Category Archives: collage

Assemble Papers: adventures in design

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When I wanted to write about Assemble Papers, originally it was going to be a plug: ‘look at this wonderful magazine, with its focus on the culture of urban living, high-density living, good design, ethical design, meaningful things and good architecture’. But the moment passed: the paper version of Assemble, sent to me by mail, is no longer the latest thing that Euge, Rachel and Pino have done.

Instead, these photos remind me of the wintery evening in Brussels when I returned home from the offices of the European Commission and found Assemble in my mailbox, full of photos of summery Melbourne, of wide open spaces, designer folk, Rob Adams, good coffee. It was the first time in my short life that I felt heart-breaking homesickness for a place that had never been home before.

The lightness of Melbourne life, the feeling of not-quite-freedom, but definitely-not-frustration. The open-mindedness, which hadn’t always been there, and a sense of style, poise and purpose, which intermittently always had. Assemble Papers is such a good magazine, filled with such ethics and beauty. Reading it always reminds me that we can do better than average, and than often we do. It makes me proud of Melbourne and, even, sort of, proud of Australia a little bit.

I was at those first meetings with Euge, when she was dreaming up, drawing up, this magazine, and my job was to try to shoot it down, game-test for all the problems before they actually occur. A few years on, she is doing such a marvelous job.

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Like a Writing Desk

Two of my favourite things in the world are theatre and radio, which is why it was so exciting when Aden Rolfe emailed me to tell me his multi-awarded radio play Like a Writing Desk is about to air on Radio National.

I was in the middle of something else and very involved as it aired, so I am only listening to it now, and putting a link here in order to never lose it. As should you, because radio plays are almost certainly in the future of theatre, as well.

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Set design and metaphor

Nothing is quite as electrifying in theatre as a good stage metaphor, and no theatre discipline can do stage metaphor quite as BIG as set design.

I met Chloe Lamford last night – very beautifully and kindly, she treated my completely trashed-from-jetlag self with a discounted theatre ticket. Today, I am watching this trailer, which makes Katie Mitchell’s production of Lungs for Schaubuehne almost entirely about the set. Deservedly, I think. The way in which it creates metaphor is absolutely extraordinary.

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Why Do Creatives Put Up With No Pay?: a few choice quotes

1. The allure of the ‘personal brand’

In his One Market Under God, Thomas Frank describes how, during the dot com boom, employers encouraged young coders to identify as anti-authoritarian creatives, letting them sport zany haircuts, listen to indy rock in the office and cover themselves in tattoos. Yet because their rebelliousness was purely aesthetic and explicitly individualist, it worked out quite nicely for management, thank you very much: the young rebels disdained collective organisation as irredeemably old fashioned, and so could all be smartly marched out the door as soon as the economy turned sour.

Something similar happens within literature though with worse haircuts and more tweed.

Jyotsna Kapur describes the prevalence of what she calls "an old narrative" about the arts: an idea "that artists are genius outsiders, voices of dissent, rugged lonesome individuals who live on the margins, victims of economic marginalisation and social misunderstanding, with a special, even sacred relationship to their art that must be protected from the intrusions of the world."This sense of artistic endeavour as inherently rebellious — "subversive", if you like — helps legitimise the Dalkey-style workplace, since, Kapur argues, rather than being somehow anomalous, artists are actually exemplary neoliberal employees — especially since they don’t realise it.

Think about how writers are accustomed to honing their skills on their own time. They often pay for their own training, through courses or university degrees. By and large, they don’t join unions; they understand their careers in purely individual terms — indeed, they’re often told to think of themselves as "brands". They’re not only willing to accept short-term contracts, they’re pathetically grateful for them — every creative writing student dreams of a book deal.

Jeff Sparrow in Why Do Creatives Put Up With No Pay?, at New Matilda.

