Tina Enghoff, photography.

“It is by avoiding the rapid decay into the inert state of ‘equilibrium’ that an organism appears so enigmatic.”
Erwin Schrodinger (What is Life?)

“This rationale holds that the conditions of social life will, in fact, be far less encumbered by atavistic allegiances, xenophobic nationalism, racism and sexism. in direct proportion to the preponderance of market rationality as the basis for allocating social goods. The market alone can achieve the kind of smooth equilibrium that always must elude the irrationality of state, management, coordination, and control.”
Samir Gandesha (Identifying with the Aggressor)

“You don’t need to worry, you will not die until you have finished living”.
Anonymous mother to her child (quoted by Michel de M’Uzan, in Dominique Scarfone, Introudction to The Same and the Identical)

“Ignorance, too, is a form of power.”
Achille Mbembe (Brutalism)

The Belgian psychoanalyst Paul Verhaeghe wrote in the introduction to a recent book that he was now convinced that the changes in the human psyche, linked to social change, and digital technology, were far greater than he had previously thought.

“In recent years, the discussion about identity has flared up nearly everywhere in Europe. The then princess Máxima, the wife of the Dutch crown prince, got into hot water when she made the claim, in 2007, that there was no such thing as a Dutch identity. The True Finns are the third-largest party in the Finnish parliament. Belgium is being torn apart by Flemish nationalism, and elsewhere in Europe nationalist political groups are gaining ground.”
Paul Verhaeghe (What About Me?)

Marc Riboud, photography (Congo, 1961)

The notion of identity is indeed a trending topic. But there are sub-phylum topics trending, too, stuff about consciousness and AI. Transhumanism in general is a hot subject. Gender identity is another sub category of debate. Stereotypes are globalized, and this is one aspect of the internet and social media; one is not only compared to others within the tribe, but against media ideals and the global other. The juxtaposition of various identities, while always a form of stereotyping, is also traditionally based on race, and obvious culture ornamentation. Even the Nazis had to find ‘proof’ someone was a Jew, or gypsy. It wasn’t always obvious. Today, as Verhaeghe notes, there remains distracting debates about the veil or head scarf, about pronouns or even physique. One legacy of fascism (and of the coopted sinister science of eugenics) is that identity is found within. Is fixed, and absolute, and within. Like consciousness, then, the ‘self’ is inside. And here there is an inescapable racial dimension to this identity.

Today, the quest for ‘who I am’ is subcontracted to ‘experts’. Not just psychologists or therapists, but also neuroscientists and geneticists. The infant learns from his or her mother, firstly. Then father, then family. And gradually this is replaced by strangers in various social situations. There are huge amounts of theory relating to every stage in this process. For the purposes here, the point is that a tension exists in early identity formation. A tension between the internalizing of parental instruction, and the mimetic identification with caregiver, and a desire for autonomy. Now the latter is rather more disputed when couched in those terms. But there is some kind of inversion of the originary separation anxiety. Any parent knows the profound change that occurs when (usually) two year olds learn the words ‘no’ and ‘me’.

And here there is another much discussed topic, and that is the gaze or look of the ‘other’. Wilhelm Reich placed great emphasis on the ‘eye block’; the inability to return the look of another. Children who grow up in abusive environments often are unable to look someone else ‘in the eye’. The primal tension between Eros and Thanatos. The life instinct and death instinct (for Freud). And here it is worth again detouring momentarily to look at how the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness is often discussed. The always interesting Benjamin Cain has a brief essay on black holes and consciousness.

Pedro Cabrita Reis

“Once past the event horizon, not even light can escape the black hole’s gravitational pull and return to tell the tale. And once transduced, a perception can be directly experienced only by the perceiver. We can communicate that experience to others, but no one else can have that very experience apart from the perceiver. This subjective privacy of our mental states is essential to our being conscious of having them.”
Benjamin Cain (Black Holes and Consciousness)

I will return to this below. There is another question that Verhaeghe asks, and that has to do with the rise in feelings of guilt, and the relfexive tendency to blame. And this can be traced back to the idea of a perfectable individual. In other words, why is there such an immediate response to failure, or really, even to ambivalence, to feel accused. I have written before about the accusatory quality in so much of social media. And in culture, where difficulty or complexity is experienced as accusation. And here the question of how children learn language looms. Or, more simply, the social environment for children affects how they learn language, and by extension how they narrate themselves to themselves.

