May 20, 2006

...'if you can watch the overlap of one reality with another'


The moment that most fascinated me in Ursula Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven was its descriptions of times of transition from one reality to another.

The novel concerns George Orr, a man whose dreams literally come true. In time-honoured fairy tale fashion, however, that 'literally' quickly becomes a problem. When, for instance, Orr is induced by his therapist, Dr Haber, into dreaming that the problem of overpopulation is solved, he wakes to find himself in a world in which billions have been wiped out by a Plague; a Plague that, as Jameson pointedly puts it, was 'a hitherto non-existent event which rapidly finds its place in our chronological memory of the recent past, like Proust's furniture racing to reach their correct stations in bedroom space before he is completely awake'.

Much of the power of the novel consists in its rendering of these retrospective confabulations, whose mechanics are at once so familiar - because we perform them every night when we dream - and so odd. How could it ever be possible for us to believe successive or even co-extensive stories that so obviously contradict one another? Yet we know from Kant, Nietzsche and psychoanalysis that waking, as much as dreaming, experience, depends upon just such screening narratives. If the Real is unbearable, any reality we construct must be a tissue of inconsistencies.

What differentiates Kant, Nietzsche and Freud from the tiresome cliche that 'life is but a dream' is precisely the sense that the confabulations we live are consensual. The idea that the world we experience is a solipsistic delusion projected from the interior of our mind consoles rather than disturbs us, since it conforms with our infantile fantasies of omnipotence; but the thought that our so-called interiority owe its existence to a fictionalized consensus will always carry an uncanny charge.

Ursula Le Guin

This extra level of uncanniness is registered in The Lathe of Heaven when Le Guin has Orr's reality-warping dreams witnessed by others - the therapist, Haber, who seeks to manipulate and control Orr's ability, and the lawyer, Heather Lelache. What, then, is it like to live through someone else's dream coming true?

    '[Haber] could not go on talking. He felt it: the shift, the arrival, the change.

    The woman felt it too. She looked frightened. Holding the brass necklace up close to her throat like a talisman, she was staring in dismay, shock, terror, out of the window at the view.

    But she had heard him tell Orr what to dream; she had stood beside the dreamer; she was there at the center, like him. And like him, she had turned to look out at the window at the vanishing towers fading like a dream, leave not a wrack behind, the insubstantial miles of suburb dissolving like smoke on the wind, the city of Portland, which had had a population of a million people before the Plague Years but had only about a hundred thousand these days of the Recovery, a mess and jumble like all American cities, but unified by its hills and its misty, seven-bridged river, the old forty-story First National Bank building dominating the downtown skyline, and far beyond, above it all, the serene and pale mountains. ...

    She saw it happen. And he realized that he had never once thought that the HEW observer might see it happen. It hadn't been a possibility, he hadn't given it a thought. And this implied that he himself had not believed in the change, in what Orr's dreams did. though he had felt it, seen it, with bewilderment, fear, and exultation, a dozen times now; though he had watched the horse become a mountain (if you can watch the overlap of one reality with another), though he had been testing, and using, the effective power of Orr's dreams for nearly a month now, yet he had not believed in what was happening.

    This whole day, from his arrival at work on, he had not given one thought to the fact that, a week ago, he had not been the Director of the Oregon Oneirological Institute, because there had been no Institute. Ever since last Friday, there had been an Institute for the last eighteen months. And he had been its founder and director. And this being the way it was - for him, for everyone on the staff, and his colleagues at the Medical School, and the Government that funded it - he had accepted it totally, just as they did, as the only reality. He had supressed his memory of the fact that, until last Friday, this had not been the way it was.

    That had been Orr's most successful dream by far. It had begun in the old office across the river, under that damned mural photograph of Mount Hood, and had ended in this office ... and he had been there, had seen the walls change around him, and had forgotten it. He had forgotten it so completely that he had never even wondered if a stranger, a third person might have the same experience.

    What would it do to the woman? Would she understand, would she go mad, what would she do? Would she keep both memories, as he did, the true one and the new one, the old one and the true one?'

Does she 'go crazy'? No, not at all: after a few moments of bewildered fugue, Heather Lelache accepts the 'new' world as the 'true' world, editing out the point of suture. This strategy - of accepting the incommensurable and the senseless without question - has always been the exemplary technique of sanity as such, but it has a special role to play in late capitalism, that 'motley painting of everything that ever was', whose dreaming up and junking of social fictions is nearly as rapid as its production and disposal of commodities. To be able to function in late capitalism without being a psychological wreck, it is necessary to accept the insane as standard.

