Friday, September 7, 2012

"Il n'y a pas de hors-VED": Further Remarks on Alterity and its Containment

This post is intended less as an elaboration of any new claims than as a continuation/amplification of some of the points just made by Dr. Prandleforth, as well as some of my own earlier arguments.

Let me begin where Prandleforth ended, with some observations that I hope will clarify and specify the claims I have made in my two posts (here and here) dedicated to delineating VED as it appears as the fundamental a priori substrate of all possible symbological cultural production.
                                                     Fig. 1: vulgarized homo economicus

Clearly, VED names both way of thinking about the subject and a way of talking about the subject's relation to any object.  To adopt and endorse the term Prandleforth has just helpfully given a central place our blog's lexicon, VED may be described as a discourse that, by definition, entails the absorption of alterity into identity, both in terms of the subject and of the object.  How?  By way of what we might call the Regime of Equivalence, and by equivalence, I mean more or less what Marx meant by "exchange value."  The resolution of all imaginable objects into the generalized grid of exchange values by VED implies their basic ontological identity; no object is a priori imaginable that cannot be placed within this regime.  The subject of VED, to repeat a point made elsewhere, is simply (a vulgarized) homo economicus as defined by classical economics, that self-transparent calculating-acquisitive instrument.  To the extent that the subject of VED possesses an existence beyond the goal of calculating acquisition, he is simply the dealer of the commodity of his own labor (the object-dimension of himself) as a commodity in exchange for wages that can be invested in other commodities, all to the end of maximizing calculating-acquisitive gain.

I say all this by way of rendering more precise what is meant by "alterity" in this context, which can only be defined initially, from the point of view of VED, apophatically: anything would qualify as "alterity" as long as it presents itself to experience as something irreducible to the Regime of Equivalence imposed by VED.  Here we are also in territory already trodden by Marx (for one): for him, capitalism can only exist by way of a constitutive denial of alterity, a denial that appears simultaneously in two complementary manners, as fetishism, and as alienation.  Fetishism is the way this denial appears in relation to the object, since it involves treating the object's exchange value as its essential property, and precisely by doing so concealing its actual essential property as the product of labor; alienation is the was that this denial appears in relation to the subject, since it involves resolving the Gattungswesen of the human being (viz. sensuous, transformative labor, in constant creative interaction with the alterity of the object) into the Regime of Equivalence, once again, by reducing it to an exchange value to be traded for wages, which are then used to purchase fetishized objects of consumption, etc.

"The pure products of America go crazy!" proclaimed William Carlos Williams in "For Elsie."  To be extremely simplistic and reductive, something much like this "going crazy" is what seems to mark off Late Capitalism (the era we share with the symbolgists) from High Capitalism (the era of Marx and Piazzi Smyth).  In simple terms, the Regime of Equivalence, along with the various grand narratives that constituted its concrete narrative-ideological supplements became threatened by many tendencies and currents, which we need not go into now.  The point is that the "denial of alterity" as delineated in the previous paragraph became, as the twentieth century progressed, essentially impossible to sustain except through a kind of madness that could barely disguise itself; and yet the Regime of Equivalence became more and more widely accepted as the only conceivable way of imagining the world - hence the Washington Consensus, neoliberalism, etc, thus rendering the thinking of alterity even more "impossible" than before.  Postmodernism is the cultural manifestation of this phase: it renders a world in which "alterity" - i.e. phenomena that seem to threaten the Regime of Equivalence from without - are everywhere, and everywhere "crazy," and yet nothing outside of VED is imaginable in any full sense.  It is in this sense that symbology is both anti-postmodern and postmodern: as I have suggested in a previous post, its primary function is to perform, narratively, imaginary solutions to the conundrums of a world in which VED is impossible to sustain but its imperative to evaporate alterity still reigns.

There are three specific loci of potential alterity that symbological narrative sets out to domesticate in particular, for the benefit of what I have elsewhere called the "wired subject of late technocapitalism" (whose two alternating poles are the Subject of Symbology and the Subject of Fun): 1) The past; 2) The Orient (closely related to 1; see Said, 1978: passim); 3) humanistic scholarship.  Why, you might ask, is it necessary to domesticate these things, all of them so nicely domesticated for us in the era of High Capitalism?  To answer this challenging question as simply as possible, I will simply refer the reader to the Lyotard's 1979 account of the decline of Grand Narratives as a fundamental condition of postmodernism.  