“Our body generates impulses relating to pleasure and pain, but it is others who teach us how to deal with them — partly because they are the focus of very many of those impulses (such as sex and aggression).”
Paul Verhaeghe (Ibid)

Mario Eloy (detail)

What psychoanalysts refer to as ‘mirroring’, is now often given over to screens. Children learn from what they see on screens more than from actual people around them. Or, they learn from others also watching screens. We have a generation now learning from manipulative marketing and advertising, or simply from propaganda. Worse, perhaps, parents learn parenting from screens, their expectations about their children, also from marketing campaigns. Gore Vidal used to talk about the manufacturing of ‘opinion’. Parental opinions are now driven by fear. More than ever before children are burdened by the irrational anxiety parents project upon them.

I think the questions being raised by AI, which seems to be given an extraordinary amount of space in media, online and off, is not ONLY a matter of marketing. It is that, to be sure. The so called 4th Industrial Revolution is being hyped constantly as is the promise of artificial intelligence in general. It is also the surfacing of latent (and not so latent) anxieties about the future. The future both social, global and personal. The latency I refer to is I think related to the repression of doubts about technology itself, in its entirety, and a sense of loss. A loss that is indeterminate and ambivalent and situated in the belief of progress. That with progress something is also lost. And yet, nobody talks about it. The loss feels secret. For progress, as an idea, has come to take on religious overtones. And to feel doubt about progress is akin to losing one’s faith in God.

Michel de M’Uzan makes a distinction that is very relevant here. A distinction between the identical and the same. Now de M’Uzan has had only a very partial amount of his work translated into English, but his (probably) most important essays (most notably The Same and the Identical) have been.

“The “perpetual recurrence of the same thing”, which Freud refers to, has nothing to do with the unlimited repetition of the identical.{ } I will come back later on to the profound economic modification that occurs in the act of repetition. For the time being, I shall just recall one aspect of it, the mobilisation of the countercathexis, in other words, the objective alliance concluded between the preconscious refusal and the attraction exerted on the representation in question by unconscious prototypes. In this respect, I would suggest that this attraction should not be conceived of simply as an expression of the compulsion to repeat (Freud, 1926). The representation does not return to the unconscious to agglutinate there with the said prototypes; it first returns to a place where energy circulates more freely in order to gain fresh momentum. We are therefore entitled to speak of a recovery of energy.”
Michel de M’Uzan (The Same and the Identical)

Lee Fook Chee, photography (Hong Kong, Wyndam St. 1952)

So, there is a redistribution of representations (per de M’Uzan), or as he puts it, a ‘dramatization’, all in service to the pleasure principle. This raises the issue, or maybe just topic, of ‘repetition’ per se, and its relationship to the super ego. I wrote last posting about the contemporary super ego, one with heightened sadistic qualities. I would suggest that perhaps the ascendence of the identical is one of the inheritances of digital technology. Now there is a domain prior (sic) to the pleasure principle — or rather a domain of repetition.

“…I distinguished two main orientations of the personality based on the idea of whether or not the category of the past had been solidly elaborated. By the term “past”, I do not mean the sum of lived events, but their internal rewriting—as in the family romance—based on a first narrative.{ } The first narrative, the first real “past” of the individual, is elaborated at the Oedipal stage; that is to say, when all the earlier stages are taken up again and reworked within the framework both of desire, which is henceforth constantly mediated, and of the castration complex. It is as though the real events, once they have been lived, have less importance than the internal narrative that is elaborated and re-elaborated from them. “
Michel de M’Uzan (Ibid)

The first narrative is then the renarrating of the ‘first’ story. I have several times posited this sort of idea, that narration is primary, and it is also inextricably bound up with mimesis. De M’Uzan is linking it, then, to repetition and the death instinct. This re-telling of the ‘past’ will then shadow all ethical and moral calculations the subject makes for his entire life. This can be seen in the transference neurosis — in an analytical situation — which would ideally conclude with an ‘ending’.

“When, however, this category of the past has not been elaborated properly, and a kind of chronology has prevailed over a novelistic past, we observe, in extreme cases, those scattered island (archipelago) personalities which I have described elsewhere (de M’Uzan, 1966). In such situations we witness either sudden eruptions of conglomerates of affect-representation or the predominance of a mode of mechanical thinking (pensée opératoire), or alternatively a mixture of both. These situations are in any case unfit to enter the narrative or novel of the transference-neurosis. It is no longer a question of transference but of postponements; the analysis may then become interminable, punctuated by incidents of direct, mechanical, and reduplicative acting out, since it is always identical, with the result that one has the feeling one is witnessing a repetition of the repetition.”
Michel de M’Uzan (Ibid)

Mimmo Jodice, photography.

This is very significant, I think. Allow me to add de M’Uzan’s own summation of this:

“It is useful to distinguish two types of phenomena among those that are associated classically with the compulsion to repeat. The first of these is characterised by a reproduction of the same and involves structures in which the category of the past has been elaborated sufficiently. The second is characterised by a reproduction of the identical and involves structures in which this elaboration of the past is defective”.

