November 17, 2004

From big brother to the big other

'The only true hell is there in the office, I no longer fear any other.'
- Kafka, letter to Felice, 7/4/1913

Like Infinite Thought, I often find myself being called 'inappropriate' these days. Now what does that mean, and what function does the concept serve - ideologically, I mean?

From the POV of the English Master Class (EMC), 'appropriateness' seems to cover (what they regard as) a multitude of sins: anything from sexual abuse ('inappropriate touching of a six year old') to the most trivial transgression of their random conventions ('inappropriate use of profanities'). This breadth of coverage is of course far from accidental, since the function of the prohibition ('You should never behave inappropriately') is precisely to obfuscate the difference between what is grossly unethical, what is illegal what are 'mere' questions of etiquette.

The temptation might be to regard the ethical and the legal as the really important zones of political contestation here. But who but a few nutters are going to question the idea that child abuse is wrong? And the legal does not have the power to function ideologically for two reasons. First, because it is self-evidently provisional. What is legal does not necessarily have normative force because the genesis of laws can be historicized (they emerged from particular historical circumstances, expressing the will of particular populations - and such circumstances and such wills may change in the future, or may already have changed, which means that there is a problem of legitimacy - if 'only' at the level of virtuality - for law.).

But given that most people do not behave grossly unethically or illegally (except in ways that the big Other seems to regard as acceptable: speeding, downloading mp3's, using soft drugs) what is it that controls their behaviour? Essentially, it is etiquette, 'appropriateness' - and the concept gains its normative power through its very confusing imprecision.

Forget Orwell

Deleuze is right to say in his essay on Societies of Control that Kafka is the prophet of postmodern cybernetic power. There may be something in Orwell's tedious liberal moralizing miserabilism that had some relevance to the grim austerity of totalitarian states (I have my doubts), but there is little in 1984 that has any purchase in UK 2004. The fact that people willingly submit themselves to 24 hour surveillance in Big Brother is only the most obvious Warholian/ Baudrillardian ironization of Orwell's failed analysis. As Foucault argued, it is the juridical subject, the modern soul, everyman, in other words, Winston Smith himself, who is the basic unit of power, of self-policing, in contemporary western societies. And what could be clearer than that now, when thinking collectively is so far off the agenda that it in itself is deemed to be a symptom of pathology?

Now, Kafka importantly distinguishes between two types of acquittal available to the accused. Naturally, definite acquittal is no longer possible ('we have only legendary accounts of ancient cases [which] provide instances of acquittal'). The two remaining options, then, are (1) 'Ostensible acquittal', in which the accused is to all and intents acquitted, but may later, at some unspecified time, face the charges in full, or (2) 'Indefinite Postponement', in which the accused engages in (what they hope is an infintely) protracted process of legal wrangling, so that the dreaded ultimate judgement is unlikely to be forthcoming.

Deleuze rightly observes that the Control societies delineated by Kafka himself, but also by Foucault and Burroughs, operate using indefinite postponement... Education as a lifelong process... Training that persists for as long as your working life continues... Work you take home with you.. Working from home, homing from work (I didn't make that up, honest...)

A consequence of this 'indefinite' mode of power is that external surveillance is succeeded by internal policing. Control only works if you are complicit with it. Hence the Burroughs figure of the 'Control Addict': the one who is addicted to control, but also, inevitably, the one who has been taken over, possessed by Control...

The implicit question posed by The Trial is the same one posed by the microcosmic parable embedded within it, the story 'Before the Law': what if K simply ignored the Escherized baroque labyrinth of the Law, what if the one before the law simply left instead of waiting in vain for permission from the authorities to enter a door he will never enter? Kafka implies that this is the one option absolutely unavailable to us. Because life itself, of course, is indefinite postponement.

(Which always reminds me of Bill's unanswered question in Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick's most Kafkaesque film: 'What kind of fucking charade ends up with someone turning up dead?')

The conception of life as indefinite postponement, and further, of all aspects of life as potentially belonging to the Court, produces a generalized, unlocalizable anxiety without any identifiable object, and K's infractions tend precisely to be mistakes of propriety, sexual indiscretions or other apparently trivial embarrassments he falls into at the very time he believes he is outside the jurisdiction of the Law.

