Friday, October 13, 2006

A Brief, Preliminary Explanation and Antidote for those who find Shock

I like parody and pastiche. I like satire. I like sarcasm. I like popular culture. I like politics, and I’m not shocked that most of what happens in politics and most of what we find in popular culture is far from ideal.

What I dislike is the idea that we need to hold up some imaginary ‘ideal’ against popular culture and politics from which to judge, devalue, and scorn them. Part of what I dislike about this upholding of ideals in judgment of what actually is, is that it is always so hypocritical. The upholders of ideals don’t match ideals any better than those they hold their ideals against – though it seems to be that part of the attraction of upholding ideals is that one becomes blinded to one’s own short-comings… I think this is because consciousness of these is being displaced on to others: they become the ones with the serious and “shocking” deficiencies.

I also think that the upholding of ideals is a way of identifying with the ideal – one thinks that by upholding ideals one is coming closer to them, or maybe will be more likely to come close to them in the future. Again, I don’t think so… Especially if I am correct in thinking that the primary effect of this upholding of ideals is the displacement of attention on to others, who then get considered to be “shockingly bad.” A threat. And by the by, if the “upholder” gains sway, will be dealt with accordingly.

I think that there will always be “upholders of ideals” as part of the big mix of popular culture: they have their place, somehow. But popular culture and politics are too rough and tumble, with too much give and take, for the “upholders of ideals” to become the dominant force there. Actually, from the point of view of most of the big mix of popular culture, “upholders of ideals” appear quite ridiculous – they quickly become ripe for parody, satire, and sarcasm – they are the best targets of these. In a healthy popular culture, there will always be lots of parody circulating… This is a very vital function.

If people stopped laughing, or wanting to laugh, or wanting to ridicule the ridiculous, bad things would happen. You know? Under those circumstances, where for whatever reason people weren’t laughing anymore, “upholders of ideals” COULD dominate. Rest assured, the “upholders of ideals” won’t be laughing. They are too preoccupied with being shocked, too busy marshaling their forces against those who aren’t living up to the ideals and who are shocking them.

Maybe Charlie Chaplin was the one man in the world who posed a serious threat to Adolph Hitler – a comedian was the only one who saw the ridiculous as the ridiculous. As soon as enough others saw that Hitler was ridiculous, his politics would have dissolved then and there. Hitler was, and I think this is forgotten, an “upholder of ideals.” That’s exactly what he was.

I think Bill Maher and other American comedians who had the audacity to laugh and ridicule and not allow fear and shock to become sacrosanct after 9/11, were the first to be put down and suppressed, not because they were easily dismissed and powerless ( and this is really my point – that these comedians are not at all powerless – they may be the most powerful,) but because they were precisely the ones who could prevent people from stopping to laugh and starting to take the ridiculous with an unnatural seriousness… They were precisely the ones who could have prevented the formation of ‘organization’ against ‘evildoers’ … could have prevented the shadow-chasing of those who found themselves shocked, or were manipulating shock, and required reverence for shock to replace normal, scrappy political exchange.


Blogger Dr. Spinoza said...

Somewhere in Minima Moralia Adorno remarks that Hitler's ridiculousness was part of his charisma, his power. I don't know the exact passage -- something like "anyone who aspires to be a cross between King Kong and the neighborhood barber should not expect to be taken seriously."

Are you familiar with the late-night antics of Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert? If so, what do you make of them?

10:46 AM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

I think that one of the most beautiful and touching passages in all of Adorno's writings concerned Adorno's encounter with Charlie Chaplin...

As I remember it, Adorno was in a line of people at a party where Chaplin was, waiting to meet Chaplin and shake his hand.

When Chaplin came to Adorno, he stopped then and there, and openly mocked and ridiculed Adorno for his stiff and overly-serious demeanor.

What I love is that Adorno melted, and expressed gratitude and admiration to Chaplin for this... Chaplin's "critique" of the "enlightenment" character structure.

I wish I could find Adorno's essay describing this. I came across it on the internet, but I don't know where, and I can't seem to google it up.

