A Fine Hell

The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make then endure, give them space.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Everything having to do with the aesthetic is for us hostile. Not an enemy, we mean: hostile. “The enemy is our question taking shape,” it has been written. There is, for us, no aesthetic question. When some hipster publishes a novel pledging to “make communism fashionable again,” we see very clearly the operation he’s attempting  against us. And we confide his book to the flames, without remorse. What would be stupid, in this case, would be to actually want to understand, when all it needs is to be destroyed.

If the aesthetic were only the science of the beautiful, or of taste, or even “a certain regime of intelligibility of the arts” –that point near the end of the 18th century when we no longer spoke of the beaux arts, liberal arts, and mechanical arts, speaking instead of “art,” a special sector of existence, jealously separated from ordinary life– there would be no beauty salon on the corner, no punk attitude, and no “free space” in art galleries. We definitely would not dream of transforming the last of the peasants into maintenance crews for the upkeep of the landscape. There is less aesthetics in Warburg’s entire history of art that in an hour in the life of an advertising executive. The aesthetic is the entire fabric of metropolitan existence and the core of the new “imperial” society. The aesthetic is the form that the apparent fusion between capital and life takes in the metropolis. Just as all valorization finds its ultima ratio in the fact that some thing or being pleases, so too does power, which no longer manages to justify its campaigns through some reference to truth or justice, give itself a free range of action the moment it advances under the mask of the aesthetic. A Nietzschean-for-managers wrote a few years ago: “The aesthetic paradigm is the angle of attack that allows for an account of a constellation of actions, feelings, and specific moods of the spirit of postmodern time.” Followed by praise for the trendy bar, for cybernetic conviviality, for all sorts of profitable superficiality, and for the icy loves that stir metropolitan hearts. Aesthetics, therefore, is imperial neutralization, whenever direct recourse to the police is not possible.

Understand the aesthetic? There is understanding  only where there is empathy, and our empathy does not reach out to what harms us. Do we try to understand the police? No. To know how it functions, how it proceeds, where it is, what means it uses, and how to destroy it, yes, but not understand it. The entire work of metaphysics, the whole task of civilization, in the West has been to separate, on every occasion, the “human” from the “non-human,” “consciousness” from the “world,” “knowing” from “power,” “work” from “existence,” “form” from “content,” “being” from its “determinations,” “contemplation” from “action,” etc –and we place quotation marks around these terms because none of them exists as such before being dissociated from its contrary, and in this way, they are produced. Once this separation has been performed, and each of these unilateral terms produced, an institution will be envisioned that will have the task of maintaining them in their separation. The institutions of the museum, and art criticism, will for example guarantee the existence of art as art, and that of the prosaic world as prosaic world. A certain desolation, in each case, follows. The aesthetic emerges then as the project of animating this desolation, of reunifying what the West has separated, but reunifying it in an exterior form, as separate. The age that inaugurates the aesthetic is therefore ultimately that of the crisis of all institutions; but if the walls of museums then fall, just like those of the schools, businesses, hospitals, and even bourgeois individuality itself, it is in order to better place each space under the control of an apparatus— that is, in order to incorporate the apparatus in each being, so that we are traversed by what we traverse. We will no longer distinguish, from this point, existence and work; instead everyone will have a cellphone and the distinction between friends and colleagues will be so blurred that each will be on-call at all hours of the day. There will be no more lives devoted exclusively to contemplation, nor any to pure action, no more clerks and no more war lords; reflexivity will capture each instant of existence, and no one will commit an act without also becoming the spectator of his own acts. At the limit, no one will make love without at each moment being conscious of making love, transforming the art of the erotic into universal pornography. There will be no more boss, no more slave, but each will be his own boss, and will have inscribed in his heart the laws of self-valorization: each will become, for himself, a small business.

