Thinking Blue Guitars

Slogans stifle thought.

Month: November, 2009

On the Annunciation

Botticelli's 'The Annunciation'

When I was five years old I played the Archangel Gabriel in a school nativity. At the time, I didn’t realise I was playing a monster. Because that’s what Gabriel is. He’s a beast from another world, unexpected, dizzying, whorling earths around him in confusion: a fiery question-mark of Elsewhere. (Of all the artists over the centuries to capture this scene, it is only Botticelli who suggests the danger of this angel: is he bowing respectfully to the Virgin, or coiling like a celestial snake, readying for the pounce?)

He greets Mary and tells her the Lord is with her. ‘But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be’. Gabriel’s presence is unsettling, his words unnerving; this is not the rosy-cheeked stuff of Christmas cards. He tells her she will be the mother of God. Her response in the New Revised Standard Version is very civilized: ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ But, given the context, one might legitimately understand here a barely disguised ‘What the fuck?!’

Gabriel continues his onslaught of mysteries, like a loving gunslinger from an alien world. He informs her that her friend, Elizabeth, who was said to be barren, is also pregnant: ‘For nothing will be impossible with God.’

Mary could say no. She could turn and shun this speaking meteor. He is not of her world, he has no claims upon her – she owes him nothing. But she doesn’t say no. She says ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ ‘Here am I’. Those three little words that made creation sing. She stared holy terror in the face and assumed its prophecies willingly. She opened up her very body to the totality of that which she was not, because in the words of an angel she heard echoes of an unattended nearness.

‘Then the angel departed from her’. The burning question descended back into the deepness of things, leaving Mary alone in the dark to ponder her reflection in the infinite.

And then to Elizabeth’s, her friend, to share and celebrate the strangeness of strangers and the birth of something new.

Doggy-style; or, why sex is civilized

‘It’s not fifty-fifty like a business transaction. It’s the chaos of eros, we’re talking about, the radical destabilization that is its excitement. You’re back in the woods with sex. You’re back in the bog. What it is is trading dominance, perpetual imbalance.’
– Philip Roth, The Dying Animal


‘You’re back in the woods with sex’. We talk about wild sex, animal sex, doggy-style, shagging like rabbits and so on and so on. All of these are images of some supposedly brute animality, some primitive urge that rages inside us: our evolutionary inheritance from the cavemen. The images suggest pure, material drives, unadulterated and undiluted.

What this suggestive picture ignores is the role that language plays in sex. Non-sophisticated sketches of the nature of man always seem to think of humans as basically animals but with language added on as a sort of extra. But this misses the point. Language is not just one activity of man among others, such as eating, drinking, producing etc.; it fundamentally transforms the very nature of all the other activities. Eating is no longer just eating: food becomes a world of signs, rituals, habits, and meanings. How else could diseases like anorexia or bulimia arise if signification were not a fundamental component in the process of consumption?

"Two Figures and a Cat" - Picasso

Physically, on the surface, sex appears as the most animalistic activity in which humans still engage. ‘Doggy-style’ is so-called because of obvious physical resemblances to the animal world. But these superficial similarities hide the truth: as Freud well knew, it is during sex that humans are at their most human, their least animal. Why is this? Again, because of language and meaning. The body and its accessories are captured in a network of signs, all of which play a crucial role in sex. A mouse might seek shelter in a high-heeled shoe, but it is only a human who can be aroused at the sight or the sound of one. We humans are all, to some extent, ‘natural fetishists,’ and we are so precisely because of language.

So, if this is the case, then, is it true that ‘you are back in the woods with sex’? Well, yes and no. You are back in the woods with sex to the extent that humans have conjured up a whole symbolic world centred on the woods and the primitive. We have imbued the natural world with human, linguistically-mediated desires, ones which animals themselves could never experience. Just take the great ‘doggy-style’, for example: when two dogs engage in sex it is natural and non-linguistic. It does not have a ‘meaning’ for them in the sense in which a human could experience ‘meaning’. But when two humans have sex ‘doggy-style’ it is an act rampant with signs; they have transformed themselves into what they (wrongly) think of as a bestial state of pure desire. But eros is not pure – it is always mediated by a network of symbols.

