31.10.12

The Death of the Author

In keeping with my snide attempts to play down the philosophical innovations of canonical enemies of positivism, I'm going to attempt to demonstrate the way the implications of Roland Barthes's famous essay do not (as far as I can tell) actually amount to a grand departure from traditional literary criticism.

Barthes begins with the contention that "as soon as a fact is narrated no longer with a view to acting directly on reality but intransitively, that is to say, finally outside of any function other than that of the very practice of the symbol itself ... the voice loses its origin, the author enters into his own death, writing begins". We may ask how watertight this distinction is, whether narrative really does not act with a view to effect reality (understood as broadly as possible). Although this is exactly what Barthes wants to get away from, I am left wondering what can motivate 'intransitive' writing? Are writers satisfied merely with the playful reproduction of symbols? More on this below.

Barthes provides a sweeping historical survey of the rise of the author, suggesting that narratives were originally 'performed' by 'mediators' (perhaps the oral tradition which produced the works of Homer is an example of this). "The author is a modern figure, a product of our society insofar as, emerging from the Middle Ages with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual". It is "logical that in literature it should be this positivism, the epitome and culmination of capitalist ideology, which has attached the greatest importance to the 'person' of the author". Broad strokes, obviously, and I am compelled to put forward the fact that anti-capitalist theories and experiments have been formulated within a positivist framework, an interjection spurred by my commitment to the notion that any critique of current relations of production has to be couched in an empirical understanding of the world.

Barthes goes on to use the French symbolist poet Mallarmé as an example of the "essentially verbal condition of literature", where "only language acts, 'performs', and not 'me'". Easy to say about symbolist poetry perhaps, but Proust is a more difficult fit. According to Barthes, the author of In Search of Lost Time "blurs writer and characters": Charlus does not imitate his real-life inspiration Montesquiou. As I understand it, Barthes is saying that Charlus is the original way Proust saw Montesquiou, and the real person behind the character is only a 'secondary fragment'. Again, not territory Barthes is interested in, but this leaves us bereft of an exploration of the way the character of Charlus was created by his author.

Barthes suggests that "the author is never more than the instance of writing" – "there is no other time than that of the enunciation and every text is eternally written here and now" – an "enunciation has no other content (contains no other proposition) than the act by which it is uttered". I am not capable of fully engaging with this argument, since I'm not familiar with the linguistic theories Barthes is appealing to. As I understand it, the basic point being made is that language is not tied down to the task of representing a universally understood reality. But from this, Barthes goes on to argue that "the hand, cut off from any voice, borne by a pure gesture of inscription (and not of expression), traces a field without origin ... no other origin than language itself." In this light, authors merely regurgitate the language they have internalised. Their thoughts and emotions are already encoded in the language they are familiar with, so the act of writing is the manipulation of these codes into new forms. The text is therefore qualitatively different from those original emotions and thoughts. Fair enough, although it would be well to remember that authors are not merely unconscious language reproduction machines. They make conscious choices about the language they use, and these choices are to some degree recoverable.

For Barthes, a text is a "multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash ... a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture ... "the book is only a tissue of signs, an imitation that is lost, infinitely deferred". In other words, writers do not express feelings, but repackage existing quotations. Language develops over time independently of the reality in which it is used. However, we should not forget that we use language to do things like communicate our understanding of reality to each other (both in very direct ways such as recipes and indirect ways such as fairy tales). Therefore, you can argue that certain writings are intended to be understood by others as a record of the author's understanding of reality. Their meanings are to some extent recoverable and we can have some sense of the person behind the writing they have produced. Leaving that aside, there is also the very simple point that even if we wish to describe works as a collection of quotations (thoughts and emotions encoded in enunciations previously uttered), these quotations can still be traced, and the way they are assembled by the author can be recovered and explained by the critic.