2. The sense of ‘devotion to the art’

As we all know theatre reviewing/criticism is in its death throes. For print media it’s all over bar the counting – where I used to get up between 800 and 1200 words when I was at the Sydney Morning Herald, Jason Blake gets a couple of hundred. (…)

The announcement last week that Alison Croggon is retiring her Melbourne-based blog should sent a bleak and urgent warning to the industry. Alison is super-women – not only were her reviews of the highest order, nothing in the country anywhere near like it. She also managed a creative writing career to which is now intending to commit full time. As she should. She has left behind a 9-year legacy – an intimate and informed and impassioned legacy – with a huge local and international profile. Thanks to the help of no-one (officially). Actors complain about co-op rates – reviewing nowadays is one step down to the zero dollars in return. Even successful print outlets like Time Out don’t pay any more. And it shows.

Free tickets to the serious critic come with a burden of responsibilities. They’re not lollies as editors seem to think as they keep their main eye on the financial bottom line.

(…) The relationship between theatre companies and critics has always had its ups and downs. It is to entirely misunderstand the job if publicists think our purpose is to put bums on seats. That can happen – hopefully many many times. But that is the publicists job not ours. On any given show the reviewer is there to represent the interests of the company (at least keeping in mind its goals), but also offer feedback to the artists involved, feedback to the audience who has seen the show, readers who are thinking of seeing the show, and readers who just want at least a little info in hand for that next dinner party. Plus the reviewer keeps a kind of record book – in my view the most important responsibility. To assist with the collation of a history.

The biggest problem about the current situation is this. Theatre lives and dies on the night – apart from the mark it strikes on our souls. The good critic is not the person sitting in row G who sees ‘more and better’ (though the best of us do accrue a certain discernment over time). Our gift is to DESCRIBE in WORDS what was carved through direct experience onto our souls while seeing the show. (…)

We are entering a time when the theatre industry is relying on the good will and huge efforts of the likes of Alison and myself for its endeavours to be remembered. When will I get to the point at which, like Alison, I say ‘enough is enough’. What will be left to remember of your efforts? Your life’s work as artists – achievements, setbacks and recoveries. There will be no history – not even written in sand.

Theatre is not cinema or a novel. We can’t go back to the opening night of Baz Lurhmann’s La Boheme or Armfield’s Cloudstreet. Imagine someone in 20 years saying: “I never new Cate Blanchett acted on stage – nothing here on Google”. (…) People in twenty/fifty years time will find no meaningful (extensive and reliable) record of what ever happened at Australia’s most renowned venue over these recent years. Very clearly marketing departments sit above publicists nowadays in the hierarchy. And their view would be: who needs feedback after a show – esp if it’s sold out in advance – end of story – job done. (…) And meanwhile the rest of the performing arts gets a few ill-informed grabs from freebie happy wannabes.

James Waites at Alison Croggon Retires Theatre Notes at jameswaites.com.

3. Economic privilege

People from richer backgrounds are three times more likely to have undertaken unpaid internships than those from poorer backgrounds, according to a recent survey conducted by NUS and YouGov. I have managed to support myself with my student loan while working for free, but when I graduate, unpaid work will no longer be an option. Yet I am constantly being told that I should expect to work for free after graduating.

After my seventh internship, I decided enough was enough. I have become actively involved in the campaign against unpaid internships, both at my university and nationally. I have protested outside a famous PR company, and I gave official evidence to the Low Pay Commission, which is currently investigating unpaid internships.

When I talk to students about unpaid internships, one common response is: “But I don’t mind working for free.” What I hear is: “I can afford to work for free.” My involvement in the campaign has made me much more conscious of my individual responsibility. If I were to take on unpaid work now, I would be very aware that, by doing so, I am not just saying that I don’t deserve a wage, but that my peers and friends don’t either.

For every person who can work for free, there are so many who simply cannot afford to. This means that they are being shut out of many careers where internships are an essential part of your CV.

Libby Page in Fight Against Unpaid Internships at The Guardian; via Precarious Workers Brigade.

4. Self-identification as ‘free’, ‘independent’ ‘elite’ and ‘privileged’

Contemporary art’s workforce consists largely of people who, despite working constantly, do not correspond to any traditional image of labor. They stubbornly resist settling into any entity recognizable enough to be identified as a class. While the easy way out would be to classify this constituency as multitude or crowd, it might be less romantic to ask whether they are not global lumpenfreelancers, deterritorialized and ideologically free-floating: a reserve army of imagination communicating via Google Translate.

