Κυριακή, 7 Νοεμβρίου 2010

Modernism, Utopia and Everyday Life

Η αυριανή μου ανακοίνωση στο συνέδριο για το καθημερινό στη Λευκωσία.



Modernism, Utopia and Everyday Life



The everyday; the quotidian; the mundane; the commonplace or ordinary; the prosaic: so many words, so many ways of pointing to that which, in the words of Maurice Blanchot, is “most difficult to discover.”[1] Difficult to discover in the sense of being difficult to find and to locate: for the quotidian, as Blanchot adds, “escapes”; it is what we are paradoxically both  “engulfed within and deprived of”.[2] But difficult to discover also in the second, properly Heideggerian sense of its resistance to αλήθεια as unconcealment, as that which patiently draws something obscure and evasive into the light of reflection, and which counteracts the powers of oblivion and absentmindedness. For the everyday—and here lies the difficulty with it—is the realm of an absentmindedness, of a certain rule of oblivion. It is, to return to Blanchot’s strongly Heideggerian reading of its paradoxes, “the unperceived, first in the sense that we have always looked past it” and at the same time “what we never see for a first time but can only see again, having always seen it by an illusion that is constitutive of the everyday.”[3] It is, in other words, everydayness itself that renders “the everyday” elusive, that covers it up in the veil of the always-already given or familiar, and thus that deprives it of the dignity of being a concept. The everyday lives right below the threshold of that which can accede to thought. Which means that it takes a pretty extraordinary effort to speak of the everyday, to think it, and a necessarily self-undermining effort, too: for upon the exertion of such effort to conceptualize it, to “discover” it, the everyday loses its everydayness, its evasiveness vis-à-vis conscious thought, its tendency to form such thought’s simultaneously noisy and silent background.

Yet such an effort must be made, however guardedly. And perhaps the humble annals of the dictionary are a good place to start. The everyday, yes, but as opposed to what? Isn’t all life precisely that which is lived everyday, that which provides the everyday with its chaotic, theoretically unformalizable content? In English, and according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the adjective “quotidian” begins its life somewhere around the end of the fourteenth century, and inauspiciously enough, as a synonym for the temporality of a disease. A second meaning, which preserves the sense of the “daily” without reference to pathogenic symptoms, develops after the beginning of the fifteenth century. Sin is one of the emerging noun complements of the “quotidian”: like disease, it is an emblem of a regularity taken over by the pathogenic, by different forms of the weakness of the flesh. After 1430, the meaning expands into the more modern acceptation of “commonplace, mundane, ordinary”, and the quotidian is linked to that which is nominally deprived of spirit and the spiritual: to work (1500), to “wantonness” (1625), to the “vulgar” (1534) and the trivial.[4] The original counterpoint of the “everyday”, then—and this is important in light of the notion’s later linkage to a peculiar type of epiphany, to a “profane illumination”[5] that arrives suddenly and, as it were, in all sorts of inappropriate times and places—is the realm of spirit, the realm of religious experience, the realm of the sacred and of the festival that binds the community in common celebration of divinity. This is another way of saying that in itself, the everyday is not particularly or specifically modern; rather, what makes the quotidian or everyday a signal constituent of the experience of modernity is its gradual detachment and autonomization from a counterpart in collective life, the drastic shrinking of those spaces and times that had once constituted the collectively sanctioned norms to which the quotidian was the pale, if frequent, exception. Modernity is hence not the era of the emergence of the quotidian but the period of its normalization and diffusion; but also, and for this same reason, modernity marks, for the first time, the possibility of a re-encounter between a now omnipresent, democratically leveling quotidianism and a transformed experience of spirit, one for which spirit can exist only im-properly, out-of-joint, as something other than spirit, something that cannot properly be spiritual without also remaining doggedly material and ephemeral. Hegel’s startling remark that “the being of Spirit is a bone”[6] in The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) might be said to be the philosophical carte de visite of this specifically modern acceptation of the everyday as a realm of experience. Charles Baudelaire’s prose narrative of a poetic halo that slips from his head “onto the muddy asphalt pavement” (“Loss of a halo”, Paris Spleen, 1869) might be said to be its paradigmatic poetic encoding.[7] The everyday becomes the home of a homeless, excrescent experience of the spiritual and of its ties to the life of anonymous collectivity, the only realm in which that experience can now, however indirectly, signify.