I think people like Stewart and Colbert are very important... what'll save us will be when people stop calling Bush an idiot or whatever, and being angry and basically reactionary in return, and find it possible to genuinely laugh at his antics and the antics of his administration.

It may seem that this is an impossible outcome - today I read that Lancet thinks around 655,000 Iraqis have now died since the invasion... how can we ever laugh at the people who have perpetrated this?

I don't think we'll be able to think clearly until we do.

12:23 PM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

That remark from Minima Moralia, which I know from the strange little book of Adorno excerpts packaged by J. Bernstein and entitled " The Culture Industry," embodies Freud's critique of the narcissistic personality (disorder.)

Hitler was trying to be, ( and, having been taken seriously, succeeding in being,) both everyman, a man of the people, AND the ubermensch, the superman...King Kong and the neighborhood barber.

The narcissistic personality, the one that I have, frankly, and the one that I think most people share with me, has these impossible ego ideals tearing away at one's happinesses, AND is thoroughly rationalized... This is impossible to live...

The tension resolves this impossibility in something RIDICULOUS or MONSTROUS, or RIDICULOUS AND MONSTROUS...

Unless it can laugh at itself, which I see as the better resolution, and remarkably, a better resolution which bears no affect of the "better" as superiority/inferiority.

There, it's off my chest.

Continue on with deafening silence.

11:28 AM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

I like your thesis that we suffer from our own ego ideals and find it to be entirely true in my own experience. We also bring others to suffer for not sharing our ego ideals. Are you proposing strategies to avoid this or undermine it? You've suggested humor. Do you have others in mind?

7:38 PM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

I think my move is one you'll find quite typical for me: I think the basic strategy is to facilitate a multiplication of desires.

This multiplication of desires comes about through concept creation.

I am a little bit ahead of myself in this post: I don't think it is nice to suggest humor as a solution when the problem people are having is that they CAN'T laugh, just as love can't rightly be suggested as a solution for people who CAN'T love.

Also, I'm ahead of myself because in fact Chaplin didn't threaten Hitler, Maher doesn't prod people to effectively reassess the Bush administration, and these failures aren't explained by overt political oppressions. ( Or even covert, indirect ones?)

We probably can't get over the clashing of ego ideals, and the dark fascination of this clashing until we invent the conceptual technologies which allow us some alternative way of relating to ourselves and others.

My thesis is that at the present time we do not have these ways...therefore, we are stuck...Stuck somewhere we don't want to be.

Probably the note and degree of humor and good will and good sexuality will index with the renewed vigor of the creation of these conceptual technologies. That's my hope.

I note the grace and generosity of your question, Sinthome, and I want you to know I appreciate it greatly.

12:09 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

It also seems to me that "owning" or affirming one's paraprexes helps to serve this function (at least in the structured setting of analysis). When my analyst points out a slip of the tongue, homonym, or double entendre in my speech, he undermines the unity of my ego by suggesting that I am not master of my own intentions and that perhaps another discourse speaks within me. That is, a sort of line of flight or schizophrenization takes place in my ego that undermines the established boundaries and oppositions governing my ego and self-identity. In analysis this has the effect of undoing strong identifications (the ego is here viewed to be a product of identifications) and thus opening a space where other desiring-connections are produced. In the process, this also leads to relief from the painful jouissance in which the subject is locked, but grinding up and abolishing those lethal identifications (ego ideals).

That works fairly well in the clinical setting and I think we can do it outside the clinical setting by throwing ourselves into the mix of cultural artifacts that upset the established boundaries of our ego and the primacy of intention (such as reading Joyce, Derrida, Deleuze, or Lacan where the language works on us, or encountering forms of art such as the disturbing film clip you placed in one of your diaries here where the man is having signifiers pertaining to hate stapled to his body, thereby emphasizing the dimenion of painful jouissance-- the oozing blood --affectively inhabiting these signifiers and how they organize the ego). However, I don't know how far modernist prose and avant garde art ultimately takes us. I know that I often have a knee-jerk, visceral reaction to some of these things, like the language of Deleuze and Guattari, even though I share many of their theoretical claims and positions, and that this visceral reaction (as in the case of my strong reaction to you when you evoked the term "schizophrenia" on my blog) can function to actually shore up the boundaries of the ego and the force of the ego-ideal rather than "de-molarize" it.

