17. Mar 2020
Edmund Berger / Movement in the Dead Lands
A development that repeats, as it were, stages that have already been passed, but repeats them in a different way, on a higher basis (“the negation of the negation”), a development, so to speak, that proceeds in spirals, not in a straight line; a development by leaps, catastrophes, and revolutions; “breaks in continuity”; the transformation of quantity into quality; inner impulses towards development, imparted by the contradiction and conflict of the various forces and tendencies acting on a given body, or within a given phenomenon, or within a given society; the interdependence and the closest and indissoluble connection between all aspects of any phenomenon (history constantly revealing ever new aspects), a connection that provides a uniform, and universal process of motion, one that follows definite laws—these are some of the features of dialectics as a doctrine of development that is richer than the conventional one.
I. Then (Positive Catastrophe)
Somewhere near the beginning of Predictions of Fire, Michael Benson’s abstract “documentary” about the history and thematic palette of NSK, the spectator is invited to watch a pair of photograph editors dismantling a large rendering of the face of Stalin. As each frame is carefully removed, what is revealed behind the image is not the hollowness of the frame, but the cosmos itself, with the great illuminated galactic bands spiraling out into the black void. Against this image a voice-over intones the importance of myth and illusion in steering the locomotive of history:
Historiographers are gradually coming to the realization that history itself is in fact a series of consensual myths. It’s not necessarily a nation’s past that shapes its mythology, but mythology that shapes its past. Within this recurring pattern, the history of an entire people is actually no more than a collective projection – an illusion shared by millions.
What Benson’s documentary brings to the fore, though it remains largely unstated, is the importance of catastrophe to the artistic output of NSK. Their method has been a kind of archaeological excavation of the intersection between the great political catastrophes of the twentieth century and the avant-garde currents that moved in lockstep with these developments. It is this latter prong that reveals the deeper catastrophe that moves beneath the titanic gears of the political: the visions of the future presented by the avant-garde provided a palpable form for the sense that modernity itself was catastrophic, ceaselessly putting into motion things birthed from the ruination of the past. It was at the dawn of the modern epoch that Joseph de Maistre wrote of a “profound event in the divine order, toward which we are marching with an accelerated speed that must strike all observers. Terrible oracles already announce that the time has come.”
Maistre was speaking in the context of the French Revolution, a moment that marked the intense rupture in the ordering of heaven and earth. His words echo, curiously enough for a man of his Catholic standing, those of Martin Luther, who looked out across the turbulence of the Reformation and saw time itself in the movement of a great speed-up, careening along by divine will into the promise of Apocalypse. Between Luther and Maistre stood Robespierre, who too felt a sudden change in the nature of time, one that would be aided by human hand to realize not the religious promise of Parousia, but its reflection in secularized form: the earthly Golden Age.
It is in this unruly ferment of political change, compounded by sweeping cultural, technological, and economic transformations, that the idea of “progress” as a process capable of constituting history first emerged—and as Jean Starobinski had noted, “the word civilization /…/ entered the history of ideas at the same time as the modern sense of progress”. But civilization and progress, the leitmotifs of the Enlightenment epoch, were joined by the introduction of another concept, one whose arrival has been sketched tirelessly by Reinhart Koselleck: that of crisis. In this triad of concepts one finds the defining characteristics of modernity: unrelenting change, mad creation and feverish destruction, all unified and bound together in an inseparable way. Progress and crisis are but two faces of the same thing, and it is for this reason that the dark clouds of catastrophe—be it appended in positive or negative forms—hang low over whatever landscape where development might deposit itself.
Such a unity might best be grasped by taking the observation of Jules Michelet, resurrected by Benjamin in The Arcades Project, and Adorno’s sharp counterpoint to it, holding them together not as antithetical stances but in a fractious dialectic. The first: “Each epoch dreams of the one that follows”; and the second: “The recent past always presents itself as though annihilated by catastrophes.” The dreaming gives way to catastrophe, and in the catastrophe lay the stuff of the dreams—but these dreams are not those of idle contemplation. These are dreams of action and construction, to move the hand of history surely as one is moved by it.
