Friday, September 21, 2007

In the chapters I read (1, 2, and part of 4) of Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West, Susan Buck-Morss argues that the Soviet and American political imaginaries were too similar to each other. The socialist imaginary is based on the divisions between classes, not states; progress is conceived as temporal. The capitalist imaginary is based on divisions between nation-states; here, progress is conceived as purely spatial. But in each imaginary, progress is the motive force, and therein lies the problem. Both imaginaries are perfect successors to the French Revolution: socialism with its perpetual revolutionary terror, and capitalism with its perpetual mass-conscripted nationalistic war. “Progress” is the problem. And yet, we must cling to utopian aspirations, somehow. (Presumably the obvious theoretical difficulty of condemning “progress” while upholding “utopia” is addressed in one of the many pages I didn’t have time to read.)

Buck-Morss distinguishes between the “normal enemy” (e.g. for medieval Christendom, the sinner) and the “absolute enemy” (e.g. the heretic). Any individual instance of the absolute enemy must be violently eradicated, since this enemy’s existence is constructed as a dangerous threat to the existence of the sovereign power. But, as a group, the absolute enemy (whether heretics or, for a half-century of U.S. sovereignty, communists) must survive, since it is this group’s existence that legitimates (or as Buck-Morss would have it, “brings into being”) both the sovereign and the collective that the soverign protects. In a now-chilling passage written at least a year before 9/11, Buck-Morss predicts, on the basis of the 1998 bombings of Afghanistan and Sudan, that the U.S.’s next “absolute enemy” (after global communism) will be global terrorism. I’ll reproduce the entire paragraph:

“In August 1998, U.S. air attacks against a so-called ‘university of terrorism’ in Afghanistan and an alleged weapons-producing pharmaceutical company in Sudan initiated a new stage in the attempt to salvage the legitimacy of the U.S. as a global superpower, its monopoly of the right to possess arsenals of mass destruction and train paramilitary forces in terrorist techniques. These were offensive attacks secretly planned against an enemy secretly identified. With them the United States declared an ‘unending’ war against terrorism with explicit analogy to the Cold War against communism, justifying a secret (wild) zone of violent power of comparable scope. It needs to be understood that, regardless of the intentions of the policy-makers, such a definition of war feeds upon itself. By justifying the use of terror to stop terror, it generates what it seeks to destroy. In this war, the ‘enemy’ is defined not as anticapitalist but anti-American (equated with being less than civilized), so that whoever opposes the rationale of the U.S. use of terror becomes vulnerable to the charge of sympathizing with the enemy camp. Potentially such a war has no limits, short of undermining the legitimacy of U.S. superpower sovereignty itself, which is precisely what is at stake.”

The most frightening thing about this passage is neither its crystal-clear prescience, nor its smug-liberal refusal to consider that such a terroristic absolute enemy might pose a real and horrible threat, but rather the fact that neither of these two frightening aspects matters much in terms of the other. That is to say, something very like her analysis (pre-9/11, remember!) of our post-9/11 situation is now overwhelmingly accepted by attentive observers of the present geopolitical moment (lesson 1: we should fear above all else those who have declared us their responsibility to protect); and also there actually are legions of people outside our spatial borders who devotedly and innovatively seek to kill as many of us as they can, as spectacularly as the can (lesson 2: we should fear above all else those who have declared us their responsibility to destroy). Unlike the progress-utopia paradox I mentioned above, this paradox is theoretically, ethically, and politically insoluble . . .

Friday, September 7, 2007


Male masochism has been understood primarily in one of two ways by psychoanalytic writers since Freud, Suzanne Stewart (now Suzanne Stewart-Steinberg) argues in "Sublime Surrender: Male Masochism at the Fin-de-Siècle." The first alternative holds that male masochism originates in disavowed homosexuality. In this model the Cruel Woman at whose hands the submissive man experiences a gratifying suspension of gratification is a "phallic substitute"--ultimately, a stand-in for the masochist's father. The other traditional interpretation of the masochistic sexual dynamic was initiated by Gilles Deleuze's 1969 essay "Coldness and Cruelty." Deleuze argued that the figure of the Cruel Woman represents not a phallic substitute per se but rather a means for the masochist of undoing the phallus entirely and evading Oedipus. He claimed that the contract with the Cruel Woman constitutes an alliance, a sort of conspiracy, between the masochist and the cruel "oral mother"--the imago of the bad mother from before the phallic stage, thus before the Oedipus complex proper--to erase the father and construct a "new man" from scratch, without reference to the demands of the social order.