One of the middle managers at work has turned this into a fine art. He asserts with full confidence a story about the college and its future one day; then literally the next day will happily propound a story that directly contradicts what he previously said. There is no question of his repudiating the previous story; it as if he, like Heather Lelache, he only dimly remembers there ever being another story. This, I suppose, is 'good management'. It is, also, perhaps the only way to stay healthy amidst capitalism's perpetual instability. On the face of it, this manager is a model of beaming mental health, his whole being radiating a hail-fellow-well-met bonhomie. Such cheerfulness can only be maintained if one has a near-total absence of any critical reflexivity and a capacity, as he has, to cynically comply with every directive from bureaucratic authority. The cynicism of the compliance is essential, of course; the preservation of his 60s liberal self-image depends upon his 'not really believing' in the auditing processes he so assiduously enforces. If the reality program has been set up elsewhere, there is nothing he can do, so he must tell himself, but play along with it. This disclaiming of responsibility is now so widespread amongst managers that to invoke the old category of 'bad faith' scarcely seems adequate for what is a structural effect. Which is to say: the managers of capital are well-practised in living someone else's dream. Or someone else's nightmare...

Or someThing else's nightmare....

For what we are living through is not the dream of a subject, but the dream of Capital...

Wendy Brown

Which brings us to 'American Nightmare: Neoconservatism, Neoliberalism, and De-democratization', an outstanding lecture given by Wendy Brown, Professor of Political Science at Berkeley, on Friday night at Westminster university. Her address was in part a response to a suggestion of Stuart Hall's that it was necessary to analyse current forms of power in terms of dreamwork. What the dreamwork does, Brown recognized, like Le Guin before her, is to produce an - always retrospective - narrative consistency which covers over anomalies and contradictions . Brown's analysis had the literally stunning effect of rousing us from the trance in which we blithtely accept that neoliberalism and neoconservatism are in some way logically consistent. Her performance - and it was very definitely a brilliant oratorial performance - perfectly demonstrated that the role of the critical intellectual is to expose the arbitrary and contingent conceptual stitching holding the ruling order together.

Brown showed, first, that neoliberalism - which is amoral and based upon the satisfaction of desire - and neoconservatism - which is explicitly moral and based upon the regularion and sublimation of desire - operate from premises which are not only inconsistent, but directly contradictory. But incoherence at the level of what she called 'political rationality' does nothing to prevent symbiosis at the level of political subjectivity, because the latter is precisely a matter of dreamed confabulation.

The neoliberal subsumption of democracy - and let's be clear, Brown was well aware of the dangers of unproblematically privileging democracy as a concept - is evidenced by the way in which governance no longer makes any appeal to the public good but justifies itself via the business criteria of effectivity. Bush's sidestepping of questions about the 'truth' of his statements about Iraq with the response 'but we got rid of Saddam didn't we?' and his description of his first election 'victory' as 'political capital' (rather than as a mandate) are exemplary of the way in which American governance has been absorbed into what I have called business ontology. One consequence of the displacement of democratic values has been the acceptance that there will be a permanent under- (or criminal) class, a more or less explicit rejection of universalism.

Neo-conservatism, Brown observed, is not a movement so much as an orientation, a ragbag of disparate lobbies united only by what they loathe. The secular Cold Warriors, evangelical Christians, Jewish Straussians and the other myriad interest groups who comprise neo-conservatism all share a horror of intellectuals and artists. If the model for the neo-liberal state is the firm, for the neocons, it is the church. (And despite the anti-state rhetoric, both neocons and neoliberals are committed statists, whose projects would be unthinkable without an authoritarian state.)

Neoliberalism, Brown argued, is no longer a 'contestable agenda' because it 'depoliticizes social problems'; a key example here would be the use of 'boutique medicine' to solve health problems, particularly mental health problems. Neoconservatism, meanwhile, reduces the capacity of the population to participate or challenge by producing a submissive, obedient citizen. Brown's haunting example of this was the 'Support our Troops' car sticker. What is remarkable about the injunction on the sticker, Brown argued, is its contentlessness - for what would it be to not support 'our' troops? What is demanded is an absolute subordination to authority, a subordination which takes its model from religion.