The repetition of the identical is, then, pathological. There is no actual remembering. There is only a mechanical reproduction of narrative. The digital age of screen habituation has inevitably, I think, led to adolescent anxiety that is connected with this defective narration of the individual’s own life history.

The repetition of the identical is, then, a kind of automatism. And it works off an almost autistic erasure of background. And this is not something de M’Uzan discusses, but his descriptions of particular case studies suggests such reduction of specifics and coloration. As he puts it, this is a narrative of a repetition of discharge — where the economic (psychoanalytically speaking) dominates entirely. What this is, then, is a repetition of repetition. It is the masturbatory as narrative. And it must, surely, have ties to technology and screen dependencies.

There is a good deal more to say on this essay, but for now the origin of this compulsion to repeat the identical remains somewhat mysterious to de M’Uzan, but he does add…

“…and we would be tempted to say of such patients that their available libido is not very rich while, at the same time, at a much deeper level, considerable energy is accumulated and discharged, often obscurely, or in a completely hidden manner, in behavioural or even organic repetitions of the identical.”
Michel de M’Uzan (Ibid)

Pietro Annigoni (detail)

Now, all of this is a sort of prologue to examining the contemporary identification with the aggressor, something Adorno and Horkheimer both wrote about, and which is directly connected today to the erosion of trust in ‘self’, and the erosion of thinking in general, of critical thinking, of interpretation. But it remains important to note, too, that even as I write there are enormous protests throughout Europe demanding governments resign. In the Czech Republic, in Italy, in Germany (though the police apparatus is very strong and threatening there) and elsewhere. The people in these protests are not fooled by the rhetoric of the state. So, in what way does there remain this identification with the aggressor? And as a related discussion, unavoidable I believe, how the ideas of allegory and literary theory impinge and then a look at the allegory of astrophysics and of AI.

The psychoanalytic treatment aims for an ending. And this is very tricky. As is the discussion of language as it intersects here, and as it intersects with science.

“For the only medium with which we can define language is language itself. We are therefore unable to circumscribe the whole of language within our definition. “
David Abram (The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World)

“It is worth remembering that the rise of what we call literary fiction happened at a time when the revealed, authenticated account of the beginning was losing its authority. Now that changes in things as they are change beginnings to make them fit, beginnings have lost their mythical rigidity. There are, it is true, modern attempts to restore this rigidity. But on the whole there is a correlation between subtlety and variety in our fictions and remoteness and doubtfulness about ends and origins. There is a necessary relation between the fictions by which we order our world and the increasing complexity of what we take to be the ‘real’ history of that world.”
Frank Kermode (The Sense of an Ending)

Abram notes that meaning has a physical aspect, a mimetic one. And this seems absolutely critical in light of the current algorithmic age.

Krass Clement, photography. (Dublin)

“Faced with an angry or threatening gesture, I have no need, in order to understand it, to [mentally] recall the feelings which I myself experienced when I used these gestures on my own account.… I do not see anger or a threatening attitude as a psychic fact hidden behind the gesture, I read anger in it. The gesture does not make me think of anger , it is anger itself. “
Maurice Merleau-Ponty (Philosophy of Perception)

The conventional theory of language (in short form) is that it is a kind of code. That it is near arbitrary and represents things in the world through agreed upon grammatical rules. Abram touches on something significant though, again using Merleau-Ponty…

“…the overwhelming prevalence of a view that considers language to be an ideal or formal system readily detachable from the material act of speaking? Merleau-Ponty suggests that such a view of language could arise only at a time when the fresh creation of meaning has become a rare occurrence, a time when people commonly speak in conventional, ready-made ways “which demand from us no real effort of expression and … demand from our listeners no real effort of comprehension”—at a time, in short, when meaning has become impoverished.”
David Abram (Ibid)

So, couple this to the idea of a repetition of the identical, of a savage and unforgiving super ego, untethered from the usual governing actors (sic) of our psychic architecture, and I think we are getting close to one of the core realities today. A world of empty speech acts, void of organic or deep meaning, and that are received by the listener in a kind of pattern recognition.

The evolution of thought since the Enlightenment has emphasized the special or unique qualities of humans. Abram rightly, I think, suggests this was a way to justify our growing domination of nature. And one can see easily how this extrapolates into practices like eugenics and on a social level fascism. There is a trajectory, but obviously it is hugely complicated.