Instead of shaping up as a new class, this fragile constituency may well consist—as Hannah Arendt once spitefully formulated—of the “refuse of all classes.” These dispossessed adventurers described by Arendt, the urban pimps and hoodlums ready to be hired as colonial mercenaries and exploiters, are faintly (and quite distortedly) mirrored in the brigades of creative strike workers propelled into the global sphere of circulation known today as the art world.5 If we acknowledge that current strike workers might inhabit similarly shifting grounds—the opaque disaster zones of shock capitalism—a decidedly un-heroic, conflicted, and ambivalent picture of artistic labor emerges.

Hito Steyerl in Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Post-Democracy, at e-flux.

5. The belief that the self-exploitation will lead to increased employment opportunities for oneself, rather than decrease them for everyone in the sector.

Why is working in the realms of “culture” and academia so undervalued? Not only by the instutions that hire, but also by the good, committed workers themselves who will step on each other for the next available job? It’s equally worth organizing adjuncts as it is art-workers. he work doesn’t get done without us. Some institutions know this and act on it. When workers in any field collectivize and strategize to confront management, management listens and attempts to compromise. This is just the first step, that often rewards its participants with euphoria. It gets more difficult after that, but a necessary step to make. It is worthwhile to at least imagine what labor unions for art workers and adjuncts might look like. It’s worthwhile to imagine how good things could possibly be, as there are more than enough examples to point to as examples of what is bad.

Open Letter to Labor Servicing the Culture Industry

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On dance on film

[pro-player]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MMrRF4lHflU[/pro-player]

I am posting this by popular request: because so many people recently wanted to know where to see it, because I showed it to my boyfriend two nights ago (someone who knew not a single thing about dance films) without editorial comment and he said, when it ended, ‘I think this is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, of any kind, because I re-watched it recently and had a moment of remembering how art can make one feel entirely quiet on the inside, because I sometimes think that I could do nothing but watch dance films my entire life, because dance film is perhaps my favourite art form, in the whole world.

Dance film has a power to draw me like no other form. I have a self-assembled archive. I watch dance films the way I read novels; out of pleasure, slowly, revisiting favourite passages, skipping to bits I particularly like.

I knew and loved dance film much before I knew how to properly look at a painting, much before I stopped giggling in front of conceptual installations, much before I could get to the end of a poem. It made sense to me straight away, just like dance did.

Continue reading “On dance on film” »

Sliced White – notes

1. THE LOOKS

2. THE CULTURE

For a start, there’s its strange appearance. The wheaten tan of the uncrusty crust. The white, resilient sponge. The zombie-like, yeasty odour. The bleached and puffy crumb. And then you taste it. I hadn’t eaten really bad bread for a long time: it sparked whatever bit of my brain looks after Proustian recall. When I was at my dour boarding school, every breaktime the kitchen would send wee lads scurrying round the houses with cheap bread, tubs of margarine and buckets of sugary jam. The hungry teenagers would toast and smear, knock up McCoy’s-and-marg sandwiches, wrap slices round Snickers bars – this was Scotland, after all – and listlessly masticate.

Most people carry a vestigial affection for odd bits of foodie trash: American cheese singles sliming on patties, comforting tins of Warhol Campbell’s, Pringles that whiff of ancient jockstraps. I reckon the same phenomenon explains a persistent affection for cheap bread. The salty hit of a bacon sarnie becomes a taste of home or a hangover: speckled fat seeping into pocked dough, teeth threshing pink pig. Most Americans were reared on Wonderbread which, incidentally, features along with a dozen other brands in Lady Gaga’s video for Telephone. The laval pouch of a toastie has the same appeal for many Brits.

3. THE REASON WHY

The Chorleywood bread process is an industrial process used to lower the cost of bread production. The CBP, or no time method, was developed in 1961 by the British Baking Industries Research Association based at Chorleywood, and is now used to make 80% of the UK’s bread. Compared to the older bulk fermentation process, the CBP is able to use lower protein wheat, and produces bread at a much faster rate, with the disadvantage that the bread requires extra processing to enhance the flavour. The process had an important impact in the United Kingdom, as at the time, few domestic wheat varieties were of sufficient quality to make high quality bread products, and it therefore permitted a much greater proportion of low-protein domestic wheat to be used in the grist.

