So, since people have been asking — now I have met a bunch of Londoners, and they have been great: I’ve been having a good time here. Sean (left of me in the photo as you look at it, or to my right from my point of view) invited me out to his birthday dinner — midnight tapas in Soho.
Archive for June, 2005
I arrived in London this morning. Great to be in a place so crowded, with so many people. I don’t really know any Londoners (the two people I do know are an American and an Australian), so I can’t yet comment about them, but the density of crowds and the life of the streets is exhilarating.
What can you say about a science fiction novel that begins with a first-person account of a 16-year-old girl masturbating with her gun? Tricia Sullivan’s Maul (in print in UK only, alas) counterposes a present-day story in which gangs of teenage girls fight gun battles in the Garden State Plaza shopping mall (called the “maul” in a New Jersey accent), with a far-future story in which sperm is a precious commodity because most males have been wiped out by the “Y-plagues” (genetically engineered designer diseases — originally manufactured, we are told, by men rather than women — that target the Y chromosome). The present-day story is crazed and exhilarating, as teen girl gangs — versed in the poetry of brand names above all else — trash the cosmetics counter at Lord and Taylor, lock hostages into the oven at California Pizza Kitchen, and hide weapons caches in the prom dress display at Laura Ashley. The future story is grimmer (or at least, less of a high). It involves a society where the routinization of the “society of the spectacle,” and the commodification of all aspects of existence, is correlated with a suppression of male aggression, so that the restoration of testosterone-fueled stupidity, oafishness, and gratuitous violence comes across as something that’s potentially liberating for both genders. Both plots are messy and turn back upon themselves: the riot-grrl rampage eventually metamorphoses into a surreal video game, while the future-world plot starts out as claustrophobically self-enclosed, but mutates as it spirals outward, eventually junking plot closure in favor of a logic of accelerating contamination and infection. In both cases, what happens on the level of narrative structure mimics what happens to the characters within the narrative: so the book explodes conventional gendered identities from both ends. I’m not quite sure where Maul leaves us, at the end of its wild ride, but the book is great both for its extremity, and for the way it deliberately, almost cruelly, chafes at the wounds of gender in our “post-feminist” and ultracommodified era.
Commodities aren’t just objects in the world that we – detached, autonomous subjects – would apprehend from a distance. Rather, commodities, as animate beings, are somehow already inside us, molding us from within, present before we are there to respond to them. Parasites. Brands “provide their customers with little epiphanies – moments of recognition that put images, sounds, and feelings on barely perceptible desires” (Douglas Holt). This is not to say, crassly, that advertising “manipulates” us by creating “artificial” desires. It’s much subtler than that: it is only in the space of advertising and branding that I can recognize and express my desires in the first place. Saussure says that “psychologically our thought – apart from its expression in words – is only a shapeless and indistinct mass. . . Without language, thought is a vague, uncharted nebula. There are no pre-existing ideas, and nothing is distinct before the appearance of language.” Whether or not this is true for language in general in relation to thought in general, it is true for commodities in relation to our desires. Inchoate, “barely perceptible” strivings only take form, only get articulated, when they are embodied in the “images, sounds, and feelings” provided by commodities, advertisements, and brands. Our commodified desires are indeed arbitrary, in precisely the way that Saussure says linguistic signs are arbitrary. But there is no natural, non-arbitrary, uncommodified desire, just as there is no “private language” (Wittgenstein), and just as there is no “state of nature” prior to human sociality.
Burroughs tells us that language is a virus. But he adds that, specifically, “it is the human virus“: the mutation that makes us what we are, the otherness that separates us from the apes. Language is not, as Steven Pinker would have it, an “instinct”; for, as a viral supplement to our genome, it makes us into beings who no longer act according to instinct. And much the same can be said about commodities. Today, consumerism – like language itself – is universal: not that it is intrinsic to human nature, but precisely because it is not. Not all cultures are consumerist ones, and not all economies are centered on commodities. But consumerism is a powerful vector of infection, and the commodity is a virus that quickly spreads wherever it is introduced. No culture, no economy, is immune to it. At best, Burroughs says, the human virus is a peaceful symbiont: we’ve had “many thousands of years of more or less benign coexistence” with it. But today it is “once again on the verge of malignant mutation.” The commodity form really started spreading in the eighteenth century, which for Burroughs was the last time when a utopian alternative was still possible. But in the last few decades it has raged across the world with renewed virulence, a “virgin soil epidemic” of incalculable consequences.
