Tuesday, 29 April 2014

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Gnosis as 'Dark Precursor'

[idolatry and repetition: from simulacrum to gnosis]

In one of his poetic turns, Heidegger rejects the dichotomy of word and image, which in the German tradition was understood as meaning that images required space in order to be perceived, while words required time. To Heidegger, the truth of language - poetry - is image and therefore space par excellence; images, in turn, incorporate time in the form of the invisible - the truth of an image is not in the representation of the seen as conventionally understood, but in invoking what is outside itself, the 'thingness' of things, the hidden part - perhaps what Barthes calls punctum.

The reference to what is outside the immediate field of vision yet implicated in the image finds an inverse counterpart in Baudrillard's comments on photography as 'exorcism': "If something wants to be photographed, that is precisely because it does not want to yield up its meaning; it does not want to be reflected upon. It wants to be seized directly, violated on the spot, illuminated in its detail. If something wants to become an image, this is not so as to last, but in order to disappear more effectively."

Kafka, in a similar vein, equates this to writing: "We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds. My stories are a way of shutting my eyes." The image at hand, whether a visual image or a sentence-image (to use Ranciere's term), is a fixed or bare repetition, the Platonic repetition of the same, the copy which is always haunted by the spectre of an original but which, precisely for this reason, is false, and can never truly repeat the Idea (per Deleuze), the 'thingness' of a thing. As Baudrillard puts it, "to make an image of an object is to strip the object of all its dimensions one by one: weight, relief, smell, depth, time, continuity and, of course, meaning". To this Deleuze counter-poses the simulacrum, the real repetition of the Nietzschean eternal return which is never repetition of the same. Real repetition is where the new emerges in nature.

Far from empty theoretical posturing, what this broadly evokes borders on the atavistic: in virtually every major religion there is some kind of prohibition or taboo related to visual representation - idolatry, the making of graven images, the depiction of the prophet, etc. The fact that such norms are rarely observed, at least in the strictest terms, by the mainstream forms of institutionalized religions is evidence of a tension - an internal difference - at the heart of religious traditions. The Heideggerian poetics taken up by Baudrillard and Kafka hints at an ancient gnostic principle abandoned by theologians and organized religions in their gradual transition to rationalist modernity.

Even Heidegger's rejection of the split between word and image can be accomodated within a gnostic framework. The prohibition on 'taking the Lord's name in vain', or even more explicitly, the Hebrew prohibition on writing it down at all, alternately insisting that the name, if written, be stripped of vowels (YHWH), aims precisely at this. What is holy cannot be imagined, represented or fixed in any way, and this applies to visual image and text alike. In order for it to be present, it must remain immanent. The gnostic God, to put it in Deleuzian terms, is the ultimate 'dark precursor', the differenciator of differences, the object=x which ensures the communication between disparate series by never being in its proper place, remaining a void.

An exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris a few years ago explored this very aspect of the visual image - entitled Voids, the exhibition was a retrospective of empty exhibitions over the past 50 years, starting with Yves Klein's 1958 exhibition of an empty gallery space at the Galerie Iris Clert. Empty space features as a platform for envisioning the invisible, for contemplating space in time, opening our eyes to the 'thingness' of things, their absence. It is a way of repatriating the exorcised content of the captured image, releasing the violated image back into the void, redeeming the holy.

It it this dimension again that is activated in Chinese artist Zhang Huan's "Berlin Buddha" - a performance-art piece in which a buddha sculpture made of concrete was ripped apart and reduced to dust in front of the gallery audience. This reference to the buddhist notion of 'killing the buddha' also hints at a shared element of gnosis that traverses a whole range of philosophical and religious traditions - from the Pagan ritual of the 'May King' or 'killing the god' to the Adonis myth (which echoes the earlier Sumerian 'Tammuz' and a number of other ancient myths of death/rebirth), the Crucifixion of Christ, etc. The very existence (as opposed to Being) of 'God' in any sense - as statue, flesh-and-blood, even ghost or spirit - is an imaging, a fixation, and therefore sacrilege.

