text by MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM
photography by OLIVIER ZAHM
translation by SARA SUGIHARA
The “sociologicial” statement I made can be summed up in two words: obligatory irony. Once upon a time, from the time of Socrates to Kierkegaard, irony was an elistist and aristocratic art. But now, for more than three decades, irony has become, ahem, a raison d’état, a purely political reason for action. What does this mean? The generational evidence by which we have been paralyzed: derision, the depreciative perspective, the mocking of others as well as of oneself, the media-centered omnipresence of the comic and of sarcasm, imitation and satire. Irony has democratized itself. Which is in itself a rather sad irony, especially when it’s funny (stand-up comedians on TV, whom I do appreciate): it is this democratization, this plebeization of irony, which I recognize as the principal symptom of the “spirit of nihilism.” And I will add — even if I am more careful nowadays when using the term democratic nihilism — the categorical imperative is that you really can’t take anything seriously any more.
The political scope of this diagnostic, blindingly obvious yet seemingly never pointed out, has not escaped the notice of the naysayers, channeling their obligatory, omnivorous derision. A population that abases itself by conditioned reflex, constantly mocking its own misery and mediocrity, still recognizes the condition. So, for the first time in history, entire populations are proclaiming themselves to be mediocre, insignificant, miserable, pretending it isn’t so bad, that it is even cause for laughter. As one of the greatest advocates of the ironic imperative signaled to me, such a population would appear to be more docile and able to be manipulated than any others have been before. Let me borrow Lacan’s famous line, “Les non-dupes errent” (“Those who do not let themselves be caught up in the symbolic deception/fiction continue to believe that their eyes are the ones which err”). And I include his postscript, adding that this does not mean that dupes do not err either.
A feature in contemporary subjectivity, an ironic one, is to constantly show, with this spirit of omni-derision — that one can never be fooled by anything. And now we are likely to be fooled by everything. I wrote about it slightly differently in this little book: the cogito of the contemporary subject, ironically, is that it is the first subject of historical enunciation to believe that it doesn’t think what it says. Or that it doesn’t believe it thinks what it says…
We said: this obligation was becoming painful in the end, in the chiasmus constituted by this rather enunciative position: indeed, by his own quasi explicit admission, the contemporary subject of irony does not really believe what he says; he doesn’t really think he is as lame as all that. The convention is to show others you’re “in on it” by not taking anything seriously, submitting absolutely everything to derision, beginning with yourself, as a show of good faith. In so doing you validate and socialize yourself. Irony has even become the arch-dominating last rite of upper class integration…
The ironic subject, apparently depressed and nihilistic, presents a much more complex — if not outright schizophrenic — face than expected. A personal aside — maybe it would have been better had I grown up during a less powerful time — like others, I whined and complained about the mediocrity and insignificance of my period. But maybe I would have had a better chance, had I only been able to seize it. If you were 20 in around 1790, or lived during the 1960s in the past century, philosopher, you didn’t have to strain yourself very hard to find interesting subjects; they were pretty much served up to you on a plate. But in leaner times you have to dig, to search out in the steaming dregs of the time that which out of these same dregs reveals triumphant periods of births and spontaneous maximizations. You have to find it all yourself, and it is perhaps more gratifying than being cosseted by a time we know as fundamental and formative in history. Because you’d have to supply the effort — spared for the well-heeled generations — to go and get the interesting item during a time already self-declared as being thin, barren. Apparently weak and uninteresting, now the obligatorily ironic subject, linked to “democratic nihilism,” is revealed to be an extremely curious beast, more complex than he thinks.
A political diagnosis is therefore necessary. My writing on this subject has unfortunately not been exempt from certain diatribes — meaning I fell directly into the trap laid for us by the period: “You’re not going to take yourself too seriously” — but I would say today that this was not entirely essential. Of course I do not endorse the categorical imperative of systematic auto-derision, whose daily endemic ends up being a sort of continuous sneer — its true psychological result being a notoriously depressed and drifting population. But in order to understand where the essence of the symptom is, it is the entire conceptual movement of the spirit of nihilism that we will have had to traverse.