There’s a temptation here to read all this in a linear manner, as if time’s jet-stream exploded from the old and tired cycles and ran headlong into the future. But dreams, or myths, don’t work this way. Instead, they flow out across time, even reaching into the depths of the past though they remain concentrated on some age to come. Hence the essential point in Benson’s quote: the semantics of history, as the expression of an untamable catastrophe, bleed through into the consciousness of myth, and are scrambled along the axis of a temporal order that is no longer made intelligible. From this perspective, the clearest articulation of this dynamic comes from Marx’s 18th Brumaire, where the bourgeois revolutionaries—whose actions aided and abetted the emergence of modernity, here realized not only as a civilization organized through the circuits of the abstract subject, capital, but as the only ground from which “history” can be articulated—had to don character masks and become “resurrected Romans” in order to constitute themselves. There’s a direct passage from these pages of Marx to Ernst Bloch’s appraisal of the revolutionary possibilities of the “not-yet-conscious”, and from Bloch to Benjamin’s images and dreamt-of epochs: the curving lines of catastrophe and anticipation along the wide arcs of a spiral.
To the hardened materialist, this might sound at first blush to be a retreat into the comfort of romantic idealism: the Idea, be it of progress, the self or the nation, rippling across the plateaus of time in its rush towards a final crystallization. Yet it’s in the 18th Brumaire and its invocation of character masks that we find the germ of Marx’s later analysis of fetishism and ideology. In the opening chapter of the first volume of Marx’s Capital, we find the argument that the commodity appears before us as a “mysterious thing”, as an object or artifact that, despite having emerged from the human brain and laboring processes, is suddenly “endowed with a life [of] its own”. But this isn’t so simple as to be a case of mistaken identity: on the one hand, this fetishism fosters an illusion whose seductions blind people from perceiving the real operations that move beneath them, but on the other, the capitalist system operates as if this illusion were true—or, more properly, operative. Capitalism, in the words of Sohn-Rethel, is the work of a “real abstraction”, an abstraction that moves and shapes material things.
Marx’s answer to the claims that this itself might be a recourse to idealism: “This Fetishism of commodities has its origins /…/ in the peculiar social character of the labor that produces them.” Or, in other words: the Idea is rooted in the material, as the conceptual reflection of these real social relations. It would be Althusser who takes this a step further by turning back to the work of the Jansenist theologian Blaise Pascal, in whose Pensées we find a most curious formula for the voluntary induction of belief. For Pascal, one must act before one believes: the would-be Catholic convert finds themselves in a state of belief by giving themselves over and working through the elaborate system of rituals that constitute the Mass: genuflection, the repetition of prayer, the Eucharistic rites. “Kneel down, move your lips in prayer and you will believe.” The structure is organized by ritual, and the active participation in the ritual produces habit. With habit, Althusser argues, the Idea disappears, the terms “subject, consciousness, belief, actions” are foregrounded, and “practices, rituals [and] ideological apparatus” are introduced.
The other great reader of both Marx and Pascal was also the great prophet of the generative myth: Georges Sorel. In many respects, his approach directly presages Bloch’s own by breaking this operation out of its ideological shell and finds it the place where anticipation leads to practice. It takes us out from the world of Capital and back to that of the 18th Brumaire. While Sorel’s critics have charged his own work as having been little more than a headlong flight into romanticism—even priming history for the emergence of fascism—a close reading of his work finds little to support these charges. There, the cause of the myth, particularly the myth of the proletarian revolution and the general strike, was found in the very materiality of the world, with effects that are ultimately material—a dynamic leading, in Sorel’s opinion, to the reinvigoration of a modernity that had grown stagnant and weak. It becomes a question of time: “[W]e are unable to act without leaving the present,” he notes, but then adds that when it comes to the myth, it is a matter of “framing /…/ the future in some indeterminate time”. Through its effects, the myth carries out an invocation of a future.
While Sorel would have been horrified at the implications, having always been hostile to what he considered to be an undue Hegelian influence on Marxist thought, I cannot help but see in this split—the grounding of the myth in the structures of the present, yet angled towards an undetermined future—a reflection of Marx’s own depiction of a Janus-faced capitalism, one that eternalizes the present, yet fosters within itself, against itself, the makings of a new world. As Marx said in 1856: “In our days, everything seems pregnant with its contrary.”
