Some spasm of the Zeitgeist (or was it an astrological conjunction?) in the 1990s gave birth to an extraordinary rash of books about vampires, werewolves, zombies and assorted mutants, as though a whole culture had fallen in love with the undead, those monstrous, liminal ﬁgures which hover between life and death as surely as the commodity form or a DVD. Perhaps this was because a jaded postmodern sensorium for which even sodomy and necrophilia were as tedious as high tea could now reap feeble stimulation only from such Gothic grotesquerie or Transylvanian exotica. Mark Neocleous begins this book by noting the cultic nature of such obsessions, without pausing to comment on why he is feeding them.
Neocleousʼs study is concerned with the politics of remembrance – with how commemorating the unjustly dumped and discarded can help them to live again, this time as comedy rather than tragedy. The past is unﬁnished business, and what will determine its meaning, indeed its very continuing existence, is our own political activity in the present. Though Neocleous ﬁnds this an alluring enough notion, he is also a mite embarrassed by it, since he is the kind of leftist who suspects that the backward-looking is inherently conservative. His book is among other things an attempt to resolve this uncomfortable tension.
Just as there are radicals who hold the astonishing opinion that all authority is oppressive and all hierarchy obnoxious, so there are radicals who believe that a preoccupation with the past is inertly traditionalist. They are thus at odds with Leon Trotsky, who once observed that ʻwe Marxists have always lived in traditionʼ. There is a good deal of salvage, retrieval and conservational work at stake in any revolutionary project. Even in revolutionary situations, there is more continuity than change in human affairs. It is curious why some on the Left see tradition as about the Changing of the Guard and the House of Lords, rather as Tories do. The only difference between the two camps on this score is that the former condemn what the latter commend.
The truth is that all good radicals are traditionalists. It is from the Jacobins, Chartists, suffragettes and the like that we draw our vampiric resources. A spot of political blood-sucking never did anyone any harm. What spurs men and women to revolt, as Walter Benjamin once remarked with his customary Judaic piety, is not dreams of liberated grandchildren but memories of oppressed ancestors. It is the Blairites who seek to erase history with their modernist blather about drawing a line beneath the past and moving wide-eyedly on. Just as historicism strives to disavow the dead, since nothing in this grandly unfurling evolution can ever be absolutely lost, so the ideologies of progress and modernization seek to write the dead out of the historical record.
It is a pity, however, that Neocleous takes as his paradigm of conservatism the most magniﬁcently eloquent scourge of colonial oppression that these islands have ever produced. Edmund Burke was not a Tory; he was a Rockinghamite Whig who bravely opposed the corrupt cabal clustered around the king, and inherited from the eighteenth century the liberal doctrine (not untouched by a strain of classical republicanism) that political authority is legitimate only when it loyally serves the interests of the common people. (He did not, to be sure, hold that such authority should be elected by the common people, but one would scarcely expect him to be a prototype of George Galloway.) Neocleous, by contrast, deﬁnes Burkeʼs interest in the people only in terms of his celebrated contempt for the mob or swinish multitude, apparently unaware that for this resplendent example of a liberal Whig ʻmobʼ and ʻpeopleʼ were by no means cognate terms.
Burke was certainly a conservative in a broad sense of the word, but he was so, like, say, Samuel Johnson or John Ruskin, in all the most honourable ways. He did not believe that a jumped-up middle-class caucus of quacks, projectors and wild-eyed experimenters should have the right to tear up for their own selﬁsh interests the dense thicket of common law and customary privileges which protected the vulnerable. If he turned to tradition, it was in some remarkably subversive ways. At dire risk to his seat in parliament, he lent his incomparably persuasive voice to the cause of the American insurrectionists, in the faith that their strike against colonial power was an afﬁrmation of traditional British liberties. No other ʻBritishʼ politician
Common monstrosityMark Neocleous, The Monstrous and the Dead: Burke, Marx, Fascism, University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 2005. 160 pp., £45.00 hb., £17.99 pb., 0 7083 1904 1 hb., 0 7083 1903 3 pb.(and Burke was not of course British) has matched the scurrilous, superbly burnished rhetoric of his assault on British imperialism in India, whose odious chief ofﬁcer Warren Hastings he dragged before the House of Commons and pilloried with such merciless venom that ladies in the public gallery fainted melodramatically away.
Derided as a potato-eating Paddy himself, Burke was a champion of otherness and monstrosity, not a smugly suburban critic of them. His scorching, lushly ﬁgurative denunciations of the colonial junta of his own native land, the Anglo-Irish Ascendency, are legendary even in the well-stocked rhetorical annals of Irish nationalism. On his death bed, this bitterly disenchanted defender of the Irish poor was as close to support for the revolutionary United Irishmen as one who loathed and dreaded such political turmoil could conceivably have been. (He was, to be sure, outdone in this respect by his compatriot, parliamentary colleague and fellow prosecutor of Warren Hastings, the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, a man who secretly fellow-travelled with the United Irishmen while holding government ofﬁce, and thus covertly pledged to bringing down the very imperial power of which he was ofﬁcially a servant.) If Burke excoriated the Jacobins, it was because he classed them, however deludedly, alongside the AngloIrish Ascendency, the East India Company and British colonial rule in America. All were self-elected sinister interests inimical to the good of the people. Burkeʼs theme from beginning to end is hegemony – the belief that only that power that has secured the affections of the people is legitimate. In the case of Ireland and India, this meant revering local customs and cultures, which in Burkeʼs eyes were quite as precious as those he venerated at home.
No reader of Neocleousʼs account of this reviled colonial, the product of a hedge school in County Cork, would have the least inkling that he was anything but a kind of Michael Oakeshott in knee breeches. Even so, Neocleous has some illuminating commentary on Burkeʼs notions of the sublime, and on the relations between his aesthetics and politics. He sees shrewdly that sublimity for Burke is intimately allied with death; but he overlooks the fact that what is secretly at stake in this connection is the sublime as Thanatos or the death drive. The sublime is that chastening, daunting, humbling, intimidatory, exhilarating, exuberant, expansive force which in the usual manner of jouissance or obscene enjoyment is both living and dead, annihiliating and invigorating. The sublime is the Law, superego or political authority which demands that we reap a masochistic pleasure from its furious, sadistic dismemberment of the self, one which is most effective when it presents itself in the vicarious form of tragic art. Tragedy for Burke is a kind of Schadenfreude in which we relish the sufferings of others, secure in the knowledge that we ourselves cannot be harmed. It is a drawing life from the dead, plucking redemption from the jaws of defeat.