4. THE CHORLEYWOOD PROCESS

The wheat is milled in high speed steel mills at a high temperature. This smashes apart the starches making it easier for the enzymes and improvers to work on the flour but reducing the nutritional value. This process also makes the flour able to absorb more water. So when you buy an 800g loaf of industrial bread, you pay for a higher water content. In fact nearly half of your industrial loaf is water.

This wheat flour is then mixed with water, soya flour, fat, baking aids, ascorbic acid (designate on packaging as E300) and yeast. The mixing arms rotate at about 400 rpm for around five minutes, transferring energy to the dough.

The reactions created by this violent input of energy, assisted by the ascorbic acid, releases the gluten in the wheat very quickly and produces a stiff dough in a small fraction of the time compared to the traditional proving process used at home and in craft bakeries.

An important part of Chorleywood Process is the use of a hard fat. This works with the gluten to create a stiff dough that will rise very quickly and retain its structure during the baking and cooling of the bread. Until recently hydrogenated fats were used because these contain more stable heavy fat molecules, which give the fat a higher melting point.

Recently bad publicity about hydrogenated fats, in particular their implication as a key contributor to heart disease, has created a switch to fractionated fats. These are created from the processing of ordinary vegetable oils to remove the heaviest fatty compounds, usually by cooling the oil to make the heavy fats crystallise. They therefore have the same properties as hydrogenated fats, and may possibly cause similar health problems. Often, when a manufacturer states they no longer use hydrogenated fats, it’s likely that they are using fractionated fats instead.

After mixing the dough is poured in bulk and left for a few minutes before processing into tins, or onto trays, where it is left to prove for up to a hour (again, perhaps a half of the time of that used traditionally).

The Chorleywood bread making process uses two or three times the usual amount of yeast compared to traditionally made bread. The extra yeast creates a large volume of gas and in the process a spongy loaf. The proving dough may also be put under a low pressure vacuum to make it rise much faster than if it were at ambient air pressure.

To help the fats bond to the wet flours, emulsifiers are also added to the mix (usually E471 or E472e). In addition a small amount of vinegar is added as a preservative. Finally your industrial bread with its high water content is an ideal breeding ground for moulds, so it is often dosed with an anti-fungal compound.

Primarily because of the milling process, the vitamin content is lower than that of traditional stoneground flour. Accordingly, by law, vitamins are added to the dough mixture to compensate.

5. WHAT WE TEACH OUR CHILDREN

6. THE ADDITIVES

CBP processes may include the following additives, but these additives are not limited to CBP:

  • Fat in the form of palm fat or oils, to soften the dough and bread and create a finer cell structure.
  • Salt allows yeast to grow while reducing competitive bacterial growth, and affects the flavour.
  • Esters of monoglycerides and diglycerides act as emulsifiers and anti-staling agents.
  • Calcium propionate inhibits mould.
  • Enzymatically active soy flour contains lipoxygenase enzyme that creates whiter crumb.
  • Azodicarbonamide is a flour oxidizer, banned in EU, Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, but permitted in the US.
  • Ascorbic acid is the most common dough oxidising agent used in the EU, mainly for wholemeal and whole grain breads.
  • Gluten provides texture. Added gluten augments the low gluten levels of cheap low-protein wheat.
  • Starch enzymes and protein enzymes are used to rapidly break down wheat starches to sugars to feed the yeast and to “mellow” the gluten to allow for reduced mechanical mixing times. Enzymes are also engineered to survive baking temperatures and great variations in pH to impart antistaling and softening qualities to the finished products.

In many countries, enzymes and several other “improvers” are not required to be listed on ingredient labels, as they are considered to be consumed in the baking process.).

7. QUALITY


Commercial bread making is held to strict government guidelines regarding food production. Further, consumer preferences compel bread producers to maintain a high quality standard of appearance, texture, and flavor. Therefore, quality checks are performed at each step of the production process. Producers employ a variety of taste tests, chemical analyses, and visual observation to ensure quality.

Moisture content is particularly critical. A ratio of 12 to 14% is ideal for the prevention of bacteria growth. However, freshly baked breads have a moisture content as high as 40%. Therefore it is imperative that the bakery plants be kept scrupulously clean. The use of fungicides and ultraviolet light are two popular practices.