II. Now (Negative Catastrophe)
In The Sublime Object of Ideology, Slavoj Žižek suggests that Marx’s formula for the “classic concept of ideology”—“they do not know it, but they are doing it”—can no longer be found to be applicable in the present moment. Instead, we’re faced with a situation where “they know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it”. What this means is that although at some level there is no longer any active belief in the illusions of the system, it persists, as people continue to act as though they believe. The old subject of ideology is supplanted by the “cynical subject”, one who is “quite aware of the distance between the ideological mask and social reality, but /…/ none the less still insists upon the mask” (the question of whether or not this insistence is itself the determination, in the final moments, of structural habit can be left aside).
The cynical subject arises from the double pincer of two intertwined imperatives: “There is no alternative” and “Do what makes you feel good”. The first of these, spoken by Margaret Thatcher but what in reality is the primary dictum of postmodern capitalism, conceals a temporal movement: there is no alternative because no other future is deemed possible. All possibilities other than the now have been blotted out, and history is eclipsed by an all-encompassing non-historical space. The second imperative, which elevates individual desire to the level of the highest good, is the urge to embrace this weightlessness, because it is in it that true freedom can ever be truly realized. If the former imperative negates, the latter affirms, and the need for an alternative order is effectively removed.
What’s remarkable about this dual formulation is that it doesn’t arrive at a moment when capitalism has reached a position of maximum strength, with a paralleled increase in the maximum freedom for all individuals. It arrives, by contrast, right when the system has entered into a retrograde state. Pivoting towards Marxian economics: the rate of profit, that fundamental fault line of capitalism, has fallen, and alongside it we have witnessed the decline of world trade and rates of productivity. Wages have been stagnant for decades, and the gaps in income level between classes have grown into a vast chasm. There’s a word, so unpopular now, for this situation which captures the state of affairs more accurately than ‘postmodernism’ ever could: decadence.
Decadence is at once a concrete socio-techno-economic stagnation and a series of cultural manifestations of this turn, characterized in various times and places as either a tendency towards a non-redemptive apocalypse (such as movement towards the still, motionless cosmos of universal heat death) or a motionless, unmoving present (such as the hyperreality of Baudrillard, where the drift of entropy cannot be said to apply). It is the ideal playground for the cynical subject, even if the latter does not openly register the hollowing out of real possibility, for at this point there is little to actively believe in. The force of myth is diminished: “[C]ynicism itself abolishes the utility of myth.”
Yet for Sorel, this was precisely where the myth—as fuel for the engine of proletarian struggle—needed to assert itself. His time, too, was lorded over by decadence, which elsewhere I’ve identified as being the “Long Depression” that swept the world from the 1870s to 1890s. Swapping Hegel for Vico, he seized the latter’s vision of history—history not as a cycle, but a spiral characterized by both a forward movement and a pattern of correspondences between distinct phases, the last of which bears witness to decline and collapse. But then, in that moment of collapse, the recorso or return! The third phase gives way to the new instantiation of the first, and a process of renewal, capable of actualizing the promises that have been deferred by the decline, comes into existence. Sorel, writing in a period of decadence, saw in the myth of the general strike and the struggle that grounds it the means to a historical renewal. What once was inert begins to move once again.
III. Tomorrow (Complex Catastrophe)
These twilight hours of postmodern decadence are haunted by a sense of aesthetic desperation, a sort of existence in limbo where, shrouded in darkness, one grasps blindly for a source of light. This search signals the feeling of a particular alignment, an oblique unity between aesthetics (however abstract this notion might be here) and a sense of futurity. While an alignment of this sort has had a long and troubled history, it has also been long established in the annals of Marxist thought. In Socialism and Philosophy, the Italian philosopher Antonio Labriola for example described how in “society of the future /…/ in which we live with our hopes” the “number of men who will be able to discourse with that divine joy in research and that heroic courage of truth” will “grow out of all proportion”, while the “means of culture” will be opened to all. Meanwhile, Henri Lefebvre, in his Introduction to Modernity, wrote of art as “always the highest form of creative work”, portending a “higher physical fulfillment” and “reintegration of art into life” that would allow the “man of the future” to “enjoy the earth like a work of art”.
