Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Europe, Empire of Signs 2 (Some Further Notes on Language + the Blindness of Self-Representation) or, Absolutely Sweet Inferno

This is a sequel to the previous post, conceived and (for the most part) written before the comments to it, and is therefore not a reply to the comments but rather an expansion and development on the original theme, and should be read in conjunction, although the ideas, disjunctions, and fusions in both are still very raw, and perhaps in need of further elaboration and development. It is still, to put it that way, ‘under construction’. (as all writing and thinking always is, in a sense; but one must draw the line somewhere, sometimes)

>>S’i’ credesse che mia risposta fosse
a persona che mai tornasse al mondo,

questa fiamma staria sanza piừ scosse;

ma però che già mai di questo fondo

non tornò vivo alcun, s’i’ odo il vero,

sanza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.

-Dante, Inferno, Canto XXVII

Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.
- Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 17-27)

I. Decapitating the Gorgon: Auschwitz, Blindness, and the Death of God

Having written the last relatively brief segment on this theme I was struck by the notion that the very thing Agamben is approaching in Remnants of Auschwitz - hovering, circling, circumventing, but never quite attaining it seems to me - is the problem of language already posed by Barthes in Empire of Signs. The suffering of those who 'touched bottom', the Muselmanner, the 'true witnesses' who paradoxically are unable to witness because they ‘have no voice’, Agamben tells us, cannot be borne witness to by the survivors, who are not 'true witnesses' by virtue of having survived the horror of the camps. There can be no witness ‘from the inside of death’. Towards the end of the first chapter ('The Witness') he writes [my italics]: ' means that language, in order to bear witness, must give way to a non-language in order to show the impossibility of bearing witness. The language of testimony is a language that no longer signifies and that, in not signifying, advances into what is without language, to the point of taking on a different insignificance, that of he who by definition cannot bear witness.'

Barthes concerns himself with this very same lacuna, but on the broader register of language as such. The moment of Basho's awakening to the truth of Zen, he tells us, is not the moment of "an 'illumination', of a symbolic hyperesthesia, but rather an end of language: there is a moment when language ceases...and in this echoless breach...what is posited must develop neither in discourse nor in the end of discourse: what is posited is matte, and all that one can do with it is to scrutinize it...not to solve it, as if it had a meaning, nor even to perceive its absurdity (which is still a meaning) but to ruminate it "until the tooth falls out."".(p 74) For Agamben, the only language that can approximate the point of witnessing is language that descends into 'inarticulate babble', which 'fills one with consternation like the gasps of a dying man' - Celan's poetry, perhaps, or the senseless muttering of a single incomprehensible word by a paralyzed, speechless child whom the other prisoners have named 'Hurbinek'. But after positing this at the end of the first chapter, he quickly slides back into negativity and binary opposition and resumes the search for clues, for meaning, for the descriptive substance behind the figure of the Musselman, searching through language (writing) for the ‘non-language’ behind the ‘last gasps of the dying man’; and even his insistence on the 'impossibility' of such testimony or the need to descend into the absurd (Celan’s ‘inarticulate babble’) already appears merely as a limitation arising from Christian-Platonic thought. The haiku, by contrast, Barthes tells us, 'never describes' but rather achieves a 'suspension' or 'exemption from meaning', (81-83), and is:

'...[A]rticulated around a metaphysics without subject and without god, corresponds to the Buddhist Mu, to the Zen satori, which is not at all the illuminative descent of God, but "awakening to the fact," apprehension of the thing as event and not as substance, attaining to that anterior shore of constitute a space of pure fragments, a dust of events which nothing, by a kind of escheat of signification, can or should coagulate, construct, direct, terminate. This is because the haiku's time is without subject...this self, by infinite refraction, is never anything but the site of reading...' (p 78)

Agamben performs, at the outset, all the right gestures – but nonetheless by insisting on the existence of a ‘lacuna’, a specific ‘impossibility’, something missing in or from language at a particular point in relation to being (thus affirming the validity of that relation and our attendant expectation from language), something in language, a precise point where language fails to correspond - rather than simply the positive limit of language, the point where we arrive at the realization that it is not merely the 'language of testimony' but all language that must 'no longer signify' in order to communicate the pure 'dust of events'. What Agamben reveals as a limitation or failure of language to bear witness to horror may be simply a limitation in our thought and the error in the expectation we place on language to directly ‘bear witness’, to signify, to subordinate the signified reality to the signifier; our assumption that there is a beyond, that there is something else, something that is left out of account but in theory could be spoken in language, a dimension of the horror not already captured.

The ‘lacuna’ is not merely one that appears in relation to testimony from ‘the inside of death’ – the ‘extreme situation’ of Auschwitz brings us face to face with a far more widely distributed, more profound problem of language, shaking to the core some deeply held and cherished preconceptions: it confronts us, on one hand, with the very impossibility or inoperability, through a constant displacement, of subjective ‘self-representation’ as such (by the speaking subject, by ‘Europe’, by the Musselman, who is only an extreme instance) and the ‘error’ of subordinating the signified to the signifier and thus falling back on negativity, on binary oppositions (language/non-language); and on the other, the ‘impossibility of bearing witness from the inside of death’ as merely an instance of the impossibility of bearing witness as a ‘true witness’ (what Agamben posits as superstes) to anything besides our own subjectivity. It is entirely conceivable that the horror of those who have 'reached bottom' already belongs to the ‘survivors’ in a sense, and that in fact the point where the transition occurs - where a 'not-true witness' or survivor becomes a Musselmann or 'true witness' - is in fact the point where the sufferer is divested of his own tragedy, where it is not only the ability to give voice to one's horror that ceases, but one's ability to apprehend it.