Barthes does not see the point in doing this: "to give a text an author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing". Once the author and their "hypostases" (society, history, psyche, liberty) are discovered, the critic claims victory. Barthes describes this as an act of tyranny: instead, "to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases – reason, science, law". I can only understand this point through Nietzsche, who identifies a religious impulse in the practitioners of the scientific method – their need to explain reality through the collection and comparison of empirical data is a manifestation of a hunger for a single transcendent truth by which to order that reality. Rejecting such an impulse is indeed a radical move: the individual reader has complete liberty to read the text in whatever way they want. But is such individualism desirable? I do not think it is when it comes to throwing away useful things like reason, science and law, but what about traditional literary criticism? Ultimately, what is to be gained from a complete understanding of the author of a text? This is perhaps the most probing and unsettling question Barthes leaves us with, and one I'm not sure I can answer yet, but notably, Barthes doesn't really provide an answer to it either. It appears that for him, liberty from considerations of authorship is self-evidently preferable.

However, Barthes has quite an unusual concept of what a 'reader' of a text is: "he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted" – "the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost". We may ask how a reader would be able to know more about a work's sources than the author, but it is clear that for Barthes, the reader is no longer a person. Rather, he is "without history, biography, psychology". I can only understand this to be an unreachable ideal – a vantage point that gives access to every single linguistic experience and stimulus the author of a work has ever had. Obviously, this is not possible, but ironically enough, it is generally the vantage point that literary critics work towards. Crudely put, the critic who finds and "disentangles" the most "quotations" can claim victory – only a minor modification in the understanding of the methodology Barthes is arguing against.

25.10.12

Schism

I know Jason Aaron mainly from his unremittingly grim Vertigo series Scalped. He carries forward some of that bleakness into writing superheroes, but gives it a sardonic twist. Basically, rather than wallowing in the pits of despair the human condition can throw us in, we get satire and snappy quips from Wolverine instead. Sadly, this playfulness gets toned down in the later issues as the more serious threats and dilemmas emerge. The first issue is very funny however, and rather artfully sets up the theme of the book. We see Logan dragging himself back from whatever mission he was sent on, ridiculous war wounds visible – 'Just the usual', apparently. He dismisses the combat training class he has scheduled in the morning, and asks why these kids aren't off enjoying themselves, before being reminded that persecution has forced them all to become soldiers. In several subsequent conversations with one young mutant called Idie, Logan becomes convinced that under Scott's leadership, the X-Men have drifted too far from their pedagogic duties. 'I wish we lived in a world where you could all afford to act your age' declares Scott in a speech rousing the young mutants to defend their home. Against the odds, Logan decides to make that world possible.

I've been reading some of Dan Hind's and Laurie Penny's writings on the Occupy Movement, which may be why I find it tempting to add an Occupy gloss on this 'Schism' idea – Logan retreating to a radical alternative tradition in which the young's abilities will be nurtured and their potential fulfilled, while Scott sticks to the practicalities of equipping those under his care to fight and survive in a hostile environment. This reading may not have been intended by Aaron, but his choice of villain is significant – privileged, psychopathic children who overthrow the Hellfire Club and set out to terrorize the planet with the aim of making millions. Unlike Idie, these kids truly are monstrous, and they serve to highlight the possible dangers of Scott's brand of leadership, though through a revolutionary lens I'm also seeing allusions to callous and irresponsible masters of finance holding governments to ransom.

Scott's reference to Jean Grey was a bit out of nowhere. Aaron leaves it up to the reader to decide whether he has identified the underlying reason behind this most recent case of Logan's recalcitrance, or whether Logan is simply astounded at how off-base Scott is in bringing her into this. I would side with Wolverine against Scott on this one, but I would have preferred if both gentlemen had been allowed to move on from that old love triangle.

Kieron Gillen's Regenesis was tasked with explaining the splits in the X-community. It could have been quite a dull housekeeping issue, except that a framing device is used which serves to undermine the ostensible agreement that the decision to stay or go is a matter of conscience. In bleed panels, prehistoric analogues of Cyclops and Wolverine slug it out around a campfire, claiming supporters one by one. By framing things in this way, Gillen suggests that this IS a competition, one where the personal strength and charisma of the rival leaders is playing a decisive role in apportioning followers.

Sidebar: by accident I skipped pages 5 and 6 of that issue, because apparently turning pages properly is still a challenge for me, but I was surprised by how little story I lost in the process. There was some minor character stuff with Iceman on page 5, and Psylocke on page 6, but you still understood the basics of what was going on. Which shows that an already compressed issue (a bunch of characters were given just one panel to explain themselves) could have been EVEN MORE compressed.

