Three hours (misanthropy)

[From day two of my qualifying exams. As with the dialectics response posted before, this is the result of three hours of a writing a response to question I hadn't seen. As such, rather sloppy. Images added after the fact, except for the Greimas square, about which I have a bit of pride/surprise that I made on the fly.

The question centered around Kant's "Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View," in which he includes the great misanthropic line, "for from such crooked wood as man is made of, nothing perfectly straight can be built."
Hence the question about how my thinking on misanthropy differs from Kant. Then a turn to what interests me more, i.e. not human nature per se but misanthropy as a crucial tendency in the burning wreck of the European enlightenment project under the 20th century consequences of capitalism.]

Valences of the misanthropic

In the Kantian schematic that provides not a dominant framework for this project but a point of entry, Nature (as historic will and the tendential becoming of rationality) and nature (the ahistorical stubborn continuity of what the human animal will always be before it becomes something straighter) meet through the flashpoint of human perversity. Yet this raises immediately a difficult question: what might it mean to say that the human nature is perverse? Isn’t perversion a measure of the unnatural (even if natural is considered as the ideology of the natural particular to a historical conjuncture)? Against what background does human nature appear so perverse?

A provisional answer: it is only perverse in the context of what it “ought” to be. Not against its own standards but, dialectically, against its structured negation, its move from nature to Nature. But to be more precise, we should insist that it is not nature itself that is perverse, for the very reason that no action is perverse without prohibition – in this case, the prohibition that occurs through competition, through the weeding-out of those who don’t want to grow straight. Rather, it is the gap itself between Nature and nature that is perverse: Kantian human nature (if we think this as the subject’s trajectory between the ahistorical given and the historical ought-to-be) is human perversity.

A Lacanian inflection is useful here, both in unpacking the Kantian model and in gesturing toward where I depart from it. For Lacan, perversion is not about someone being “against nature” (or “Nature” for that matter). Rather, it is the structure of thought and action that results from a fundamental elevation and fetishization of the Law itself. It is not the Other – the Other who is the manifestation and symbolic site of the Law – who obsesses you, but the “letter of the Law,” the basic fact and shape of prohibition itself. The pervert gets off on the symbolic structuring of being told what should not get him off.

My interest here, however, lies not in the psychosexual valences of perversion but rather in its relation to the fundamental historicity of the Law. This is also the point of my greatest divergence from the Kantian model. In a direct link to my other topic, the Law that interests me is the Law as a real abstraction: not the basic and recurrent fact of human competition and tendency toward isolation, but the emergent constellations of ideology and thought-forms that mobilize that recurrent fact. Or, in its chiasmatic form, the abstraction of the real: the giving form, direction, and universal will to the data and bodies of history, the shapes of matter and money and all the combinations made possible by their intersections.

To situate my thinking on misanthropy and the form in which I detect radical potential (the misanthropic gesture), Kant’s text provides a frame, insofar as two second points of contention point the way: the notions of appearance and unlikeness. For Kant in this text, human actions are the appearances of the freedom of the will. This assumes that the freedom of the will can be understood as something not entirely bound by the dialectic of freedom and necessity (as it appears as a set of tactical, ethical, and historical problems). Even if we accept a model that raises the question of freedom to an “absolute” (such as Badiou’s conception of the truth-event, of the fundamental yes or no), it can only be accepted, I argue, insofar as it begins with the particularity of the actions at hand – both producing the situation and projected as the navigation of the situation – forming the basis, and not the mere appearance, of the freedom of the will. Or, in another turn, I might oppose the Kantian formulation and say that human actions are the becoming-necessary of the will to freedom: there is no freedom of the will, but there is a will to free will.

The question of unlikeness brings forth a related problem gestured to already, that of the historical. If the move toward Nature is a transcendence of the “merely natural,” my position would be to assert against this that “merely natural” for the human is unnatural. There is no “merely natural” outside of the historical deformations of the human: we might think here of the difficult work Rousseau faces in discerning the “original form” of the weather-beaten statue. But we might remind him that there is at the core nothing but further accretion, further distortions. The human is no simulacrum, but it is a bad copy without an original.

Unlikeness has a different function for Kant: for him, the unlikeness is between the drive to isolation/mistrust and what the human ought to be, what it can become across history. However, this does not result in the recognition that this ought (the Law) changes across history, a goal that keeps shifting and doubling back on itself. In this way, there remains an eternality for him: the “misanthropic” animal (isolation and nastiness) is the bedrock for the conditions of possibility of straightening this out across history. Or, in other words, the misanthropic anthropic principle is there so as to erase itself: for this he thanks Nature, for making us selfish, nasty creatures so that we can stop being those creatures eventually, with the right forms of state governance and rational philosophy developed in the march toward Nature.

