Cultural Discourse looks at a broad range of cultural issues.
25th November 2014

New Book Out by John David Ebert: “Rage and the Word”

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This book is available on Amazon Kindle ebook

From Rage and the Word, an Excerpt

by John David Ebert

The desert gave birth to civilization.

Mesopotamia and Egypt both came into being in hot, dry desert climates alive with palm fronds, braying donkeys and the squeaking of shadufs drawing up water from wells. Camels, Bedouins, veils and dust: mud brick buildings, red granite cliffs, turquoise skies and crescent-shaped boats going up and down rivers and waterways. Canals splayed across the land like dendrites in a primitive nervous system shooting strips of water across muddy fields to nourish thin and spindly shafts of grain. Heat, flies and dusty pink horizons. Groves of date palms and tamarisk trees the only shelter from a burning disc in the heavens that settles at dusk to a glowing coal where the sky meets the earth.

Such is the world from out of which High Civilization emerged: mathematics and writing, astronomy and sculpture, monumental architecture and cylinder seals, gods and theogonies. A world of mental striations as topologically convoluted as a farmer’s network of fields interlaced by canals and ditches. A world of cracked plaster walls and crumbling roofs; of frayed reedwork boats and threadbare linen clothing; of cows, sheep and goats.

This is the world of the first great cities. But take note: it is also the world that gave birth to the three great monotheisms, founded by Moses, Jesus and Mohammed: all religions favored by the desert, and all inimical—utterly—to life in cities. The three monotheisms bear the hatred of cities within them like striations in woodgrain: the Bedouin’s antipathy to life in cities, for they were all born, these gods—this God—out in the red granite cliffs beneath sagging palm fronds where lizards dart across rocks. As the French theoretician Regis Debray put it: “The city closes man in on himself; the desert opens him up to the Other. The polytheist prefers the vegetal, embellishments and valleys; his despiser prefers the mineral, abrupt canyons, limestone cliffs limned with geological phantasmagoria.”[i]

The desert is the home of monotheism, as Ernst Renan once put it.

And monotheism is a type of religiosity that is inherently, and structurally, opposed to life in cities, for it is a religion of nomads and camel drivers; of goat-herders and men living in tents, like the prehistoric Jacob wandering with his sons across the desertscapes of Palestine. The 10th Commandment, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house,” may actually be an injunction to the nomad to keep his eyes on the grainy, shimmering horizons and the arcing wave-shaped, wind-blown dunes and away from the cities of the plain, nestled and secure within the mental wombs of their ancient protective gods.

And, just as in chaos theory, in which large effects ultimately result from very small initial conditions, so the monotheistic shepherd’s antipathy to cities will later become the general incommensurability of the Abrahamic worldview with science. The Scientific Civilization, also built by the West, is a civilization that comes out of life in cities, that is to say, the Medieval world of walled cities, towns and hamlets whose capitalistic metabolism nourished the very conditions out of which the scientific mentality could grow and thrive; the Monotheistic Society, though, is a world rooted in the horizontal life of nomads, goats, donkeys, camels and tents. Hence, in the Book of Genesis, Cain (whose name means “smith”) is cursed from the very beginning: nothing good, this text says, can come from technology or the worldview that leads to life in cities. Cain’s son Enoch is the builder of the world’s very first city, and his descendant Tubal-cain becomes the world’s first master of metallurgy. It is thus no coincidence that the Bible portrays Cain as the one who introduces murder into the world, for the Abrahamic vision thereby equates technology with cities, corruption and death. The city builder who, unlike the nomad, is locked into place and is therefore constrained to move vertically, can only ever give birth to his Towers of Babel, those impious and hubristic ladders to the heavens which confer on the city builder his heaven-storming arrogance.

Cain is the farmer; Abel the shepherd. But the excess produce of the farmer will require huge silos and storage buildings within which to store the grain, and soon, this will lead to the necessity for protective enclosures such as walls, armies and temples. One of the very first cities, in fact, the Samarran site of Tell es Sawwan (circa. 6000 BC), was nothing more than a collection of seven large storage silos for grain which, in later levels of the site, gave birth to a walled compound, one of the world’s first walled settlements, in fact. Gilgamesh was later regarded as a builder of walls, but the animal man Enkidu, on the other hand, climbs his way up from the deserts to the inside of the protective womb of Uruk itself: he was precisely the sort of dusty fellow that Gilgamesh had built his walls to keep out. However, Gilgamesh’s partnership with this proto-Martu was prophetic of the future of Near Eastern religion, which would unfold, not from the life of the city dweller, as in the days of the ancients, but from the dwellers in tents who had, from time immemorial, circled the cities as roving satellites. Gilgamesh was, in a sense, the lord of civilization’s past (hence, the true significance of his role as keeper of the dead, for the dead are merely bits of fossilized Past); while the future belonged to the Enkidus who claimed the world of cliffs and valleys, steppes and plains as their home.

The world’s most ancient deity of writing, the Sumerian goddess Nisaba, also happened to be the goddess of grain, for writing was originally invented in Sumer as a means of keeping track of economic flows going in and out of the temples: grain to this god and its priesthood; barley for that man and his fieldwork, etc. Thus, writing, like the first walls, and the farmer’s act of reaping and threshing and storing his grain, is part of the new womb-world of enclosures that the first cities brought into being.

But it is precisely such enclosures that the monotheistic shepherd blows apart: the Tower of Babel must be stopped by introducing foreign languages to break down its lines of communication so that it can no longer be built; the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah must be flattened by divine wrath for their incubation of bizarre and polymorphic forms of sexuality; the earliest cities themselves wrecked by a gigantic Flood, which washes them away like so much ruined silt and debris from the river’s ebb tide.

The monotheistic nomad, and his invisible God, wants nothing of enclosures, which recall too much of the womb and the Great Mother. He wants only open, endless vistas shimmering from one muddy horizon to the next; wants only the freedom to move about unconstrained and wander from one desert spring to the next; wishes only to follow the ancient desert trails of his Bedouin forebears who have tracked the endless, featureless wastes of the desert scrub before him.

For our blackboard, then, another formula: Bondage vs. Freedom; arborescence vs. mobility; submission to a king vs. the shattering visions of the Prophets.