21.10.12

William Blake

Spent some time yesterday evening with All Religions are One and There is No Natural Religion, two series of philosophical aphorisms by William Blake written around a decade after the publication of David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. What surprised me about Blake's pieces was how closely he follows the methodology of the empiricists, even though he proclaims to feel contempt and abhorrence for the ideas of Locke and Bacon. Blake must have decided that the best way to pour scorn on this tradition is to undermine it from the inside – use empiricism against itself. However, I hope to show that the gains of such a strategy were probably more limited than what Blake was hoping for.

The 'Argument' of All Religions are One is a stringent declaration of scientific principals. But 'Principal 1' proceeds with what Hume would consider the 'unphilosophical' claim that 'the forms of all things are derived from their genius'. I encountered the use of the word 'genius' in a natural religion context when researching my MA dissertation, it crops up in William Derham's work as an analogue for 'telos' – the purpose or end for each and every object in the universe. Blake's proposition that all objects have a purpose is a teleological one. As Hume had shown, such propositions cannot be empirically substantiated.

Blake goes on to suggest that as men all look alike (even in their variety), so are they all in possession of the same intrinsic 'genius', our minds (even in their variety) all work in the same basic way. 'Principal 4' is very interesting because it makes the very Humean point that men are everywhere the same.

'Principal 4' also puts forward the suggestion elsewhere elaborated as 'Man can have no idea of any thing greater than Man as a cup cannot contain more than its capaciousness'. And yet our 'Poetic Genius', or the 'Spirit of Prophesy', nevertheless compels us to imagine the stuff we cannot encompass with our senses. This drive is the source of all human religions. Ironically enough, Hume would have no quarrel with Blake's conclusion that religion is the product of the imagination. He would just feel queasy about privileging it over the philosophical (or scientific) method, as it is a pretty unstable source of moral and political values.

The above describes the source of religion in a very naturalistic way, which may make There is No Natural Religion quite a confusing title for the second series of philosophical aphorisms. 'Natural Religion' is a slippery term. It is usually contrasted with revealed religion, the most important source for which is scripture, but what it actually is depends on who you ask. Some Enlightenment thinkers posited the existence of a innate moral sense which invariably led people to an awareness of God. Blake rejects such a reading on empirical grounds, arguing that you cannot perceive something your senses cannot. However, he acknowledges that men use their 'reasoning power' to compare and judge what they have perceived. Our senses can be educated to understand more than our surroundings, but when they are 'untaught', or 'organic', they only perceive and desire immediate objects already familiar to the senses. Thus, the natural man lacks a natural religion.

[Apparently, it has been suggested that the above argument is ironic, and is contradicted by the second part of the piece. I disagree, because I think Blake has too little to gain from pointing out the fatuousness of the suggestion that men cannot deduce ideas beyond those immediately perceivable by their senses (which empiricist argues that exactly??). Fact is, 1.II indicates the way humans put perceptions together to form ideas using their 'reasoning power', and this is taken up in part 2.]

Men can perceive more than their senses reveal, because the accumulation and comparison of sensory data eventually indicates the existence of certain natural laws governing our reality that cannot be perceived, yet which we accept (gravity being the big one in the 18th century). New discoveries (such as Newton's) change the 'ratio of all we have already known'.

The third proposition doesn't survive, but I think the rest is still explicable: the bounds of knowledge become loathed by those who possess them – they find the mechanical clockwork universe unsatisfactory. If the many objects of the universe are rendered the same as the few observable objects by the laws of physics, we are still left yearning for more: 'less than all cannot satisfy Man'. We strive to fill the gaps left by science, but are incapable of satisfaction.

Here Blake's teleology comes back in. If mankind's nature is to desire the infinite, they must be capable of possessing it, because the forms of all things are derived from their genius. The philosophic and experimental can only halt at the ratio of all things, unable to go beyond it. The poetic and prophetic, on the other hand, can see the infinite in all things. But poetry and prophesy is irrational, sourced from the imagination. Thus men are only truly fulfilled when they let their imaginations complete their understanding of the universe. To come back to the title, religion is not a natural mechanical result of the senses, but the result of a striving to possess knowledge of the infinite.