Empire is at times the product of police terror, and at times the product of an aesthetic synthesis. Everywhere the continuation  and deepening of the Western disaster takes the form of its subversion. Everywhere, ONE claims to fix things in order to ruin even more. Everywhere ONE destroys irreversibly under the pretext of reconstruction.

Aesthetics, or Revolution

That the aesthetic has received the mission of reconciling what the West has worked so hard to divide can be dated back to its official birth, in the system of Kant. The Critique of Judgment (1788) confides to the beautiful and to art the task of reconciling the infinity of moral freedom and the causality that orders nature, to fill the “immense abyss” that separates the Critique of Pure Reason from the Critique of Practical Reason. It will not take six years, from there, for the aesthetic to be re-elaborated by Schiller into a counter-revolutionary program, as an explicit response to the communist, insurrectionary tendencies of the French Revolution. This masterpiece of Western reaction is called Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, and appeared in 1794. The argument is the following: within man there are two antagonistic instincts, the sensible instinct that is anchored in the particular, in vital necessity, and the sentiments, that is, determination, and the rational, formal instinct, which tears man away from particularity  and the affects through reflection, and which raises him to universal truths. These two instincts are everywhere at war in such a way that what one possesses is always taken by the other, everywhere except a point of harmony where they encounter and reinforce each other. This point of miraculous reconciliation, of sovereign grace, is the aesthetic state, and its corresponding instinct is that of play:

 One of the  most important tasks of culture, then, is to submit man to form, even in a purely physical life, and to render it aesthetic as far as the domain of the beautiful can be extended […] there  is no other  way to make a reason- able being out of a sensuous man than by making him first aesthetic  […] the sensuous man, his nature must at first be changed […] In the aesthetic  state the most slavish tool is a free citizen, having the same rights as the noblest; and the intellect which shapes the mass to its intent  must consult it concerning its destination. Consequently in the  realm of aesthetic appearance, the idea of equality is realized.

This equality is indeed the ideal of imperial neutralization where each simulates and feigns doing what he does, being what he is –worker, boss, minister, artist, male, female, mother, lover– where no one ever adheres to his facticity, and where all conflict is defused in advance. “I am not really what you think, you know,” whispers the creature of the metropolis, while deconstructing himself in your bed. But it is in fact German Idealism in its entirety that draws its own operation from these Letters. The Phenomenology of Spirit, which in fact ends with two lines from Schiller, never stops unmasking the insubstantial character of each determination, the lie of sense certainty. For the problem with sensuous or sensible man is that he won’t be had, he resists discourse, he builds barricades and even sometimes takes up arms, while not being reasoned with; the problem is, in short, a strong propensity for irreducibility. And then there is the anonymous manifesto, alternately attributed to Schelling, Hegel or Hölderlin, and known by the name “The Oldest Systematic Program of German Idealism.” There we read:

 The philosophy of the spirit is an aesthetic philosophy. One cannot be clever in anything, one cannot even reason cleverly in history –with- out aesthetic  sense. […] At the same time we so often hear that the great multitude should have a sensual religion […]  general  freedom and  equality  of spirits  will reign–A higher spirit sent from heaven must establish this religion among us, it will be the last work of the human race.

This new religion, this sensible religion, finds its full realization in this age of design, urbanism, biopolitics, and promotion and advertising. It is nothing but capital in its imperial phase.Whereas aesthetics claims to reunite that which it fundamentally separates, the messianic gesture[1] assumes the union that is there.

