Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Michael Taussig, from Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labor of the Negative

When the human body, a nation’s flag, money, or a public statue is defaced, a strange surplus of negative energy is likely to be aroused from within the defaced thing itself. It is now in a state of desecration, the closest many of us are going to get to the sacred in this modern world. Indeed this negative state can come across as more sacred than “sacred,” especially since that most spectacular defacement, the death of God, was announced by Nietzsche’s madman: “Do you not feel the breath of empty space?” he demands, lantern held high in the blazing sun.

I take this space to be where the defacing action is, sucking in this book as sheerness of movement within an emptiness so empty anything could happen in a continuous blur—like Margaras, the White Cat, Hunter and Killer, not similar to anything, just similar. “He can hide in snow and sunlight on white walls and clouds and rocks,” William Burroughs advises, and “he moves down windy streets with blown newspapers and shreds of music and silver paper in the wind.” Margaras is what this book is, an extended commentary on what G.W.F. Hegel called “the labor of the negative.”

Something so strange emanates from the wound of sacrilege wrought by desecration that rather than pronounce theoretical verdict and encapsulate defacement’s mysterious force, I see my task first and foremost to be not its explanation but its characterization. Yet this is a cheat for, after all, do I really believe there is such a thing as explanation? And as for having a task? Is it not a failure, doomed from the outset, a surrender to the way of the world, wanting to be one with and even devoured by the subject matter of the negative? The ultimate act of being similar?

For characterization of defacement can never confront its object head-on, if only because defacement catches us unawares and can only be known unexpectedly, complicit with the violence of daily life. The writer must confront the resistances. Why else do we write? The shortest way between two points, between violence and its analysis, is the long way round, tracing the edge sideways like the crab scuttling. This we also call the labor of the negative. And here I follow not only the scuttling crab, eyes protruding on stalks, body armor dripping, but Walter Benjamin’s appraisal of Eros is Plato’s Symposium, for whom truth is not a matter of exposure which destroys the secret, but a revelation which does justice to it.

Thus, so easily we join truth and secret; with rapture we skid between them, envelope the one in the other: truth = secret. Yet embedded within this ingrained poetry of daily habit there exists something not so obvious, a finely tuned theatrical process, thanks to which, as Benjamin sees it, the revelation shall do justice to the secret. In fact, he portrays such a revelation as the burning up of the husk of the beautiful outer appearance of the secret as it enters the realm of ideas; “that is to say,” he adds, “a destruction of the work in which the external form achieves its most brilliant degree of illumination.”

The just revelation amounts to a funeral pyre, and something else, as well. For beauty has been waiting for this incendiary moment as the fate through which it shall rise to unforeseen heights of perfection, where its inner nature shall be revealed for the first time. At the moment of its self-destruction, its illuminating power is greatest. This decidedly mystical process—which I equate with unmasking—whereby truth, as secret, is finally revealed, is hence a sacrifice, even a self-sacrifice, thanks to an inspired act of defacement, beautiful in its own right: violent, negating, and fiery. And this carefully contrived process of the just revelation, be it noted, stands in juxtaposition to exposure, which Benjamin warns, would only destroy the secret.

Yet what if the truth is not so much a secret as a public secret, as is the case with the most important social knowledge, knowing what not to know? Then what happens tot the inspired act of defacement? Does it destroy the secret, or further empower it? For are not shared secrets the basis of our social institutions, the workplace, the market, the family, and the state? Is not such public secrecy the most interesting, the most powerful, the most mischievous and ubiquitous form of socially active knowledge there is? What we call doctrine, ideology, consciousness, beliefs, values, and even discourse, pale into sociological insignificance and philosophical banality in comparison: for it is the task and life force of the public secret to maintain that verge where the secret is not destroyed through exposure, but subject to a quite different sort of revelation that does justice to it. This is the verge of “a thousand plateaus,” resolute in its directionless stasis, my subject, my just subject: the characterization of negation as sacred surplus whose force lies entirely in the mode of revelation we seek and seek to make.

