December 28, 2008

Aesthetical-Ethical Aporia: Love and Terror

Filed under: Political — Graham Coulter-Smith

Although I love theory, and this essay has to be about love as it concerns humanity and death, I also have a great deal of sympathy with Pierre Bourdieu when he characterised theory as  “conceptual gobbledygook” . Bourdieu was referring to Anglo-American rationalistic scientism in sociology when he wrote that, but he also turned a similar criticism towards the intelligentsia in his book Distinction.  The philosophisation of the image has taken us away from any clear image of ourselves in contrast to the classical and Christian tradition with its heroism and hope. Although, this is not entirely true, because we have to agree with Nietzsche that the image of God on the cross is supremely sado-masochistic, a taste of things to come as it were. Even Nietzsche didn’t really get the picture, he was still wrapped up in classicism when he created the image of the Overman. After Auschwitz that man is now over.
Realism was one of the great breakthroughs in early 19th century art liberated from the constraints of church and courtly patronage, however, it enjoyed only a brief heyday. It could have evolved if artists had been more aware of the sociological power of photography—if they had been more aware of their new society. And this was certainly an option considering that after the decline of church and courtly patronage artists were confronted with the possibility of freedom of political expression. Instead of embracing photography as a means of understanding the human condition in a much broader sense than was ever before possible, artists used this new technology merely as a drawing tool. An intellectual liaison of art and photography never came to fruition in the nineteenth century. Instead it was photography that took over the social role of exploring humanity and expanding our vision of the world. Photography began to shine a dark light on war and poverty and beginning with the stark images that came out of the American Civil war we began to see ourselves in a manner very different from classical idealisation. Art in contrast became absorbed in philosophical speculation, imaging the human from within. In a sense, with abstraction, epitomised by Malevich’s Black Square, art began to reveal the abyss that lies within and without us. The Black Square is a philosophical portrait of the new humanity, a portrait of humanity in the image of science: one replete with possibilities but frightening in its lack of any guiding consciousness.
The belief that fine art equalled not-photography (not-real) was encouraged by the already well-established relationship between romantic philosophy and the arts that followed in the wake of Kant’s “Copernican revolution”. This relationship led into the metaphysical and aestheticist territory that still dominates fine art today in the form of conceptualism with its vestigial and somewhat embarrassing pretensions to “transgression”. Embarrassing in the light of the fact that art like romanticist philosophy has been looking inward for so long it hardly recognizes the phenomenon we call society. For example, since the decline of realism in the second half of the 19th century fine art has been increasingly dedicated to antinarrative. I received an e-mail at work the other day about a visiting artist’s talk, I reproduce part of the text below and for the sake of good manners I will refer to the artist as X:

X is interested in the tension between truth and fiction, reality and invention. …  X’s work questions the way in which we map and classify the world around us in order to understand it.

