die Gefahr

 

I.

We introduced the notion of larger and smaller axiologies in ….Prince Kropotkin  and made it tidy in The Wave, from which (breaking with tradition) I quote:

2.3 An axiology A is larger than an axiology A’ if it contains a theory of the valuable means of producing values in A’.

Earlier in Kropotkin this had been motivated thusly

Following this [the equation between “undemocratic” and “bad”], we could  temporarily suspend all discussion of the facticity of democracy and political representation and assign a type to the word “democracy” without assigning a corresponding value — democracy is of type “large axiology” (large because it’s a higher-order theory of how smaller axiologies can be constructed and/or validated).

This is fine theory, but carries along a sleight-of-hand toward the “praxis of theory” — namely the suspension (originally said to be “temporary”) of politics in favor of axiological analysis. That we have been doing this for months now is also the outcome of an axiological claim that values abstraction over specificity.

Simultaneously, we have brought forward an asymptotic theory, General Axiology. By my personal power of theoretical speculation, I’ve endowed the scenario of general axiology with visions of power and bliss.  Such visions have to do with an upward motion fueled by agreement over generic values, which may as well be called the demotic path; but the material presented in the blog was rarely demotic — hardly any pick-up tips or ideas for how to radicalize your friends. Instead, it doubled down on the thought process that had elevated us from politics into axiology. For what? Echoes of the visions of General Axiology and a deep-seated feeling that abstract axiologies are higher axiologies. I could rename this blog — “adventures in Higher Axiology”. But I’m not that optimistic.

 

II. 

Hölderlin’s verse actually says

Wo aber Gefahr ist, wächst
Das Rettende auch.

but we see it the other way around.

Our move towards abstraction through the suspension of specifics is born out of a mistrust of claims to specificity given the chaotic emergent agency of the world. That we’re able to make up theories — speculative and unaccompanied by arguments to which p-values could be attached one day — is precisely the mirror of this mistrust. The smartest people often have this backward; they mistrust theories because, well, anyone could just type whatever into their text editors if not for a falsifiable connection to the thing-of-the-world. But is there ever one?

At one point the news were confirming the specific points made in …Prince Kropotkin in Hi-Z about Brazilian politics. First, the Revolutionary Guard (invested with Supreme Court powers in Brazil) staged a double coup. On the demotic side, they claimed for themselves the answerable-to-no-one right to inquisitorial justice in the case of some people who said mean things about them on Twitter. On the hierophantic side, they staked out for themselves the role that Latour or Caillon (or maybe both) termed an obligatory passage point. As we had noted, presidential democracy is marred by a conflict between two claims to axiology, namely by Parliament and by the Executive; the usual solutions to this are conciliatory corruption, a conspiracy to impeach the president (and thus force his hand), or a military coup.

Jair’s early tenure was faithfully following this script. A surprising idealist, Jair had been dodging Congress’s increasingly forceful attempts at shaking “political appointments” (bribes, really, in nicely cut suits) out of him. The whole thing was spiraling out, with political crises of middle-to-high severity erupting every 15 days or so. This is not to exonerate Jair — who knows what game this man was playing, if any — but that was the ongoing scenario. This was brought to a halt by what is openly admitted to be a “pact” between the Three Powers — beautifully brokered by the Supreme Court who as a gesture of good will buried preliminary investigations on one of Jair’s sons.

That was the scenario when I stopped watching the news. It was misspent time given that I had already written Prince Kropotkin in Hi-Z. The whole issue of Brazilian politics was thrown back at me several months later when it reached American forums not usually concerned with politics, let alone Brazil. It was then that I was informed by The Guardian and TV5 that the Amazon was burning under direct orders of Jair Bolsonaro –something like that.

So here’s why we have to invert Hölderlin: in his version, the destruction of the forest prefigures salvation from Jair. But that’s precisely where die Gefahr lies.

III

Populist politicians (is there any other kind?) have always been — under the heavy fog of irony in the local ambient conditions of truth — called saviors. Their archetype, Getulio Vargas,  was crowned both “the Father of the Poor” and “the Mother of the Rich”. Our inversion of Hölderlin works very literally here — there comes another savior, Bolsonaro; there comes another danger. This is a very poor interpretation of die Gefahr — in style, in theoretical range, in the scope of its consequences. But it works, as it does in higher and higher levels, and at this point it’s rhetorically important that we present a very poor case because it highlights how it works — to wit, as a formal argument.

