“We have never been postmodern”; or, Notes toward a new concept of the chiasm

1. Baudrillard, that paragon and scapegoat of postmodern ephemerality, once proposed that

a certain form of thought is bound to the real. It starts out from the hypothesis that ideas have referents and that there is a possible ideation of reality. … The other form of thought is eccentric to the real, a stranger to dialectics, a stranger even to critical thought. It is not even a disavowal of the concept of reality. It is illusion, power of illusion, or, in other words, a playing with reality, as seduction is a playing with desire … This radical thought does not stem from a philosophical doubt, a utopian transference, or an ideal transcendence. It is the material illusion, immanent in this so-called ‘real’ world.

The fractures between thought and the real in the spectacular age were nowhere more evident than in the simulacra of war, according to which Baudrillard could argue that the (first) Gulf War “did not take place”. We still, today, have not grasped the rhetorical strategy and intervention into the media terrain deployed by Baudrillard in this claim, which continues to be interpreted by friends and foes of postmodernism alike as the godfather of our contemporary “war on truth”.

Baudrillard continues:

at all events, there is incompatibility between thought and the real. There is no sort of necessary or natural transition from one to the other. … It has doubtless not always been so. One may dream of a happy conjunction of idea and reality, cradled by the Enlightenment and modernity, in the heroic age of critical thought. Yet critical thought, the butt of which was a certain illusion … is in substance ended. … It has broken down under pressure from a gigantic technical and mental simulation, to be replaced by an autonomy of the virtual, henceforth liberated from the real, and a simultaneous autonomy of the real which we see functioning on its own account in a demented — that is, infinitely self-referential — perspective. Having been expelled, so to speak, from its own principle, extraneized, the real has itself become an extreme phenomenon. In other words, one can no longer think it as real, but as exorbitated, as though seen from another world — in short, as illusion.

It is with the second Gulf War that we see Baudrillard’s thesis nakedly in the destruction of the twin towers (which, according to some, were not destroyed by planes): a pure event in its indiscernibility from a non-event.

towers

Mitchell described that event as “a new and more virulent form of iconoclasm” because the destruction of the towers was “a globally recognizable icon, and the aim was not merely to destroy it but to stage its destruction as a media spectacle. Iconoclasm in this instance was rendered as an icon in its own right, an image of horror that has imprinted itself in the memory of the entire world”. Thus every image of the twin towers is an image of an image: the event of 9/11, what “took place”, is inseparable from its mediatization* or what Mitchell calls the “biopicture”. “The terrorist is the figure of iconoclasm and the destruction of living images, literally in the form of human bodies, metaphorically in the destruction of monuments”. The collective American fantasy in response has produced, from within, the very unspeakable and unimaginable horrors of the terrorist through the expansion of its juris-diction (as Mitchell observes, “the law against the representation of something in words or images must, in effect, always break itself, because it must name, describe, define — that is, represent — the very thing that it prohibits”).

*Mitchell defines a “medium” as “the set of material practices that brings an image together with an object to produce a picture … understood as a complex assemblage of virtual, material, and symbolic elements”.

Baudrillard’s thesis is both epistemic and ontological: the claim is not that we can have no knowledge of the real but, rather, that we do not know (at least anymore) what the real is because the real (including the reality of consciousness) has become not the “product of discourse” but always duplicated, encoded, disseminated, imaged, simulated, and overdetermined.

There is some irony in the fact that the critics of postmodernism have themselves confused the hoax for the reality. There is no more important concept than truth, for example, in the late Foucault’s work on the parresiac utterance as “the introduction, the irruption of the true discourse [that] determines an open situation, or rather opens the situation and makes possible effects which are, precisely not known. Parresia does not produce a codified effect; it opens up an unspecified risk” (here one could also analyze the logic of the differend in which the codification of discourse silences the articulation of a wrong). If postmodernism is to blame for the present quagmire of relativism and “alternative facts”, it is perhaps not because we have read too much Foucault but because we have read too little.

2. “What does critique want?” (for M.K.) When Mitchell asked of pictures what they want, he was gesturing not only to an analogy between images and life, nor to the viral propagation of images but, rather, with the particular form and content of images within the present biopolitical regime of the reproduction of terrorism as the acephalic clone wherein the destruction of an image (e.g., the twin towers) is also the production of an image (e.g. Abu Ghraib).

This duality of iconoclasm and iconoclash mirrors our “double consciousness” with respect to images, as both a shadow thrice removed from reality and also autonomous from it. The question “what do pictures want?” arises in this chiasm of the lack and excess of the image: the lack of vitality in an image allows it to receive a hyper-reality through its communication, circulation, and dissemination until the real is transformed into what had “only” been an image.

