Friday, June 22, 2007

messy, almost provoked

"I do not suggest that in the spring of 1914 English society was brilliant or anything of that sort: I think it was tired of being merely decent. One or two fine ladies had made open-mindedness and a taste for ideas fashionable: snobisme was doing the rest. And we may as well recognize, without more ado, that, Athens and Florence being things of the past, a thick-spread intellectual and artistic snobisme is the only possible basis for a modern civilization."


"Even before the war we were not such fools as to suppose that a new world would grow up in a night. First had to grow up a generation of civilized men and women to desire and devise it. That was where the intellectual dilletanti came it. Those pert and unpopular people who floated about propounding unpleasant riddles and tweaking up the law wherever it had been most solemnly laid down were, in fact, making possible the New Age. Not only did they set chattering the rich and gibbering with rage the less presentable revolutionaries, it was they wh poured out the ideas that filtered through to the trades-union class; and, if that class was soon to create and direct a brand-new State, it was high time that it should begin to handle the sort of ideas these people had to offer. Doubtless the trade-unionists would have developed a civilization sweeter and far more solid than that which flitted so airily from salon to studio, from Bloomsbury to Chelsea; before long, I dare say, they would have dismissed our theories as heartless and dry and absurd to boot; in the end, perhaps, they would have had our heads off—but not, I think, until they had got some ideas into their own. The war has ruined our little patch of civility as thoroughly as a revolution could have done; but, so far as I can see, the war offers nothing in exchange. That is why I take no further interest in schemes for social reconstruction."

Clive Bell, “Before the War.” 1917.

The above paragraphs, I think, summarize nicely the most important bits of Bell’s essay. There’s a remarkably poignancy, for me, in Bell’s whole perspective. He’s an intolerable snob, but he believes firmly that, although such snobisme as he practices is itself bad, it is still the best way to move forward with what is undeniably good. Of course, the ‘undeniably good’ is a purely experiential value. That is, for Bell, culture is good in so far as it provides a maximum of aesthetic experience. There can be no other serious criteria—which position is honest, beautiful, and, to me, totally unacceptable.

The ‘dilletanti’ tweaking the law, to whom he refers—it’s hard not to read them, if we’re going to be very historical, as the Bloomsbury kiddies who pulled the prank on the battleship. Any aspiring marxist would point out how meaningless this gesture was. Yes, navy officers are terribly ignorant and humorless—what do you want from the armed forces, poetry?

So the question, for me, is how to rescue a tone, a sort of moral self-positioning, from what I cannot help but regard as an ‘objectively’ reprehensible moral position. At the very least, it’s naive, it’s a political position taken with no reference to the experience—and let there be no mistake about it, for Bell, one cannot have a politique in the french sense of the word if one is not essentially concerned with experience—with no reference whatsoever to the experience of the laboring, benighted, luckless poor.

The position is perhaps salvageable now for the very reason that it is so hard to make any sense out of an abstract ‘poor.’ Even marxisant terms make no sense any more, at least to me. So if there is no unitary underclass, no single field determined by a defined set of social conditions, occupation of which could serve to mark an individual or sociability as part of ‘the underclass,’ then what the hell are we to do?

Certainly, one adopts irony as a working technique. It is bitter, it is mean. One must build a social theory which no where requires anything like ‘authenticity.’ It is a twisted word. One must learn to build—which is to say, imagine—a social world which enforces the GOOD, but is built not on truth, rather, on its negation. Not even a lie, simply the social fact of a dropped value. That is the meaning, I think, of snobisme as social progress. Finally, people begin to act right, even if it is for an utterly contingent, terribly fragile reason.

The lesson I want from Clive Bell is the jouissance of the ephemeral.

[i should have stopped there, but i didn't. in the interests of objectivity, such as it is, i preserve below the drivel with which I continued. (9.3.07)]


From a metacritical perspective, there are two ways to take one’s jouissance in the ephemeral. One is blind. There, in the image the protestant imperialist cast of the savage, one sees only that which is before one—always with the terrible, destabilizing suggestion that indeed, what the savage sees is all that there is. The route of vision relies, similarly, on a destruction of the space of subjectivity. One sees, one reacts. That is all. Therefore, vision, as a revelation of the world as it is, provokes ecstasy. Of course, in conversation, one would reject such an idea. One would scoff at the claim that there is such a thing as ‘the world as it is;’ and yet. In silence and solitude, it is hard to deny, short, at least, of paranoia, that the water of the individual washes always up against the shores of reality—and these days this is not so much an ocean around as island as a shrinking lake, provoked by intemperate winds, testing its earthen prison. Still, there is the foam at the top of the wave, there is the deep, the shallow, the sunset; there remain, even in our little lake, the drowned, the saved, and those who, paddling in good faith on the surface, know not what they do.

Clearly, there can be only one way to enter into jouissance outside of the metacritical. Yet, I think, this last is a myth. In the sense that it can never, has never happened. Yet, and this is the crucial thing about myths, it’s what people use to understand the world. So that, both of what I have called the ‘metacritical’ routes into jouissance are essentially mythic—they both are attempts to approximate this immediate, unmediated experience. That is to say, pure experience is never possible, but therefore neither is the 'once-removed-experience' of the metacritical.

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