“Two tasks at the beginning of life: to always narrow your circle more and more, and to frequently make sure that you are not hiding somewhere outside your circle.”
Contemporary artistic practice can perhaps be conceived of as a form of ascesis, or to put it another way, as an exercise in self-shaping [ mise en consistance de soi ]. 1 In his study of contemporary forms of ascesis and life exercises, You Must Change Your Life, Sloterkijk qualifies artistic practice as being the repetition of attempts at “somatizing the improbable”, emphasizing its counter-natural, or “acrobatic” character (the acrobat being he who literally walks on his toes). Not unlike a high-level athlete, the contemporary artist can thus be conceived of as a figure that is ontologically activated [mise sous tension] and produces him/herself without recourse to any form of transcendence – a kind of post-metaphysical practitioner of “godless verticality”. 2 Boris Groys, another bonze from Karlsruhe’s ZKM (Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie), poses the question of art in a similar fashion, by way of its ethopoetic and anthropotechnical dimensions. From the “obligation of self-design” to the task of the “production of sincerity”, Groys posits the contemporary artist as being engaged in a process of self-production which manifests itself as pure subjectivity or the embodiment of a void (see Agamben’s “artist without content”). Indeed, in Groys’ work, artistic production is invariably presented as a practice of active demarcation that allows us to feel the internal or “historical” curvature of a world – its design. For example, in his recent remarks on the design of the modern soul, he states that if, since the death of God, design has become the medium of the soul, the modern artist-designer is now paradoxically casted as an agent of apocalyptic revelation:
“The modern designer does not wait for the apocalypse to remove the external shell of things and show them to people as they are. The designer wants here and now the apocalyptic vision that makes everyone New Men. The body takes on the form of the soul. The soul becomes the body. All things become heavenly. Heaven becomes earthly, material. Modernism becomes absolute.” 3
Groys goes even further, and concludes his unsettling characterization of the contemporary artist as a designer of the soul in attributing to him/her a “weak” messianic power:
“The avant-garde artist is a secularized apostle, a messenger of time who brings to the world the message that time is contracting, that there is a scarcity of time, even a lack of time. (…) Contemporary art’s visibility is a weak, virtual visibility, the apocalyptic visibility of contracting time.” 4
In keeping with this surprisingly spiritualizing characterization of the artist, the questions that I would like to pose in this essay might be formulated as such: What can be said of our capabilities to locally contract time today? How do we trace out the lines of our world-making? Or how – in a world that begins and ends with the individual – can we experience and elaborate the necessity for a common intensifying closure? As Jacob Wren highlights in his manifesto on the deep ambivalence and confusion that seems to be part and parcel of the role of art nowadays (also published in this edition of Le Merle), what is essential at this moment in history is for the individual to be able to pose, as intimately as possible, the difficult question of his or her vulnerability. It is with this in mind that I have put together these fragments and thoughts on the ideas of ascesis, closure, art, and contraction.
In her commentary on how neo-pagan witches use magical techniques to the end of self-empowerment, Isabelle Stengers points out that “they have learned (again) the necessity of casting the circle, of creating the closed space where the forces they have a vital need for can be convoked.” 5 This way of conceptualizing the production of a transindividual yet concrete locus finds a parallel in Foucault’s studies on the care of the self in antiquity. He observes that “the care of the self cannot appear and, above all, cannot be practiced simply by virtue of being human as such, just by belonging to the human community, although this membership is very important. It can only be practiced within the group, and within the group in its distinctive character.” 6
I am writing this in the early morning hours. The alleyway behind Hutchison Street is bathed in clear autumn light, and I catch myself hoping that Le Merle and its discriminating and sophisticated readership (!) might constitute a collective sufficiently dense and distinct to be able to carry out the kind of spiritual and ethical work that Foucault alludes to. Something like the joy we experience in “giving ourselves the time”, in itself a collective political responsibility of the first order, it would seem to me. In the sense that the political can be conceived of as a degree of contraction within the ethical sphere, doesn’t all ascesis ultimately suggest a world which follows suite, constantly contracting itself and taking shape? I am reminded of Artaud’s words: “I would have simply avoided falling ill, and in so doing, prevented the whole world I know from falling ill with me”. Wordly thought [pensée du milieu] at its best, preparing the ground for a localized, transindividual empowerment. For whoever thinks by the middle, there is only ever the local. Joy.
