Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Portrait 1: Trevor Phillips, or senescence as a factor in social reproduction.

In the narrative of community, authority is assigned to that figure who is first cut off from the domain of their competence, and who upon returning as a stranger, brings the story of their irrevocable loss which then, as it circulates, is transformed into a decisive social content. A high status individual is cast out, wanders as a beggar, and returns so as to be recognised for their wisdom. 

A figure of authority is constituted by loss and return from loss within the same set of relations... the quality of authority, and its attribution, is first decided by the persuasive impact of this figure bearing witness (their articulation of their experience of merciless forces) which then sets the terms for a subsequent communal metabolisation. 

In the narrative of community, figures defined by their bereavements, ostracisation, or inexplicability, attract particular social truths, and the limits of those truths, especially if they have previously enjoyed the benefits of inclusion, recognition, abundance. They return, post-tragedy, as the mythic bearer of news. The authoritative figure, who does not necessarily hold the office of authority, has passed through a crisis of humiliation, and for simple reason of their survival thereby gains the right to speak as a veteran: I pass, like night, from land to land; I have strange power of speech.

A thief's words are but a ruse to rob his listeners, but an ex-thief may speak definitively upon the methods and psychology of crime, and will also say something considerable on general social categories. A priest is a cog of institutionalised religion and performs as well as can be expected, but an ex-communicated priest, as a veteran of the true sufferings of faith, now uncovers  an extraordinary profundity in his common or garden pieties. 

Every authority is derived from a particular history of exclusions. And so it is with Trevor Phillips, described by The Guardian newspaper as an 'equality expert' and member of the 'metropolitan liberal elite', and once the ex officio captain Bligh at the helm of the good ship EHRC, he has now cut himself adrift and floats ambivalently on the high seas of identity politics.

Today he over-estimates the negative impact of 'political correctness' where once he over-estimated its positive role, Phillips now stands opposed to his earlier efforts, perceiving them as counter-productive. He thinks he has discovered that the trigger for inter-communal strife is the institutional repression of those words that institutional repression triggers the compulsion to utter them.  He thinks forbidden words must be spoken because they will be spoken because they are the words that have been forbidden. Therefore, today, he seeks to escape the binds on social intercourse that previously he sought to tie.

As a consequence of his change of heart he has become a walking-talking man bites dog and is lauded by those newspapers in which he was previously derided. And contrariwise, where once he was the familiar talking head for multiculturalism (as chair of 'race equality think-tank', The Runnymede Trust) he is now considered, according to the same Guardian article as a 'curious Uncle Tom figure'.
"I have lost lots and lots of friends. My view is if you can’t tolerate that I want to have this discussion, then we can’t really be friends. What you’re asking me to do is collude in a lie with you rather than argue it out. A big part of it is that on the left, if you look like me, you’re supposed to think in a particular way. And they just hate it if a black person isn’t the person they want him to be.”
There must be some mechanism or threshold built into the social form of commitment, that at a certain point in the individual history of an adherent's participation, is either triggered or crossed,  and which thereby instigates an abrupt reversal in relation to that history. The principle which once appeared self-evident to the point of habitude, the struggle fulfilling need as meat and drink, suddenly repudiated and abandoned. The most committed individuals achieve a peak of commitment and then, as some switch attached to known motivation is thrown, they walk away from the fight as estranged, and repulsed, as an ex-smoker by the smell of cigarettes. 

Comrades left behind explain departures from their milieus  as 'burn out' and 'exhaustion' but in truth, the radically de-motivated figure has encountered the objective limit of the struggle and is thrown into an engagement with their own subjectivity already coloured by ambivalence and contradiction. 

The subject confronts the fractured world through the fracturing of its own certainties, it personifies rupture in institutional relations as it glides like a Mrs Danvers through the mise en scène - the subject is a moving void, moving through a void. 
"I saw the Emperor – this world-soul – riding out of the city on reconnaissance. It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it." 
The subject is summoned, wearing red ballet pumps, it is an embodiment of the disruption it describes in dance. It both tears at, and is torn by, the world containing it. It devours and is devoured. It runs a diagnostic systems check - it undertakes tethered EVA repairs. It maps the terrain. It mimes the breakdown of routinised comportment - Phillips is described as slightly stooped

The figure to which something of subjectivity has become attached undergoes a radical alteration in relation to its operating principle - it finds it has crossed the floor of the house. A figure, any figure, emerges significantly from the moment it fails to continue as before, even where what it is and what it has to say is not interesting in itself. Only traitors tell the truth. 

The altered figure, who now finds itself locked out from the garden of innocent values, wanders into the ontological condition Blake called 'experience'. They explore a second purpose at the point where the simple hormonal drive sustaining their grip on high principles, and their commitment to the cause, suddenly releases them. And as they drift from what they once 'stood for' they pass into new relations, conditioned by multi-stranded contradictions, to the old objects. 

