Pulling Out of the Traffic: The Future of Culture (4)

This is the fourth in a series of posts under the same general title.

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All sorts of things transpire—but nothing any longer happens—that is, no more decisions fall . . .

— Martin Heidegger, Überlegungen IV (in GA 94), ¶219


. . . it’s neither here, nor elsewhere . . .

— Alain Badiou, Images du temps present (January 14, 2014)


I had one opportunity. I had to cut out all ties with the flattening, thoroughly corrupt world of culture where everyone, every single little upstart, was for sale, cut all my ties with the vacuous TV and newspaper world, sit down in a room and read in earnest, not contemporary literature but literature of the highest quality, and then write as if my life depended on it. For twenty years if need be.

But I couldn’t grasp the opportunity. I had a family . . . And I had a weakness in my character . . . that was so afraid of hurting others, which was so afraid of conflict and which was so afraid of not being liked that it could forgo all principles, all dreams, all opportunities, everything that smacked of truth, to prevent this happening.

I was a whore. This was the only suitable term.

— Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Stuggle. Book Two: A Man in Love


Points of decision are crisis points. “Critical condition” in the medical sense is the condition of a patient who is at the decision point between survival and demise, where the body—with, it is to be hoped, the assistance of the medical staff—must marshal all its resources to sustain life, in the minimal, zoological sense. In the passage cited above, Knausgaard describes how he came to stand at a critical point of decision for or against life in the full, no longer merely biological sense of the term—the truly live-ly sense, we might say, in contrast to the rather deadening sense of bare survival.

Actually, that way of putting it, “ a critical point of decision for or against life,” won’t quite work. Rather, Knausgaard describes coming to a point where he was faced with the need and opportunity at last actually and fully to make a decision in the first place and, by and in making it, to become truly alive at last. At that point he was faced with either “choosing to choose,” as Heidegger puts it in Being and Time, or else just going on going on, literally just surviving (“living-through” or “-over”) his own life, having already outlived himself, as it were, by letting his moment of opportunity slip by, in failing or refusing to decide at all.

The way that Alain Badiou puts it in his seminar on “images of the present times” (in the session of November 27, 2003) is that what he calls simply a “point” is “the moment where you make the world [as such and as a whole] manifest in the yes or the no of a decision. . . . It is the manifestation of the world in the figure of the decision.” He adds right away that “[o]ne is not always in the process of dealing with points, thank God!” Badiou, a self-proclaimed atheist proud of his atheistic family heritage, adds that ejaculation of thanks because, as he goes on to say: “It is terribly astringent, this imperative necessity that suddenly the totality of your life, your world, comes to be the eye of a needle of yes or no. Do I accept or do I refuse? That is a point.”

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Early in the second of the six volumes of the long story of his “stuggle”—Kampf in German, it is worth remembering, as in Hitler’s Mein Kampf—Knausgaard himself has already noted how challenging it is actually to have to decide to live one’s life, rather than just to keep on living through it. Toward the very beginning of that second volume—toward the very end of which comes the passage already cited –he writes: “Everyday life, with its duties and routines, was something I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, nor something that was meaningful or that made me happy.” The everyday life at issue for him during the time he is addressing was one of an at-home husband of an employed wife, and a father taking care of his young children while his wife was at work. Thus, it was a life filled with such things as washing floors and changing diapers. However, Knausgaard immediately tells us that his mere endurance rather than enjoyment of such a life “had nothing to do with a lack of desire to wash floors or change diapers.” It was not that he disdained such activities, or regarded them as beneath him, or anything else along such lines. It had nothing to do with all that, “but rather,” he continues, “with something more fundamental: the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it. So the life I led was not my own.”

Knausgaard immediately goes on to tell us that his failure to make his everyday life his own was not for lack of effort on his part to do just that. In the process of telling us of his efforts, he also offers at least one good explanation for giving his massive, six-volume, autobiographical novel the title it bears. “I tried to make it mine,” he writes, “this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it . . .”

He loved his wife and his children, and he wanted to share his life with them all—a sharing, it is to be noted, that requires that one first have one’s life as one’s own to share. Thus, “I tried to make it mine,” he writes, “ . . . but I failed.” That failure was not for lack of effort but because: “The longing for something else undermined all my efforts.”

Conjoining the two passages, one from near the start of the book and one from near its very end, suggests that Knausgaard’s long struggle has been of the same sort as that of St. Augustine, as the latter depicted it in his Confessions. That is, the “struggle” at issue derives from the ongoing condition of not yet having made a real decision, one way or another. In such struggles, the struggle itself comes to an end only in and with one’s finally making up one’s mind, finally coming to a resolution, finally deciding oneself.

In the passage at the start of today’s post, coming more than 400 pages of “struggle’ after the one just cited, Knausgaard gives the fact that he “had a family” as the first reason he “couldn’t grasp” the “one opportunity” that he says he had.   Nevertheless, what is really at issue cannot be grasped in terms of choosing between two equally possible but conflicting options, either living the life of a family man or living the life of an artist. Rather, what is at issue is something only Knausgaard’s subsequent remarks really bring to focus: what kept him from seizing his sole opportunity was nothing but himself. It was not the love of his family that hindered him. It was the love of his own comfort—or at least the desire not to disturb his own comfort by disturbing the comfort of others nearby.