In response to this, Hume need only repeat his contention that teleological arguments are 'unphilosophical'. In practical terms, his cheerful skepticism undercuts Blake's notion that humans absolutely have to construct imaginary solutions to plug the gaps in our understanding and gain fulfillment. But Hume was a rare case in the 18th century. His close friend Adam Smith knew as much, and told him so. Smith had more time for the Stoic notion (revived in Scotland by Shaftesbury) of the melancholy produced by skepticism. And he so much as confirmed Blake's point that the imagination provides a salve for these disappointments in religion.

But these comforts are still imaginary, and for Enlightenment thinkers like Hume and Smith, suspect. Blake noted in 1800 that morality is a product of philosophy: 'the poet is independent and wicked, the philosopher is dependent and good'. I guess what this means is that the philosopher is dependent on a rational understanding of the universe, and is bound by the need to delineate moral rules by which to govern society. The poet is free from such burdens of responsibility, their job is to 'excuse vice, and show its reason and necessary purgation'. Poets provide an imagined structure by which to fill reality with meaning and assist people to grasp the infinite. They also provide an understanding of the emotional drives which produce evil, and in so doing, purge it. It is a much expanded role for the imagination, but it is nevertheless surprising how many of Blake's Romantic conclusions are shared with his contemporaries on the side of the Enlightenment.

14.10.12

Detective Comics #854

I read the first issue of the Batwoman Elegy book written by Greg Rucka and illustrated by J.H. Williams III. Yes, finally, I know. There was noise around this on the internet aaages ago about the artwork in the series – this is a comic that rewards close reading of the layout and page design choices of the creative team far more than the dialogue. The story itself is serviceable but not especially original. Sidebar: I wonder if Greg Rucka is now known as the guy that does sensitive portrayals of lesbian crime-fighters, so this is now just the expected avenue for all his projects. Better than doing insensitive ones, I guess, but it's interesting why he keeps revisiting this ground) Anyway, after pretty much everyone else, I thought I'll have a look at the book, and make some notes about some of the patterns and effects I spotted in the first issue.

The first panel on page 1 is black and white, a guy getting chased – which looks like it is setting up your typical black and white, noir / crime story. Colour starts to bleed into the second panel as we cut to the guy's face, while the third panel shows the pursuer, a crimson bat on the silhouette of a woman – suggesting a superhero twist to the story.

The spread on pages 2 and 3 confronts the reader with the bat symbol head on. Like the fleeing perp (suitably called Rush) we see flashes of the woman through her bat sigil, panels 1 to 4 pulling us in before we get a boot in the face in panel 5.

Page 4, Batwoman gets her seduction on. Panels 2 to 5 in the middle of the page form a kind of left wing / head / body / right wing figure (the smile in the 'body' panel is probs the most pervy bit in the issue). The page as a whole shows Batwoman breaking Rush down, literally crushing him underfoot. But the final panel glows with hope as she offers refuge. The glow is carried into the first panel on the opposite page, where Batwoman (literally) picks Rush up again. Page five transitions from her gaining mastery over Rush, to showing her subordination to Batman.

The splash on page 6 and 7 is an over shot with Batman in the shadows on the right, and Batwoman leaping onto the roof. The contrast between the pool of water reflecting the sky on the bottom left and the darkness on the right is purposeful, I think – indicating where our mirror is. Batman is the oblique force in this book, we are going to be in Batwoman's head for for most of it. Panel 5 on that page looks like two panels, the frame of the window almost becomes a border. Brings a nice sense of completeness to the panel it reflects, where the window frame is a more subtle line of division between the two characters.

The movement from page 8 to 9 is all about Batwoman's shift from her nightly to her daily existence. No bleed on the final panel – we're back at home, boxed in, safe. The series of six panels show Batman reprimanding Batwoman's long, loose hairstyle, only for us to realise that it's actually a wig. Not something that is explained in this issue, could be a way to conceal her real identity (but if so, why not change the hair colour?) I like to think of it as a prop that assists her in assuming the larger-than-life character of a crime-fighter. You could also read it in a Red Sonja way – Batwoman uses her looks and flirts with Rush even though she's gay.

