Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Code Is Missing: Orthognosis at the End of the World


Recent work in our field has centered on the elaboration of the logic of symbology through the systematic variation of the possible combinations of the elements of the generative grammar of symbology (orthognosis, mythognosis, etc.). The generative grammar is the symbological Urphänomenon that allows us to recognize symbology among instances of the type that often exhibit dramatic phenotypical difference, but which occupy the same cultural niche by operating according to the same basic developmental structures and desire for the stability of meaning and the erasure of contradiction from our form of life through the integration of potentially subversive knowledge into the status quo. 

Albert and Allen Hughes nauseating Christian symbologist movie The Book of Eli (2009) represents a novel and hopefully unique form of symbological fiction in which the code itself has been destroyed but continues to govern in absentia through the intuitive orthognostic attempts to reinstate its own normal functioning through the dissemination of defunct facile wisdom. A religious war ends in a global apocalypse that has left the Earth and human civilization in ruins. In the aftermath of the disaster, unnamed combatants systematically destroyed all of the world's bibles except for one, which is in the possession of Eli (Denzel Washington). God has spoken directly to Eli and instructed him to walk West until he reaches a "safe place" for the bible. Thirty years later he is still walking. God has promised to protect Eli on his journey, a promise God keeps by making Eli a superhuman ninja warrior. On his journey Eli counters various road agents and villainous post-apocalyptic bike gangs, all of which he mercilessly slaughters through the grace of God. Although the movie's action revolves around the possession of the bible—now literally the book, being the only remaining one of its kind—it isn't named until over halfway through the movie.

The film is occasioned by Eli's encounter with Carnegie, the ruler of a small town somewhere in California's sun-scotched central valley. Carnegie is our cacognostic villain and is interested in expanding his domain by acquiring a copy of the bible. "It's not a book," Carnegie explains to Eli, "It's a weapon aimed right at the hearts and minds of the weak and desperate. It will give us control of them." Carnegie has come to understand in theory that supplementing his Repressive State Apparatus with an Ideological State Apparatus would provide him with an economy of power enabling significant expansion of his domination, but he lacks the means to interpellate his subjects. "I don't have the right words, but the book does." Carnegie pursues his ends not through the code—the code having been eliminated with civilization's reservoir of knowledge—but by sending out gangs to bring him back every book they can find. Carnegie's name is an interesting hold over from the pre-apocalyptic world of symbology and mythognosis: the movie only refers to the possibility of a faux-subversive anti-capitalist message by naming its villain after an American industrialist, it does not follow through on the allegory in a the way a Dan Brown novel would. This kind of ideological recontainment of the potentially subversive has ceased to function and all that is left are bare names. 

When Carnegie meets Eli he immediately recognizes him as a fellow subject through Eli's unstoppable ninja powers and attempts to recruit him to his gang. Carnegie sends his virgin prostitute Magdalen to seduce Eli, but he refuses her advances and instead converts her by sharing a meal over which he says grace. Her conversion to Christianity is interesting insofar as it is completely empty. Eli doesn't explain why he says grace before dinner and refuses to discuss the book with Solara. Her conversion consists in her desire to follow Eli. Carnegie it seems is correct, the book does have the power to compel simply through rhetoric. When Solara returns from Eli's rooms Carnegie deduces that Eli must be in possession of the book when he sees Solara unsuccessfully attempting to say grace with her mother, a feat she cannot accomplish because she cannot remember the word "amen." Carnegie attempts to take the book by force and Eli slaughters another batch of his men before setting out across the desert.