Where the Kafka/Baudrillard gnostic indictment of the image and Heidegger's poetics part ways is in that Heidegger does not exclude the possibility of an authentic image. In Baudrillard's gnostic vision, the image is by necessity representation and therefore loss. But this seems too easy a dismissal for Heidegger - it is possible for an image to evoke the thingness of things, to show without representing.

It may be precisely this that makes Diane Arbus' photographs unique: it seems all too simple to say that she portrayed 'freaks'. Her uniqueness is that in her photographs, 'freaks' - giants, dwarves, transvestites, circus performers, those on the fringe of ordinary society - appeared normal, at home with themselves, ordinary; whereas the 'normal' people (i.e. couple with child strolling down 5th avenue) appeared unsettled, out of place, weird, plastic.

One shouldn't mistake this overarching theme in Arbus' work as a gesture of equation: the photographs form two distinct series. The common term between them, repeated in each series - 'freak' for lack of a better term - far from being an identity or similarity between them, is precisely what grounds their difference, what distinguishes the two series. It is the object=x, the 'dark precursor', the differenciator of differences. It establishes a point of contact between them, differenciates them, while remaining invisible, or outside the frame and without any positive content: one cannot locate it ('freakishness') precisely or explain its meaning, but it is there nevertheless, running silently througout each series. Through this displacement and repetition Arbus' photographs evoke something truly new, carving out a unique territory among images.

It is no surprise that, in her senior high school yearbook where each student was asked to provide, as a caption for their graduation photo, a statement about their goals in life upon graduating, among all the boring statements by her fellow students on career and marriage aspirations, Arbus stood out like a sore thumb with these words: "To shake the tree of life and bring down fruits unheard of."

[common humanity and resistance: quo vadis, domine?]

The first time Christ is crucified, he is merely a holy man who gives up his life for the sake of another, only one among many Judeans killed by the Romans in this gruesome manner. It is only with the second crucifixion - the repetition - that the truly new emerges, and the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth is transformed into Christ, the redeemer - it is only the second time, with a second death, that 'God' truly dies on the cross.

The dark precursor is thus constituted retroactively (per Deleuze), and 'God' - the object=x - emerges as the invisible differenciator between the series, establishing a point of communication between them but without an identity or similarity; 'God' is the pure difference between series that repeat one another, the new that emerges in each repetition. It is the 'esoteric word' that ensures communication, while establishing against the background of the 'same' the difference between each series: the spiritual 'killing of the Buddha', the pagan ritual of spring ('killing the May King'), the crucified flesh-and-blood God of Christianity.

In this sense, the revolutionaries of the Arab Spring and Iranian revolts - in opposing state/religious authority from a position of faith (in many cases), referencing religious tradition - set out from the position of Antigone/Jesus. Rather than simply resistance, Antigone's position in ethical terms circumvents state authority (Creon) to establish a direct relation to a higher authority beyond the state ("the unwritten laws of heaven…"); in much the same way, Jesus opposes the Roman empire by appealing to the 'Kingdom of God'.

This is perhaps the result of Walter Benjamin's insight that state authority rests not on a 'rule of law' but on rule by 'exception' or whim, disguised by concepts such as 'the rule of law'. If the 'rule of law' can be suspended whenever it proves inconvenient to those in power, it becomes questionable whether it ever was an authentic principle or modus operandi. Within these parameters, the form that an authentic resistance must take, rather than operating within this farcical system of rules and rights granted by the state, is to invoke an authentic exception, as Benjamin puts it - an 'unwritten' authority beyond the state - and destroy the law as such, clean the slate.

This theological dimension cannot be underestimated in the context of the struggle in the Arab world, for what may be obvious reasons: by invoking the internal difference, the Egyptian or Iranian protesters' insistence on faith, far from indicating a 'lesser evil' or reformist moderation, radically lays bare the real struggle - not between Western liberal democracy and Islam, but between the authentic personal faith of gnostic populism on one hand, and the inauthentic authoritarian faith of those in power, on the other. They share a term - Allah - but this shared term is an emptiness that in fact differenciates them and splits them apart, their 'dark precursor'. It is the same struggle that goes on worldwide, traversing systems and religions.