Burke regards this sublimely unrepresentable Law as terroristic; but he had witnessed enough political terror in the gibbet-ridden Ireland of his youth (one of his own relatives was hanged by the British) to wish to temper and modulate its unlovely force. The terrorism of the sublime had consequently to be softened and feminized by the ʻbeautyʼ of custom, grace and civil society, if men and women were to look upon this Gorgon-like power and not be turned to stone. A coercive, inherently masculine Law had thus to tart itself up in the decorous garments of a ʻfeminineʼ consensuality. The law for Burke is effective only when it is a cross-dresser. It is thus, in Neocleousʼs terms, a kind of monster in its hybridity, as indeed is the whole concept of hegemony – though Neocleous might have noted that one of the meanings of ʻmonsterʼ in classical antiquity is a creature which is entirely self-sufﬁcient, as the deluded Oedipus believes himself to be. In this sense of the term, what is most monstrous about modernity is also what is most central to it: the idea of freedom as self-determination.
In a useful chapter on Marx, Neocleous rightly registers his ambivalence about the dead. On the one hand, we have the brusque ʻLet the dead bury their deadʼ of the Eighteenth Brumaire, a typically modernist exercise in the politics of amnesia. Given the vital importance of such rituals in Judaism, even a thoroughly secular Jew like Marx could hardly have allowed these words to pass his lips without the faintest frisson of guilt. (The slogan derives, of course, from another secularizing Jew, Jesus.) On the other hand, there is Marxʼs Jewish preoccupation with commemorating the casualties of that long atrocity known as history. Neocleous identiﬁes this tension perceptively enough, though like Marx in his more avant-garde moods he does not seem to see that we can only break with the past by deploying against it the contaminated instruments which it has bequeathed us. Besides, avantgarde ruptures with history have a depressingly long history. The very term ʻmodernʼ comes to us from antiquity. Like a good many leftists, Neocleous is also reluctant to acknowledge that the tradition which roused Marx most was that of the bourgeoisie. It was not only the victims of class society which the present was to cherish, but the mighty spiritual and material resources of bourgeois culture, without which any socialism was doomed to be no more than generalized scarcity. Marxists are to be distinguished from other leftists by their fervent enthusiasm for the middle classes. They are traditionalists because they wish to safeguard the working class from the horrors of that modernist rupture with history known as Stalinism. As though someone shy of pursuing such unpalatable reﬂections, the book turns instead to an account of the most necromantic Marxist of them all, Walter Benjamin, who knew a thing or two about seeking to preserve the dead from the violence of the living.
The bookʼs most impressive chapter by far is its erudite, politically impassioned account of fascism, a movement for which the dead will never quite lie down. The book might have added that this is because fascismʼs stereotypical enemies, epitomized in the Jew, are embodiments of a sinister, nameless negativity corrosive of all national or ethnic substance; and nothingness, as symbolist poets and metaphysically minded anarchists do not need to be told, is the one thing that cannot be annihilated. Neocleous sees that Thanatos – an ecstatic embrace of death – lies at the core of fascist doctrine. From St Paul to Martin Heidegger, however, there is more than one way of actively embracing oneʼs death. If there is the path of fascism and nihilism, there is also the path of the most authentic brands of tragedy, for which embracing oneʼs death signiﬁes a Lear-like openness to oneʼs ﬁnitude and mortality which lies at the root of all realism, and thus of all moral virtue. It also involves a refusal to give way on the desire of which death is the ﬁnal signiﬁer, and thus a refusal of bogus ideological consolation.
Neocleous writes of the need not to see others as inhuman monsters; but the ﬁnest of tragedies understand that only when we encounter one another on the basis of our common monstrosity, relating not in some imaginary or symbolic mode but on the properly inhuman ground of the Real, can our relationships be said to be genuinely human. It is when we are stripped of our kin, kind and culture that we are most inhuman – which is to say of course, like Lear on the blasted heath, most purely and intolerably human as well. The Monstrous and the Dead, a book written with all the stylistic elegance one would expect of a doyen of Radical Philosophy, is a useful place from which to begin such investigations.
PostapologeticAlexei Monroe, Interrogation Machine: Laibach and NSK, foreword by Slavoj Žižek, Short Circuits, MIT Press,
Cambridge MA and London, 2005. xxi + 314 pp., £22.95 pb., 0 262 63315 9 pb. ʻNo apologies.ʼ These words begin Monroeʼs Interrogation Machine: Laibach and NSK, or rather they begin his ʻPrefaceʼ, which is the third section in the book, following two prefaces by Slavoj Žižek – one introducing MIT Pressʼs Short Circuits series, which he edits and of which this book is a part, and the second previewing the radical encounter with the interlinked Slovenian avant-garde artistic and political collective Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK) and post-punk band Laibach, which are the subject of the book. But before Monroeʼs rhetorical refusal to atone for the complexity and difﬁculty of his study, Laibach get the ﬁrst words: ʻThe explanation is the whip and you bleed.ʼ This line is a lucid capturing of the power of Monroeʼs project and the avant-garde cultural production it tackles; Monroeʼs book is the ﬁrst to engage the work of NSK and Laibach with serious historical and theoretical rigour. (Interrogation Machine is the updated English version of the Slovene book Pluralni monolit – Laibach in NSK, published in 2003.) Laibachʼs words also offer a crystallized forecast of the methodological problems of a study that tries to couple this sort of brutal practicality together with complex historiography and theoretical sophistication.