Consumerism has entirely overwritten the programming of the human soul. This means that it is both inessential to human nature, and inextricable from it. In other words, consumerism follows a Derridean logic (which isn’t all that far from a Burroughsian one). Derrida defines the supplement as being both extraneous and necessary. It is entirely superfluous, and yet it somehow plays a crucial role, by standing in for something that – in its turn – is supposed to be essential, but that is nonetheless missing. The supplement is merely a substitute, but it is one for which the original – the thing for which it substitutes – cannot be found. Derrida, commenting on Rousseau, cites writing (a substitute for the supposed full presence of speech) and masturbation (a substitute for the supposed full presence of sex with a partner) as examples of the supplement. For it turns out that even the most earnest and spontaneous speech is riddled with the same gaps and indirections and rhetorical slippages and ambiguities as writing; and even the most complete and satisfying sexual intimacy is less a perfect communion than it is the mere contiguity, in space and time, of two solipsistic orgasms.
Today, shopping at the mall follows the same supplemental pattern. It’s one of the most satisfying things that we do, and yet there is always something empty or fake about it. This is because shopping is ostensibly a utilitarian activity, whose purpose lies outside of itself: acquiring goods for subsequent consumption. And yet we enjoy the experience of shopping – of buying things, or even of looking at them without buying, checking them out, trying them on, moving from one possible purchase to the next – more than we do the act of actually consuming the goods we’ve bought. Everyone knows, as James Twitchell puts it, that “people buy so they can shop, not shop so they can buy,” and that “the purchase of goods may be incidental to the experience of shopping.” Once I’ve gotten the stuff home, its value is exhausted. Now that I have it, I no longer desire it. What excites me instead is the prospect of going shopping again. Andy Warhol had the right idea. At the end of each month, he’d pack all the stuff he had bought into a box, and ship the box to permanent storage in a warehouse in New Jersey, never to be opened again.
Norman O. Brown (1913-2002) was a thinker quite famous in the 1960s, but who seems to be little spoken of today. The very thing that made him popular in his time — his optimistically apocalyptic view of a liberating, Dionysian revolution in Western culture — means that now he is thoroughly out of fashion; indeed, the changes of the last forty years or so have made his sort of approach and writing almost entirely unthinkable. But it is precisely because he is unthinkable and untimely, that Brown is worth another look today.
Brown’s first major book, Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History (1959), offers a close reading of Freud and psychoanalysis as the vehicle for a radically revisionary look at the human condition. In the 1950s, Freudianism was at the height of its prestige and influence in the United States; but the “Freud” people read (by “people,” I mean the public at large, and the intellectuals, as well as the psychoanalytic community itself) was a very conservative and normative one, the upholder of patriarchy and heterosexuality, the advocate of the necessity of repression, the therapist of strengthening the ego, in order to hold “monsters from the id” at bay.
But Brown reads Freud entirely differently, and from the hindsight of today, much more richly and insightfully. For Brown, Freud is the discoverer of the richness and plenitude of the unconscious mind, and the critic of just how narrow and restricted our conscious, “civilized” experience is. (Brown makes almost the same sharp criticisms of “ego psychology” that Jacques Lacan – unbeknownst to him — was making in France at the same time; though Brown could not be more different from Lacan in most ways, the two of them share a rejection of normative and normalizing approaches to psychoanalysis, and a commitment to taking seriously the speculative and philosophical dimensions of Freud’s texts). Brown emphasizes the role of desire, as against cognition, in how we relate to others and find our place in the world; he insists on the centrality of the body, and the need to understand Freudian mechanisms like repression and sublimation, and introjection and projection, in corporeal terms; he takes seriously such uncomfortable Freudian notions as the castration complex, anality, and the death instinct.