It’s been a hilarious spectacle for more than a century: the chronic paralysis of those who want “to overcome the separation between art and life,” those who, in the same act, posit a separation and claim to abolish it. The aesthetic operation dominates our age as this double, duplicitous, movement of gathering everything together in order to put everything at a distance. In this sense, this moment is indeed a parody of the final recapitulation,  the “recollection of memory” Hegel spoke of concerning absolute knowledge, the moment when everything is archived. It’s not only the entirety of the events “of the past,” the whole “history of civilizations,” and “cultures,” which are thus defused—it goes so far as to defuse present attempts to make a breach in the course of time, with yesterday’s event understood as having already passed, reduced to the merely possible. That famous “perpetual present” that they go on and on about is nothing but a house arrest in perpetual expectation. The aesthetic hell in which we maneuver presents itself thus: all that could animate us is reunited there, within view but completely out of reach. All that we lack is held in this inaccessible limbo. The aesthetic state, from Schiller to Lille2004, names that state of suspension in which all “life” appears to unfold, in all its possible luxury, in all its imaginable plenitude, at a distance, protected by a savagely guarded no man’s land. Nothing embodies the aesthetic operation better than the triumph of the installation within contemporary art. Here, it is the apparatus itself that is made into a work of art. We are thoroughly included in it, as so many avant-guards have dreamed, and at the same time, thoroughly rejected, excluded from all possible use within. Through an equally infernal movement, we are integrated as foreigners in this little portable hell. ONE doesn’t call it Relational Aesthetics for no reason.

Against all aesthetics, Warburg wanted to show that even the image, even the most anthropomorphic representations of western art, contained points of irreducibility, of extreme tensions, of energies that the work holds back and calls forth at the same time, that there is “life in motion” even in the immobility of Renaissance statues. And that these forces, these “pathos formulas,” are not only capable of touching us but also of affecting us. Similarly, Benjamin notes, “The currently effective messianic elements of the work of art manifest themselves as its content; the retarding elements, as its form. Content makes its way toward us. Form holds back, permits us to approach.” We say that everywhere there are, right on the surface of the real, right on words, on bodies, on sounds, right on images and gestures, similar points of irreducibility where forms and life, man and his world, perception and action, being and its determinations are not separated. Marx, for example, is the name of a certain irreducibility between communism and revolution. Everywhere, words mix with affects, bodies with ideas, and thoughts with gestures. The way a man speaks is closely bound, at a very revealing point, to the grammar of his organs. The sense that certain words hold for him best reveals the particulars of his physiology. If you are in doubt, it would suffice for you to see what the Haoukas filmed by Jean Rouch do with intensities held captive in their colonial setting. We call these points forms-of-life. We call them this because nothing can disentangle, in these points, the individual and the species. Each form-of-life that affects a body traverses it as if charged with a collective intensity, past, present or future, saturated by a moment by the “life of the species” (“species,” what a disgusting term!). If the artisan can be a form-of-life, it is never without some faint evocation of the medieval town and the system of guilds. This collective intensity is present even in the perception I have of the artisan and in his manner of being in the world. Similarly, the warrior never appears without bringing with him the rush of so many wild hordes. And the child doesn’t play Cowboys and Indians without being a little threatening. It’s not that this past animates him, it’s that the same form-of-life assembles them in a constellation, envelops them, binds them, passes through them. In the same way, beginning with the Essenes, each Christian taps into a little bit of the intensity of sharing of so many Jewish sects two thousand years ago, and each Jeune Fille neutralizes in her own way some Greek maenad. This is why there can be no question of history here, because there are subtle channels of circulation which make present once again, if only in fragments, in floating concentrations,  this so-called “past.” The messianic gesture consists in making way for these forms-of-life which appear even in the most diluted language, in the most semiotised environment, in the most lifeless gazes. To liberate from the aesthetic the chaos of forms-of-life.

Paradoxically, the reign of aesthetics is primarily one of general anesthesia. The imperial age is thus the most methodical conjuring away of the messianic. Ours is the time of quotation, reference, existential prudence. There, all the forms-of-life are kept at bay: these are possibilities, of art, of history, of the past. Subjectivities set about making themselves up as this or that figure from the past. They revel in lost worlds only to become frightened as soon as they threaten to return. They set about living “like in Mohammed’s day.” Or in the times of the Templars. There is something aesthetic in the relationship of the Trotskyist to politics, as there is snobbery in the relationship of the ultra-left to the ‘20s. The panoply of metropolitan  subjectivities expresses, in general, the entire scope of that which snobbery is capable. Instead of letting forms-of-life in, the snob endlessly repeats the aesthetic operation of personifying the form that he had previously ripped off from that which has lived it.

