[3, 13] Have we all become Akaky Akakievichs? – Akaky Akakievich is the central character in Gogol’s The Overcoat (1999). This story is a short darkly comic, pre-Kafkaesque, story about a lowly civil servant, mocked, pitied or disregarded by everyone he meets. It portrays a life entirely within the horizon of a ‘recognition calculus’ (Kojève, 1980). Akaky is a Nowhere Man (The Beatles, 1965):
“Doesn’t have a point of view”
He takes it upon himself to change how others see him and improve his social standing. He decides to save up over several years to buy a new overcoat. For a brief moment, after he possesses it he feels elated and others treat him with some respect. He is invited to a party. But then tragedy strikes. He is robbed on the way home. Traumatised by this sudden loss, he goes to the police. They have neither the inclination nor interest to pursue this case. He then goes to see a certain ‘very important person’ – perhaps an Akaky who in a parallel universe climbed up through the hierarchy. The scene, both beautiful and painful in equal measures, leaves our protagonist in a state of crisis: the loss of the overcoat and the indifference and cruelty with which he is treated breaks his spirit. He becomes ill and dies. But the story doesn’t end here – Akaky returns as a ghost to haunt St. Petersburg, like a feeling of shame that stains the living.
Is the only mechanism of rupturing the entanglement of the ‘recognition calculus’ an intellectual nihilism (Dostoevsky, 1993)?
[3, 11] Everyone’s a policeman. Everyone’s policing their own behaviour. Why? There’s no God to do it for us. –
Kant wrote a short essay “What is Enlightenment?” (2009) in which he described a human mind that relied on some external authority as immature (unmundigkeit) and that the courage to trust and use your own reason was the mark of enlightenment. For many of his contemporaries, modern science had consigned supernal authorities, in whatever form they came, to an historical dustbin. The general view was that, once rid of any external transcendent authority, the subsequent freedom would allow the emergence of a new republic of reason and a profound human flourishing. Close to a century later, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche stated “God is dead” (Nietzsche, 2006) as if the deed was done and the matter was settled. Around the same time Dostoevsky asked: “‘But what will become of men then?’ I asked him, ‘without God and immortal life? All things are permitted then, they can do what they like?’” (Dostoevsky, 1992). It would seem humanity has indeed done what it likes – it has unleashed two world wars under secular ideologies and massacred around 100 million without religion or God. But is it fair to say unfettered human freedom led to these human catastrophes? Or was there something else that was missed in the Kantian formulae? Consider Jacques Lacan (2004): “The true formula of atheism is not God is dead …the true formula of atheism is God is unconscious”. When God vacated the explicit, metaphysical and mythical throne and all declared him dead he fell into an abyss. But he did not die. He rose, like Jesus, as an undead being and became, what the psychoanalysts, call a relentless demanding internalised drive – a zombie-God, avoiding the gaze of reason, issuing twisted injunctions, deformed by the fall and the abyss of the unconscious – pushing human beings harder towards a cliff edge, pushing harder than any fallen angel could have done so. The loss of an external authority was not the loss of authority but simply a move from the open air to a subterranean, unconscious realm. In making this descent this undead God became a force of pure irrationality. Like characters in Orwell’s 1984 (2008) humanity is not liberated but forced to stand guard over the abyss within them and against this undead God. Humanity is trapped in a deeper prison, left to police its own thoughts and feelings.
[3, 4] vast labyrinthine bureaucracy – an allusion to Kafka’s The Trial (2009c). In this book the central character, Josef K, wakes up one morning to be informed he has been arrested. He does not know why and spends the rest of the book struggling to make sense of this arrest and what follows. Each scene moves him through a labyrinth of indifferent figures, awkward situations and uncomfortable conversations as he tries to maintain a semblance of order. As the novel proceeds he is dragged further and further through bruising legal proceedings that continue to be unsettling as well as remain unintelligible. There is no consolation or humanity in this world. (Occasionally, there is a strange erotic encounter with a female character.) Without making any real sense the book ends – he is taken out into the open and stabbed and left to die like a dog. This anxiety narrative owes something to Kierkegaard (1981) and haunts the modern world. This narrative is very similar to the tragic tale at the heart of Gogol’s The Overcoat (1999). The labyrinth finds its fullest image, as an ontological principle, in the writings of Borges (Butler, 2010) where it becomes entangled in complex narratives of detective stories.