It is the cut of de/facement that releases this surplus, the cut into wholeness as holiness that, in sundering, reveals, as with film montage, not only another view via another frame, but released flows of energy. As Thomas Elsaesser observes in his essay on Dada cinema, “It is the cut as the montage principle that makes the energy in the system visible and active.”

If it is the cut that makes the energy in the system both visible and active, then we should also be aware of cuts in language, strange accidents and contingencies, as in the way the English language brings together as montage the face and sacrilege under the rubric defacement. It is by means of this contingency that I am alerted to the tenderness of face and of faces facing each other, tense with the expectation of secrets as fathomless as they seem worthy of unmasking—one of the heroic tropes, in my experience, of that which we call Enlightenment, no less than of physiognomy, reading insides from outsides, the soul from the face.

I take the face to be the figure of appearance, the appearance of appearance, the figure of figuration, the ur-appearance, if you will, of secrecy itself as the primordial act of presencing. For the face itself is a contingency, at the magical crossroads of mask and window to the soul, one of the better-kept public secrets essential to everyday life. How could this be, this contradiction to end contradiction, crisscrossing itself in endless crossings of the face? And could defacement itself escape this endless back-and-forth of revelation and concealment?

Defacement is like Enlightenment. It brings insides outside, unearthing knowledge, and revealing mystery. As it does this, however, as it spoliates and tears at tegument, it may also animate the thing defaced and the mystery revealed may become more mysterious, indicating the curious magic upon which Enlightenment, in its elimination of magic, depends. In fact, defacement is often the first thing people think of when they think of mimetic magic, like sticking a needle in the heart of a figuring so as to kill the person thereby represented, and it is no accident that this was Frazer’s first example in the scores of pages he dedicated to the magic art in The Golden Bough. Defacement is privileged among these arts of magic because it offers the fast track to the mimetic component of sympathetic magic, in which the representation becomes the represented, only to have the latter die, in the slipstream of its presencing.

Defacement evokes a prehistory of the face as sacrifice, as does Georges Bataille where he rewrites Darwin and Freud with their histories of the almighty consequences of man’s ascent to the upright posture from the crouching ape. This is the long sought-for source of repression, Freud crowed to his muse in Berlin, Wilhelm Fliess, because the sense of smell, finely attuned to the anus and genitals of the Other, thereby lost its ascendency of the senses once man strode forth on two legs. Henceforth the eyes were regnant and shame entered the world, just as sex came to concentrate on the genitals that had to be covered from sight. Hastening to add that it was mere speculation, more often than not consigning these thoughts to elaborate footnotes over a page long, Freud nevertheless clung to this history to the end, over thirty years, from his 1897 letters to Fliess, through the Rat Man and the essay on love and ubiquity of debasement of the loved object, to the ominous Civilization and Its Discontents with its prophecies of sexual demise and the total triumph of bodily repression.