With this search, much like with the myth (which we might say is fundamentally connected to the aesthetic dimension), there is the danger of lapsing into aestheticism. This passive act is itself always a symptom found in periods of decadence, as evidenced by those in the fin-de-siècle who were content with the art of the recline as means of escaping the real. Indeed, aesthetic desperation can easily be routed into this cul-de-sac, but at the same time there is little reason to regard it as the only possible outcome. The other potential is aligned with that inverse of decadence that I have labeled the developmental sublime, the joyous fear and trembling that emerges in the wake of space’s destabilization by time and the immense expansion of man’s power. It is the thrill of the uncertain chaos called forth by great projects. The developmental sublime, in all of its faces, has been the historical zone where the avant-gardes have inserted themselves, being the people who position themselves with one foot in this world and one in a world to come.
Postmodernism has been notoriously hostile to the notion of the avant-garde, relegating it to the same dustbin with all the other great narratives that typified modernist thought. The Constructivist’s sprawling metal creations are displaced by kitschy, ephemeral objects—or even worse, forms of art that conduct political commentaries on the world they are embedded in, all the while taking care not to transgress its most hallowed rules (which is to say: they celebrate transgression as a spectacular act, but avoid the “pitfall” of dogmatism). Anything that carries with it the weight of history, even if that weight is only present in its negation, is banished in favor of the colorful play of differentiating surfaces. Melting forms divested of content, affirmed only insofar as no new content appears.
NSK’s IRWIN, right at the dawn of capitalism’s global triumph, posed a radical counterpoint to this tendency. While their work seemed to bear the marks of postmodernism in that they pulled together signs that had been scattered across time and space, so closely resembling the tactic of recombination, the signs they intentionally chose were those invested with great historical weight. Symbols of the dark moments of European history (Christian iconography, fascistic ephemera, signifiers of the Soviet rule) were made to return right at the moment when the world was going online, about to be crisscrossed by electronic flows of information and money. Among other things, IRWIN’s was an ironical re-assertion of a nationalist past in the moment when nationalism seemed a thing of the past, a return of repressed ideology in the so-called post-ideological moment, the history at the end of history.
One of the most striking elements in IRWIN’s arsenal was the name they gave to their practice: retro-avant-garde. It’s a paradoxical formulation: the avant-garde is by nature oriented towards the future, while “retro” is the signal of one facing the past. It brings to mind what Roland Barthes said in an interview with Tel Quel in 1971 (a moment similar to IRWIN’s own, being in the middle of the transition from modernism to postmodernism): “I could say that my own historical proposition /…/ is that to be in the rearguard of the avant-garde, to belong to the avant-garde means to know what is dead, to belong to the rearguard means still loving it.” Or, in other words: to be avant-garde in the current era means, in a staggering reversal, to love something that has been exhausted. It was for this reason that Antoine Compagnon placed Barthes in the lineage, alongside Maistre, Chateaubriand, and Baudelaire, of the “anti-moderns”—individuals who, realizing that they themselves were modernists, were nonetheless reluctant modernists, perpetually out of joint with their moment. Like the symbols churned up by IRWIN, the anti-modern current of modernism cannot be reduced to either the political left or right, with the coordinates of progressivism and reaction becoming scrambled in the face of a history whose movements have yet to submit to any sort of control.
Boris Groys takes us even closer to the heart of the matter by suggesting that revolution, which is intended to herald the new, is always a matter of returning to the point in time prior to decadence and decline. The Sorelian resonances are on full display: on the one hand, we have the force of the myth lurking in the background, in the belief that decadence cannot persist, and on the other we have the figure of the recorso marking a deep cut in time, shattering the all too traditional ideas of cyclical history and all too modern ideas of linearity. The deeper implication of Groys’ insight is that on some level, the modern revolution is always a matter of the modern/anti-modern position, denying the hard determination of one side or the other.