The most outrageously barbarous of sexual acts are, in fact, simultaneously the most deeply civilised.

On the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade

The leather covers have just enough friction to grip, just enough rigidity to compel respect, yet just enough flexibility not to overimpose themselves. You can’t mishandle a Pléiade like you would a cheap paper-back thriller, but nor do you have to go out of your way to adapt yourself to it: it moulds itself to your hands without you even realising that it’s doing so.

The pages are luxuriously thin. They whisper ‘Noli me tangere’. By touching them you might break them, violate them somehow. Under certain lights, they project slight sheens, the black print disappearing momentarily beneath the white shimmer, teasing the eye: brief reminders that you are not in control here, knowing winks from the hidden guardians of the page.

The margins are too narrow to write in, and in any case to put pencil to this paper would be to risk destruction. You do not interact with these books, you do not scribe yourself into them. The margins are symbolic: untouchable blank borders whose sole function is to facilitate the passive absorption of dead Masters, or – rather – their absorption of you.

Second by second and hour by hour, these fragile, voluptuous vampires imbibe your blood. They ensure their Immortality.

BBC’s HARDtalk: Worlds that passed in the night

Stephen Sackur

There is a paradox involved in disagreeing with someone: in order to disagree with them, you first have to agree with them. You both have to have a shared set of fundamental assumptions which constitute the invisible background to the debate. A disagreement can only be said to occur within such a set of understandings. If the two interlocutors do not share such fundamental understandings – that is, when ‘worldview x’ is absolutely other than ‘worldview y’ – then a disagreement cannot be said to have taken place: the ‘zero-level’ of understanding which would have formed the basis of the dialogue is missing.

Recently, I’ve watched three episodes of HARDtalk (a BBC ‘current affairs’ programme in which an interviewer supposedly ‘grills’ some or other important public figure) during which I’ve felt acutely the lack of this ‘zero-level’ between interviewer and interviewee. The guests were Alain Badiou, Noam Chomsky, and Slavoj Žižek respectively (all episodes are available on YouTube). What happens in each interview is that two fundamentally different views of the world meet – and miss each other. The basic outlook of the interviewer (Stephen Sackur) is that of your average well-educated liberal: the world is basically fair as it is; if we just give it a few tweaks here and there then we’ll more or less have the best we can hope for within the limits of our eternal human frailties. Now, Badiou, Chomsky and Žižek hold radically different views from one another, but they share one or two basic assumptions which make it almost impossible for them to communicate with the interviewer: namely, the world is basically unfair because it’s structured by a global economic system which necessarily produces inequality and exploitation; change will require much more than ‘making a few tweaks here and there’ – it will require radical transformation, from the roots on up.

Now, given the enormous discrepancy which forms the basis of these conversations, can the ‘interviews’ really be said to take place? Sackur becomes exasperated as soon as someone suggests a view of the world in which injustice is fundamental, while the interviewees become exasperated when confronted with a naive, self-righteous toff. Such ‘(non-)interviews’ can never arrive at truth, but what they do achieve is precisely their propagandist function: to drown out ‘radical’ voices in liberal arias sung in homage to the status quo.

Against the Liberals

Another day, another reflection on my existential quandaries. This time it was inspired by the final phase of the British Humanist Association’s atheist bus campaign. The BHA has just released a batch of billboard posters which are the perfect encapsulation of liberal thinking in the West today. The slogan says it all: ‘Please don’t label me. Let me grow up and choose for myself’. What could possibly sound more reasonable? Is this not the most enlightened civic virtue burning away those wishy-washy clouds of Christian and Muslim mystification? Does it not bring a metallic, positivist tear to one’s radiantly rational eye?

Before enumerating just why I loathe this poster, it might be worth making a caveat. Let’s not be fools: in extreme cases, where religion is clearly being used to suppress reasoned and critical reflection, to subject a human being to oppressive conditions – be that physically or mentally – then I’m all with the BHA. Another way of saying the same thing is that I’m all for adopting an anaemic liberal ideology over an uncritical and oppressively dogmatic religious ideology. (Though let’s not forget that dogmatism is not always and everywhere oppressive: one can hold dogmatically to one’s beliefs without going round thumping tables and brandishing one’s fists over them).