                                                             Fig. 2: Grand Narrative

Yet we need to render Lyotard's notion more precise.  He (and other observers in the 70s) underestimated the resilience of the grand narratives pertaining to the natural sciences: hence practically everything Dawkins says would be fully recognizable by a nineteenth century positivist, the neuroscientific conquest of human nature is a recapitulation of phrenology, Sam Harris's supposedly groundbreaking effort at elaborating a scientific basis for morality is a repackaging of boilerplate utilitarianism, etc.  This is, as we have discussed before, why the Scientist in symbological fiction invariably occupies an unproblematic role in relation to the Code: alterity cannot be threatening to the Scientist because [s]he [and gender neutrality is important here given the emprirical facts of the symbological corpus] is permanently subsumed in the Regime of Equivalence posited by VED.  But the decline of grand narratives sufficient for subsuming the past (via teleology), the Orient (via colonialism, overtly expressed racism and ethnocentrism, etc.), and humanistic scholarship (via several routes, one being the various attempts at positivist mimicry of the natural sciences, another being various notions of humanizing pedagogy, i.e. bourgeois subject formation, training in Bourdieuvian "distinction," etc), is unquestionably a reality, and it is to this reality in part that symbology responds.

                                                 Fig. 3: Grand Narrative in decline

Prandleforth's contribution has refocused our attention, by way of a valuable consideration of Thomason's use of the Museum of Jurassic Technology, on a related locus of alterity that must form part of our considerations: postmodernism/postmodernity.  It seems important to specify the precise content of the latter formation that the symbological novel, along with most or all mainstream cultural products, seizes on: relativism, which we might characterize as an attitude of bewildered embarrassment regarding 1 and 2 (see above) particularly widespread in the milieu dedicated to 3, generated by the disappearance of the grand narratives described in the previous paragraph.  Now note that relativism is in reality a kind of preservation of the Regime of Equivalence on the cheap, so to speak, but that it appears to the more rigidly contained subject of VED as a disturbing gateway drug on the slippery slope to alterity (to use an ugly mixed metaphor fully appropriate to symbological discourse), in so far as it renders the paroxystic state of the denizen of late techno-capitalism all too palpable.

At this point I would like to take us on a brief detour through Michael Taussig's delightful The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America, a book that is half an ethnography of two of the most intensive export commodity-producing realms of South America (the sugar plantations of Colombia's Cauca Valley and the mines of highland Bolivia) and half an elaboration of the theoretical contributions of folk demonology to the critique of capitalism.  Taussig argues that when confronted with the specific alterity of the capitalist model of production and the incentives, forms of relation to work and to fellows, and attitudes towards objects it entails, the denizens of kinship-structured societies who practice exchange primarily through gift and open credit cannot but interpret wage labor as a kind of demonic pact, since it involves the relinquishing of the entire range of relations and activities associated with fertility and community in favor of a set of relations and practices associated with sterility and isolation, in exchange for a form of acquisition that appears obscene and uncanny because of its impersonality.  How does Taussig help us here?  I would like to suggest that the purpose of our enterprise is to treat symbology in its broadest sense as a document of folk beliefs that in a sense mirror those of the Colombian and Bolivian peasants.  The latter developed their demonology out of a need to represent VED to themselves within their own system of representations and values; symbological discourse is likewise a manifestation and reinforcing mechanism of a system of folk beliefs that adherents of VED have developed to represent various phenomena that seem to present a disturbing alterity.  It, too, imagines a kind of demonic pact (see fig. 2 in Prandleforth's post below): that is, cacognosis.  