This is the sort of book that eschews any particular methodology in favour of throwing itself headlong into an experimental engagement with a vast, difﬁcult and continually changing historical and aesthetic terrain. If punk meant never having to say youʼre sorry, then Interrogation Machine aims to perform a kind of Laibachian scholarship. What unfolds over the course of Monroeʼs book is a variety of cultural history in which a way of being in the world is not just at issue but genuinely at stake. But for that kind of scholarship to produce modes of ʻexplanationʼ that can become operational, it has to succeed in making contact with ﬂesh and making something or someone bleed. In endeavouring to do so, Monroe produces an exhilarating and properly punitive study, one that occasionally loses its own thread through the complexity it relishes, but that nevertheless does some serious and deserved violence to the clinical complacency of the art history industry and its well-oiled recuperations of any and all avant-garde activity. Interrogation Machineʼs appearance in English means that the anglophone academy can have no excuse for not dealing with its provocation to virtually all efforts to theorize the avant-gardes and their histories.
Spanish literary theorist Federico de Onis, who ﬁrst coined the notion of postmodernismo in 1934 to characterize a then-contemporary conservative tendency within modernism – ʻone which sought refuge from its formidable lyrical challenge in a muted perfectionism of detail and ironic humourʼ – believed that the momentary postmodern period would be followed by a phase he named ultramodernismo. This would consist of the activities of a series of interwoven avant-garde practices whose effects would actualize the radical experimental promise of modernism, focus it by means of the creation of a ʻrigorously contemporary poetryʼ that would be universal in scope. The established histories of the avant-garde that have been produced by and for the West have scant room for this sort of enterprise. It is little surprise but nevertheless a disappointment worth registering that the recent tome Art since 1900, team-written by four of the most accomplished art historians and theorists of our time and imagining itself to be (however partial) a comprehensive panorama of important radical artistic practice over the last century, does not have the time of day for NSK, surely one of the most consequential avant-gardes in European history. (And the only Irwin it mentions is Robert.) So, apart from Interrogation Machineʼs importance as a source that traces the genealogy of NSK and Laibach and their historical and cultural contexts, the book also demonstrates the fertile dialogue, largely unmined, between them and the Western European and American postwar avant-gardes. ʻLaibach and NSK works are permeated with either direct borrowings from or references to conceptual art,ʼ notes Monroe, ʻparticularly that of Duchamp, Fluxus, and Beuys, all of whom they cite at some stage.ʼ In fact, Beuysʼs death in 1986 prevented him from realizing a planned collaboration with Irwin in which they ʻwould perform a joint action sowing the Slovene ﬁeldsʼ.
It may be here – in staging the beginnings of a history of avantgarde practice and performance that links the well-worn Duchamp–Cage– Beuys–Fluxus scenario with the lesser-known Russian constructivist– Suprematist–NSK–Laibach lineage – that Monroeʼs book will offer its most lasting contribution. For instance, with Interrogation Machine as a mediating agent it becomes not just possible but almost necessary to rethink Fluxus ʻfounderʼ George Maciunasʼs endeavour to fashion a kind of contemporary socialist avant-garde in America in the 1960s. Poet and Fluxus artist Jackson Mac Low described Maciunas as a peculiar sort of Marxist–Leninist, or better a ʻRussianistʼ; he remembers Maciunas once showing him a letter he had just mailed to Nikita Khrushchev ʻin which he urged the Soviet ruler to encourage “realistic art” ([Fluxus event scores and Fluxkits] such as [George] Brechtʼs, La Monte [Young]ʼs, and to some extent [Emmett Williamsʼs]) as being more consonant with a “realistic economic system” such as that of the Soviet Union than the old-fashioned “socialist-realist” art then in favour.ʼ Would art history not understand Fluxus (and its debt, little-remarked in comparison to the endless accounts of Duchampʼs and Cageʼs importance, to the Russian avant-garde) in a much more interesting and political manner if we approached its activities and its structure through, for example, Eda Cufer and Irwinʼs 1993 statement ʻNSK State in Timeʼ?
One of the aims of Neue Slowenische Kunst is to prove that abstraction, which in its fundamental philosophic component – suprematism – explains and expels the political language of global cultures from the language and culture of art, contains a social program adequate to the needs of modern man and community. The NSK state in time is an abstract organism, a suprematist body, installed in a real social and political space as a sculpture comprising the concrete body warmth, spirit and work of its members. NSK confers the status of a state not to territory but to mind, whose borders are in a state of ﬂux, in accordance with the movements and changes of its symbolic and physical collective body.
In 1995, exactly a decade before the publication of Interrogation Machine, the most puzzling of teddy bears made its way to the shelves of shops in Ljubljana. Cute, cuddly and sporting an armband with a black cross, Ursula Noordung was the collaborative creation of Irwin and NK (Novi Kolektivizem – New Collectivism). (The primary groups within NSK are Laibach, Irwin, Noordung (formerly Red Pilot and prior to that Scipion Nascise Sisters), New Collectivism Studio, and the Department of Pure and Applied Philosophy. See www.ljudmila.org/embassy/. [archive]) Monroe notes that this bear was sold to raise money for charity. A ʻsymbol of childhood innocence… problematized by a black-cross armbandʼ, it was precisely the sort of volatile theoretical object in whose production NSK and Laibach have specialized. However, according to NSK member Eda Cufer, the Ursula Noordung teddy bear – its artistic dimension notwithstanding – was entirely a proﬁt-making venture by the artists, and was not sold for any charitable purpose. As Cufer has noted, the Ursula Noordung project was actually made for the Soros Foundation-sponsored URBANARIA exhibition. The charitable version of the bear came later, when Ursula was appropriated by Mobitel, a Slovenian telecommunications company with ties to the arts, who developed it as a fundraiser for its own philanthropic activities. But Monroeʼs mix-up of the two teddy bears is fortuitous rather than merely ironic, in that it points to the necessity of thinking of the activities of the NSK constellation in relation to the seismic shift from post-communism to free-market capitalism in Slovenia during the 1990s. Though Monroe notes the movement in Irwinʼs work in the 1990s away from more ʻmonumental national and political themes of the 1980sʼ and towards deliberately ʻuser-friendlyʼ forms that intersect with ʻovertly kitsch territory, often using domestic and commercial elementsʼ, he does not take up the opportunity at this moment to theorize the deeper reasons behind Irwinʼs strategic change in its themes and forms of address.