8. THE HEALTH CONCERNS

8A. COELIAC DISEASE/ GLUTEN INTOLERANCE
The reactions created by the violent input of energy [of machine-kneading dough at very high speed], assisted by the ascorbic acid, release the gluten in the wheat very quickly and produces a stiff dough in a small fraction of the time compared to the traditional proving process used at home and in craft bakeries. This part of the process is being linked by some people to the increase in Coeliac disease, a serious gluten intolerance.

8B. SEVERAL FORMS OF BOWEL DISEASE
The Chorleywood bread making process uses two or three times the usual amount of yeast compared to traditionally made bread. This large increase in the amount of yeast we consume in our bread is being cited as one possible cause for the growth of yeast intolerance, irritable bowel syndrome and thrush (candidiasis / Candida albicans) disorders over the past few decades.

8C. ‘POSSIBLE CANCER’
But there were also the additives. Quite a few of them, in fact. Potassium bromate (now banned in the EU as a possible cancer producer), azodicarbonamide (also banned), L-cysteine hydrochloride, sodium stearoyl-2-lactylate and so on — the list was long.

TO avoid too many frightening chemical names, bread labels were allowed to group the nasties under bland headings such as ‘flour treatment agent’ and ’emulsifier’.

Some additives were belatedly banned (including the bleaching of flour with chlorine gas in 1999), but new ones filled the gap and, if anything, the list is longer today than 30 years ago. The additives were derived from substances that would never normally form part of the human diet. But we were reassured they were safe — until, that is, scientists told us they weren’t.

8D. GUT INFLAMMATION RELATED TO THE TYPE OF WHEAT USED
After World War II, plant breeders developed hybrid strains of wheat that delivered higher yields with intensive applications of artificial nitrogen, herbicides and pesticides.
While aggressively seeking bigger yields and more proteins that form the stretchy gluten in bread dough, wheat breeders reduced the density of vital minerals and vitamins in the grain.

Consequently, modern hybrid wheats are 30 to 40 per cent poorer in minerals such as iron, zinc and magnesium than strains from 40 years ago. And if each mouthful of bread contains less to nourish us, we naturally tend to eat more. A clue to rising levels of obesity, perhaps?

It gets worse. Farmers boost yields and protein levels by putting sulphur and nitrogen on the wheat late in its growth. And recent research has revealed the resulting flour has nearly doubled the bits of wheat protein known as omega-gliadins that are known to trigger certain inflammatory reactions in the gut of sensitive people – notably a condition called Wheat-Dependent Exercise-Induced Anaphylaxis. This didn’t exist 20 years ago.

9. THE OVERALL VALUE WHEN CONSIDERING THE GRAND SCHEME OF THINGS


“It is a process we invented and we should be very proud of it,” says Gordon Polson, of the British Federation of Bakers. “UK bread is around the cheapest in the world.”

One disturbing possibility is that modern farming and industrial baking produce bread that more and more people cannot and should not eat.

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Gail Dines: Visible or Invisible (being a young woman)

At a lecture I was giving at a large West Coast university in the spring of 2008, the female students talked extensively about how much they preferred to have a completely waxed pubic area as it made them feel “clean,” “hot,” and “well groomed.” As they excitedly insisted that they themselves chose to have a Brazilian wax, one student let slip that her boyfriend had complained when she decided to give up on waxing. Then there was silence. I asked the student to say more about her boyfriend’s preferences and how she felt about his criticism. After she spoke, other students joined in, only now the conversation took a very different turn. The excitement in the room gave way to a subdued discussion of how some boyfriends had even refused to have sex with nonwaxed girlfriends, saying they “looked gross.” One student told the group that her boyfriend bought her a waxing kit for Valentine’s Day, while yet another sent out an e-mail to his friends joking about his girlfriend’s “hairy beaver.” No, she did not break up with his; she got waxed instead. Continue reading “Gail Dines: Visible or Invisible (being a young woman)” »

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Superego who says ‘thou shalt enjoy’

In all my years of reading Slavoj Žižek, I somehow managed not to read his (Lacanian?) interpretation of superego until a few weeks ago. His distinction between the Law (the external prohibition) and the superego (the internalised injunction to enjoy) is probably the biggest and most delicious idea I’ve encountered all year. Here:

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Superego emerges where the Law – the public Law, the Law articulated in the public discourse – fails; at this point of failure, the public is compelled to search for support in an illegal enjoyment.