IRWIN, of course, isn’t an uncritical celebration of all forms, neither is it the unconditional critique many have made it out to be. There is no guarantee of a strictly revolutionary, in the leftist sense of the word, monopoly on these dynamics. Moving from then to now, we can see the same paradox in play in the now quiet current of Neoreaction, which blends a longing for traditional forms of life and governance (often blaming its despair on the modernizing forces of democracy) with ultramodern technologies and techniques. In some of his earliest writings on the subject, Nick Land described Neoreaction as an “occult pact between the future and the past” against the domination of the present, and elsewhere as the “obscure synthesis” of “the time of escape and the time of return”. Land would probably regard this suggestion with horror, but perhaps the best way to understand Neoreaction—which, make no mistake, has a clear political agenda—is first and foremost an aesthetic program, born from this same sense of aesthetic desperation. The same can be said of the closely related field of Accelerationism: in its capacity as an –ism, we can see it as an iteration of the developmental sublime, as a desire to fold oneself within the fiery turbulence of modernizing processes, to become an automatic bearer who discovers a masochistic revelry in their artificiality. Neoreaction emerges when the actualization of this celestial-mechanical dynamo is denied, and the cross-historical search for a reinvigorating scaffolding goes into motion. This is why Land writes that “Neoreaction is Accelerationism with a flat tire”.
A synthesis of the “time of escape” and “time of return” would also be an accurate description of the experience of looking to the proletarian revolution from the position of postmodern decadence: it is a time of escape, because it is founded on the promise of ending both the present stagnation and the wider historical era that has produced it, and it is a time of return because one must, like Barthes, love what is dead. The communist again aligns with the avant-garde, but does so in a paradoxical manner because they are compelled to return to a previous time, in a reversal of Marx’s 18th Brumaire: the lines between “world-historical necromancy” and the “poetry of the future” blur. The modernity that incubated the communist project is in the rearview mirror—but in the Now, the ability of inhabiting the ambiguous place of the anti-modern modernists is no longer an option, because the very ground that the modernist stands upon has been swept away. One must be, as Mark Fisher described, a modernist cut adrift in postmodernism—but this must be tempered with Fredric Jameson’s crucial insight, which is that one lacks the ability to position themselves outside of postmodernity. Purity of repetition is impossible—and undesirable—and what fractured shards of the modern that can be grasped will be invested with a completely different kind of meaning.
Here, in the year 2019, we stand at the end of a decade of paradoxes and reversal—but maybe the winds betray a hint of warmth. The light still hasn’t been found, but the enveloping darkness is pregnant with strange signs and occulted hints. To understand them, look to the fragments jutting out through the haze of this world of vapors, and to the inhabitants who have traded their listless waiting and cynical masks for the risk-laden paths of belief.
Edmund Berger is an independent writer and researcher based in Horse Cave, Kentucky. His writings and assorted scribblings can be found at Reciprocal Contradiction and DI-Subunit 22, among other places. He can be followed on Twitter @EBBerger.
This text was published in Šum#14 – Ljubljanastrophe: Alien Perspectives
 LENIN, Vladimir, “Karl Marx: A Brief Biographical Sketch With an Exposition of Marxism”, https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1914/granat/ch02.htm.
 Quoted in GUÉNON, René, Studies in Freemasonry and the Compagnonnage, Hillsdale: Sophia Perennis, 2004, p. 129 (emphasis in original).
 “[F]or the sake of the chosen, God would shorten the final days, ‘toward which the world was speeding, since almost all of the new century had been pressed into the space of one decade’”. (KOSELLECK, Reinhart, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, New York: Columbia University Press, 2004, p. 12)
 “The time has come to call upon each to realize his own destiny. The progress of human Reason laid the basis for this great Revolution, and you shall now assume the particular duty of hastening its pace”. (Ibid)
 STAROBINSKI, Jean, Blessings in Disguise, or, the Morality of Evil, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993, p. 4.
 Koselleck’s works on the intersection of crisis, the history of philosophy and political thought, and the semantics of historical time are the aforementioned Futures Past and Critique and Crisis: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998).
 BENJAMIN, Walter, The Arcades Project, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999, pp. 4, 397.
 For an excellent discussion of the revolutionaries’ temporal character masks, see Harold Rosenberg’s “The Resurrected Romans” in his The Tradition of the New (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982, pp. 154–177).
 MARX, Karl, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I, New York: Vintage Books, 1977, p. 165.