Moving from here, I would argue that Kant’s text implies both a figure of the misanthrope (the crooked tree that does not reform its ways) and a concept of misanthropy (the recognition of the general condition of the misanthropic tendency within the human animal). I want to add to this two other classifications: affective misanthropy and the misanthropic gesture. This should be thought of as pairings: figure – gesture, affect-concept, and might be mapped in a Greimasian square (drawn hastily).

To break this down: the concept and the affect of misanthropy are dialectically bound registrations of the general misanthropic condition: this is how we are in the world. (And this stands for both the Kantian framework and my own, with the shift in mine toward understand world as a historically conditioned series of inherited situations with evental breaks.) As I claim about the misanthropic turn in the cultural objects I consider, affective misanthropy is distinct from pessimism (or even despair) in the universality of it. It is not just that a particular situation or set of events make us “lose faith in humanity”: it is the detection of a universal – even if this pertains solely to the limits of the world thinkable by the protagonists, etc – state of affairs, a world broken. On the other diagonal axis is the singular form of this, that which stands as the exemplification (or counterpoint) to the universality of the concept and affect of misanthropy: the figure and the gesture.

However, the key distinction here, as indicated above, is that of the passive and active. The figure of the misanthrope is the one who does not struggle against her condition of misanthropy, who perhaps bemoans it but does not think it, while the gesture is the radical overcoming of it, the realizing that what is designated as human and inhuman is an ideological construction that naturalizes and renders eternal (“that’s just human nature”) a particular historical arrangement of the world. The concept of misanthropy is also this form of active work, of moving from a sense of the givenness of misanthropy (the affective, the intuition that we really want little to do with one another beyond take advantage) to a theorizing of it, of treating it not as the problem but as a ground zero for political and ethical thought. (I leave the other permutations for discussion later, as unraveling them here would take far too long.)

A point to draw out from this, however, is that the figure of the misanthrope – as an individual figure – must be rejected, and even the movement toward the individual misanthropic gesture should be viewed warily. (Bakunin’s slip toward Nechayevism was on a icy slope of apocalyptic “passion for the Real” fantasies.) Of more interest, and against Kant, is neither the individual becoming-misanthrope or becoming-rational (via the competition provoked by the general condition of misanthropy) but of the class becoming of the misanthrope. Again, Schmitt’s formulation from Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, and one echoed later with varying degrees of explicitness in Negri, Tronti, Badiou, and Debord, is that the proletariat must become the enemy of all humanity, precisely because the proletariat have been reduced to the mass figure of only human, the transference of bare life into caloric energy and general intellect.

Given the bent of my work and the above comment, it is worth reframing this in terms of capitalism. The question reemerges: why do a bunch of rational actors, each capitalist rationally looking to maximize profits, each laborer “rationally” selling his labor, not produce a systemic rationality? Why are there systemic crises, massive bailouts, decimations of entire industries? Why do a nearly infinite series of rational decisions produce a system of universal unreason?

One could say: yes, but the decisions are hardly rational, they are based on incorrect information, and laborers have to take the terms offered to them in order to survive, unless there is a strong enough labor movement to set new terms of the valuation of work. However, inverting the Kantian move, in which irrational competition produces rationality, we should argue that capitalism is perhaps the massive overthrowing of the thinkability of that Kantian framework, for now we see that rational competition produces irrationality, produces not a direction of will across history (Nature) but the elevation of the general misanthropic condition to the system as a whole, in which the trees that grow tallest and grab the sunshine are not those who, by competition, learned to play nice but those who grasped the misanthropy of the human and ran with it, choking out those below in order to remake the world in the double image of themselves and capital itself.

Clearly, the misanthropic gesture – the decisions of a capitalist are the epitome of the misanthropic gesture – is not to be valorized in and of itself. Furthermore, a significant portion, if not majority, of the cultural objects I consider are right-wing, fascist, bellicose, and anti-Utopian. But it is precisely because the capitalist world is the global elevation of the misanthropic that we need it as a counter-tactic. Drawing from the question I asked in the previous essay (how do you strike a totality?), we see here some inkling not of the practical work but of the basic conditions of thought: antagonism is raised to the condition of the universal, not because we need all out war, but because antagonism is already the universal sign of the late capitalist world. Our rhizomatic diffuse acts of petty terrorism and sea-turtle costumes come to naught unless our antagonism becomes anthropic, toward what being human is allowed to mean now.