Superego is the obscene ‘nightly’ law that necessarily redoubles and accompanies, as its shadow, the ‘public’ Law. This inherent and constitutive splitting in the Law is the subject of Rob Reiner’s film A Few Good Men, the court-martial drama about two Marines accused of murdering one of their fellow-soldiers. The military prosecutor claims that the two Marines’ act was a deliberate murder, whereas the defence succeeds in proving that the defendants simply followed the so-called ‘Code Red’, which authorizes the clandestine night-time beating of a fellow-soldier who, in the opinion of his peers or the superior officer, has broken the ethical code of the Marines.

The function of this ‘Code Red’ is extremely interesting: it condones an act of transgression – illegal punishment of a fellow-soldier – yet at the same time it reaffirms the cohesion of the group – it calls for an act of supreme identification with group values. Such a code must remain under cover of night, unacknowledged, unutterable – in public, everybody pretends to know nothing about it, or even actively denies its existence. It represents the ‘spirit of community’ at its purest, exerting the strongest pressure on the individual to comply with its mandate of group identification. Yet, simultaneously, it violates the explicit rules of community life. (…) Where does this splitting of the law into the written public Law and its underside, the ‘unwritten’, obscene secret code, come from? From the incomplete, ‘non-all’ character of the public Law: explicit, public rules do not suffice, so they have to be supplemented by a clandestine ‘unwritten’ code aimed at those who, although they violate no public rules, maintain a kind of inner distance and do not truly identify with the ‘spirit of community’.

As numerous analyses from Bakhtin onwards have shown, periodic transgressions of the public law are inherent to the social order; they function as a condition of the latter’s stability. (Bakhtin’s mistake – or, rather, that of some of his followers – was to present an idealized image of these ‘transgressions’, while passing in silence over lynching parties, and so on, as the crucial form of the ‘carnivalesque suspension of social hierarchy’). What ‘holds together’ a community most deeply is not so much identification with the Law that regulates the community’s ‘normal’ everyday circuit, but rather identification with a specific form of transgression of the Law, of the Law’s suspension (in psychoanalytic terms, with a specific forms of enjoyment).

Let us return to those small-town white communities in the American South of the 1920s, where the reign of the official, public Law is accompanied by its shadowy double, the nightly terror of Ku Klux Klan, with its lynchings of the powerless blacks: a (white) man is easily forgiven minor infractions of the Law, especially when they can be justified by a ‘code of honour’; the community still recognizes him as ‘one of us’. Yet he will be effectively excommunicated, perceived as ‘not one of us’, the moment he disowns the specific form of transgression that pertains to this community – say, the moment he refuses to partake in the ritual lynchings by the Klan, or even reports them to the Law (which, of course, does not want to hear about them, since they exemplify its own hidden underside). The Nazi community relied on the same solidarity-in-guilt induced by participation in a common transgression: it ostracized those who were not ready to take on the dark side of the idyllic Volksgemeinschaft: the night pogroms, the beatings of political opponents – in short, all that ‘everybody knew, yet did not want to speak about aloud’.

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the superego is the law ‘run amok’ in so far as it prohibits what it formally permits.

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(…) The hero is immoral, yet ethical – that is to say, he violates (or rather, suspends the validity of) existing explicit moral norms in the name of a higher ethics of life, historical Necessity, and so on, whereas superego designates the very opposite of othe hero, an unethical moral Law, a Law in which an obscene enjoyment sticks to obedience to the moral norms (say, a severe teacher who torments his pupils for the sake of their own good, and is not ready to asknowledge his own sadistic investment in this torment).