Agamben is on the very brink of recognizing the ‘lacuna’ as a positive (non)-Being (to use Deleuze’s term), rather than a negative lack: “The Musselman has neither seen nor known anything, if not the impossibility of knowing and seeing. This is why to bear witness to the Musselman, to attempt to contemplate the impossibility of seeing, is not an easy task.” (p 52) If we attempt to view this silence not as a ‘lacuna’ or ‘impossibility’ but rather a positive (non), an absolute limit, the task may be made easier. The greatest suffering, or the height of tragedy (its ultimate birth, even), the true ‘bottom’ may well be the moment in consciousness immediately before the transition from 'survivor' to Musselmann, before Power over the individual is totalized - and therefore not in the negative and subjective experience of the Musselmann but rather the positive experience of the 'survivor' recognizing himself as object in the figure of the Musselmann - his own immediate future, the “fatal threshold that all prisoners are constantly about to cross”, the Musselman as the “great fear of the prisoners.” (Agamben, p 51) This insight may well hold the key – what the Musselman represents may well be the point when horror, reaching its apex, is shut out, excluded from consciousness and transferred to the Other, to the ‘survivor’ who becomes the only witness not merely by virtue of the fact that the Musselman is prevented from witnessing, but by virtue of the fact that there is nothing more profound to witness, no ‘inside’ and no ‘outside’. We are in fact told:

“The Muselmann is universally avoided because everyone in the camp recognizes himself in his disfigured face.” (p 52)

What seems striking is that Agamben never draws out the full implications of one of the central themes in the figure of the Musselman: the fact that a Musselman is, in the lingo of the other prisoners, ‘one who has seen the Gorgon’. The Gorgon is the mythical Medusa whose mien, if looked upon, turns the looker into stone. The Greek hero Perseus, as the story goes, succeeded in slaying this creature by utilizing his polished bronze shield as a protective mirror, in which he could see her reflection without being affected by the deadly charm. If ‘everyone in the camp recognizes himself’ in the ‘disfigured face’ of the Musselman, and the Musselman ‘has seen the gorgon’ – if the Musselman is, then, a kind of mirror of humanity – have the survivors not themselves seen the ‘Gorgon’ too, reflected in this mirror? Derrida, in Memoirs of the Blind, a book-length essay published on the occasion of his curating a collection of self-portraits from the Louvre, uses the metaphor of Medusa to explain the very nature of the self-portrait and the paradox of ‘self-representation’, our ‘blindness’ vis-à-vis ourselves, the impossibility of seeing ourselves with our own eyes except as reflected in a mirror; and by extension the ‘impossibility’ of all ‘representation’, the impossibility of speaking of or from an ‘inside’ except from the perspective of an ‘outside’, and vice versa. The mask worn by Perseus when slaying the Gorgon is a deeper metaphor for this impossibility of ‘seeing’ or ‘representing’ – what he calls the ‘Medusa’ effect, or ‘coming face to face with a petrified objectivity’:

‘Perseus sees without being seen. He looks to the side when he decapitates the monster and when he exhibits her head to his enemies in order to make them flee with the threat of being petrified.’ (p 73)

Is this not all that we can, in the end, do in regarding Auschwitz and the figure of the Musselman? To search for meaning is futile – ‘true’ testimony, representation is not merely impossible, its very insistence in our minds is the trace of a ‘false movement of dialectics’ as Deleuze puts it; all there is to be done in the end, and what Agamben perhaps manages to do, is look to the side, gaze at the Musselman – the mirror, or shield – as we ‘decapitate the Gorgon’ and exhibit its head to our enemies, making them flee.

II. Inside/Outside – Silence, Darkness and the ‘Theatre of Production’ as Bunraku...

What Agamben in the end fails to come to terms with is the death of God as a metaphysical event, or the true implications of what Barthes calls a ‘metaphysics without subject and without god’ - and his search for meaning in Auschwitz, in the figure of the Musselman, may be precisely what obstructs the possibility of comprehending the event, or the 'dust of events'. The point is 'not to solve it...nor to perceive its absurdity (which is still a meaning)' Barthes tells us, and Agamben, at his best, appears to be stuck on the latter option - the 'inarticulate babble'. Or even further, when he tells us that language must 'give a non-language...the voice of something or someone that...cannot bear witness' he remains under the spell of negativity, of a Christian-Platonic belief that there is an 'inside of death' to be borne witness to. This could be taken as indication that the Christian God is embedded in the very way we think and speak about things, woven in the very fabric of our thought-language, even when we speak of the ‘death’ of God. The way forward, then, is clear: to produce a re-birth of language, its re-subordination to act and event, a reversion and de-destabilization of the chain of sign-signifier-signified…