At each level — whether it is the Amazon that will save us from the asemic horizon of capitalism; or whether NGOs and foreign powers will redeem and deliver us from Bolsonaro — danger is the shadow name of the soteriology it lies behind. This is what soteriology does: it exposes us to hazards that itself is unable to see.

The specifics of the Brazilian situation might seem to press the issue — from where this particular Mama Nature soteriology? The particular mechanics of how ongoing concrete concerns become hard claims to Truth and Salvation have been extensively studied by my betters. A great half answer is in Zizek’s lacanized concept of ideology; the second half is in Mencius Moldbug’s Cathedral. 

What tasks us here is not to evaluate news reports; it’s whether the theoretical status of Jair — remember, as the man who foregrounds the ambient conditions of truth while disappearing from the situation as an extradiegetic element — stand to be altered. It could be that the technologies that produce the tempo of the Situation leave him out in the cold or push him back into the story.

I mean, the Amazon is fine — it’s so extraordinarily large that it could burn continuously for decades. But Brazil is not fine. India is the world’s biggest democracy, but basically defines a world of its own; unlike India, Brazil has a President, not a Prime Minister; it also casts a long shadow over smaller societies. This is is actually how the Amazon becomes an international affair: projects toward a global axiology cast suspicion on the ability of this stunted society to manage what the soteriology they espouse claims to be an extrasocietal good — the Forest, singular, given in dowry by the Gods (not like the forests in Belgium or Japan, no — there are blue parakeets in this one).

It’s not that Macron freaks out about the Amazon; it’s that the international community’s ability to put Brazil in line. Besides blue parakeets, Brazil also has a critical role in global economic recovery, presents a strategic buffer in the circulation of “refugees”, serves as the major success story of racial miscegenation, can swiftly destabilize the global market for iron ore (and with this the costs of civil construction)… Given how much we really are spectators in this global policy process (not even Germans and Frenchmen get to vote for the European Council), we could pinch back the literal meaning of diegesis and summarize the situation as follows: the producers are more and more startled by this Godard-type threatening to make their global liberal democracy blockbuster into some avant-garde, diegesis-bending arthouse film that forces itself as a topic for later discussion.

(If that isn’t die Gefahr, what is?)

Again, if we are going to make any progress, we have to hold back our lower-axiological instincts and try to reach for the stars. The top prize is general axiology, baby.

Jacques’s promise

There’s an apocryphal legend that concerns an early astronomer (already in possession of a telescope) who visualized Neptune a century or more before it was even calculated to exist, but recorded it as a distant shooting star. I know this legend to be apocryphal because I just made it up. The clunky metaphor it implies serves as a narrative standing point to once again discuss the intellectual standing of Jacques Lacan.

Lacan is a shooting star who believes himself to be a stable traveling planet. Note that this isn’t a plain inversion — J-Lac has become both astronomer and celestial body. This collision is enabled by the theory of the mirror stage.

Indeed this earliest of lacanian concepts makes sense of everything that happened later: in his “return to Freud” Seminar I, our man Jacques is unambiguous in dismissing Anna Freud’s organization and consolidation of clinical psychoanalysis and making the metapsychology the technical core of Sigmund’s study. Freudian metapsychology is already theory-qua-theory, the study of what psychological theories might look like. But Freud, clinical ambitions and all, characterizes the metapsychology as heuristic and “as-if”, disclaiming any connection to the raw (e.g. neurological) facts of psychology. Meanwhile, in the very Seminar on “The Technical Writings of Freud”, Jacques Lacan gives us this:

Pour vous permettre de vous orienter à travers les amibigüités que se renouvellent à chaque pas dans le littérature analytique et dont je pense vous êtes aperçus, il y a plus d’un méthode. Je pense de vous enseigner catégories nouvelles qui introduisent distinctions essentieles. Ce ne sont pas des distinctions extérieures, scolastiques et en extension — opposant tel champ a tel champ, multipliant les bipartitions à l’infini, mode de progrès qui consiste toujours a introduire des hypothèses supplémentaires. Cette methode est permise sans doute, mais pour ma part je vise à un progrès en comphrehension.