This unlocalizable anxiety is inevitable, given the nature of decorum and propriety, of which Infinite Thought kindly provides a definition:

"So, decorum then. 'Propriety of manner or conduct; grace arising from suitableness of speech and behavior to one's own character, or to the place and occasion; decency of conduct; seemliness; that which is seemly or suitable'. Well it doesn't sound too hard, does it? (Gah!) But it's impossible to work out what is suitable, I think, if it consists of imagining what it is that other people think is appropriate (or what they think they should think, etc.). And who the hell then is the big Other?....."

Yes, appropriateness is always a question of what the big Other deems to be appropriate. Which is difficult. Since, as we all know, the big Other does not exist...

Posted by mark at November 17, 2004 12:55 AM | TrackBack

Spot-on. I've often found the creepiest part of both The Trial and The Castle to be the way in which there are no 'private/public' divisions: everything leaks into everything else. Meetings are held with the advocate on his sickbed, the court sessions are in some family's flat, the courts are - well, everywhere. It's so claustrophobic, to have the literal presence of 'forces' present even as you wake up, as you sit in your bed wearing pyjamas and no pants... I suppose this is the literal materialisation/solidification of 'power'. (The last word there is somewhat gauche - the skills to use this word with any precision are not yet in my possession.)

Posted by: &catherine at November 17, 2004 02:36 PM

Yes, my life is very much like that atm... but I can say no more (the court officials might be listening).

Posted by: mark k-p at November 17, 2004 09:53 PM

'K. Agree with a lot of this. Which then poses the question: "What do you do?"

One response is camoflage. You hide what you are doing as part of the system. Or you gauchely play the role of the "outsider" (Remember: What do you do in town where no one knows you? Anything you like).

Another response is around permission. Most people need permission to do things (from Big Daddy Other). So you go around giving people permission to do things. You have to be quite careful (which is may be where camoflage comes in) but it can have amazing results. I am always fascinated by people who never seem to need permission to do anything. They often end up in positions of power.

I love your writing Mark but it often makes me depressed. How does it make you feel? (Apologies if that question was inappropriate)

Posted by: Daniel Byron at November 18, 2004 07:46 AM

It definitely does not make me depressed. On the contrary, it is all about strategies for avoiding precisely that state. It is the big Other that depresses; identifying it is one step - and actually quite an enormous one - towards defeating it.

The radicality of the Badiou move (against the consensual Nietzscheanism of postmodernity) is to insist upon the category of Truth. Liberal instituions are venal and corrupt, but they can't be seen to be. You can stand against them, you can change things, but only in the name of Truth and Justice. Despite what the Blairite innocynics would like you to think, these things are real.

Only by subsuming yr ego under a Cause can you stop being depressed.

Posted by: mark k-p at November 18, 2004 11:22 AM

"Truth and Justice" and the...

Oh, hang on.

"Only by subsuming yr ego under a Cause can you stop being depressed."

Not sure about the Cause (with a capital C). What does this mean?

Posted by: Daniel Byron at November 18, 2004 01:03 PM

I know very little about Badiou (I've just started reading his Ethics), so I may be barking up completely the wrong tree, but do you think there's a more Badiou-esque Nietzsche we could extract? I was wondering particularly about an analogy between 'subsuming your ego under a Cause' and the idea of a will to power, particularly given that (if I understand Nietzsche) a will to power is never really at the level of an individual person. I'm thinking maybe Badiou's book on Deleuze might have something to say about this?

It seems to me the really poisonous thing about contemporary public culture is the combination of Nietzscheanism and subjectivist individualism.

Posted by: Tim at November 19, 2004 12:39 AM

I thought that was a very invigorating piece Mark except for the end where I felt you were trying to hack on one of your mates. Good luck with yer mdx speech!

Posted by: loaf at November 19, 2004 01:22 AM

And what is wrong with 'hacking on' one of your mates, exactly?! K-P made the point a lot better than my whimsical paragraph tho, obv.

Posted by: infinite thought at November 20, 2004 03:03 PM

What does 'hacking on one of your mates' mean? (Genuine question)

Posted by: mark k-p at November 21, 2004 11:00 AM

I meant ( I think) including one of your friends in your discourse just to be nice. Might've been wrong. Often am! So apols if offended. Think I'll stop digging now and get on with me life

Posted by: loaf at November 21, 2004 11:33 AM