Agamben seems to hover over two parallel utterances which are mentioned at the outset and returned to at the end of the book - the 'inarticulate babble' of Celan's poetry, and the solitary and repeated utterance of the child Hurbinek (mas-ti-klo) – which he suggests may be the closest we can get to ‘true’ testimony from Auschwitz. They recall two similar themes. On one hand, the impossibility of testimony from the gates of hell (as Agamben himself puts it), except, perhaps, by way of the inarticulate babble emanating from the florid imagination of a poet - "The Shoah is an event without witnesses in the double sense that it is impossible to bear witness to it from the inside of death, and there is no voice for the disappearance of voice - and from the outside - since the 'outsider' is by definition excluded from the event..." Is this not the very theme, or one of the many themes, woven through Dante's Inferno? The 'shade' speaking in the quotation above agrees to speak to Dante for precisely this reason - the (presumed) impossibility of bearing witness from the 'inside of death', the impossibility that Dante will return among the living, or depart from the inferno. While Agamben's vision at first appears thoroughly secular, and while he seems to have come to terms with a Godless world in which there is no Hell and no poet to descend into Hell and bear witness to it from the inside, to death 'from the inside of death' - he is only half-way there, for in believing that there is an 'inside of death' to be borne witness to he is still trapped in Occidental-Christian thought, in conventional transcendental notions of inside/outside, of the afterlife, of this world and the next. Turning again to Barthes, we are told that in Western theatre, the aim is to "manifest what is supposed to be secret...while concealing the very artifice of such manifestation." On the other hand, in Japanese Bunraku:

'the agents of the spectacle...are at once visible and impassive...what is carefully, preciously given to be read is that there is nothing there to read...what is expelled from the stage is hysteria, i.e. theater itself; and what is put in its place is the action necessary to the production of the spectacle: work is substituted for inwardness...In Bunraku, the puppet has no more metaphor, no more Fate...the inside no longer commands the outside.' (p 61-62)

What is suggested here does not import 'aestheticizing testimony' as Agamben claims in criticizing Felman and Laub - for they, like Agamben, are also trapped in notions of inside/outside, only seeking to create a connection between them through the 'deus ex machina of song'. (p 36) The point here, rather, is to take the Christian-Occidental bull by the horns and bring it down to the ground all the way, rid ourselves of this mythical, transcendental 'inside of death'. Does not Dante, by the very act of writing his 'experience' of passing through hell and returning, destabilize the very Christian notion of the Afterworld? Is not the very idea - of paying a visit to the underworld without being detained there - if not secular, at least thoroughly pagan, and by that route, by reducing the three afterworldly realms to the imagination, to literature, to the possibilities of imagination and visitation, becoming secular - levelling, reducing the afterworld to the same plane of reality as this world, casting it in the same mold, turning it into something 'imaginable' and 'sayable' and 'accessible' to the living? It is after all Virgil, the great pagan poet of antiquity, who guides Dante through the realms.

Here we may recall Werner Herzog's The Land of Silence and Darkness - a documentary about the deaf and blind filmed in the 1970s in Germany, which follows the activities of one woman, Fini, who is an activist for the deaf/blind, and is blind herself. Through her, we are told the stories of the various people she visits, in institutions, at social gatherings, in their homes. In one scene, we are made to observe uninterrupted for several minutes (in typical Herzog fashion) the bodily movements (accompanied by some ‘inarticulate babble’) of Vladimir, a 22-year-old Russian who was born deaf, blind, and practically speechless. At first sight one may be struck by the thought - it is impossible to know how this feels. The first temptation, that is, is to take up Susan Sontag’s suggestion (taken out of context here but still relevant) that we have “never experienced anything like what they went though…We don’t get it. We truly can’t imagine what it was like…how dreadful, how terrifying…and how normal it becomes.”( p 126)

But then another thought comes to mind – that it doesn’t matter, for neither can this congenitally blind and deaf human being perceive how we feel, how we live. There is no reference point between us. One can never relate one’s own subjectivity, and this is only an extreme case: the 'silence and darkness' of Vladimir's world is not only inaccessible and incomprehensible to us, but it simply cannot be - for precisely the reason that it is inaccessible - morally, ethically, politically, or in any other way relevant to us as a thing in itself on or from an 'inside', as something to be borne witness to 'from the inside', or from an ‘impossible inside’, one that has no reference point to the outside - the only way in which it ever can be relevant is the way in which we can comprehend it from what we are told of it, what we can gather by 'ruminating...until the tooth falls out', establishing our own maximal relation to it, at the limit of our conscious ability to perceive; by recognizing ourselves as objects in the deaf, blind, speechless human beings of 'silence and darkness', or the Musselmanner of Auschwitz. That is the limit. There is no 'inside' beyond what can be established. We may blindfold ourselves, plug up our ears, sew our mouths shut for a time, but precisely due to the temporality and optionality of such an experience, it brings us no closer to the reality of this mythical 'inside'.

The outcome of elaborating this insight further should be to expurgate all the faces of negativity – the ‘hidden’ or ‘impossible’, etc – from the Deleuzian ‘theatre of production’: constructing this theatre on the model of the Japanese Bunraku – where the inside no longer commands the outside.