Solara, compelled by the literal word of God, follows Eli against his wishes and is further converted through the beauty of the Lord's Prayer. Carnegie pursues them with yet more men and Eli gives up the book rather than let Carnegie kill Solara. As soon as he loses the book he is immediately deprived of his ninja powers and Carnegie shoots him. Power, it seems, is identical to the possession of the bible. Solara, having been converted enough to acquire some minimal ninja powers, escapes Carnegie and returns Eli. Together they travel to fucking Alcatraz where they join a heavily armed monastery equipped with a scriptorium and a printing press. There Macolm McDowell is attempting to restore civilization by restoring its books, but they don't yet have a bible. Meanwhile, Carnegie and Tom Waits are trying to pick the lock Eli placed on his bible, but when they are finally successful they discover—gasp!—it's written in brail which Carnegie can't read! Cut to Eli, who has memorized the bible, dictating it to McDowell before dying. The film ends with a triumphant montage of bibles being churned out by prison printing press and Solara taking up Eli's sword and sunglasses before going out into the world, her conversion completed in her transformation from a helpless prostitute into a zealous warrior of God. Knowledge is indeed something you collect in the way you collect baseball cards: it effects no internal changes in the characters, instead serving only to install them as subjects, "subject" in The Book of Eli meaning "brutal militant."


The sign is illegible.
The Book of Eli takes place in a strange post-cop-out universe where the injunction to disseminate facile wisdom has been complicated by the wholesale destruction of the symbolic order. The absence of the code has rendered mythognosis inoperative and with it the symbologist. What is left is a world of orthognostics, cacognotistics and the abject subjectless masses. The transcendental referent has been obtained, but all discourse around it has evaporated. What remains of the facile wisdom of the ancients is its material support, the physical book that Eli protects until such a time as the symbolic can be restored through the dissemination of "knowledge" in the forms of bibles and encyclopedias. For The Book of Eli the transcendental signified that grants unimaginable power is, surprisingly, the facile wisdom as such of the nonfunctional symbolic order. In order to go on, the orthognostic must reinstall the old order of things. The bible is last seen in the hands of the larval-mythognostic McDowell, who rather than reading from it simply places it on a shelf in a library where a space has been left for it, thereby restoring to the symbolic order the point de capiton that allows for its rational organization. The bible is still "the" book, but it has ceased to be so in an actual, physical sense and has returned to the status of master signifier.

In this world where neither orthognosis nor cacognosis can function normally, their respective attitudes toward the code having lost their point, they are differentiated by their attitude toward the violence that makes them possible. Cacognosis wants power for power's sake and so makes violence its end. Orthognosis uses power in order to restore the code, though it cannot comprehend its own actions or methods. The Book of Eli could not be clearer about its understanding of Christianity. When Solara asks Eli how he knows where to walk, he explains that he "Walks by faith, not by sight."
"What does that mean?" asks Solara.
"It means you know something even if you don't know something."
What appears to be a distinction between faith and reason is frighteningly close to Zizek's Rumsfeldian formula for the unconscious functioning of ideology as "unknown knowns." "Faith" means unconscious, unquestioned action. Added to this striking scene is the fact that Eli's initial explanation of "walking by faith, not by sight" turns out at the end of the film to not have been a metaphor at all: Eli is blind and walks automatically. He not only walks by "faith", he kills by faith. Violence for Eli is completely unconscious.

The only apparent discussion of the content of Christianity is both brief and impotent.
"I got so caught up in keeping [the bible] safe, I forgot to live by what I learned from it."
"What's that?"
"Do for others more than you do for yourself."
This is a curious distillation of the essence of Christianity for a man who has memorized the bible and within the movie it is logically incoherent. The fundamental aporia that gives the lie to the movie's "Christian message" is here in the contradiction between the basic message of Christianity as one of charity and God's transformation of Eli and Solara into invincible warriors. By no stretch of the imagination is the endless and needless dismemberment of strangers "doing more for others." The result is clear: "Faith" is another word for "ideology" and the content of Christianity is a contradiction coextensive with the contradictions that inspire symbology in the first place. "Christianity" in The Book of Eli stands in for the existing order of things that the symbological narrative functions to maintain while absorbing anything subversive. Here is no "turn the other cheek" but the successful containment of whatever in Christianity demands change through the equation of Christianity with the existing order of the world.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Anti-Reilly: A Foray into Symb-pological Fiction

