Saturday, 26 December 2009

Notes on Powerlessness

Wittgenstein’s philosophy resembles baroque anamorphic painting. One might compare its effect with Holbein’s “The Ambassadors” - viewed from the front one sees a bishop and a nobleman in a palatial chamber, seen from the side, what appeared in the foreground to be a distorted wafer-shape on the floor metamorphoses into a large death’s head.

Wittgenstein’s life certainly was one of extremes – his philosophy though is one of limits, restrictions, rules and obedience. Bernard Burgoyne, referring to the early Wittgenstein, even before the Tractatus, when he was still a close associate of Bertrand Russell said – “Oxford, Cambridge, London was 'the golden triangle' - the power base for the intellectual elites, the Russell-Wittgenstein program was an 'imperialistic' one  - to lay foundations for all knowledge in this certain kind of logic - also using set theory. All that collapsed and failed. Wittgenstein lost his faith - his belief in it." [In conversation with the author, “Monadic Dialogues” from: “The Conference”, Sound Installation, Shannee Marks and Peer Wolfram, Exhibition, Part 1 of Faust Series Opus 8: The Accident Colony, Triptych from the Dark Night of Suburbia]

This collapse more or less coincided with the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the secure world of wealth and power into which Wittgenstein had been born. It was also perhaps the last possible moment in British intellectual history when such an imperialistic program could have been conceived – the First World War was the first mortal blow to the British Empire. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus logico-philosophicus, written shortly after World War One, could easily be seen as a nihilistic credo of a writer whose power base has been shattered.

1. Powerlessness

If Wittgenstein’s philosophy is “will to power” – he begins at the ideal point of powerlessness. In his “War” Journal he meditates upon a paradoxical configuration – power at whose genesis is the complete lack or absence of power. When power is defined as energy applied to the world – moving outside of its source – then Wittgenstein’s initial state is one of total lack of energy, less even than a passive state – energy could still be present but inactive. His initial state is an unnatural vacuum – a state drained of all energy. This is a possible delimitation (definition) of Wittgenstein’s nihilism: a philosophy of power whose starting point is the state of powerlessness, the inability to influence events, the state of the world to any degree whatsoever.

“I cannot bend the happenings of the world to my will: I am completely powerless.” (11 June 1916 from Diaries 1914-1916, quoted in Lars Hertzberg “The Powerlessness of the Will”, online pdf, p.1)

This is an early expression of Wittgenstein’s “shattered power base”. Although no power is ever completely shattered. But perhaps the desire, which animates power – the intangible of power – a prerequisite of will – can be extinguished. As Nietzsche writes in “The Gay Science”: “(...)an imagination of desire (Lust) or lack of desire (Unlust) is necessary for will to exist.” (Nr. 127)

Is the relation between Wittgenstein’s “I” and “the world” reciprocal - perhaps “I” am completely powerless, but does that mean that the world cannot bend me to its “will”?  And if the world could do so, how am “I” different from the world – that I have absolutely no power to bend it to my will?
One is also uncertain if this powerlessness, to which Wittgenstein refers, is an original state or is it the consequence of a loss or failure of power? In the first case he would be describing a natural or ontological predestination, in the second he would be alluding to a kind of “fall” or total and complete decline of power. The world is a fait accompli, which happens without my intervention. The sentence which concludes this journal entry suggests that this separateness of the “I” and the world is not just undesirable.

“Nur so kann ich mich unabhängig von der Welt machen – und sie also doch in gewissem Sinne beherrschen – indem ich auf einen Einfluß auf die Geschehnisse verzichte.”
(“Only in this way can I become independent of the world – and so in a certain sense rule it – by forfeiting any influence upon events or happenings.”)

Wittgenstein’s “powerlessness” is one of an “I” who is distant from the world, who is outside of it, and by forfeiting closeness or influence, masters it on an oblique plane of his own choosing. He has become an onlooker or spectator of the world and even of his own will “penetrating” the world. He is outside of the world, but so is its meaning.