III. From Horror to Discourse: The Hegel in Nietzsche Whose Face is Well Hidden

The second theme arising here, propping itself up in the imagination out of the closing reflections of Agamben’s first chapter (‘The Witness’), the second motif of ‘non-language’, which Agamben suspects that Primo Levi, on whose writing he draws heavily, “discerned in the ‘background noise’ of Celan’s poetry” – comes from the speechless, nameless ‘child of Auschwitz’ whom the other prisoners named Hurbinek, and who ‘at a certain point…begins to repeat a word over and over again, a word that no one in the camp can understand and that Levi doubtfully transcribes as mass-klo or matisklo…They all listen and try to decipher that sound, that emerging vocabulary…despite the presence of all the languages of Europe in the camp, Hurbinek’s word remains obstinately secret.” (p 38)

Hurbinek’s word – is it not a bit like Kurtz’s word, the Kurtz of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness? Just as ‘all the languages of Europe’ could not decipher Hurbinek’s word, ‘All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz’, the ‘universal genius’, the son of Europe who, before his ‘unlawful soul’ was ‘beguiled beyond the bounds of permitted aspirations’, was destined for great things. Kurtz’s decipherable but hardly intelligible word – ‘The horror! The horror!’ – designates the inverse of the apoplexy of Hurbinek. The two seem to meet in what Agamben calls the ‘gray zone in which victims become executioners and executioners become victims’, a ‘brotherhood in abjection’ (p 17) – the site (in our collective consciousness, perhaps) designated by Auschwitz. But it is also by this very recognition, by the inclusion of Kurtz in it, the site of European colonialism – the two are not only historically contingent, as some (like Sven Lindqvist) have argued, they also share in our collective memory what Deleuze might call a ‘dark precursor.’

The theme woven throughout Heart of Darkness is one of civilizational displacement and inversion of paradigm, of false binaries – Marlow, the narrator within the story, seeing Kurtz on his deathbed finds him “avid of lying fame, of sham distinction, of all the appearances of success and power” – and returning from Africa to Brussels, the ‘sepulchral city’ finds himself “resenting the sight of people hurrying through the streets to filch a little money from each other, to devour their infamous cookery, to gulp their unwholesome beer, to dream their insignificant and silly dreams. They trespassed upon my thoughts. They were intruders whose knowledge of life was to me an irritating pretence… commonplace individuals… outrageous flauntings of folly…I had some difficulty in restraining myself from laughing in their faces, so full of stupid importance.” (113-114) And at the very end as Marlow completes the spinning of his yarn and the group sailing on the Thames are reduced to silence, the final revelation which silently pervades the story up to that point, teeming below the surface, is finally crystallized and brought out in the last paragraph of the novel:

'Marlow ceased, and sat apart, indistinct and silent, in the pose of a meditating Buddha. Nobody moved for a time. 'We have lost the first of the ebb,' said the Director, suddenly. I raised my head. The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed somber under an overcast sky - seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.'

Thus all the rivers of humanity – the Thames no less than the Congo - are reduced to one impenetrable waterway leading to an immense darkness, the darkness of the human heart. But another cultural displacement is performed here – we are told of Marlow sitting 'in the pose of a meditating Buddha'. This is important - for what Conrad leaves us with here may be precisely what Barthes repeatedly suggests of the universe of his ‘Japan’ - that there is nothing beyond, no 'inside', no 'meaning', nothing 'signified'. The last words spoken by Kurtz, that phrase we are left with – ‘The horror!’ in spite of the various attempts by critics to get behind it, is the sum total of what there is to be said 'from the inside' - of death, or simply the darkness of the human heart - there is nothing to be interpreted, taken apart, or analyzed. That is the limit. Here at the end, in a closing feat of cultural and civilizational displacement we see Marlow, the 'meditating Buddha', awakened to what Barthes calls the ‘truth of Zen.’ And by that same movement, the truth of European colonialism and of what follows it - Nazism, Auschwitz - is fully constituted on its outside, which is all there is - we may not yet have pondered it sufficiently, ruminated long enough on the cosmic trail left in its wake by the sacral 'dust of events', we may not have submitted this long enough to meditation - but all the elements are in place, nothing more is needed in order for us to 'awaken to the fact.'

It is on this ground that Nietzsche fails us, and is in fact counter-productive. Conrad, from the vantage point of an unwilling participant in European colonialism, as one who has seen it 'in the flesh' so to speak - a witness, and a 'true' one at that (one could call him a sonderkommando of the vast ghetto that the African continent was eventually turned into) - indeed strikes at the very core, at the very idea of a Europe, a European subject - in a sweeping, leveling gesture that (especially extraordinary for its time) reduces and relegates any and every notion of civilized 'European man' to the same dark matter where Europeans had by then long relegated all non-Europeans. Nietzsche's operation, on the other hand, is one of substitution - he merely substitutes the classical self-reflecting notion of Europe with a vision more to his taste, exchanging one form of 'racialization' for another. And it seems to me insufficient merely to say 'despite the unsavoury reasons for this civilizational dislocation...' as Savonarola does, given that the exchange, the substitution he performs is not merely a 'reason' but precisely what constitutes the dislocation, its goal, what is embedded in it – Nietzsche, in an exquisitely Hegelian-dialectical turn, falls pray to the Big Other. (Incidentally, for all it’s worth – both Conrad and Nietzsche were of Polish descent, both orphaned at an early age, and both wrote exquisite, cynical prose.)