It was not just the nose that was at stake in this millennial struggle for the rights of the body, but the anus as the sensory button of the world, adrift in the wake of civilization as a heavy, if occult, presence, heavy enough for the philosophically trained authors of Dialectic of Enlightenment to affirm for smell an epistemology totally at odds with normal, civilized, perception. For if the visual settled in with a nice sense of distance between self-enclosed subjects and other-enclosed objects, this distancing was annulled with nasal perception, such that the senses ran riotously into one another as much as into the Other, as with the dog, man’s best friend, loyal to a fault, never happier than when its nose is up the Other’s rear end. Hence the ambivalence of primal words, as with “dog,” man’s esteemed companion through the ages, no less than the sign of all that is base and degrading. Hence Bataille, canine to a fault, adding his astonishing fable of the ape’s anus to this series of connections between face and nether regions. It all began as a frightening scene at the zoo, the tender faces of children exposed to the blossoming bottom of the ape swinging its scarlet self into focus to dominate the visual field like a gorgeous flower, suggesting to Bataille that the ascent of man to his privileged status in the cosmic design is summed up in the development of a mysterious organ he called the “pineal eye” on account of its ecstatic relation to the sun. Located at the tippy-top of evolutionary development, the crown of the head, with direct access to the heavens above, this eye is in reality a solar anus whose singular achievement is to make the visual olfactory. Like that noble bird of prey and icon of the state, the eagle of mythology, this is an eye that can look straight into the sun and, when it does so, it stimulates immense, offensive ejaculations as the sign of an orgiastic fusion of self with Other, just as the child screams at the sight of the amazing anus on the other side of the bars. All this is the result of the reconfiguration of the ape’s anatomy, the migration of anus headwise, absorbed into the body of man to conceal itself as a mere cleft in the buttocks. “All the potential for blossoming,” notes Bataille, “found the way open only toward the superior regions of the buccal orifices, toward the throat, the brain, and the eyes. The human face,” he concludes, “is a conflagration that had, until that moment, made of the anal orifice both bud and flame.”

Defacement works on objects the way jokes work on language, bringing out of their inherent magic nowhere more so than when those objects have become routinized and social, like money or the nation’s flag in secular societies where God has long been put in his place. Defacement of such social things, however, brings up a very angry god out of hiding, and Nietzsche’s madman distraught with implications of the death of God knows of no better return to life than this, although to call this a return would be to muffle Michel Foucault’s argument, built on that of  Bataille, that with the death of God transgression acquires a different character than before, because now it is transgression itself that is God, most pronounced, most condensed, in what we call sex—that secret we are henceforth doomed to always speak about precisely because it is secret.

This reconfiguration of repression in which depth becomes surface so as to remain depth, I call the public secret, which, in another version, can be defined as that which is generally known, but cannot be articulated, first drawn to my attention in an extreme form in Colombia in the early 1980’s, when there were so many situations in which people dared not state the obvious, thus outlining it, so to speak, with the spectral radiance of the unsaid; as when people were taken off buses and searched at roadblocks set up by the police or military, the secret being that these same police and military were probably a good deal more involved in terrorism and drug running than the guerrilla forces they were pitted against. Likewise, but in a different register, was what people in the towns and hamlets in northern Cauca, Colombia, where I’ve lived on and off since 1969, call “the law of silence,” a phrase I first heard in the early 1980’s when, side by side with the suspension of civil liberties and the imposition of military rule via recurrent “states of emergency,” mutilated corpses would mysteriously appear on the roads leading to town. Today as I write, in January 1998, the “dirty war” has reached heights nobody would have believed back then, massacres of peasants occurring daily, and it is routine for human-rights people to figure the action in terms of the smoke screen uniting paramilitary killers with the regular military forces. We all “knew” this, and they “knew” we “knew,” but there was no way it could be easily articulated, certainly not on the ground, face-to-face. Such “smoke screens” are surely long known to mankind, but this “long knownness” is itself an intrinsic component of knowing what not to know, such that many times, even in our acknowledging it, in striving to extricate ourselves from its sticky embrace, we fall into even better-laid traps of our own making. Such is the labor of the negative, as when it is pointed out that something may be obvious, but needs stating in order to be obvious. For example, the public secret. Knowing it is essential to its power, equal to the denial. Not being able to say anything is likewise testimony to its power. So it continues, each negation feeding the other while the headlines bleat “EL ESTADO, IMPOTENTE.” And much the same applies, so I am informed, to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, the Internal Revenue Service, and so on. Only the movies tell it like it is, especially those concerning corruption in the New York City police force. But that’ fiction.