This, however, in no way entails that, in the ethical domain, there is no way to avoid the tension between Law and superego. Lacan’s maxim of the ethics of psychoanalysis (‘not to compromise one’s desire’) is not to be confounded with the pressure of the superego. That is to say, in a first approach it may seem that the maxim ‘Do not give up your desire!’ coincides with the superego command ‘Enjoy!’ – do we not compromise our desire precisely by renouncing enjoyment? Is it not a fundamental thesis of Freud, a kind of Freudian commonplace, that the superego forms the basic, ‘primitive’ kernel of the ethical agency? Lacan goes against these commonplaces: between the ethics of desire and the superego, he posits a relationship of radical exclusion. That is to say, Lacan takes seriously and literally the Freudian paradox of the superego – that is, the vicious cycle the characterizes the superego: the more we submit ourselves to the superego imperative, the greater its pressure, the more we feel guilty. According to Lacan, this ‘feeling of guilt’ is not a self-deception to be dispelled in the course of the psychoanalytic cure – we really are guilty: superego draws the energy of the pressure it exerts upon the subject from the fact that the subject was not faithful to his desire, that he gave it up. Our sacrificing to the superego, our paying tribute to it, only corroborates our guilt. For that reason our debt to the superego is unredeemable: the more we pay it off, the more we owe. Superego is like the extortioner slowly bleeding us to death – the more he gets, the stronger his hold on us.

The exemplary case of this paradox of the superego is, of course, the literary work of Franz Kafka: the so-called ‘irrational guilt’ of the Kafkaesque hero bears witness to the fact that, somewhere, he compromised his desire. In order to avoid commonplaces, however, let us rather refer to Choderlos de Laclos’s Les liaisons dangereuses: when Valmont offers the Marquise de Montreuil his famous ‘c’est pas ma faute’, ‘it’s beyond my control’, as the excuse for his falling in love with the Presidente de Tourvel, he thereby confirms that he ‘compromised his desire’ and yielded to a pathological passion – that is, he is guilty. In order to redeem himself in the eyes of the Marquise, he then proceeds to sacrifice the Presidente, rebuffing her with the same words (‘c’est pas ma faute’ if I no longer love you, since it’s beyond my control). This sacrifice, however, in no way enables him to get rid of his guilt – quite the contrary, his guilt is redoubled; he betrays the Presidente without reducing his guilt in the slightest in the eyes of the Marquise. Therein consists the vicious cycle into which we are drawn once we ‘give up our desire’: there is no simple way back, since the more we endeavour to exculpate ourselves by sacrificing the pathological object which induced us to betray our desire, the greater is our guilt.

Lacanian ethics thus involves the radical disjunction between duty and giving consideration to the Good. This is why Lacan refers to Kant, to the Kantian gesture of excluding the Good as the motivation of an ethical act: Lacan insists that the most dangerous form of betrayal is not a direct yielding to our ‘pathological’ impulses but, rather, a reference to some kind of Good, as when I shirk my duty with the excuse that I might thereby impair the Good (my own or common) – the moment I invoke ‘circumstances’ or ‘unfavourable consequences’ as an excuse, I am on my way to perdition. Reasons on account of which I compromise my desire can be very convincing and well-founded, even honourable; I can invoke anything, up to and including ecological damage. The artifice of looking for excuses is boundless; it may well be ‘true’ that the well-being of my fellow-men is jeopardized by my act, but the abyss that separates ethics from the consideration of the Good none the less remains insurmountable. Desire and Kantian ethical rigour coincide here in their disregard for the ‘demands of reality’: neither of them acknowledges the excuse of circumstances or unfavourable consequences, which is why Lacan ultimately identifies them (‘the moral law, looked at more closely, is simply desire in its pure state’).

Freud’s infamous assertion that women are without superego – or, at least, that a woman’s superego is weaker than a man’s – appears, therefore, in an entirely new light: women’s lack of superego bears witness to their ethics. Women don’t need a superego, since they have no guilt on which the superego can parasitize – since, that is, they are far less prone to compromise their desire. It is by no means accidental that Lacan evokes as the exemplary case of a pure ethical attitude Antigone, a woman who ‘didn’t give up’: already, at a pre-theoretical intuitive level, it is clear that she does not do as she does because of superego pressure – superego has no business here. Antigone is not guilty, although she does not trouble herself at all about the Good of the community, about the possible catastrophic consequences of her act. Herein resides the link between the male superego and the fact that in man the sense of the Good of the community is expressed far more than it is in woman: the ‘Good of the community’ is the standard excuse for compromising our desire. Superego is the revenge that capitalizes upon our guilt – that is to say, the price we pay for the guilt we contract by betraying our desire in the name of the Good.

