Art: Indispensability

The more our daily life appears standardised, stereotyped, and subject to an accelerated reproduction of objects of consumption, the more art must be injected into it in order to extract from it that little difference which plays simultaneously between other levels of repetition, and even in order to make the two extremes resonate—namely, the habitual series of consumption and the instinctual series of destruction and death.

Gilles Deleuze
Difference and Repetition

Come as you are .. to Spinoza (and Deleuze)

Deleuze is difficult, but I read his work like opaque poetry. There are good maps available for those who want to engage in what Deleuze called the “nonphilosophical understanding of philosophy.” I don’t read to understand, but understanding comes in the same rushes of lucidity that is common with enigmatic or oracular poetry.

Spinoza can also be difficult, and Deleuze on Spinoza no less so. My edition of Spinoza: Practical Philosophy is translated by Robert Hurley, who offers up this wonderful introduction which I think encapsulates what I am trying to say in this post:

[..] one doesn’t have to follow up every proposition, make every connection-the intuitive or affective reading may be more practical anyway. What if one accepted the invitation-come as you are-and read with a different attitude, which might be more like the way one attends to poetry? Then difficulty would not prevent the flashes of understanding that we anticipate in the poets that we love, difficult thought they may be. The truly extraordinary thing about Deleuze is precisely the quality of love that his philosophy expresses; it is active in everything he has written.

This quality of love is also precisely what compels me about Spinoza’s philosophy.

Simple Existence

Clément Rosset
Clément Rosset

This morning I’ve rummaged around the internet for information about philosopher Clément Rosset, whose philosophy seems to share certain characteristics of the Epicureans, Pierre Bourdieu and Gilles Deleuze. It seems that Joyful Cruelty: toward a philosophy of the real, the book I’d like to read is not in print in English translation. A passage from that book has a Deleuzean flavour to it (not that I am deeply read in Deleuze. Yet).

As evidence for his claim that “simple existence is in itself a source of rejoicing,” Rosset points to the importance people assign to recounting accurately the past events of their lives: “The smaller one’s investment in what was happening in the past when one was participating in the events, the more one now refuses to hear that artichokes were served that day when in fact one remembers excellent asparagus. . . . This fastidious character of remembrance can only be interpreted as the mark of recognition. . . . with respect to existence as such, of the inherent interest of all existence whatever it may be. . . .”

This reminds me of a passage I scribbled in my notebook (I’ll try and find the interview for tweeting and linking here in another post) from a 1988 interview with Deleuze:

Signs imply ways of living, possibilities of existence, they are the symptoms of an overflowing [jaillissante] or exhausted [épuisée] life. But an artist cannot be content with an exhausted life, nor with a personal life. One does not write with one’s ego, one’s memory, and one’s illnesses. In the act of writing there’s an attempt to make life something more than personal, to liberate life from what imprisons it. . . . There is a profound link between signs, the event, life, and vitalism. It is the power of nonorganic life, that which can be found in a line of a drawing, a line of writing, a line of music. It is organisms that die, not life. There is no work of art that does not indicate an opening for life, a path between the cracks. Everything I have written has been vitalistic, at least I hope so, and constitutes a theory of signs and the event.

If you are able to enlighten me in any way about Clément Rosset’s work I’d be appreciative.

Thought Control and Cynicism

It’s one of those glorious early spring days that England enacts so well. I have sat in the garden, drinking black tea, and reading Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception. I’ve been preoccupied with this text for the past three years or so. This is the fourth time I’ve read this chapter of the book Dialectic of Enlightenment, which I’ve yet to read from cover to cover.

This particular chapter performs Morpheus’s red pill in The Matrix. “You take the red pill,” he says to Neo, “and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” Jason Barker extends the same metaphor to his film Marx Reloaded, where Leon Trotsky, playing Morpheus, offers the choice of blue or red pill to Karl Marx as Neo.

Adorno and Horkheimer’s text is not without inadequacies. It is important to recall the socioeconomic context. Written in the early 1940s by two ethnically Jewish, German émigrés in the aftermath of the war, the dourness of their moral outrage is to be expected. In short (and I recommend you read the essay), Horkheimer and Adorno’s essay is trying to reawaken people from the mind-dulling consequences of the modern culture industry, an argument even more relevant today than in the 1940s.

Importantly, Adorno and Horkenheimer’s essay is not an attack on consumers but on the producers of banal, repetitive cultural goods – films, books, music, magazines – calibrated to obviate the necessity of mental effort and independent thought. The result is a passive audience caught up in a loop of endless consumption. For what end? Horkheimer and Adorno argue that this “entertainment” distracts us from the dehumanizing nature of most forms of modern work, and engenders a cynicism that deadens our political will to overcome a decadent and exploitative socioeconomic system.

Why do its consumers lap up the banal nonsense offered as art and entertainment? Instead of objecting they fetishize it. Witness the mindlessness of today’s fixation on celebrity. It would come as no surprise to Horkheimer and Adorno that a supposedly enlightened society has returned to the fetish. The brilliant part of their argument is that it is precisely the repeated exposure to forms of entertainment (they pick the American film industry) that repeatedly excite and manipulate the senses to deaden them (Deleuze, if I understand correctly, also writes of the dulling effect of “bare repetition”). Consumers are enrolled in their own pacification.

