Tragedy and the Spectacle

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Violence is not pre-political, as Hannah Arandt claimed. It is precisely the stratification of violence by implication; violence as the very center of sovereignty. Bataille's economics represents a reconfiguration of the role of sovereignty in the economy. Thus far, most apologists of capitalism qualify their vision of the market by subordinating it to a cultural structure which would keep it in check, or if culture is absent from their discourse, then by a system of ethics designed precisely to justify capitalism. On the other hand, apologists of Marxism would have us subordinate culture to an economics of crisis; the terms of which can only be enunciated with the atomization of both culture and the economy as interchangeable constituents. Debord's 'spectacle' is framed as a vehicle of control, while Bataille's 'tragedy' is framed as an entropic inevitability. Their meeting point is in tragedy's ritual appropriation of the spectacle.

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In Bataille's writings, he consistently returns to a tragic conception of economy, which reaches into history and psychoanalysis along with theology and religion, all overlapping and finding their way through one another in ontic flashes and biomorphic confusions. Though the tragedy is always present, ever ready to announce the end and birth of a cycle, it often lays claim to unexpected victims, as the very configuration which made possible such historical cleavings could only be uncovered in a performative historicism, acting and interpreting the world from a position beyond good and evil. Bataille's economic reading of violence unseats sovereignty, as sovereignty's very conditions are such that its representation, even when hypostasisized, are embedded into social transactions. We only ever get fulgurations of sovereignty; sovereignty announcing itself in moments of intensity, not as the subject or result of intensity, but as that which is revealed to have been seated in the midst of it. It is, like the Tao, that which is still, just as it is that which ever evades one's grasp.

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Bataille's fascination with the mystery cults seems to have been quite in keeping with Nietzsche's (of whom Bataille was an avid if peculiar philosophical disciple). Nietzsche certainly took the whole of western values to task through measures remarkably similar from an ontological perspective as those which were codified by the various initiatic orders of the orient, the east and Europe. There is often in Nietzsche's philosophy the sometimes shrill, sometimes nuanced accent of a very perennial project which calls for the transformation of the self (the transvaluation of one's values, if you will), using a set of signs which christiandom, idealist philosophy and years of maladapted cultural habit had hidden from western society's consideration. Where the warrior classes and the aristocrats had their basic exoteric folk religions to practice by day, by night the mystery cults could act for them as access points to an esoteric unity with the divine through the use of unorthodox, highly secretive measures. If the signatures of their transformations varied, the nature of the transformation itself was often similar: one's perspective became integrated with and, paradoxically, individuated from life in a supreme state of emotional, psychological, intellectual and spiritual invulnerability. One sees something akin to a sort of personal initiation coming to fruition in the aftermath of suffering in Nietzsche's 'free spirit.' Such a transformation is outlined as follows: 'A soul in which the type of “free spirit” can attain maturity and completeness had its decisive and deciding event in the form of a great emancipation or unbinding, and that prior to that event it seemed only the more firmly and forever chained to its place and pillar… The great liberation comes suddenly to such prisoners, like an earthquake: the young soul is all at once shaken, torn apart, cast forth — it comprehends not itself what is taking place. An involuntary onward impulse rules them with the mastery of command; a will, a wish are developed to go forward… a mutinous, willful, volcanic-like longing for a far away journey…' And: 'A man of such destiny … basks in a special fine sun of his own, with a feeling of birdlike freedom, birdlike visual power, birdlike irrepressibleness, a something extraneous (Drittes) in which curiosity and delicate disdain have united. A “free spirit” — this refreshing term is grateful in any mood, it almost sets one aglow. One lives — no longer in the bonds of love and hate, without a yes or no, here or there indifferently, best pleased to evade, to avoid, to beat about, neither advancing nor retreating…' Nietzsche, however, had not a daytime exoteric practice to compliment his nocturnal initiations through extreme physical suffering and euphoric exaltation as the ancients did. Nietzsche, whose whole philosophy of the future was itself a radical antiquation, had only the history of western thought to which he would inevitably frame himself as a heretic, in that his premise depended entirely on the notion of western thought's unconscious subordination to the very slave morality responsible for burying the arcane transfiguration he would have favored in the ancient, reaching even back to Socrates. There is always, in Nietzsche's work, the very pronounced measure in which the individuation of a disciple of amor fati would, paradoxically, have to cost him the entire world, though that is, in the end, only the illusion of a false morality which has been lost. Bataille's appreciation of the mystery cults was not so surreptitious as Nietzsche's. Bataille would actually start his own, which would be called Acéphale. Just as it is with all mysteries, in keeping with the nature of esotericism in general, what we don't know about it is integral to what we do. Though sifting through notes and hearsay may well develope in one the prejudice that Bataille's religious endeavors with Acéphale were clumsy, it is also certainly the case that it is Acéphale where Bataille's radicalization of Nietzschean doctrine, along with the mystery cults, coalesced into a hermetic unity which would, in traditional ritual fashion, employ those gestures and channel those energies which, where otherwise unchecked, would only manifest in a destructive manner. But to keep such forces in check through the vulgar register of political legislation or philosophical deduction would be taking it too far the other direction; perhaps leading to something no better than what would become ideological systems or formalized ethical structures (universals). One systematizes such forces, to no avail, in order to strong-arm them, working against rather than with them. Where ritual gestures coextend with esoteric truths, systems, whether philosophical or otherwise, freeze one pattern in the whole eternal, ever shifting ring of existence in such a way that particular forces can be appropriated and perpetuated - or, in other words, mastered. All the while, we are at the mercy of such patterns; ever the expression of a labyrinthine unfolding of phenomena which is always acting out the highest degrees of its own agency, far beyond our ability to fully appropriate, explain or reify any ultimate conclusion or intention. We are thus hosts where ideas live in, through and beyond; the ideas simply being our partial apprehension of our own impotence. It becomes the ever paradoxical, returning theme of Nietzsche's work that various moralities and idealogical systems are not aware of the mechanism responsible for their own existence and that one's ever keener awareness of these mechanisms manifests, paradoxically, in both an unmasking of truth itself and the necessity of performance, of expression as the only realm of ever-unfolding truth in the dynamism of power.