Part Two: The Three Great Monotheisms

[i] Regis Debray, God: an Itinerary (London: Verso Books, 2004), 39.













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12th October 2014

Under Suspicion by Boris Groys

71lSkq2hiXLUnder Suspicion: A Phenomenology of Media by Boris Groys

A Review by John David Ebert

Boris Groys’ book Under Suspicion: A Phenomenology of Media is a book that was published in German in 2000, and was recently translated into English in 2012 by Columbia University Press. In many ways, it is a kind of sequel to his earlier 1992 book On the New, which I have reviewed on this site below the present entry.

In that earlier book, Groys had made the binary distinction between the two spheres of what he called the realm of cultural values (composed of cultural archives in the form of museums, libraries and other such institutions) and the realm of the profane, a sort of extra-cultural Other from which “the new” is always drawn, since every truly innovative work maintains a tension between a profane element and a dialogue with previous cultural values and models. The “value boundary” between the two is always being stretched and reevaluated as each new work of art challenges its previously held assumptions and forces it to integrate more and more of the profane, while earlier values may slip out of the archive into a demoted “profane” status.

In the new book, now, Groys shifts his attention to the realm of cultural values, where he finds yet another polarity that is internal to the realm of culture itself: the archives, which now have a slightly less “material” connotation than the previous book (since it is not “books” that are in the archives but rather “texts” and not “paintings” but rather “images”), are composed of what Groys terms “sign carriers,” (essentially his term for “media”) which have a sort of surface world of signifiers which he terms the “medial surface.” But this realm of medial surfaces is opposed by a sort of medial unconscious which Groys terms “sub-medial space,” which is a realm that, according to him is always “under suspicion” as harboring a kind of intra-subjectivity that he terms “the sub-medial Other.”

The sub-medial Other is easy to grasp when we think of it in terms of the imagery of popular movies: in Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist, for instance, it is only when the daily programming is turned off (hence the medial surfaces disappear) that a portal to sub-medial space opens up inside the television set from whence the sub-medial Other in the form of the various spooks that haunt the family emerge. In the Alien films of Scott and Cameron, the aliens are themselves depicted as hostile Others who have emerged from the depths of sub-medial space to trouble the protagonists with their sheerly aggressive and non-communicative attacks. (From Zizek’s Lacanian point of view, however, the aliens of these movies are incursions from the Real that destroy symbolic systems).

Thus, the realm of medial surfaces–the pages of books, the surfaces of paintings, the latest video gadget–is normally “under suspicion” as harboring a sub-medial realm beyond it from whence the medial surfaces themselves are thought to have emerged. There is always a certain paranoia regarding the ontological nature of this sub-medial space and how it is characterized by the various acquisitions into the cultural archive.

Groys articulates his idea of an economy of suspicion which he describes as being central to the process of expanding the archives: for only to the degree that a work is regarded as being “sincere” is it thought of as harboring a potentially “true” insight into the “real” nature of sub-medial space. For Groys, the sincere is that which is unusual, abnormal and different: it is only when people or cultures are constantly repeating refrains and cliched and stale formulae that we suspect them of being “insincere” and of therefore containing material not fit for inclusion into the archives. When, on the other hand, such formulae are disrupted by singularities or “the exceptional,” it is only then that a work becomes regarded as “suspicious” of harboring a potentially true insight into the archive, and the more “suspicious” it is, the longer it is likely to remain in the archive as a permanent acquisition providing some measure of insight into the ontological nature of sub-medial space.

Groys’ concepts are brilliant, but the book suffers from a lack of attention to concrete examples and specific analyses of media dynamics. It does contain a section in its second half which analyzes the economy of suspicion, but the section has little to do with specific media. The reader would like to know more about how particular media interact with the archive and its dynamics of suspicion.

Unfortunately, Groys does not seem to have mastered the domain of media studies enough to provide such an analysis, and it is a telling fact that his chapter on McLuhan is mostly derisory, thus revealing a): the all-too-common (and by now cliched) European bias against American thinkers as having any real cultural validity and b): Groys’ failure to integrate even the most basic tenets of media studies, a discipline that was founded by American thinkers in the early 1950s.

Groys instead offers a rather trite and over-simplified critique of McLuhan as simply representing a continuation into theory of the already existent Cubist avant-garde privileging of form over content, but this attempt to boil McLuhan down to merely one dimension makes it very convenient for Groys to dispense with him. Groys fails to take into account that McLuhan’s sensibilities were actually closer to those of Pop Art than to the Modernist avant-garde, with his analysis of such “profane” ready-mades as typewriters, computers, satellites, book and clothes (which bears a certain similarity to the introduction by Pop Artists into the realm of cultural values of such profane objects as Brillo Boxes and Coke bottles). McLuhan, in other words, was not a displaced Cubist painter, as Groys would have him, but a displaced Pop Artist.

Groys also fails to notice that it was actually McLuhan’s reading of Harold Innis that created media studies, not just the transplantation of the Modernist denial of narrative in favor of form to the world of theory, for it was Innis’s notion in his books Empire and Communications and The Bias of Communication that made McLuhan realize that the “medium is the message” since according to Innis, every form of communication such as clay or papyrus or print imparts its bias to the messages that travel through each particular medium. A civilization’s medial biases, furthermore, creates certain sensory biases within these civilizations as a whole, such as the bias toward the hand and the ear in the Medieval epoch or a bias toward the abstraction of the eye in the age of perspectival space. All of this, alas, is lost on Groys who seems not to have bothered doing his media studies homework. The reader has the impression that he has only ever bothered to read precisely one media studies book (albeit the most important one), namely, Understanding Media, and nothing else in the field of American media studies, which includes, in addition to Harold Innis, the very fertile works of Walter Ong, Eric Havelock, Albert B. Lord, Neil Postman and many, many others. Groys, in addition, seems to have failed to notice in his dismissal of McLuhan that without McLuhan, his own book Under Suspicion: a Phenomenology of Media wouldn’t even exist. Since Groys is generally positive toward nearly every other thinker which he references in his book, it becomes especially glaring that in a book which purports to belong to the field of media studies, Groys can’t even pay proper respect to its founding genius. It’s easy to dismiss what one doesn’t fully understand.

