Physique du role


I think we all need a break from the over-saturated self-referential thing we’re rocking. To this end I want to build out of this music video. (The tradeoff is that you won’t get where we’re going without watching it first.)


The music of Crystal Castles appears to convey at once two polarizing scenarios. In one, we are continually thrown into a near-future that is continually just short of unintelligible; in the other, we’re stuck, filled with a suffocated bubbly energy, out of focus and out of hope. In one possible synthesis, it could be that we fall into a future-medium that is increasingly viscous. We gaze into an transparent world of possibilities while exerting more and more effort to move forward. A music critic might relate this synthesis to the story according to which front-shrieker Alice Glass fell victim to predatory keyboardperson Claudio-Ethan as a teenager still: at the point where the duo finds fame, the future has seemingly arrived but the inertia of past abuse persists through/out the intense present-continuous of stardom. If such allegations are at all true, Crystal Castles is the product of a masochistic denial, a buildup of unsignificated power, never to be released.

This scenario of falling into a future that meets us with higher and higher resistance is conveyed similarly by two diegetic tricks. To be clear: they’re “tricks” because they’re kind of simplistic and derivative, not because they are storytelling tools — these are the story. First, the glitchy synthesizers relate to nintendocore chip-sounds more or less like the “brass” patch in 1980s Casio keyboards relates to R&B saxophones — that is, not as a retro gesture but as an emulation of actual-ongoing conditions. Second, by Alice Glass’s ostensible (i.e. performative) withdrawal from the ongoing situation, particularly onstage — which may as well have been the visible layer of the abusive conditions that (allegedly) powered the entire enterprise. (But then, the video you saw does not feature Alice Glass — that’s her IBM-compatible generic, Edith Frances. People shouldn’t read too much into allegations.)

The five-minutes-into-the-future world being conveyed is thus utterly banal and falling apart at the seams. It reflects an understanding of an indefinitely near-term future seeping into the acrylic-concrete present; a postsingularitarian future of omnipresent intelligence that already exists in the already-banal network of sensors and vector embeddings scattered across folded-over and multiplexed EM energy carriers and leaks less and less surplus-jouissance as it develops. Whereas previous generations announced the end of the past as an end of history that pointed to a hopeful avenir, the indefinite concreteness of the future in Crystal Castles tells us we’ve reached peak history — almost all of it is concentrated in the next ten seconds, more people and more EM energy in more intricate a-centered structures of meaning and value, more than in the sum total of the previous 10,000 years.

Indeed a case can be made that everything changed in the years between 2000 and 2009, and nothing in the decade that followed. Wi-fi, Facebook, dystechnic China, the Euro, smoking bans… This case would imply that like Alice with her bubbly dissociative energy, we have been enjoying our symptom — the symbolic deadlock that tells us she will never leave the abusive relationship, fraying European nations never give up on the single currency, Catalonia’s protests of independence will never be signified as cries of liberation used to be, Brexit will never happen and we will never give power to meaningfully right-wing political parties (for example in the upcoming European elections). These are, of course, all inevitability discourses — the thing of the world does carry on; Alice broke up with the band, after all.


The role played in that video by Edith Frances (the Borromean knot to Alice Glass’s signifying chain, to indulge playful metaphor) has striking similarities to the role of theory. Her own bubbly energy is too out-of-band for the diegesis; she’s continually any-time-now-already getting to the microphone — but there’s nothing to pretend to sing, the song has been constructed out of scrambled audio samples; and still it’s up to her to give it pop musical content. There’s a specific difference between what she’s doing and what a background dancer is in the diegesis (in the story told by the audio composite); Edith is extradiegetic, she’s part of the narrative trickery that makes the product cohere as a pop song. We’re not supposed to notice that that’s not Alice Glass; we’re supposed to notice an effect of something both instrumental and highly specific, with deliberate quality of professional-grade instrumentation, camera lenses, audio cables, everything that says “production values” and enacts an axiology of disappearance. (Plus it has to be a woman, not a man, a girl of a given size and aura… it’s not like Montserrat Caballé could walk into this scenario.)