Felice Casorati

The idea of (per Saussure) speech and text, and the specific qualities of speech (and here one sees an almost forgotten aspect of theatre) is more or less correct — and that some speech is empty, it is repetitive (!) and only points toward the memory of meaning that was once there, feels also correct. The entertainment industry feels more and more dependent on the memory of meaning and more and more reliant on (as is the audience) on repetition of the identical. This repetitive quality is also found in politics. Joe Biden, perhaps also because of his senility, is speaking gibberish often, but a gibberish that is familiar — for the repetition of the identical has come to feel natural.

The organic sensuous web of interconnections of meaning in speech acts if primary, and how humans learn to speak, to learn a language. There is another almost darker aspect here, and that is that since the scientific revolution there has been a growing reliance on a new kind of text, and on new inflexible textual meanings. Science is about repeating experiments. Again and again. It is the repetition of the identical that is the foundation of science in fact.

Abram quotes from an interview conducted by Knud Rassmussen, at the beginning of the 20th century, with an Inuit woman..

“In the very earliest time when both people and animals lived on earth , a person could become an animal if he wanted to and an animal could become a human being . Sometimes they were people and sometimes animals and there was no difference . All spoke the same language . That was the time when words were like magic . The human mind had mysterious powers . A word spoken by chance might have strange consequences . It would suddenly come alive and what people wanted to happen could happen—all you had to do was say it . Nobody could explain this: That’s the way it was. “
Translated by Edward Field, in Jerome and Diane Rothenberg, eds. (Symposium of the Whole )

Vincent Valdez

There has also been a homogenization of language over the last forty years or so. This is true pretty much for all European languages anyway. Everyone is speaking Google or Microsoft. And Google and Microsoft (et al) are the progenitors of the identical. They are literally manufacturing pathology.

“By definition, all hierarchies should be exposed to contestation. I am in favor of radical equality. Formal equality is meaningless as long as certain bodies, almost always the same, remain trapped in the jaws of premature death. Once equality is secured, we need to work on the best mechanisms of representation. But those who represent us can never be taken to be hierarchically superior to us. Instead they are called upon to perform a service for the care of all. Representation can only be the result of consent and for such consent to be granted, those who represent us must be accountable. Nobody should make decisions on behalf of those who haven’t mandated him or her. The great difficulty these days and for the years to come is that decisions are increasingly made by technological devices. They are determined by algorithmic artefacts which have not been mandated, except possibly by their manufactures. “
Achille Mbembe (interview 2020, Chilperic)

I wanted to detour a little here, for Giorgio Agamben has a terrific book out on the implications of the pandemic.

“We could say that a massive wave of fear caused by a microscopic parasite is traversing humanity, and that the world’s rulers guide and orient it towards their own ends. Limitations on freedom are thus being willingly accepted, in a perverse and vicious cycle, in the name of a desire for security—a desire that has been generated by the same governments that are now intervening to satisfy it.”
Giorgio Agamben (Where Are We Now)

Generating a desire for security. And this is a trend that has increased over the last fifty years. But it has increased dramatically since 2001. Agamben notes also that the edicts handed down by the state (and WHO and CDC) limit human contact.

Nicola Samori

“Still, it is difficult not to notice that the situation which these orders create is exactly that which those who govern us have tried to actualise many times before: the closure of universities and schools once and for all, with lessons conducted only online; the cessation of gatherings and conversations on politics or culture; and the exchange of messages only digitally, so that wherever possible machines can replace any contact—any contagion—among human beings.”
Giorgio Agamben (Ibid)

Again, the demand that society internalize the authority of technology. And again, it is useful to track the emergence of this new(ish) savage Super Ego.

“With the advent of what Friedrich Pollock called in the 1940s state capitalism (Pollock, 1990), we see the emergence of a social formation in which competition between individual firms is supplanted by an administrative state that comes to play a greater coordinating role in managing the tendency towards overproduction and under-consumption. As a result, in Horkheimer’s view, the very logic of socialization changes dramatically.The father now is subject to a dramatic diminution of social power, and therefore autonomy, and his authority within the family begins to decline correspondingly.This leads to what Alexander Mitscherlich(1963) called the society without the father. The argument is that, in displacing the imago of the father in the family and other social institutions onto an increasingly anonymous system of rational-legal authority, the formation of the rational ego misfires and ends up being circumvented by the prevailing super-ego that establishes its unquestioned authority over the drives. In other words, the individual lacks a secure focal point for identification and therefore orientation.”
Samir Gandesha (Ibid)

The popular TV shows of the 1950s ushered in this new impotent father (Ozzie and Harriet, Life of Riley, etc). The same thing could be seen in TV commercials, too. Notwithstanding the Playboy phenomenon, which masks a severe dialectical dynamic between Don Juanism and impotence, the trend was to both establish the fatherless household as an aspect of progress (and modernity) and still retain a patriarchal business worldview.