This ethics of persisting in one’s desire irrespective of the common Good inevitably gives rise to anxiety: is not such a radical attitude the preserve of a few ‘heroes’, while we ordinary people also have a right to survive? Consequently, do we not also need an ‘ordinary’ ethics of ‘common Good’ and distributive justice that would meet the requirements of the majority, despicable as it may appear in the eyes of the suicidal heroic ethics advocated by Lacan? The fear of this ‘excessive’ character of the Lacanian ethics of desire (…) can be detected even in Kant who, according to Lacan, was the first to formulate an ethics of desire that ignores pathological considerations: is not the restraint imposed by ‘What if everyone were to do the same as me?’ the elementary form of the way we give up our desire? Renounce your desire, since it is not universalizable!

Slavoj Žižek, The Metastases of Enjoyment, pp. 54-68.

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Europa, Europa

There is something about twos than always beats threes; unfinishedness, truncation.

I am going back to Europe, and although I probably won’t have time for Berlin again, there will be Berliners in Zurich, and I am fortifying myself with Berlin music nonetheless.

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And because a sick person is always deserted – to say anything else would be a gross lie.

2006 © Bostan Alexander

The healthy have never had patience with the sick, nor, of course, have the sick ever had patience with the healthy. This fact must not be forgotten. For naturally the sick make far greater demands than the healthy, who, being healthy, have no need to make such demands. The sick do not understand the healthy and the healthy do not understand the sick. This conflict often proves fatal, because ultimately the sick cannot cope with it, and the healthy naturally cannot cope with it either, with the result that they often become sick themselves. It is not easy to deal with a sick person who suddenly returns to the place from which he was wrenched by sickness, and the healthy usually lack the will to help him: they constantly play at being good Samaritans, without actually being good Samaritans or wanting to be, and because it is only a feint, it merely harms the sick person and does not benefit him. In reality, a sick person is always alone, and whatever help he gets from outside nearly always proves merely vexatious. A sick person needs the most unobtrusive help, the kind of help the healthy cannot give. Through their essentially selfish pretense of helping him they succeed only in harming him and making everything harder for him, not easier. Most of the time the sick are not helped, but merely vexed, by their helpers. When a sick person returns home, however, he cannot afford any vexation. Should he point out that he is being vexed rather than helped, he will at once be rebuffed by those who are ostensibly helping him; he will be accused of arrogance and boundless selfishness when in fact he is only resorting to the ultimate self-defense. When a sick person returns hom, the healthy world receives him with ostensible kindness, ostensible helpfulness, ostensible self-sacrifice, but its kindness, helpfulness, and self-sacrifice, when put to the text, turn out to be a sham, and one does well to forgo them. (…)

The hypocrisy practiced by the healthy toward the sick is extremely common. Basically the healthy want no more to do with the sick, and they are put out if a sick person – one who is gravely sick – suddenly reasserts his claim to health. The healthy always make it particularly difficult for the sick to regain their health, or at least to normalize themselves, to improve their state of health. A healthy person, if he is honest, wants nothing to do with the sick; he does not wish to be reminded of sickness and thereby, inevitably, of death. He wants to stay with his own kind and is basically intolerant of the sick. It has always been made difficult for me to return from the world of the sick to the world of the healthy. While a person is sick, the healthy shun him and cast him off, in obedience to their instinct for self-preservation. Then suddenly this person who has been shed and has meanwhile ceased to matter reappers and claims his rights. Naturally he is at once given to understand that basically he has no rights. As the healthy see it, the sick have forfeited whatever rights they once had. Their sickness has robbed them of their rights and thrown them upon the charity of the healthy. When a sick person, having ceded the place that he once occupied by right, suddenly demands its restitutions, the healthy regard this as an act of monstrous presumption. (…) A gravely sick person who returns home must be treated with gentleness and consideration. But this is difficult, and therefore rare. The healthy immediately make him feel he is an outsider and no longer one of them, and while pretending that this is not so, they do all in their power to repulse him.

— Thomas Bernhard, Wittgenstein’s Nephew