It is somewhat paradoxical that someone can be a fully generic replacement while having a special quality that is impossible to mistake for a crude imitation. The name of this paradox is physique du role. We need Prince Hamlet to be young and handsome; no matter how legendary the thespian, he cannot play as an old man. The imagery of theater helps us see that this is also not merely “sex appeal” (which would imply an axiology of what’s sexier than what; we’d have to reconcile that with the axiology of disappearance — it’s not easy): “looking the part” is an unstable mixture of believable representation and stagecraft magic (voice projection, comic timing and so on). The ultimate root of the paradox is that actors are storytelling devices. The only novelty in our video is that physique du role is translated to the domain of singing. Gossip was that Edith Frances is a much better singer than Alice; the video is a strong argument in that direction.

Now, physique du role poses particular ethical demands. It’s all too easy to jump to sex appeal and write stories around it — Hollywood did it to Marilyn Monroe and multiple others. The effect of this is to force cynical disavowal: the point of every popular feature film starring Marilyn was the raw object of her body (note well, it was always an object, we don’t get to objectify it), but actress, producers and audience had to pretend this raw object was at most the cherry in the cake, that there was a comedy around it. Now, there’s a standard (vulgar) critique of theories that try to distance themselves from events that says that the ultimate point is always the underlying ideological assumptions; this is a critique of physique du role, it says that the honest alternative to Marilyn is overt erotica where the raw object of the body is de-sublimated into the diegesis.

The more subtle critique of physique du role can be found in Slavoj Zizek, for whom (translating to our terms) the raw object of the body can never be the story because the object of desire can never be identified with a specific raw object. Zizek correctly points to the collapse of seduction once we allow it to bleed into the diegesis; he also successfully correlates it with a deadlock in attempts to understand situations permeated by ideology that are not founded in a critique of ideology. Our starting point was to try and resolve this deadlock, to try and I give an honest account of Jair without thrusting the background ideological confusion into the diegesis. So how is Edith Frances doing it? What’s the technology required to give coherence and wholeness to an accumulation of fragments while withdrawing continually from the spotlight?

Our first answer was — general axiology. But does general axiology have the requisite physique du role?


The following  song is much, much better-known; you may be excused from watching this one. This was Crystal Castles’s highest point in the pop music nexus. I saw them earlier with Alice Glass still in the jet black hair; but despite thinking that the physique du role of the song is much better matched by that look, I could find no video from that era that closely matched the chaotic impotent aliveness of the concert I went to. This even has the nihilistic whiskey-swilling routine; the dyed hair is a lesser concern.

This is useful contrast with Edith Frances’s version of the future that resists us. The brokenness in Alice Glass emphasizes the kind of suffocating anxiety about the future that suggests a future is happening after all — that peak history is over there, it hasn’t been reached yet.


This essay starts by making some huge leaps between the concreteness of a pop music video and claims about the pace of history. Genre-savvy readers will have understood them to be claims about the video, not about history — pop music criticism and all that. But that hardly eliminates the fundamental doubt that lingers over any “flight of hermeneutics” — surely the lyrics of the first video say nothing about dystopia and peak history, where does that flow from? The bureaucratic answer is that it flows from me, but the twist that’s both obvious and more subtle is that this whole interpretation (this is a technical term, we’ve used it dozens of times already) arises from this intermediary space we call interfacticity.

[You’ve spent all day experiencing interfacticity, although seeing this requires a detour into the Heidegger story that will make us lose the plot today; one of its modes was intersubjectivity — that space between people in a conversation or even silent proximity that contains most of the information in any given situation. But a music video has no subjectivity, nor does a website. It’s still something rather than nothing; for lack of a technical introduction, you can approximate it by some kind of folk panpsychism.]

The issue with interpretation (and interfacticity) is that it doesn’t lend itself to any kind of quick (epistemological) “razor” test. For this reason, these past few decades have led to some people attaching great value scientific claims that replace hermeneutics. But this poses two very specific and cutting problems. The first is that probability theory is a bitch and scientists very very rarely understand it; they trust their instruments, which sometimes tell them that dead salmon know when humans are sad or angry (a breakout successs for “machine learning”). The second is that scientific discourse of hermeneutical affairs can’t help but build on top of hermeneutics. We’re told that happy music is happy because it activates happy neuronal systems; but this claim requires starting from a concept of happiness to begin with, and given that, what has been added? We’re similarly told that love is a buildup of the chemical “oxytocin”, which is exciting until you realize we’ve merely acquired an interestingly-sounding synonym for “love”.