Casting a shadow over these topics is a seemingly newfound (or newly resurfaced) anxiety about the future. The promises of AI omnipotence are partly a veiled desire for immortality. But, what kind of immortal do people expect to be? And never mind the deep class divisions in all this. I think most of the anxiety of which I am writing is a bourgeois anxiety. For the bourgeoisie in the West (meaning North America and western Europe) are suddenly faced with the spectre of their own pauperization.

Michael Kvium

“A new form of psychic life is emerging, one based on artificial and digital memory and on cognitive models drawn from the neurosciences and neuroeconomics.”
Achille Mbembe (Critique of Black Reason)

Allow me a lengthy quote here from Marcuse on the Super-Ego:

“It originates from the long dependency of the infant on his parents; the parental influence remains the core of the superego. Subsequently, a number of societal and cultural influences are taken in by the superego until it coagulates into the powerful representative of established morality and “what people call the ‘higher’ things in human life.” Now the “external restrictions” which first the parents and then other societal agencies have imposed upon the individual are “introjected” into the ego and become its “conscience”; henceforth, the sense of guilt —the need for punishment generated by the transgressions or by the wish to transgress these restrictions (especially in the Oedipus situation) — permeates the mental life. “As a rule the ego carries out repressions in the service and at the behest of its superego.” However, the repressions soon become unconscious, automatic as it were, and a “great part” of the sense of guilt remains unconscious.
Franz Alexander speaks of the “transformation of conscious condemnation, which depends upon perception (and judgment), into an unconscious process of repression”; he assumes a tendency toward a decrease of mobile psychic energy to a “tonic form” — corporealization of the psyche. This development, by which originally conscious struggles with the demands of reality (the parents and their successors in the formation of the superego) are transformed into unconscious automatic reactions, is of the utmost importance for the course of civilization. The reality principle asserts itself through a shrinking of the conscious ego in a significant direction: the autonomous development of the instincts is frozen, and their pattern is fixed at the childhood level. Adherence to a status quo ante is implanted in the instinctual structure. The individual becomes instinctually re-actionary — in the literal as well as the figurative sense. It exercises against itself, unconsciously, a severity which once was appropriate to an infantile stage of its development but which has long since become obsolete in the light of the rational potentialities of (individual and social) maturity. The individual punishes itself (and then is punished) for deeds which are undone or which are no longer incompatible with civilized reality, with civilized man. The superego thus enforces not only the demands of reality but also those of a past reality. ”

Herbert Marcuse (Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud)

The growth and intensification of this super ego of today is partly the result of the infantilization of the society at large. It is mediated by the abdication of interpreting the world, and its handing this off to digital technologies, algorithms, and media sponsored experts. Why was this faculty abdicated? Part of the answer is, again, infantalism, but more, it is the loss of a recognition of Nature as such. So pervasive is the idea of cataloguing natural phenomena and the ease with which they was handed off to technical devices, that humans stopped, literally, watching nature. Only children, and very young children at that, still observe nature carefully. But the identification of the aggressor is tied to these changes as well. The over zealous super ego develops amid growing economic precarity, the dismantling of nearly all social welfare services, and the propaganda intensification of ‘individualism’ — particularly in the U.S:

Agamben’s tone is one of bewilderment in a sense. As is mine and as are most of the people I know. I think we are all stunned at, as I have written, the current ‘unreality’. The current state of eased restrictions following two years of lockdowns (and a further transference of wealth to the very tip top 1%) is creating a normalizing of a denuded life — for fear pervades all social interaction even today. I see nobody hug, not even romantic couples. I see fewer handshakes and I see an increased quality of rigidity in the posture of people. There is a stiffness to movements and beneath this is a suppressed anger. The infantile adult of today is having to work with increased diligence to not have a tantrum. How does this relate to the questions, at a core level, of consciousness? I would answer that never before (perhaps paradoxically) has it been more obvious that consciousness, that being alive, is very distant indeed from artificial intelligence.

“I have written elsewhere that science has become the religion of our time. The analogy with religion must be read to the letter. Theologians declared that they could not clearly define God, but in his name they dictated rules of behaviour and burned heretics without hesitation; virologists admit that they do not know exactly what a virus is, but in its name they insist on deciding how human beings should live.
If we leave the realm of current events and try to consider things from the perspective of the human species’s destiny on earth, the reflections of Louis Bolk, a great Dutch scientist, come to mind. According to Bolk, the human species is characterised by a progressive inhibition of its natural, vital processes of adaptation to its environment. These processes are superseded by a hypertrophic growth of technological apparatuses designed to adapt the environment to mankind. When this process exceeds a certain limit, it becomes counterproductive and transforms itself into the self-destruction of the species. Phenomena such as the one we are currently experiencing indicate that that point has already been reached, and that medicine—which should have cured our sickness—runs the risk of furnishing us with “with an even greater disease.”