This might be said to be a first way of historicizing the everyday, of restoring to it a dimension that it is its very nature to render invisible or ungraspable. A second path would involve dwelling on something that emerges in the implicit dialogue between Blanchot’s 1969 remarks on “everyday speech” and Heidegger’s 1929-1930 lectures in The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics. This something is the existence of a link between the phenomenology of the everyday and that of boredom, a link that turns out to involve a very potent anatomy of the modern. To begin with, the careful reader will notice that the fundamental paradoxes with which Blanchot invests the notion of the everyday are vital to Heidegger’s philosophical querying of the experience of boredom: if Blanchot’s “everyday” is “what is most difficult to discover”, if its very “banality” “is also what is most important” about it, if it “escapes every speculative formulation”[8], Heideggerian boredom emerges as “precisely” that which “we cannot manage to grasp”, “almost as though we were looking for something that does not exist at all”;[9] if the everyday “belongs to a region where there is still nothing to know”[10], “in boredom we do not ascertain anything, nor do we grasp anything”, but are bound precisely by “nothing”;[11] if the “essential”, “constitutive” trait of the everyday is to be “unperceived”[12], “being bored with” hinges on “the inconspicuousness of passing the time”, our inability to even perceive the fact that we are being bored;[13] if the everyday “is without a subject” but “does not belong to the objective realm” either[14], boredom is neither subjective nor objective, but a “hybrid”, a mode of “attunement” between Dasein and world;[15] if what is at play within the everyday is “the corrosive force of human anonymity”, its positing, instead of a subject, of an “anyone”, a “neither me nor, properly, the other”, and hence the utter impersonality of a simple “there is the everyday[16], “profound boredom” necessitates an equally impersonal “it is boring for one”, “not for me as me, not for you as you, not for us as us, but for one;”[17] if, finally, Blanchot’s everyday is “a category”, without which “one would not know how to get at either the hidden present or the discoverable  future of manifest beings”[18], Heidegger’s profound boredom impels the factically impoverished subject “toward the originary making-possible of Dasein as such”, so that the “telling refusal of all beings” becomes a negative path toward encountering their possibility “as a whole”, “in one originally unifying dimension of time.”[19]

It is thus anything but accidental that Blanchot describes “boredom” as “the sudden, the insensible apprehension of the quotidian”, or as “the everyday become manifest”.[20] And it is just as significant that Heidegger advises us that in order to grasp boredom philosophically “we must follow what everyday speaking, comportment, and judgment actually expresses”[21]. Indeed, his tripartite speculative typology of boredom involves a hermeneutic engagement with the material of the everyday, with “banal, yet quite spontaneous forms”: listless waiting at the train station illuminates becoming bored by things, an only retrospectively dull outing with friends unveils the character of being bored without a determinate object, walking “through the streets of a large city on a Sunday afternoon” becomes a possible example of the most profound, ontologically resonant version of boredom.[22] The phenomenology of boredom is the phenomenology of everyday life, just as the philosophical foray into the strange paradoxes of the everyday turns out to involve its grasp in terms of the quizzical nature of boredom.

But what of the promised second path toward a theorization of the historicity of the everyday? This comes in the form of the staggering discovery that Heideggerian boredom, that experience which, pace Blanchot, makes the everyday manifest, will also turn out to involve a historical dimension, one that ties it specifically to the horizon of modernity: this is what becomes apparent in chapter five of Heidegger’s The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, one that concerns the question of profound boredom for “our contemporary Dasein”. Briefly put, Heidegger’s answer to the question of where we stand with respect to profound boredom, and to the possibilities inherent in its awakening in and for thought, is that profound boredom is precisely that which modern society most anxiously represses through all sorts of “bustling self-defense”, the constant foregrounding of “needs” that “does not allow any need to emerge as a whole”.[23] Modernity is the overly excited response to the experience of boredom, a response which in frantically overcompensating for boredom with all sorts of demands, satisfactions, and stimuli ends up both making man “boring to himself” and incapable of locating in this boredom the positive possibility of an increased receptivity to the need of Dasein to encounter itself. Or, to put it otherwise, the modernity of boredom, its predication on an atomized, individuated existence that obsesses itself with production and consumption at the cost of receptivity and openness to that which does not manifest itself directly, becomes another way of making manifest the historicity of the problem of the everyday: if the “quotidian” changes meaning with the gradual advent of secularization, “boredom” appears in English only after the 1760s, having replaced the far more religiously oriented notion of acedia. [24]

Boredom, the quotidian, modernity: it is a triptych that only gains its full situational resonance with the addition of a fourth term: capitalism. For it is capitalism that both organizes the curiously empty pleasures of everyday life and that lends boredom its particular acuity by constantly conjuring before the subject the mirage of endless possibilities of fulfillment, vast arenas of tantalizing sensation, taunting mirages of pleasures lacking and pleasures to come. Not accidentally, when Heidegger seeks to refer to the kind of experience that must be protected from the onslaught of reactive busybodiness he finds it necessary to speak quite literally about business: “This while of Dasein, i.e., its own time, is at first and for the most part concealed from Dasein, as what it simply uses up as it were, or else makes itself aware of in an inappropriate manner when it reckons with this while, calculates it in advance for itself, just as though Dasein itself were a business”.[25]