One consequence of this is the performative quality of neoconservatism's authoritarian populist discourse. In the heady, long-forgotten triumphalist days when the bombing of Iraq could still appear successful, neocons used to laugh at 'comical Ali', the Iraqi foreign minsiter who flagrantly denied the undeniable. It hardly need be pointed out that the current neocon pronouncements about the 'success' of the Iraq misadventure now share exactly the same quality of absurd dissimulation, although what is at stake in what Brown called the 'declarative modality of truth' is more than a simple matter of deception. I'm reminded of Deleuze and Guattari's claim that the function of official announcements is not to tell us what is true; it is to tell us what we are now expected to believe.

To see how this 'declarative modality' functions, we can turn back to Le Guin. Witness how Haber's tone of voice and confidence are enough to convince Lelache that what she has just seen happening cannot possibly have occurred.

    'Are you a native Oregonian?'

    After a minute, she nodded groggily. The matter-of-fact tone of his voice was getting through to her.

    'Ever been East, Miss Lelache?'

    She looked at him vaguely and said, 'No'.

    'Well,' why bother. New York's doomed in any case, and Boston and anyhow the future of this country is out here. This is the growing edge. This is where it's at, as they used to say when I was a kid; I wonder, by the way, if you know Dewey Furth, at the HEW office here.'

    'Yes,' she said, still punch-drunk, but beginning to respond, to act as if nothing had happened. A spasm of relief went through Haber's body. He wanted to sit down suddenly, to breathe hard. The danger was past. She was rejecting the incredible experience. She was asking herself now, what's wrong with me? Why on earth did I look out the window expecting to see a city of three million? Am I having some sort of crazy spell?'

This would also be a perfect example of the way in which capitalist realism privatizes stress. Not: is capitalism insane? But: am I having a crazy spell? The neurotic achieves normality only by accepting, which is to say living within, the inconsistencies of the symbolic order, whereas the rationalist who cannot accept these inconsistencies as somehow natural is in the position of the psychotic.

Brown restricted her aim to analysing the nightmare rather than suggesting any solution to it. She would not accept that the nostalgic hankering after old conservatism or the strategic defence of liberal democracy - as pathetically advocated by Chantal Mouffe in the audience - were either viable or desirable positions to hold.

The problem is a vast one, but it can be quickly dramatized when we counterpose Jameson's Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism with his latest book on Utopia and Science Fiction, in which the Le Guin essay can be found (Jameson actually compares The Lathe of Heaven with the Strugatsky brothers' Roadside Picnic, the novel on which Tarkovsky's Stalker was based). Postmodernism presupposes the collapse of Utopia. That is why capitalist realism is not a particular type of realism; it is more like realism in itself. For what is the triumphalism of capitalism based on if not the claim that it has dissolved all illusions? (It might have dissolved all previous illusions, but capital is the grandest theology ever to take hold of the planet.)

So the supposed realism of both neoconservatism and neoliberalism should not be taken at face value. Theirs is the realism of the depressive. Depression, as I have argued before, is an ontological thesis, not simply an affective state. Business ontology is not somethings that is easily libidinized; any excitement that the social field has been reduced to this will only ever be somewhat muted. It is impossible to imagine business values being advocated except by contrast with the failed projects over which they proclaim their superiority. Their assertion is a symptom of the disintegration of belief rather than a belief in itself.

The problem is not the defeat of a particular leftist project but the late capitalist-Pomo liquidation of social projects as such - the defeat of modernism in other words. The question of modernism's demise is of course raised afresh by the current V & A Modernism show. As Owen puts it: 'Now, presumably, that the work of PoMo is complete, the defeated adversary can be mounted on the dais, can be assessed, can even become another plunderable style. Or, on the contrary - perhaps the interest in Modernism, the endless Sunday Supplement features, are a melancholy kind of resistance: no age, surely, has been less Utopian than our own (unless one counts some of the more gonzo ideas of the Neo-Conservatives). The last 27 years of being told THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE has burrowed into everyone’s subconscious.'

Walking through the Modernist show at the V & A on Saturday, I had the same flash that I sometimes get when I'm in the British Museum. As Ccru suggested in its piece 'Flatlines', the British Museum - artifacts torn from their lifeworlds and assembled as if on the deck of some Predator spacecraft - gives you capitalism, the Thing, the unnameable, the parodic universal history 'in the raw'. SF Capital, then, as what Steve Shaviro calls the 'age of aesthetics', where all the great human projects are now presented as exhibits. The power of capitalist realism derives in part from this ironic subsumption and ceaseless re-consumption of all previous history - capitalism is what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual or symbolic elaboration, and all that survives is the simulated transcendence of the consumer-spectator, desolately trudging through the museum and looking at how we used to believe, their only remaining beliefs belonging to the disavowed theology of capital (buy a souvenir when you leave).