In her essay on Hegel and Haiti, Susan Buck-Morss relates the story of a contingent of French soldiers sent by Napoleon to put down the slaves' revolt; upon hearing a group of former slaves sing the Marseillaise (which in one verse denounces "l'esclavage antique"), the Frenchmen decide not to ambush the rebels, laying down their own weapons and wondering aloud if they aren't fighting on the wrong side. Their faith - in the ideals of the French Revolution - is authentic. "Common humanity appears at the edges," Buck-Morss concludes. Power comes from below.

If I may digress a little, to quote at length from Tolstoy, War and Peace: "in order that the will of Napoleon and Alexander (on whom the event seemed to depend) should be carried out, the concurrence of innumerable circumstances was needed without any one of which the event could not have taken place. It was necessary that millions of men in whose hands lay the real power - the soldiers who fired, or transported provisions and guns - should consent to carry out the will of these weak individuals, and should have been induced to do so by an infinite number of diverse and complex causes."

Asserting further that the major historical players are in the end far more caught up in the inertial momentum of history than the people they command, Tolstoy concludes, "A king is history's slave."

By contrast, in the words of Salvador Allende, "La historia es nuestra y la hacen los pueblos." It is the people who make history, whether they know it or not.

The fundamental opposition here - between the unwritten and the written, between the sacred/holy and the concrete/fixed, between the raw, volatile will of the people and established state authority - invokes what Deleuze refers to as the only real opposition in nature: between the Idea and representation. Real difference is always internal, and it goes all the way down - this is precisely the consequence of Heidegger's insight that words, through poetry, can create images, and that images in turn can express absence; like the wave/particle duality in quantum physics, the split between word and image is internal to both word and image. In the words of Walt Whitman, "I and mine do not convince by arguments, similes, rhymes; We convince by our presence."

Or as Louis Armstrong - jazz gnostic - put it, when asked how he would explain to the uninitiated what jazz music was all about: "some people, if they don't know, you just can't tell 'em." (The idea of jazz, beyond even the boundaries of genre or music as an art form, embodies in the purest sense the notion of repetition=difference.)

Not to miss out on a more contemporary pop culture reference when it rears its pretty little head - I've never found the song 'Royals' that interesting, despite its appropriation by Bill de Blasio in his progressive campaign for New York Mayor - musically and lyrically, 'Team' is Lorde's real gem, with this lyric especially:

    We live in cities
you'll never see on the screen
Not very pretty, but we sure know
how to run things
Living in ruins
of a palace within my dreams
And you know
we're on each other's team

It's those cross-connections again, that cut across cultures and make visible the real differences, and real allegiances - like the French soldiers and Haitian slaves singing the Marseillaise, the Syrian rebels and Bostonians exchanging messages of solidarity, or the Tahrir Square protesters in Egypt holding signs saying 'we stand with the people of Wisconsin' in the middle of Governor Scott Walker's union-busting campaign. We're on each other's team. We live in cities you'll never see on the screen - the revolution will not be televised, as Gill Scott-Heron famously put it.

*     *     *

"What becomes established with the new is precisely not the new," (Deleuze) and this is one of the pitfalls of any revolutionary struggle. A revolution can never establish itself or insinuate itself in laws and institutions, let alone state organs; it cannot make an image of itself - the revolution will not be televised. It is in this sense that effective resistance to state authority, by invoking an authentic exception, must rely on Benjaminian 'divine violence' - divine because it is 'unwritten', because it cannot inscribe itself in (written) law. In order to remain vital, revolution must remain a threatening presence, a force of nature, a pure momentum poised against organs of authority as such; its function - and its everlasting hope - can only ever be to set in motion a wheel of critical mass when necessary, to produce complex repetitions out of which emerge authentic differences, to perpetually "shake the tree of life and bring down fruits unheard of."