As previous posts have suggested, any absolute distinction between the strictly symbological text and the various forms of commentary, the multifarious sub-genres and ancillary discourses that surround it simply fails to take into account the real significance of the symbological in the contemporary cultural field. As we continue to explore the border regions of symbological fiction and thought, while we will continue to subject our starting hypotheses to rigorous critique, we will also investigate the applicability of the explanatory and generative models we have developed to a far more expansive field of objects. Ultimately, by doing so we will be able to situate such objects within a dynamic, constantly evolving system whose evolution is coterminous with the genesis of new objects within the shifting coordinates of the system. "A text is not only the product of a pre-existing combinatorial system," Todorov tells us, "it is also a transformation of that system." The exhaustive consideration of objects which would admit valid scrutiny along these lines would admittedly be a gargantuan and largely thankless task. Therefore, my undertaking for today, by elevating a particular object to the status of a representative sample, attempts to extrapolate broader conclusions about the combinatorial matrix that brought the text into existence and how, in turn, it alters the possibilities of production within that matrix.

The Rule of Four, by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason (hereafter CT), received accolades from most of the major critical organs of the mainstream press upon its appearance in 2004. These accolades assumed a remarkably predictable form, a fact which is unsurprising given that the book appeared within a year of The Da Vinci Code: almost all compare it to the latter work, specifically in order to assert that it is "better," "more cerebral," "better-written," "smarter," and so on, occasionally with the aid of a further comparison with The Name of the Rose or The Secret History. Now, the basic lexicon of such assessments should be familiar to us from the heterogeneous discursive area I have designated symb-pology (A). If the symb-pologists (A) who seem to have achieved unchallenged hegemony in the feuilletons of our nation over the past few decades were so eager to heap their endorsements on CT's debut, this should not surprise us, because, it seems to me, it was written largely for them and in line with their requirements, insofar as The Rule of Four essentially excludes the main destabilizing threat to symb-pology (A), which would be precisely the lure of symb-pology (B): namely, the existence and relevance of the referent. How indeed can we be so certain that the laudatory remarks published in the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Post, Publishers Weekly refer to what symb-pological discourse tends to think of as "form" (although not generally using that word) and what we would classify as "the elaboration of the code"? Because it is impossible for our symb-pologist friends to be referring to anything else, since the novel never gives us anything other than the elaboration of the code. In other words, CT assiduously avoid what we might call the cacognostic seduction of the reader by refraining throughout the unfolding of the plot from the claim that the object of the code is anything other than strongly irrelevant. There is never the promise of an unsuspected point de capiton - the body of Mary Magdalene, the Benben Stone - which would supposedly, if brought to light, require us to reorient ourselves radically vis-à-vis the totality of our knowledge. Rather, we are presented throughout the novel with a pursuit of the code that is by definition only relevant to those already possessing a specialized knowledge of the Italian Renaissance, with scholarly advancement and recognition the only projected consequences of its successful decipherment, and even these never alluded to as particularly significant goals of any of the pursuers. Admittedly, the code unsurprisingly turns out to be, literally, a treasure map, and specifically purports to lead to a hidden stash of great Renaissance works of art rescued by humanist Francesco Colonna from the ravages of the fanatical Savonarola. However, because until the last few chapters of the novel we are given no sense whatsoever of what the code's referent might be, we are instead expected to devote all of our readerly attention to the ultimately rather tedious process of decipherment undertaken by the narrator, Tom, and his friend Paul - in other words, to the "puzzles" and "riddles" and "enigmas" so beloved of symb-pologists (A), entirely for their own sake. Furthermore, the only conceivable response to the final revelation about Colonna's secret chamber of masterpieces is to lapse into the same attitude of banal reverence towards an utterly generic, featureless, ahistorical version of the artistic heritage of the West that is the province of the average tourist visiting the Louvre, or Florence. Such an attitude, of course, plays a crucial instrumental function in the narrative unfolding of the strictly symbological novel, but to the extent that it is reasserted as a form of respectably secular pseudo-spirituality at the end (which it generally is), it serves to plug the gap created by the retraction of the possibility of cacognostic enjoyment of the referent. That is to say, for instance, that Langdon's (quasi-pornographic) appreciation of the Washington D.C. skyline at the close of The Lost Symbol compensates for the postponement of the promised irruption of the transcendental signified. The revelation that the code hidden within Colonna's Hypnerotomachia leads to a secret collection of lost masterpieces is, in contrast, in excess of what CT lead us to expect for most of the novel, during a good part of which the reader is inclined to concur with the systematic indifference of the protagonist's friends and girlfriend, who regard his pursuit of the code as an eccentric hobby.