There is a profound moment in Foucault, a recurring element of his thought which follows a line very similar to Lacan's 'Big Other', but on a more exhaustive register - and this is where Foucault, in spite of being influenced by Nietzsche, supersedes him - it is his ability to expose continuities where there are none apparent, or where conventional historical thinking has seen discontinuities, even conflicts. From the earliest of Foucault’s works (Civilization and Madness) to the latest (History of Sexuality, vol. 1), this central theme in Foucault can be summarized in the question: have we really made a break with the past? Does this or that historical development (psychoanalysis, modern medicine, liberal humanism, the sexual revolution) truly represent a break with what preceded it, what it has traditionally defined itself as being opposed to? For this very reason, Foucault has been accused (by Derrida, I believe, among others) of being Hegelian, but this accusation is misplaced - he may be the only true anti-Hegelian, or one of the few who have truly grasped and come to terms with Hegel and grasped the true enormity of the task before us. In other words, in seeing continuities and immanences where we have been taught to see breaks and ruptures, Foucault serves as a lookout, an agent of warning, a reminder that we should always be alert, suspicious of all-too-easy victories, false breaks, wolves in sheep’s clothing - be wary of false prophets, in one way of putting it. If Foucault is Hegelian, he is the Hegelian on our side, who may help us defeat Hegel-the-liberal-totalitarian. (Just as Woody Allen says "Yeah, I'm a bigot. But for the Left.") What we should always be wary of when claiming to have made a break with the past is that we may merely be developing its inherent or immanent potential, playing the same old dialectical game that, beneath all apparent changes and revolutions, only serves to preserve the status quo.

(It is entirely possible that, as Zizek put it in a lecture, Nietzsche's 'madness' was the result of his final realization - he 'finally got it' - having reached the very brink, and in the very moment when he believed himself totally free of Hegel, he turned around only to see the slimy slithering Hegelian monster right behind him, breathing down his neck, waiting to devour him whole.)

And this is where we return to the problem of the EU Constitutional Treaty and the preamble. It is not merely that by engaging in the ‘game’ of interpretation even to contest the particular ‘self-representation’ of Europe embodied in a particular vision or to contest the link between that vision and the lived reality, we affirm (mistakenly) the subjective possibility of such a ‘self-representation’. What we should at all times be asking ourselves in this context is what any particular expurgation from or addition to a text really means, what implications any particular silence truly carries: whether what is excised from the text is truly silenced or repressed (or if repressed, what that repression truly constitutes, i.e. whether it is merely sublimation and the rendering of a different kind of voice), whether the repressed element is truly severed from action or event, from the discourse of power, or whether its continued operation in the shadows only serves to transform, extenuate, and precisely extend the very discourse of power we believe we have just overcome, as Foucault argues:

“Silence itself – the things one declines to say, or is forbidden to name, the discretion that is required between different speakers – is less the absolute limit of discourse, the other side from which it is separated by a strict boundary, than an element that functions alongside the things said, with them and in relation to them within over-all strategies. There is no binary division to be made between what one says and what one does not say; we must try to determine the different ways of not saying such things…There is not one but many silences, and they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourses.” (p 27)

In other words, what we should be wary of is that, as Bob Dylan puts it, “the executioner’s face is always well hidden…” What is repressed (i.e., in the formation of a European subject, even one of Nietzsche’s design) always returns, but more importantly, while still ‘repressed’ is capable of functioning in and operating on reality. A hidden reference to Christianity, for instance, may be only more dangerous than an explicit one – we have less possibility of acting on it, shifting its meaning – and this is another reason not to think in terms of binaries. Or, in another way of putting it, the very fact that the preamble does not say anything about the ‘accumulation of capital in the hands of fewer and fewer of Europe’s citizens’ may make this unspoken project all the more dangerous – for it is nevertheless there. The text of any constitutional document (or any text, for that matter), rather than a ‘reflection’ or ‘self-representation’ to be set against a ‘reality’ and lambasted for its hypocrisy, should for our purposes (whatever it says) be thought of instead as a locating device,
like Perseus’ shield – which does indeed serve to emit an imperfect reflection of the Gorgon (it is after all only polished bronze, and spherically shaped), but a ‘reflection’ (precisely for this reason) meant not to convey the image, but to the contrary, insulate us from it, from the stony gaze of the Medusa while at the same time locating the monster, this monster we may in our day call ‘Europe’, so that we may slay it.