We see the dawn outside in the last panel. Panel 1 on the next page shows us the sun in full splendor, and breakfast. We return to 'normal' looking comics for a pretty normal scene of an argument between lovers. Pages 12-13 and pages 16-17 mirror each other a bit – the widescreen panels in the middle of the two spreads establishing first the look of the apartment and then the secret room in which Katherine becomes Batwoman.

The page-turn from 18-19 to 20-21 is a great moment of build and release – Batwoman actually kicking apart the panels as well as the goons. The simple effects are often the best. Page 22-23 look like a pack of cards falling into place, or the layers slowly being peeled back to reveal the villain. The final page's layout mirrors the layout in page one. Three widescreen panels on top of each other. But now everything is blown out in full colour. The opponents are wearing costumes and are evenly matched, and we are definitely looking at a superhero comic.

The entire issue is designed to accentuate the contrast between Batwoman's nightly crime-fighting excursions, and her real human being she becomes in daylight hours. We move into the light and back into the darkness – into more conventional page layouts, and back into more stylised, arch panels. It also signals a move between genres: crime, superhero and melodrama. The issue as a whole has 'shape', presenting an internally coherent piece of story. A good way to get thinking about the effects that can be achieved with the comics page.

10.10.12

Nietzsche

Spent some time going through boxes of old school and university work, deciding what to store and discard, when I unearthed some notes which informed the series of posts ending here. I didn't type the ones on The Genealogy of Morality because they were long and I was lazy, but I always meant to come back and finish the job. Nietzsche is not one to carefully plan his essays, but there is a structure to the book, which is why I have presented the arguments pretty much as they unfold.

The book concerns itself with the question of how man invented good and evil, and whether these concepts help or hinder man's progress – whether they boost his confidence or lead to degradation. Nietzsche is interested in how useful moral categories are to human health, and very quickly declares his view. The virtue of self-sacrifice, central to the Christian ethic, is 'antilife', leading to a nihilistic outlook and a surrender to nothingness. He seeks to provide a critique of modern moral values by revealing the circumstances of their development.

The 'English psychologists' explain that morality originates in a utility that becomes habitual, and eventually forgotten (no names mentioned, but this sounds awfully like David Hume's theory of justice). Morality is actually formed by the activities of the noble, powerful and superior, who create language and make and break hierarchies with no thought to utility. Etymology provides evidence for this ('good' from 'refined' and 'noble', 'bad' from 'common' and plebeian').

The priestly caste have made man an 'interesting' creature by creating the idea of evil, which diverges from the aristocratic mode to become its opposite. Priests hate strong and free activity, tarring it as stupid. They introduce intelligence to history, and make the poor pious. This development is characterised as a slave revolt in morals, a period of transvaluation.

The way it works: ressentiment (a reaction to external activity, denying it and imagining revenge) becomes creative and ordains values. The noble possess immanent fortune, their activity rewards them with happiness and they live for themselves. Resenters create imaginary transcendent values in contrast to those of the powerful. They are passive, clever and silent. While the noble have unconscious regulatory instincts, resenters are inventive in their relations (as will be explored below).

Man is separated from his predatory essence, and becomes psychologically complex. At the end of the first essay Nietzsche indicates that noble and slave characteristics have been internalised, becoming the equivalent of a kind of superiority and inferiority complex constantly struggling against each other within ourselves (and, indeed, Nietzsche).

The Second Essay fills out this picture by providing a kind of conceptual history of the creation of present-day social and political structures (not unlike Rousseau in the Second Discourse).

Human beings have an active ability to forget, they can ignore sensations, plan ahead and think. Memory is also active and willed – you construct your self, fix you character, and can promise to be the same person in the future. The sovereign individual is free from custom. He (it is always a he) is a master of circumstances, nature and weaker wills. He can assign his own value to everything. He makes the customs that make common men regular and calculable. He is entitled to promise, because he is strong enough to ensure that he can fulfill them regardless of accidents or fate. This ability is instinctual.

Memory is activated through pain. Values are grafted onto the psyche through torture, which make ephemeral slaves fit for social cohabitation. This in turn makes them capable of peaceful thought, and the development of conscience.

Bad conscience (or guilt) comes from debt, punishment from repayment, and damage from pain. When a promise or contract is broken, the creditor is allowed the pleasure of dominion and cruelty (i.e. indulging his anti-social feelings). As an aside, Nietzsche suggests that there is no festivity without cruelty – human beings find innate joy in the suffering of others. However, over time this pleasure has been refined and translated into the imagination. Meaningless suffering is now framed as taking place inside the theatre of the gods.