But there is a disavowed utopianism not so far beneath the surface in the case of both neoconservatism and neoliberalism. Could it be said, in fact, that the disavowal of Utopianism is one of the threads which sutures neoconservatism and neoliberalism together? For the neocons, the Utopia is already achieved (why, who could doubt that the USA is the most free society ever to exist on earth?) but it has been damaged. America the beautiful has been wounded, and must be restored. The talismans of that restoration is the (holy) Family, with women back in the kitchen. Neoliberal utopianism is energetic; a vital nonhuman force - sometimes glossed by neoliberal theologians as 'complexity' - 'wants to be free' but is repressed by the old Stalinist State, which survives now almost solely in the fantasmatic economy of the neoliberals. (They must dread the day when North Korea finally succumbs to Krispy Kreme donuts...)

To return, then, once more, to Le Guin's novel. She conceived of The Lathe of Heaven as her tribute to PKD, and it is indeed like Dick without the bad prose and the wearisome kookiness. But also without the schizophrenic radicality. The novel's 'villain' is the therapist, Dr Haber, who tries to use Orr's dreams to change things. Even though Le Guin is far too canny, too committed to a certain dialogic model of literary craft, to fully demonise Orr, it is hard not to take from the novel a familiar, conservative message, quintessentially anti-modernist: trying to change things only leads to worse catastrophes. It is another version of the old SF warning against Promethean over-reaching and playing God. Haber, though, is less a god than a kind of ameliorative demiurge, an ontological utilitarian, convinced, contra Leibniz, that there is a better possible reality than this one, and that the best possible world is something that can be gradually achieved by a series of improvements. But, as Jameson suggests, that ameliorative tendency raises the possibility that the novel can be read, after all, as something other than an anti-Utopia. 'If ... we make Haber not a Utopian revolutionary, who wants to change everything and to transform the very totality of being, and read him rather as a New Dealer and a liberal or a social democrat, egaer for reform rather than revolution, and intent on changing now this, now that, as he encounters the very ills of society one by one on his path; then from an anti-Utopian work the novel swings around into a rather different tradition of inspiration, and iahklu' [the Alien language term in the novel for 'effective dreaming'] becomes the very code word for revolution itself as the dream of a total process.'

Le Guin plays Nietzsche off against himself: opposing the Nietzsche who, anticipating Freud, delighted in the belligerent libidinal forces that lay beneath our superficially benevolent tendencies, to the Nietzsche who insisted that will to power could not be cheated, only deflected, sublimated, or repressed. Haber's motives are (pyscho)analysed as follows:

    'The quality of will to power is, precisely, growth. Achievement is its cancellation. To be, the will to power must increase with each fulfillment, making the fulfillment only a step to a further one. The vaster the power gained, the vaster the appetite for more. As there was no visible limit to the power Haber wielded through Orr's dreams, so there was no end to his determination to improve the world.'

Yet this 'no end' is precisely the excess that makes life worth living. If, as Nietzsche says, life is essentially will to power, it is because, as he also says, life is more than life. Nietzsche attacked the stoics in Beyond Good and Evil precisely because their fantasy of 'living according to life' suppressed the way in which life itself was only possible on the basis of a drive that was not containable within the parameters of the vital. Le Guin's taosim - which is at points almost parodically hippy drippy vulgar Deleuzian - repeats the same attempted short circuit. Speaking of the Aliens - who, with their quasi-African names, come to represent a kind of cosmological noble savage, at home in Nature - Orr says:

    'They are of the dream time. I don't understand it, I can't say it in words. Everything dreams. The play of form, of being, is the dreaming of substance. Rocks have their dreams, and the earth changes... But when the mind becomes conscious, when the rate of evolution speeds up, then you have to be careful. Careful of the world. You must learn the way. You must learn the skills, the arts, the limits. A conscious mind must be part of the whole, intentionally and carefully - as the rock is part of the whole unconsciously.'

The cheapness of this wisdom - airily dismissed by Haber as 'World soul and so on ... [p]rescienfitic synthesis' - may have something to do with the fact that it has been projected from the fantasies of a white western liberal. As Orr himself notes at one point, 'it's not surprising that the Aliens are on my side. In a sense I invented them. I have no idea in what sense, of course. But they definitely weren't around until I dreamed they were, until I let them be.' Is Le Guin laughing at herself here? Perhaps. We can be sure, though, that Dick - who knew both that the gnosis may be found in cheap dimestore commodities, and that august, sacred texts may turn out to be mass-produced fakes - would have explored that ambiguity more fully.