I can identify! It was really not my love of my daughter that tripped me up when her childhood pet, Fluffy the guinea pig, died one day, causing me to tempt my own daughter to betray her love for her pet by rushing out to buy a replacement, as I recounted in my preceding post. I did love my daughter, to be sure, as I still do. But, as I already revealed when first discussing the episode, what tripped me up was really not my love for her. Rather, it was my discomfort with my own discomfort over her discomfort over Fluffy’s death. I betrayed myself out of love of my own comfort, not out of love for her. So my betrayal as such was not done out of any genuine love at all; it was done just out of fear—the fear of dis-comfort. That is how clinging to one’s precious comfort always manifests itself, in fact: in Knausgaard’s case no less than my own.

Now, there may truly be cases in which points of decision manifest as what we might call “Gauguin moments.” That is, there may really be cases in which, in order to make one’s life one’s own, one must indeed leave behind one’s family and one’s home and go off into some other, far country, as Gauguin did in the 19th century for the sake of his art (or as Abraham does in the Bible, though not, of course, for the sake of art).

What truly marks points as points of decision, however, is not a matter of the difference in content between two equally possible life-options (let alone the romantic grandiosity of the choices suggested by Gauguin’s, or Abraham’s, model). What defines them (including in such dramatic examples) is just that they are points at which one confronted with the necessity at last truly to decide, that is to resolve oneself—to say yes or no to one’s world, and one’s life in it, as a whole, as Badiou puts it.

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German for “moment” is Augenblick—literally, “the blink of an eye.” Heidegger likes to note that etymologically Blick, an ordinary German word for look, glance, view, or sight, is the same as Blitz, the German for lightning-flash, lightning-bolt. Points of decision, in the sense that I am using that expression, are moments that proffer what Heidegger calls an “Einblick in das, was ist,” an in-sight or illuminating in-flash into that which is. Points of decision are moments of illumination of what is there and has been there all along, though we are only now, in a flash, given the opportunity to see it. They are those points in our lives that offer us the chance to make our lives our own: to come fully alive ourselves—at last and for firsts.

In common with Blitzen in the everyday sense of lightning-bolts, moments or points of decisive in-sight/in-flash sometimes come accompanied by loud thunderclaps, or the equivalent. God may come down and talk to us as God did to Moses as the burning bush, or come in a whirlwind, or with bells and whistles. At least as often, however, moments or points of decision come whispering to us in a still, small voice, one easily and almost always drowned out by all the noise of the everyday traffic with which we everywhere surround ourselves (even if only in the space between our ears), for very fear of hearing that voice . . . and being discomfited by it.

Points of decision may break the surface of our the everyday lives—those lives that, like Knausgaard, we endure without enjoying—as suddenly and dramatically as the white whale breaks the surface at the end of Melville’s Moby Dick. Or they may come upon us slowly, and catch up on us all unawares, such that we waken one morning and realize that for a long while now, we have not been in, say, Kansas any longer, but have no idea of just where and when we might have crossed the border into whatever very different place we are now.

All such differences make no difference, however. What counts is only that we come to a moment, a point of clarity, where we are struck, as though by a bolt of lightning, with the realization that we do indeed have a choice, but only one choice. We have a choice, not in the sense that we can pick between two different options, as we might pick between brands of cereal to buy for our breakfast. Rather, we have a choice in the sense that, like Knausgaard, we realize that we do indeed have one and only one opportunity, which we can either take, or fail to take. We are faced with the choice, as the Heidegger of Being and Time put it, of choosing to choose, choosing to have a choice to exercise, rather than continuing just to let ourselves live through our own lives, without ever having to live them. The choice is either to live, or just to go on living.

An acquaintance of mine once came to such a point of decision in his own life, and who did indeed decide to make his life his own at that point. When asked about it, he says that up until that point it had always been as though his life was running on alongside him, while he was just sort of standing there observing it. What his moment of decision offered him, he says, was precisely the opportunity to “take part in” his own life, rather than just continue to let it run itself next to him. In a certain sense, he may have “had” a life up to that point, but only at that point did he come to live it himself.

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In The Politics of Things (La politique des choses, first published in France in 2005 by Navarin, then in a slightly revised, updated edition in 2011 by Verdier) contemporary French philosopher Jean-Claude Milner traces the global processes driving inexorably, in what passes for a world in what passes for today, toward eliminating the very possibility of there being any genuine politics at all. That goal is being achieved above all through the development of ever more new techniques of “evaluation,” and the ubiquitous spread of processes of such evaluationinto ever more new dimensions of individual and collective life. (In the United States, we might add, the deafening demand for incessant development and promulgation of ever more new ways and means of evaluating everything and everyone is typically coupled with equally incessant palaver about the supposed need for “accountability.”)

What Milner calls “the politics of things” aims at what he calls “government by things.” At issue is the longstanding global drive to substitute what is presented as the very voice of “things” themselves—that is, what is passed off for “reality,” and its supposed demands—for any such messy, uncertain politics or government as that which requires actual decisions by human beings.