Ascesis conceived as a contraction presupposes a form of autopoetic closing and with it, the political problems of closure, or the relative imperviousness of a given life-form. From a vitalist point of view, one might want to avoid the concept of the form, however, as it necessarily implies a relatively static dualism with matter. 7 Commenting on Bergson, Deleuze describes the failure inherent in every material form: “Life as movement alienates itself in the material form that it creates; by actualizing itself, by differentiating itself, it loses ‘contact with the rest of itself’. Every species is thus an arrest of movement; it could be said that the living being turns on itself and closes itself.” 8 In the question of closure are at play the ideas of becoming and reducing oneself to an abstract line, where “the event, once willed, is actualized on its most contracted point, on the cutting edge of an operation. (…) It is at this mobile and precise point, where all events gather together in one that transmutation happens.” 9 From an immanentist perspective then, and according to the situation or inclinations that affect us, we might either want to concentrate on the politico-ontological contractions put in motion when the line is followed along, or to celebrate the endlessly renewable eventhood of the potential processes of emergence. My somewhat bellicose disposition leads me to foreground the ethopoetic aspects of becoming, with its sedentary and localized elements, often at the risk of head-on collisions with the actual – a hellish claustrophobia that can be translated in Chinese as 无 间 道, wu jian dao, the eighth of the buddhist hells, literally, the “way without exit”, or “without interstice”. At the other end of the spectrum, we find something like a “theology of Process”, one that proposes a cosmological conversion where the key-words are opening, creativity, newness, and emergence. 10 At the end of the day, everything depends on whether we choose to concentrate on the relatively speculative descriptions of the élan vital, with its potentiality and multitudinal manifestations, or on the realization of the processes of movement, concretization, and substantiation. Incidentally, the Chinese word for becoming, 变 成 biancheng, brings together these two poles of experience. The first character expresses the idea of change, variation, and transformation. It is used to construct the word for “chameleon”, for example. As for 成 cheng it suggests a process, a completion, the final step in of a state of becoming, its entry into effect, or the end of its unfolding. It is contained in the words for “adult”, “mature”, “proverb”, (成语, cheng yu, a “built-up saying”), “success”, in the sense of a deal being reached between two individuals, as in the exclamation cheng le! – it’s a deal! Grammatically speaking, cheng is considered a complement of potentiality – a formulation that suits our purposes quite well.
In the conclusion of Time-Image, discussing Syberberg’s cinema, Deleuze opposes the time-image and the creative fabulation to the realm of information. Quite surprisingly, he evokes the idea of redemption: “redemption, art beyond knowledge, is also creation beyond information.” 11 This passage finds a strange – one might say apocalyptic – echo toward the end of Difference and Repetition, where art’s highest possibility is defined as the production of a repetition or contraction, that is, “a freedom for the end of a world”. Incidentally, when they want to discredit the political relevance of Deleuze’s thought, Hallward considers counter-effectuation as a “redemptive gesture”, and Rancière describes Deleuze’s history of cinema as a “history of redemption”. Each time, redemption refers pejoratively to a break “out of this world“ and a form of apolitical passivity, in an attempt to reduce Deleuze to be a mere “spiritual” thinker, simply renewing that “Oriental intuition” which Hegel found at work in Spinoza’s philosophy. In the conclusion of Out of this world: Deleuze and the Philosophy of Creation, Hallward claims that “by posing the question of politics (…) in the apocalyptic terms of a new people and a new earth (…), the political aspect of Deleuze’s philosophy amounts to little more than utopian distraction.” 12 For Hallward, Deleuzian philosophy should be understood in light of a late renaissance of post-theophanic thought, that is, a conception of the world where God is expressed in everything, and everything is an expression of God.