Man is a 'measuring animal', comparing his power to others. Justice is simply good will between equal powers, who force a contract on the less powerful. Those who break the contract are punished as debtors or outsiders. As the community becomes more established and wealthy, it can sustain more attacks, and the penal code is relaxed. The powerful can ignore injuries, they have an objective view which allows them to settle the ressentiment of weaker powers.

The active feelings to dominate and possess are of more biological value. The basic functions of life are to injure, exploit and destroy. This is the human animal at one with his nature. Justice is an exception imposed on immediate struggles in order to acquire larger units of power. The view of justice as revenge or a deterrent is inaccurate, a reinterpretation by new powers. In prehistoric times, justice as a deterrent does not work, as there is no concept of guilt. The criminal is unaware of the reason for his punishment, they experience it in the same way they would a natural disaster.

The will to power seeks gain mastery over weaker powers, and defines its functions according to its interests. The new interpretations created by strong wills are arbitrary and circumstantial. There is no teleology of utility. The will to power lies behind all things, all events. It does not adapt to external circumstances, but reinterprets and restructures external circumstances. It is beyond definition. Only that which is without history can be defined. Nietzsche postulates a universe comprised of oppositional wills (the definers) which structure experienced reality (the defined).

The state of nature (regulated by instinct and characterised by war and nomadism) gives way to society and peace under all-powerful tyrants. The first state is a tyranny of conquerors, which forms the common people and cages their freedom. Predatory instincts are internalised and turned inward. Your cruelty is directed against yourself.

The debt of the present generation to their forefathers and the founders of their race transforms these creditors into spirits that grant advantages. The debt increases as the people's advantages, wealth and power increase, so that these spirits become gods. Universal empires adopt universal divinities. Atheism threatens to destabalise this construct and create a 'second innocence'. To prevent this, the means of repayment are closed off. God is sacrificed for man's sins, creating an absolute debt to God, and eternal punishment for impiety. The cruel animal instincts are placed in opposition to the divine ideal, so that there is never any escape. The natural healthy human living in all of us is negated, and bad conscience (guilt / sin) is an ever-present principal in our psyches.

The Third Essay describes the agents of this change in greater detail. It starts by looking at the psychology of the artist, someone who has an unreal inner existence, but desires an existence in reality (independence, self-definition). This is unlikely, the artist cannot stand alone, and is often reduced to a sycophant.

Nietzsche restates the facts in themselves: animals strive for favourable conditions to expend their energy and achieve a feeling of power. They loathe obstacles and other animals. Everyone acts according to their interest. Philosophers (and all 'inventive spirits') ensure their independence through the ascetic ideal of poverty, humility and chastity. Their domineering instinct is used to bridle pride and sensuality. Like women's use of the mothering instinct, this carves out a space for their free activity. Contemplative men in fearful ages have made asceticism fearful – they have inflicted inventive cruelty on themselves and gained the respect of others. In doing so, they have made philosophy possible.

The will to power behind asceticism seeks to place a new evaluation on existence. This present life curtails the ascetic's freedom, so it is rejected as a bridge to the next. The ascetic feels ressentiment against the fundamental conditions of life which leave him deprived. The paradox leads him to find pleasure in pain and ugliness. The physical world is an illusion. The usual perspective is reversed.

Here we come to Nietzsche's famous description of objectivity: this is simply having 'all the arguments for and against at one's disposal'. You exploit the diversity of perspectives in the interests of knowledge. There is no pure reason or impartial subject. Only more and different eyes which provide greater objectivity. Nietzsche insists that you cannot get rid of feelings, or the operation of the will to power.

Nietzsche is claiming that he has these different perspectives, understanding both the ascetic personality and the noble one it has supplanted. He can see through to the origin of things because he can trace the transvaluations effected by different wills over time, and can strip them away to reveal the will to power lying behind all of history.

The ascetic ideal serves to sustain life in its disappointments. Those who cannot master the world master themselves instead. Nietzsche sees this as a physiological problem, describing it as a sickness, and suggesting that ascetics should be kept away from the free and healthy. Once the transcendent is stripped away by science, it will lead to nihilism and self-contempt. It is the manifestation of the will to power of the weakest, inspired by ressentiment and the desire for revenge, and seeking to make the fortunate ashamed.