Progress in understanding what? In the absence of a eschatology like our very own switcharoo, J-Lac can’t possibly believe he can theorize his way through the virtual absence of empirical regularities in human psychology. We know how “scientific” psychology fooled itself into the abyss of unreplicability: through a primitive understanding of statistics and a faith in the representativeness of readily-available American college students. But Lacan had a clinical practice complete with a Freudian-style couch; could it have been fully divorced from his wild ambitions about clinical theory? This is what the mirror stage produces: a primary-primitive illusion of mastery.

Could the tragedy of Jacques Lacan have been avoided if his peak years had better synchronized with the peak years of American program of the “philosophy of the mind”? Whatever I’ve read of the latter seems made either of pure and desperate honesty or honest and pure desperation: as it turns out from their “thought experiments” regarding zombies and robot replicants, it’s very difficult to even establish the existence of “a mind” (something that could be the object of “a psychology”). There is much to applaud about the American program: rather than plainly equate the mind and the brain, they split bipartitions à la infini on, for example, what level of functional equivalence with a mind-possessing person produces an artificial mind. Metapsychologies then falls as a kind of industrial byproduct of this aberrant “thought empiricism”.

But these are philosophers, which is to say, big game hunters; and low-bullshit anglos that scrutinize each other’s work rather than align with or try to found “schools” — have you heard the joke about the third-world philosophy who “uses Derrida” like I would use Windows 95? If we haven’t “used” any anglos in our project it’s because they spell bad news. Namely: each “thought experimenter” ends up coughing up a different “empirical metapsychology” — maybe hoping at a convergence at the metaphysical level, maybe just willy-nilly trying to publish papers. This doesn’t help us — it doesn’t help me — at all; the structural problem at the center of our project is the nature of theory,

Now: the standout quote from Lacan’s seminary we gave a few paragraphs back could be talking about progress in understanding metapsychology. Jacques’s promise would be then to show us catégories nouvelles — not qualia nor faculties, new shit — that introduce distinctions essentielles in metapsychology. The catégories uvelles would be a novel theory of theories of subjectivity — the unifying structure that makes all “empirical metapsychologies” coalesce.

But how? This is where the historical connection with psychoanalysis begins to  make sense. Fundamentally, psychoanalysis in the sense advanced by Freud and Lacan is a system where (1) there exist known unknowns, mental states not apparent in the observable functional organization of the mind — by any means: brain imaging will never locate the Imaginary order — and (2) more importantly, there exist unknown knows that add up to an unobservable functional organization of the mind. That is how a cacophony of “empirical metapsychologies” can be reconciled: the incoherence of ‘thought experiments” is heard at the analyst’s couch not as a wound (as Icarus after getting too close to the sun) but as a narrative (the dream of flight, the heroic, foolish attempt, the weight of the Law). In the mode most specific to Lacan, this is taken to its last consequences: we defocus significance and give first dignity to the signifier; therefore, we open a world of theoretical meaning that without refuting realism exceeds it.

One of Don DeLilo’s characters says in a novel — talent is more erotic when it’s wasted. If this latter thesis — that from Seminar I — is true, Lacan wants to teach us a theory about psychological theory (rather than merely explain the fallen human soul) is true, that should be the motto for the culture of theory; it should be stamped on our flags and coats of arms. In one level, it’s regrettable that Lacan would misspend the surplus value of his highly theoretical effort on psychology — which hasn’t yielded any fundamental results as a science. That the brand of psychology implied by his complex metapsychology has been bogus from the start is really unimportant in this case — les non-dupes errent.

But how much has the world lost by not having Jacques Lacan involved in fashion design? He did start by studying mirrors; step by step, Lacanian theory can be recast as a deep theory of fashion. Both the fashionable and the unfashionable understand that most of looking the part is “owning it”, becoming the quilting point that ties the signifying chain of your outfit together. But it’s not enough to make a “metafashion science” where Lacan explicitly tried to make a “metapsychology”; that would be a fine doctoral thesis, but wouldn’t sell more clothes.

Instead, we need to read Lacan as an epic Icarus narrative, and take inspiration and courage from him. And put our theoretical minds to work on theory, dammit.