Thus, for example, “market mechanisms” are supposed to dictate austerity according to one set of “experts,” or deficit spending according to another set. Whichever set of experts and whichever direction their winds may blow doesn’t really make any difference, however. What counts, as Milner says, is just that it be one set or another, and one direction or another.

That’s because, he observes in his fourth and final chapter, “Obedience and Liberties” (in French, “Obéissance ou libértes”), the real aim of the whole business is simply the former: sheer obedience—what is indeed captured in the English word “obeisance,” derived from the French term. He writes (page 59) that, “contrary to appearances, the government of things does not place prosperity at the summit of its preoccupations; that is only a means to its fundamental goal: the inert tranquility of bodies and souls.”

To achieve that goal, the government of things plays upon human fears—two above all: the fear of crime, and the fear of illness. Under the guise of “preventing” crime and/or illness, the government of things reduces us all to un-protesting subservience. We prove always willing to do just as we’re told, as unpleasant as we may find it, because we have let ourselves be convinced that it is all for the sake of preventing crime or illness.

I will offer two examples of my own.  The first is how we line up docilely in long queues in airports, take our shoes (and, if requested, even our clothes) off, subject ourselves to pat-downs and scan-ups, delays and even strip-searches—all because we are assured that otherwise we run the risk, however slight, of opening ourselves to dreaded terrorist attacks. My second example is how we readily subject ourselves to blood-tests, digital rectal examinations, breast ex-rays, hormone treatments, and what not, all the tests, checks, and re-checks that our medical experts tell us are necessary to prevent such horrors as prostate or breast or colon or skin cancer, or whatever. We readily subject ourselves to all these intrusive procedures, only to be told sooner or later by the very same experts that new evidence has changed their collective expert thinking, and that we must now stop subjecting ourselves to the same evaluation procedures, in order to prevent equally undesirable outcomes. In either case, we do just as we’re told, without complaint.

We do as we’re told, whatever that may be at the moment, to prevent crime and/or illness because, as Milner writes (page 61): “Under the two figures of crime and illness, in effect one and the same fear achieves itself, that one which, according to Lucretius, gives birth to all superstition: the fear of death.” In fact, we are all so afraid of death and so subject to manipulation through that fear that we fall easy prey to the “charlatans,” as Milner appropriately calls them (on page 62), through whom the government of things seeks to universalize what amounts (page 64) to the belief in Santa Claus (Père Noël in France, and in Milner’s text)—a belief, finally, that “consists of supposing that in the last instance, whether in this world or in the next, the good are rewarded and the evil are punished.”

The government of things strives to make everyone believe in such a Santa Claus “with the same effect” that it fosters the development and universalization of techniques and procedures of evaluation: the effect of “planetary infantilization.” Furthermore:

One knows that no Santa Claus is complete without his whip. Indefectible solidarity of gentle evaluation and severe control [our American Santa making up his lists of who’s naughty and nice, then rewarding the latter with goodies and punishing the former with lumps of coal, for instance]! The child who does not act like a child [by being all innocent and obedient, sleeping all nice and snug in her bed, with visions of sugar-plumbs dancing away in her head] is punished; that is the rule [and we must all abide by the rules, musn’t we?]. All discourse not conducive to infantilization will be punished by the evaluators, that is the constant. Among its effects, control also carries this one: the promise of infantilization and the initiation of transformation into a thing.

After all, the desideratum is a government not only of things, but also by things and for things (pace Lincoln—at least it we grant him the charity of thinking that’s not what he really meant all along).

In the closing paragraphs of his little book (pages 66-67), Milner issues a call for resistance and rebellion against all such pseudo-politics and pseudo-government of things, and in affirmation of a genuine politics. It is a call, quite simply, for there to be again decision.

“If the name of politics has any meaning,” Milner writes, “it resolutely opposes itself to the government of things.” In rejecting the pretense of a politics of things, real politics “supposes that the regime of generalized subordination can be put in suspense.” A politics worthy of the name can emerge only if at last an end is put to all the endless chatter about how we all need to show “respect for the law,” “respect for authority,” and the like, all of which is just code for doing what we’re told.

Such suspension of generalized subordination and end of infantilizing chatter may not last long: “Maybe only for an instant . . .” But that instant, that moment, that blink of an eye, “that’s already enough, if that instant is one of decision. What’s needed is that there again be decision.”

That’s all that’s needed, but that’s everything. As Milner writes, “politics doesn’t merit the name unless it combats the spirit of subordination. One doesn’t demand that everyone be generous, or fight for the liberties of everyone; it is quite enough if each fights for her own freedom.” The return of a genuine politics requires that we stop relinquishing our own choices to “the order of things.” It requires, instead, “[t]hat at times we decide for ourselves . . .”

There is no future of politics otherwise. Nor, without decision, is there any future of culture in any form, be it political, artistic, philosophical, or whatever. But that just means that, without decision, there really is no future at all.

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I intend my next post to be the last in this current series on “Pulling Out of the Traffic: The Future of Culture.”

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