This is the fashionable poststructuralist thing to say, reality is fundamentally incomprehensible, we classify it knowing that such attempts are utterly contingent and there is scarcely any difference between truth and fiction. All we can do is offer up our prayers to the departed spirits of Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida and Friedrich Nietzsche. What we are speaking about here is a pervasive pessimism regarding the human condition and consciousness, punctuated only by the hysterical laughter of contemporary absurdist art (John Bock, Paul McCarthy, Maurizio Cattelan).
Since 9/11 the world outside the cloistered sanctum of the contemporary art museum is not that much better, the politics of fear that is the “war on terror” reveals a similar reduction of ethics to the condition of aesthetics most evident in the use of the totally unempirical, value-laden term “evil”. During the course of the twentieth century, the most lethal period in human history, we have increasingly realised the abstractness of the concept of evil. Like space and time evil is not an entity we can point to—only effects can be pointed too. From an ethical standpoint such effects are usually considered to be the results of “evil” if there was an intention. Yet it is the case that even horrific acts of violence intentionally inflicted on other human beings are not understood as evil.
Hiroshima is not considered evil, whereas the Holocaust is. Yet there is no rational basis upon which we can judge the difference between these two instances. Instead, we intuit the difference, but intuition is dubious because it is a faculty programmed by the culture we inhabit. The ingenious mixture of bombs with incendiaries in the allied strategic bombing during WWII led to numerous fire storms: Hamburg, 45,000 dead; Dresden, 25-45,000 dead; Tokyo (with napalm bomblets, particularly creative) 120,000 dead. And then we can add Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This policy of incinerating predominantly women, children and elderly men and subjecting people to the horrific effects of radiation seems comparable to the human suffering inflicted in Auschwitz.
From the point of view of intentionality: the bombing of Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki seems to have been pragmatic whereas the intention informing the Holocaust does not. Or is this the case? The Holocaust could also be described as pragmatic due to its basis in eugenics, “the self-direction of human evolution”, which was considered scientific for some time. Eugenics, however, is based on a radical misunderstanding of Darwinian evolution which absolutely requires randomised mutation to work its creative magic. Eugenics was originally formulated by Francis Galton in the late nineteenth century and widely accepted in intellectual circles in the early twentieth century. The luminaries involved in the eugenics movement indicate that we are not dealing with irrationalism: H. G. Wells, Emile Zola, George Bernard Shaw, John Maynard Keynes, William Keith Kellogg and Margaret Sanger.  We might also add Heidegger to the list due to the fact that he was not only a card-carrying Nazi but also had the ambition of becoming the principal philosopher of National Socialism,  and yet he is now celebrated and revered within the context of contemporary philosophy.
Our capacity for forgiveness, I would suggest, is motivated not only by pragmatism but also by our awareness of our own ethical inadequacies. Ironically, given their pretensions to be the master race, the Nazi’s provided the most prominent demonstration of human weakness in human history. And returning to the ethical aporia that stems from what might be termed the Holocaust/Hiroshima differend,  Eric Markusen and David Kopf note:

In both the Holocaust and strategic bombing, scientific rationalization helped legitimate the adoption of policies that entailed mass killing. Thus, members of several academic disciplines in Nazi Germany, including physics and medicine, provided allegedly scientific justification for racist anti-Jewish measures. Scientific rationalization also played an important role in promoting the adoption of [the Allies’] mass bombing. Policymakers tended to ignore scientific findings with which they disagreed and to uncritically accept those that supported their preferences. …
A final, and crucial, similarity …  is that both the Holocaust and strategic bombing violated international law. Specifically, both projects featured actions that constituted war crimes (which include “murder, ill-treatment or deportation to slave labor or for any other purpose of civilian population of or in occupied territory”) and crimes against humanity (which include “murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, before or during the war”).