6:34 PM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

Affirming the paraprexes- it's fascinating the way that relates to humor... and denying them ,eg in embarrassment, is so painful and self-defeating,inhibiting, as all of these sorts of character structures seem to be.

( But that they are painful and self-defeating doesn't lead to their being dismantled, either by the individual or the society or the individual-society, ( or whatever.))

"However, I don't know how far modernist prose and avant garde art ultimately takes us."

I am profoundly interested in this statement. Modernist prose and avant garde art, if it is only a relative deterritorialization, ( only takes us so far,as you say,) CAN function to actually shore up the boundaries of the ego and the force of the ego-ideal rather than "de-molarize" it, ( as you also say.) ( Or rather than go far... go so far as to break down ego ideals.) This is a primary concern of DG, I think.

After the enlightenment, all sorts of experimentation and investigation is allowed that was never even conceivable, prior. There are, however, still large areas, territories, which are cordoned off from experimentation and investigation. They aren't yet "desanctified," as Dr. Spinoza recently put it. Why?

If they aren't de-sanctified, then the investigations and experimentations don't go far enough; the abstract machine isn't reached; and boundaries of the ego and the force of the ego ideals DO get shored up and molarized even more stiffly.

12:48 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

"I am profoundly interested in this statement. Modernist prose and avant garde art, if it is only a relative deterritorialization, ( only takes us so far,as you say,) CAN function to actually shore up the boundaries of the ego and the force of the ego-ideal rather than "de-molarize" it, ( as you also say.) ( Or rather than go far... go so far as to break down ego ideals.) This is a primary concern of DG, I think."

Yusef, I think this is the paradox I'm caught in, making me a bit like a fly in a bottle. It seems that the very deterritorializing lines of flight become reterritorializing spaces. I shouldn't be surprised by this. D&G argue that every deterritorialization brings with it a reterritorialization. Yet what are we to do when D&G themselves become territories, shoring up egos, or become sources of identity?

10:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't help wondering if, or to what extent, Yusef considers all "ideals" to be identical with "ego-ideals".

I hope that my posting anonymously won't offend.

3:12 PM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

It's to a very large extent that I consider ideals to be identical to ego-ideals.

I consider the work of Freud to be the genius of the enlightenment - to make understanding be of the immanent; and... an exteriorization... making understanding depend on exteriorization...

.. ego-ideals are in everyone's face...truly offending.. where and how they belong, where and how we can deal with them...

..while ideals are off in heaven, requiring our " worship"... and that's a big big laugh.

11:17 PM  
Blogger Dr. Spinoza said...


As I've come to expect, I think you're on the scent of something profound here -- with the insight that the narcisstic personality is one that is torn apart by conflicting ego-ideals. Though I do wonder if that's really a novel phenomenon -- wasn't medieval culture (for example) torn between the ideal of the saint and the ideal of the knight? With the breakdown of that culture, it became possible to thematize that conflict -- and to make fun of it -- which is part of what Cervantes does in Don Quixote.

Adorno wanted to thematize that conflict, but he couldn't make fun of it -- it was still too close to home. Somewhere in the back of my mind I'd like to write more about Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf, which I read very recently -- so it's not lost in the haze of adolescence, as it is for most belletrists and intellectuals. Hesse's Haller is a man who is sunk into a fog of contempt both for himself and for his culture. He despises his culture, and because he recognizes that he's a product of that culture, he also despises himself. What helps Haller break of out this vicious trap -- or rather begin to get out of it -- is that he learns how to dance to jazz music. By the end of the novel, Haller has not achieved the liberation he yearns for, but he has learned how to yearn. And getting out of his head and into his body -- learning how to suspend his contempt for popular music and just learn how to appreciate dance and the erotic life -- was the necessary first step.