IV. Remaining Human, All Too Human – the Yellow Rose and the ‘Gaze Veiled by Tears’

This brings us back by a side route to Agamben and Auschwitz. Both he and Foucault set themselves the task of ‘interrogating silence’, of investigating and interpreting what is not said or ‘hidden’: the difference being in that Foucault never wanders into the territory of negativity, into strictly or simply binary oppositions – language/non-language, hidden/not hidden, possible/impossible, absurd/meaningful, etc – and in fact explicitly makes it part of his project not only to avoid but to reject such oppositions and divisions. For Foucault, the ‘silence’ or what at first appearance ‘one does not say’ is not a ‘lacuna’ in discourse or in language (as it is for Agamben), but merely what is not explicit, what is said or expressed in a different way, and therefore must be listened to and thought in a different way. Similarly, for Barthes (cited above) “what is posited must develop neither in discourse nor in the end of discourse: what is posited is matte, and all that one can do with it is to scrutinize it...not to solve it…nor even to perceive its absurdity.”

What is posited is matte: “By a singular vocation, the blind man becomes a witness; he must attest to the truth or the divine light. He is an archivist of visibility,” Derrida tells us. After all the talk of blindness and darkness, 'inside' and 'outside', it may be a good idea to turn to a blind writer – a true seer – for the simplest, most succinct, and most profound expression of everything that Barthes, Derrida, and others spend volumes trying to illuminate. Borges, in a half-page vignette pondering the last dying hours of the poet Giambattista Marino, ends with this thought:

‘Then the revelation occurred. Marino saw the rose, as Adam had seen it in Paradise, and he realized that it lay within its own eternity, not within his words, and that we might speak about the rose, allude to it, but never truly express it, and that the tall, haughty volumes that made a golden dimness in the corner of his room were not (as his vanity had dreamed them) a mirror of the world, but just another thing added to the world’s contents.’

Just another thing added to the world’s contents – that is how, in the end, we should view the EU Constitutional Treaty: something to be used, discarded, rejected, accepted, repackaged, modified, preserved, utilized – but never something whose relation as sign to represented reality should be either affirmed or contested. Instead of pondering the relation of language to reality, the possibility/impossibility of representation, we should embrace all language as something added to the world, as another way of acting on and in the world rather than representing it, embrace our metaphysical ‘blindness’ and go forth, speak and act. Even Conrad gives us this hint, ironically putting it in the mouth of Marlow, the narrator within the text, the frame narrative:

‘No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence – that which makes its truth, its meaning – its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream – alone…’ (p 57)

And so the Lessons of Darkness continue, as Herzog puts it. (Out, out brief candle!) There is another Nietzsche here who may be rescued from the jaws of Hegel, the Nietzsche who truly felt, the truly visionary, truly ‘blind’ Nietzsche of Zarathustra who, rather than merely substituting bid us to ‘break the old law-tables’, to clear the slate as an act for itself. The Nietzsche who wept, and in that weeping felt his thoughts, not as reflections of things, but as the things themselves. Derrida:

‘…And Nietzsche wept a lot. We all know about the episode in Turin, for example, where his compassion for a horse led him to take its head into his hands, sobbing…if tears come to the eyes, if they well up in them, and if they can also veil sight, perhaps they reveal, in the very course of this experience, in this coursing of water, an essence of the eye…if the eyes of all the animals are destined for sight…scopic knowledge of the animal rationale, only man knows how to go beyond seeing and knowing [savoir], because only he knows how to weep…The revelatory or apocalyptic blindness, the blindness that reveals the very truth of the eyes, would be the gaze veiled by tears. It neither sees nor does not see: it is indifferent to its blurred vision. It implores…’ (p 127)

And Sontag, also writing of tears, and (incidentally) of Bunraku, makes this observation:

‘Performances of Chushingura, probably the best-known narrative in all of Japanese culture, can be counted on to make a Japanese audience sob when Lord Asano admires the beauty of the cherry blossoms on his way to where he must commit seppuku – sob each time, no matter how often they have followed the story (as a Kabuki or Bunraku play)…They weep, in part, because they have seen it many times. People want to weep. Pathos, in the form of a narrative, does not wear out.’ (Sontag, p 82-83)

This is perhaps the greatest ethical gesture then, going back to the meaning of Auschwitz. To turn suffering into narrative – not to forget. To say, as Borges does in another story, incidentally titled ‘The Witness’, that “the world will be a little poorer when this Saxon man is dead.” Agamben, after carefully introducing, proposing and methodically rejecting every conventional rationalization of the specific ‘ethical problem’ to humanity posed by Auschwitz (it is not about remaining ‘human’, or about human dignity, respect, ethics, or the degradation of death, etc.), deconstructing and flattening all hitherto known ‘ethical categories’ to their juridico-theological origins, at the end concludes that “What cannot be stated, what cannot be archived is the language in which the author succeeds in bearing witness to his incapacity to speak…Just as in the starry sky that we see at night, the stars shine surrounded by a total darkness that, according to cosmologists, is nothing other than the testimony of a time in which the stars did not yet shine, so the speech of the witness bears witness to a time in which human beings did not yet speak…” (p 161-162) The mistaken assumption here is that now is a time in which human beings ‘do’ speak and understand each other in a way in which the witness cannot speak and be understood, that there is a difference. To use another metaphor from science, parallel to Agamben’s, the problem of ‘testimony’ as he lays it out is analogous to the ‘measurement problem’ in quantum mechanics – the impossibility of ‘witnessing’ the state of a wavefunction ‘from the inside’. According to the Schrödinger equation, the wavefunction evolves a ‘linear superposition’ of different (possible) states, but any measurement made on the system finds it in a definite state – indicating that the measurement itself ‘skews’ the operation. The Copenhagen interpretation of this problem, however – the most widely accepted – concludes, rather, that this means simply that our universe is in fact probabilistic. It is not that it is impossible to get accurate or complete knowledge ‘from the inside’ but rather, the universe itself is not at all times entirely sure, has nothing definite to tell us about itself.