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Tragedy is an essential appropriation of privation.

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An unpublished note in Nietzsche's writings incited René Girard to assign him a role as the greatest theologian. 'The death of Dionysus and the death of Christ were in every way the same. It is only how they were interpreted which was different.' Girard's feeling for these sacrificial events in mythology is entirely registered through an ethical project. The fundamental key to truth in the Girardian reading of the Gospels is ultimately that the cross reveals the real nature of violence. It is quite right of the Roman Church to imminentize Christ's death as an event existing outside of time, as the very abstraction of cause and effect is necessary if calvary is to amount to anything more than a clever literary device; something akin to a satire of heathen superstitions concerning diety's perennial link to civil unrest. Christ's death, rather, was the entropic center of history's movement away from the tragic event itself; the last tragedy, proper, as the new beginning of western history... the tragedy by which all others after it would execute their purpose in its name. One sees in revolutionary communism something altogether unprecedented in the realm of mimetic rivalry; we see the inversion of the Christian ethic of neighbor love adopted by the mob which, in antiquity, would have been blind to it. Revolutions always hope to bring about events which end history through acts of final justice but which are always, paradoxically, tragedies. In revolutionary measures, we see the first great instances of ideological violence, which is to say, violence which exists outside of the spectrum of ethics; violence which is carried out against itself in an act of squandering which will not rely even on its own narrative, as its own narrative is wholly insufficient if not imminentized to the degree that it completely does away with the need to recognize a world beyond its own premises. The narrative swallows the economy. It accelerates the leveling, internalizing mechanism in Christianity which, theologically, manifests an appropriation of the law by the individual. Christ's fulfillment of the law means nothing less than a standardization of ethical ascension; the sermon on the mount indicating through its every anecdote and precept that the law as mere writ is no longer sufficient for the project of conditioning one's activity toward the flourishing of humans within the social domain. In both Christianity and communism, anecdotes are given for what once stood as the space of an ontological privation. In the case of Christianity, this privation, this distance, was precisely where God resided under the law. The gospel itself was the cancellation of divine privation; man's immediate access to it through the revelation of Christ and, following him, the Holy Spirit. Likewise, communism's promise was to cancel material privation; a space in which class distinctions announced themselves.