To a certain extent, I cannot entirely disagree with Hallward, in the sense that Deleuzian politics does have a strong apocalyptic element. One might think of Difference and Repetition’s foreword here, with its somewhat cryptic affirmation that this book “should have been an apocalyptic book (the third time in the series of times)”; or again, in the conclusion of What is Philosophy?, where we read that as the brain plunges into chaos, “in this submersion it seems that there is extracted from chaos the shadow of the “people to come“ in the form that art, but also philosophy and science, summon forth (…).” 13
But instead of interpreting these passages in terms of ethereal or utopian dissolution, I believe we should read them in terms of ethical, aesthetical, political and, ultimately, (in)temporal contractions. Redemption? A limit happens – and in its tracing, a virtual becoming-line.
In this regard, and as far as a “people to come” is concerned, I would suggest, following Agamben’s distinction in The Time that remains, that the word “messianic” is more accurate than “apocalyptic” to describe this process of temporal-liminal contraction. For aren’t we intimately confronted here with the very necessity of a time-image, that is, not an image of the end of time (apocalypse proper), but rather an image to bring (chronological) time to an end – messianic or contracted time that can be thought of as the time we give ourselves to (collectively) actualize a time-image? Considered from this angle, the problem of believing in the world becomes crucial, politically speaking, and should not be confused with run-of-the-mill wilful action. What matters here is how value is introduced in the world, or in other words, how a certain mode of existence is intensified and brought to its creative limit. To believe in the world then, is indiscernibly active and passive; it is to contemplate – and be contracted. Believing in the world, believing in this world anyway, necessitates envisioning its singular end – its eternal return, in the language of Différence et répétition. A singular or imaginal end, thus, so that “Difference may at last be expressed with a force of anger which is itself repetitive and capable of introducing the strangest selection, even if this is only a contraction here and there – in other words, a freedom for the end of a world.” 14
I like this dramatic and relatively unknown passage from Différence et répétition because it expresses a marked differentiation from the pervasive tendency, especially among North-American Deleuzians, to endorse becoming a beautiful, liberal soul, cosmopolitan and open to the world. It is naturally quite easy to imagine oneself slipping into this cornucopia of the virtual, celebrating the multiplicity of becomings, all while brandishing half-heartedly from time to time a vulgarized and oddly disembodied version of Deleuze and Guattari’s plea for deterritorialization and the nomadic production of subjectivities.
Deleuze himself recognized this kind of danger present in his philosophy of affirmation and pure difference. In the prologue to Différence et répétition, he gives a warning that, 40 years later, seems more relevant than ever:
“There are certainly many dangers in invoking pure differences which have become independent of the negative and liberated from the identical. The greatest danger is that of lapsing into the representations of a beautiful soul: there are only reconcilable and federative differences, far removed from bloody struggles. The beautiful soul says: we are different, but not opposed…” 15
It would not be particularly useful here to elucidate upon how a vulgar understanding of Deleuze’s philosophy of difference can easily be confused with the ubiquitous liberal existentialism so familiar to us, with its smiley-face relational aesthetics and its economically-driven need for incessant communication; or how the revival of the Nietzschean critique of resentment could little by little give way to the management mindset and pop psychology’s positive thinking and abhorrence of anything remotely negative. Here, we can’t help but think of Zizek’s celebrated characterization of North-Americans as “natural-born Deleuzians“, where he takes to task the yuppies and other hipsters of global capitalism that are perpetually lagging behind their own presences, aesthetically speaking, at least. “Y’know, I’m not really who you think I am,” purrs the slithering metropolitan creature while it deconstructs itself into your bedroom…
Deleuze wards off the danger of the beautiful soul, highlighting not only the affirmative, selective, and potentially aggressive power of difference, but also the contractive power of political anger: “We believe that when these problems attain their proper degree of positivity, and when difference becomes the object of a corresponding affirmation, they release a power of aggression and selection which destroys the beautiful soul by depriving it of its very identity and breaking its good will.” 16 Ultimately, the political potentiality of anger as it is envisioned in Deleuze’s philosophy of difference has a proper name: “differences, nothing but differences, in a peaceful coexistence in the Idea of social places and functions… but the name of Marx is sufficient to save [the philosophy of Difference] from this danger.” 17