What could be a more accurate way of describing the project of modernism than as a project of responding, in a number of different and even conflicting ways, to Dasein’s self-conversion into a business, into a silent yet endlessly talkative processing center for the sundry desires provoked by exposure to the commodity realm of everyday life? At one extreme would lie something like the deployment of technical innovation as a means of registering the panorama of daily life as a compendium of entrancing commodifications. In his exemplary analysis of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Franco Moretti discerns in its endless parataxes the loose, pliant, absorbent syntax that corresponds to a consciousness structurally hemmed in by the barrage of advertising and its incandescent forest of signs. Bloom, significantly an advertiser by profession, passes his exemplary day in Dublin with his mind gliding from commonplace to commonplace, from digression to digression, in a kind of perpetual exercise in mixing Dasein and business, mental overactivity and a profound resistance to the disruptively eventful:

A ‘banality rate’ is thus established in Bloom’s mind: a regular, constant rhythm—two or three stimuli, one commonplace, two or three stimuli, one commonplace—that accompanies him throughout the day, offering firm support amid the throng of external and internal impulses. […] his rather banal wishes, with nothing illicit about them, will be boring for psychoanalysis, but not for advertising. […] the great novelty of the stream of consciousness consists in proceeding for pages and pages without the slightest revelation. […] In short, a Ulysses without epiphanies.[26]

On the other hand, and at the other end of the spectrum, Proust’s project in Remembrance of Things Past will consist in precisely that which Joyce’s “democratic materialism”[27] negates, namely, in opening up an “empty place” wherein an epiphany can occur: while Ulysses presents us with a “crowded world”, “all noise and interference”, Proust founds his enterprise on the epokhe of the audible world, the withdrawal of attention to the bustling world outside his room.[28] Where in Ulysses everything is ceaseless, metonymic motion—between images, stimuli, memories, wishes, styles, genres of discourse—Proust’s world is built on the single, generative shock which arrests time, keeping the present in abeyance long enough for the vanished world of the past to manifest itself in memory. In between the two poles, from Woolf to Broch or Musil, one might note a more graded or attenuated orientation toward both the banal and the revelatory, a common subscription to that process of “estranging the familiar” which provides modernism with its characteristic oscillations between bold iconoclasm at the level of the signifier and pliant conciliation with daily triviality at the level of the signified—ones that could be said to respond, if not correspond, to capitalism’s own dialectic of the quotidian, split as this is between radical innovation at the technical and formal level and banal repetition at that of substantive content.[29] In this respect, Viktor Shklovksy’s famous exposure of the secret at the heart of the literary—the salvaging, at the level of writing, of aesthetic meaning from the otherwise unaesthetizing experience of daily chores in Tolstoi’s Diaries[30]—might be said to convey the par excellence image of the modernist project: modernism is the “making strange” of the otherwise all-too-transparent, self-trivializing experience of the everyday, its “discovery” in an act of recognition that invests everyday life, with all its cesspools of boredom and distracted ennui, with an aesthetically transcendent potential.

This brings us to the question of a certain utopian or redemptive impulse in modernism, one that would largely consist in the salvaging of everyday life from its own inarticulate and blind self-evidence. Blanchot is once again exemplary in this respect: “the everyday”, he remarks, “is no longer the average, statistically established existence of a given society at a given moment; it is a category, a utopia and an Idea”; and later on: “‘Is not the everyday, then, a utopia—the myth of an existence bereft of myth? For in the everyday we are neither born nor do we die; hence the weight and the enigmatic force of everyday truth’” [31] Clearly, for Blanchot, the utopian potential of the everyday lies in its anonymizing powers, in the “radical nihilism” through which it subjects heroism, activity, or intention to “a power of dissolution” that yields neither the eternal nor the void, but rather something like “eternullity”.[32] But is utopian narrative proper to be located in such a schema, especially if one arrives to it from the supposition that, as Jameson remarks, modernity can be read as “something of a spurious promise intended in the long run to displace and replace the Utopian one”[33]? I would venture that what utopian narrative offers, in providing a fictional fulfillment of Stephen Dedalus’s desire to awaken from the nightmare of history, is the everyday as punctuated by a boredom that has become socialized, collectivized, and hence also detoxified from its sordid or existentially anxious content. But conversely, the utopian everyday is also deprived of the aesthetic, stylistic and representational compensations of modernism: it is the sphere of a life lived anonymously, without reference to this or that empirical subject, deprived of any access to the eventful and to the moment of illumination. Indeed, Utopian narrative is effectively frozen in a perpetual everyday, the sequence of chapters constrained to describe different facets of the organization of the quotidian without thereby treating it as the ground of individual experience. Education, hygiene, alimentary habits, wedding ceremonies, clothing, systems of irrigation, internal decoration: such are the triumphantly banal constituents of utopia as the fictional ethnology of a society that, to recall the subtitle of William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890), lives in “an epoch of rest.”