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It could be said that there is a degree to which all ideological structures, which include everything from religions to standardized economic programs, are primarily means of narrativizing (ritualizing) spaces of privation on the one hand and surplus on the other. Spatial grafts can be extracted from theological formulas to bring this claim to a point, specifically, in the cases of yoga and western mysticism. Yoga represents an internalization of all phenomena (an imminentization of privation), Western mysticism a projection of integrated value into phenomena (a transcendentalization of surplus). The two projects are not as different as they first appear, especially if one allows oneself a slight semantic reallocation in emphasis. Also, there is the above mentioned anecdote of Christ, who is himself the law and thus, an invitation for his disciples to internalize this very law. This is not unlike Kant's categorical imperative taken to the extreme; that the law, once internalized, may be projected back into the world to be appropriated once again by others. But the passage to this internalization of law is marked by the event of a tragedy and hidden by spectacle. The tragic element enters this sequence as Christ knowingly follows the formula of scandal, in Girard's view, in order to reveal the nature of man's violence to himself. He does consciously what other mythic figures had befall them as an inevitable part of their respective fates, quite unconsciously. Christ allowed himself to be destroyed by a mob, aware all the while that it would be misunderstood by all but a few.

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One can distinguish the whole of western culture to be the distillation of a self-enfolding irony concerning violence.

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The crisis of our age enlists varied philosophical interpretations, each with varied politicized implications, but it ultimately comes to a head in three particular thinkers who critique modernity from within. They are Nietzsche, Heidegger and Marx. By no stretch of the imagination, it could be said that they, at different points in their work, each tackle a problem which is essentially the same one seen from different positions. For Nietzsche, it is nihilism. For Heidegger, it is metaphysics. For Marx, it is capital. Heidegger addresses the problem which Nietzsche addresses in terms of his own thought, and as much as he tries to move beyond Nietzsche, he ends up saying much of the same only stripped of Nietzsche's particular mythological vision. Nietzsche, concerned with how particulars relate to the whole, needed the death of God to say something much bigger. His announcement was ultimately the death of an object which had escaped us; something which had over time lost substance even as it became the space into which man dumped all of his fears and explained away the neurotic history he had carved for himself. We see the greatest idea anyone has ever been able to conceive subject to the same destruction experienced by gods of old, such as Dionysus, Odin and Christ himself. 'God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?' - The Gay Science

It is not simply a project meant to own up to a colossal historical mistake which Nietzsche sets out for us, but the inevitable end (beginning?) of a cycle from which he himself cannot escape and rather embraces in all of its varied mythological permutations, the nearest at hand being the Christian God of Europeans. Behind the histrionics and vitriol Nietzsche hurls at Christianity, we see a deeper concern which constitutes the very crisis of nihilism. Nietzsche didn't have the time or the temperament to conduct a more thorough critique of his contemporaries, most of whom were steeped in big-I Idealism, constantly reconfiguring Hegelian dialectic, often (if only unconsciously) to the service of creating ever new and untouchable monads, Absolutes, Gods and Principles by which man could retain his Christian subservience to forces which would, according to Nietzsche's philosophy, feed and encourage parasitic tendencies. Christianity represented for Nietzsche the extreme limit of what it was possible for an idea to become when it sufficiently dodged every intellectual deterrent, when it accumulated every piece of comfort it needed to survive and to perpetuate itself beyond the intentions and trajectory even of its own progenitors and prozyletizers. Nihilism's ultimate horror, in Nietzsche's work, is that the immediate intellectual and emotional satiation it offers ultimately has long term consequences which lead to degeneration and self destruction, both to the individual and to culture at large. Nihilism's intellectual service cannot so easily untangle itself from its emotional component, which the francophile Nietzsche francophied in the term 'ressentiment.' 'The problem with the other origin of the “good,” of the good man, as the person of ressentiment has thought it out for himself, demands some conclusion. It is not surprising that the lambs should bear a grudge against the great birds of prey, but that is no reason for blaming the great birds of prey for taking the little lambs. And when the lambs say among themselves, "These birds of prey are evil, and he who least resembles a bird of prey, who is rather its opposite, a lamb,—should he not be good?" then there is nothing to carp with in this ideal's establishment, though the birds of prey may regard it a little mockingly, and maybe say to themselves, "We bear no grudge against them, these good lambs, we even love them: nothing is tastier than a tender lamb."' - The Genealogy of Morals