At the core of the problem of contraction and belief in the world, of ascesis and becoming-line, a strong materialist exigency is at work – a “mattering” or entrer en matière. We might say that contracting an image of thought and connecting it to the power of a believing defines what a certain mode of breaking through to the Outside might be. Each image of thought configures a given subjective disposition and precipitates an existential activation, a verticalization – a style. By way of conclusion, I would like to more precisely characterize the dangers of the beautiful soul, its ostensible openness and its proverbial “good will” via a comparison between two diametrically opposed ways of thinking and imagining the experience of the Outside and the chaosmic plunge. Or, to model our question on Hamlet’s celebrated query: “to open up, or to be opened?” In “being opened”, an outside agency is suggested – to be opened like a can of beans, or like the tearing open of its victim’s chest by a bird of prey. 18 The alternative brings us back to the ambivalence of mystical accounts, where the point of inversion between subject and object or between activity and passivity becomes indiscernible. We know of Deleuze’s predilection for these thresholds of namelessness, where life in the “fourth-person singular” allows us to sink into the marrow of anonymity. For those that hold on stubbornly to the powers of the reason-that-dictates, this paradoxical zone seems to be some sort of unfortunate “mystification”, but I believe that we can conceive of it as something entirely rational and heuristic, that is as the driving force of a well-thought out investigation executed beyond the reach of representation – a sound use of paradox, at the end of the day. 19
Take for example Jane Bennett and William Connolly. These two long-time friends and respected figures of the American post-Deleuzian community, both recently published remarkable and enlightening books, Vibrant Matter, and A World of Becoming, respectively. With wisdom and decidedly liberal inflections, each in their own way describes the beauty of the pluriverse that we find ourselves immersed in, inviting the reader to be more open and sensitive to the complexity of the world around us. For Connolly, the goal of this sort of speculative exercise is to ultimately make us “more alert to our modest participation in a much larger world of temporal force-fields marked by an element of real creativity. (…) Such processes help to mobilise actions and ethical sensibilities, and – when collected and amplified through micropolitics – to infuse the ethos of politics embedded in institutional settings in one way or another.” 20
The metaphor of micropolitical infusion efficiently evokes the type of ethical subtlety that Connolly and other advocates of immanent realism appeal to, a delicate opening up onto the world and its non-human inhabitants that could potentially lead to a deep change in the way we approach politics. Similarly, for Jane Bennett, descriptions of phenomena such as power outages, morbid obesity, or the behaviour of earthworms within a political ecosystem aim to examine the consequences of a “(meta)physics of vibrant materiality for political theory.” 21 The “naive” ambition of the vitalist materialism that she purports to represent ultimately manifests itself as an ethical undertaking on the self, one that might allow us to develop our ability to “detect the presence of interpersonal affects”, which, concretely, would necessitate putting an end to a certain tendency towards criticality and suspicion, and “to adopt a more open-ended comportment”. 22 This appeal to openness and sensitivity and to a culture of the self that Mencius would have certainly appreciated presents itself as a positive alternative to a politics of resentment that has in recent years wreaked havoc in the West. Connolly pushes in this direction even further, to the point of engaging a dialogue with Charles Taylor and the exponents of a spirituality of radical transcendence: “Too many devotees of radical transcendance, perhaps impressed with the productive power of transcendance as they experience it, miss the spiritual intensification as we experience it. This is a shame, for it is precisely at this juncture that generous devotees of both traditions can foster positive political assemblages.” 23
In a certain sense, Connolly is lamenting the lack of epistemological generosity exhibited by most of those engaged with radical transcendence, who tend to emphasize being open through (such as in the concept of grace for Christians, or with predestination in Islam). He entreats them to open themselves up to an inter-faith dialogue the experience of moments of “fertile duration”. It is difficult to criticize the good faith and deeply civilizing nature of Connolly’s approach. At the same time, I cannot help but feel somewhat uneasy when reading his grievances; he seems to essentially repeat over and over again the same liberal mantra, invoking an existential disposition that seems beyond any suspicion: be more open!