Is informative that we consider the Holocaust evil yet rationalise Hiroshima as what might be termed “necessary evil”. Whether a particular massacre becomes defined as evil or not-evil appears to hang not on reason as Kant supposed, but on who has the dominant speaking position. Moreover, standing outside the dominant discourse one could conclude that the horrible things organised groups of people do to one another is sublime because it confounds conscious, rational understanding. This brings one to the image of humanity that is most often projected in transgressive modern/postmodern art. It also brings us to the differend.
Lyotard defined the differend as “the unstable state of language wherein something which must be put into phrases cannot yet be”.  The differend is thus, ethics beyond words and is intimately interconnected with his understanding of the romantic aesthetic of the sublime. Another way of putting it is to say that the differend is beyond communication, which takes us further than Lyotard’s philosophical focus on language games and into domain of images. Although we invariably lapse in this respect, we should no longer make any distinction between language and images because since photography; more specifically, since photo-technical reproduction, images have become an integral part of everyday discourse in newspapers, magazines, television, film and the Internet. We can also mention fine art but until it enters mass media it is almost irrelevant in comparison.
The differend of the image is the imaginary: what Guy Debord called the spectacle and Baudrillard termed hyperreality and simulation. In other words the promise of photography to show us the entire world, to show us the entire human race only succeeded in turning our image of ourselves into a chaos of fragments. One thinks here of Douglas Huebler’s absurdist-conceptualist project, Variable Piece, conceived in the early 1970s, to photograph everyone in existence.
The differend is ethical aporia which segues into the aesthetic aporia of modern/postmodern art that is the sublime. When classicism ruled it used to be easy to portray humanity, one had beauty. We still have beauty but it is inextricably intertwined with its other. We still have love, but we are now more acutely aware of how tightly love and bliss are bound up with the transhuman abyss. By “transhuman abyss” I mean the stochastic complexity of both unconscious neurological and sociological processes. I mean a scientific view of human behaviour that is akin to Nietzsche’s idea that our actions are the product of an unconscious flux of natural forces. The difference is that science is beginning to model such forces computationally. Science can even “design” a chemical for love, the most spiritual human condition in the wake of the death of God: 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine. This chemicalisation of our most precious possession is portrayed in Carsten Höller’s Pealove Room, 1993, an installation in which a love swing was suspended from the gallery ceiling together with a bottle of phenethylamine (PEA).
This brings us into the post-romanticist condition of the posthuman, where we begin to understand ourselves as a species of machine (cf. Deleuze). But what a machine! And machines, or the machinic, takes us away from the aporia of the differend into the realm of the informatic, takes us into the possibility of intercommunicability. The machine that is our body-mind is intimately, although by no means straightfordwardly, implicated in the other machines that are other beings, and then the machine that is society, the environment, the universe and, it would appear, other dimensions.
Falling back to earth we return to the differend to the informatic aporia that is our current inability to communicate amidst a cacophony of language games punctuated with a manifold of images beyond the kind of rational classification to which Kant was so meticulously dedicated. This babel of information is most certainly beyond the limited grasp of any individual consciousness: even Kant’s. And one thinks here of Jenny Holzer’s Truisms series which deconstructs the notion that there can be any book of rules for correct human behaviour. Instead of the ten commandments Holzer gives us the ten thousand platitudes. What is interesting about her truisms is that they are fragmentary, which is typical of romanticist aestheticism, there is no narrative. There is no attempt at integration of what Lyotard calls “phrases” into a coherent ethical picture. The implication is that no such picture is possible. We have become both ethically silenced and blinded.
But we are still evolving and evolution specialises in chaos and complexity. Out of this sublime post-Judeo-Christian, post-Marxian chaos of fragments a million narratives could be synthesised via a process of contingent recombination. In the Nietzschean perspectivism that ensures we would realise that none of these narratives could possibly be entirely “correct”. At best they are metaphors, allegories. And, crucially, within the collisions and collusions of fragmentary images and phrases the notion of “evil” becomes just another free playing signifier rather than the master narrative conceived by Judeo-Christian theology, or the politics of fear.