Giorgio Agamben (Ibid)

Antonio Palomino (Archangel Michael defeating Satan 1692)

The longstanding balance between religion, capitalism, and science has shifted.“What is new is that, without us noticing, a subterranean and implacable conflict between science and the other two religions has ignited. Science’s triumphs appear today before our very eyes, and they determine in an unprecedented way every aspect of our existence. This conflict does not pertain, as it did in the past, to general theories and principles but, so to speak, to cultic praxis. No less than any other religion, science organises and arranges its own structure through different forms and ranks. To its elaboration of a subtle and rigorous dogmatics corresponds, in praxis, a vast and intricate cultic sphere that coincides with what we call ‘technology’.”
Giorgio Agamben (Ibid)

There are other factors here, and one is the structural changes in capitalism itself. Gandesha mentions Lazzarato who focused on debt — mortgages, and especially student loan debt, and how the state came to be the lender of last resort, as it were. The rise of the ‘indebted man’. And this, on top of the atrophying of (at least symbolic) patriarchal power has led to yet another factor that erodes potential for solidarity. Debt guilt. The shrinking ego, the increased savagery of the Super Ego, and algorithmic mediation of all social relations, has led to a new sort of bourgois sense of anxiety, if not fear. A fear of a lost future. And this takes us back to the rise of AI and computational capitalism. Adorno presciently saw the coming problems…

“We become free human beings not by each of us realizing ourselves as individuals, according to the hideous phrase, but rather that we go out of ourselves, enter into relations with others, and in a certain sense relinquish ourselves to them.Only through this process do we determine ourselves as individuals,not by watering ourselves like plants in order to become well-rounded cultivated personalities.”
Theodor Adorno (Working Through the Past)

The indebted man will easily assuage his anxiety by submitting to government decrees, while at the same time ‘working on himself’. There is a reason the therapeutic culture so entrenched itself in the West. The lockdowns probably came as a relief to a segment of the bourgeoisie. One was instructed to NOT go out of themselves, either figuratively or literally. The contradiction of individualism and uncritical obedience was sublimated, and the confinement actually came as a way to reduce anxiety. The loss of any safety net, the financialization of capital, and the shuttering of small retail — acute during the lockdowns– all serve to intensify feelings of insecurity. Where is the future in this? A future that served for most of the 20th century as a touchstone belief for the bourgeois class. The future was suspended, obedience to the laws of contagion becoming the ostensible temporary mark of responsibility.

Tatiana Blass

A number of psychoanalysts have noted the quality of vanishing in many of their patients. Gandesha quotes Jay Frankel on this, but there are others. The emergence of autism as a central condition of post modernity is another expression of this vanishing. The search for ‘self’ becomes a search for psychic refuge. The self becomes a frightening spectre, and I get the sense that many no longer ‘really’ want to find it. Identity is resigned to the screen.

The loss of experience is something I have written about a good deal. Aesthetic impairment that comes out of a compulsive repetition of the identical. A digital memory, as Mbembe described it. AI is, then, can be seen as introduced to replace actual memory, actual experience. The vanishing was psychological, and partly symbolic, but it became literal. People disappeared. Suddenly the streets were empty. The sense of omnipotent death squads patrolling suburbia and downtown alike. It was the dream of Travis Bickle, and his opening monologue (VO) in Taxi Driver. Interestingly Schrader’s screenplay is based on the diaries of Arthur Bremer, the man who tried to assassinate George Wallace. Bremer’s diaries (at one point serialized in The Atlantic) make for remarkable reading. And as a side bar the figure of Wallace is worth comparing to Trump, something I’ve not noticed anyone doing. But I digress.

The progress toward a Disney-like Tomorrowland was interrupted. Not by an actual black plague or even Spanish flu circa 1918, but by a relatively mild SARS virus of the sort that has been endured for decades. Still, the streets were empty, storefronts boarded up, and people huddled around their computer screens, the 21st century version of a fire in the hearth. In the 14th century the future was not foregrounded as the goal for the perfectible man. The future was in God’s hands. The Black Death ravaged Europe twenty years after the death of Dante, and twenty one years after he completed The Divine Comedy.

Agamben rightly notes the Manichean principle at work in the Corona pandemic — the malign God (the virus) and a beneficent God, recovery. Not health — but recovery.

“The medical religion has unreservedly adopted from Christianity the eschatological appeal dropped by the latter. Capitalism, by secularising the theological paradigm of salvation, had already eliminated the idea of the end times, replacing it with a permanent state of crisis without redemption or end. ”
Giorgio Agamben (Ibid)

Michelangelo (detail, The Last Judgement, the dead ascending to heaven)

“Since you are so eager to know more,”   →
she answered, “I shall be brief in telling you
why I am not afraid to enter here.
‘ “We should fear those things alone
that have the power to harm.
Nothing else is frightening.”