The main problem I have with this poster is that its principal ideological presupposition is almost theological: choice is sacred. It’s worth unpicking this a little bit. For the British Humanist Association (as for liberalism in general) a human being is an individual – a lonely monad -existing in the void: self-made, self-fashioned. Athena was born fully-grown from the head of Zeus; but the liberal individual is both Athena and Zeus in one, constantly giving birth to itself (‘it’ because it is disembodied and sexless) in the highest stratospheres of solitude. To its north, its south, its east and west there is nothing but nothingness: no history, no society, no God, no illness, no ideas, no needs – just pure nothingness. And within this void the individual chooses. It has no preconceptions, no presuppositions; it is a blank slate choosing in and from an infinity of blankness.

The freedom to choose is the capitalist freedom par excellence. Real freedom might entail making oneself the ground of other people’s freedom – even if that included self-sacrifice -, but capitalist freedom is the liberty to choose: choose a toothpaste, choose a car, choose a house – choose a religion. Religion for people like Dawkins is a set of theoretical propositions on a piece of paper which we can tick if they suit us and cross if they don’t. It is an abstract, unlived, immaterial phenomenon. It is, in other words, precisely not what most practitioners of a religion think they are doing. Religion is a way of life, of being-together, a communal giving and receiving, a shared taking-on of the burdens of finitude and mortality. Moreover, for Christians, this community even stretches to the dead. Because history exists: it is lived through and died in; it hurts and it lives on. Atheist humanism is almost always reason in the void, and it is almost always the perfect ideological accompaniment to a rampant capitalism which renders the lives of most people in the world a misery.

They can put someone else’s religion on the line, but can they put themselves on the line? Dawkins and Grayling and their ilk are obsessed with choice. They did not choose the burden of their historical guilt – the guilt of the bourgeois – but they are guilty nonetheless. So am I. There are many productive ways of dealing with this historical sin – socialism being a prime contender – but celebrating choice is not one of them. It is simply an irresponsible reproduction of the dominant ideology. ‘Let me grow up and choose for myself’: let them grow up, indeed, but into reasonable people.

Learning from Sartre

In a recent post, I wrote of the difference between propositional and performative understandings of religion (more specifically, of Christianity). I explained that part of the problem facing most people today is that they are not born into a tradition of any kind. In the Western world, there used to be two great traditions of which the majority of people were an active member: Christianity and socialism. These were the days when ‘being’ a Christian and ‘being’ a socialist meant performing certain acts in tandem with holding certain beliefs. Creed was a material, practical affair. Today, on the contrary, these traditions no longer exist in the West in the same way in which they used to, and so the majority of people are condemned to confronting them in their abstract propositional form only. Whereas at one time being a socialist meant attending trade union meetings and organising worker education evenings, it now (more or less) means a student sat in halls of residence reading Marx. Put crudely, people used to do things and think things, but now they only think things.

Having never read much Sartre until recently, I was struck by his description of existentialism and its relation to the problem outlined above. By insisting that existence precedes essence – in other words, that we exist before we ourselves decide on what our essence as humans will be (Christian, atheist, agnostic, existentialist, Muslim etc.) – he’s effectively taking to its historical conclusion the fact of the severing of the performative from the propositional. Existential angst is what an honest suburban petit bourgeois who is trying to ‘become’ a Christian experiences almost every day, predominantly because for him Christianity is a choice. He has chosen to become a Christian. He existed, and then he himself founded his own essence, rather than his essence preceding him. Unless one is raised in a Christian family or a socialist family, it seems to me that to ignore this fact and the day-to-day consequences of it is to ignore the historical moment in which we find ourselves.

The repercussions of this for both Christianity and socialism are profound. When critics of Sartre point out that his worldview is merely a reflection of the grim social consequences of monopoly capitalism – a world of bourgeois monads confronting each other as potential competitors and strangers – they are correct. But just because Sartrean existentialism cannot be thought of as ahistorical is precisely not to say that it does not apply to our own epoch. If socialism and Christianity do not begin from this alienated present, then they are simply the nefarious ideologies which their enemies take them for.

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