Here's how it works: the contract between the submissive male and the Cruel Woman initiates a peculiarly aesthetic sexuality whose chief characteristic is a complex structure of disavowal. That which is disavowed: 1) the mother's lack (hence the regular old fetishism incorporated into the masochistic aesthetic; it's through participating in this fetishism that the Cruel Woman becomes the "phallic mother," i.e. uncastrated woman); 2) genitality (i.e. the genitals as dominant source of gratification; hence the theatrical suspension of gratification, a masquerade of displeasure in the ego put on for the superego's benefit; this suspension itself becomes a prime source of gratification); 3) the paternal symbolic (now that both the phallus and the penis have been deflated, as it were, the father's prohibition loses all authority, specifically the authority to constitute the subject as a normal heterosexual male within the symbolic order of social relations; thus the father is "banished," both the threat that underwrites Oedipus and Oedipus itself are averted, and an incestuous relationship between the pre-Oedipal boy and the maternal imago is able to pertain happily, so to speak, ever after, with a perpetual cycle of masqueraded guilt and punishment as the sole cost to the subject).

Within the Deleuzian "masochistic universe," the subject's superego has been introjected on the model of this cruel, always-punishing mother, rather than on the model of the prohibiting father that most of us guys get stuck with. On the other hand, maybe ours is more like theirs than we realize. Slavoj Žižek has famously argued that contemporary capitalist culture is governed by the law of just such a maternal superego, whose dictum is not "No!" (Lacan's "le non-du-père") but "Enjoy yourself!" That is, the typical subject of Western society today is, for Žižek, a pathological narcissist whose superego "does not prohibit enjoyment but, on the contrary, imposes it and punishes 'social failure' in a far more cruel and severe way, through an unbearable and self-destructive anxiety" (215).

The central argument of Stewart's densely theoretical book is that the male masochistic subjectivity, which in the prevailing Deleuzian model has usually been read as valuably subversive of patriarchal power relations, rather should be thought of as a means by which men, starting in the late nineteenth century, usurped women's place as the rightful source of the critique of patriarchy. Thus women, who had been materially oppressed in countless ways by the patriarchal symbolic, were ostentatiously upstaged by men who redefined their own subjectivity in fundamentally masochistic terms. This is the second masquerade of masochism, put on for the benifit not of the masochist's own superego but of real women. Thus men positon themselves as the primary agents in a "feminism without women," that is, a critique of patriarchy in which the true victims of patriarchy are once again disempowered, this time by being excluded from the dismantling of the patriarchal symbolic itself. Stewart approvingly summarizes Tania Modleski's similar argument about the even more recent figure of the "sensitive guy": "Men's newly acquired sensitivity to women's marginality is predicated upon men usurping that marginality for themselves and thereby writing women completely out of the picture" (196).

This argument relies on something like Wendy Brown's revision of Nietzche's notion of "ressentiment," though Stewart doesn't use this word. (Neither does she mention Brown, and the only mention of Nietzsche to be found in her text refers to his musical taste.) Brown's politics of ressentiment is founded on the claim that "because power corrupts truth and compromises moral authority, those without power are especially qualified to speak" (Nancy Armstrong's summary of Brown in "How Novels Think" p. 141). For the first time in the history of Western culture, masochistic subjectivity pushes women into the central position and forces the male subject to assume the marginal position--just at the moment when that same culture is beginning to recognize that the marginal position is in fact the truly central one. (Though she never once mentions Hegel's name, Stewart may be acknowledging the Hegelianism of this idea by citing another critic's witty phrase "the dialectic of mistress and slave" on p. 121.) Perhaps none of this might matter politically if it what we ended up with after destroying the traditional patriarchal symbolic had turned out to be an egalitarian utopia, but of course this has not turned out to be the case.