Monroe is correct on the one hand to characterize Irwinʼs development during this period as a response to ʻrecontextualizing and renarrating their history within NSK … driven by the accumulated momentum of the NSK project onto their own increasingly distinctive territoryʼ. But, at the same time, it is not possible to understand this very modiﬁcation of NSKʼs strategies for artistic and ideological production without recognizing the force of the challenge of suddenly having to survive in the open market. As Cufer explains, ʻit was not only new but also scary for the artists in the East to be able (to be suddenly forced, in order to survive) to sell their work in the free market economy.ʼ In moving away from the concreteness of that challenge and its demands on NSKʼs practical as well as ideological concerns, and slipping into this sort of speculative art historical generalization, Monroeʼs analysis loses much of what is at other moments a whipstinging bite.
One of Monroeʼs most inventive and successful instances of fusing brutality and nuance is his reframing of Arthur C. Clarkeʼs portentous black monolith from 2001, conﬁguring it as a tool for thinking through Interrogation Machineʼs objectives and procedures. Comparing it to the black cross that appeared on Laibachʼs ﬁrst poster in 1980 and that has remained a central symbol ever since, he describes it as ʻa communicative symbol, abstract but active… The cross, as a mute but active symbol, is like the monolith in the way it resists interrogation while itself interrogating.ʼ This interrogative function becomes a kind of permanent provocation to Laibachʼs audiences as well as to the historian:
The ʻnarrativeʼ of this book and the course of Laibachʼs work can be framed around the cross as a constant symbol of Laibachʼs presence. Where and why has it appeared? When has it appeared, and how has it been received? What signiﬁcances and effects has it generated?
And so with the charge of this abstract but active symbol underwriting as well as perpetually threatening the organization of his ʻnarrativeʼ, Monroe proceeds to develop his sprawling nonlinear study, any chapter of which could be the starting point for any particular reader. There seems nonetheless to be an end: Chapter 10, ʻDas Ende?ʼ, concludes the book by looking at the current work and concerns of NSK in the early twenty-ﬁrst century, eliciting from them a guardedly optimistic vision of an avant-garde practice that just might continue to matter, against the odds:
The raison dʼêtre or raison dʼétat of artists such as NSK is to reveal what authority wants concealed (everything), and to conceal what authority wants revealed (everything). One of the key values of this approach is the ability of NSK works to hold together, and slow down and make visible all these contradictory forces we are structured by and exposed to.… By continuing to slow down the accelerating ﬂows of culture and politics, NSK may be able to maintain and defend a space within which it remains possible to render perceptible the underlying noise and shadowy forms of power.
Maria complexCecilia Sjöholm, The Antigone Complex: Ethics and the Invention of Feminine Desire, Stanford University Press, Stanford CA, 2004. 240 pp., £32.50 hb., 0 8047 4892 6.and source of potential power within patriarchy (for example, Anita Phillips, A Defence of Masochism); more problematically, Sjöholmʼs argument relies on what looks like a misreading of Wollstonecraft.
On the basis of the relatively uncontroversial claim that Wollstonecraft ʻdoes not explain the misery of women through social conditions aloneʼ, Sjöholm asserts the much stronger claims that ʻthere is no causal link between moral degeneration and social downfallʼ and that the miserable heroine of Maria is ʻnot subjected to any man, or any law, but only to the machinations of her own desireʼ. The middle way here would be to assert that female submission results from the internalization of ʻouter forceʼ – that is, of dominant (patriarchal) ideologies. This is not the same as saying that it originates in the subject, because the subject is, precisely, a product of the social. As Foucault and, more recently, Butler, have stressed, power doesnʼt work upon the subject (as a force external to it) but rather through the subject, through the constitution or enactment of subjectivity. But this isnʼt the point that Sjöholm seems to be making in her discussion of the female subjectʼs ʻfeelingsʼ and ʻinclinationsʼ.
What Wollstonecraft actually says in the Introduction to Maria, which Sjöholm alludes to without directly citing, is that she means to exhibit ʻthe misery and oppression, peculiar to women, that arise out of the partial laws and customs of societyʼ. Is this not quite unambiguous? Sjöholmʼs rather off-kilter reading appears to arise from her desire to ﬁgure ʻmoral reasonʼ as ʻa domain detached from social conditioning in the absolute sense of the termʼ, but as a founding premiss of her argument this must be subject to interrogation, given the historical and cultural contingency of concepts like ʻmoralityʼ and ʻreasonʼ (not to mention ʻfemininityʼ). The aspiration to make a positive link between feminine desire and morality is an admirable one, but at times in this book it seems to come at too high a cost, entailing a view of feminine desire as (self-imposed, voluntary) masochism or, at the very least, marginality (outside the Law, the Universal, the Symbolic Order). This is an impression compounded by Sjöholmʼs choice of Campionʼs The Piano and Jelinek/Hanekeʼs The Piano Teacher as her literary/ﬁlmic examples, and even by the choice of Antigone as the text around which her argument is structured. In her reading of Antigone, In this rather dense and opaque book, Sjöholm sets out to formulate an ʻAntigone complexʼ which will be a better model for the understanding of ʻfeminine desireʼ than the much-maligned Oedipus complex – better because it is non-structural, relates feminine desire to ethics, politics and the law, and ﬁgures this desire as ʻcomplexityʼ and ʻalterityʼ, rather than as merely sexual. However, the notion of ʻfeminine desireʼ perhaps requires more clariﬁcation and concretization than it gets here and the ʻAntigone complexʼ, she writes, ʻrefers not to an actual function of the feminine, but rather to the complexity introduced in any discussion of desire where the feminine is concerned.ʼ This, then, is a complex which is not a complex, which refers (to the extent that it ʻrefersʼ to anything) to a certain resistance to and undermining of systematization and structurality on the part of the feminine. This seems simultaneously its strength and its weakness.