We also see a thorough investigation of the psychology of what Nietzsche called slave morality in a passage from Kierkegaard which one might say could have easily been written by Nietzsche: '…. ressentiment becomes the constituent principle of want of character, which from utter wretchedness tries to sneak itself a position, all the time safeguarding itself by conceding that it is less than nothing. The ressentiment which results from want of character can never understand that eminent distinction really is distinction. Neither does it understand itself by recognizing distinction negatively (as in the case of ostracism) but wants to drag it down, wants to belittle it so that it really ceases to be distinguished. And ressentiment not only defends itself against all existing forms of distinction but against that which is still to come. …. The ressentiment which is establishing itself is the process of leveling, and while a passionate age storms ahead setting up new things and tearing down old, raising and demolishing as it goes, a reflective and passionless age does exactly the contrary; it hinders and stifles all action; it levels. Leveling is a silent, mathematical, and abstract occupation which shuns upheavals. In a burst of momentary enthusiasm people might, in their despondency, even long for a misfortune in order to feel the powers of life, but the apathy which follows is no more helped by a disturbance than an engineer leveling a piece of land. At its most violent a rebellion is like a volcanic eruption and drowns every other sound. At its maximum the leveling process is a deathly silence in which one can hear one’s own heart beat, a silence which nothing can pierce, in which everything is engulfed, powerless to resist. One man can be at the head of a rebellion, but no one can be at the head of the leveling process alone, for in that case he would be leader and would thus escape being leveled. Each individual within his own little circle can co-operate in the leveling, but it is an abstract power, and the leveling process is the victory of abstraction over the individual. The leveling process in modern times, corresponds, in reflection, to fate in antiquity. ... It must be obvious to everyone that the profound significance of the leveling process lies in the fact that it means the predominance of the category ‘generation’ over the category "individuality".' — The Present Age

Marxists would later perfectly embody this tendency for the morality of ressentiment to collect others en masse, in order to level what Kierkegaard called 'individuality.' But is there something within Marx's very critique of capital which contains better soil for the seeds of ressentiment, or is Nietzsche simply a step ahead of Marx in predicting the wider implications of his critique? In retrospect, it is easy to say that Marx and Nietzsche are fundamentally on opposite poles, with Marx endorsing the slave morality which Nietzsche rejects. However, throughout Marx's critique of capital, we see indications that Marx must regard capitalism as a slave morality which enslaves. 'This law of capitalistic society would sound absurd to savages, or even civilised colonists. It calls to mind the boundless reproduction of animals individually weak and constantly hunted down.' Or, 'The religious world is but the reflex of the real world. And for a society based upon the production of commodities, in which the producers in general enter into social relations with one another by treating their products as commodities and values, whereby they reduce their individual private labour to the standard of homogeneous human labour – for such a society, Christianity with its cultus of abstract man, more especially in its bourgeois developments, Protestantism, Deism, &c., is the most fitting form of religion.' Historically, communism, violent agent of that act of 'leveling', has received precisely the same criticism as capitalism does in Marx. We see in Marx a criticism of religion insofar as it becomes his project to map confluences between power structures, both in a socio-historical sense, and even if not explicit, in an ontological sense, as God is the ultimate value and, therefore, the trajectory of meaning in a world of meaning and value. When God is removed, we have only narratives and values assigned to them, often to the benefit of people who just happen to be in a position by which they are best suited to perpetuate the signals and circumstances of their own power by these very narratives and values. Marx's charge against capitalism, in many ways, ends up looking much like Nietzsche's charge against the values of the Enlightenment, which are ultimately still thoroughly Christian; capitalism and the values of the Enlightenment have the same origin. Nietzsche's critique of European industry is ultimately not unthinkable in relation to Marx, insofar as Nietzsche is critical of that which is responsible for capitalism, if not capitalism itself. 'Soldiers and leaders still have far better relationships with each other than workers and employers. So far at least, culture that rests on a military basis still towers above all so-called industrial culture: the latter in present shape is altogether the most vulgar form of existence that has existed. Here one is at the mercy of brute need; one wants to live and has to sell oneself, but one despises those who exploit this need and buy the worker.' - The Gay Science, Nietzsche

Are we to conclude then that Nietzsche was simply a better prophet than Marx? After all, a passage of Ecce Homo paints a more striking picture of what would follow in the century after Nietzsche's death than anything Marx predicted, his economic critique aside. 'For when Truth battles against the lies of millennia there will be shock waves, earthquakes, the transposition of hills and valleys such as the world has never yet imagined even in its dreams. The concept "politics” then becomes entirely absorbed into the realm of spiritual warfare.  All the mighty worlds of the ancient order of society are blown into space—for they are all based on lies: there will be wars the like of which have never been seen on earth before.' - Ecce Homo, Nietzsche