I would now like to consider Prandleforth's statement that "The cacognostic, on the other hand, is an actually transcendent subject, who actually refuses VED."  Now this is of course true, and yet the opposite is also true, insofar as it is at the same time the cacognostic who most closely resembles the vulgarized homo economicus discussed above.  In Reilly's novels, for instance, the endless proliferation of mirror-image cacognostics are all basically avatars of the military industrial complexes of various countries, each seeking geopolitical advantage through the calculating acquisition of valuable objects; Rollins's evil French big pharma magnates are not much different.  In other novels, the cacognostic seeks the Grail, the Benben stones, etc., because he believes they will be the key to unlimited worldly power.  What is strange about this, from the perspective of VED, is simply that he thinks that an exotic historical object, rather than simply capital, will be the key to unlimited power; and yet, he is otherwise represented as seeking said object in much the way that the sometimes idealized, sometimes demonized "cowboy capitalist" of VED pursues profit.  

But note that while the "cowboy capitalist's" way of pursuing profit may be regarded as problematic by some liberals, his motivation is never regarded as questionable or opaque - here is where the cacognostic is his opposite.  What the cacognostic adds to the picture, fundamentally, is an obscene supplement of sado-masochistic corporeal/material enjoyment/jouissance (Malakh, Silas, etc.) which is simply another way of demonizing a kind of fetishization that stands in opposition to but is the grotesque double of commodity fetishism.  This latter proceeds, in a sense, in an opposite manner from fetishism traditionally imagined, that of primitives and Orientals, which crudely fixates on the sensuous materiality of a thing as if it were a divine attribute: commodity fetishism, as per Marx, abstracts and the particular, sensuous materiality of the thing into exchange value, and thus essentially abolishes it.  The cacognostic practices something more like primitive/Oriental fetishism, but does so formally as if he were practicing commodity fetishism.  Thus the representation of alterity in the cacognostic ends up being the self-representation of the vulgar homo economicus himself, in his pathological dimension.  In this regard, the denial of alterity enacted is ultimately a denial of the alterity of the self, that is, of those dimensions of the self that would seem to exceed the articulated logic of VED.   

                                        Fig. 4: the cacognostic as spectral double of the capitalist

Where do the remaining subject positions fit into this picture?  The mythognostic is the insufficiently committed subject of VED, perhaps the relativist in all of us waiting to get out, who needs to be exhorted to acknowledge more resoundingly the self-sufficiency and adequacy of the Regime of Equivalence.  His seduction by the code, and simultaneously by the cacognostic, takes him on a journey that ultimately allows him to reaffirm his VED subjectivity by way of an acknowledgement that the orthognostic is the ideal, i.e. indifférant, subject of VED as he should appear to himself.  The mythognostic's main flaw is his curiosity about the code, which can simply be understood as anything that might appear to deserve an inquisitiveness irreducible to VED motives, and it is precisely this flaw in the presumed reader that symbology sets out to correct.  This, to conclude, is why I am especially troubled when I hear it claimed, in an iteration of symb-pology (B), that Dan Brown is at least getting people interested in scholarship/the humanities/the history of religion who might not otherwise be.  After all, the entire purpose of his "getting them interested" is to evaporate in advance any potential such things might have to trouble such readers.




Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Metastases of Alterity: Cacognosis in 12.21

Fig 1. How to criticize with an automatic
When the real is no longer what it used to be, nostalgia assumes its full meaning. There is a proliferation of myths of origin and signs of reality; of second-hand truth, objectivity and authenticity. There is an escalation of the true, of the lived experience; a resurrection of the figurative where the object and substance have disappeared. And there is a panic-stricken production of the real and the referential, above and parallel to the panic of material production. This is how simulation appears in the phase that concerns us: a strategy of the real, neo-real and hyperreal, whose universal double is a strategy of deterrence.

Baudrillard, Simulations 
(Taken from Helguera, "Polyvalent Spaces: The Postmodern Wunderkammer and the Return of Ambiguity")

But at last I am going to defy the ban on speech about this thing. Results, I am certain, are so thorough that no public harm save a shock of repulsion could ever accrue from a hinting of what was found by those horrified men... Besides, what was found might possibly have more than one explanation. I do not know just how much of the whole tale has been told even to me, and I have many reasons for not wishing to probe deeper. For my contact with this affair has been closer than that of any other layman, and I have carried away impressions which are yet to drive me to drastic measures.