When Wittgenstein says he is powerless – he has placed himself in a sort of suspension – the world is no longer a natural envelopment or folding in which the I resides (Heidegger’s being-in-the-world), but the I has removed himself from the world, become unhumanized and indifferent to its happenings. The powerlessness can only be reciprocal if it is to be at all – reciprocal negatives. I am excluded from the world – in the sense of energy or power to transform it, the world is excluded from the “I” in the same way. The World is excluded from my power sphere; I am excluded from the World’s power sphere.

“I” may become independent of the world, but the world is independent of my will from the outset. The world is always ahead of me – the world is also Life, a word used by Wittgenstein in an almost pre-philosophical manner, like God. Philosophy can never touch Life, it happens to me whether I will it or not. Yet in an entry from 8.7.1916 Wittgenstein writes: “There are two Gods: the World and my independent I.” But how is it possible that both propositions are true: I am totally powerless and I am a co-divinity together with the world? He seems to oscillate between a state of abdication from the world and a kind of folie de grandeur, a Godlike omnipotence. But perhaps the world is not the world which is but one which was – as Wittgenstein says, the world is given to me; it is something completely “finished”.

One can assume that the past is the realm of pure actuality. Potentiality can only exist now (in not existing) or in the time to come. The past is only a limit to the potentiality inherent in the now. This may be a blessing - the “possible worlds” to come could be possible catastrophes – as Kierkegaard observes, actuality is not as heavy as possibility. Why does the expectation of possible worlds always sound utopian? Wittgenstein’s dilemma, already apparent in his Diaries, is how to turn his quantitative world into a world of qualities – Life. ‘The World and Life are one’ is a refrain of all his writings. But one is only “happy” when one lives in the present, meaning “unzeitlich”, not in time. He declares: “What do I care about history? My world is the first and only one!” (2.9.1916) And yet what will he do in his world? “I want to report, how I discovered the world as it is.”(ibid.)

The past is just as unknown as the future. Although one sees the future as that which one has to predict, to prophesy. Who would prophesy what has already happened? The past is the domain of pure actuality – all potentiality has been realised, exhausted in what is there. This is the world towards which no power can be directed – no power of whatever magnitude can change the past. Such a world of pure actuality would certainly fit Wittgenstein’s “homily” about his powerlessness. One can also see how his “will” would “penetrate the world” – certainly the world of the past has no resistance to one’s will. No possible worlds remain in the past – the past is exact and non-quantifiable, being the location of zero possibility, or zero terrain for the unfolding of power. The past as pure actuality is neither a means nor an end.

2. The Religion of Defeat

Wittgenstein resolves this antinomy of being both powerless and God-like after a fashion – abdication or forfeiting of influence upon events in the world is his declared way of regaining a certain kind of power in that world. Thus there is logic in his philosophical “will to power”, the logic of defeat. From the point of view of a defeated power – powerlessness is a natural and ideal starting point for a philosophical “reconquista”. The given world has no meaning because it is no longer the world in which I can see my power reflected or embodied. If Wittgenstein were to acknowledge the logical connection between Will and the world, he would be acknowledging his powerlessness within it. Instead his “nihilism” is not just the evacuating of meaning (ethics), power has also been voided. This is not an ambivalence – it is almost an ‘epoché’. He begins the analysis or reconstruction of power where it is absent – a kind of zero of power. He shows himself as a skeptic of a world constituted by power – perhaps as an exercise in method, a thought experiment.

Bare Life, the concept of Giorgio Agamben, educed from the phrase “bloßes Leben” (literally: mere life) in Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence” (“Zur Kritik der Gewalt”), is also a thought experiment about powerlessness, a juridical fiction – the absence of all power, pure subjugation to sovereign law. In Benjamin’s text “Gewalt” means both power and violence – Benjamin explores all the ambiguities, which arise from this double meaning. Agamben seems though to falsify and distort Benjamin’s critique of the notion of “mere life”. Whereas Benjamin rejects “mere life” as a false and crude name for Being (Dasein) and an inferior primitive category of “mythical violence” or law, Agamben naturalizes it further with another concept he borrows from ancient Roman law – homo sacer. Bare life, in his interpretation, is thus not just a kind of biological substrate of human existence; it is also a term for the criminal pariah – a species of Cain, who can be murdered by anyone with impunity, but perversely, not sacrificed.