Bataille the surrealist “philosopher of evil” was ahead of the postmodern game. But how do we stomach his celebration of war? Sylvère Lotringer reports that “In the Spring of 1939, while everyone was praying for peace, Bataille could be found hailing the war as ‘something ordinary life lacked—something that causes fear and prompts horror and anguish,’ like falling off a rooftop, or a volcano erupting.” 
There was certainly a regressive, infantile aspect to Bataille. Think of  Story of the Eye which Bataille wrote under a pseudonym and was frightfully embarrassed when it was revealed he was the author, but the book is hilarious when read today. Bataille’s inspired infantilism resonates with the child-like violent subject matter evident in artists such as Jake and Dinos Chapman, Paul McCarthy and Kendell Geers. One thinks for example, of the Chapman brothers’ Hell, 2000, and Geers’ After the Treason of Images, 2001, which references Magritte’s painting of a pipe with the phrase “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” written underneath. But in Geers’ version the image is of the Twin Towers burning on 9/11. At one level this refers to the Baudrillarian cliché of the hyperrealisation of terror. But there is another register of meaning because in French slang “une pipe” means a “blow job”, and so the text also reads “this is not a blow job”. Which is to say Al Qaeda is not getting down on its knees to give pleasure to the United States of America (a deliberately masculinist image for a masculinist empire). But this does not entail that the penetration of the Twin Towers was without sexual connotation. Here was a metaphorical species of sodomy rather than fellatio. Yet maybe there was an iota of love in this act of intercourse especially in the sense that the violators died in the act. Rapists do not usually kill themselves in the act; and so we have a something more akin to a thwarted love story. 
Bin Laden emerged out of the American funding of the mujahideen during the Soviet-Afghanistan War. That was the love affair, indeed it has been made into a Hollywood film: Mike Nichols’ Charlie Wilson’s War, 2007.   Nichols’ film shows us in glossy, glorious, glowing Panavision the humanity and generosity of the Americans and how sorely they were repayed. What is judiciously omitted in this love story is the other woman: Palestine, and a string of other cast-offs.
The film also omits the contribution of the CIA to turning Afghanistan into a terrorist training camp. Under instructions from Director of Central Intelligence William Casey, the CIA initiated programs for training Afghans in techniques such as car bombs and assassinations and engaging in cross-border raids into the USSR.  According to Adam Curtis’ remarkable film The Power of Nightmares,  when the Soviets retreated Bin Laden and his buddies spent a significant amount of time in their Afghan training camp researching their new enemy, and former lover, by watching Hollywood disaster movies. In fact they were considering making their own movie. It would be a super-spectacular and have the avant-gardist edge of bringing art into life. One thinks here of the movie Three Days of the Condor (1975) in which a CIA facility is staffed by professors of literature and media studies dedicated to cross-referencing books, magazines and comics against actual and potential CIA operations. Fiction and reality intersect: it is a very Baudrillardian plot.
But returning to Bin Laden as a species of Hollywood director, there must have been an element of enjoyment and identification as well as a strategic interest in watching those American films. Indeed I was listening to the BBC World Service the other day discussing the way in which Al Qaeda has developed into a global  “franchise” whose “directors” refer to the American Empire as “the competition”; all of which recalls their former roles as business colleagues in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Business and passion are bedfellows, especially in competition, and I think we are entering here into Freudian-Bataillean territory where love and death are entwined and where, in Bataillean terms, war is “sacred”. Al Qaeda are famous for their statement, attributed to Bin Laden: “We love death”. Bush and Blair did not appreciate its poetry, its implicit critique of the capitalist, materialist rejection of the sacred, for which people gladly die. And the notion that this has anything to do with virgins waiting in Paradise misses the point. Love is here on earth and that is what we are prepared to extinguish ourselves for. In my opinion Bataille got that right.
Shortly after the 3/11 (11-M), 11 March 2004 bombing in Madrid I read an article about suicide bombing that provided a social-pscyhological perspective on the phenomenon. What fascinated me about this article, and what makes me more convinced about the relevance of Bataille’s surrealist philosophy to an understanding of terrorism, is that the fundamental explanation for why someone would be a suicide terrorist is love. Obviously the scientists don’t put it in such terms, they prefer to refer to notions such as the “brotherhood mentality” and “groupthink”. Michael Bond explains that:

[a] sense of duty to the community but especially to a brotherhood of peers is, many psychologists agree, the single most important reason why rational people are persuaded to become suicide bombers. ” …  Merari  has found this “brotherhood mentality” in everyone he has studied who has willingly killed themselves for a common cause, including the 9/11 bombers, kamikaze pilots and the IRA hunger strikers.

This article struck a note in me when the 7/7, the 7 July 2005 bombing took place in London because one of the bombers failed to get into his position in this coordinated attack. He missed the train and soon his “brothers” would be dead. He could have walked away from this terrible scene, he could have disappeared in the crowd forever. But instead he got on a bus and detonated the bomb there.
Bataille’s notion that evil is wrapped up in love and the sacred resonates also in documentary fiction in the television drama Longford (2006) in which the  psychopathic killer Myra Hindley (Samantha Morton) describes her act of killing children, with her lover Ian Brady, as deeply spiritual. A recent television programme reported that prison staff and counsellors got on well with Hindley and that there was even a chance she would be paroled but this was quashed by the Home Secretary due to public outrage. Since her death she has had a work of art dedicated to her, Marcus Harvey’s Myra, 1995: an image of Hindley’s face constructed out of pixel-like greyscale handprints of children. We should certainly reflect upon our desire to punish Myra Hindley, a desire all the more powerful because the perpetrator is female; which should alert us to the sexual dimension of evil and its dialectical relationship to love.
Bataille appears to have been besotted with Freud’s notion of the death drive. For Bataille all human beings love death because of our primal desire for fusion with the other which entails an annihilation of the self. A similar idea is evident in Hegel’s discussion of self-consciousness in terms of recognition by the other in the abyss of the master/slave dialectic (cf. Joseph Losey’s remarkable film The Servant, 1963).  And recognition seems very pertinent to 9/11, because on that day the slaves demanded and acquired the recognition of the master. 9/11 was communicative action but not in the post-Kantian, rationalistic manner imagined by Habermas. 9/11 was more visceral more passionate, more an instance of corporeal communication; almost an orgy of communication with bodies crashing into and fusing with other bodies.
And if we look deeply inside ourselves, as did Bataille, we might become aware that Thanatos is not simply about aggression, hate and anger—what we would call “evil”—it is also about the sublime other of evil that is love. It was Bataille who pointed out, inspired by Nietzsche and Sade, that Thanatos and Eros are two sides of the same extraordinary flux of creative energy (called variously by romantic philosophy: “Will”, “will to power”, “libido”, “desire” etc.).
At its most profound, at its most “mad” (Breton) love is a total dissolution of ego, a total spiritual (there is no other word) fusion with the other as far away from violence and evil as it is possible to travel. Falling out of oneself into the other not even physically but purely empathically provides the ultimate sensation of being. What is the vehicle of communication here? Because it is not language, it is not even body language. Is it something else we cannot measure with any instrument apart from our body-mind? And achieving this most radical empathic depth/death of “mad love” is nothing less than ecstasy, an indescribable bliss, an inexpressible union with the other that sets out on a voyage into the abyss of being beyond self/other. Fused with each other and beyond each other, leaving language and even the body far behind. Only the word “love” is left over to describe it, that is what any of us would die for:

One night she whispered: If I could die. Now, when I am happy. Would you do that? You wouldn’t have to kill me. Say die and I will die. You don’t believe me? Then try, try, say die and watch me die.
“Die then! Die!” I watched her die many times. In my way, not in hers.

And when the love affair goes wrong, when we are no longer recognised by the other, then the libidinal energies phase-shift towards Thanatos, towards anger and depression: the famous self-directed, self-destructive agony of love which disintegrates the self negatively and does drive some to suicide. Is this not in some manner akin to slaves penetrating the phallic towers of the master with flying swords?


  1. The description here is of nightmarish entanglement and enslavement to primal forces-unconsious neurological drives and metasynthesis-the absence of choice implying hell. Yet we may tll be kind and will kindness,so we are not in hell just yet. The discussion ignores the Agape concept and so lacks fullness as it must by insisting on the ‘death of God’and the definition of the crucifixion in so linear and perfunctory a manner.The discourse is by such means rendered hermetic…if we only have eros and Thanatos then we remain as slaves and discourse itself is meaningless.

    On a technical note- Few if directly asked would consider Hiroshima acceptable hence the continuing lack of institutional approval for the works of allied Bomber Command who marched at the Cenotaph this year for the first time ever more than sixty years after the events. Dresden and Hiroshima were and are still evils-neccesary to the victor only.

    Comment by Mike Horsnall — January 8, 2009 @ 8:54 pm

  2. links from TechnoratiAesthetical-Ethical Aporia: Love and Terror

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