2a. In a pair of lectures from 2004 and 2010, Latour worries that the general structure of critique (viz., of naturalism, truth, etc.) has ironically given its weapons to the “instant revisionism” of conspiratorial dogmatism against which, as its counterfeit double, no form of rationalism can mount an adequate defense. Instead of asking, however, what demands critique, we might also ask what desires are produced by the critical impulse. On the one hand, critique must be both timely — in its response to particular material, historical, local, and contingent conditions — and untimely; thus the aporia of critique since Kant: critique always gestures behind, beneath, or beyond the given (as ideological, phenomenal, etc.) toward what cannot be known an sich. When philosophizing with a hammer that demolishes the appearances to reveal the chaotic monster of energy beneath, we languish in negativity (“how hetero!” “how bourgeois!”) and, thus, in nihilism.

On the other hand, as Nietzsche had reminded us, to speak of “illusion” requires us still to believe in truth. Latour accuses the critical gesture of disingenuity when it proclaims simultaneously that (1) any “fact” is merely the projected “white screen” of ideology, discourse, etc., while at the same time insisting that (2) all thought and behavior are determined by the brute facts of (in both senses of the genitive) objectivity. Latour thus suggests a new orientation (“composition”) that leads not away (e.g., from facts toward their conditions) but toward facts, i.e., that not only debunks but assembles, toward the thingliness of things in a “renewed empiricism” that asks “how many participants are gathered in a thing to make it exist and to maintain its existence”. The Thing is no longer opposed to objects but, given the collapse of the bifurcation of Nature, “they have to be gathered first in order to exist later as what stands apart [ob-ject]. … What the etymology of the word thing [as object and as juridical apparatus] … had conserved for us mysteriously, as a sort of fabulous and mythical past has now become, for all to see, our most ordinary present”.

We should hear, however, not only the Heideggerean but Lacanian (and Levinasian, as Critchley has argued) resonances in this claim. The production of images and fantasies not only protects us from a direct exposure to the Thing but just is the sublimation of the death drive. Within our “most fundamental” metaphysical activity, however, the aesthetic contains a trace of the excess of the ethical, viz., in the fact that there is more to the life of an image (e.g., that of myself or others) than its reality as an image: that you and I are both an image (e.g., a digital image) and more than an image.

Just as Bergson had argued that possibility is not less than actuality but an addition to it, so too Latour asks whether we ought to add reality to matters of fact rather than subtract it (what is impossible, of course, is the isomorphic correspondence between the two). It is not merely that we must “fight for the facts” in the face of, e.g., climate change denial but we must ask what comes “after Nature” or, rather, after the postmodern collapse of the distinction between nature and politics. Latour’s own “politics of nature” attempts to address this need to re-compose both science and politics given the irreversibility of critique (i.e., in the fact that the “simply true” cannot even serve as a regulative idea), despite the apparent reversibility of “progress”.

Like the Bergsonian élan, the problem of subjectivity is not only one of lack but that of a figure of excess, in which we see the objective correlate in the basic ontology of modernity: production as over-production. As we know, scarcity is constructed as the abject remainder of excess and what we must confront today is the saturation of ontology by capital (as the primary objective cipher of excess). The dialectic of lack and excess is both intra- and inter-subjective. McGowan has recently argued that the point at which lack and excess become indistinguishable is the comic, in which we momentarily encounter this chiastic relationship:

our everyday life is distinctively humorless because it sustains itself by keeping excess and lack at a distance from each other. … The strict separation of lack and excess produces whatever stability our social existence has. The disturbance of excess remains confined to a separate domain where it doesn’t intrude on everyday existence. It might be funny if one showed up at work after drinking ten shots of tequila, but if everyone did it, the work would cease to function efficient. The social order punishes those who bring excessive acts into the everyday world by taking away their jobs, their friends, and ultimately even their liberty to act excessively.

What, then, does it mean to grasp the truth of the subject (e.g., in its “care”) when what appears to be its fundamental truth is contradicted at every turn by the real(ity principle), e.g., when the truth of desire is what must be disavowed (“I don’t really want to be drunk at work”)?

3. Toward a concept of the chiasm. We cannot approach this question without understanding the relationship between lack and excess. The postmodern sensibility presents us with (at least) two possibilities: dialectics or deconstruction.

On the one hand, after the end of history, we have now seen what escapes dialectics. Anthropogenic climate change, for example, is the dialectical catastrophe of history that has produced a real excess that escapes capture. But the central question for dialectics is whether that which escapes is immanent (thus totality) or whether there is an exteriority (or, better, an élan or tendency) that eludes dialectical construction (thus infinity).

The logical form of dialectics resolves contradictions at the point of self-reference by enclosing the transcendence of totality. Deconstruction excavates a second reflexivity internal to each contradiction: what appears as a binary is more like an Aristotelian contrary, in which the priority of the one term over the other can be reversed and, subsequently, the entire opposition displaced.