Although Roman law may forbid the sacrificing of “homo sacer” – the mythical law to which Benjamin refers is particularly keen to sacrifice “mere life”. Agamben’s construct seems to fall apart at this joint. As Benjamin writes, “Die mythische Gewalt ist Blutgewalt über das bloße Leben um ihrer selbst, die göttliche reine Gewalt über alles Leben um des Lebendigen willen. Die erste fordert Opfer, die zweite nimmt sie an.” (The mythical power is a blood-power over mere life for its own sake; the divine - pure power over all life for the sake of the living. The first power demands sacrifices, the second accepts them.) (W. Benjamin, Zur Kritik der Gewalt, Angelus Novus, Frankfurt, 1966, p. 63)  Contrary to Agamben's interpretation of "bare life" as a juridical object - for Benjamin "mere life" is not an object of law at all, rather the dissolution of law.  "Denn mit dem bloßen Leben hört die Herrschaft des Rechtes über den Lebendigen auf."  (Since with mere life the rule of law over the living is terminated.) (ibid.)

This doubly bare figure – bare of all protection by law (the law of no law) and of anything besides naked existence is Agamben’s prototype of the “biopolitical” animal. He is both a natural body and a mere naked scaffold for the law. How though did a particular type of ostracism and taboo practiced in ancient Rome suddenly become the absolute model for the relation between the contemporary body and sovereign power? The way this happened, says Agamben, is through the “Camp”. The “Camp” was the space, which constituted the Nazi state as a permanent normalized “State of Exception” where the exception became the rule. Agamben notes that this so-called “state of exception” was constantly superseded by the positive principle of “Führung” or the word of the Führer, the only “law” of the Nazi political entity. In light of this one real fact of the “Führer”, the “Camp” was not outside of the State in a “zone of indistinction” but at its center. Modern democracies are in Agamben’s estimation forever more just aggregates of this “bare life” invented in the “Camp”.  Agamben would appear to depart here from Roberto Esposito, another Italian proponent of bio-politics, who sees the emergence of a bio-political paradigm as a replacement for democratic models.  In either case 'bio-politics' is a juridical and physical mode of absolute powerlessness of the individual and absolute power of the state.  The question arises - does one even 'need' power?

What Agamben omits from his treatment of "The Camp as Biopolitical Paradigm of the Modern" is the contradictory self-defeating purpose of the  German Nazi “Camp” – as the location and housing of genocide, its “success” could only lead to its own destruction together with its raison d’être. Not the “Camp” but a unique historical act of genocide was the instrument by which “ (…)the German biopolitical body is made actual. The separation of the Jewish body is the immediate production of the specifically German body, just as its production is the application of the rule.” (Homo Sacer, Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Stanford University Press, 1998, p. 174)   Agamben also fully neglects the crucial economic and geo-politic significance of the whole concentration-and-death-camp system for Nazi “Bio-Economics” - Auschwitz itself consisting of a network of 48 camps was an immense industrial park, where gas chambers and crematoria were next door to the most important German heavy industry such as Buna Werke, a part of the I.G. Farben group.  The SS administered the Auschwitz complex as its private fiefdom.

Such a life could never exist in a pure state. Bare Life does not live. That is why Agamben has to prop up his 'paradigm of the modern'  with “Sovereign Power” as its symbiotic twin – the model for this Sovereign Power is predictably the Führer. The more abject and abandoned Bare Life is, the more grandiose the “sovereign power” which exerts its ban. The Muselmann and the Führer are forever dialectically united as the “two bodies of the King”.   Together they haunt modernity.  In a similar but inverted way - “Empire” as imagined by Negri and Hardt is so bloated so as to be the guarantee of the equivalent dimensions of a global Revolution.