The standard symbological novel represents the movement from mythognosis - that is to say, the enjoyment of the code for its own sake, which is the starting position of, say, Langdon - towards an imaginary orthognosis which is in fact identical to cacognosis - that is to say, the pursuit of the referent, understood as relevant and efficacious. The confrontation with the vacuity of the referent and the cacognostic villain's obscenely incongruous investment in it provides the exemplary induction into true orthognosis, which is none other than indifférance towards the strong irrelevance of both code and referent, permitting narrative closure (the cop-out) and ideological recontainment (the injunction to disseminate facile wisdom). In his scintillating analysis of Temple, Prandleforth noted that "In Reilly, there is one class and one position, that of the male cacognostic. The female characters are vapid sources of sexual contamination, and the orientals are comprehensively primitive and basically mute. The position of the mythognostic is empty, as is the position of the orthognostic. There are no Catherines in Reilly, no Poimandres. All the characters are cacognostics who believe in the literal significance and relevance of the code. Because of this, there is no progression from mythognosis through cacognosis to orthognosis - i.e., there is no plot, and no cop-out." To make explicit what I believe should be obvious by now, The Rule of Four gives us precisely the inverse situation: a world in which mythognosis - pursuit of the code for its own sake - is the only subject position available outside of the default apathy of the majority. CT populate their strangely orientalized Princeton with a few Langdons and Rutherfords, whose activities indeed generate the vortex around which the plot spins, but this is a world without Bezumovs, Mal'akhs and Silases, a world in which the latter are, in fact, unimaginable. The only two candidates for a cacognostic subjectivity, the grotesque Princeton professor Vincent Taft and his estranged friend and collaborator, art collector Richard Curry, differ neither in motive nor in approach from the mythognostic heroes, Tom and Paul, in that they do not seem to anticipate any major consequences of successful decipherment of Colonna's text apart from possible scholarly fame. The main problem is that their prolonged failure at deciphering the Hypnerotomachia has left them somewhat unhinged, evidently because they are unable to persuade themselves, in symb-pological manner, that the code is supposed to be "fun" - the same misunderstanding which turns Paul into a malnourished insomniac and estranges Tom from his girlfriend Katie, who understandably never manages to extract herself from the self-satisfied torpor of orthognosis (f). Both Taft and Curry, along with Paul and Tom's father, another Hypnerotomachia scholar, end up dead, but it should be further noted that both Paul and Taft exude a cadaverous aura throughout the novel: Taft a "misshapen ogre" whose "fat dangles from his arms as if the flesh were pulled from the bones" (132), Paul constantly underfed and skeletal - and this is not to mention Taft's research assistant and Paul's friend Bill Stein, the first character to be murdered, who is described as "a jangling skeleton of a man, an escaped ghost, a purse of bones drawn up too tight" (63). At the core of CT's novel, then, is what we might call the drive dimension of mythognosis, a Wiederholungszwang which converts the mythognostic into an undead automaton circulating around the vacuum of the absent referent of the code. If Paul is reborn in the final chapter, after vanishing years before into the catacombs beneath Princeton, supposedly having now discovered Colonna's stash, this only makes the point clearer: the endlessly postponed union with the referent only comes with his annihilation. And it is here, in any case, that CT reconverge with Dan Brown and other more orthodox symbologists: Tom's final redemption, in the concluding paragraphs of the novel, consists of an utterly banal fantasy of touristic pleasure in the sights of Florence ("On the ceilings where I am going there will be saints and gods and flights of angels. Everywhere I walk there will be reminders of all that time cannot touch"), reminding us that all any of us really need is a good holiday.
CT certainly accomplished one important task with their pioneering variation on the symbological genre, and for this they have been deservedly praised: they made the symb-pologist (A)'s job a lot easier. No longer troubled by the embarrassing forays into "wacko conspiracy theories," pleased with the seamlessness by which the irruption of the referent never even momentarily appears to coincide with anything other than the vigorous confirmation of obviousnesses, the latter may all the more readily assume his or her task of enjoining us to immerse ourselves with glee once again in the circuits of capital, reassured that automatistic circulation around a void is, of course, the province of eccentrics and academics.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Towards a Grammar of Symb-pology