At some point they enter the last climacteric, which means they are embraced by the life-world as a senescent. They no longer display, they are not warriors nor chiefs, they are elders. They live the truth in Freud's observation, 'we may escape from our known motivation only for unknown motivations to take command.' Senescence is the modality of being where over-determination of ideas is generalised to the form of consciousness itself. 

A myriad of spirits crowd into the elders' discourse, and they permit that which the innocent, the warriors, the commissars and apparatchiks, consider irrelevant, divisive or distracting. That which once had been obvious, the good fight, suddenly becomes 'difficult' and unsustainable. They are no longer conditioned along the same paths. They are no longer triggered into the same responses. 
"Women are all change as you know, we change and change and change; we have have 7 climacterics in our lives and I am in the last one, well advanced in the last one; and in the last climacteric, you're the sleepless people, you're the guardians, you're the watchers on the housetop, and that's what you do."          Germaine Greer
Senescence occurs where the desire to fight on the right side of history fails, finding its assumed certainties both false and discomfiting, the elders become doubtful of the better angels of their own nature. And nor are they aghast when they finally admit to themselves that whatever good they struggled for in the past, their motivation never exceeded that of winning the favour of a lady's colours, nor did the struggle itself ever exceed the festival tumult of the hastilude. What they once considered high ideals they later found were sticky traps for their more trivial motives. 
"Now let us make the fantastic supposition that Rome were not a human dwelling-place, but a mental entity with just as long and varied a past history: that is, in which nothing once constructed had perished, and all the earlier stages of development had survived alongside the latest. [...] Perhaps we ought to be content with the assertion that what is past in the mind can survive and need not necessarily perish. It is always possible that even in the mind much that is old may be so far obliterated or absorbed whether normally or by way of exception that it cannot be restored or reanimated by any means, or that survival of it is always connected with certain favourable conditions. It is possible, but we know nothing about it. We can only be sure that it is more the rule than the exception for the past to survive in the mind."
Trevor Philips has thus entered into the elder phase and is drawing out its implications. The mighty, Nile-like flow of his ascendent commitment to the institutional reproduction of the reform agenda has, in his decline, broken up into the silted tributaries of a delta phase. He now inhabits, and has become, his own ruined Tanis, and as with every committed figure who finally allows itself to enter into the maturation stage, he has abandoned (or retreated from) instrumentalised strategic thinking to the vagaries of preoccupied rumination: I Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs / perceived the scene, and foretold the rest. 

But, why should the ageing of a figure through its defined stages involve experience taking the path of conversion, renunciation, repudiation? Why might there be a change of heart at the end? Or, why is the end indicated by a change of heart? Perhaps, it is better to approach this question from the other side: if there has been no revelatory event, and the figure has not undergone a subjective transvaluation of values, then the end stage has not yet been reached. Where continuity itself is conserved, subjectivity is not achieved. A transformed relation to previously maintained ideas expresses the figure's partial attainment of subjectivity. 'Realisation' may only emerge, as if drawn out of a peasant's sack in the dreamwork of Anna Karenina, from the metabolisation of a rupture with youth and with youth's sublimated imperative towards reproducing social relations around mastering the reality principle.
"Whoever has overthrown an existing law of custom has always first been accounted a bad man: but when, as did happen, the law could not afterwards be reinstated and this fact was accepted, the predicate gradually changed; - history treats almost exclusively of these bad men who subsequently became good men!" Daybreak
The ruminations of old men are not so much directed towards legacy, that is continuity, as to rupture - the world's loss of them. In the teeth of annihilation, the senescent figure races to perform a ritual of self-abolition, a bluff, a camouflaging, a covering of tracks. The abrupt inversion of values is subjectivity as a bone catching in the world's throat at the moment of its swallowing. The purpose of the elder, the one taking the confounding path towards deathbed conversion, is to finally evade absolute reduction. 

They desire to amplify the unpredictability of what they will say next - caprice is the acrobatics of old age. Their every utterance must demonstrate a Houdini-like ability before the abyss. Elders make the routine if horrifying discovery that society is not reproduced through the wily offices of experience but in the repressive enthusiasms of mobilised innocence. In response, the aged ought to preoccupy themselves with the image of repudiating the eternal possibilities of youth (law, progress, reform, action, labour, war,) and the forms by which social process is continually renewed. 

Those existentially beyond producing children experience the world's sameness as an implied objective threat of ostracisation. Those who encounter their own uselessness within the apparatus reproducing labour power are free to reciprocate by refusing to consider the new world in terms of 'who will do the dirty work?'