As I understand it, although this is seldom if ever articulated, there are two fundamentally distinct forms of sexual experience that tend to get conflated in discussions of masochism. They should perhaps be called "punishment-masochism" and "pain-masochism." The first is the dynamic that has been discussed above, of which Sacher-Masoch is the prototype. In the other, the Other doesn't matter, because here masochism is not a sexual dynamic at all, but rather a means through which to experience extreme bodily intensities, what Foucault called "limit experiences." In this notion of masochism, the nature of the "tormentor" is a matter of complete indifference--it might as well be a machine--because all that matters is the pain itself, not as an encounter with another but as a mute means to trigger a pleasurable failure of stable psychological structures. This self-shattering, or ébranlement, is ultimately constitutive of and accessible through not just specifically masochistic sexual practices but all sexuality, as Leo Bersani has persuasively argued. I wrote my Master's (no pun intended) thesis on Bersani's philosophy and its relation to cinema--but that's a story for another time.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Does that make Buffy the new Trotsky?

When you start reading a book with a cover and title as “tasteful” as this, you don’t expect it to conclude with an argument that we should all start acting more like vampires.

But that’s where Nancy Armstrong goes, in “How Novels Think: The Limits of Individualism from 1719-1900.” Like a good Foucauldian genealogist of ideas, Armstrong treats “the novel” as a formerly powerful medium for the production of concepts, which is to say also for the installation of those concepts within reading subjects. For Armstrong, the history of the British novel in the 18th and 19th centuries is primarily a history of how British subjects conceived of themselves in relation to society. (When in this entry I write “us” I mean it strictly: Armstrong has argued elsewhere for the continuity rather than the distinctness of the British and American literatures.)

She begins with a discussion of the Lockean model of the mind, the famous tabula rasa on which ideas, derived from sensations that originate from objects in the world, are finally synthesized into judgments and emotions, both of which well up from within the mind of, crucially, an individual. The human body is conceived as a container of a unique human subjectivity with a rather strict division between interior and exterior that’s permeable only by sensations and actions (as mental commands to the body). This, Armstrong says, is the model of subjectivity presupposed by realist fiction, governed by what she calls the “logic of sympathy.” That is to say, sympathetic identification with the interior experience of another, his or her frustration and elation, suffering and satisfaction.

Such an individual has a place, of course, within a society: but it might not be the right place. Social mobility may be achieved by those individuals who enjoy (or suffer from) an excess of desire, will, wit, and ability relative to that which is appropriate to their birth position. The protagonist of the picaresque enjoys an excess of this kind in addition to the lack defined by his excess of desire—often, the lack simply of a more fitting adequation between his desire-will-wit-ability and his position. In the early decades of the period Armstrong’s book covers, the protagonist is thus a “misfit” for whom self-expression is a key to success. Here the democratic nation is formed by voluntary self-restraint, which also takes the form of tolerance; the picaresque often ends with the protagonist’s accession to the “society” that formerly excluded him. The community has reformed itself to make room for the misfit individual.

In the 19th century (with Austen as the crucial turning point whose work lies between the two eras), the story shifts. Now the individual with an excess appears as a compulsive violator of bourgeois sexuality, although of course his or her violations seldom if ever appear as directly described sexual deviancies. She or he has two possible fates: gaining entry to society by sublimating the excess desires and thus accommodating his or her sexuality to society’s norm; or else being destroyed as monstrous. Whereas18th-century society accommodated itself to the misfit, 19th-century society is represented as unyielding. The twist lies in the fact that once the C19 moral protagonist either renounces his excess of individualism for social stability (thus paradoxically becoming a complete individual) or is killed as a monster, the reader feels that the fictional world is diminished. For Armstrong, the principle purpose of the novel as a cultural form in these eras is to instruct the reader not to prefer the diminished world, but to settle for it.

