different by ‘political’ than what you meant earlier.
Q: Right. It is the lack of suspension of a ‘politics’ constitutive of ‘the political’ that is at work, it seems to me, in techno festiveness, and perhaps in number of artistic practices as well.
A: It’s quite complex, but I think in fact that’s right. I am quite willing to admit, in that see-sawing way we have been engaging in, it is true that from one angle, at least in term that have now become ours, those of a certain modern tradition, there has been a disengagement from the political. But with techno I get the feeling that it takes a different form than it does in contemporary art. Artists, whether visual artists, film-makers, or musicians, in the main always feel to the idea or political commitment. In recent times they are the ones who have pushed the idea forward, and they make up most visibly what we in France call ‘the left of the left.’ Compared to that, techno has a different look, something we would traditionally characterize as apolitical, withdrawn, uncommitted, that is, the risk of something reactive or reactionary which, because of its withdrawal and abstention, allows the dominant order (or the dominant disorder) of things to go on.
It is difficult not to at leas harbor such a suspicion. But at the same time, the problem is that this makes techno no different than domesticity, let’s say, to provoke techno and the people involved in it. Similarly, one could say – and I’m sure there are people of a very traditional political temperament, very militant, who do say – that it’s exactly the same thing. From a political point of view it is the same thing: people who stay at home or who wrap themselves in the familial cocoon, who no longer wish to commit to anything, are doing the same thing as those who go into the forest.
Q: But there is that desire, that strong will to be together.
A: Yes, but a political person – it’s better to call him or her an activist – could say, ‘Being together, sure. But it’s you being together, off in your little corner, but you blow off the being-together of society as such.’
Q: It does seem to me that the political dimension of techno does in some sense mean a rejection of any activism, since all militant activism refers to Ideas, a Meaning, and a Truth that techno rejects. In any case it neither proposes nor prophecies a why or wherefore to rally around. Which doesn’t mean – quite the contrary – that inside it has no concern with the present, just that it wants to be together in the present, and no longer project Meaning, Truth, and an Ideal for ‘tomorrow.’ ‘Being together tomorrow’ would be something pursuant to an Ideal still to be attained, and in the name of which one may, or may have to, sacrifice the present. This is very strong in techno.
A: That’s interesting, but the militant may answer, ‘But how do you do without tomorrow, without some project, given that the day after the techno party there will once again be social injustice, the harshness of the workplace or of unemployment? What do we do about that? And how can you do something about it if you don’t do it in terms of tomorrow?’ He may even say, ‘OK, I’m not talking about tomorrow in the absolute, a ‘radiant future,’ or a classless society. But I am talking about not letting Europe become something exclusively for big capital and the marketplace, and demanding from the outset the introduction of provisions for social justice in its construction.’ I imagine people into techno maybe responding: ‘OK, I didn’t say that when the party is over I wouldn’t worry about that, too.’ So, OK.
But let’s put aside this fictitious exchange, because what I think is interesting is that you see something coming that isn’t political, not strictly, directly, or simply political. It would perhaps be better not to call it ‘apolitical,’ to avoid confusion. There is the apolitical as a political position, as in ‘I’m apolitical.’ Then there is what you said about the ‘with,’ a dimension of being-in-common that cannot be reduced to the political and is not equivalent to it. A space that we might call the ‘theologico-political’ is very slowly closing. That is, a space into which the whole of social existence necessarily had to be almost absorbed, or in any case assumed or subsumed (allowing for, depending on the version, the carving out of certain private spheres which are themselves quite limited, inscribed in very clear fashion into the totality) in all its aspects, under the political, or more precisely, the theologico-political. That is, according to a principle of organizing meaning, a finality that in the end goes back to transcendence of the theological kind. I think the modern, contemporary world began, on this view, with Rousseau and the French Revolution, amidst a great ambivalence, a positive ambivalence that on the one hand consisted of reformulating the theologico-political, and on the other of leaving it behind. It was to be reformulated in terms of the sovereign people, which soon ran into the difficulty that the people is not a god, and thus cannot be glorified in that way. Or when it is, it is pure illusion, appropriated by a party that claims to be the party of the people. There was an ambivalence between this and something quite different just coming to light (we see it in Rousseau, silently, in latent fashion, and also in Marx), the basic question, which had never before presented itself in history, namely: What is being-in-common as such, even before it is organized or ascribed to a principle? Or rather, once we no longer begin by asking according to what principle or to what end we shall organize our being-in-common, we then begin to ask ourselves what the nature of that being-in-common is. And this had already started even before Rousseau. In Hobbes, for example, we are faced with a ‘state of nature’ and then we ask ourselves how we can ‘police’ (that is, civilize, make into a polis, a ‘city-state’) that state of nature. What comes silently into view here is the fact that there is no state of nature, but there is a being-together, that is, relating – a ‘with,’ as you would say. It is at the origin and absolutely constitutive of existence, and has its own order of autonomy and legitimacy, one which not only cannot be reduced to the political, but, once we are past the theologico-philosophical, indeed creates its own kind of ambiguity. (This is also true of the simply theological, as we go through the experience of the ‘death of God’ – if one can use that expression here without its being taken as nihilist, the way it usually is – that is, in a time when a reference to transcendence cannot provide a meaning or hold things together.)