In short, this book must largely be regarded as a failure. There are one or two brilliant ideas in it–as is always the case with Groys–but they fail to add up to much and there is so little fleshed out in the way of specific or concrete examples that one is left to conclude that Groys is trying to pull a fast one here: he’s written a book on media studies without having studied enough media to make his points.

Better luck next time, Mr. Groys.

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7th October 2014

Boris Groys: On the New

jpegOn the New by Boris Groys

Reviewed by John David Ebert

Boris Groys is a Russian theoretician displaced to Germany (and also to NYU) whose works are only just now being made available in English. His book On the New, originally written by him in Russian and then rewritten in German and published in Germany in 1992, has been recently translated into English by Verso Books. Groys is a formidable thinker, and his books deserve wider recognition in the English-speaking world. Perhaps, like the recent spate of Peter Sloterdijk translations, his hour in the Anglo world is at hand.

In On the New, Groys articulates a theory of artistic and cultural innovation by designing a sort of theoretical difference engine built out of the polar opposition between two spheres: on the one hand, there is the sphere of what he variously terms the realm of cultural values or the cultural archive, and on the other, that of the “profane” realm that is opposed to it. There lies a kind of weak, shifting membrane between these two zones which Groys terms the “value boundary,” a boundary that is always shifting with the advent of “the new.”

Now, according to Groys, every new work of art that constitutes a true innovation–and for him, these are the only works which count, since it is precisely innovative works that will eventually be taken up into the cultural archive constituted by museums, libraries, universities and other such institutions as permanent acquisitions into the “cultural memory”–every such work of art constitutes an innovation insofar as it bears within it a tension, more or less great, between elements from the profane realm and elements from the realm of cultural values and tradition. These two elements are never synthesized or hybridized but exist in a sort of irreconcilable opposition that confers on them their strangeness, and hence their newness.

Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 ready-made Fountain, for instance, contains an obvious “profane” element in the form of the urinal, but this profane element does not exist in pure form, since it is filtered through a dialogue with the cultural tradition in the Western memory of other such fountains like those of the Renaissance or the Enlightenment. Duchamp’s work, though, consists of what Groys calls a “negative adaptation” to the tradition insofar as it overturns all such previous models (in this case, literally, since the fountain was exhibited upside-down). A “positive adaptation” would consist of following and dialoguing with such pre-existent models in more direct fashion. Thus, the new work of art forces a revaluation of previously held ideas about the realm of the profane, causing the value boundary to shift toward including ever more and more elements from the profane world as twentieth-century art has unfolded.

As another example, Malevich’s Black Square of 1915 contains within it the profane element of the square which is held in tension with the cultural tradition of the mystical contemplation of the Void. The works of Kandinsky, furthermore, contain the profane element of blobs of colors and forms held in tension with what Kandinsky called “the spiritual” in art. And so forth. (At first glance, the theory bears a suspicious resemblance to Heidegger’s opposition of “world” vs. “earth”).

New works of art, then, take up elements from the profane world and “valorize” them, so that they cross over the value boundary and are taken up into the sphere of culture where, however, they do not necessarily remain permanently valorized. The trick with Groys’ two spheres is that they are unstable and are constantly undergoing transformation as new works of art pick up previously valorized works which have been tossed onto the midden heap where they are devalorized and then picked up once again by later artists who revalorize them. It is a constant process which Groys calls “innovative exchange.” The works of Picasso, for instance, are valorized during Modernism, but when the age of Reproduction comes along, they are disseminated through mechanical reproduction into the kitsch of coffee cups, T-shirts and home reproductions where they are devalorized and rendered profane once again. An artist like Mike Bidlo comes along during the epoch of contemporary art, and through his forgeries and plagiarizations, revalorizes Picasso by inserting him back into the realm of cultural values. Or else, the devalorization of great works of art a la Walter Benjamin’s theory of the aura being depleted by mechanical reproduction are later revalorized by New York Pop Art, in which Andy Warhol assigns a new ontological status to the copy or the serial reproduction, and thus lifts it out of the sphere of the profane and puts it back into the realm of cultural values. And so on.

To the postmodern insistence that with the rupture away from Modernism, the truly “new” is no longer possible, since so much of contemporary art is about recycling motifs and signifiers from the past, Groys responds to two different version of this assertion: in the one case, it is asserted that the sphere of the profane no longer exists since the sphere of culture has completely absorbed it, and thus, with the absorption of the profane by culture, the new is no longer possible. To this assertion, Groys rejoins that it is impossible for the sphere of the profane ever to be fully integrated or depleted by the sphere of culture, since what was previously considered “culture” might be considered “profane” today. The definition of what is “culture” as opposed to what is “profane” is thus always changing and exists only from a relative point of view.

The other assertion that the new is no longer possible maintains that culture has aggressively suppressed and triumphed over the profane through mass dissemination in the form of new technical media such as radio, television, movies, etc. which have “replaced” it with simulacra. To which Groys responds that, once a signifier or motif moves from the sphere of culture into the sphere of the profane, it loses its value as culture and becomes altogether profane. Benjamin’s point about the loss of the aura of an original work of art as it is disseminated through mechanical reproduction makes precisely this point. More recently, we might think of Neil Postman’s assertion that there is no such thing as “educational television.” Any idea, lecture, interview, etc. that is broadcast on television is automatically transformed into entertainment, so for Postman there was no such thing as educational television. Such media do not propagate cultural values at all, but rather degrade them to the level of the profane.

Thus, it is impossible either for culture ever to completely absorb the realm of the profane, just as it is not possible for the profane to be overcoded by culture since anything that transmigrates into its sphere is immediately stripped of its cultural values and is degraded and devalorized to its level.

Now at this point it should be stated that what Groys means by “profane” is a very large, sort of catch-all concept for just about anything that is opposed to the realm of cultural values. The profane for Groys does not just mean banalities and trivialities, but also works of art that have not yet been, or may never be, canonized due to their triviality or lack of originality (and yes, for Groys, this includes “popular culture”). But it also includes the sign regimes of the “cultural memories” of other people’s cultures. For what constitutes one people’s cultural archive might be merely a profane midden heap from the point of view of another culture. Thus, Modernist Art appropriates the African mask from the “profane” realm of African art, where it had a sacred and religious context, while integrating it into Modernist Art for its sculptural qualities, and leaving aside its sacred qualities. The cultural archive of the Native Americans, likewise, was considered “profane” by the Europeans who arrived to begin pillaging it and integrating its signifiers into their own cultural memory system.