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Are we to suppose, quite simply, that Nietzsche's 'transvaluation of all values' is different from Marxist revolution only in degree, and that an individual can transform himself while world transformation would simply require the consensus of those who had been harmed by millenia of lies? No. Rather, it is the very millenia of lies - lies which had survived their symbolic hosts so well, which is to say, their religions, their cultures, their peoples - which come to a point precisely when they demand justice against that which created them, and at precisely the moment when that which created them can no longer deliver what once satiated their moral sense. The crisis of nihilism ultimately turns the intoxicating forces of destruction themselves into the divine agency, the heavenly wrath of a justice which has, as its ultimate endgame, an act of leveling so complete that it extinguishes all injustices in one fell blow. Not only can lies survive revolutions, but lies can constitute them. The question remains, what does Nietzsche frame as 'truth' when he speaks of a 'truth' which will do battle with millennia of lies? Is it not the very recognition of our inability to escape from the destructions both causing and resulting from ressentiment? For Nietzsche, the decisive moment in existence cannot be the indication of tragedy itself, nor the passions caused by the resultant ressentiment which would stir one to action, but the moment in which one recognizes the transvaluation which must take place if one is to take on the weight of one's existence and master the inevitability of becoming itself - the project which Nietzsche referred to as turning becoming into being. Nietzsche - ultimately suspicious of being itself, along with the whole reality of the ontological question as amounting to anything more than a late-stage phenomenon or a mere effect of the complex nervous system - nevertheless positions his concerns, even if partially unbeknownst to himself, within the same realm as Heidegger, who searches for the being which has been lost, but which we may recognize again by weighing it against death. Nietzsche, however, doesn't focus on death, but rather, the many small deaths to be found in life's sufferings, which he sacralizes by re-addressing the ancient doctrine of eternal return, in which there is no crude escape from life, whether in the form of destructive nihilism or the salve of theology, but only life itself, the terrible possibility that even death is no escape (confluent to samsara in Eastern thought). The heroic moment is activated when this possibility, this horror of all horrors, is rather accepted as a gift - each pain and suffering redeemed by every pleasure, every increase in power and fulfillment. The acephalic symbol so central to Bataille's concerns marks the moment of the very event of transvaluation itself. Bataille wanted to mark the date of Louis XVI's beheading as a holiday - a holy moment in which scandal itself reveals the true nature of sovereignty. The removing of the head of sovereignty is, at once, an act of sovereignty beyond that which has been set as the seat of sovereignty, and also a recognition that there is always an act of destruction involved in the nature and recognition of sovereignty. Bataille says at the end of The Accursed Share that 'sovereignty is nothing.' While this statement is just as weighted and potentially misleading as Nietzsche's declaration that 'God is dead,' there still remains the ambiguity and the ultimate paradox inherent to this formula in which a power to both destroy and take up one's sovereign seat belongs to the same sequence of events. The truth Nietzsche speaks of which will do away with millennia of lies is not simply a matter of false information, but rather, the recognition of the tragic act as a potential agent of power no matter what tragedy is being dealt with (truth), or the self destruction of ressentiment (lies). Truth in Bataille's general economy and in Nietzsche's will to power is ultimately an esoteric venture. They are inescapably inscribed with the same concerns which have manifested in religion, the polis and the market, but because what they are dealing with is responsible for the latter and not the other way around, they occupy a place of quite secondary and even low importance in the works of both Bataille and Nietzsche. Nietzsche's liberation of the free spirit, along with Bataille and Girard's differing emphasis on human sacrifice, along with Marx's critique of capital and Heidegger's critique of metaphysics offers a rich set of possibilities as to what is to be done with surplus. Even what Nietzsche poses as a lie, that is, the destruction offered by the nihilism of ressentiment, is merely one interpretation of what is to be done with surplus. The Dionysian act of squandering surplus in frenzied celebration, and the Apollonian act of ordering, of storing up energies to create surplus which can then be dealt with aristocratically as one sees fit, are signatures not of an infinite power but and endless will toward it, playing itself out in infinite, varied forms. Nietzsche refers to his philosophy as a philosophy of the future for, as is true in esotericism, inspiration, the moment of gnosis, is to be discovered as the ultimate possibility of what has been hiding all along in the present and in the past, to which only the future lays claim to any revelatory right.