Brown is revising Freud, and using him to change the world, not just reverentially interpreting him; but he makes clear where he is following Freud, and where he is criticizing him, or extrapolating from him, or going beyond him. Basically, Brown draws radical conclusions from Freud’s admonition that the difference between neurosis and mental “health” is at best a matter of degree, and that everything we see in the minds of neurotics is present universally, in everybody’s psyche. Freud is very close to saying we are all neurotic; and Brown insists on this conclusion. Pushing further with something that Freud only said tentatively, Brown extrapolates these results from the individual to society in general: we can psychoanalyze cultures just as we can individual people, and trace social history just as psychoanalysis traces individual histories. Doing this, Brown says, we are led to the conclusion that society itself is neurotic; that human history in general is the history of a mass neurosis; and that psychoanalysis will never “cure” individuals unless it can radically change the society whose neurotic structure mirrors the individual’s own.
For some Freudians, changing society would mean a bit more openness about sexuality, and more liberal toilet training practices for small children — both of which have in fact happened in the time between the 1950s and today. But Brown scorns such reforms as petty, and says they don’t get at the main issue. Brown sees the denial of the body, the reign of repression, and deformations of desire as major structuring principles for all of Western culture, perhaps for all of human culture. The problem goes back to the basic psychological development and organization that for Freud take place in early childhood: the displacement of the “pleasure principle” by the “reality principle,” and the genital organization of the psyche. 20th century sex radicals like D H Lawrence and Wilhelm Reich in fact left sexual repression intact, Brown says, because they maintained the primacy of the orgasm and of genital sexuality. Brown calls instead for a return to polymorphous perversity, the state in which the entire body is eroticized, rather than there being a specific, specialized sexual function.
More generally, Brown mounts a remarkable attack upon the very notion of sublimation, which for Freud and orthodox Freudians was the goal of psychoanalysis and the one potential way out from neurotic suffering. Freud defines sublimation as the turning of sexual and aggressive impulses toward “higher” and more socially useful goals (I redirect my compulsions, and take control of them to become an artist or a politician instead of a neurotic); but it’s notorious that Freud has a very difficult time explaining what sublimation really is, and just how it works. Brown seizes upon this difficulty to argue that sublimation is largely a bogus category, and that it is not a substitute for repression but a continuation of it by different means. The very idea of sublimation — moving from something “lower” to something “higher” — involves stunting the potentialities of the body, and setting up a hierarchy between mind and body, or even a total Cartesian separation of mind from body. For Brown, a radical desublimation is the only way to go: a return to the wisdom of the polymorphously perverse body, a rejection of goal-oriented culture in favor of living in the moment; an acceptance of death as part of life, instead of our dread of death which ironically turns life itself into a living death.
My summary of Brown’s argument doesn’t do justice to its richness of detail and depth of conception; not to mention the powerful insights that crop up along the way, particularly with regard to Freud’s notion of anality, which Brown discusses in great detail in relation to Jonathan Swift, Martin Luther, and the “Protestant ethic” at the base of capitalism.Life Against Death is both broad and deep, and it is astonishingly original. It argues passionately for utopian, apocalyptic, and eschatological speculation, as our only hope for “solving problems that seem at the moment insoluble.” Brown doesn’t have the sardonic sense of the hopelessness of the human situation that his contemporary William Burroughs does; but even to my cynical eyes, Brown does something almost as valuable: he makes a radical alternative to The Way Things Are thinkable, entirely tough-mindedly, and without turning to the sappy, saccharine, and zombiefied visions of all too many utopians, New Agers, and champions of Human Potential.