I've been told that Adorno was shocked and horrified when some female students exposed themselves to him during a protest in the late 60s. I related this story to a Marcuse scholar, who said, "Marcuse would have enjoyed it!" There's something beautiful about Marcuse in this respect -- he seems to have occupied a space that Adorno and Horkheimer didn't. An erotic rationality.

1:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

According to a definition of ego ideal found online, an ego ideal is...

" .... The ideal of perfection that the ego strives to emulate. For Freud, the ego-ideal is closely bound up with our super-ego. The super-ego is "the vehicle of the ego ideal by which the ego measures itself, which it emulates, and whose demand for ever greater perfection it strives to fulfil" ("New Introductory Lectures" 22.65). Given the intimate connection of the super-ego to the Oedipus complex, the ego-ideal is likely "the precipitate of the old picture of the parents, the expression of admiration for the perfection which the child then attributed to them" ("New Introductory Lectures" 22.65) . It is also tied up with childhood narcissism (the belief in one's own perfection), which in adulthood can take as its substitute the perfection of the ego-ideal."

Here's what Wikipedia has to say about ideal (in relation to ethics).:

"An ideal is a principle or value that one actively pursues as a goal. Ideals are particularly important in ethics, as the order in which one places them tends to determine the degree to which one reveals them as real and sincere."

Isn't it, then, a kind of value-nihilism to identify all ideals with ego ideals? This seems to me a psychologization of value which results in extreme relativism about value. Valuation, here, is far too tied up with the superego and circuits and circulations tying "value" to self-worth, self-esteem... (the psychic energy which fuels a superego is all about this self-esteem issue, after all).

But it does not seem right to think that all value, all good, boils down to this discourse of malnourished intrapsychic phantoms, no?

(I'm the same Anonymous poster above.)

2:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

" ... while ideals are off in heaven, requiring our 'worship'... and that's a big big laugh. "

I get the impression, Yusef, that your image of the "immanent" disallows immanent ideals. That ideals must always be faux-transcendence.

Is this so?

2:37 PM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

There's something a little tricky in what you're doing here, anon. ( In saying that, I'm not charging you with trying to be tricky, so please do not take offense.) To say "immanent ideal" is to speak in oxymorons, paradoxically. This definition you've cited, "An ideal is a principle or value that one actively pursues as a goal," misses the key point about ideals... they are goals which one cannot reach ( in principle OR practice.) And as such, they really mess people up. I'm really all for setting goals, undertaking projects, experimenting, and adventuring. And of course, I am all against lying, cheating, murdering, and as far as I know the whole host of other generally-agreed upon badness. It's not so clear to me, however, that to truly and sincerely be against these things I must subscribe to some concept of transcendence. The latter part of that definition, (which I didn't quote above,) seems to hint that one does require this.

I have a hard time with the notion, which is really rather common, that in order to be against murder, really and sincerely against murder, one must be a Christian, or a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Buddhist or a ( fill in the blank.) Let us fight to the death because your religion doesn't provide you with the wherewithal to eschew murder.

Very few people argue that MURDER is good. And yet people KILL in war as if the other guys thought that murder was okay. These "ideals" do not function the way that people think they function, and as the person you've quoted appears to think they function.

Am I going off in a way which is incomprehensible, which doesn't answer your question? I don't mean to...

12:43 PM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

I'm really all for setting goals which are attainable, achievable, in principle and in practice.

I do acknowledge that it is impossible to always know beforehand which goals are attainable in principle or in practice, and there could be serious mistakes and time wasted going down deadend alleys, etc.

However, "ideals" are recalcitrant to the results of any experimentation; they frustrate and yet we can't abandon them. Can't. And that's a source of psychic agony for us. People who work hardest to achieve ideals, and who quite frankly often appear to me closer to the ideals, experience this psychic agony even more acutely.

Are the ideals beautiful things? Does the devotion to them, even if psychically costly, make our world a more beautiful place? A more ethical place? If I answered yes to these, I'd endorse ideals.

But they are pitting us against ourselves and others, and they have nothing to do with creating goodness or beauty. There is a centuries-long tradition where they've been attributed false powers...

1:02 PM  

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