But what is the alternative? Armstrong thinks she finds it in Deleuze. Some frustrated students complain that Deleuze’s philosophy is impossibly difficult, perhaps even unthinkable in some profound way. That’s precisely the value for Armstrong of Deleuze’s concepts: only something radically weird can ever hope to think outside of a mode of thought and being as pervasive as individualism. What Deleuze calls the rhizome Armstrong reframes as “vampire thinking” by way of reference to Bram Stoker. This is experienced as a loss of individual boundaries, an infusion of sensations that seem not to be your own, a “compulsion to dance, so to speak, to someone else’s tune.” It is an experience of abandon, a belonging to the “mass man.” Dracula himself, his victims, as well as the transformed group of vampire hunters at the novel’s end provide the model for Armstrong’s elaboration: each member of the group can carry all that group’s knowledge (collective thinking); the group shares a common object of desire (polyandrous desire); the group’s child belongs to no single member of the group (collective parenting); and the group is detached from geography (nomadism). Kant’s ideal representative republic of “universal hospitality,” where anyone has the right of access to anyone else’s society (the “right of visit”), Armstrong implies, may be achieved only by such a collective subject.

So what she’s really getting at, through a conversation about the recent history of feminist scholarship, through a discussion of the distinction between reproduction and repetition as ideals of patterning, and through a deliberate misreading of Freud’s “The Uncanny,” is a sort of belated (in Harold Bloom’s sense) attempt to theorize socialism. Not as a functional political system, but rather as a mode of relations in society. Demonstrating how it became so difficult for us to think that mode of relations—through our long engagement with novelistic narratives—serves primarily to help bring into focus what the alternatives might be, or have been.

Fortunately, Armstrong claims, there has been an alternative current running all along, though it has been far from dominant. Against the “logic of sympathy” that governs the individual’s relation to the collective and structures the classic novel, there has been a “logic of sensibility” that opposes the Lockean model of mind and challenges individualism. For this logic, emotions do not “well up from within the subject in response to sensations and acquire the form of ideas that enrich that subject’s personal storehouse of knowledge” (16). Rather, emotions and judgments originate outside the subject. They are literally in objects in the world, and they spread to us by means of a sort of contagion. Though Armstrong uses the phrase “literature of sensibility,” that refers only to the late early modern* philosophical texts that attempted to theorize “contagion” as the mechanism for the transmission of thoughts and feelings. That is to say, the logic of sensibility seems to be for Armstrong absolutely antithetical to the novel itself. Thus Austen is read as staging a battle between sympathy and sensibility in which sympathy wins every time: “whenever the emotional charge entering the individual from external objects through the senses overwhelm [sic] those genuine feelings that well up from within the individual, Austen’s novels draw a line, as if to say, ‘sensibility, thou shalt go no farther.’” (18) For Armstrong, there is no way for the novel to uphold the logic of sensibility, no matter what formal strategies it employs. “[N]ew varieties of the novel cannot help taking up the project of universalizing the individual subject [i.e., the subject governed by the logic of sympathy]. That, simply put, is what novels do.”

This proclamation raises any number of questions about where and on what grounds Armstrong would choose to draw the line between the novel and competing literary forms—not historically, but formally, and in the present cultural climate. She may be excused for omitting to pass this judgment in a book whose very title limits its concern to a period in which “the novel” was perhaps (perhaps) delimited by less porous boundaries than it is today. But when she ventures to judge absolutely, however briefly and however abstractly, twentieth and presumably even twenty-first century attempts to stretch the novel into performing new feats of imagination, she places herself under a certain obligation to define her central term. On the other hand, Armstrong has authored at least one major previous book I haven’t read that’s principally about “the novel,” so perhaps a satisfactory formal definition may be found there—the kind of definition that is required to underwrite a claim like “that, simply put, is what novels” (rather than most novels or these novels) “do.”

(Oh, and by the way, I read “Jane Eyre” last week for the first time, in preparation for reading this book . . . but that doesn’t mean I have anything to say about it.)

*How does one write this? I mean: the later decades of the early modern period, just before the industrial revolution. “Late early modern” does have the look of a typo. What is preferable?