The profane, furthermore, always has an aura about it of power and threat to the cultural archive. It is precisely from the profane that the destruction of one’s cultural archive may come (paradoxically, the profane is also always the source of the “new”). Thus, to remove elements and signifiers from the realm of the profane and to transfer them into the realm of cultural values is an act of neutralization that captures and puts a magic spell on them so that they are no longer threatening.

The profane also includes, however, the hidden metaphysical reality, an extra-cultural other, that acts to move culture along as a sort of external mechanism. This would include those ideas from the metaphysical age of hidden forces such as Hegel’s Absolute Spirit or Marx’s class struggle or even Heidegger’s Being or the Jungian unconscious that act as hidden realities beyond both culture and the profane. Earlier theories of art from the metaphysical age thus conceived of the work of art as a revelation of one or another of these hidden realities, but in the post-metaphysical age, with the breakdown of the axial relationship of the signifier to the transcendental signified of Truth, there is no longer any sure way of accessing this hidden realm and therefore no certain way of getting at Truth. Contemporary art is, therefore, evaluated on the basis of works of art in relation not to a hidden metaphysical realm of truth, but simply to other works of art in the cultural archive.

The main problem with Groys’ theory, then, though it is a brilliant one, is that his concept of the profane is overly-freighted with too many heterogeneous meanings to make the concept serve as anything much more than a counter-concept to “cultural value.” The theory also suffers from a sort of black and white idea about works of art either being profane or culturally valuable, whereas in reality, this is all a matter of degree. That Groys does not take popular culture seriously is a major failing of his theory: he insists that no cultures have ever canonized “low culture,” which is always identified with the profane, but since this is demonstrably false (the Greek novel, for instance, began as a work of pop culture; or the Arthurian Romances) it does not bode well for the maintenance of the absolute polar tension between Groys’ two spheres of culture vs. the profane. Derrida would have had fun deconstructing Groys’ difference engine by showing that the profane and the culturally valuable are not quite so capable of clear separation and demarcation as Groys’ value boundary would suggest. Is a graphic novel a work of cultural value or is it profane? What about a Hollywood movie? A film by David Cronenberg?

Groys’ Achilles heel would thus seem to be the concept of the Derridean undecidable, that which is not either / or but rather both/ and, the presence of which would indeed dismantle and deconstruct Groys’ system. (Jazz music might function as such an undecidable that would disrupt Groys’ system; or perhaps a J.G. Ballard novel). Groys was trained as a mathematician, and his thinking is marred by the mathematician’s general intolerance for ambiguities and gray areas. Ironically, Groys is fond of citing Derrida, but he does not seem to have understood or to have integrated Derrida’s concept of the undecidable into his system.

Groys does somewhat compensate, however, for this either / or mentality with his idea of innovative exchange, in which the two spheres are completely unstable, and so what is considered as culturally valuable at one point might be devalorized into the junk heap of the profane the next. The Christians, for instance, devalorized the pagan tradition and the monks who went out to live in the deserts of Egypt thus shifted the profane wilderness into their own newly constructed cultural archive. When a particular monk lived in the profane circumstances of a cave, all of his profane relics were later gathered up after his death and placed into the cultural archive, just as a church was often built atop or near the cave to translate its profanity into the realm of cultural values.

Thus, for Groys, the signifiers of art and culture are undergoing a constant process of recycling from one sphere to the next and so few cultural values ever remain “permanent” for very long. The new is always challenging the institutions of the archive of one culture or another to reassess their previous values, and so the “new” is a constant game of the revaluation of values.

In short, Groys might be flawed (what thinker isn’t?) but he is never superficial and his ideas are difficult and complex to wrestle with. Contemplation of him will immeasurably expand your theoretical horizons, and I highly recommend reading this brilliant Russian thinker.

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3rd October 2014

On Catherine Malabou’s Ontology of the Accident


Ontology of the Accident: An Essay on Destructive Plasticity

by Catherine Malabou

Reviewed by John David Ebert

Catherine Malabou is a French philosopher whose recent text Ontology of the Accident was published in France in 2009 and translated into English by Polity Press in 2012. It is short, under one hundred pages, and very readable.

The central concept of the text, “destructive plasticity,” is coined by Malabou to refer to the event of a sudden traumatic rupture in one’s life in which a second, alternate self, that is wholly other to the preceding personality, comes into being with certain structural characteristics that demarcate it as a distinct personality from the previous one. It is an idea that she contrasts with “creative plasticity,” since “plasticity” as it is used in the various sciences always has positive connotations of flexibility, learning, the growing of new neuronal connections, etc. As we age, we lose this very plasticity as we become more and more resistant to change and the mind becomes less and less labile and capable of learning new things. The state of those afflicted by an event of “destructive plasticity,” however, does not involve learning or the ability to grow at all, but represents rather a complete shutting down of the personality into disaffection and emotional coldness.

Destructive plasticity refers to the irruption of a sudden catastrophic trauma or event into one’s life which bifurcates the self with the mark of a lesion: a car accident, let’s say, or a divorce, or an event that is too emotionally difficult to successfully integrate into the personality and which calls forth the creation of a second, colder personality which exists in lieu of the possibility of escaping the trauma, like Daphne when she flees from Apollo but can no longer flee and so transforms into a tree. Her interior self remains, but the exterior shell has undergone transformation, just as befell Gregor Samsa one fine morning when he awoke to find himself transformed, inscrutably, into a man-sized insect.

The concept, at first glance, seems to be a useful one. However, Malabou makes the mistake of narrowing its focus when she gives as illustrative examples the case of brain-injured patients who evince a certain emotional apathy and indifference, both to their new, ruptured selves and to others around them. Such patients, when (and if) they return to “normal” lives with their spouses, no longer seem to respond in emotionally satisfying ways to the needs of their husbands or wives, whereas the earlier personality might have been responsive and empathetic. There is a certain coldness and indifference about this new personality that has resulted from the bifurcation of “destructive plasticity.”