But even so, how could one (such as Trevor Phillips) with a vested interest in the continued presence of an anti-racist safety-netnow desire its removal? How is it even possible that he no longer believes in the 'equality' he once attempted to implement? It turns out, Phillips' political metamorphosis is comprehensible only within the register of the work of reaction and this register only becomes available to comprehension at the point that progress's contradictions themselves pass into a state of infirmity.

Reformism is best characterised by its failure to process the category of the reactionary, which must remain opaque to it, and to which it assigns the simple value of 'fetter' on progress, the accumulated 'muck of ages' negatively constraining human society's escape from 'irrationality'. But a figure such as Phillips gains access to subjectivity as a specific expression of the rupture between reaction and progress. 

Authority is always a return or retrieval from a katabasis-like spiralling towards interiority, and the Orphic interior is itself first generated by a heavy blow from outside that splits the figure along the grain of social form. That which emerges as the stuff of authority is retrieved from social form as 'unknown' motives, becoming the motor of, as in Phillips' ambivalence, the witness's discourse. 

From its own account, reaction generates subjects such as Phillips within a discursive register attached by experience to the historical depletion of established institutions and relations. Reaction is more concerned with conservation of certain ex-political and cultural domains in circumstances of extinction than with the restoration of previous social relations. The reactionary gaze does not affirm the past but negates the perceived threats implied by what is to come. In Seiobo There Below, Krasznahorkai reformulates this distinction between conservation and restoration, and assigns to each their political significance. The internal space created by the boundary that he draws becomes comprehensible through the narrative convention of the broken return, where what comes back, the longed-for return of the beloved object, exceeds even the trauma effected by the original loss. Absence is more conclusive, and thus less emotionally disruptive, than a return under changed circumstances. Krasznahorkai adds a further twist to the trauma of broken return: the restoration of the broken thing, but mended. 

Reaction is the mode of senescent awareness predicated on a life lived under reform's unintended consequences. It articulates what it is to experience 'emancipation' as repression, where the concept of emancipation itself is bound into the process of institutional abstraction and the resultant 'equalities' are those established between unit quantities. Phillips enacts a cantankerous refusal of the category of the expected and captures, as in a snapshot, progressivism's ideological reliance on an apparatus of assent-based compliance:
“A ruling elite maintains an idea of what’s good and reasonable by a whole series of methods,” he counters. “Who gets advancement, rewards and status? If you don’t hold to the orthodoxy, you stop being invited to meetings. There’s a phrase that people in centre-left politics use: oh he’s very good. What they actually mean is: I agree with him.”
Phillips is one of a number of Dantonesque figures discovering that they no longer fit with the reform programme, and in their narrative of personal fragmentation they take up the authentic work of reaction, which is to realise the personal (and the interpersonal) in the teeth of machinic process. 

In making this ambivalence generally available to consciousness, reactionary figures like Philips illuminate the authentic terrain of negation and, albeit weakly, identify what of the world must be resisted (if only by the senescent) and what defended. Communism's continued failure to incorporate the register of reaction, its ongoing affirmation of technological determinism and institutionalised identity politics, and thus its identification with the progressive movement of the exploitative apparatus, is damning proof of its incomprehension of either what it should revolt against (abstracting process) or what it should be defending (the communal scale). 

Communism may sustain no critique of existing forces without also affirming what it negates; therefore, as a reactive mode of consciousness it is crucial that it reserves as the object of its critique, the forms that are taken by 'emancipation' as it struggles to belong to the same world. We discover through the figuration of Trevor Phillips that nobody preserving their worldview into old age is worthy of respect; then, this is the other register within which the repudiation of, that is escape from, programmatism appears. 

Note on Text: Francis Bacon will be remembered as the inventor of figurative art as the permanent struggle against illustration. The second front of Bacon's campaign extends into the struggle against processive representation, and the conversion of momentary states into avatars of abstracting force. The above pen portrait is another in a series depicting significant contemporary figures that attempts to show those undergoing personal crises or metamorphoses as a soul, as a surface. I have chosen the figurative register as a means to comprehend the process of iconisation by which utterance is technologically fixed to essence and individuals are made to carry the burden of what they once said, as if their throwaway remarks were conclusive evidence of criminal intent or corrupted nature. It is probable that my chosen subjects have either been vilified or are themselves vilifiers; they often move with a slowed-down gait, like spiders in winter, but the inchoate form of their personal transformation is precisely the quality that I seek to capture as a 'portrait'. The quotations are not included to support my arguments but to sit in tension with the narrative as short cuts to depth. And nor are the arguments in themselves coherent or progressive but are collaged together so as to create a more complete picture - where completion is looked for in the portrayal, not the portrayed. I am generally, entirely unfamiliar with the subjects I have chosen, I have heard their names, perceived their relation to certain institutional structures and identified their place in media networks - ultimately, they belong to milieus that I have no interest in. In each case, the subject is not the true subject but a portal, and for this reason I use only one item relating to them as source material:

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