H.P. Lovecraft, The Shadow Over Innsmouth 


One might summarize many previous contributions to this forum, and the unpublished work on which they have been based, by defining the symbological novel as a narrative machine for colonizing alterity with normality which is a late emanation of the European encounter with the New World.  Correspondingly, one might gloss many previous analyses of the positions available to the Symbologist by saying that mythognosis corresponds to awareness of alterity, orthognosis to denial of alterity, and cacognosis to engagement with alterity.  The plot of every symbological novel charts the progression of the Symbologist from mythognosis through cacognosis to redemption by orthognosis, which is to say from incurious awareness of alterity to engagement with its substantive particulars, followed by redemption through a formal repudiation of its Otherness.  (As Twinglebrook-Hastings recently pointed out, this is why they have them in airports.)

I will flesh out this concise schema a little, for the sake of the new readers who, no doubt, flock daily to this blog; I hope the old hands will forgive me.  This is how it works: 

The Symbologist initially regards the Object to which the Code refers as existing, but being of mere academic curiosity (e.g. Langdon's initial attitude to the Illuminati in DVC).  The action of the novel begins when events force the Symbologist to regard the Code and its Object (both of which should be understood to stand for the “Other” in the postcolonial sense) as being of practical importance.  Crucially, these events are always caused by cacognosis, and are typically the personal doing of actually cacognostic characters.  It is engagement with alterity, which is to say flirtation with cacognosis, which drives the mythognostic Symbologist from his accustomed indifférance.  For example, in TLS (as Bremselhacker has noted,) all of  the arch-cacognostic Mal’Akh’s activities constitute a performance whose only conceivable audience is the Symbologist, and whose sole object is to convince the Symbologist of its own relevance.  Langdon's intrigue actually generates each subsequent performances, exacerbating the eruption of cacognosis.  

In all symbological novels, the unraveling of the Code prompted by the supervention of alterity (i.e., cacognosis,) leads to one of two possible conclusions
  1. The Object is a source of dangerous alterity.  In this case, it is invariably destroyed.  This is common in the Reillyan vein of symbologic fiction, and has also been observed by Twinglebrook-Hastings in Brown’s pre-symbological work Deception Point.
  2. The Object turns out not to be a source of dangerous alterity, but to have been misinterpreted as such by the cacognostic (typically because he “took it literally”).  Instead, it turns out to be a metaphorical representation of some commonplace feature of the Symbologist’s ideological landscape.  This is the usual conclusion of classical symbologic novels (e.g. PYR, DVC, TLS, TGK).

Strategy #2 is, as Simon Schaffer has brilliantly demonstrated in his Tarner Lecture "An Antique Land," has its origins in the colonial literature of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, which persistently sought to characterize colonization as a form of return by locating the precursors of the colonists’ greatest achievements (e.g. meridian astronomy) in the immemorial past of the colonized people.  It is also widely observable in other contemporary cultural products such as von Daniken/Tsoukalos’ History Channel series Ancient Aliens and neurosymbological works like James Cameron’s Avatar. 

Fig 2. Cacognosis
The progression of the Symbologist through a series of relations to alterity is the backbone of the symbological novel, and is analogous in its strict formality and propaedeutic intent to the Medieval morality play.  It is on this basis that symbological fiction generally has been characterized as a reaction to postmodernity, broadly understood to include all manifestations of postcolonialism and poststructuralism, those Hellmouths which endlessly unleash coruscating swarms of alterities.  Within Symbologist's renunciation of the postmodern condition, cacognosis plays the role of the Devil in the Temptation of Christ (Matt 4:1-10): it is the force which tempts the Symbologist from the path of righteousness, and its rejection constitutes his redemption.

This functional characterization of cacognosis does not exhaust the subject, but is essential to a close reading of 12.21; the novel lacks a cacognostic character in the usual sense, but cacognosis plays its usual role nothetheless.  