Our “nature” is, contra Kant, not an ahistorical givenness but a historical givenness. As the Law is not transhistorical but the abstract will of the historical totality of a moment, so too “nature” (as perversion) is historical. As Kant urged then, so too now do we need to get past this condition by using it against itself. But we need to recognize that buried within this perverse short-circuit that we are supposed to reject is also what we need to maintain, to draw out, reshape, and direct collectively toward that which tells us that competition is the eternal condition and our salvation from the degraded forest.

In what follows, then, a consideration of three cultural moments that begin to give a sense not of misanthropic culture as radical or productive but as the exposure of what can be made from the ruins of history, particularly when the world historical stage is European and the interrupted play is the production of Enlightenment rationality and the coming to Nature. In this interruption, though, we perhaps start to glimpse a rejection of the Kantian inheritance, of a cosmopolitanism that will come to mean imperial capitalism.

Malaparte’s Kaputt (and La Pelle as well) occupies a strange position that marks many of the works I consider: somewhere between the melancholic reveries of affective misanthropy and the hollow obscenity of fascist kitsch. (This description comes into full dark bloom when black metal emerges: never before has there been such an alarming oscillation between the remarkable yearning fury of the sound and its goofy Satanism and face paint, between the sound of a world coming to an end and the vapid idiocy of the proclamations of the blood and soil Herrenvolk world to which we should return.) In Malaparte, as in von Trier’s remarkable Europa trilogy, the end of the world is the end of the European project. What remains are theaters of war and the decaying aristocracy, like so many guests in Poe’s "Masque of the Red Death." Yet what Malaparte also shows – and this is crucial – in both the architecture of the book (and its prose-structure) and the diagetic geography of its episodes is not simply a waning of the European project and the ascendance of the misanthropic condition brought to bloody fruition by the war. It is also the end of the European as a structuring force, as a constellation of great gravity around which both national identity and the tasks of art are drawn and repelled. It’s enormously telling that in La Pelle, the follow-up to Kaputt, in which we have returned to Napoli, there is no return to the grounding force of the “European” as a historical given and marker of identity: the title of the book refers to the fact that no one will fight anymore for a flag other than one of his own skin (pelle).

And therein is a radical hint, that we should fight for no flags other than our skin, a hint not brought to bear in a work in which the narrative and prose style (a less extreme version of the elliptical and nearly epileptic prose of Céline’s war trilogy) crushes under its own weight, lacking either a political project or a narrative arc because the centrifugal force of the war has dissolved the very sense of project and narrative. What are we left with? To borrow the Ballardian formulation, an atrocity exhibition: “do you want to hear about this atrocity I saw?” “No.” “Well, let me tell you.” The gesture here lacks a radical transformative quality, yet it still commences and forces onto us the work of looking, not to make sense but to make do better.

Black metal comes distinctly in the wake of this, in the sense of a Europe which was destroyed but which has somehow propped itself back up, a Europe that has imposed its narratives and projects onto those who never wanted them in the first place. (And this includes both the “off-European” – the rejection of being the testing ground of European ideological battles and of beginning to revel in claiming oneself as a barbarian at the gate – sense of black metal from eastern Europe and Scandinavia and the nostalgic digging for a past in French black metal.) In represents a further step in the direction of Kaputt and beyond it, to a new nationalism, a desperate nostalgic practice of excavating a narrative and, simultaneously, producing a musical form that undermines this right-wing and telluric nationalist narrative by means of its unspoken, but present, sonic politics.

A glance at Peste Noire, one of the most remarkably experimental and brilliant contemporary French black metal bands, gives a sense of this. La Sale Famine de Valfunde (the singer and leader of the band) has said, “I belong to two countries: France d’Oïl and Hell.” Aside from the obvious humor of this, what underlies this is a work of excavation that he has stressed in the emphasis on the “underground”: the old France buried beneath the waste of modern life and the far underground, the out-of-time Satanic impulse. For him, then, black metal as an “apology of the dark European past” (as he put it) and a “psychosis” that helps them flee the modern world. This is shared by many of the first-wave Norwegian black metallers, in their attack of the import of thoughts that are not tellurically bound to their nation, leading to the often humorous obsession with Norse mythology. Yet in the other aspect of their spectacle-manifestation, their Satanism, we get a sense of the auto-undermining of their own project and a more progressive gesture. If the attack is a rejection on the bourgeois Christian tradition, why take a boogeyman from that tradition as your “master”? Does this not, like most Satanism, simply reify the very structure to be attacked?