Which is not to say that interfacticity with the instrumentation of science can’t be interesting and even relevant — the key finding is that the scientific claim is in the interfacticity, in the machinery of interactions between “Dasein borelians“, regions of the Situation, groups and parts, including groups and parts of people. This is more obviously true of hermeneutics.

Now, what we had been trying to achieve with quability theory all this time is to extend the formal logical sense of “interpretation” to cover the wide metaphysics-impregnated constraints on the Situation we call the ambient conditions of truth. We’ve said this of delicious pears already: talk of dystopia that flows from Crystal Castles is dystopia-qua-Crystal Castles, it happens between a continuum of theories about dystopias and acc/decelerating time and a continuum of theories of/by the band. It’s not that Alice Glass’s physique du role is essentially jet black hair or impotent chaos explosion — these things satisfy her (the quability conditions of Alice Glass); some hair works, some hair doesn’t.

What is clear to me is that the motion of withdrawal performed by the first video at the top of this blog is under/statisfies/”is quable”/exposes itself to some of the core quability conditions that govern the possibility of theory. This is how I can only forecast the outcome of European parliament election “qua Edith Frances” — the truth itself is unspeakable.

Hell and Eternal Damnation


Does the theory of general axiology have axiological implications?

In the generic sense we have sketched an eschatology (the “switcharoo”) out of a pedagogical scenario of what “getting to general axiology” look like. This pedagogy was illustrated with delirant heavenlike visions meant to convey both its infinite worthwhileness and its boundless cost — a valuation of \infty/\infty that could only be afforded by a “conspiracy”. But to a theory-minded person, eschatology is a beautiful place to lose the plot: it gives and keeps giving countless technical nooks and crannies to explore and polish without ever being bugged by quable (pfft!) problems of reality.

So back to the island with something more specific — does general axiology have ethical implications?

Yes, but we should remind the weary reader of the unusual sense that the language of logic has acquired over out project. Our first coup was to decouple truth from logic, making it indefinitely situated in such a way that it doesn’t belong to a person or a proposition anymore. This liberated logic for (aren’t you tired of this word?) technical purposes; in this way we’ve both vindicated and subverted Hubert Dreyfus’ profoundly wise méfiance of logic-based Artificial Intelligence by evicting it from the “truth” signifier and sending it to the salt mines of quability theory.

In the structure provided by this displaced, enslaved logic (I want to use “q-logic”, but fear going overboard with unreadable Star Trek-like lingo), the theory of general axiology is formally predicated on the “Heidegger story”. Of course, almost nothing of the Heidegger story is actually found in Heidegger or in Heideggerean schools; it refers to something grounded on the quability conditions of a metaphysics of the Situation that, we argue, is satisfied by both Graham Harman’s and Hubert Dreyfus’s (very different) accounts of the Dasein.

The upshot is that by the coherentist-epistemological powers of frame axioms (the pack mules of truth-rain), general axiology implies the Heidegger story, truth-rain, and the Tarski story of truth rain (which is also not to be found in Tarski). We’re retreading ground here, but reiteration is often useful.

[Some loose ends remain: how can the “epistemological powers of frame axioms” q-logically imply the frame axiom structure itself? To the extent that these powers are characterized to be “coherentist”, by explicit construction; may there also be something more subtle in the recursive machinery of frame axioms? This is only to raise awareness of how rough this whole thing still is.]

Now, despite all of the rhetoric associating truth-rain with satisfiability algorithms, its basic presentation to the irreducible concreteness of the Situation that engulfs us is existential. ITruth is overpowering and uncaring and dares us to “do or do not” (there is no “try” without consequence…). This has also been said before, but now flows more neatly from an organized recap: truth is first and foremost an ethical choice: you can expose yourself to it, walk in truth and make love in truth and write in truth and die in truth; you can also hide. In this context every epistemology from Hindu dialectics to Bayesian probability is a heuristic. The best heuristics are loosely attached to the ethical mandate that users expose themselves to being wrong, to being pelted with rocks by small monkeys they didn’t exist in their calculations. To being ridiculed. To worship the wrong God, maybe. To enjoy the consequences.