By connecting “biopolitics” so irrevocably and enthusiastically to Nazi extermination politics, it would appear that Agamben has brought this staple of contemporary Italian-French political theory somewhat into disrepute. Negri has distanced himself explicitly from the notion of “nuda vita” in both “Empire” and in “Il mostro politico. Nuda vita e potenza”.   In “General Intellect, Exodus, Multitude” Paolo Virno writes: “(…) Agamben is a problem.” (see Brett Neilson, Potenza Nuda? Sovereignty, Biopolitics, Capitalism in Contretemps 5, December 2004)

Like Wittgenstein at the beginning of the 20th century, these mostly Italian thinkers of a “post Fordist”, post-Marxist left, have developed their philosophies out of a perceived collapse or defeat of their world and its movement. In his foreword to Virno’s “Grammar of the Multitude” another seminal text of this Italian revival of political (state) theory, Sylvère Lotringer writes: “Clearly they needed an oversize enemy to build up the defeated Italian movement into a global counter power.” ( in: Paolo Virno, Grammar of the Multitude, MIT Press, 2004, p. 14)

Besides, “Empire” as Negri/Hardt see it, is also a product of “defeated” nation-states, dissolved and metamorphosed into generic labyrinthine supranational entities. Two defeats would appear to make one victory. This is a clear logic of defeat, or something which only defeat can give the semblance of logic. The euphoria of defeat resting its case on such a deluded logic sweeps its victims forward into a self-deceiving drive for power. Such phenomena akin to mass hysteria are not uncommon in history. The fascist movement in Germany came out of the defeat in World War I – to defeat the defeat. Fascism itself is not the cause; it is a phenomenon of defeat. Similarly, as Nietzsche said, nihilism is not a cause; it is the “logic of decadence”. Fascism appears to its ‘World’ as a messianic cure for decadence – miraculous rejuvenation. Total defeat is discovered to be an untapped source of energy from which world power can be regenerated – this is a true discovery having to do with the mysteries of the human will. Nietzsche was a prophetic thinker who radiated euphoria more typical of defeat than victory. He was also an acute observer of the manifold unconscious ways of self-deception, the 700 passions of defeat.
“Everything is false! Everything is allowed!" (Carl Hanser Verlag, München-Wien, 1980, Volume 6, Posthumous Writings from the Eighties, p. 424)

He noticed a nearly biological propensity to overestimate the power of the will in any exercising of the will:
“Weil man in den allermeisten Fällen nur will, wenn der Erfolg erwartet werden kann, wird die 'Nothwendigkeit' des Erfolgs dem Willen als Kraft zugerechnet.”
(“As one mostly only wills something, when success can be expected, the ‘necessity’ of success is credited as an additional power to the will.”, Posthumous Fragments, Summer-Autumn, 1884)

3. “Discounting Defeat” (Adorno)

Where does the unchangeability of money come from? Money cannot be modernised – only the means of exchange, payment can vary. Discounting still remains discounting. Credit notes are exchanged for cash. Adorno suggests that money in its credit form has the structure of preemptive revenge – in advance of the act (crime) and its punishment. “The German horror” was a “vorweggenommene Rache” (anticipated revenge) for the obliteration of their world conquest design. In their death camps Germans “discounted” their defeat. “Das Kreditsystem, in dem alles bevorschußt werden kann, selbst die Welteroberung, bestimmt auch die Aktionen, welche ihm und der gesamten Marktwirtschaft ihr Ende bereiten bis zum Selbstmord der Diktatur. In den Konzentrationslagern und Gaskammern wird gleichsam der Untergang von Deutschland diskontiert.” (The credit system, which can finance anything, even  world subjugation, determines the actions, that will bring about the end of the entire market economy as well as its own collapse until the suicide of the dictatorship. In the concentration camps and gas chambers the demise of Germany was so to speak discounted.) (Theodor W. Adorno, „Unmaß für Unmaß“ in Minima Moralia, Suhrkamp, 1980, p.132 )

In the early days of the Hitler project he was introduced to high society and French and British financiers at the salon of Ribbentrop in Berlin. The organisation of world subjugation proceeded like any other joint capitalist venture. ( See Hans-Jürgen Döscher, Das Auswärtige Amt im Dritten Reich, Diplomatie im Schatten der "Endlösung", Siedler Verlag, 1986)

Adorno does not note that this end of the market economy and finance system was itself anticipated by the world finance system. The project they were financing in Hitler et al. was the utopia of an economy without an economy.