This means  that,  while henceforth speaking in an adequate  fashion of everything  that  is given to him, post-historical  Man must  continue to detach ‘form’ from ‘content,’ doing so no longer in order actively to transform  the latter, but so that he may oppose himself as a pure ‘form’ to himself and to others taken as ‘content’ of any sort.

This is how Kojève described the idea of a snobbish end of history, in the Japanese manner, an aesthetic end of history. “Aesthetic conscience,” confirms poor Vattimo, “has no choice: it is limited to liberating the object that it takes into consideration from all of that binds it to the real world, as the world of knowledge and of decision, and transfers it to the sphere of pure appearance.” (Ethique de l’interpretation) The aesthetic is the time of the infernal synthesis. The time of sociability.[2] The reign of ghosts.

Empire as Sensible Religion

A dubious etymology claims the word religion is derived from the Latin religare (bind together), insinuating that the role of religion is to bind men together and bind men to

the divine, rather than relegere (to collect, to recollect in the sense of “going over what you have done, grasp again through thought or reflection, to become more attentive and focused”), as is done in every ritual whose forms must be scrupulously repeated. Every religion, in bringing into existence a special sphere of the sacred, establishes itself as guardian of its separation with the “sensible world.” That is, it produces the sensible world as sensible world. That it then chases off everything (within and without) that resides in the non-separation between “sensible” and “supersensible”—magus, witch, mystic, messiah or ecstatic—follows logically from its definition. We better understand the uneasiness that seized the totality of the profane world with the “death of God.” With the place of the divine deserted, the profane world is revealed to be not even profane. Even the sweet immersion in immanence gets lost. What is to be done? The aesthetic project—and first and foremost German idealism– corresponds historically to this situation. Hölderlin’s strange fragment, “Communismus der Geister” (Communism of Spirits) bears witness to this. Strange, first for its title: Communismus is spelled with a C, that is, in the French manner, during an era when the Babouvists themselves hardly dared to call themselves “communatists.” Stranger still because of the name given its first paragraph: “Disposition.” There we read:

 We start out, precisely, from the diametrically opposed principle, that is, from the universality of unbelief, in order to justify the necessity of our time. This unbelief is an integral  part of the scientific critique of our era, which announces  and  precedes  positive  speculation; there  is no use groaning about it; it must be remedied.

The unbelief spoken of here is not the unbelief in this or that religion, nor unbelief in God himself. The unbelief spoken of here –our contemporaries  demonstrate it each day, those who are capable of living their own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order, those who think they are in a film when a tidal wave is approaching– is no less than an inability to believe in what we have right before our eyes, in the sensible world itself. This sort of haggard lack of belief, which can be seen in so many eyes, so many gestures, this state of irresolute absence, this crisis of presence is precisely that which the aesthetic project, Empire, and its apparatuses has the task of remedying.

 Under Empire, then, design and urbanism inscribe the unity of the world that has become problematic directly on things. They fashion a totally new “sensible world.” The mass media invent in real time the common language of the day. The different “means of communication” placed at our disposal, at each instant, all those we have already left, and and yet still call, absurdly, “our loved ones.” Culture, finally, and cultural events, guarantee for us the existence of what we might live and think, and which we can now only glimpse. This is how, locally, skull by skull, foyer by foyer, city center by city center, the imperial metropolis comes together and arranges itself, reconstructs for itself a seemingly stabilized, credible, consensual universe, an aisthesis: a common perception of the world. Empire is the planetary fabrication of the sensible. And just as religion claimed to unite men to the divine when in reality it kept them separated, the sensible religion of Empire, which claims to recompose the unity of the world from the ground up, from the local, only lodges in each place and each being a new separation: the separation between user and apparatus. The aesthetic imposes itself on the global scale as the impossibility of any and all use. The prospectus of a recent art exhibition in Bordeaux announced, winkingly: “What you’re sold at the supermarket, artists transform into art.” We see how the aesthetic alone manages to complete the impossibility of use lurking in every commodity, manages to convert it, behind a vitrine or at the heart of an “installation,” into pure exhibition value. Ultimately, the aesthetic program intends to extend this split to man himself, to have him incorporate the apparatus, to make him the user of himself. We can easily see how the biopolitical disposition to apprehend oneself as a body, or the spectacular disposition to see oneself as an image, conspire to make us users of ourselves. To make us aesthetic subjects.

