The Kingdom of Shadows

The Kingdom of Shadows (just published, as an e-publication for Kindle and Nook) is K. W. Jeter‘s first new full-length novel since Noir (1998). It’s an extraordinary book, though difficult to describe without spoilers. I will do my best.

The Kingdom of Shadows is set just before and during World War II, in Nazi Germany and Hollywood. It could easily be thought of as a historical novel, except for one crucial plot element (which I will avoid giving away here) that pushes it over the line and into the realm of speculative fiction. The “kingdom of shadows” (or Schattenreich, in German) to which the title refers is both the insubstantial world of light and dark (or black and white) that appears on cinema screens, and the world of the Third Reich, in which life has been drained of its colorful variety in the service of a fanatical Idea. Our bodies project shadows, and the ancient philosophers believed that images were emanations from our skin and from the surfaces of other bodies (Deleuze writes of the “particularly subtle, fluid, and tenuous elements” that, according to Epicurus and Lucretius, “detach themselves from the surfaces of things — skins, tunics, or wrappings, envelopes or barks — what Lucretius calls simulacra and Epicurus calls idols”). In the twentieth century, such subtle, almost impalpable emanations were captured by analog photgraphic devices, and then projected as movies.  

It’s well known how the Nazis made use of cinematic mise-en-scene in order to take and consolidate their power. A film like Triumph of the Will exalts the Nazi Party and the German State in terms of an overwhelming, monumentalist aesthetic. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, both ran the German film industry in competition with Hollywood, and helped to organize the society of the Reich as if it were some sort of immense film set. Jeter builds on this to portray all of Nazi Germany as a kind of cinematic epic; the Gotterdamerung of its nihilistic collapse when it loses the war is as much a part of this as was its initial grandiloquent construction. Hollywood is evidently less malign than Nazi Germany — but the technologies of both realms are the same: the cinema-machine as a way of destroying souls by extracting images from bodies, and giving them a monstrous new magnified life on the screen. In this way, the cinema is both a destroyer and a preserver: the kingdom of shadows is both the spectacle of a mutilated life, and the storehouse of our memories, which are the only things we have to counter this mutilation and destruction. 

The plot of The Kingdom of Shadows concerns a small religious minority group, the Lazarenes (invented by Jeter; as far as I know, they had no actual historical existence), who are targeted by the Nazis for extermination on the grounds that they (like the Jews and the Roma) are an “inferior” race. The main character Marte, a young woman of “mixed” Lazarene and “German” blood, ironically comes to embody the myth of “Aryan” supremacy and “purity,” when Goebbels becomes obsessed with her, takes her as his “mistress” (which in this case, really means as his sex slave), and puts her on screen as the Reich’s greatest and most radiant star. As the novel proceeds, she is increasingly separated from herself: turned into a radiant image despite (or secretly because of) the inner suffering and melancholy that almost shines through. Jeter is unsparing in the way that he links the misogyny of Nazi ideology to that of the cinematic machine’s reliance upon women’s “to-be-looked-atness.”

The Lazarenes are visible in Germany as a separate ethnic group because of a genetic quirk: their eyes are always of two different colors. Culturally, they distinguish themselves by a certain secret knowledge transmitted by the elders, and by the tattoos, representing Christ’s stigmata, that all members of the group receive upon initiation into adulthood. The Nazis are obsessed with the Lazerenes’ secret wisdom, which concerns the skin and its images or emanations, and which thereby is related to the cinema as a machinery both of self-perpetuation, and of propaganda and control. The shadow-images that emanate from our skins and get projected on movie screens are flimsy and insubstantial, and yet they are a source of nearly (or potentially) unlimited power. Jeter’s novel moves between the grandiose monstrosity of the Third Reich (and to a lesser extent, of Hollywood) and the inward pain and vulnerability of individual bodies, which is to say of human beings who are entirely exposed to the world through the openness of their skin.

