German Idealism and its discontents

Author: Sam Tjahjono

Looking Downward: Bataille and the Case for Materialism


For better or worse, humans are materialistic beings. As beings entrenched in matter, we have both needs and fixations grounded in our material circumstances. Traditional religion and much of classical philosophy have typically eschewed this “looking downward” in favor of transcendence, but materialism’s existential and economic salience remains a highly relevant topic thanks to Marx, Weber, Marcuse, Deleuze and Guattari, and others. However, while general contemporary definitions of materialism tend to connote negative aspects of our humanity such as selfishness and hedonism, I’d like to advocate a more positive general view of materialism—one that primarily aims at lifting the sociopolitical taboo of claiming oneself to be a materialistic being and acknowledging the economic necessity of redistributing the matter and energy available to us. This is by no means a novel view. But I think it’s worth re-discussing primarily in the terms of Georges Bataille, an early 20th-century  writer, theorist, and philosopher, due to the broad philosophical scope of the terminological framework he offers.

Georges Bataille

To be clear, this piece engages with the term materialism in its broad philosophical sense: that of focusing on matter as the ordering principle of our physical existence. The connotation of materialism referring to an unhealthy obsession with physical goods does not apply here. Indeed, the teleological purpose of materialism, which, depending on who you ask, is often as benign as “raising the standard of living”—a goal espoused by Bataille in Volume I of his economic treatise The Accursed Share.  While I disagree with his praxis of an almost frenzied worship of materiality in seeking out “limit-experience” (a less tempered approach to engaging with the abject than Kristeva’s), he nonetheless offers insight into the development of a more positive general view of materialism. Primarily, Bataille philosophically makes possible the disruption of established, privileged hierarchies of materialism.

Looking Downward

First, in Visions of Excess, Bataille opines that his contemporaries’ definitions of materialism are inaccurate because that they are actually idealistic, not materialistic. “Dead matter, the pure idea, and God,” he writes, “in fact answer a question in the same way…the question of the essence of things.” What he means here  is that many approaches to materialism tend to mythologize matter in such a way that it is substituted for God. For Derrida this is the transcendental signified, for Barthes myth, and for (Kenneth) Burke the mythic image. For Bataille, then, true materialism is about striving to disrupt the idealistic ontological hierarchy posited by idealistic materialisms in favor of treating matter as ontical and base, which breaks up hierarchy itself. This approach he calls “base materialism.”

So what the hell does all that actually mean? Well, it means that Bataille wants to have it both ways—to be able to submit to the preeminence of ontic matter without submitting to an ideal of that matter. In place of a materialist conception of a society in which, say, stockpiling capital is an ideal and the hierarchy of capitalist production is the means of upholding this ideal, Bataille would posit that that society has its antithesis in traditional economies in which widespread, long-term economic planning is neither possible nor ideal. Neither type of society, capitalist nor traditional, allows for matter to exist simply as it is. Instead, both opt to coax matter into predetermined categories and systems of relation that are upheld as de facto ways of living.

However, there are obvious issues with treating objects as purely ontical, which is what Bataille does. As Heidegger argues in Being and Time, once a subject (a person) engages with matter, that matter is no longer external to the subject, but rather becomes ready-to-hand—part of the subject’s status as an ontological being, or Dasein. When I pull my phone out to make a call, the phone temporarily ceases to be a purely ontical thing and crosses over into the realm of my ontological subjecthood. This condition of the ontic crossing over into my ontological subjecthood is held in suspension vis-a-vis a specific object whenever I am not directly considering or engaging with it, but the condition is nonetheless omnipresent.

Bataille desires an almost wholesale rejection of ontology because he sees ontology as being dependent upon the ontic. For him, matter does not submit to essence; the ontic does not conform to the whims of the ontological. To him, it’s the other way around due to the “helplessness of superior principles.”  In other words, essence requires the precondition of materiality, not the other way around.

So yes, Bataille’s philosophy can be, as I stated earlier, chaotic, seeing as his concept of base materialism is by definition “disruptive.” Still, without needing to accept his proposition that we reject ontology in favor of “pure” matter, we can still reclaim the value of disrupting the hierarchical order of things by accepting that matter, as object, has no preference—that we cannot assume every is implies an ought, as Ayn Rand argued.