Communism[3] and Magic

The middle manager yelling into his cellphone. A sales representative attached to his briefcase. The driver ranting behind his steering wheel. The hipster on a dance floor. The sales person of a trendy store with his business gibberish. Our contemporaries  all look bewitched. All the leftists in the world can pretend to open their eyes to the extent of the catastrophe, but the deal has been understood for more than seventy years: it does no good to raise the consciousness of a world already sick of consciousness. For this possession is not the product of a superstition  or an illusion that it would suffice to do away with, it is a practical possession: it is a subjection to apparatuses, the fact that it is only when mated to this or that apparatus that they feel themselves to be subjects. Artaud was right when he wrote, in January 1947, that, “much more than by its army, its administration, its institutions,  and its police, society is held together with spells.”

In every use lurks a possible exit from this spell. For each use frees the forms-of-life contained in things, in words, in images. In use, a curious circulation between “subject” and “object,” between “species,” is established. Gesture short- circuits consciousness, temporarily abolishing the distance between me and the world, and calls up other worlds. The gaze incorporates in us movements and perceived forms. Something happens in us and outside of us.

The coincidence  of the  changing  of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally  understood only as revolutionary practice,’  say the  Theses on Feuerbach, but it can only be grasped and understood  magically as use, at least if magic is a constant  communication from interior  to exterior, of act to thought, from thing to word, from matter to spirit’. (Artaud)

That matter is animated by innumerable forms-of-life, that it is populated with intimate polarizations, is what Marx himself was not unaware of, the Marx who writes in The Holy Family:

Among the qualities inherent  in matter, motion is the first and foremost, not only in the form of mechanical  and  mathematical motion,  but chiefly in the form of an impulse, a vital spirit ,a tension―or a ‘Qual,’ to use a term  of Jakob Böhme’s―of matter.  The  primary  forms  of matter  are the living, individualising forces of being inherent in it and producing the distinctions between the species.

We have called these “primary forms” forms-of-life. They affect us, whether we like it or not, by all that we bind ourselves to, by everything to which we are tied. We have trouble admitting that we are bound, for we are possessed by an aesthetic idea of freedom. An idea of freedom as detachment, as indetermination, as a tearing away from every determination.

This medium situation in which the soul is neither  physically nor morally constrained,  and yet is in both ways active, merits  essentially the name of a free situation; and if we call the state of sensuous determination  physical, and the state of rational determination logical or moral, that state of real and active determination should be called the aesthetic […] I admit that he possesses this capacity for humanity, before every definite determination  in which he may be placed. But as a matter of fact, he loses it with every determined condition, into which he may come, and if he is to pass over to an opposite condition, humanity must be in every case restored to him by the aesthetic life. (Schiller, Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, Letters XX and XI)