Sjöholm is particularly concerned with the relationship between desire and ethics, and so uses her ﬁrst chapter to trace the establishment – and subversion – of a certain negative relationship between feminine desire and morality during the Enlightenment: the development of the now-familiar opposition between ʻmasculineʼ reason and morality, and ʻfeminineʼ irrationality and sensuality. Feminine desire, she notes, is generally ﬁgured as ʻexcessʼ or ʻdeﬁciencyʼ in moral terms. Chapter 1 proceeds via readings of two unlikely bedfellows – the Marquis de Sade and Mary Wollstonecraft – both of whom are held up as facilitating a view of woman as an autonomous moral agent, because, not in spite of, her ʻdesiresʼ. The way in which this is achieved, however, is rather tendentious, for Sjöholm reads Wollstonecraft as suggesting that the feminine inclination towards submission comes from within rather than without: ʻFeminine desire is the product of a pervasive and crippling fantasy, which ultimately has its origin in the continuous investment of women in their own submission.ʼ Despite the very negative (practical, political, social) ramiﬁcations of this argument, Sjöholm asserts that this allows Wollstonecraft to depict women as ʻautonomousʼ, as ʻmoral agentsʼ – because they fall into submission. The opposite could surely be asserted – that submission denotes a lack of agency, despite recent attempts within feminist and post-feminist theory, ﬁction and ﬁlm to ʻrecuperateʼ female masochism as a paradoxical form of agency Sjöholm says that, although Antigoneʼs act ʻseems utterly self-defeating, as if she were crushed under the weight of a punishing superego demanding her deathʼ, nevertheless she represents ʻa feminine alternative to the oedipal structure of identiﬁcation with the lawʼ because ʻher death does not simply signify submission to the aggressive punishments of the superegoʼ. But why doesnʼt it? Is a will to self-destruction admirable simply because it is a will?
Yet this reading of Antigone comes much later in the book. After the ﬁrst chapter, the book proceeds via readings of Hegel, Heidegger, Lacan and Judith Butler. The fact that these are readings of readings of Antigone occasionally has a disorientating effect – whose argument is it we are being offered here? Hegelʼs – or Sjöholmʼs own? In each case, she considers the ʻuseʼ of Antigone within a philosophical system and uses this as a jumping-off point for her own development of a model of feminine desire. So, although there is no explicit discussion of femininity (or sexual difference) in Hegelʼs treatment of Antigone, Sjöholm asserts that in ﬁguring Antigone as ʻan impossibility in and limit of the communityʼ,[Hegel] provides us with the sketch of a form of subjectivity that is not deﬁned as the selfconsciousness of the social agent, but rather as a desire that ﬁnds satisfaction and recognition neither in the ethical order nor in the modern form of universality. Such a subjectivity … is … the margin, the fault, the deﬁciency that opens up the gap in the social fabric of any historical community. We have stumbled across a possible ﬁgure of feminine desire.
This is still a notably negative deﬁnition of feminine desire (as margin, fault, deﬁciency, as neither/nor); femininity as faultline of the ethical order may indicate its subversive potential, but it also offers grounds for its containment and/or exclusion. She fails to admit this possibility, despite subsequently citing Judith Butlerʼs view that the Hegelian conception of women is ʻnot really subversive, because it merely enforces their exclusion from the stateʼ. The benevolence here is Sjöholmʼs, not Hegelʼs. As she acknowledges, ʻwe may choose to read Hegel against himself and make his notion of femininity into an unstable and uprooted form of subjectivity rather than just another symbol for excess and irrationality.ʼ Well, we may…Sjöholmʼs reading of Heidegger is similarly optimistic, as she suggests that the gender-neutral term Dasein ʻdoes not so much invite us to ignore sexual difference as show us a way of conceiving of sexual difference beyond a structuralist or metaphysical point of viewʼ. She later avers, in an interestingly convoluted way, that ʻa picture emerges that could serve as a substitute for a theory of feminine desire that Heidegger never hadʼ and much of the work of the book consists in ʻsubstitutingʼ for what is not, in fact, there. The picture that emerges, in her reading of Heidegger, is again a picture of feminine desire as that which subverts or renders impossible the structural and the universal – so here it is ʻa foreignness that shatters the ground of neutrality on which the being of Dasein is supposed to standʼ.
Despite Sjöholmʼs insistence at various points that the ﬁgure of Antigone stands, amongst other things, for ʻthe collapse of heteronormativityʼ, she fails to acknowledge that the feminine desire of which she writes is fundamentally heterosexual. This is implicit in her criticism of the Oedipus complex in Chapter 4, where she argues that, for woman, ʻthere is no immediate coherence between the prohibiting law [against incest] and the object of desire, and therefore no possibility of simply constructing a metonymic chain of displacements from the maternal body.ʼ She assumes here that the ʻobject of desireʼ for woman is, necessarily, man. As Adrienne Rich has effectively shown in ʻCompulsory Heterosexualityʼ, the Oedipus complex can be employed to argue the ʻnaturalnessʼ of homosexuality for women, by contrast with the ʻnaturalʼ heterosexuality of men.
The reading of Lacan again serves to reiterate a negative conception of feminine desire as ʻthe void of the symbolic system, the nihilistic disruption of its construction, … enigmatic and seemingly uncontrollableʼ. Nevertheless, Sjöholm sees this as an advance on the Freudian conception of feminine desire, in its focus on cause rather than aim or object, and thus its move away from a structuralist understanding of desire. The preferred model of desire (which, given its focus on origins, can hardly be termed ʻpost-structuralʼ) is one for which Antigone serves as paradigm, and feminine desire, in turn, stands as the paradigm of a certain modern conception of subjectivity.
In the ﬁnal chapter Sjöholm ﬁghts a Lacanian corner against Judith Butler, whilst detailing the latterʼs view of Antigone as ʻthe limit of cultureʼ and intelligibility. She asserts the value of the symbolic and the real against Butlerʼs emphasis on language and culture, claiming that ʻsocial and cultural norms do not simply form subjects, but are dependent also on the investments of those subjects. A cultural order is not to be understood merely on the basis of its values, but on the desires investing those values.ʼ What this reveals – apart from a somewhat simplistic reading of Butler, who surely doesnʼt deny a certain reciprocity in the relationship between subject and culture – is that Sjöholm situates desire outside the cultural, reading it as something instinctive, pre-linguistic, presocial, rather than as something culturally produced and regulated (as Butler would contend). She also ﬁgures cultural constructivism and ethics as somehow mutually exclusive.
Sjöholmʼs own ethical model is a Lacanian one. Her argument stems from this:
That feminine desire is an excess of the symbolic order does not mean that woman fails to incorporate or enact ethical norms, which was the Enlightenment view. It means rather that feminine desire indicates the possibility of an ethics situated in the rift between symbolic prohibition and normative injunction. Antigone allows us to formulate an ethics in which the subject is not only autonomous but also exposed, not only ﬁnite but also destructive, not only vulnerable but also monstrous.