Thomason has only one important cacognostic character, Chel’s mentor and surrogate father Victor Cranning.  Unlike Mal’Akh, Teabing, Bezumov, Senator Kurtz, or any of the other cacognostics familiar from the classics of the genre, Cranning is very nearly irrelevant to the plot; he does not set its events in motion personally, nor does he have have the usual cat-and-mouse relation to the Symbologist.  It is not his activity which motivates the transition from awareness to engagement for Chel or Stanton.  However, as St. Basil tells us, "by this silence, history wishes to train the activity or our intelligence, giving it a weak point for starting, to impel it to the discovery of the truth" (Hexaemeron 1:3).  Cranning is a tiny piece of flotsam whose course allows us to deduce the direction of the great whorl of cacognosis.


Cranning trains the activity of our intelligence in two important respects, one direct; the other indirect.

First, he directly confirms that cacognosis tout court is to be identified with postmodernity.  We initially encounter him in what Pablo Helguera calls a "postmodern Wunderkammer:" the Museum of Jurassic Technology, which is described (by Thomason) as follows:

The Museum intentionally obscured the lines between fact and fiction.  Part of the fun was trying to figure out which exhibits were real.  Still, Chel was philosophically ambivalent about a place that inspired concusion and defied logic.  Not to mention how uncomfortable she was with the exhibit her old mentor was putting up there. (123).

The exhibit turns out to be a representation of the four races of man allegedly described in Mayan cosmology.  Its fixation with indexical, immediate relations of signification (each piece is a sculpture of the human form in the medium allocated by Mayan cosmology to the respective race of man, e.g. corn, chicken bones, etc.) is instantly reminiscent of the logic of spirit animal assignation Thomas imputes to contemporary Guatemalan peasants:
A man’s wayob was a symbol of who he was: the brave man, like a king, was a jaguar; the funny man, a howler monkey; the slow man, a turtle. (72)
Cranning's work is, to filch a Hesperidean apple from the garden of Brown himself, "symbologically perfect": it refuses all forms of signification other than the indexical, and its referents belong to autochthonous myth.  However, the point is clearly that despite it’s symologic orthodoxy, Cranning’s exhibit qua engagement with the Other is cacognosis and therefore belongs in a sanctum of postmodernity which “intentionally obscured the lines between fact and fiction."  It is precisely because Cranning seeks to understand (which in symbological fiction means also “to emulate”) the Other that he counts as postmodern, and cacognostic.

Fig 3. Alleged physician; total douchebag.
The second, sense in which Cranning trains our intelligence is indirect, for the primary manifestation of cacognosis in 12.21 is not Cranning personally, but rather the the plague itself, Thomason’s stupid, fictitious prion disease “VFI.”  VFI is, in fact, so stupid in its particulars, that its invention by someone who claims at some point to have attended a medical school somewhere must signal a deliberate allegory in which the signifier is writing checks the referent cannot honor.  And indeed, if we attend to the morphology and functionality of VFI, we discover some salient facts supporting this deduction: 

First, VFI is acquired by contact with the Code (in this case, the codex); crucially, it is only acquired by cacognostic contact with the code.  Chel’s orthognostic uncle found the hidden city, but was spared because his only motivation was nationalist pride and respect for is ancestors.  On the other hand, Volcy, who “let the white man’s obsession with the Long Count compel him to sacrifice the honor of his ancestors” (76, read: “let the white man’s engagement with his alterity compel him to tempt them with it) is afflicted.  According to the strict constraints of the symbological novel, the Symbologist is the only subject; all other characters are allegorical representations, so the only possibility for an orthognostic, like Volcy, who flirts with cacognosis is annihilation.  (This is, incidentally, why in novels with a cacognostic character the copout always results in the cacognostic's death, and why that death is nearly always an act of nature rather than of any other character.  For the cacognostic to survive the copout, he would have to change his relation to alterity, which is only possible for the Symbologist.)

Fig. 4. The workings of ideology made visible.
Second, the plague, like cacognosis, is transmitted by the organs of vision and causes fatal insomnia.  One need hardly point out that this is a precise reversal of John Carpenter’s acerbic critique of ideology in the film They Live, which imagines a universe where magical sunglasses make ideology visible and stop subjects from functioning "all by themselves." Thomason instead enjoins us to don "eye covers" when faced with the Other, and prove our sanity by our ability to sleep.  