However, to turn this another way, there might be something here along the lines of what I perceived in the need for the proletariat to become the universal antagonist of the universal concept of the human. More potently, the lesson to be drawn from black metal is the way in which its concrete sonic expression dismantles its spoken ideology. For the music intends to be not just an apology for that dark European past, but an impossible return, a necromancing of what European rationalism has conquered. As such, the music often makes gestures toward folk songs, instrumentation, and chord changes, particularly at the beginning of the songs. Peste Noire’s recent album Ballade cuntre lo anemi francor does a similar work in a distinct vein, bringing back medieval chanting, populist Action Française songs, and a sort of garage rock from a lost Satanic 60’s. But what follows is the same as those Norwegian songs that like to start with delicate acoustic folk melodies: the crushing storm of electric sound, the bare noise and pulse of a modern world, a roar that utterly swallows and rends apart the possibility of ever going back. In this sonic juggernaut, in all its anarchic yet ordered fury, we hear the angel of history dragging her feet, retreading over the history that the black metal horde tried to recall.

What we need, then, is a radical equivalent of this, which we have not seen yet, a similar work of recalling and rewriting our non-existent histories as we also dismantle them, finding new sources of old libidinal energy and antagonism. The work of someone like Peter Linebaugh and others concerned with untold “commons” histories is a step in this direction, but the full deployment of avant-garde cultural techniques remains to find its properly improper version of this.

One step toward this might be found in the truly apocalyptic fantasies that have populated the films, television, and novels of late capitalism. Despite the seeming heterogeneity of such a swath, there are remarkable points of similarity and shared currents, tropes and figures repeated in endless recombinations: the zombie, the plague, the last man on earth, the car crash, the sterile highrise, the invaders from another planet, the nuclear fall-out. And it is here that we locate the nerve-points of capitalist ideology, what makes it nervous, not because it fears the world will end this way but because it exposes its dream work, giving us the chance to start to glimpse how it thinks itself, why its worries of dissolution take these apocalyptic forms. As such, what is interesting is not necessarily why the zombie film is so dominant now or the drawing out of what the zombie “means”. Rather, it is to ask the next question: if it does “mean”, or express, a certain return of the material repressed in the collapsing of spectral capital, what is the dream work here, what is at stake in the fact that this is not a veiled image, that it is barely allegorical?

Linking this back to the question of the misanthropic as the perverse site of dialectical tension between nature and Nature (or, in another register, the given and the Novum), an early example from this canon, Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow’s Last Man on Earth (1964), gives a sense of the stakes. Adapted from Matheson’s I am Legend, Last Man on Earth is ultimate fantasy of the figure of the misanthrope: isolation, prime seats to witness and keep witnessing the remnants of the end of the world, and the sense of meaningful work (the paradoxical preservation of what remains of the human race by stabbing its scattered bodies, by what will rise again not as a perversion of the human but what you knew it was all along, bare hunger and want masked by liberal sensitivities).

But the outcome of the film offers something else altogether, the sudden sinking sensation that you were the one getting it wrong, that you may be the last man on Earth but that there is something past man now, a real collective carving out life in the wake of human history. The famous turn from monster-killer to monster-to-be-killed here also displays a genuine Utopian aspiration, that out of total destruction may come the new, as long as we are not blind to the fact that human nature is historical, that yesterday’s zombies may be today’s multitude, that the misanthropes who learn to not be misanthropic long enough to become collective very well may inherit the earth. Or at least, whatever is left of it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I very much enjoyed your text. One thing puzzles me though, why would you refer to ‘proletariat’ as if it was an obvious entity inhabiting the world. I don’t agree there is such thing anymore. Capitalism infected people, regardless of status, with the ‘aspiration’ as a reason for living; therefore it seems a bit detached from reality to claim there’s a proletarian class. When I look around I see working (class?) people becoming something else once they acquire goods reserved previously for ‘bourgeoisie’ i.e. fancy cars, rolex watch sold on high street etc. There’s no struggling, unified proletariat, but an aspiring, divided individual if that makes any sense. This world we’re living in is full of confusion and paradoxes (perhaps a reason why ‘mental’ diseases are on the rise- anxiety in particular) and I, as a socialist misanthrope who consciously ignores ‘class’ as inadequate categorization of human condition, am one of such contradictions. Once again I really enjoyed your post.