On the one hand, the ‘being-in-common’ or the ‘being-with’ appears as it is, naked, but also appears in its negative form, which leads us to apprehend individuals as isolated, selfish, individualist, and atomized. That is why the whole issue of the mass and the crowd comes up – the crowd as the focus of integral atomizing, or of totalizing by compression. This question of the masses is also one of the things that makes fascism possible, in the way that it drove Freud. I really think that for the first time society appeared problematic in terms of its very bonds, whereas until then the way we controlled the bonds could be problematized. One could hold that the powers that be were bad, or the institutions, or whatever, and that on that level there might be room for change. But never had the bond been undone to the point where you had the bond on one side – the thread, if you will – and the elements to be bound on the other. Perhaps something similar had occurred with the end of the Roman Empire, but since that was more a centrifugal phenomenon, and not one of globalization, it occurred through a return to small communities. Feudalism basically emerged out of those small communities. Then the state and modern society were created in a struggle against feudalism and to completely liquidate all the forms of local community that had had a status throughout antiquity. One could almost call them ‘natural,’ since for us the existence of communities and peoples seems natural. There is no doubt that the modern world comes out of the liquidation – I don’t use the word critically – and the vanishing of all those forms of existence, and in the end, that of the family. This strips bare ‘being-together,’ ‘being-with,’ or ‘being-in-common,’ as one likes. It is no accident that the question of being-in-common is the question all of Western philosophy constantly runs into, without knowing how to ask it. We even see this in Heidegger, who holds that Mitsein (‘being-with’) is coessential with Dasein (‘being-there,’ human existence) but devotes not a single like to the meaning of mit, and this in an enormous tome where he is always ready to leap onto any term or concept. But he doesn’t analyze it, as if anyone knew what ‘with’ means, whereas we have no idea of what it might mean, and there may be indeed nothing that is harder to analyze.
All that just to say I agree with what you said about the dimension of ‘with,’ but it also shows us there is some ambiguity between this stripping bare of the ‘with’ or ‘together,’ with dispersion and regrouping on the one hand, and on the other its opposite, a ‘one-world’ globalization, the general standardization of conditions by an organizing power that is not a political one, in any case not theologico-political, but capitalism. And it is no accident that we hear the role of the state, or the nation, in any case, has been seriously cut into, and you now see people who used to be for the destruction of the state now calling upon it. For in the end the state seems a possible protection against being devoured by the ultra-free-market. And when there is a political crisis – and there indeed is one, but quite different from the vileness and corruption of politicians, which is only a problem because of a more fundamental collapse – it makes for a major problem, since we have no answer to it. Our only answer is in the form of a negative ‘politology’ or theology; that is, democracy is something that has no agency for identification, and it shouldn’t have, for that creates the risk of turning back to totalitarianism. I don’t think that’s at all false. It may be true, but then that poses the further question of how society is to identify, because a society can’t not identify itself. Curiously enough, this question of the political intersects with the question of how a society can represent to itself its own capacity for the festive.
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9. Some Related Links / Texts:
From Contretemps 2, May 2001
Blanchot & Community
Our Responsibility: Blanchot’s Communism
Lars Iyer
Thresholds: Sovereignty and the sacred
Hussain, Nasser
The Political Life in Giorgio Agamben
By Colin McQuillan, Emory University
Two Gestures, While Waiting for a Third
By Victor J. Vitanza
The Stanza of the Self: on Agamben?s Potentiality
By Paolo Bartoloni