In both cases, the dialectical and deconstructive gestures would show the participation of lack and excess within the totality (which, thus, can be named as such in the absolute idea) or that excess is itself a lack that must be overcome. The chiasm of lack and excess would locate the point at which it is indiscernible which appears, thus neither equating them (i.e., as exchangeable in explanation) nor to resolve the contradiction (e.g., by demonstrating their interdependence) but to tarry at the point of freedom where the indiscernibility of the two suggests an escape (a clinamen?). Thus the chiasm is a triple appearance: lack, excess, and the third. According to dialectics, the third is nothing but the difference between lack and excess (the difference between lack and excess is thus immanent to the contradiction); but in the chiasm of lack and excess, the third appears because of the difference (and thus is emergent from the contradiction). If dialectics begins with two, chiastics begins with three.**

**There is, perhaps, a deconstructive relation between dialectics and chiastics, given that chiastics presupposes dialectics and yet cannot itself be the result of dialectical criticism. If there were a chiastic relation between dialectics and chiastics, we will have conceded too much to dialectics. Chiastics, then, are a sort of supplement to dialectics by which there is the possibility of reference from one to the other but preserving an incommensurability between them.

The double genitive is exemplary of a chiastic structure: the duality that is both distinct but wherein each has a trace of the other (like the taiji of Daoism). Certain polysemies are also chiastic in this sense: to be “significant” (in the sense of “important” but also to “function as a sign”) rests on both the distinctness between the meanings of the word but only momentarily, as we can hear the trace of the one meaning in the other or, in other words, the indiscernibility of their identity and/or difference.

Thus the infamous problem of dialectics: whether we can speak of the identity of identity and difference or of the difference between identity and difference. The chiasm of identity and difference is not simply the possibility of their transposition but the fact that they become indiscernible at the point of reflexivity. It is precisely because it is possible to speak of the identity(n) of identity(n) and difference(n) — like the Gödel sentence as a chiasm of the mathematical and metamathematical — that there is an alternative to the dialectical resolution of the Third Man.***

***The tendency of Hegelian dialectics is from the either/or to the both/and (the same and the different are seen as the same from the point of view of semantic ascent, in an analogue to the problem of Forms). The tendency of Platonic dialectics, on the other hand, is toward pure multiplicity of an-archic principles beneath all hypotheses, including the idea of the good that is not the form of forms (the lack of which guarantees such multiplicity).

On the one hand, the identity of identity and difference is the dialectical totality of the absolute; on the other hand, the immanent production of a difference between identity and difference (e.g., the Badiousian event) can only be named after the fact (in “fidelity”). The chiasm of identity and difference is an indiscernibility that allows for the emergence of a concrete exterior within a determinate triadic relation that is neither wholly outside the relation (e.g., as a negation of the difference) nor a two-dimensional totality but, like the resolution of paradoxes, a three-dimensional relation (e.g., not the creation of but a triangulation of (an) identity).

There are, of course, different forms of indiscernibility: for example, there is that which is vanishingly small, that which is simply outside our capacities for perception and conception, or that which is too much for it (e.g., the sublime). Indiscernibility is itself a chiasm between lack and excess. We see this chiasm too in the indiscernibility of the dialectics of lack and excess both as logical and ontological: on the one hand, it is the concepts of lack and excess that are dialectically intertwined as well as the real itself as the dialectical relation between lack and excess (e.g., in the subject). This duality of the onto/logical is a chiasm, just as the dialectic of lack and excess is itself the chiasm of the qualitative and quantitative (i.e., lack and excess refer both to the quantitative and the qualitative, separately and yet simultaneously).

The supplement of chiastics to dialectics is especially urgent for our post-modern sensibilities that has rejected the possibility of grand narratives and the subsequent rise of “post-truth” wherein truth and falsity are indistinguishable. There is today an ethical imperative to see both beauty and barbarity, as well as both truth and falsity (clumsily proclaimed in the cliche that we must “see all sides”). What must be resisted, however, is the convertibility of the two: we must see the barbarous in the beautiful (as Benjamin famously said, to see that every document of civilization is also a document of barbarism) but not vice versa. Of course, through perversion, it is possible to equate beauty and barbarity by seeing the beauty in the barbarous. The chiasm forces upon us a choice that cannot be settled by the logical form of the problem: the third that arrives at the heart of the contradiction, in this case, is the face of ethics.

Ethics, as we have known since Kant, is the chiasm of freedom and responsibility, whose dialectical collapse in the Holocaust has resulted in the indiscernibility of active and passive nihilism in the present age (e.g., in the conflation of postmodernism with dogmatism and relativism). But while the indiscernible is not an escape from determination, our search for the determinations of that which exists must be Janus-faced, i.e., not only toward what has escaped our efforts at lucidity, transparency, and totality, but toward what has been forgotten — to what is but not present, that is to say, toward the future.

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