The release, over the past six months, of what will undoubtedly be remembered as two landmark works of symbological and quasi-symbological narrative, viz. Brown's The Lost Symbol and Cameron's Avatar, has provided crucial stimuli to our own meta-critical enterprise, whose formalization as a science proceeds apace. I would like to devote this post, however, to a related phenomenon that the release of these two massively popular works has allowed us to bring into focus: the patterns of rhetorical functioning of the ancillary discourse which we have come to designate "symb-pology."
"Symb-pology" refers to the entire heterogeneous body of commentary generated by the appearance of a symbological or quasi-symbological narrative which takes up the task of replicating, reinforcing, and/or rendering explicit the propositions instantiated by the portions of the symbological narrative we call the "cop-out" and the "injunction to disseminate facile wisdom" (see Prandleforth et al.'s "Glossary of Narrative and Rhetorical Strategies" [2008]). Since it is a widely observed fact that symb-pological discourse flourishes spontaneously in a wide variety of media and fora as a perlocutionary effect of the symbological narrative's successful interpellation of its audience, it is unnecessary to attribute its pervasive presence in the cultural sector of the mainstream press to the latter's toothless acquiescence to the vulgar priorities of the publishing and film industries, tempting as it may be to do so. Rather, such relationships, while real, must be read as themselves symptomatic of the broader structures of complicity which the detailed analysis of symbological fiction may help us bring into view, while all symb-pological utterances should be understood, a priori, as overdetermined in the highest degree imaginable.
I will confine myself, in this context, to providing examples from the critical discourse generated by TLS and Avatar. Nevertheless, my prolonged observations of symb-pological discourse over the past several years have led me to a broader conclusion which I believe to be generally applicable: the possible subject positions of the symb-pologist are constrained in a manner homologous with those available to the symbological protagonist.
More specifically, I would like to propose the following grid as a generative framework for symb-pology:

Form Content
Symb-pologist A (mytho-) Y X
Symb-pologist B (caco-) X Y

The discourse of symb-pologist B is, as should be obvious from this representation of the matter, generated as a strict reversal of the discourse of symb-pologist A, and vice versa. Furthermore, as the parenthetical prefixes indicate, both discourses function partially as a continuation of the major available discourses of the symbological text itself (N.B. orthognosis is, by definition, unavailable outside of the specrtral space of alterity [Orient/Woman] demarcated by and in the text.) I should note that there is, as far as I have been able to determine, nothing that renders a symb-pologist C (YY) strictly unthinkable, but the almost exclusive dominance of A's and B's is, in strictly empirical terms, absolutely irrefutable (Roger Ebert's review of Avatar is arguably an interesting exception). The impossibility of a symb-pologist D (XX) position should be obvious from the definition of the discourse provided above.
Symb-pologist A's essential proposition may be stated in condensed form as follows: "[Insert name of symbological work] may be stupid and pointless in the end, but who cares? It was a good read/fun/beautiful/riveting." Which we might translate: "[Insert name of symbological work] was an effective formal exercise, so why worry about the particular content that was plugged in to it?" It should be clear from this that symb-pologist A's basic move is to assume the symbological work's own disavowal of its ostensible driving commitment to the pursuit of some potent knowledge (about the Grail, suppressed matriarchies, ecology, etc.) - that is, the cop-out - at face value, and moreover, to position himself as a petulant defender of the work's right to engage in this disavowal. Implicit in symb-pologist A's discourse is what we might call a superego injunction to enjoy. In other words, other readers/viewers who might be less willing to swallow a blatant discarding of what were posed as the work's guiding epistemological and moral premises are themselves missing the point - i.e. to enjoy the book film, to have fun with it - in a potentially dangerous way.
Although it is likely to be found in any of the major feuilletons and cultural organs of the media establishment, the staff of the New Yorker magazine has recently excelled in symb-pology A, as evidenced by Adam Gopnik's review of The Lost Symbol, in which he helpfully reminds us us that "Much of it is bogus, to be sure—though modern Masonry borrowed some oogah-boogah from the Egyptian past, it was an Enlightenment club, whose greatest product was 'The Magic Flute,' and which was about as sinister, and secretly controlled about as many governments, as the Royal Order of Raccoons in 'The Honeymooners.' But Brown is having fun." In David Denby's rhetorically similar review of Avatar, the formalism of symb-pology A appears in a more explicit form. Denby enjoins us as follows: "let’s not dwell on the sentimentality of Cameron’s notion of aboriginal life—the movie is striking enough to make it irrelevant. Nor is there much point in lingering over the irony that this anti-technology message is delivered by an example of advanced technology that cost nearly two hundred and fifty million dollars to produce; or that this anti-imperialist spectacle will invade every available theatre in the world. Relish, instead, the pterodactyls, or the flying velociraptors, or whatever they are—large beaky beasts, green with yellow reptile patches—and the bright-red flying monster with jaws that could snap an oak."
The partial overlap between symb-pologist A and the figure of the mythognostic should be evident. These two subjects share a formalism in their approach to the object which turns out to be simply an avowed superficiality, an insistent refusal to go beyond the pleasure of appearances. Symb-pology B resembles cacognosis only insofar as it lends ultimate significance to precise what symb-pology A dismisses as incidental and irrelevant in line with the disavowals inscribed into the work itself. While its divergence from the explicit propositions articulated in the course of the work's narrative recontainment of any ostensibly subversive content has, perhaps predictably, rendered it a less commercially viable position for the symb-pologist to adopt, symb-pology B is no less hegemonic for the fact that it does not generally appear in such prestigious venues as the New Yorker. It is rather well represented by the large class of individuals with whom I have had frequent personal contact who argue that despite the pedestrian prose and all of the Priory of Sion nonsense, the Da Vinci Code has its heart in the right place when it comes to women's rights and the Catholic Church. It is also on splendid display in this blog post on "Avatar and Postcolonial Theory," whose author concludes: "at the end of the day, the movie does dramatize the important possibility of a colonizer learning, growing, and changing his mind. And according to this CNN article, it would seem that Avatar is, if anything, having a significant effect on people’s minds."
To conclude, I would like to suggest that the codification of symb-pology may help clarify further some of the priorities of our own project of critique. Our critical attention, the foregoing discussion suggests, should not be directed at any of the particular positions generated within the matrix delineated above, but rather at the conditions of possibility of the genesis of such positions. In particular, since the differentiation of positions within symb-pological discourse relies on the parceling out of "form" and "content," we must investigate both the ideological necessity of these terms as a function of the symbological text's rhetorical performance and the tendentious impoverishment of the possibilities of interpretation that their stratification represents. Our task, then, is to seek: 1) the content of the form, by way of a systematic critique of "fun," the "good read," and so on; 2) the form of the content, by way of a more thorough investigation of what underlies particular investment of a set of neighboring literary genres in spectral fantasies of originary orthognosis, and how the particular repertoire of narrative structures we have so effectively catalogued work to enact and instantiate symbological (mé)connaissance.