Dante Alighieri (The Inferno, Canto II Hollander trans.)

In a note found on Merleau-Ponty’ desk, after his death, he had scribbled to himself:

“In what sense the visible landscape under my eyes is not exterior to … other moments of time and the past, but has them really behind itself in simultaneity, inside itself, and not it and they side by side “in” time. “

David Abram asks where in the sensuous world can one find the past and the future? This is where genuine questions of the psyche must exist. Husserl and Merleau-Ponty both wondered at pre-conceptual experience. Pre verbal. The life of the infant. The young child.

This (per Agamben) new biosecurity state, or ‘health terror’ has imposed obligations to be healthy. Agamben notes that the traditional dynamic between the material (or corporeal) and the spiritual has been subsumed by the biological. But this is, as I noted before, a bourgeois expression of domination. Not that it doesn’t affect everyone, because it does, but that the authors of this terror (Bill Gates for example) are ideologically situated as part of the bourgeoisie. Gates is ruling class but his mentality remains bourgeois. He was born into wealth but his sensibility is stunningly middle brow. His values are ruling class, his privileged sense of his own value….but there remains something oddly provincial about him. Von der Leyen is pure aristo fascist. So is Schwab, rather obviously. But Gates, and Bezos too, their vision is one steeped in bourgeois historical beliefs.

The working class, globally, has largely rejected this health terror. It is possible to imagine a ‘biosecurity resistance’ forming across Europe in the not too distant future. Much as happened in France during WW2 against the Vichy government and the Third Reich.

The question remains how to dissect the contemporary malaise and sense of unreality. Wilhelm Reich saw neurosis as libidinal blockage. He saw this expressed in muscle tension. The unhealthy (and often masochistic) individual will exhibit stiffness and tension, and an increased withdrawal from the outside world. And here again, the theory becomes allegory. The state demands social distancing. Demands at home teaching, schooling, etc. The withdrawal is literal, but it is also a psychological symptom.

Arthur Bremer (Wheaton Plaza, stalking Wallace). 1972.

Remember, too, that Reich was arrested in December 1941 (a year after he arrived in the US) by the FBI. He was deemed a ‘dangerous enemy alien’. He was released a short while later but surveillance and harassment continued. He was, after all, from a country now at war with the US. Never mind the logic, this was the FBI — and this was America. Now Agamben too has been just pilloried in the US press for his statements on the pandemic. The always reactionary Slate has a piece titled What Happened to Agamben? by Adam Kotsko. Now I have written about the odious Kotsko before. Suffice it to say he is an ardent admirer of Zizek, and a regular contributor to the cringe worthy LA Review of Books. Another piece was titled Agamben WTF? These are all from liberal outlets. Another is titled What’s Wrong with Agamben? You get the idea.

“The inhibition of the destructive impulses by the threatening outer world not only increases anxiety and makes the discharge of the libido even more difficult than before; in addition, it creates a new antithesis. The destructive impulses toward the world are more or less turned toward the self, thus adding the counterparts of self-destruction to the destructive impulse and masochism to sadism.”
Wilhelm Reich ( A Note on the Basic Conflict Between Need and Outer World Character-Analysis)

Reich is a polorizing figure today. I think Riccardo Gramantieri’s paper Re-Emergence of the Death Instinct in Reich’s Final Experiment is worth a read.

“Two notorious terms have emerged out of the debates that happened during this health emergency. It was obvious that their only purpose was to discredit those who kept thinking in defiance of the fear that paralysed all thought. These terms are ‘denier’ and ‘conspiracy theorist’. It is not worth saying much about the first term. Those who use it incautiously equate the current epidemic with the Holocaust, demonstrating (consciously or not) the antisemitism that runs rampant in both Left and Right discourse. As some rightly offended Jewish friends of mine have suggested, it might be opportune for the Jewish community to comment on this ignoble terminological abuse.”
Giorgio Agamben (Ibid)

Photographer unknown. Rat catchers, Galveston, during Bubonic plague outbreak, 1920.

I have written a good deal about the current uptick in antisemtism. Often a structural antisemtism. Agamben’s observation here has implications that go further than one might, at first, suspect. The scapegoat mechanism (as Girard has articulated) seems firmly embedded in contemporary society. None of this health terror is possible, however, without the crisis, ongoing, with the western bourgeoisie — and the attendant psychic strip mining in which media and digital tech has played such a big role. This last few years, now, has also served to disfigure the moral and ethical compass of the this class. And again, race enters this discussion for this is a white crisis.