All well and good, but the reader begins to scratch his head when he wonders how such emotionally cold and indifferent victims of brain trauma would also apply to those who create new identities after a divorce or some other such trauma, such as job loss, which the book’s introduction implied that the concept was designed to cover. Porn stars, for instance, do indeed seem to undergo the creation of new personalities when they leave the business and become too old (at 27 or 28) to continue starring in such films, and there is a marked coldness and lack of empathy for their previous sex-addicted selves, but it seems difficult to draw a parallel to the creation of such a new personality with the kinds of pathological examples that Malabou gives when describing those injured by brain traumas.

Furthermore, Malabou proceeds to unleash a whole group of examples of destructive plasticity which become more and more puzzling as the narrative proceeds. For example, she insists that her model could be used to understand ageing, which is typically seen as a slow and gradual process of loss of plasticity, loss of genital cathexes and a compensatory withdrawal into pre-genital narcissism, in which the elderly person’s loss of libidinal plasticity is compensated for by a withdrawal into selfishness and self-preoccupation as ties to family members fade. The withdrawal of an elderly person, however, into coldness and indifference to others around them (and this is hardly the case for EVERY elderly person) hardly seems isomorphic to the kinds of severely pathological emotional withdrawal and disaffection of those injured by brain traumas. After all, doesn’t “destructive plasticity” by definition refer to abnormal and pathological states, or at least, to the creation of new identities that are “wholly other” when contrasted with previous identities? Ageing in general is hardly pathological and would even seem to be the definition of normality. There is a confusion in this book between the the very categories of “universal” and “particular” that mars the narrative with a certain aleatory randomness.

The structural features that result from the creation of the type of identity that emerges in the process of destructive plasticity would seem to have characteristics that make it apply to rather specific and narrow cases and NOT, as the introduction to the book had implied, to the more general cases of people creating new identities after divorces or job loss or car accidents. Such features, as Malabou defines them, include an emotionally cold and vacant personality that is disconnected from all erotic assemblages and sign regimes, existing in the cold void of being-there without actual BEING or conscious awareness of the pathological state that one now finds oneself inhabiting. Well and good, but such a state, Malabou insists is “meaningless” and belongs to a consciousness that is totally disconnected from all systems of meaning whatsoever. Once again, this hardly seems applicable to the creation of new identities that result from such standard life events as divorce, job loss, loss of a loved one, etc. The identities of such post-traumatic selves do not seem to inhabit a meaningless sphere of disconnection and disaffection from everyone else around them. Such people find new meaning in their lives all the time, and indeed the finding of such new meanings, as in the case of AA meetings and so forth, would seem to form the very ontological basis upon which the construction of a new self rests. Such new selves are simply new identities with new characteristics that demarcate them from previous identities, but they can hardly be said to exist in a meaningless vacuum of indifference toward others like the brain-traumatized patients she exemplifies in her model. Alzheimer’s patients, maybe. Widows and divorcees? Hardly.

So I think Malabou makes a huge mistake here when she invents what at first appears to be such a useful concept and then proceeds to narrow the concept to apply both to particular and pathological instances such as people with brain injuries, and, at the same time, to such universal and common experiences as ageing. The concept would seem to be, to say the least, extremely muddled and confused.

It is also very French. Malabou’s disaffected self that exists in a state of meaningless being, cold and remote from connection with all other humans, would seem to be shaped by classic French nihilism. Her post-traumatic self is that of a self that is characterized by bleakness, coldness and absolute icy remoteness. While I’m not disputing the existence of such identities, to try and generalize them to include the post-traumatic subjectivities of the divorced and the broken-hearted would seem not to work at all.

The concept, in other words, more or less deconstructs itself and the reader is left at the end feeling cheated by a po-mo nihilism that fails to deliver on the promise set up in the book’s introduction.

Oh well.

To quote the words of the character Ballard at the end of David Cronenberg’s Crash: “Maybe next time.”






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26th March 2014

On Thomas Pynchon’s First Novel “V.”

A Look Back at Thomas Pynchon’s V.

An Essay by John David Ebert


Thomas Pynchon’s 1963 first novel V. is not so much a novel as a series of short novels held together by hinges: the book is composed of 17 chapters (or 16 + an epilogue), seven of which are short novels having to do with the mysterious woman known as “V” while the other chapters function as jointures—like Heidegger’s jointures in his Contributions to Philosophy—which hinge the other seven together. Thus, the book is meant to be symbolically “unfolded” and opened up in a manner similar to the way the wings of a Medieval triptych—also hinged–are opened to reveal a series of panels, each chronicling one or another Biblical iconotype. (Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece of about 1430 is a classic example).

There are thus two narrative arcs: the main picture panels—as it were—associated with the attempts of one Herbert Stencil to fathom the mystery of the woman named V, while the other is composed of the random and chaotic motions of a group of artists and beatniks who call themselves the Whole Sick Crew. Benny Profane, though he has no talents whatsoever to speak of, is the main character associated with this arc, who bounces from job to job and from lover to lover in an endless sequence of hilarious episodes. At one point, in a mock heroic miniaturization of the dragon-slayer myth, Pynchon has him hired on to hunt alligators in the New York sewer system.

Stencil and Profane, between them, then, rehearse the Western philosophical dialectic of the intelligible vs. the sensible worlds, for Stencil, as his name implies, is always sifting through texts looking for meaning, projecting his various theoretical templates onto world history in order to make sense out of it, while Profane—again as the name implies—couldn’t care less about anything, and simply drifts from one aimless adventure to the next, absolutely unaware of the presence of the Higher Mind and all its attempts to translate mere empirical experience into the transcendence of systems of meaning and order. Whereas Stencil yearns for the transcendence of dissolution into the body of the Great Mother, Profane remains a lost and alienated fragment of contemporary consciousness mired in the sense data of the fallen world.

Together, then, they compose the mind and senses of the human physical body in both its animal and suprahuman modalities. If V as modern incarnation of the Great Mother is the body, they are the twin components of senses and intellect which inhabits it in the form of an animate human soul.