My examples, as much as the experience within them, seem extreme and tend to weaken the all-consuming banality of the fact that this negativity of knowing what not to know lies at the heart of a vast range of social powers and knowledge’s intertwined with those powers, such that the clumsy hybrid of power/knowledge comes at last into meaningful focus, it being not that knowledge is power but rather that active not-knowing makes it so. So we fall silent when faced with such a massive sociological phenomenon, aghast at such complicities and ours with it, for without such shared secrets any and all social institutions—workplace, marketplace, state, and family—would founder. “Do you want to know the secret?” asked William Burroughs in the journal he kept in the months before his death. “Hell no!” he replies, talking to himself, to us, his cats, and to death. “All is in the not done.”

Nietzsche would be smiling in his death sleep at this adroit maneuver with the two-realities model of the world, surface and depth, appearance and a hidden essence, bequeathed the West by Plato and Christianity. “The ‘apparent’ world is the only one,” he wrote just before his final breakdown. “The ‘real’ world has only been lyingly added.” That is another karate-like maneuver with reality’s investment in the secret, embracing it in a classic Nervous System play-off. And this mocking language, crisp and timely, reminds us that the point of living, even at the point of death, is not to try to master the secret by evacuating it, as when one says, excited by a sudden insight, that … “the secret of the public secret is that there is none.” Jackpot! Trembling hands reach out to grasp the negativity.

“Hell no!”

So our writing, as much as our living, becomes extensive, opening out pursuant to filmy trails of the unsayable, not closing down on the secret quivering in fear of imminent exposure. So our writing becomes an exercise in life itself, at one with life and within life as lived in social affairs, not transcendent or even a means to such, but contiguous with action and reaction in the great chain of storytelling telling the one before the last. Yet how can you be contiguous with the note merely empty, but negative, space?

Elias Canetti pronounced secrecy as the very core of power. And he is most decidedly right. Wherever there is power, there is secrecy, except it is not only secrecy that lies at the core of power, but public secrecy. And there is a distinct possibility of falling into error here. To put it bluntly, there is no such thing as a secret. It is an invention that comes out of the public secret, a limit-case, a supposition, a great “as if,” without which the public secret would evaporate. To see the secret as secret is to take it at face value, which is what the tension in defacement requires. According to Canetti, this tension is where the fetishization of the secret as a hidden and momentous thing, made by persons by transcendent over them, verges on explosive self-destruction capable of dragging us all down. This is his foreboding, what he identifies as the virtual law of the secret. But against this apocalyptic dread, I regard the public secret as fated to maintain the verge where the secret is not destroyed through exposure, but subject to a revelation that does justice to it.

And the madman in the marketplace agonizing at the death of God? Is he really worried about God gone, belated guilt at killing the Father, impetuous deed too easily carried out by the callous, who will live to rue the day? A heavy psychodrama? He certainly is worked up. But about what? Listen to his rant. Is there still any up or down? Do we not feel the breath of empty space?

God is not the problem. Killing him achieved nothing. Maybe less than nothing. The mystery-model of the real continues stronger than before with God-substitutes piling up by the minute. The addiction to the disjunction of appearance and essence goes deep. Before the two thousand years of the Christ-man behind the scene there was the Plato-man with beautiful and true forms hidden behind the sensuous crust of appearance. Secrecy and mystery all the way down. This is why the madman raves and why only the madman raves, because, being mad, he sees that Enlightenment created other gods busy behind the scene of the screen. He smashes his lantern there in the marketplace in broad daylight. “I have come too early,” he says. “This tremendous event is still on its way.”

This then is the breath of empty space. For if we were to abolish depth, what world would be left? The apparent world, perhaps? But no! With the abolition of depth we have also abolished the apparent world!

Canetti’s fear of the apocalyptic powers of the secret as exploding fetish: realized.

And Nietzsche leaves us with this picture of a postfictional world bereft of depth. It is movement etched in black and white. Burroughs’s cat. “He can hide in snow and sunlight on white walls and clouds and rocks, he moves down windy streets with blown newspapers and shreds of music and silver paper in the wind.”

Mid-day, says Nietzsche, setting the scene without the screen. Moment of the shortest shadow; end of the longest error; zenith of mankind.


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