“A country that decides to renounce its face, to cover with masks the faces of its citizens everywhere is, then, a country that has purged itself of any political dimension. Inhabiting this empty space, which is at every moment subjected to a control which knows no limits, individuals now live in isolation from one another. They have lost the immediate and sensible foundation of their community, and they can only exchange messages directed towards a name that no longer possesses a face. A faceless name.”
Giorgio Agamben (Ibid)

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  1. Johan Eddebo says:

    Eye block. I see this all the time. The younger people in my congregation avert their eyes. They don’t meet the other’s gaze.

    On the essential privacy of consciousness, I think this is a Western-Cartesian… if not error per se, at least an over-emphasized half-truth. Japanese philosophers would probably say something to the effect that sure, your subjective experience is unique, but that doesn’t preclude others from indirectly partaking in it. That it’s private, yet not absolutely so. I wrote a little about this in my recent essay on friendship.

    “In other words, why is there such an immediate response to failure, or really, even to ambivalence, to feel accused.”

    This is probably part of why they look away. But there is also genuine accusation everywhere. When I diverge from the standard narratives, I explicitly get lumped together with nazis and antisemites. I am IMMEDIATELY portrayed as the ultimate evil, which seems like an extremely neurotic response. The MeToo moment a sort of fruit from the same tree, an outburst of diverted, impotent rage.

    “For progress, as an idea, has come to take on religious overtones. And to feel doubt about progress is akin to losing one’s faith in God.”

    Oh yes. There’s nothing but progress. There’s nothing – NOTHING – left if you let go of this last vestige of a hope for some sort of redemption. Secularism’s last reflected gleam of its religious heritage. Fisher was right here – this is what haunts us. This is what haunts end-stage modernity.

    “When, however, this category of the past has not been elaborated properly, and a kind of chronology has prevailed over a novelistic past …”

    This seems very significant. Is the idea that a coherent narrative of one’s life is being replaced by “chronology”, i.e. by the symbolic iterations of unduly “burdened” periods of time? I see this in my own reflection all the time. It’s a focus on years, numbers of years, an obsession with the quantity of accumulated age, rather than the cohesive narrative which bind them together. I compare my recollection of the past “20 years” to my culturally imprinted associations to e.g. the 70s & the 80s, and find myself disconcerted at the fact that “my” 20 years can’t measure up to the symbolically charged eras of the past. Do I desire to repeat them? Maybe. Yeah. But indeed “[t]here is no actual remembering. There is only a mechanical reproduction of narrative.” And as you so brilliantly interject here – there’s very much an identification with the aggressor in play. In this process, I actually assume the subject-role of mass culture’s pseudo-experience in a very tangible sense.

    This is of course also a consequence of entertainment and popular culture forming the very foundation of our referential framework in the modern worldview (since entertainment and popular culture is precisely what symbolically inscribes these socially constructed “eras”.

    “So, couple this to the idea of a repetition of the identical, of a savage and unforgiving super ego, untethered from the usual governing actors (sic) of our psychic architecture, and I think we are getting close to one of the core realities today. A world of empty speech acts, void of organic or deep meaning, and that are received by the listener in a kind of pattern recognition.”

    And I see in transhumanism a sort of epitome of all of this. The quintessential exemplification of alienation, a sort of radical affirmation of an absolute reductionism in which relation and rootedness is entirely absent. Genealogically connected all the way back to the nominalism of the 1200s of course.

    And the fruit is a sort of nietzschean purification of will and desire. Ostensible purification, since the actual causal relationships are always there, even if we can no longer name them or think about them. A violent affirmation of “will” and “desire” in a context where we have no existential anchoring, no focal points for orientation and political self-sufficiency. A volatile, blind agency that can be guided towards anything and everything. And which will inevitably tend towards internalizing the authority of the technological spectacle.

    “The entertainment industry feels more and more dependent on the memory of meaning and more and more reliant on (as is the audience) on repetition of the identical. This repetitive quality is also found in politics. Joe Biden, perhaps also because of his senility, is speaking gibberish often, but a gibberish that is familiar — for the repetition of the identical has come to feel natural.”

    This is… Profoundly disturbing. Politics isn’t just reduced to incantation, it’s mere nonsense. Word salad framed with trappings to make it at least distantly familiar. Exactly like “AI art” and it’s uncanny appropriation of the likes of Bouguereau. There’s something of the uncanniness of the undead here. A parody of the living, with just enough familiarity and life-likeness to render it recognizable as a horrifying perversion of the original.

    Is this also an image of the death of the father? The memetic subversion of distributed popular self-reliance in mass culture’s framework?

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