I have less to say about Brown’s followup volume, Love’s Body (1966), because it strikes me as a much less powerful and interesting book. Brown here draws much more on ethnography and myth, in addition to psychoanalysis, and he strives for a fusion of the pagan/Dionysian with a radical Christian mysticism. (This latter is noteworthy, because it calls upon potentialities in Christianity that are far different either from the “liberal theology” of Brown’s day or from the heavy fundamentalism that is the main face of Christianity in America today. Brown’s emphasis on the joyousness of the Resurrection, on the “resurrection of the body,” is diametrically opposed to the sadomasochistic body hysteria/disgust of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ). Brown also moves from the formidably learned and argumentative discourse of Life Against Death to a more poetic, more willfully fragmentary style of writing. Love’s Body is short on any concrete discussion of how we might get from here to there, from civilized repression to redemption in the body of Dionysus/Christ, but it’s ferociously visionary in a way that stands as a reproach to more timid social, cultural, and religious theorists.
Brown published two subsequent books: Closing Time (1973), which I haven’t read, but which is apparently an arrangement of citations/fragments from Vico’s New Science and Joyce’s Finnegans Wake; and a much later collection of essays, Apocalypse And/Or Metamorphosis (1992), where among other things he takes stock of the relations between his own thought and that of some of the European poststructuralists (Bataille, Deleuze and Guattari, Negri) whose work came later (or, in the case of Bataille, of whom he was simply unaware when he wrote Life Against Death and Love’s Body). It’s an interesting comparison; while Brown’s mysticism is in some ways very American (it certainly goes back to Emerson, among other sources), there are deep affinities there as well (an insistence on the libidinal nature of economics and politics, an interest in Spinoza, a critique of the metaphysics/negativity of Desire and its replacement with a more affirmative emphasis on multiple pleasures/potentialities of bodies).
All in all, I find Norman O. Brown an inspiring writer: inspiring because of the joyous activity and originality of his own thought, which can only encourage us, his readers, to be similarly daring and adventurous in thinking outside the prisonhouse of our reigning ideologies. However, in more specific terms I am not sure how useful he is; I mean by this that I don’t really see how his particular theories and insights can be “put to work” today (well, at least, not by me). Such is always the problem with utopian thought, or with thought this sweeping, foundational, and broad: when you’ve diagnosed the neurosis at the root of all of human history, you are unlikely to have particular suggestions for dealing with the particular hell we are living in today, the hell of unfettered global capitalism, and unfettered religious fundamentalism. But I shouldn’t be churlish. Brown understands, and teaches us, that critique by itself is sterile, and will do nothing unless accompanied by imagination, and practices of metamorphosis.
More from The Age of Aesthetics.
The basic premise of capitalism has always been scarcity. Economists see deprivation, or “opportunity cost,” or the necessity of giving up something one wants in order to have something else instead, as the primordial – and necessary – condition of humankind. Even when we do not suffer from absolute want, we are still menaced with the fate of Buridan’s ass, which starved to death because it could not decide between two equally desirable sources of food. Such is the underlying premise of all neoclassical economics, including Virginia Postrel’s fantasy of consumer plenitude. Life is a matter of making difficult “choices,” as we measure costs and benefits “at the margin.” Aesthetic style, Postrel warns us, “is still one of many different possible goods. Choosing more aesthetic value means forgoing some alternative. The age of look and feel, like every other era, demands trade-offs.” Even in the Age of Aesthetics, we are still compelled to economize, to prioritize, and to sacrifice.
The classical justification for capitalism is precisely that it generates maximal returns from its presupposed initial conditions of scarcity. Scarcity is equivalent, in theological terms, to original sin. We can never know abundance, because we have been expelled from the Garden of Eden. “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground.” No matter how affluent we become, we are still condemned to a form of life in which every decision we make, and every action we take, involves a concomitant sacrifice. This is the way in which Weber’s “Protestant Ethic” – that old Calvinist/Puritan asceticism, with its valuation of toil and rejection of waste and expenditure – still persists in the frenzied consumer capitalism of today. Even for F. A. Hayek, the intellectual godfather of postmodern free-market ideology, with his vision of the market as a marvelous information-processing, self-organizing, and evolving system, the bottom line is still that the market is good and right because it subjects “man” to “the bitter necessity of submitting himself to rules he does not like in order to maintain himself against competing groups.” Producers must always battle over limited resources, and consumers must always decide how to allocate limited means. The Malthusian/Darwinian struggle of market competition is supposed to ensure that these resources are used, and these means expended, as efficiently as possible. Abundance would cause market rationality to fail, just as it would put a stop to the process of natural selection. It is only insofar as scarcity continues to work as a goad and a spur, so that “the discipline of the market” remains in full force, that production and innovation are able to continue.