I think that The Kingdom of Shadows is a profound work of media philosophy, due to the way that it draws links between the substantiality and suffering of the flesh, the shadowy impalpability (which is yet not non-existence) of images, and the functioning (both technical and social) of twentieth-century media technologies. The book rethinks the meaning of the horrors of the Nazi era, and their relation to the larger movements of the whole twentieth century (as opposed to the way that all too many contemporary works just invoke Naziism as an easy signifier of ultimate evil). But of course, it is first of all a novel, not a treatise. What really makes the book work is its affective dimension, as conveyed through K. W. Jeter’s dark and melancholy prose. The Kingdom of Shadows is rooted in German Romanticism and (going further back) in the disturbing world of early-Germanic fairy tales, while it also reaches forward to contemporary “dark vitalism” and the poetry of extinction. It’s a devastating book, a descent into the dark night of the twentieth century, from which there can be no easy redemption.

More on (or against) biopolitics

This is something of a followup to what I wrote here, and also here. It is abstracted from an email interview currently in progress. It is pretty rough and undeveloped, but I hope it makes a certain amount of sense.

I both agree and disagree with Hardt and Negri in profound ways. I find their account of the predominance of “affective labor” in the current globalized economy to be incredibly useful. It’s not that such labor didn’t exist before, or that older forms of labor (like industrial labor) have somehow disappeared; but rather that our current social and economic formation is characterized by the hegemony of affective labor processes (together with the hegemony of finance capital over industrial capital, and the importance of continued “primitive accumulation,” or expropriation of formerly public resources, alongside the appropriation and accumulation of surplus value). I think that Hardt and Negri are correct in their observations about “empire” replacing the older forms of imperialism, now that capitalism has truly become global; under this regime, nation-states do not cease to exist, but they play a different role (vis-a-vis an international “market” that they cannot control) than they did formerly. And Hardt and Negri are also right to assert that the extraction of a surplus — which is to say, ultimately, of profit — has now extended well beyond the factory, to encompass all areas of social life, and that this means an increasing appropriation, not only of surplus labor-power, but also of what Marx called “general intellect,” or the accumulated knowledges and capacities of human life as a whole —  including things like habits, everyday practices, forms of know-how, and other potentialities of human (and not just human) “life” in general.

So in this sense I appreciate many aspects of what Hardt and Negri mean by biopolitical power, or the appropriation of the laboring activity of bodies and affects, not just in places of work, but in the overall compass of “life” as a whole. Yet this is also the point at which Hardt and Negri become disturbingly unsatisfactory to me. For what they are describing, under the rubric of biopolitics, affective labor, and the “real subsumption” of all aspects of social existence — and indeed of “life itself” — under capital, is a living nightmare, or a situation of unmitigated horror. For what it means is that we (meaning, by this “we”, everybody who works, whether in an office, a school, a factory, or some other institution, as well as everybody who is unemployed or underemployed, i.e. who does not even get the opportunity to work) — that we, so described, are not just being exploited nine-to-five, but rather all the time, 24/7: in our leisure as well as our work, when we are not being paid as well as when we are being paid, indeed even when we are asleep. This is what it means for capital to appropriate general intellect, and to capture, commodify, and sell not only quantifiable goods and services, but also such impalpable things as atmospheres, feelings, ways of being, or forms of life.

What I find inexplicable in Hardt and Negri is that they describe this situation of hyper-oppression and hyper-exploitation as one in which we are closer than ever to liberation, so that the self-determination of the multitude, as an active, affirmative, constitutive power, is somehow just around the corner — or is even, somehow, already in effect. This sounds suspiciously to me like the old-fashioned Marxist belief (never held, as far as I can tell, by Marx and Engels themselves) that “objective” economic conditions will somehow produce a transition from capitalism to socialism all by themselves, without the need for any sort of political action.

The view that economic processes will lead to revolutionary change all by themselves is precisely what used to be criticized, in many Marxist circles, as “economism.” And yet, I think that the problem with Hardt and Negri’s position is actually the result of their taking “biopolitics” too seriously, instead of subordinating it to economics. The reason for their unearned optimism is because they think that what capital is today exploiting can be designated, all too simply and holistically, as “life.” Where Marx saw labor being expropriated in the commodified form of labor-power, they see “life” as being expropriated directly. But I think this is wrong. There has been no shift from labor to life as a whole. Rather, leisure activities, and even mere sleeping, have been themselves transformed into new particular forms of labor. This allows them to be purchased in the form of labor-power, so that a surplus may be extracted from them.