One person would have been better able to summarize the debate than anyone else: Jean Baudrillard. He caused a great scandal in the late ’90s with an article entitled: The Conspiracy of Art, firing a barrage against what we currently call “contemporary art.” He was on his way home from one of the Venice Biennales, and his first impression, written in one of his books (Cool Memories, I don’t remember exactly which volume), was: “The art world will now function only through conspiracy and insider trading.” In essence, the message delivered by these artists was, “I suck! I suck!” and Baudrillard agreed, they all did indeed suck.” …
What Baudrillard was allowing himself to say, with his characteristic brutal frankness, was what others might not dare to even whisper… But we must look further back into Baudrillard’s own journey. We know he was the great theoretician of the generalized simulacre. I don’t have space here to explain why such a theory could only appear at a specific time in history, but I did it so exhaustively in my Ontologique de l’histoire that I can only encourage the reader to rush right out and pick up this neglected masterpiece, ahem. Beginning in the ‘80s, what we would later call “post-modern” (and what I called, provisionally at least, “democratic nihilism”) — Baudrillard would be one of its greatest theoretical representatives — made him hate those rivals and artistic representatives he deemed simulationists, who asked for his approval and were tossed out on their ear. Everything was becoming simulacres. Simulacres (semblances) of art, of course; simulacres of sex, with pornography or transsexualism; simulacres of politics, with its pallid parliamentary and media circus; simulacres of war (since technologically they are won in advance), with the Gulf War, etc. And in the microcosm of the radical chic of the left, to which both Baudrillard and I belonged, paradoxically, and conflicted with, there was an inescapable conclusion, decades in the making — a diffuse sensation that radicality was done, that all that was left were these simulacres of radicality; no events, just simulacres of events; and finally: no more transgressions, only simulacres and parodies of transgression.
Baudrillard was a fascinating writer, whose quality and clarity of writing, added to many media platforms, helped to attract a much larger audience than the usual tiny, de rigueur philosophical ghetto. I cite a superb sentence of his, “Dissimulation is feigning not having what one has. On the other hand, simulation is feigning having what you do not have.”
I had detached myself somewhat from Baudrillard when that scandalous article hit in 1997. Today I would say, like all the “critics of representation,” Baudrillard was only a Platonian who didn’t know it. And like all Platonians, conscious or not, the purely eidetic conception of being always infers a discourse of decadent, nihilist diagnosis of the hierarchical degradation and the inevitable deflation of the original in copy. Simulacre: the original philosophical lapse…
But it was with this polemical, courageous, brilliant text that I finally understood Baudrillard’s mistake and the melancholy, even the “depressionism” of his theory of generalized simulacre, which brought him closer to so many writers, “critics” of decadence, from Spengler to Muray and even parts of Nietzsche, Debord and many others. The discourse is always the same: “There was a time … but now everything is finished, empty, fucked. The good stuff is done; all we have now is leftovers.”
Let’s look at this more closely. Art is always the image of its time, and vice versa. So what does the “contemporary artist,” so lambasted by Baudrillard, do? Is he only pretending to be mediocre, null, insignificant, pathetic and ridiculous? Certainly not, since he has committed to laying his cards on the table, going “all in.” Is he pretending to have something he doesn’t actually have? No way, since he engages in social commerce with his mediocrity, nullity, insignificance, uselessness and ridiculousness. So what is the operation that confuses itself with the ironic operation?