The two narrative arcs of the novel therefore trace out their own letter “V” which only come together when Stencil and Profane join forces near the novel’s conclusion in order to travel to the island of Malta, where Stencil thinks he might actually meet the woman named V in person. Needless to say, this doesn’t happen, for at novel’s end Stencil is off to Europe to pursue another clue, while Profane drifts into yet another love entanglement that we know isn’t going to get him anywhere, since Pynchon has gone to great pains to detail for the reader how incapable of love Profane really is.

It is a novel, in other words, without an Event, in either the Heideggerian or Badiouean senses of the term. (For Alain Badiou, an event creates a subject through the subject’s fidelity to a happening of truth, such as quantum physics or the French Revolution; whereas for the later Heidegger, Being itself is an event in which entities are unconcealed in the Clearing in a new way, by poets or thinkers or artists, which sets up new parameters of intelligibility for the Clearing of the culture as a whole).


Herbert Stencil is a sort of scholar who is obsessed with solving the mystery of the identity of a woman whose first initial, V., appears in his father’s journals. His father Sidney was a spy for the British government at the turn of the century, a fact which places Herbert in the tradition of the literary sleuth who gathers clues for the reader to assemble into causal sequence in order to solve a crime. V may, in fact, be Stencil’s mother; he doesn’t know for sure. But then, he doesn’t know anything for certain. He is a middle-aged man who spends his time poring through texts and historical documents, such as letters and journals, interviewing people who may or may not have known this woman, seeking to uncover her identity. He never finds out, though, just exactly who she is, since every time her name comes up, it has changed: at first, it is Victoria Wren; later it becomes Veronica Manganese, Vera Meroving and, at one point, even Veronica the Rat. He is never even certain of her name: only that it begins with the twenty-second letter of the alphabet.

Each of the seven mini-novels—which are all constructions of Stencil’s, based on his research–takes place at a moment of historical crisis. The first one is set in 1898 during the so-called Fashoda crisis, in which the British and the French nearly went to war over their respective colonialist claims in Egypt. V first appears there in the guise of the young woman named Victoria Wren, the girlfriend of a spy named Goodfellow. She also has an eleven year old sister named Mildred, who has a penchant for collecting rocks, minerals and fossils, a fact not unconnected with V’s later fate (although we never hear of Mildred again).

The third of the mini-novels—after a short one involving an insane priest who tries to convert rats in the New York sewers into his flock–takes place in Florence in 1899, where V appears once again as Victoria Wren, only now associated with a plot to steal Botticelli’s painting The Birth of Venus from the Uffizi gallery. But the plot is entangled with the politics of a Venezuelan uprising, during which Victoria listens to the story of a man named Hugh Godolphin—loosely modeled on H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain—who tells her of his journeys to a mysterious land known as Vheissu that vaguely resembles myths of Shambhala, and of his journey to the South Pole where he encountered, frozen in the ice at the pole, an upside down spider monkey (in place of which Dante, the first to travel through the earth’s core, found Satan, hanging like a bat upside down).  Godolphin insists to his listener that the spider monkey meant Absolutely Nothing and indeed, mocked all attempts at meaning, a sort of cosmic joke at his expense.

It thus becomes apparent to the reader very early on that the letter “V” is a sliding signifier in Pynchon’s narrative, a signifier which could refer to the various signifieds of Victoria Wren, Vheissu, Venus, Vesuvius or even Venezuela. As Derrida might point out, the letter V is a signifier whose meaning is uncontrolled by any firm anchorage in a Transcendental Signified, and it has therefore come loose, as it were, from any apparatus of semiotic capture and gone sliding across the pages of Pynchon’s book, constantly deferring and differing in its meaning wherever it appears. It has become a mere trace  that is left over from the logocentric age in which its meaning would have been fixed and captured in some binary system of metaphysical origin. But Pynchon’s V is an escaped signifier running amok through his narrative.

In the fourth mini-novel, which is set in South Africa in 1922, a story which Stencil recounts to a dentist named Eigenvalue (in the mode of Conrad’s Marlow recounting one of his long tales to a pipe-smoking listener as the evening sun melts into the horizon), V surfaces as one Vera Meroving, a woman with a glass eye that has a tiny clockface painted onto its iris, during a revolt of the Bondel tribesmen against their German oppressors. The episode is somewhat of a replay of an earlier historical episode set in 1904, during which the Germans brutally suppressed a revolt of the Herrero tribesmen in one of their South African colonies, genocidally exterminating most of the tribesmen. Here, the revolt of the Bondel tribesmen fares somewhat better, and the mini-novel’s protagonist, Kurt Mondaugen, an electrical engineer who witnesses the revolt, heads for the hills and disappears at the end.

In the fifth mini-novel, this time set during the bombing raids on the island of Malta during World War II, and known as a diary entitled “The Confessions of Fausto Maijstral,” which Stencil gives (or recounts) to Benny Profane, the woman named V turns up as an even more mysterious personage known only as the Bad Priest. She drifts around Malta giving anti-Catholic sermons to groups of gathered children, who listen to her with bemusement. During a bombing raid, a building collapses upon her, and the children find her there, pinned beneath the rubble: by this point, she has become a veritable cyborg and they make off with her prosthetic feet, her glass eye, the sapphire sewn into her navel, and a set of false teeth in which each tooth is made out of a different precious metal.

She may, or may not have died in this rubble, but Stencil sets off, toward the novel’s conclusion, together with his schlemihl companion Benny Profane, to modern day Malta (in 1956, during yet another historical crisis, in this case that of the Suez crisis) in order to find her. He has managed to convince Profane to steal the set of metallic teeth from the dentist Eigenvalue (who had somehow inherited it), and Stencil intends to give them to her as a present. Of course, when they get to the island, Stencil finds nothing but “traces” left behind by V’s absence and more clues, which send him off on yet another quest for answers, while Profane entangles himself in another pointless love affair.

There are two other mini-novels concerning V—such as one that takes place in Paris in July of 1913, just before the outbreak of World War I, in which she is known as the “Lady V.,” who falls in love with a ballerina—but the key thing about each is that it is set during a moment of historical crisis. Indeed, V has a knack for turning up at just those moments in the history of Western civilization in which collective violence is about to break out.