To appeal to “life” beyond such specific forms of labor is an empty gesture. Indeed, the very idea of “life” in Western thought and culture is an exceedingly problematic one, as Eugene Thacker demonstrates in his brilliant recent book After Life. I am inclined to suggest that “life,” as posited in various discourses (not only those of Hardt and Negri) on biopolitics and biopower, does not exist. It is just an empty hypostatization, a transformation of forces and processes into a supposed essence. If we posit that such an essence has been alienated by practices of governmentality embodied in biopolitics, then it becomes all too easy to fantasize a disalienation that will return “life” to its essence. But this obscures the various forms of production and expropriation that are actually taking place, and puts the focus on tactics of “governmentality,” instead of examining the more basic processes of surplus value extraction and  capital accumulation.

I do not want to sound too harsh here. In fact, Hardt and Negri pay considerably more attention to economic expropriation and exploitation than most other contemporary theorists do. (It is important to note that they do focus on these processes, whereas other radical thinkers — Alain Badiou is the most notable example — programatically bracket and ignore them). But I still think that there is a certain imbalance that comes from their overvaluation of what they call biopolitics.

Also, I’m aware that what has today come to be called “neo-vitalism,” in various configurations, is concerned precisely to emphasize force and affect, rather than essence, in its understanding of how the world works. Evidently, I am largely in accord with this impulse. But I still think that it is dangerously confusing to hypostasize “life” per se in any way. The nineteenth century vitalists wrongly claimed that there was some sort of basic distinction between life and nonlife. They imagined some special process that drove living things, in contrast to the merely mechanistic forces that were supposedly all there was to the inanimate world. Today, this dualism is inadmissible. We should rather say, following Whitehead — and also Latour, Bennett, and the speculative realist philosopher Iain Hamilton Grant — that all materiality, or all of existence, nonliving as well as living, is intrinsically active and agential. It might be better to say, not that everything is alive, but that everything thinks in one way or another. This is the thesis, not of vitalism, but of panpsychism.

The Alchemists of Kush

I haven’t finished reading Minister Faust‘s new novel, The Alchemists of Kush. So I am not going to discuss it in the same detail as I did with his previous novel, From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain. Let me just say, based on what I have read so far (I am about 50% of the way through), that The Alchemists of Kush is another brilliant work of speculative fiction (though it is closer to Minister Faust’s first book, The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad, than it is to Dr. Brain).

The Alchemists of Kush is a work of triangulation: ancient African myth is juxtaposed with the lives of young (teen-aged) African immigrants (from Sudan, Somalia, and elsewhere) in present-day Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. I can best describe the novel in terms of a musical analogue: it’s as if you were to make a kind of mutant crossing between, on the one hand, the cosmic jazz of Sun Ra, with its invocation of ancient Egyptian deities, and on the other hand, the gritty urban hiphop of the Wu-Tang Clan, with its doubling of naturalistic detail into the modern mythologies of martial arts films and comic books.

The Alchemists of Kush is about poverty, violence, and racism; but it’s also about hope, inspiration, and transformation. It doesn’t separate the personal from the political and social, but grasps life from a point at which these dimensions both inhere, even though they also remain separate. Neither is reducible to the other, but at the same time neither is independent of the other. The novel might be described as both Afrofuturist and Afrocentric; but precisely thanks to this stubborn particularity, its aspirations and attainments are universalist.

The Alchemists of Kush goes on sale as an ebook (both Kindle and Nook formats) tomorrow — June 15, 2011 — for $2.99.

And also — If the book hits the Kindle Top 100 on launch day–June 15, 2011 — Minister Faust will donate the first $500 of sales to the South Sudan Development Foundation’s efforts to ship thousands of books (including the 300 he donated) to the Dr. John Garang Memorial University in South Sudan, which currently has no library. Good works for a good book.