And this is what I found: the ironic subject is not pretending, in fact, he is pretending to pretend. This is for reasons that I will spare the reader, because they strike so deeply at the heart of our conceptual target, because only the human being is susceptible to intensifying appearances this way. This remark coincides with another, an extremely profound one by Lacan: “An animal can, as human beings can, erase and even falsify its tracks. The only thing it cannot do is to make these tracks look fake when in fact they’re true. Well, in the ironic operation as exemplified by our ‘nihilist artists,’ doing the same thing which Mr. Average Guy does today, it’s the same process, more or less. And it’s complete crap.” Even though we can tell that the artist in question, like the contemporary everyman subject, isn’t really saying he is crap, insignificant or mediocre. He validates himself because he has understood who he was and therefore that he is superior, because he has presented himself as the low water mark of artistic talent, as the everyman subject likes to present himself as the inoffensive dregs of humanity — while still also being quite charming. Is this a “policy of resentment” like the one Nietzsche prophesied, warped by the thick pettiness of the “last men” — probably democrats — in the devaluation of everything that is great, aristocratic brilliant, and Promethean? It would be futile to deny that a lot of this goes on. But the neo-aristocratism of the Nietzchean “Super Man” has given rise to monsters; it is not a viable solution for us. The democratization of the world is unavoidable, and if resentment, masked by the ironic imperative, must be the fundamental affect of such a future, well, so be it. Going against my own pubescent Nietzscheism, I ended up deciding I should look elsewhere and in a different way.
Irony is not about pretending, but in pretending to pretend. I was so proud of my find … alas! I came upon a play by Marivaux, his last one, a masterpiece whose title is eloquent: Actors of Good Faith. Here’s a quick rundown of the plot: It’s a classical play-within-a-play, an amateur piece in which reality shifts dramatically, directed by a village Don Juan as a vehicle for him and other seducers and coquettes to reveal and confess their mutual affections under the noses of their “official” companions and spouses. It’s a wonderful, funny piece, but I am not going to reveal everything I think about it since I still want you to buy Ironie et vérité. But it was in this play, which I wrote about at length, that I found the expression: “Pretending to pretend.” Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr! Marivaux said it before I did, he even spelled it out! Here’s the line from the play, which I rewrite in correct language (in the play it is spoken by the village idiot, who has one of those thick incomprehensible peasant accents): “They’re sneering at me in the cursed action of this diabolical play; our mistress, Colette, pretends to have feelings for Monsieur Merlin. And Monsieur Merlin pretends to have given her his heart, but despite the playacting, it’s all true! They’re pretending to pretend, just to get us to buy it!” What does the contemporary nihilist artist do? What does the contemporary subject of obligatory auto-derision do? He pretends — to pretend to be, as in the play, that which he really is. Crap, derisory, insignificant, pathetic, mediocre, etc. In the meantime, however, a lot has changed.
Earlier in this piece I evoked the conditioned reflex of the philosophical, literary moralist: this mediocrity is a sign of the times, one can only condemn it, dreaming of a golden age in which all of this never happened. Some phenomena are considered the same way we look at meteorological disasters: the catastrophe could have been avoided, but the tragedy is that it did happen; all we can do is blame the bad luck of being born at that moment. Then we look for the responsible culprits, high-ranking CEOs, other intellectuals, etc. A philosophy of history, in the sense I mean, does not work this way. There has never been a golden age of sagacity, situated beyond both pessimism and optimism: the situation has been so radically polluted from the start — original sin — that, as Adorno said, we were condemned to embody the decency that would be the only way of breathing and surviving in this hell. This philosophy beats all variations of Platonism, including the form of Protestant Platonism called Kantianism, because it takes down all philosophy that says what things should be, not what they actually are. Epicureanism, from this point of view, is the surest invocation of the great philosophers of the future; for technical reasons, Aristotle-ism as well. You must describe how things are, from the start. We have the chance to discover why things are the way they are today, but also, against any form of Platonism, why they are never the way they should be for the false candor of professional philosophers.
The problem is in the text by Baudrillard, because it is an auto-refutation. What would the “postmodern” artists, these blackmailers of insignificance, have done to mediocrity and stupidity? Were they pretending? Nay. Baudrillard says it himself: They lay their cards on the table, saying they are what they are. Being “really crap.”