This idea of freedom is the freedom of the manager, who crosses the globe from grand hotel to grand hotel, that of the scientist (sociologist or physicist, it makes no difference) who is never anywhere in the world that he describes, that of the metropolitan  anarchist who would like to be able to do what he wants when he wants, that of the intellectual who sovereignly judges everything from his desk or that of the contemporary artist who makes his entire life a “work of art” and for whom the sole imperative is “invent yourself, produce yourself,” as the revolting Bourriaud says. To this aesthetic idea of freedom we oppose the materialist obviousness of forms-of-life. We say that human beings are not simply determined, in the sense that on one side we would have being as such, free of all determination, that would then come to be covered with its attributes, predicates and accidents –French, male, worker’s son, playing football, has a headache, etc. In reality, there is the way each being inhabits its determinations. And at this point, determination and being are absolutely indistinct, and they are forms-of-life. We say that freedom does not consists in our tearing ourselves away from our determinations, but in the elaboration of the way we inhabit this or that determination. That it resides not in freeing oneself from every tie, but in an apprenticeship in the art of tying and unbinding. That this art was for a long time reputed to be magical does not bother us at all. And we embrace this scandal: the scandal of admitting the threat, in us, outside of us, everywhere, of the crisis of presence. We even say that if there is effective equality among humans, it is in facing this threat. This is why Kafka is a great communist. We prefer this, by far, to the all-too-familiar paradox that the more someone takes himself for an individual, the more one sees him reproducing behavioral structures that are stupidly proper to the “species,” the more someone takes himself for a subject, the more one sees him abandon himself, by fits and starts, to the most sadly conformist inclinations. We see well that, for the moment, from their limbo, forms- of-life remain in the most formidable chaos. That it is this feeling of chaos, as well as their attachment to this idea of freedom, that throws our contemporaries  into the nets of apparatuses. But we also see what power is at the disposal of those who have learned the art of tying and unbinding. And we envision the terrifying force that is held in the hands of those who, collectively, elaborate the play of forms-of-life that affect them. And we are not afraid to call the sharing, everywhere, of this force communism. For it is then that humanity reaches it maturity, and it has in its gestures the sovereignty of the child.

Perhaps the man of the stone age drew the elk in such a unique way because the hand that wielded the stick still remembered the bow used to bring down the animal.

Mana vanishes. Reinvent magic.


French Original


[1] There is a messianic time, which is the abolition of time-that-passes, a rupture of the historical continuum, which is lived time, the end of all waiting. There is a messianic gesture which is at stake here. There are also beings that move in the messianic, which means they have in their own way, and most often as fugitives, “exited capital.” What it also means is that there are sparks, within the revolting gloom of the real, of the messianic–that the Kingdom is not purely to come, but already here in fragments, present among us. Messianic is thus the practice that starts from here, from sparks, from forms-of-life. Anti-messianic, on the other hand, are all of those religions, all of those forces that hinder and hold back the free play of forms-of-life. The anti-messianic is, at its highest, Christianity and its modern avatars–socialism, humanism, Negriism. We have never come across “messianism,” it must be noted, except in the putrescent mouths of our slanderers.

[2] In 1910, Simmel delivered a magisterial analysis of the scourge of the current epoch: sociability. The article approaches sociability as “ludic forms of association,” like a “special sociological structure corresponding to those of art and play, which draw their form from these realities but nevertheless leave the reality behind them” thus perfectly rendering the hipster utopia of a “con- versation society.” “In purely sociable conversation, the conversation is an end in itself, it is not at the service of any other content; it has no other purpose but to perpetuate interaction that shies away from delicate subjects, which al- low us to enjoy the stimulation of the play of relations … that association and exchange of stimulus, in which all the tasks and the whole weight of life are realized, here is consumed in an artistic play, in that simultaneous sublimation and dilution, in which the heavily freighted forces of reality are felt only as from a distance, their weight fleetingly in a charm.”

[3] 5  It is enough to take up again the definition of communism found in the 1844 Manuscripts (“Communism is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and between man and man-–the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence, between objectification and self-confirmation, between freedom and necessity, between the individual and the species”) to persuade oneself that the aesthetic gesture is not absent from the communist program itself. That is, the current, aesthetic phase of capital where we find the convergence of a fashioning of a new humanity— citizens—and a new sensible world–the metropolis—forces us to revise our very conception of communism.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s