 For a discussion about the relationship between “real abstraction” and ideology, see Alberto Toscano’s “The Open Secret of Real Abstraction” in Rethinking Marxism (Vol. 20, No. 2, April 2008, pp. 273–287).
 MARX, Capital, p. 165.
 ALTHUSSER, Louis, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971, p. 169.
 Ibid., p. 170.
 SOREL, Georges, Reflections on Violence, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 115. I mentioned earlier that this anticipatory dimension of the myth brings us close to the position staked out by Bloch. The difference between Bloch and Sorel in this matter would be that while Bloch aligns the myth with the image of utopia, Sorel continues with Marx’s attack on utopianism (though he notes that there are “very few myths which are perfectly free from any utopian element” and that the “revolutionary myths” are “almost pure” [my emphasis]). This leads aside the question of the divergence between Bloch’s utopianism and the one critiqued by Marx—and it is in this space that Benjamin’s and Adorno’s dance of dreams and catastrophes unfolds.
For an interesting discussion of Bloch and myth, see Roland Boer’s In the Vale of Tears: On Marxism and Theology, Volume V (Boston: Brill, 2014). Sorel’s comments on utopia can be found in Reflections on Violence, pp. 28–31, 74.
 MARX, Karl, “Speech at the Anniversary of the People’s Paper”,14/04/1856, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1856/04/14.htm.
 ŽIŽEK, Slavoj, The Sublime Object of Ideology, New York: Verso, 1989, pp. 24–27.
 Ibid., p. 25.
 GARTON, Vince, “The limit of modernity at the horizon of myth”, in: Cyclonograph II, 23/07/2018, https://vincentgarton.com/2018/07/23/the-limit-of-modernity-at-the-horizon-of-myth/.
 See my “Decadence and (Po)Mo” in Reciprocal Contradiction (11/11/2019, https://reciprocalcontradiction.home.blog/2019/11/11/decadence-pomo/).
 There are limits to this reading of Sorel. At the core of his conflicts with the prominent Marxist currents of his day, formalized in the Second International, was the prevalent reading of historical development in a deterministic manner, which he saw emerged from an overreliance on Hegelian thought. Models that firmly structure history are discarded by Sorel, and while the imprint of Vico’s quasi-cycle is clear on his reading of decadence and proletarian struggle, it would be incorrect to assume in this a universal scheme of development—and indeed, at various points he took to task overly metaphysical aspects in Vico’s analysis. To remedy some of these ambiguities, I prefer to read phases like “decadence” as a reflection of objective economic tendencies, namely the Marxist formulation of the rises and falls of the rate of profit. There is little contradiction between working from a non-deterministic perspective and analyzing long-term tendencies and trends. See my “Spatialization of Time/Temporalization of Space” in Reciprocal Contradiction (08/11/2019, https://reciprocalcontradiction.home.blog/2019/11/08/spatialization-of-time-temporalization-of-space/).
 I owe this term, “aesthetic desperation”, to Cockydooody. Follow him at twitter.com/cockydooody.
 LABRIOLA, Antonio, Socialism and Philosophy, Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company, 1907, p. 7. I first discovered this quote, as well as the Lefebvre quote below, in Ross Wolfe’s “Art into Life” in The Charnel House (18/03/2015, https://thecharnelhouse.org/2015/03/18/art-into-life/).
 LEFEBVRE, Henri, Introduction to Modernity, New York: Verso, 1995, p. 143.
 Mark Fisher, wearing his K-Punk mask: “[D]ogmatism is religion in the best sense. It is only through dogmatism—ruthless subordination of your Self to an impersonal system—that his majesty the Ego can be crushed.” (K-Punk, 17/02/2005, http://k-punk.abstractdynamics.org/archives/005025.html).
 Quoted in ETTE, Ottmar, Literature on the Move, New York: Rodopi, 2004, p. 210.
 See COMPAGNON, Antoine, Les Antimodernes: De Joseph de Maistre à Roland Barthes, Paris: Gallimard, 2005.
 These phrases appear in the 18th Brumaire to mark the distinctions between the bourgeois and proletarian revolutions, the former resurrecting the past and the latter looking to the “poetry of the future”. This particular translation is to be found in Karl Marx’s The Political Writings (New York: Verso, 2019, p. 481).