Desire doesnʼt pull against or undermine moral values, it contributes to them – this is an appealing idea, but leads us only to the conclusion that ʻthe ethics of psychoanalysis becomes … to act according to your desireʼ, which is something less than a model for living.
The book ends on a note of excitement and promise: ʻall we need to do is afﬁrm something that is sustaining us, between those two walls of impossibility that we are up against. What a chance, and what a surprise!ʼ But it remains unclear exactly what this ʻafﬁrmationʼ might involve and what advantages the assertion of femininity as alterity might really bring. In linking feminine desire to ethics, Sjöholm sometimes unwittingly abstracts it from the ʻrealʼ world of the social. The fact remains that how women experience and express their desire has signiﬁcant consequences in the world, not least for how they are constituted as subjects, as ʻwomenʼ. This is something that Antigone learns to her cost. Sjöholm undoubtedly recognizes this, but situates her argument in a realm where such recognition is consistently suppressed.
Wide awakeMichael Löwy, Fire Alarm: Reading Walter Benjaminʼs ʻOn the Concept of Historyʼ, trans. Chris Turner, Verso,
London and New York, 2006. 144 pp., £16.99 hb., 1 8446 7040
6. ^ Studies of Walter Benjamin, of which it is obligatory to say there are many, often focus on a theme – the city, literary criticism, technology, reproduction, experience and so on. This book, instead, restricts its focus to one piece of writing by Benjamin, and a short one at that. The book is devoted to a reading of the series of theses known as ʻOn the Concept of Historyʼ. These theses have, to be sure, been subjected to critical evaluation before. What has tended to happen in the literature though is that either the theses as a whole are mentioned in passing in more general studies of Benjaminʼs work, or a single thesis – most particularly the one about the Turkish chess automaton or the one about Paul Kleeʼs ʻAngelus Novusʼ – is blasted out of the theses and even out of the context of Benjaminʼs work to become emblematic for some other statement about progress, catastrophe or the ʻcunning of historyʼ. This book is unusual in that it addresses the theses as a whole, but enters Benjaminʼs broader thoughts and relevance through close scrutiny of this small chip. The main part of the book is a thesis-by-thesis reading. Seventeen main theses are discussed plus four extra variants and unpublished theses. Between two and ten pages are devoted to each thesis, for, as Löwy admits, some parts speak to him more than others which continue to remain opaque. Löwy uncovers an internal structure to the work: for example, how theses II and III mirror each other. A growing body of Benjaminiana includes illustrations, prompted in part by the great value that Benjamin sets on the visual and optic. This little book is not short of them, and includes a scattering of odd images such as an illustration of Nepomukʼs automatic chess player, Messonierʼs ʻLa Barricadeʼ, a mural by Diego Rivera, a painting of Blanqui by his wife, Daumierʼs ʻLʼÉmeuteʼ and, of course, Kleeʼs ʻAngelus Novusʼ.
The theses were ﬁrst published in 1942, two years after Benjaminʼs death, in a hectographed volume called Walter Benjamin in Memoriam, issued, under Adornoʼs care, by the Institute for Social Research in Los Angeles. The volume was a special issue of the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung. This publication reached a relatively select number of readers. Löwy notes that the ﬁrst proper publication was in French, translated by Pierre Missac in 1947 for Les Temps Modernes. This publication garnered no response. Silence greeted the theses again in 1950 when they were published in German in the Neue Rundschau. The critical buzz around the theses is revealed by Löwy to be a more recent phenomenon. Löwy refers, for example, to responses to the theses by Habermas, Wohlfahrt, Agamben, Greffrath. Most inﬂuential perhaps was the response by Benjaminʼs friend Scholem, who predetermined many interpretations of the theses, by branding them a product of Benjaminʼs shocked awakening to the nasty reality of Marxism, at the moment when the Hitler–Stalin pact was signed. Scholem ﬁxed an image of Benjamin as a naive, disillusioned utopian and insinuated that the theses move away from politics in order to ʻleap into transcendenceʼ. This contradicts Benjaminʼs own account of the thesesʼ motivation in a letter to Gretel Adorno. They represent well-pondered thoughts, because the theses, he reveals, had been germinating for twenty years (see editorial notes on ʻÜber den Begriff der Geschichteʼ, Gesammelte Schriften 1.3, p. 1226). That is to say, from 1939 backwards two decades to 1919 – when the thought seed is planted after the ﬁnal, fatal struggle of the one political group enthusiastically referenced in the theses, Luxemburgʼs and Liebknechtʼs Spartakus, revolutionary competitor against social democracy, cut down with its inferred approval). The theses are a reckoning with the Left, and Löwy notes the signing of the Hitler–Stalin pact was a ʻdirect spurʼ, along with the outbreak of war and occupation in Europe, but they do not represent a sudden turning point in Benjaminʼs thought.
Löwy sets his interpretation ﬁrmly within a class struggle frame of reference, but not only that. The introduction sets out three sources that nourish the text: German Romanticism, Jewish messianism and Marxism. Löwy argues that the result of the mixing of these three is not a simple synthesis but the invention of a new conception. The theses are here subjected to what Löwy terms a ʻ“Talmudic” analysisʼ, which is to say, word by word and sentence by sentence. Löwy hopes to surmount some of the problems and contradictions of previous approaches, identiﬁed as coming from one of three schools of interpretation of Benjaminʼs work as a whole: the materialist school à la Brecht, the theological as promoted by Scholem, and the trend that argues that Benjaminʼs work as a whole is contradictory and brings into alliance elements that are impossible to mix – such a position is represented by Habermas and Rolf Tiedemann. Löwy proposes a fourth approach whereby Benjamin can be both Marxist and theologian. He admits that usually such approaches would clash, but notes that Benjamin is no usual thinker. This claim is a prelude to an interesting piece of original information. Löwyʼs research in the archives has established that parts of the theses are modelled on Scholemʼs ʻtheses on the concept of justiceʼ, from 1919–25.