Once I crossed polemics with a different adversary, the neo-situationist collective Tiqqun, with which I was very involved at the time (1999-2000), whose leader, Julien Coupat, made a lot of noise in 2008, and whose Theory of Bloom (a theory of the crisis of the modern subject under late capitalism, of the nothing-subject, a theory that is totally flat, universalizing, devoid of nuance, reductive, and completely incapable of accounting for differences between people. A bloom is a man of the masses) made a great impact on the “connected” crowd, which was caught up in the “Debord” wave, on the cutting edge of that which could come to represent a new Situationist Internationale in our age of anorexic political-intellectual cows. What was in this theory? An operation miraculously close to the needs of our Subject, shall we say. Where Debord denounced, quite platonically, “the Empire of Evil” in the Spectacle as the industrialized reign of the fake, the battered pretence, Tiqqun drove the nail in further. The Bloom was the moment when subjectivity itself becomes a spectacle. We can call it the “Star Academy theorem.” There were no more women, but the Blooms pretended to be women. No more cailleras (rabble) from the suburbs but blooms pretending to be rabble from the suburbs (from an infamous line spoken by Nicolas Sarkozy). No more black people, just Blooms pretending to be black. Etc. It was the democratic generation’s Bloom theory of beaten-down post-Cartesian subjectivity; and it was what we heard every day, point blank, about everyone. No more substantive subjects telling us when these things took place, just that beaten-down subjectivity, feigning nonexistent substance. I have evoked the direct experience showing how the theory plays out, the everyday “revolutionary cell” atmosphere being rather violent and negativist, suffocating and depressive, because, of course, it speaks the truth about the theory itself. Things are not going to end well. It’s degraded Platonism again: if all subjectivity is false and beaten-up, all aspects of everyday-ness must be constantly falsified.
The subtitle of the revue published by this groupuscule was critical metaphysics. Thinking about it today, I think we were pretty far off the mark. Indeed, what we have is the essence of immemorial metaphysical sleight of hand. Is it possible for a woman to pretend to be something she is not? Except for a few novels and films that recount a different experience, such as Victor Victoria, I haven’t run into the phenomenon much. It seems to have been more difficult in the United States during the era of slavery to pretend to be white. But even in our democratic, emancipated conditions, I have not encountered many blacks pretending to be white, nor whites pretending to be black. Of course there was Michael Jackson, who seemed to have dreamed of making himself as white as his enormous fortune would allow, and there are also transsexuals. But who is pretending to be whom? A transsexual is not a man who is pretending to be a woman, but one who feels who he is really and attempts to become that which he thinks he — or now she — is. In one of two posthumous unpublished works, I will lay out the theory of being as it pertains to the Spirit of Nihilism — rather sophisticatedly. This is not the place to do that. We may just say that no matter how much Michael Jackson tried to make us believe he was white, or a transexual tries to convince us that he is a woman, it still doesn’t take up 99 percent of his time, and there are reasons for that.
Here, it’s to drive the nail in a bit further by stigmatizing the metaphysical Christ. As usual, it is in the name of the eidetic conception of the being that we deny all real substance to a given singularity. It is metaphysical violence in its purest state, from writers pretending to criticize it. No one ever pretends to be what he already is. Most women in the world, for obvious sociocultural reasons, are often obliged, as Tiqqun would say, to be “Blooms pretending to be women.” In other words, perhaps their lives are only evanescent masquerades, a conclusion any critic of representation would rush to countersign. It is this violence I have never been able to accept. Singularity is, it exists. And the experience of being, against all the chic philosophemes (philosophical propositions), comes out of the plush democratic West, which deplores the hypothetical “end of the direct experience.” That there is no direct access to the anthropological experience, there is instead always representation, that’s what our “critics” should have concluded if they were going to try to go all the way, instead of depreciating things more than they are already…
Yes, it is possible, quite often, that human subjects overplay the pretending they did originally. It’s sometimes quite efficient: look at the feminists, militant gays, the queer of today (because playing on the ambivalence of “genders” is not pretending to be that which it is not; instead it is playing, using provocation and escalation, that which one is, really, even if this is not exactly classifiable) and the Black Panthers. In my eyes it is the formula for the small happinesses we experience down here on Earth: when we are able to play ourselves with grace. I do not pretend to be who I am, I do not play something I do not have — otherwise I would have killed myself long ago. When I am happy, I pretend to pretend… to be who I am really, exactly in the same way a subject of obligatory derision does, or an over-performing contemporary artist does in the face of deflation. This does not mean taking oneself seriously. It simply means foreseeing the already concrete utopia where the world would be the immense, graceful theater it could become.
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