“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Friday, February 27, 2009

Is there a Minotaur in Eden?

Ah, how often she watched a cow with spite in her face and said, “why does that one please my lord? Look how she frisks before him in the delicate grass; no doubt the fool thinks it suits her!” – Ovid, Amores

The Greeks had a golden age, but no Garden of Eden. No initial shock at nakedness. Although there were, of course, the prohibitions. Artemis, bathing, is seen by Acteon, who is punished for his vision. But here it is the goddess who is naked, not the human.

No Eden, then, but a labyrinth.

Pliny, in the Natural History, claims that labyrinths are “the most stupendous works, perhaps, on which mankind has expended its labors; and not for chimerical purposes, merely, as might possibly be supposed.” The Egyptians, in Pliny’s account, got there first. Daedalus was a copier. The Nome of Heracleopolites was the first.

“…that Daedalus took this for the model of the Labyrinth which he constructed in Crete is beyond doubt; though he only reproduced the 100th part of it, that portion, namely, which encloses circuitous paths, windings, and inextricable galleries which lead to and fro. We must not, comparing this last to what we see delineated on our mosaic pavements, or to the mazes formed in the fields for the amusement of children, suppose it to be a narrow promenade along which we may walk for many miles together; but we must picture to ourselves a building filled with numerous doors, and galleries which continually mislead the visitor, bringing him back, after all his wanderings, to the spot from whence he set out.” [340]


Detienne, in his essay, the Labyrinth and the Crane, claims that the matter of labyrinth consisted, at first, of corporal gestures – a dance. The dance was an imitation of the waggle of the cranes, holy birds who, in the Mediterranean world, were recognized for their long flights. Detienne quotes a Greek manuscript that explains how the crane navigated:

“In zoological reports, the crane is a marvelously skilled navigator and so bold that its migration leads it from the coldest parts of the world, the plains of Scythia, to the hottest, Egypt, Libya and Ethiopia. According to a formula in the History of Animals by Aristotle, the crane flies from one extreme of the world to the other, it ties together the two parts of the world. To this performance, the geranos adds the memorable expedient of a preparative that became proverbial. On departing for its flight, each of the cranes in their prudence would carry a pebble, a little stone that would permit them to mark, according to the noise that it made in falling, if the flight was going over the sea or the air. This trick was destined to render credible the fact that the migratory bird oriented itself in actuality in the immensity of the sky. The highflying cranes were thus a given that navigators parting for the open waters search for in the marks and signs above their heads in the middle of the night, when it was necessary to conjecture according to the stars, as the greek sailors said. It is pertinent that the poverb, the cranes pick up their pebbles, was said of those who act with prudence.These great birds possessed in an exemplary fashion the capacity to foresee to the point that they seemed to know intuitively the nature of the airs, the changing of the seasons and, so to speak, the map of the world.”

Detienne moves in his essay from the cranes, the world travelers, to the bulls, which figure so much in the myth of the labyrinth. In the quote from Ovid above, Pasiphae is being figured. Pasiphae could never have given birth to the Minotaur, half man, half beast, if it weren’t for technology – the artisan, Daedelus’ marvelous bull fucking machine. One must remember that the couple Minos/Pasiphae was both cursed in their sexual being – for disobeying Poseidon, Minos could only ejaculate scorpions. Pasiphae, similarly cursed, fell in love with Poseidon’s bull (as always, dynasty is the key to counter-generality – the Cretan royal house stems, after all, from Zeus’s rape of Europa, in which Zeus was the bull).

… and his maneuvers [Poseidon’s] betrayed Pasiphae to unlimited desires which a foreign artisan named Daedalus had the ingenuity to know how to satisfy. Sheathed in wood and bridled in leather, which the whole assemblage giving her the appearance of a virgin cow in heat, the queen coupled with the bull to reproduce, in an inversion of the role of the partners that produced the union which gave birth to Minos himself. By the violence of desire that Poseidon had rise up from the depths of her being, Pasiphae, ensavaged, gave herself up to loves that were as bestial as the embraces of Europa and Zeus were divine, when the god borrowed the guise of the bull in its nature as lover.”

Labyrinths come in many materials, but they all hide some central fact or object. Where there is a secret, there is a labyrinth. And of course there is a clue, a thread, something that binds the secret to the world. The flight of the cranes and the net of Ananke, here, are about that unity binding the two extremes of the earth. Encyclopedias, on the other hand, have as many passages as labyrinths, exhibit as many dead ends and links, but have no middle nor secret. This is their secret. Diderot went to prison for having no secret at all. The Encyclopedia is the labyrinth turned inside out. Seemingly it is all outlets, here, and no middle – except itself. For it is in the encyclopedia that the human limit is erased. It is no longer cranes that bind the world in their flight, nor the dances of the crane, nor perverse desires – which are themselves the object of encyclopedists – but the encyclopedia itself. Man, not Minotaur. If anything, in the encyclopedia, labyrinth sits in the middle of labyrinth.