[2, 24] science…has also been perverted, corrupted…like Faust. Sold its soul. For what? – What is the soul of science? William Blake, in his famous picture of Newton “was critical of reductive scientific thought” (Blake, 1795) and accused the development of scientific rationality of being a form of creative blindness. Goethe (Boyle, 2003) went further and tried to develop an alternative model for science. Although science grew out of natural philosophy the actual mathematisation (Badiou, 2007) of nature rapidly tore apart other forms and traditions of knowledge. The power unleashed by the reduction of nature to a mathematical skeleton has been linked to the technological and economic devastation of the environment (Nasr, 1993). In Faust (Goethe, 2014) Mephistopheles famously discusses humanity and the development of modern scientific rationality:
“He’d be much better off, in my opinion, without
The bit of heavenly light you deal him out,
He calls it Reason, and the use he puts it to?
To act more beastly than beasts ever do”
In Marlowe (2005) Doctor Faustus’s desire is caught in the mesmeric power of a new knowledge:
“Go forward, Faustus, in that famous art
Wherein all Nature’s treasury is contained
Be thou on earth as Jove is in the sky
Lord and commander of these elements”
It is for this that he sells his soul to the Devil.
[2, 19] We’ve had a century of pragmatism. It’s made us deeply subservient to orthodoxies – This characterization is not a critique of Peirce (1992, 1998) or James (2000) but of the neo-pragmatic movement under Rorty (1990). Although Rorty was an admirer and friend of Derrida his own politics – fuelled by a coherence theory of truth drawn from but not authorized by Davidson (2001a, 2001b, 2001c) – tended towards a liberal neoconservativism. Intellectually he was accused of setting out a program that would deny those who want to challenge the academy and political orthodoxies. The risk of populist forms of pragmatism is that they generally misrepresent the range of the pragmatist tradition (Menand, 1997) and falsify its intellectual roots by advocating a ‘common sense’ anti-intellectualism and rejection of thought and critique. This feeds directly into a capitalist discourse that seeks de-unification amongst non-economic modes of organisation. It serves capitalism to have opposition and conflict.
[2, 5] to take the smallest fragment to make a whole life – an allusion to Wittgenstein (1998): “How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life”. Steve Reich (2005) took this line and put it to music in Proverb, a formal canon of contemporary minimalism performed by Paul Hillier (2016). Haven’t we tried too hard to take the smallest fragment to make a whole life? The essential problem in our post-postmodern period is that the world has splintered and the ‘fragment’ (Benjamin, 1995) has become the dominant structural concept of our age. The idea of a unifying framework for society and politics is broken. Does postmodernism, in its relativizing mode, actually support late capitalism? Does multiculturalism too easily support the fragmented, relativized condition that capitalism needs to sustain itself? A world of incommensurable self-enclosed ‘truths’, fractured from each other? And so we ask: do the capitalists [1, 24] prefer to keep things as they are in order to prevent a non-economic model of human organization to emerge? This is an implicit theme of the book. What forms of human organisation can override economic forms? Politics has become servile to the economic. Religion, in trying to resist economic hegemony, has entered an era of literalism and emptying of its own symbolic and metaphoric depth. What else is left?
[2, 3] wandering amongst the dead earth and rubble
An allusion to The Wasteland (Eliot, 1974):
“What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water”
The image of figures wandering amongst a barren landscape also echoes Waiting for Godot (Beckett, 2006). In a filmed version (Foley et al., 1996) the play is situated in a bleak landscape, very much an echo of Eliot’s Wasteland: “I will show you fear in a handful of dust”. It is an image of entropy and decay, of civilization falling into dust, crumbling and breaking up.