Similarly, when Gilbert and George ban money from their sphere of reality, it is as if they were cutting off the sex, the head and blocking up the excrements and sucking out the soul of the organism. Particularly in England.
“George: Yes, we especially dislike talk about money. It seems as though certain artists are simply in the art business, trying to get the best of it for themselves, manoeuvring it. Dreadful.” (The Words of Gilbert and George, London, 1997, p.154)

How old is money? Can the age of money, universal instrument of quantification, be quantified, mathematized? Was money ever new?

4. Rules

In Wittgenstein’s “later philosophy” powerlessness or the imperviousness of the world to my will is also a quasi-mathematical fact. Wittgenstein uses mathematics allegorically to speak and not speak about Power - Life subjected to Rules. The Rules are propositions for the transformation of “bare life” into the Body Politic (form of life). The “Will” referred to in the early journals has been depersonalized in the Rules. The “I” no longer contemplates any form of direct and personal steering (lenken) of the world, the rules act instead of the “I” as his transmission. The religious cast of Wittgenstein’s early philosophy with its many references to God and ethics and mysticism persists in the later philosophy.

Interestingly some years prior to Wittgenstein’s Diaries Husserl, published his first writings on the “phenomenological reduction” involving an epoché or bracketing of the world (Ideen I, 1913), a meditative exercise resembling a “religious conversion”. Mathematical-logical discourse freely mingled with religious transcendental concepts. Both these Husserlian elements are already present in Wittgenstein’s War Diaries – the “I” as onlooker outside of the world and the religious nature of this self-exile. Bertrand Russell continues this crossbreeding of mathematics and mysticism in his “Mysticism and Logic” published in 1918.

Wittgenstein often compares the following of the rules to intimations from God. Grammar his faux metaphysics is simply “theology”. One could read the “Philosophical Investigations” as meditations on the Political in the sense of a Political Theology. The “Philosophical Investigations” though are not a “vision of language” as many interpreters insist (Mulhall et al.), they are a vision of power and how it is applied. The Weltanschauung expressed by Wittgenstein’s monologist or pseudo dialogist is comparable to the ‘Sovereign’ of an absolute state or a baroque tyrant, in the sense analyzed by Benjamin in his study of the baroque spirit “Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels” (The Origins of German Tragic Drama), contemplating the limits of his power: the lack of absolute, immediate obedience in his subjects, despite his divine appointment. Wittgenstein’s pessimism originates in the indestructible empirical-mathematical non-identity between the Order (Command) as a linguistic object, a verbal chimera and the following of the Order by the Subject as a physical act. He is baffled by the “fact” of obedience and disobedience. Ideally the subject should not follow an order – he should be the order who in his following merely enacts himself. In other words, in an ideal quantitative world he should be “bare life”.

Are Rules Spectacles? Rules are the generality of the “form of life” which represent themselves to us mentally, visually as a quasi-sacred image binding us to themselves, to the imperative of obedience to them and to the generality for which they perform the function of a decree.

Rules exist in us as innate hallucinations commanding our obedience. But in the very act of binding us, of creating bondage, they also separate us from ourselves and those Others who like us are tethered to them. The “form of life” as a so-called “shared world” is destroyed by the rules at the very moment they create it. The creation-destruction of the “form of life” is continuous, instantaneous, and transfinite. How can we ever achieve Wittgenstein’s paradise of “Übersichtlichkeit” or perspicuity, the Olympian panorama of our rules, when the obstacle blocking our vision of the rules are the rules themselves? The only “shared world” is the rebellion against the rules. Only when the rules are negated do they have their complete ripe meaning.

Wittgenstein’s thinking about rules stops short at the exception, as if he were afraid even to entertain such a notion. Paradoxically the exception appears to be the missing link for his whole system of rules and rule following.

The “rules” in the later philosophy are finally as powerless in affecting the world as the “Will” in the early philosophy.


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