By way of a response to Connolly, or rather to point out the practical requirements of the type of ascesis that might allow us to truly enter into the matter at hand, and/or into the Outside, I would like to conclude by handing the talking-stick over to Reza Negarestani, who, with his book Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials, deploys a materialist post-Deleuzian arsenal as insubordinate as it is irreducible towards the vibratory well-wishing material liberalism endorsed by Bennett and Connolly. An über-paranoid jihad-fiction anchored in the horror of an apocalyptic Islam, expressing its own ideas of what it might mean to be open to – or rather be opened by – the world…
Openness is certainly not made for social dynamics or lifestyles instrumentalized within liberal societies. Openness is what turns the very body of the free world upside down throughout human history. (…) Openness can never be extracted from the inside of the system or through a mere voluntary or subjective desire for being open. Openness can never be communicated by liberalism (not to mention the “free world”). (…)
Openness is not ultimately, so to speak, the affair of humans, but rather the affair of the outside (…) Openness comes from the Outside, not the other way around. Nietzschean affirmation was never intended to support liberation or even to be about openness at all. It was an invocation of the Outside. (…)
Radical openness has nothing to do with the cancelation of closure; it is a matter of terminating all traces of parsimony and grotesque domestication that exist in so-called emancipatory human openness. The blade of radical openness thirsts to butcher economical openness, or any openness constructed on the affordability of both the subject and its environment. The target of radical openness is not closure but economical openness.
Radical openness devours all economic and political grounds based on “being open”. (…)
Economic openness is not about how much one can be open to the outside, but about how much one can afford the outside. Therefore, openness, in this sense, is intrinsically tied to survival. (…) “Being open” is but the ultimate tactic of affordance, employed by the interfaces of the boundary with the outside. (…) Affordance presents itself as a pre-programmed openness, particularly on the inevitably secured plane of being open (as opposed to being opened). (…)
“I am open to you” can be recapitulated as “I have the capacity to bear your investment” or “I afford you”. This conservative voice is not associated with will or intention, but with the inevitability of affordance as a mesophilic bond, and with the survival economy and the logic of capacity. If you exceed the capacity by which you can be afforded, I will be cracked, lacerated and laid open. Despite its dedication to repression, its blind desire for the monopoly of survival and the authoritarian logic of the boundary, the plane of “being open to” has never been openly associated with paranoia and regression. Such is the irony of liberalism and anthropomorphic desire. (…)
To become open or to experience the chemistry of openness is not possible through “opening yourself” (…) but it can be affirmed by entrapping yourself within a strategic alignment with the outside, becoming a lure for its exterior forces. Radical openness can be invoked by becoming more of a target for the outside. In order to be opened by the outside rather than being economically open to the system’s environment, one must seduce the exterior forces of the outside: you can erect yourself as a solid and molar volume, tightening boundaries around yourself, securing your horizon, sealing yourself off from any vulnerability… immersing yourself deeper into your human hygiene and becoming vigilant against outsiders. Through this excessive paranoia, rigorous closure and survivalist vigilance, one becomes an ideal prey for the radical outside and its forces. 24