It is noteworthy that Agamben, whose book is titled Remnants of Auschwitz, reflecting towards the end on the ‘non-language’ that testifies to the impossibility of testimony (Celan’s ‘inarticulate babble’, mastiklo), speaks of ‘remnants’, both as a ‘theologico-messianic concept…the remnant of Israel’ and as ‘remnants of a dead language’ – a metaphor for the impossibility of testimony from Auschwitz; and that Derrida, whose book is titled Memoirs of the Blind: the self-portrait and other ruins, speaks of ‘ruins’, with reference to the impossibility not only of ‘self-representation’ but by extension, any ‘representation’ at all, for we see ourselves, like others, from an outside, reflected, and even our own language, our own words, constitute an ‘outside’: “If what is called a self-portrait depends on the fact that it is called ‘self-portrait’, an act of naming should allow or entitle me to call just about anything a self-portrait, not only any drawing…but anything that happens to me, anything by which I can be affected…[the self-portrait] is like a ruin that does not come after the work but remains produced, already from the origin…In the beginning…there was ruin.” (p 65) This is precisely what Zizek, in a recent lecture, noted of Europe and the 4th movement of Beethoven’s 9th, the ‘ode to joy’ which – he argues – from the very outset deconstructs itself into the ‘Turkish march’ at the end, before we even hear the latter – the 'ode' shows up an ‘empty signifier' in the concept of 'Europe'…But Derrida goes on, “The ruin is not in front of us; it is neither a spectacle not a love object. It is experience itself…this memory open like an eye…that lets you see without showing you anything at all, anything of the all.” (p 69) Yet this memory - is it not the memory of a 'pure past' in Deleuzian terms, the object=x - the past that exists only in memory, always 'displaced in relation to itself'? The virtual object that is 'where it is only on condition that it is not where it should be...found only as lost...[existing] only as recovered...' (Deleuze, p 126-127) Does this not apply, not only to Agamben's idea of testimony, but also to Hurbinek's and Kurtz's word - 'esoteric words' which "state their own sense but do so only by representing it and themselves as nonsense...esoteric words are properly linguistic cases of the object=x...two series of heterogeneous forth their own communication through various signs...until the inauguration of a dark precursor...which plays the role of a differenciator of their differences...relates them to one another." (Deleuze, p 150) The 'testimony' from Auschwitz, together with what Agamben makes out of it, together with the 'esoteric words' of Kurtz and Hurbinek, is only another series contemporaneous with the others, carrying an object=x and linked to the others by means of the 'dark precursor' - none deriving from the other or following on the other. What Agamben finally achieves, it could be said, is to address this lacuna on his own terms, adding another series.

This, it could be said, is what does indeed make us human, and what encapsulates the ‘ethical problem’ of Auschwitz, contrary to Agamben but (perhaps) unwittingly proved by his gesture – not any particular meaning or testimony that can be drawn from Hurbinek’s word or Kurtz’s horror, nothing reflected in the text, nothing to be witnessed or represented, nothing to be drawn from the inside. It consists simply in the gesture that Agamben (among others) performs in relation to Auschwitz by writing his book, the language he creates, orders, accumulates, and adds to the world as another object for contemplation, ‘decapitating the monster’, the Gorgon – like the hero Perseus, and showing its head to the enemy – this uniquely human ‘revelatory or apocalyptic blindness,’ this ‘gaze veiled by tears’.


Drawing by a child in Terezin Camp
(Pinkas Synagogue, Jewish Museum, Prague)


V. Instead of a Conclusion, Another Spin of the Wheel: Away From State Politics, Representation, and the Cinema of Truth; Toward ‘Ecstatic Truth’ and the Sweet Inferno of Revolutionary Politics

To construct on this fertile ground a ‘politics of truth’ one must first ask – what kind of ‘truth’? Given the ‘blindness’ of language and the impossibility of representation, we must isolate a site of ‘truth’ founded in language that does not vainly seek to represent or distribute reality; language-as-object, language that instead of trying to mirror the world is contiguous with it, is added to it as another object – to transform, ignite, create real movement, rather than the ‘false movement of dialectics’. This site, borrowing a notion from Werner Herzog, we may call ‘ecstatic truth’. Herzog, in his fervent opposition to ‘cinema verite’ – whose ‘truth’ he calls the truth of ‘facts’ or the ‘truth of accountants’, a futile search for a ‘hidden’ truth – notoriously rejects the strict binary categorization of his films as either ‘documentary’ or ‘fiction’. In his ‘Minnesota Declaration’ he states that “fact creates norms, and truth illumination…there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.” A ‘truth of the eyes’ as Derrida puts it.