If we took a mythical approach to the enlightenment, we could, allegorically, imagine the three Critiques as the seraphim around the encyclopedia – and so translate the labyrinth into an Eden. This isn’t far from the allegorical impulse of the great Romantics: remember Novalis’ encyclopedia. If there is a public transcript of the great tradition, it is surely the encyclopedia. According to Scott’s schema, only the little tradition possesses a hidden transcript, uninstitutionalized, jokey, tricky. The wisdom of the buffoon, of Sancho Panza. But is this so? In fact, the modern is full of attempts to show that the powerful also have a hidden transcript. How many Ariadne’s and their threads have been touted for their knowledge of the center of the encyclopedia?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Transgression as innocence




Having tried to get into Paradise through the back door, we have found, instead, a curious gap in the reading of Sade: the fact that Sade’s libertines use a very un-libertine ethnography. Far from extending his hand, so to speak, to his predecessors like Foigny and Lahontan, Sade picks up on the most extreme descriptions of cruelty amassed by the biased witness of priests intent on subduing the savage. Is this irony? Or is this a necessity generated by Sade’s game – the rules of which, as Klossowski points out, depend on a perpetually renewed outrage. In the Sadeian system, the notion of universal perversion – counter-generality – comes into conflict with the ludic necessity for outrage.

In a sense, then, Sade’s system of transgression cancels itself out. It turns out to be the path of pins going forward to the wolf in grandma’s clothing. Counter-generality dissolves in the submission to the iron law that forwards is equal to backwards – the paths are the same. So saith the white magic. Whereas for the black magician…

We are dealing with what James C. Scott, in a series of articles in the seventies, called the conflict between the Great tradition and the little tradition. He took those phrases from Robert Redfield, a University of Chicago anthropologist who studied Mexican villages – like his friend, George Foster, the man who wrote the paper on the image of the limited good. Scott, in the seventies, was mulling over his field work in Southeast Asia. At the time, there was, of course, a lot of interest in peasant revolts – one of them seemed to have blown away the American behemoth in Vietnam. Meanwhile, in the material shadows, the Green revolution was eating away the very substance and fiber of those peasant communities. Scott, in Indonesia, had a chance to see the part world (to borrow Kroeber’s phrase, which had been borrowed by Redfield) of the peasant. Bateson, Geerz, Scott, Danzinger – Indonesia was obviously one of those cold war peripheries in which the metropolitan culture experimented.

Scott’s theory in the early seventies, before he codified it in the book on hidden transcripts and resistance, was that peasant culture exhibited a double structure. On the one hand, it was on the peasant’s ability to supply food that the urban elite culture of the Great Tradition depended. On the other hand, it was on the Great Tradition, implanted by numerous avatars in the part world – the priest, the teacher, the commissar – that the Little Tradition of the peasant depended. But that Little Tradition was not a transcription of the Great Tradition, it was a variation of it, substituting concrete objects for abstractions, and local cults for Great cults. The part world lacked the institutional means to reproduce itself, which is why it reproduced itself, as it were, inside the Great Tradition.

“The very particularism of the little tradition has two important implications. First it means that, by itself, the village lacks the institutional means for a direct confrontation with a vastly more powerful great tradition. The peasantry constitutes a local society or, at best, a county society, while elites are linked together at the provincial and national level. While confrontations may nevertheless be im- posed, the historic strength of the little tradition has resided in dissimulation, foot-dragging, and passive non-compliance. One might even call this kind of Brechtian tenacity the normal pattern of class struggle for the peasantry.139 Second, it means that the peasantry is, by itself, ill-equipped, in terms of both knowledge and interest, to sustain a national struggle for broad goals. Thus, most peasant movements or armies are coalitions of local groups which, like Zapata's forces, operate locally, champion local issues, and are relatively indifferent to national issues except as they affect the fortunes of the local struggle.”

That dissimulation is immediately recognizable in the greatest allegory of the great/little tradition, Don Quixote, although Scott doesn’t mention it. This is where the modern begins. We’ve been circling around transgression because it is central to a form of resistance to the happiness culture that traverses, in effect, our three traditions of alienation (liberal, radical, reactionary). In the doubles which we keep coming across, the sage and the fool, Dom Juan and Sganarelle, Diderot and Rameau’s nephew, we see embodied the versus of the Great/Little tradition. The savage is certainly one of the figures in this constellation. Adario, who, shockingly, speaks in the tones of the Great Tradition – the infallible mark of his ficticity, to Lahontan’s many, many critics – is defending the golden age that the Little tradition dreams of. This is the innocence that forms another modality of transgression.

“In fact there is good reason to believe that within every great tradition rebellion with mass support there is also a little tradition revolt that threatens to usurp that rebellion for its parochial ends. This "revolution in the revolution" is typically denounced by radical elites as adventurism, deviation, or anarchy. Just as often, of course, it is the radical elite which attempts to usurp a rebellion begun by peasants and to put it to ends which its supporters do not recognize and, indeed, might disavow. One may even detect an additive, temporal dimension to these "layers" of rebellion akin to syncretism in religion. That is, the goals of purely little tradition rebellions have something of an ahistorical, permanent quality to them, like animism. When self-consciously revolutionary elites emerge to link up with these older patterns, they tend to add a new dimension to the revolt but not to eliminate the parochial forms in the process.”

We are going to turn to the science of myth, next.