The priest is a manager of ressentiment, redirecting vengeful feelings back onto resenters, and rendering the sick harmless. Again, this is explicitly described as a physiological problem – men with better constitutions can digest painful experiences. The sick, on the other hand, are rendered listless. Religion reduces the feelings of life, will and desire, acting as a kind of hypnosis giving nothingness a positive value. The will to power is syphoned into good works, reciprocal behaviour and the community interest. The weak are herded by priests, while the strong are solitary creatures, desiring absolute tyranny.

As mentioned above, Nietzsche suggests that asceticism has made man interesting. It has sought to improve, but has actually damaged, the human animal. Like Marx's respect for capitalists, Nietzsche allows a certain admiration for the agents who have effected so monumental a change in human consciousness. The simple instinctual relations of strong and weak have been overturned. Men are now controlled by more insidious means, their will to power cannibalising itself, resulting in a new world order overseen by priests.

According to Nietzsche, science is the most recent and most refined form of the ascetic ideal, having no belief, no ideal, no passion or conviction. Scientific activity is spurred by dissatisfaction, and it does not establish truth but probabilities. However, scientific practitioners still believe in the truth (a reality to define) and renounce interpretation as a way to comprehend the universe. Science does not explain the cause of this will to truth. Only Nietzsche, with his awareness of the genealogy of perspectives constructing the desire for definition beyond the self, can provide answers.

Science is dangerous because it threatens to impoverish life. It cools the feelings. By showing life to be random and dispensable, the need for a transcendent solution becomes ever greater. But by revealing man to be an animal, a nothing, this solution is discredited. The new knowledge gained does not satisfy human desires for self-definition. This fosters self-contempt and an inescapable nihilism. The only solution Nietzsche sees is the restoration of that primitive uninhibited self-defining individual last seen during the time of Napoleon.

I'll paraphrase Raymond Geuss's description of Nietzsche's argument as a conclusion: the book deconstructs itself down to a hypothetical prehistoric homo sapien entirely at one with nature. Nietzsche provides no evidence for the will to power, and his history is just conjecture with a bit of philology. His metaphysics are groundless and his politics are crazed. Nevertheless, his description of the psychological drives and effects of religion would go on to influence the concerns of existentialists (and others), and his characterisation of intellectual history as a series of willed interventions independent of physical and social structures set up the enquiries of post-structuralists (and others) in the 20th century.

4.10.12

Beginning to See the Light

'...there lay the paradox: music that boldly and aggressively laid out what the singer wanted, loved, hated – as good rock and roll did – challenged me to do the same, and so, even when the content was antiwoman, antisexual, in a sense antihuman, the form encouraged my struggle for liberation. Similarly, timid music made me feel timid, whatever its ostensible politics.' - Ellen Willis

Not entirely related, but have been thinking a bit about authors unconsciously reproducing their (socially conditioned) neuroses / desires in their work, versus the conscious manipulation of such (socially conditioned) drives. Mind on the page honesty versus intellectual engagement risking emotional distance. Obv the greats manage to construct a balance between these imperatives.

For pulp / genre / comics, as well as for pop music, the former is the prominent active ingredient. It's interesting the way the effective + affective representation of sometimes extreme, sometimes ugly, sentiments (love, hate, sex, violence) can be enlightening in themselves.

Not entirely related again, but have been thinking a bit about the contention of a lot of poptimists (Tim Finney is the one I remember voicing this view) that all music can be treated with equal seriousness. Some authorial intent is more conscious, more intentional, so treating it 'seriously' may involve traditional activities like unpacking the lyrics, poses and ideology of the performer, this on top of the historical work of situating the artist / scene within its context, all quite sober and academic. Where authorial intent is more difficult to discern, or less well developed, the poses and ideology to be found in the context around the artifact may provide matter for similarly sober investigation. I wonder... in cases where the idea of a piece is simple, direct and powerful, the listener doesn't have much room for exegesis, and so is forced back onto reflecting on their own response. I guess there are many avenues for 'seriousness'...

Scattered thoughts, obv.