Monday, April 11, 2011

A Rupture in the Continuum of Time: To Transcend Without Transcendence (kairos)

The essay entitled “In the Time of Fascist Desire,” written during my first semester of graduate study, was not only significant as the first time the problematic of kairos took center stage in my work. Rather,  the task of “the constructing a secular concept of kairos” answered to the exigency of proposing an answer to the following question posed by Deleuze & Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus:
What makes fascism dangerous is its molecular or micropolitical power…only microfascism provides an answer to the global question: Why does desire desire its own repression, how can it desire its own repression? ...It’s too easy to be antifascist on the molar level, and not even see the fascist inside you, the fascist you yourself sustain and nourish and cherish with molecules both personal and collective.[1]
Thus, from the outset, kairos had to be thought in connection to desire – eros – a conceptual linkage for which there is much support – for the answer was to claim that the experience of time toward which all desire tends is the interruption of indifferent, chronological time, by a qualitatively distinct moment, kairos. Furthermore, in Eric Michaud's “Nazi Architecture as an Acceleration of Time” (1993) and The Cult of Art in Nazi Germany (published in French as: Un Art de l'Eternité: L'image et le temps du nationale-socialisme: 1996;  English translation: 2004), and in Klaus Theweileit's Male Fantasies (Volume 1: 1977; English translation 1987), there was much to be found that suggested a linkage to the domain of aesthetics – art, architecture, photography and film appeared to be instrumental in evoking such an experience of time and in providing some amount of satisfaction to desire. According to the logic of kairos, first presented in the essay in question, this evocation can only ape kairos, for the architecture of Nazi Germany, for example,“ made the monument as messiah for an impatient community, the heralded new man who came when summoned to liberate the community from time, who came to put an end to its waiting.” [2] If, however, a moment worthy of the name kairos cannot be objectively distinguished from any other time, how then can it be distinguished with certainty from pseudo-kairos? The true from false messiahs? Furthermore, this indicates that kairos is not only emergent but effective in history and in politics, as Paul Tillich writes:     
Kairos ...was used not only by the religious socialist movement in obedience to the great kairos... but also by the nationalist movement, which, through the voice of Nazism, attacked the great kairos and everything for which it stands. The latter use was a demonically distorted experience of a kairos [3] and led inescapably to self-destruction. [4]

In a very real sense, Benjamin was correct to characterize fascism as the aestheticization of politics – as opposed to the politicization of art by Communism/Historical Materialism. Fascism used aesthetic means to evoke kairos – through mass spectacle, propaganda, and so forth:
Symbols chosen for their stimulative power helped in total mobilization: the city was a sea of waving swastika banners; the flames of bonfires and torches illuminated the night... [Yet,] not satisfied with having created a state of ecstasy, the Convention leaders [at Nuremberg] tried to stabilize it by means of proved techniques that utilize the magic of aesthetics forms to impart consistency to volatile crowds.[5]
Fascism is thus fabrication of aura in the political via aesthetic means (propaganda, monumental art, mass spectacle) directing desire – kairos as aura: not objective, neither truly subjective – production of kairos and kairic experience in a particular, concrete, momentary encounter. The fascist distortion would therefore amount to an attempt to prolong the moment of kairos by the same means by which it had been evoked. In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin explains the concept of aura as that property of the work of art that derives essentially from “its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be;” [6] its authenticity; and in the case of natural objects: “the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be.” [7] This is to say, while eliding a good amount of Benjamin’s thorough analysis, that the aura may be conceived of as the effect of the apperception of the object of aesthesis, except that this effect is, strictly speaking, neither in the subject nor in the object, but arising out of the determinate spatio-temporal locus of the confrontation of subject and object and exhibiting the irreducible singularity of the object and the time of the encounter. While Benjamin restricts the term aura to the authentic work of art, it seems fruitful to appropriate this concept as part of our conceptual. As such, I propose the following modification of the Benjaminian concept: that the term aura should be understood as the qualitative singular that arises out of the multiplicity of a constellation. To state this explicitly in other terms, the aura is the product of our immanent relation to the totality of our experiences, present, past and future, at a specific historical “now,” a product irreducible to the brute facts of the factical situation. The kairos-quality of an experience can be conceived of as the qualitative product of an absolutely unique situation. According to Georges Sorel:
...we must ‘carry ourselves back in thought to those moments of our life when we made some serious decision, moments unique of their kind, which will not be repeated…’ It is very evident that we enjoy this liberty most of all when we are making an effort to create a new individuality within ourselves, thus endeavoring to break the bonds of habit which enclose us...When we act we are creating a completely artificial world placed ahead of the present world and composed of movements which depend entirely on us...  when the masses are deeply moved it then becomes possible to describe a picture which constitutes a social myth [8]
Experience is really produced by desire according to a particular modality: “if we admit that there is a specifically ‘fascist’ mode of producing reality and view that as a specific malformation of desiring-production, we also have to admit that fascism is not a matter of form of government, form of economy or of as system in any sense.” [9] Pseudo-kairos: product of malformed relation of desire, time and experience – ultimately the negation of desire in the future stasis of the Thousand-Year Reich. Kairos would therefore be produced by the free play of desires in their absolute particularity and transience. Our kairos cannot be maintained, but that reality we then create, that can endure a while. That desire which in desiring-producing kairos renounces the temptation to vainly prolong it is stronger than the desire to continue existing and desiring, conatus. This is the “sovereign instant” of which Georges Bataille writes in “The Sovereign” (1952):