And she turns up, furthermore, in each of these contexts, as they evolve over time, with more and more of her anatomy having fused with what Pynchon in the novel terms the “Inanimate.” In 1898, it is only her sister Mildred who is concerned with collecting bits of the inanimate in the form of fossils and shells; in 1899 V has an ivory comb in the shape of a line of crucified British soldiers in her hair; and  in 1913, she already has the glass eye, as well as a sapphire sewn into her navel; by 1943, she is a cyborg complete with prosthetic appendages, tattoos and various bits of the Inanimate fused with her physical flesh. The mini-novels, in other words, whatever their Truth value—since they come from unreliable sources and narrators—tell the story of V’s descent into mechanization, a descent that most deliberately parallels the West’s descent as a whole into total mechanization and automation throughout the course of the twentieth century. It is, furthermore, not an accident that this increasing technologization of the West occurs in tandem with scenes of historical violence, since Pynchon is implying that the West’s mechanization has only contributed to brutalizing its sensibilities.

On the one hand, the letter V may be a floating signifier in the narrative, where it can signify all sorts of things (its meaning, therefore, cannot be precisely pinned down), but on the other, the woman V herself, as an image, actually is a Transcendental Signified: namely, the Muse of Western Civilization, who has gone by many names.

And one of those names, of course, is the Virgin.


So, one of the things that Pynchon is doing in this novel is what I would term a “recoding” of the goddess of Western Civilization, i.e. the Virgin Mary, into a sort of Muse of the Machine. Henry Adams, in his autobiography (which we know Pynchon read) insisted in “The Dynamo and the Virgin” that the hall of dynamos that he stood in awe before at the Great Exhibition in Chicago of 1893 was a contemporary equivalent of the same power, force and majesty of the cult of the Virgin that, during the Middle Ages, brought all the great cathedrals into being. The electrical dynamo, in other words, had replaced the Virgin as the primary symbol for the age.

Indeed, we can go even further than Adams and say that the Virgin, in essence, was the cathedral, which functioned in those days as a mighty apparatus of semiotic capture: if you cracked open a cathedral, what you found inside were the various components of saints, altars, niches and stained glass windows. If you were to cut open the body of Pynchon’s V, on the other hand, you would find diodes, cathode tubes, transistors and various mechano-electric components. The primary apparatus of semiotic capture for each age, then, has shifted from the Virgin to V, a.k.a. the Mechanical Bride, as McLuhan dubbed her. Pynchon has taken the Virgin as the West’s most important Transcendetal Signified and recoded, or reterritorialized her to become the Mistress of the Inanimate as Machine. Today’s revelation is not the cathedral, but the Machine as a world unto itself.

Indeed, this recoding or reterritorializing of the goddess has taken place before in the history of the West, several times, in fact. In an earlier incarnation, she was known to the Egyptians as Isis, the mother of the young child Horus, whom she kept on her lap exactly as the Virgin is later depicted with the Christ child on her lap (see image below). Indeed, the Byzantines, around the year 600 took Isis with the Horus child directly from the sands and broken temples of Egypt (the temple of Isis at Philae was shut down in 560 A.D. and reconsecrated to the Virgin) to become one of the main iconotypes of Byzantine art, just as that art itself had been a reterritorialization of the Roman art of painting funerary portraits on Egyptian coffins in places like the Faiyum in the fourth and fifth centuries. The anonymous individuals of those funerary portraits gradually became, as Hans Belting in his book Likeness and Presence has described it, the various saints and Biblical figures comprising the matter of Byzantine icon painting.

So, that was the first reterritorialization of the goddess, in which Isis became Mother Mary, the blue of whose robes was associated with the heavenly vault, just as the red in those same robes became the blood of Christ mapped onto the setting sun in that very same heavenly sky.

After the Fourth Crusade of 1204 AD, the West began to import the art of the Byzantine icons in vast profusion. The iconotype of the Virgin with the Christ child on her lap became the main iconotype (or as Derrida would prefer “Transcendental Signified”) of the age. The body of the Virgin was inflated to the size of a Gothic cathedral, inside which Christ on the Cross became an embryo. And just as Christ was imagined as being on the inside of his Mother’s body, so we too, as worshippers, were contained in Her womb.

But the Virgin was recoded once again during the Renaissance of the fifteenth century when, with the discovery of the laws of perspectival space, the tiny, dollhouse miniature world of the previous art went down the drain and took most of the Medieval iconotypes with it. The Virgin, however—together with God Himself—managed to survive into the new age in which the primary Transcendetal Signified became that of Infinite Space. The Virgin was recoded by Leonardo in his 1504 Mona Lisa (Mona is a contraction of “Madonna”) as the Mistress of Infinite Space, for the key thing about Leonardo’s painting isn’t so much the woman in the foreground as the backdrop of Infinite Space behind her that nearly swallows her up. Other painters, such as Isenbrandt in his 1510 (or so) Rest on the Flight Into Egypt (shown below) or Gerard David’s 1515 version of this same theme, soon follow Leonardo by setting the actual Virgin back into a quaint landscape with distant horizons and vanishing points suggestive of the absolute Infinity of Endless Space, the new Signified of the later metaphysical age.

And so, one of the vectors, anyway, of Pynchon’s novel is to chronicle this transformation of Western sensibilities from an orientation to the possibilities of Infinite Space to that of the possibility of Infinite Machines.


But, of course, there still remains that problem in Pynchon’s narrative with Truth. For all of Stencil’s texts and documents which he uses to reconstruct the history of V. are questionable, and seem to contain distortions, exaggerations and rumors. The floating signifier of the V becomes associated in these documents with so many things—places, people, entities—that the reader, after a while, begins to question the very value of what Stencil is up to. Perhaps he is merely paranoid. Perhaps there is no V except only in the mind of Herbert Stencil. We can never know for sure.

This aspect of Pynchon’s narrative is what marks his novel as a thoroughly postmodern one, for the more Stencil examines V through all his collecting and gathering of documents—like Isis trying to find all the pieces of the scattered body of Osiris—the further she recedes from his grasp, and the more doubts the reader has about his quest. But this perfectly parallels Gadamer’s insistence, in his 1960 work of philosophy called Truth and Method, that there is no such thing as the text-in-itself—just as, according to Kant, the thing-in-itself is forever out of our reach because all our knowledge is predetermined in advance by the limitations of the mind’s faculties—for the text, as an objective understanding of its author’s original intentions, cannot ever be fully reconstructed. Historical layers of preconceptions and biases of each age get in the way of reaching any such purely objective understanding, and so all knowledge of the text, for Gadamer, is merely a function of each age’s attempt to understand the text anew. There is no text-in-itself, and so there is no objective Truth.