But this is also to say that utopian narrative is fundamentally boring narrative, narrative that foregoes the defenses that modern consciousness and modernist literature tend to marshal against the prospect of an existence entirely submerged in the placid indifference of the daily. Jameson was not wrong to see in utopias a hidden Heideggerian strand, however preposterous such an association might initially sound.[34] Utopia, in Jameson’s reading, is ultimately an answer to Heidegger’s call for a lowering of the threshold of intolerance toward “profound boredom”, the replacement of an “estrangement of the familiar” with an innocent and unphilosophical “familiarizing of the strange”: the experience of mere living, without meaningful telos or goal, without rewarding climaxes or denouéments, impassive, perhaps even inhuman. One can only wonder if the scarecrow of “totalitarianism” so frequently conjured against the utopian imagination is not a particularly appealing defense mechanism against—dare we say it?—utopia’s strange ultramodernity, that jubilant “power of dissolution” which finally infects the very representational texture of the everyday, releasing it from all familiarizing influence, and from all the solidifying properties of what Roland Barthes would have called “the effect of the real.”[35]


[1] Maurice Blanchot, “Everyday Speech”, in The Infinite Conversation, trans. Susan Hanson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 238.
[2] Ibid., 240, 239.
[3] Ibid., 240.
[4] Oxford English Dictionary.
[5] Walter Benjamin, “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia”, in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, ed. and trans. Peter Demetz (New York: Shocken Books, 1986), 179.
[6] G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 208.
[7] See Walter Benjamin, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire”, in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Shocken, 1969), 192-194; and Marshall Berman, All that is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1988), 155-164.
[8] Blanchot, “Everyday Speech”, 238-39.
[9] Martin Heidegger, The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude, trans. William McNeill and Nicholas Walker (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 96.
[10] Blanchot, “Everyday Speech”, 241.
[11] Heidegger, “The Fundamental Concepts”, 97.
[12] Blanchot, “Everyday Speech”, 242.
[13] Heidegger, “The Fundamental Concepts”, 116.
[14] Blanchot, “Everyday Speech”, 244.
[15] Heidegger, “The Fundamental Concepts”, 88.
[16] Blanchot, “Everyday Speech”, 244-245.
[17] Heidegger, “The Fundamental Concepts”, 134-135.
[18] Blanchot, “Everyday Speech”, 239.
[19] Heidegger, “The Fundamental Concepts”, 144-145.
[20] Blanchot, “Everyday Speech”, 242.
[21] Heidegger, “The Fundamental Concepts”, 83.
[22] See Heidegger, “The Fundamental Concepts”, 93, 109, 135 respectively.
[23] Heidegger, “The Fundamental Concepts”, 163.
[24] See Lars Svendsen, A Philosophy of Boredom, trans. John Irons (London: Reaktion Books, 2005), 24; and 49-52.
[25] Heidegger, “The Fundamental Concepts”, 152.
[26] Franco Moretti, Modern Epic: The World System from Goethe to García Márquez, trans. Quintin Hoare (London: Verso, 1996), 163, 167, 153. See also Blanchot, “Everyday Speech”, 243: “The everyday is without event.”
[27] See Alain Badiou, Logics of Worlds, trans. Alberto Toscano (London: Continuum, 2009), 1-9.
[28] See Moretti, Modern Epic, 154.
[29] See Fredric Jameson, The Seeds of Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 15-19.
[30] See Viktor Shklovsky, “Art as Device”, in Theory of Prose, trans. Benjamin Sher (Normal, Il.: Dalkey Archive Press, 1990), 5.
[31] Blanchot, “Everyday Speech”, 239, 244.
[32] Blanchot, “Everyday Speech”, 244-245.
[33] Fredric Jameson, A Singular Modernity (London and New York: Verso, 2002), 34-35.
[34] See Jameson, The Seeds of Time, 77-86.
[35] See Roland Barthes, “The Reality Effect”, in The Rustle of Language, trans. Richard Howard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 141-148.

2 σχόλια:

rdDcom είπε...

both organizes both [το δεύτερο both είναι περριτό ]
—ones that could be said to respond, υποθέτω αναφέρεται στο oscillations
--- its “discovery” in act of recognition that ---> its “discovery” in act [italics αφού είναι μάλλον από το γαλλικό en acte] of [the] recognition that
which it subject heroism--->which it subject[s] heroism
particularly appealing defense strategy against ---> or [defence mechanisμ] πράγμα που θα σήμαινε ότι η «ολοκληρωτική ανία» είναι η - ήδη εδώ - ψυχική «κατάρρευση» που μάταια απωθείται;

RDAntonis είπε...

Έκανα όλες τις διορθώσεις, ευχαριστώ πολύ για την προσεκτική ανάγνωση:-)