Third, the equation of VFI with cacognosis is confirmed by the means of its control.  Early on, Thomason says that "LAPD had been called in to stop the metastasizing press."  This seems a bizarre metaphor, particularly for an alleged doctor, until juxtaposed with the only other reference to metastasis in 12.21: 
It's like a cancer.  Even if it's metastasized, you remove the tumor at its original site so it doesn't spread further.  We need to know what it is and how it started to have any chance of fighting it. (121)
This is, of course, true neither of cancer nor of prion disease, but it is true of cacognosis, as is roundly demonstrated by every other symbological novel; the redemption of the Symbologist always consists in locating the source of cacognosis (which is typically seated in an individual like Mal'Akh, Teabing, or Bezumov,) and extirpating it by one of the two means described above.

Fig 5. Cacognosis.
The answers to Stanton's two questions, i.e. "what it is" and "how it started" provide the final proof of the equation of cacognosis with alterity.  As I think I've demonstrated, what VFI is is cacognosis.  Where it started is a little more complex: its proximal cause is cannibalism (that perennial symbol of cultural alterity, ascribed at various times to basically everyone encountered by Europeans leaving Europe over the last five hundred years); but its ultimate cause, as Volcy explicitly tells us, is the cacognosis of people like Victor Cranning. 


This line of enquiry leads to the final question I will attempt to answer in this post, which concerns the role of what we have been calling "vulgar economic determinism" in 12.21.  In the (now lamentably remote) last post on this blog, Bremselhacker gave a compelling account of the complementary means by which classical ("strong") symbology and para-symbological discourses such as David Brooks saccharine and obnoxious neurosymbology ("weak symbology") serve to re-contain the Symbologist (and the reader) as subjects constituted strictly by the pedestrian ideology of modern techno-capitalism.  

The entire essay rewards re-reading, but the element I wish to build on here is his claim that in strong symbology, the suspension of VED as the sole conceivable basis for human behavior renders the mythognostic Symbologist opaque to himself because it ostends the possibility of a transcendent subjectivity.  Once Langdon begins to believe in the possibility that the Grail exists, it "changes everything," and causes him to ask whether "you realize the implications this could have?!"  This moment is exactly coincident with the appearance of cacognosis, which is to say, alterity.  That is because they are the same narrative gesture.   

(As an aside, this ontologic failure of self-transparency is impossible in weak symbology, because the economy of truth is different in that "science" is never called into question; the subject of weak symbology is not self-transparent, but his recovery consists in discovering that science has accounted or his non-transparency by proving the phenomenologic monotony of VED).

What Thomason's awful book allows us to see, then, is the true nature of cacognosis.  In strong symbology, the mythognostic Symbologist is tempted by the possibility of a transcendant subjectivity (i.e., one which transcends VED) but redeemed by the revelation that the signs of the Other were only metaphors for the himself (i.e., VED).  The cacognostic, on the other hand, is an actually transcendent subject, who actually refuses VED.  (This is why cacognosis is always Orientalized.)  Examples abound, from Silas' asceticism to Mal'akh's tattoos, but the purest example I can call to mind is Victor Cranning, whose animating goal is to obtain the priceless commodity, remove it from the circuits of capital, and remove himself from society in order to enact a radical alternative to the present order.

And what, exactly, is the transcendent possibility represented by cacognosis?  This is precisely the point: you, the reader, and he, the Symbologist, can never know, because to tell you would subvert the entire function of symbological narrative.  The cacognostic cannot speak.   This is why Martin's Ahmed Aziz, and, for that matter, Chel and Stanton, cannot even parrot existing orthodoxy in their disciplines.  To do so would contravene the necessity of preserving, as Twinglebrook-Hastings has put it, "the existing order of things that the symbological narrative functions to maintain while absorbing anything subversive."  Even actually existing academic consensus represents a tentacle of the alterity, the suppression of which is the primary histologic commitment of the symbological novel.  

So, in the end, Thomason leaves one feeling a bit like Odin.  Reading his second and, (pray God) final offering may be phenomenologically indistinguishable from having one's eye gouged out; but the prize of knowledge demands sacrifice.