Is this not where all literature and religion derive their force of meaning? Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, despite being ‘fiction’, is more ‘true’ and is bound to outlast most ‘factual’ or accountants’ truth accounts of European colonialism (especially the pro- ones)…Does not the value of many religious texts derive from precisely their double or triple status (and the constant interplay of ‘levels of meaning’), among believers and non-believers alike, as historical document, literature or ‘fiction’, and ‘word of God’? Does not Nietzsche himself, most notably in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, straddle the gap between ‘fiction’ and ‘philosophy’, between ‘literature’ and ‘commentary’, between metaphorical, elusively poetic writing and direct commentary, between invention and representation? Demanding of language the impossible, demanding that it ‘represent’, sometimes only serves to debase our purpose. We should be seeking instead to construct a narrative of action, a narrative not tangled up in representation.

Rather than provoking subjects (as cinema verite filmmakers tend to do) to extract from them some ‘hidden’ truth or meaning, we should construct and seek the ‘truth’ of the surface, of what is there already, there for the taking if we hang onto it – what we get by watching Herzog’s deaf and blind subjects in Silence and Darkness, or in the footage of gushing, flaming oil wells during the Gulf War in Lessons of Darkness - the gushing, poetic, ecstatic truth to be gotten simply by staying with the subject, lingering, observing, meditating, keeping it in the frame and either posing it or simply waiting for that illuminating glimmer of cinematic magic that will sometimes flicker past, if we are patient – less passive but more ‘truth’, for we are not simply given it as an audience, it requires from each of us individually our active participation and effort, our own personal anguish of apprehension. This may be precisely be the answer to the politics of ‘sound bites’ and snap elections – not getting caught up in or playing the game, not letting our attention float from one sound bite to the next but keeping everything in the frame…

Thus what is required is indeed a ‘politics of truth’, but a very different kind of ‘politics’ involving a very different kind of ‘truth’: bypassing the politics of the state, in whole or in part, building from the ground up, out of the socius, and ridding ourselves of the notion that ‘truth’ can be found in representation, would certainly seem to require an even greater measure of ‘truth’ – as Bob Dylan (incidentally, paraphrasing a line in Don Siegel’s 1958 film noir, The Lineup) puts it, in Absolutely Sweet Marie: ‘to live outside the law, you must be honest.’ This may mean some kind of direct or absolute democracy as a final sign-post, a Hardt-Negrian ‘multitude ruling itself.’ To recall Dante again (not only as another proponent of courtly love, though this will be relevant below), with reference to the state of souls in limbo (the first circle of hell), those who ‘have not sinned’ but only had the ‘misfortune’ of being born before Christ and (not being baptized) are therefore not subjected to punishment, we are told -

In this alone we suffer:

Cut off from hope, we live on in desire.

This on a secular reading we may take as expressing on one hand the modern human condition – living on in desire, we are all effectively pagans, unbaptized, in Limbo: the ‘hope’ we are cut off from (something that is lost in translation) is the hope ‘of seeing God.’ Being ‘cut off from hope’ for our purposes then must necessarily correlate to, as Barthes puts it, ‘awakening to the fact’ in a pre-Christian universe ‘without subject and without god’. And in this condition, in this element of desire we may find the true form of all revolutionary politics – the point, to put it in proto-Marxist terms, is to change the social body, and the mind will follow. “Build it, and they will come.” For a revolution to be successful, it is necessary for the work never to be thought completed – and this is precisely why it is necessary to liberate the signified – the body – from the signifier: we must never settle once and for all, never set in stone any particular signifying relation - break the old law tables, as Nietzsche exhorts us in Zarathustra. Hence it is worth remembering that the true object of desire is by definition beyond our grasp (as C.S. Lewis put it, “we live in the shadowlands; The sun is always shining somewhere else...around a bend in the road...over the brow of a hill.”).

The same is true of revolution: the only truly successful revolutionary movement is one whose ultimate goal is continually postponed – hasta la victoria siempre, ergo ‘we live on in desire’ – and if we remember that desire is (by definition, again) the remainder we are left with when our demand for love is unsatisfied, here is one straight from the horse’s mouth, Che Guevara: “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.” Thus the only truly successful revolution is one that is continually repeated, or one that always in turn spawns its successor, always leaving ‘something more to be desired’ as the expression goes, a 'remainder' – if we think of a continually spinning wheel, a social revolution is precisely what it is literally – one full turn of the wheel, nothing more. But the wheel must keep turning, revolving. Or, as one Buddhist proverb puts it: ‘when you get to the top of a mountain, keep climbing.’

Some References

Agamben, Giorgio, Remnants of Auschwitz : the witness and the archive, New York, 1999.

Alighieri, Dante, The divine comedy. Volume 1, Inferno, New York; London, 2003.

Barthes, Roland, Empire of signs, New York, 1982.

Borges, Jorge Luis, Collected Fictions, New York, 1998.

Conrad, Joseph, Heart of Darkness, London, 1983.

Derrida, Jacques, Memoirs of the Blind, Chicago; London, 1993.

Deleuze, Gilles, Difference and Repetition, London, 2004.

Foucault, Michel, The history of sexuality. Vol. 1, The will to knowledge, London, 1998.

Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Penguin. (transl. R.J. Hollingdale)

Sontag, Susan: Regarding the pain of others, New York, 2003.

Herzog’s Minnesota Declaration

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