Even Marx and Engels are far from despising this logic. In the Communist Manifesto, they note how toil driven by scarcity has created unprecedented accumulations of wealth. They celebrate how “modern industry has established the world market,” and how the capitalist mode of production has brought into being “more massive and more colossal productive forces” than ever before in history. Marx and Engels evince no nostalgia for pre-capitalist modes of production. Nor do they condemn capitalism, as many later critics have done, for multiplying artificial needs. The impact of capitalism, Marx and Engels say, is revolutionary; and to this extent the system is something to be praised and admired, rather than scorned. For “the bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.”
The irony behind Marx’s praise of revolutionary capitalism is really the “objective irony” of the capitalist system itself. For capitalism’s dirty little secret is that it cannot endure its own abundance. This is the key to Marx’s theory of crisis. Again and again, Marx and Engels say, “there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity – the epidemic of over-production.” The wealth that capitalism actually produces undermines the scarcity that remains its raison d’etre. For once scarcity has been overcome, there’s nothing left to drive competition. The imperative to expand and intensify production simply becomes absurd. In the face of abundance, therefore, capitalism needs to generate an imposed scarcity, in order to keep the system going. Capitalism refutes Malthus, but finds it necessary to reinvent him. We can see the fruits of this dilemma today when, even amidst unparalleled worldwide prosperity, and unprecedented accumulations of wealth, the Western welfare state is driven into bankruptcy, and Third World debt is made to mount to unsustainable levels.
What Marx and Engels call “over-production,” William Greider describes as the “supply problem” of global capitalism today. You can increase productivity and efficiency by paying workers less, and by hiring less of them. This is the point of capitalism’s continual “revolutionising [of ] the instruments of production.” In the last thirty years, new information and communications technologies, together with improvements in shipping and transportation, have made such a “revolution” possible. But every transformation has its price. Lowering wages and intensifying the exploitation of labor leads to losses in consumer purchasing power, even as there is more and more stuff for consumers to buy. In theory, lower prices based on lower production costs are supposed to compensate for the imbalance. In practice, however, the compensation is never enough. On a worldwide level, too many goods still remain unsold. Today, as Greider shows, we’re stuck with a”permanent oversupply.” It is not the case that there are too many people who want to drive, compared to the number of automobiles available (or even environmentally sustainable). It is rather the reverse: far more cars are being produced – even without using existing factories to capacity – than there are people who can afford to buy them. The system is stifled by its very success.
Scarcity is never a problem for capitalism; only abundance is. In the mid-twentieth-century, there were two great efforts to resolve the difficulties of oversupply. Both of them worked by stimulating demand. Fordism involved paying workers more, so that they could afford to buy the cars they made. Keynesianism increased demand directly, through government deficit spending. But in the 1970s, with the switch to flexible accumulation, these policies were largely abandoned, because they impeded the smooth flow of capital. Today, although the Bush Adminstration runs huge budget deficits, these do not serve to stimulate demand, since their main effect is to transfer wealth from the ma jority of the population to the extremely rich, who do not correspondingly raise their level of consumption. On the other hand, military Keynesianism – the United States government’s extravagant spending on its armed forces, – is the one “demand-side” policy still in effect. America’s weapons of mass destruction are perhaps the most spectacular examples of Bataillean unproductive expenditure that the world has ever seen. But aside from this, the social stimulation of demand is condemned as “waste”; all that is supposed to be left to the private sector. Even the basic “social safety net” – that last-ditch guarantees of subsistence that is all that remains of the welfare state – is denounced as paternalistic and intrusive. Institutions like the Federal Reserve Bank and the International Monetary Fund insist on deregulation, and only permit market-based, “supply-side” adjustments. Abundance is reigned in, in the name of market stability. In consequence, the more that productivity is unleashed, the more the “supply problem” returns with a vengeance.