Löwy always writes unambiguously, unlike much commentary on Benjamin whose formulations twizzle and tangle much more than Benjaminʼs own. The theses are, quite simply, statements of political philosophy and Löwy treats them as resources for intellectual history and political analysis. Any names referenced therein are explained – such as Lotze, Ranke, Schmitt. There is an illuminating recovery of forgotten ﬁgures – such as Josef Dietzgen, mentioned in the theses but rarely analysed in the secondary literature (indeed the editor of the theses in English, in Illuminations, misnamed him William Dietzgen).
Links are made between, on the one hand, structures of thought or phrases and expressions and, on the other, systems of thought such as Judaism or Cabbala, the Bible, Romantic philosophy or varieties of materialism. Special emphasis is given to connections between Benjamin and Trotsky, in particular Benjaminʼs non-linear concept of history and historiography and Trotskyʼs idea of permanent revolution or combined and uneven development. (This is an interesting contribution to connections already made between Trotsky and Benjamin in other publications by Löwy and other French Marxists such as Daniel Bensaïd and Enzo Traverso, as well as by Terry Eagleton and me.) Through this connection, Löwy is able to explain how the theses combat the illusions and malpractices of Stalinism as well as German Social Democracy. The core of Löwyʼs analysis revolves around the question of progress. In the course of the introduction Löwy raises an issue that he has addressed before: Benjaminʼs supposed anti-technologism (which, he insists, was only brieﬂy countered by a short period of falling under the inﬂuence of Brecht). From 1936 to 1940 Benjamin develops his thoughts against progress in a number of essays, culminating in the theses. The reading of the theses builds up to an inspirational political crescendo as postwar revolutionary heroes of the oppressed (Zapata, Sandino, etc.) are discussed in the context of a Benjaminian ʻhistory from belowʼ and collective memory.
The ﬁnal chapter is called ʻThe Opening-Up of Historyʼ. These last few pages return us to the general context of Benjaminʼs relationship to critical and revolutionary thought. While the theses do not appear to be on the main route of the history of ideas in the twentieth century, their signiﬁcance must not be overlooked. The whole book has established them as a secret template of past, present and future historical actions. Löwy describes the theses as constituting a ʻphilosophical manifestoʼ. He uses the conclusion to make general observations on the fate of Marxism, which he establishes as split from the very start by irresolvable tensions. Marxism as represented by Marx and Engels sometimes assumes a natural scientiﬁc model of the evolutionary development towards socialism, and at other times sees the revolution as an exceptional moment, a moment of sudden revolutionary action. These two concepts mark the subsequent heritage of Marxism, which, according to Löwy and Benjamin, is ﬁrmly rooted in the latter vision.
Löwyʼs opening claim for the theses is a grand one:
the theses represent the most signiﬁcant revolutionary document since the Theses on Feuerbach and are to be placed within a revolutionary tradition that includes Leninʼs April Theses. Benjaminʼs text, however, needs much more interpretation – it is hermetic, allusive and enigmatic. This book provides useful and necessary services, both in interpreting the document and in establishing why it is so important. Löwy ﬁrst read the theses in 1979, and admits that they have haunted him for twenty years. The theses changed his thinking utterly. One thing that intrigues him is that the texts are endlessly reinterpretable. He has discovered new things in each reading over the years. This does not, however, intend to throw any reading of them into freefall. Certain ʻheavy weightsʼ, as Benjamin puts it, can anchor the analyses, but it is also the case that as history develops the theses gain new relevance. Löwyʼs analysis is written from a retrospective perspective too: a perspective that knows the Holocaust that Benjamin did not live to witness. This is one of the subsequent contexts for the theses, which revises their meanings in a fashion that exempliﬁes Benjaminʼs own sense of an artworkʼs ʻafterlifeʼ. Benjamin is cast, in a way, into the role of prophet. He predicts the inhuman horrors of technocratic fascism, wherein the Holocaust is the outcome of a deadly combination of different modern institutions: the Foucauldian prison, Marxʼs factory and Taylorʼs scientiﬁc division of labour. The theses do not cease to have an ʻafterlifeʼ and, occluding the subsequent nightmares that they play a part in revealing, they also encompass utopian actions. Löwy suggests one aspect of their contemporary relevance in a photograph captioned ʻYoung Indigenous Brazilians Firing at the Clock at the Ofﬁcial Commemoration of 500 Years since the Discovery of Brazilʼ.
SketchyNikolai Bukharin, Philosophical Arabesques, trans. Renfrey Clarke, with editorial assistance by George Scriver,
Pluto Press, London, 2005. 448 pp., £35.00 hb., 0 7453 2476
2. ^ Languishing in the Lubyanka prison on fabricated charges of treason for which he would pay with his life, the prominent Bolshevik Nikolai Bukharin remarkably completed three books in 1937, a collection of poetry, the autobiographical novel Vremena (The Times, published in 1994, and in English translation as How It All Began in 1998) and this philosophical tract. Despite its title suggesting something much more fragmentary, Philosophical Arabesques actually constitutes a single sustained work on materialist dialectics. The scope of this work alone earns it a place alongside that other great Marxist work written in political incarceration, Antonio Gramsciʼs Prison Notebooks.
Bukharinʼs philosophical work is much narrower in focus, however, and often reads as a belated attempt to disprove Leninʼs assessment that Bukharin never really understood dialectics. It is not surprising, therefore, that the 1996 Russian edition is subtitled ʻdialectical sketchesʼ. Here we ﬁnd a detailed engagement with Hegel as viewed through Leninʼs Philosophical Notebooks (which had been written chieﬂy during the First World War but published only in 1929) and a development of the themes found there.
If we compare this work with Bukharinʼs earlier Historical Materialism (1920, translated 1925), which earned the critical attention of, inter alia, Georg Lukács, Karl Korsch and Gramsci for its mechanical approach to Marxism, Philosophical Arabesques marks a signiﬁcant advance. It is structured according to a dialectical spiral rising from the contradictions of solipsism and ʻthings in themselvesʼ through the nature of reason, the distinguishing features of idealism and materialism, and the concept of truth, before arriving at the divergence of Hegelian and Marxist dialectics. To summarize this adequately would be impossible within the space of a short review, but it is possible to draw out certain themes that receive special attention. The practical, theoretical and aesthetic relations towards the world are held to constitute a single process that leads to a broadening understanding of practice. Theory and practice are shown to be mutually implicated and mutually informing at every level and locked into a rising spiral. Connections within nature are held to be multifarious, encompassing causal, functional, statistical and teleological (the last understood as a ʻmoment of necessityʼ). The sociology of thinking is seen as an introduction to philosophy, growing out of an analysis of the interrelationship of modes of production and of representation, where the last includes ideological forms and ʻstyles of thinkingʼ. The role of experience and co-experience in art is seen as the equivalent of the immediacy of knowledge in science. And, ﬁnally, the unity of theory and history is posited, according to which theory is historical and history theoretical.
