Friday, 20 May 2011

Hikikomori and Ham after the Thin Man

I live fully and entirely in the moment only on one condition: that I no longer hide my plenitude from my fellows. In other words, my integrity will belong to me only if it coincides with the integrity of others. (Not of everyone but of those who, like me, recognise that their integrity depends on that of others, rather than on 'those who put their names in lights'... or 'those who do not know what they should say...') But the concordance is actuality, and it is within this that sentiments – desires, passions, delights, anger, and other intense states of the sensibility, all of which are means of experiencing  the instant – are sentiments of what is, of what generally happens to people. Compared with these communicable emotions, the sentiment of what I alone am is not merely empty, it also serves to annul. Imagine that I shut myself up in a room to eat a large slice of ham alone at a time of famine. No matter what its intensity, the feeling I would experience would be incommunicable (it would be as if it had not taken place). Or what could be communicated about my feeling would be only an unease that would be so much greater in that the other would evaluate the intensity of what is closed to him (due to the refusal to share the ham). The feeling of what is would be – one if unease and the aversion that such an actuality generally causes: solitary consumption, in the midst of famine, of a large slice of pork. Of course I could write a song going something like Everyone else is hungry but not me: I can eat my ham on my own... But this would be merely to sing the unsingable, communicate what is not communicable, and by making a display of an underhand attitude I would 'bestow sight' not on the pig that was eaten but on the pig who eats. Undoubtedly the great problem for each of us is to pass (as we live in the instant) from the sentiment of what he is to the sentiment of what is, to separate what is perceptible (desperately engrossingly) for the man isolated from others (who is locked away) and for the boundless man who is alone free.
Bataille From the Stone Age to Jacques Prevert

This lengthy fragment does not confirm our expectation of Bataille, who we think favours, above all, a de-controlled movement towards excess. But these words sit well in the book Absence of Myth which through most of its parts processes an existentialist idea of committed ethics. Socially embedded commitment is located by Bataille half way along a continuity that stretches between his endorsements of Surrealism at one extreme and the UN at the other. The problematic that we encounter in the ham eater, which remains resonant and irreducible, is resultant of Bataille's  framing of the terms of ethical commitment. 

Bataille's experiments in elective community, which are always bound by rituals directed at the universe's deep hostility towards humanity, fit well with existentialist motifs of self-formulating interpersonal structures of commitment that are thrown out into a background of cruel absurdity. 

However, both Bataille's and the existentialists versions of community are dependent on the formative role of an active intersubjectivity... community is understood almost entirely in terms of its intended formation. And where this is not the case, it is imagined in a state of renewal (i.e. at the point of its re-formation). This tendency to constitute new groups, to perform the rite of renewal, is pathological within all camps of the radical milieu; there is always a new group, a new journal, a new project, initiative, departure, schism and so on. 

The performance of renewal as presented by Bataille, by definition, locates the ethical act as precisely the formation of an ethical community at the centre of what that community is. However, historically, the condition of community is a more or less accidental outcome of accumulated pre-human/pre-social deposits which are somehow 'raised up', or transformed, at a point of saturation, into a definable reproducible emergent structure. Thus, the man singing of ham by himself in a starving world remains a member (in 'concordance' with the 'actuality') of the community from which he has emerged even if he is transgressive of its values. The community to which he belongs cannot be extracted from the man any more than he could choose to extract himself from it. The contrary to this tendency of reversion to belonging to this community occurs amongst immigrants who tend to revert to belonging to that community. 

Thus the problem that is presented by Bataille is not so much a matter of a man who is uncommitted to the community he would otherwise be reproducing by his involvement as that of the self-separation of a man who refuses to commit to its rituals of social renewal. The man is not rebelling, he is indifferent to the claims of the autonomous community... and yet he remains, to the chagrin of self-producing radicals, a member of this community. 

His act of seclusion is not sufficient to separate him from the actual community but only from its idea of itself. His separation therefore occurs at the level of the 'for itself' (i.e. he is not actively or directly participating in social relations) but  he is still participating at the level of the 'in-itself' (i.e. his is but one behaviour extracted, incarnated and realised from the range of possible behaviours that might be realised in those conditions). 

A counter example is found in the film, After The Thin Man where the main protagonist, Nick, finds himself at a dinner party having a 'conversation' with other guests, all of whom, being aged, have fallen asleep. Nick continues the conversation, speaking both his part and the parts of the other guests. His separation from this community, speaking to himself ('communicating what is not communicable), does not imply that he is no longer a member of it. 

Of course, Nick's non-engagement with the other dinner guests, functions at a higher order of recursion, as a participation in another but external community, that of the film's audience. Equally, the ham singer's isolation in Bataille's parable is possible only because it is assumed that there exists another already constituted community, that of Bataille's readership, where the ham eater is made to appear. His apparent separation from this community (his place of life) causes him to appear in that community (Bataille's readership) which he is equally not actively participating in. And this community of readers also cannot be understood as a self-constituting body grounded in its ethical commitment to the plenitude of the other... it is rather, like any identifiable community, both an accidental formation and externally determined by forces which are not identical with itself. 

External causation, the role of geographical sedimentation and random events, in social formations is the most difficult idea that the radical imagination has yet to conceive. It runs counter to every version of self-theory. Can it really be that whether the ham singer shares or hoards his meat it makes no structural impact on the community he is a member of, the fate of which will be decided by external forces, of famine, climate, foreign armies and so on? 

Can it really be that a community is structurally indifferent to, is equally supportive of, both the committed and the uncommitted, the patriots and the transgressors? By extension, the convicted criminal too, in his isolation cell, also continues to belong to society, being one example of its multiple individualisations in relation to its laws and conventions. There is nobody not belonging to the human community.

It is perhaps unfortunate that we we cannot form and sustain radical groups by act of will. It is also a pity that communities are not the product of our design. Yes, it is unfortunate and a pity, but it is also a conclusion that seems to be supported by the evidence that almost all elective projects of communalisation fail despite the commitment of their memberships. 

And if a community does not fail then its success is not a consequence of its internal fitness but more an accident of external historical caprice. To paraphrase Bataille, the early death of elective communities is the condition for the formation of new elective communities. Rites of recomposition cannot but be dependent on the basic unsustainability of previous initiatives in recomposition. 

The category of commitment, every bit as much as that of indifference, is no more than a recursive step down from, a second order response to, the possibilities of what a social ordering might realise amongst its populace.