[And in] this final and mischievous solitude of the instant, which I am and just as assuredly I will be… nothing in my rebellion evokes it, but nothing separates me from it just the same. If I envision the instant in isolation from a thought that entangles the past and future of manageable things, the instant that is closed in one sense but that to another, much more acute sense, opens itself up while denying that which limits separate beings, the instant alone is the sovereign being… I must strive and struggle to deny the power of that which alienates me, which treats me like a thing, and confines that which wanted to burn for nothing to utility… [10]
Kairos is reality-producing not only by freeing one creatively for the future but in transforming the past both materially and in terms its relationship of meaning with the present kairos. The event of kairos effectuates the potential for a revolutionary rupture with the past. What’s more is that the rupture takes place also as a refusal to subordinate the present that we experience to a future we may very well not. Not only does kairos constitute the immanent self-transcendence of history; it is also the liberation of desire, a singular sovereign moment in which it is possible “to transcend without transcendence.” [11]

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[1] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia Translated by Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 214-5.

[2] Eric Michaud, “National Socialist Architecture as an Acceleration of Time” Translated by Christopher Fox, in Critical Inquiry, Volume 19 Issue 2 (Winter 1993), 233.

[3] Helmuth Plessner: “Since then [Darwin's time] there has been a continuous search for new interpretations and ersatz religions which strive to extract a promise of salvation from the material of experience, a promise that may provide a common directive for thought and action... In order to exorcise the fatal meaninglessness of the empty future, they must inhibit criticism—that is, set themselves up as dogma. The ideology of National Socialism was a product of such fear. Its regressive mythology banished collective historical fear and also the individual fear of death as life grown meaningless. If the individual is nothing and the nation is everything (though possessing value only because of its racial quality), the practical survival of the individual in the nation guarantees the fulfillment of  his existence and prescribes his political line. The same, with appropriate transpositions, is true of the mythology of class struggle.” (Plessner, 244)

[4] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology Volume Three, 371.

[5] Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler, Revised and Expanded Edition, Ed. Leonardo Quaresima (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 301.

[6] Walter Benjamin Illuminations, Translated by Harry Zohn, Edited by Hannah Arendt, (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 220.

[7] Benjamin, Illuminations, 222.

[8] Georges Sorel, Reflections on Violence, Edited by Jeremy Jennings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 26-7.

[9] Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies, Volume One: Women, Floods, Bodies, History, Translated by Stephen Conway in collaboration with Erica Cater and Chris Turner (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 221.

[10] Georges Bataille, “The Sovereign,” The Unfinished System of Nonknowledge, Trans. Michelle and Stuart Kendall (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 185-195. 187.

[11] Ernst Bloch, Atheism in Christianity, Trans. J. T. Swann (London: Verso, 2009), n.p. (epigraph).

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