This all clearly marks a major departure from the ʻnotorious “theory of equilibrium”ʼ, according to which dialectics is understood as ʻthe conﬂict of forces, disturbance of equilibrium, new combination of forces, restoration of equilibriumʼ. This had originated in the work of Aleksandr Bogdanov and dominated Bukharinʼs earlier work. Here, however, it is regarded as ʻa reﬁned variant of mechanistic materialismʼ. Such shifts in position in Bukharinʼs philosophical thought require the close attention of a scholarly editor, as do the engagements with many ideas that were current at the time and that are now of varied relevance: neo-Kantianism, hylozoism, fascist racial ʻtheoryʼ and Hindu mysticism. Clearly a work so rooted in its historical context is not easily digested by todayʼs readers of radical philosophy, but one should expect to be illuminated about the more obscure references. Unfortunately, the editors of this volume do not provide an adequate critical apparatus to guide todayʼs (relatively) casual reader through the intellectual riches on offer here, or to give the more specialist reader a way in to the debates of the time. One example will sufﬁce, though several could be raised.
In Chapter 22 Bukharin refers respectfully to the now discredited ʻJapheticʼ theory of language developed by the controversial but, at the time, highly inﬂuential Soviet archaeologist and philologist Nikolai Marr. The importance of Marrʼs work for understanding Soviet scholarship on language between 1930 and 1950 is difﬁcult to overstate, but his work is little known to a contemporary readership. This is clearly a case where editorial assistance is required. The notes correctly identify Marr, but tell us nothing about the ideas Marr developed, his position in Soviet scholarship, or where the reader might look for information on these important issues. This is even more concerning since Marrʼs controversial contention that language forms part of the ʻsuperstructureʼ arising on the economic base had most likely been adopted from Bukharinʼs Historical Materialism. Bukharin also considers the sources of Marrʼs ideas about the origin of language in the works of Ludwig Noiré, Wilhelm Wundt, Max Müller and another ﬁgure whose name, the editors tell us, appears in the Russian edition as ʻLaz. Geirʼ, but who has not been identiﬁed. Reference to works on or by Marr, or on the history of scholarship on the origin of language, would quickly have yielded the name of one of the most important ﬁgures in the ﬁeld, Lazarus Geiger. Similarly, while the English text reads very ﬂuently, the editors rarely give us the opportunity to glimpse the original Russian terms behind the English translation. This becomes an obvious problem when a term as problematic as ʻtruthʼ appears, since this could be the translation either of istina or pravda, terms that have speciﬁc connotations in Russian philosophical and political discourse.
The editorial work is, therefore, inadequate for this type of work, but we should have no hesitation in welcoming the appearance of this text in English. It is a work of real philosophical interest, but also of historical importance since, among other things, it underlines the tragedy of Bukharin as a historical ﬁgure. The introduction to the volume is urbane and sympathetic, but Bukharinʼs repeated attempts to see in the grim realities of the Soviet Union of the 1930s the realization of the ideals of socialism can only make one wonder how such an acute mind could accommodate such blind faith. On two occasions when discussing the transition from the realm of necessity to that of freedom Bukharin cites Stalinʼs ʻwell-known formula “the plan? We are the plan!”ʼ where ʻWeʼ is understood not as his jailerʼs evocation of the ʻroyal “We”ʼ but (apparently without irony) ʻorganized society, planned society, the manifestation of the collective will of society as the expression of the totality of individual willsʼ. This recalls the excruciating ﬁnal letter Bukharin wrote to Stalin from prison, recently published in Getty and Naumovʼs The Road to Terror (1999), in which he begs Stalinʼs forgiveness, asks to be given poison rather than shot and declares his continuing faith in the progress of the Revolution. Even now, when facing death, Bukharin was incapable of facing the reality of Stalinʼs rule, which he had helped to install through his elaboration of the theory of ʻSocialism in One Countryʼ, cultural revolution, and in practical support in the struggle of the Party bureaucracy against the left opposition.
The Russian edition of Bukharinʼs Prison Manuscripts is a two-volume set, the ﬁrst of which remains untranslated and is entitled Socialism and its Culture. Bukharin was an extremely inﬂuential writer on culture in the 1920s and 1930s and was responsible for the shift away from the Leninist cultural policy to one that ofﬁcially accepted the notion of ʻproletarian cultureʼ and legitimized the move against the culture of Soviet intellectuals. These works from the pre-prison period remain untranslated. The appearance of Philosophical Arabesques makes the translation of all Bukharinʼs major writings on culture highly desirable.
Images in Peter Weibel, ‘Re-presenting Repression: The Political Revolution of the Neo-avant-garde’p. 21 Polyclitus, Doryphoros, 450–440 BCE.p. 22 Arno Brecker, The Party and the Army – this pair of statues stood outside the entrance to Hilterʼs Chancellory.p. 23 Arnulf Rainer, from Black Architecture, 1967.p. 24 Hiroshima.p. 25 Invitation to Zero Avantgarde, Galeria il Punto, Turin, 1956.p. 26 The Vienna Group, Literary Cabaret, 1958; Yves Klein producing a ﬁre-picture, 1961.p. 27 Gustav Metzger, Misﬁts evening, 1962; Festival of Psycho-Physical Naturalism (Dieter Haupt covers Nitsch with Blood), 1963.p. 28 [left to right, top to bottom] Peter Weibel/Valie Export, Cutting, 1967–8; Otto Muehl, Apollo 11, 1969; Art and Revolution, 1968: poster and performance; Günther Brus, Clear Madness – Urination, Excretion, Cut, 1970.subscribe to
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