Gadamer’s conclusions are, of course, a direct application of Heidegger’s revolutionary theory of truth as aletheia, in which truth shifts from a correspondence theory of ideas matching facts, to a matter of degrees of unconcealment of entities in the Clearing. There is no such thing as a merely binary understanding of truth for Heidegger, since every entity that unconceals itself for us in the Clearing—his term for the intellectual space of encounter between entities in a civilization—does so by showing us only partial aspects of itself, while other aspects simultaneously withdraw into concealment. Every question we put to an entity causes certain of its aspects to unconceal themselves to us, but at the same time, also causes other aspects not addressed by those particular questions to fall off the radar, where they remain concealed in the dark matter of Being. (Awaiting, perhaps, the day in which the proper questions will be asked of them that will pull them forth into unconcealment).

This is simply the nature of Truth in the postmodern age. It is an exact equivalent, in philosophy, of the attempt to measure particles in quantum theory. Every measurement, in Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, actually disturbs the particle in such a way that it is impossible ever to get a fully “objective” reading of both position and speed of the particle.

And so, Stencil’s attempt, likewise, to unconceal the mystery of V through his various texts and documents causes her to recede and withdraw ever more thoroughly away from his grasp. V thus becomes a symbol for Truth in the post-metaphysical age of Heidegger and Gadamer. She is a Heideggerian entity withdrawing into concealment in the Clearing, precisely in proportion to how many questions Stencil puts to her. The more we ask of her, the less we know.

And this is a phenomenon that recurs throughout all of Pynchon’s texts, a phenomenon we might call “Pynchon’s Paradox.”


Finally, from a media studies viewpoint, let us not forget that the title of Pynchon’s first novel is not “V” but rather “V.” with a period typed after the twenty-second letter of the alphabet. The font and typeface looks exactly like the letter V as typed by a typewriter, a machine that rendered the Gutenbergian printing press portable so that, as McLuhan put it in Understanding Media, the typewriter enabled both composition and publication to take place simultaneously during the writer’s creative process. Thus, the title refers to the fact that it was the Semitic alphabet that made possible the unfolding of letters into moveable type during the fifteenth century when the printing press was invented as a means of mechanizing the composition of books.

But the alphabet, as Vilem Flusser pointed out, (or rather alphabetic writing) was part of a gobbling up of the mythic world of images by their organization into commentaries in rows of lines of one-dimensional text by the Greeks and the Hebrews, who invented alphabetic writing as a means of criticizing and analyzing and breaking mythical images apart into pieces (just as V in Pynchon’s narrative has fallen, like Humpty Dumpty, from the wall and shattered into the various pieces which Stencil is attempting to put back together again). The alphabet was a machine for chewing up images—indeed, the interior row of metal keys of a typewriter resembles nothing so much as a mouth full of teeth—and gave rise to the texts of the scientific age (along with its correspondence theory of truth as adequatio of ideas with things).

But in the post-Gutenbergian (McLuhan), posthistoric (Flusser) world of today, writing and linearity have been scaled down and peripheralized by the rise of electric media such as the television and the computer. The visual sense which printed writing favors in abstraction from all other senses has been stepped down, while the acoustic and tactile senses have been stepped up. Thus, the acceleration into light speed causes a reversal of letters back into the sculptural, tactile and mythic qualities of the iconic.

Pynchon, in his novel V., transforms the 22nd letter of the alphabet into an icon, in a way that is perfectly consistent with his age’s shift into posthistoric imagistic media. V the alphabetic letter has become associated with the ancient mythical signified of the Virgin goddess, and so the letter V can best be visualized as standing in a landscape on a horizon as a gigantic sculpture casting its own shadow on the ground before it. V, in Pynchon’s narrative, that is to say, has taken on the tactile and imagistic qualities of a mythical icon, like a Byzantine Madonna. It is a letter of the alphabet no more.

The letter V is, of course, an archaic Paleolithic inscription for the mons pubis above the goddess’s vaginal cleft (Pynchon registers this symbolism by organizing the chapter synopsis at the top of each chapter heading in the shape of a pubic triangle). It is one of the oldest written symbols in the world (see image below), a hieroglyphic abbreviation for the power of the Great Mother and existed as such long before the Hebrews killed the goddess and turned her symbol into the abstract alphabetic letter called “vav.

Angles-sur-Anglin, circa 15,000 BC

Pynchon reclaims from the Hebrews the ancient iconic symbol of the goddess and so reading his novel becomes tantamount to a journey through the world interior of her anatomy, as though she formed the novel’s apparatus of semiotic capture, just like one of those cathedrals of the Middle Ages. The chapters and mini-novels thus become the various structures of her internal anatomy.

But now the Great Mother returns at the end of the metaphysical age having been recoded within the paternal womb that began with Plato and the Greek and Hebrew gods—from whose heads sprang goddesses like Athena, or Eve from Adam’s rib—as a paternalized signifier whose anatomy has become encrusted with the Platonic Ideas of gadgets and prostheses. It is not quite the Great Mother anymore, for she has had to suffer the indignity of being reterritorialized by the Platonic Ideas of the paternal womb, and now finds herself as a sort of hybrid or synthesis of maternal and paternal components.

The paternal technologies of Father Science—already fathomed by Mary Shelley in her brilliant novel Frankenstein in 1818–have tried to replace her: now we have in vitro fertilization, test tube babies, cloning and GMO foods that have come from the womb of the male mind as technologized attempts to replace the “natural” processes of her great chthonic bounty.

But then, of course, civilization, from the days in which the Sumerians invented irrigation with canals and artificial rivers to supplement the lack of rainfall (from the Mother’s body) on the deserts of the alluvial plain that gave rise to civilization between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers with cultural artifice, has always consisted in the construction of technological supplements and substitutes for the mother’s body.

The difference nowadays is only a matter of degree.

We no longer need the Great Mother, for we can now perform her own uteromorphic feats better without her. In the metaphysical age, technology trumps Nature.

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