PKD would also not have surrendered the role of dreaming so quickly to a vision of pacific cosmic harmony. Le Guin's conservatism is ontological as well as political, and that is no accident. Orr's 'achievement', by the end of the novel, is to restore, of the 'ordinary mess' (cf the 'ordinary misery' of the Freudian neurotic) of life, as centred upon domestic coupledom. And there is an aporia at the heart of this concept of 'letting things be', as Jameson observes. 'The contradiction,' he writes, 'inhabits any ethics of becoming what you are already. The problem is that Haber himself, along with his do-gooding personality and complete with his own inner will-to-power is already part of the fabric of being. The will to power is not something outside being, that we could omit in order to exist in some more preaceful state. It is Being itself.'

Le Guin not only opposes Being to praxis, she indulges in an odd but revelatory essentialism, in her treatment of the mixed race character, Heather Lelache. When Haber induces Orr to dream of an end to the race problem, and his unconscious mind comes up with another solution that is absurdly comic in its literalness - a world in which everyone is grey-coloured - Lelache is disappeared.

    'That's why she's not here, he thought. She could not have been born grey. Her colour, her colour of brown, was an essential part of her, not an accident. Her anger, timidity, brashness, gentleness, all were elements of her mixed being, dark and clear right through, like Baltic amber. She could not exist in this grey people's world. She had not been born.

    He had, though. He could be born into any world, He had no character. He was a lump of clay, a block of uncarved wood.'

This would be an embarrassing relic of a bygone meta-orientalist liberal agenda, a symptom of a benevolent but bewildered cultural relativism, if something akin to that position weren't still current, as was evidenced at the highly charged Xenos (slogan: movement, conflict, dystopia) seminar at Goldsmiths last Wednesday. Houzan Mahmoud faced opposition - as she always does in the UK, she says - from an alliance of believers and academics committed to cultural relativism. The position that she occupies - Iraqi communist woman opposed to both the occupation and political Islam - is politically Impossible in the current conjuncture, therefore it has to be disappeared. There was a predictable degree of disquiet amongst the academics about any leftist assertion of universality. Implicit in their call for 'specificity' and 'context' was not only the empiricist dementia of endlessly finessing representations, but also the meta-orientalist assumption that 'respecting others' means surrendering them to what is taken to be their identity. They can only be what they are, can only exist in their cultural world; 'we' Western academics can, like Orr, 'exist in any world'.

Houzan Mahmoud

Identity politics is not politics at all, since it precisely negates the political as such by re-construing political positions in ethnic terms, subsuming 'ought' under 'is'. The denial of the gap between identity and identification, between, that is to say, the subject of the statement and the subject of enunciation, as crucial for existentialism as it is for Lacanianism, is a presupposition of identity politics. The existentialist sense that there is no human being outside praxis, that there is no 'identity' in some pre-defined sense, is, of course, radically at odds with the rigid designations of the Identity Polis. The message of the Identity Police, after all, is that you should be who you are. Against this, existentialism's claim there is Nothing that you 'are', or that what you are is Nothing, a void, has never been more pertinent. Heather Lelache encounters just such a void when, at the end of The Lathe of Heaven she is assisting her husband to restore Oridnary Reality, and her whole lifeworld disintegrates around her, (and she with it, of course):

    'The presentiment which had seized Heather, as she looked down from the jade sky was now a presence. It was there. It was an area, or perhaps a time-period, of a sort of emptiness. It was the presence of absence: an unqualifiable entity without qualities, into which all things fell and from which nothing came forth. It was horrible, and it was nothing. It was the wrong way.

    Into this, ... George went. He looked back at her as he went, crying out, 'Wait for me, Heather! Don't follow me, don't come!'

    But though she tried to obey him, it came to her. It was growing out from the centre rapidly. She found that all things were gone and that she was lost in the panic dark, crying out her husband's name with no voice, desolate, until she sank down in a ball curled about the centre of her own being, and fell forever through the dry abyss.'

Again, it is unclear as to whether Le Guin is making a point by having her mixed race female character's whole existence depend upon her being the hero's brown love interest. What is clear is that Le Guin is too attached to the exisiting reality co-ordinates to conceive of the void as anything but the 'wrong way'. It strikes me, however, that this void - the void which capitalist creative destruction continually gestures towards but continually covers over - is the revolutionary rupture. This, after all, would be the time of the Event, which is also the time of trauma, where ontology is suspended --- and what will henceforth count as reality is up for grabs.

Posted by mark at May 20, 2006 07:12 PM | TrackBack