There is so much more I could ramble on about from this essay. The last point that I wish to extract from Adorno and Horkheimer’s essay is about cynicism, which like many “advanced” moderns is an attitude I once bore with pride, believing it an appropriate ethical choice. Horkheimer and Adorno demystify and denounce this cynicism, itself a manipulated effect of the culture industry:

In this age of universal publicity any invocation of an ideal appears suspect to us. We have learned how to identify abstract concepts as sales propaganda. Language based entirely on truth simply arouses impatience to get on with the business deal it is probably advancing.

Horkheimer and Adorno close their essay, noting that rampant cynicism about popular culture and commodification does not obstruct its consumption. Consumers acknowledge its manipulative intent and yet take part, which is the systematic “beauty” of the cultural model. But the cynicism that is engendered supports complacency, reducing expectations of the state, of media, of business, and diminishes political will to mobilise against injustices. As Horkheimer and Adorno saw only too well in the years leading up to this essay, cynicism-induced complacency plays into the hands of right-wing agendas.

(Images: a fragment from Ingres’s Oedipe et le sphinx, a screen grab from Marx Reloaded and Adorno and Horkheimer.)

Nietzsche, Ecce Homo and Biography

Nietzsche, like Jean-Paul Sartre, TS Eliot and the films of Martin Scorsese, is best discovered before you hit your twenties. His writing is accessible to early interpretation and uncorrupted by the language of the academy. I remember so clearly the combustive impact of reading Friedrich Nietzsche’s books, one after the other as he laid waste to Christian morality. After reading Nietzsche, the world expanded, less mysterious but cleaner, more chaotic. Nietzsche, like Sartre, is best reread every ten years.

When I first read Nietzsche, probably under the baleful influence of TS Eliot, I abjured biography. All that mattered was the text, so I disdained to read Ecce Homo, Nietzsche’s autobiography (of sorts). As I learnt from the introduction to Benoît Peeters’ Derrida biography, Derrida did not consider philosopher’s lives as extraneous to their philosophical work. On Nietzsche, Derrida wrote:

We no longer consider the biography of a ‘philosopher’ as a corpus of empirical accidents that leaves both a name and a signature outside a system which would itself be offered up to an immanent philosophical reading – the only kind of reading held to be philosophically legitimate […].

In a late interview on “the question of biography”, Derrida insisted:

I am among those few people who have constantly drawn attention to this: you must (and you must do it well) put philosophers’ biographies back in the picture, and the commitments, particularly political commitments, that they sign in their own names, whether in relation to Heidegger or equally to Hegel, Freud, Nietzsche, Sartre, or Blanchot, and so on.

Taking inspiration from Derrida and Kate Zambreno’s initial FFIMS post I tackled Ecce Homo for the first time. I now suspect it will become my favourite Nietzsche book, though I am long overdue a rereading of his works.

The first thought on reading Ecce Homo is the cavernous confidence of the text, bordering on arrogance, or what Thomas Steinbuch, in his commentary on Ecce Homo calls megalomania:

The chapters of Ecce Homo are composed as answers to the questions posed in their titles: “Why I Am So Wise,” “Why I Am So Clever,” “Why I Write Such Good Books,” and “Why I Am a Destiny.” The titles seem to be naked expressions of self-importance, of egotism, from the simple hubris of “I am wise” to the megalomania of “I am destiny,” as if in writing these titles Nietzsche had reared up before the world demanding its acknowledgement, tragically presaging the madness that was soon to engulf him. This is not so. Egotism in the sense of self-importance, as belonging to the psychology of domination, is not part of Nietzsche’s life or work. If an ideology of affirming self-importance has been found here, this is only the projection of an authoritarian society’s own obsessive focus on figures of domination and its need to believe in the monolithic action of authority. Indeed, we shall see below that constructing the other as a “self-of-importance” belongs to the psychology of competition. It is simply true that Nietzsche’s role in the history of life was tremendously important as the dialectical counter to décadence. Sooner of later we need to come to terms with the problem of décadence in ourselves, and at that moment the one we will find is Nietzsche-this is what he meant by declaring himself a destiny.

So, not egotism or megalomania but the Dionysian overcoming of decadence to find the order concealed in the chaos. A bit self-helpy perhaps, or more generously where Nietzsche joins forces with Buddhism to destroy individuality. But this is why Nietzsche has always appealed; he is a philosopher, like Sartre, that changes the prism through which you see life, and therefore changes your life. Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida and Hélène Cixous seem to offer the same opportunity, though need far more effort.

Enough rambling. Can anyone recommend a reliable Nietzsche biography? Thanks to a conversation with flowerville, I’ve been reading up on Thomas Brobjer. I like the look of Thomas Brobjer’s Nietzsche’s Philosophical Context: An Intellectual Biography.  Ecce Homo is very fine but suffers the flaw of any autobiography, that it is essentially a fiction. The best Nietzsche “biography” I’ve read is this thrilling chronological list of “not only the books which Nietzsche read throughout his life, but also lectures he attended as well as professorial work he was engaged in, the music he listened to and composed, and, finally, denotes when and where he wrote his philosophical works.”