The ambient conditions of truth are constraints on the Situation. Because you are enmeshed in the Situation, they are also constraints on you. But these truths are not “in you”; therefore you can’t “say them” or express any kind of proposition that can be assigned a truth-value. Therefore all propositions are performative. The proof, in it most sublime mathematical sense, is in the pudding; the truth of (Newtonian) gravity is in the falling apple. In this way your utterances and dreams and random lascivious thoughts are all interpretations (in the sense of q-logic) of the ambient conditions.

Did we just arrive at “all utterances are interpretations of the truth”? Yes, but in a way that (to me at least) is awesome because it surfs over a swell of platonism without sinking in. The truth is internal to the Situation; it’s out there, but not in a realm of eternal kalokagathía. The truth is in side-glances and headaches and, yes, in mathematical theorems; it’s materially transported by frame axioms, but frame axioms are internal to the Situation. Clever, huh?

From this follows another valuable implication of the eschatology of general axiology. As the story goes, we were all sliding down a tunnel of increasing darkness that corresponded to a growing detachment from the Situation; as abstraction increased, we were able to make more and more utterances about the truth. Lascivious side-benefits aside, the great promise of general axiology was to be finally able to extricate ourselves from the truth and say it. But to utter the ambient conditions of truth we would have to be beyond “ambient” — in other words, extradiegetical. This is why the most lascivious scenarios of general axiology are not lascivious at all — you get to watch faux-lesbians, not to touch. Is this heaven? may ask someone; the ready answer is, of course, that in general axiology this becomes the bliss that you want.

But this dismissal bites back. General axiology can be nothing like the will-to-general-axiology. This is the bleakness in the heart of the switcharoo: at the moment of greatest theoretical understanding of general axiology it has to be yanked away from you. This is why I keep alluding to lascivious scenarios — in the ec-stasy of truth you get to “stand besides yourself” and watch the thing of the world understand itself. Hell and eternal damnation — I like this theory thing. Do even buy into general axiology? Demonic confusion, contradiction, aporia, paradox.


What does it mean to say that “I like doing theory”? Surely liking something is an axiological claim; extending an idea originally proposed by Paul Samuelson in the 1930s, it means that my writerly praxis realizes (brings back from reality) a revealed axiology. A slightly different axiology would be consistent with a slightly different praxis — maybe we use a different font; maybe something more radical. Now, the revealed axiology is by construction implied by general axiology, but this more or less the same as saying that double-entry accounting is implied by the Yoneda lemma. The secret name of praxis is “specificity”; even in the absence of subjectivity (eg in a world populated by zombie strippers), praxis is. (Some people even take this to be a political program — things really do be like that, lieben heißt leben!)

Does this mean am a revealed axiology? Not directly; a person’s behavior is incoherent, temporally inconsistent and sometimes even “fucked up”. In the Heidegger story this volatility is diluted; Dasein is a mass word and the Situation is something like a mereological structure on the Dasein — there’s no “me” nor “instance”, just facticities plugged into facticities (and facticities aren’t realizable). But if we ever want to talk about the practical affairs of men and groups and thought tendencies and sexual fetishes and ideologies, we need some structure — some dotted line where the cream cracker usually breaks.

This is why there is usually so much technicolor lacaniana littered over these texts. I like to preface discussions of Lacan by saying that psychoanalysis is probably not “true” (which in informal language means it doesn’t live up to scientific standards for a clinical theory), merely “interesting”. As demonstrated over Zizek’s works (and we’re content to let him keep doing the heavy lifting for us here), Lacan is fundamentally a reiterative, reimaginative theoretician of dialectics. In dialectics, Lacan and general axiology alike, there’s a passage to an absolute that can be speculatively revealed but must work itself out somehow.  But in Lacan a number of colorful scenarios (the mirror stage, the signifying chain, the significance of the phallus, the four discourses…) have been already presented. Of course, to use them we must be wary of leaping from Lacanian subjectivity to revealed axiologies; it’s not clear that his subjectivities are anything like the subjectivity I am living through as I type these words.

But, to wrap up — to say “I like doing theory” says something in the asymptotic context of eschatology, yet so much more in the finitary context of working through axiologies. There’s a very real sense in which working towards larger and smaller axiologies makes sense. This is how conjugal rows are resolved: not by anyone winning, but by discovering the higher goals in face of which previous discontent is revealed to be petty (a marriage reveals an axiology, after all — it is a praxis, a something). This is how theory connects to something other than the pure scruple of apraxia — if it wants to survive.