Obviously, when we engage with tools, machinery, and the environments around us, our relations with matter affect our status as Dasein. However, we cannot treat matter as though it is preordained to be used in a certain way in every situation. Instead, we should reexamine our preconceived notions concerning how it should be used, striving to take contingency and context into account in every decision instead of adhering to rigid ethico-hermeneutic schemata. This is what Bataille’s base materialism allows us to do by liberating matter from ideality. (This isn’t to say that idealism is always bad, or that it’s even possible to live well without having a personal system of ideals—it’s simply important to question whether the violence, figurative or literal, stemming from enforcement of a given ideal is worth the damage it causes.)

General Economy & the Accursed Share

The view of materialism I’m trying to advocate emphasizes that materialism is positive for the well-being of the human subject and and accomplishes this by disrupting hierarchy. To illustrate how this can apply to the real world, let’s turn—as Bataille does in Volume 1 of The Accursed Share—to economics, and specifically capitalism. Indeed, capitalism often exemplifies materialism in the sense that he warns against, as it idealizes matter in ways acceptable to its ideological motives while asserting its ideals as nature.

Bataille’s concepts of the general economy and the accursed share are critical to developing a positive view of materialism because they replace the economic ordering principle of scarcity with one of excess. Bataille operates under the assumption that there is an excess of energy on the earth because he believes it necessary to do away with the traditional, scarcity-focused notion of a restrictive economy, which is an “isolatable system of operation.” His concept of a general economy broadens the scope of the economy to include anything having to do with “the play of living matter in general.” Birth, growth, reproductive functions, and death all play an integral role in this play of matter, increasing the productivity of humankind exponentially as an economy develops up to its full potential, which Bataille says is limited chiefly by “terrestrial space.” At this point, what has always been the case becomes abundantly clear:

From the first, the excess energy, if it cannot be used for growth, is lost.

This loss of energy is a condition brought to the fore by the concept of the general economy, whose strength is its capability of explaining the patterns of the restrictive economy without isolating them from the world that gives them context. Because of this focus on a general economy, Bataille is able to argue the following:

If a part of wealth…is doomed to destruction or at least to unproductive use without any possible profit, it is logical, even inescapable, to surrender commodities without return.

This excess part of wealth is what Bataille calls the “accursed share.” Thus, “the possibility of growth is itself subordinated to giving,” because if we fail to get rid of our excess wealth by distributing it among those who have less, then our only option will be to lose it for no reason at all. Why? Because an economy cannot grow beyond certain limits—such as consumption rates, education levels, politics, and ideological frameworks—which are in turn contingent upon, as Bataille states, terrestrial space, or Earth and its play of matter, resources, energy.

Violence & Excess

It’s true that energy invested in capital in industry is meant to, and typically does, return exponential wealth. However, that only remains the case until an economy’s growth drastically slows due to the limits mentioned above. Even when such a slowdown occurs in the US, the wealthiest earners capture a massive portion of the following growth. Indeed, data covering the last few decades in the business cycle (since the ‘70s) show that after a downturn in the business cycle, the top 10% of earners has received most of our economy’s growth. In fact, in the period between 2009 and 2012, the top 0.01% of earners received over 30% of all economic growth. This was mostly due to capital gains, which the wealthy have much easier access to than average Americans, but the fact remains that the way our economy is structured abets the wealthy by giving them a way to reliably “bounce back” following a recession. Thus, the wealthiest Americans are able to put much of their wealth toward building capital so that their future gains will grow exponentially.

There is more to this issue, however, than the obvious ethical and moral problems with such vast inequality, or even than the structure of the capitalist system that enables such problems to exist in the first place. According to Bataille, history has shown us that the failure to “nonproductively squander” (in this case, nonproductively means “not put toward economic production”) the accursed share through acts like building architecture, donating to charitable causes, redistributing income, investing in the arts, and so on results in explosive consequences: a release of excess energy. So, in the case of the data above, the accursed share comprises the wealth that cannot be put toward the growth of an individual’s assets. According to Bataille, failure to squander this excess wealth means that it will eventually be released in an act of violence.

When economies put all of their energy toward production, Bataille says that the deferral of  this violence, which comes in forms such as civil unrest and war, maintains an increasingly small margin of error. Countries that have undergone rapid industrialization just prior to massive wars—such as the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and the United States before World War II—are an obvious example. In these instances, the great excess of capital and military technology necessitated conflict in order to slough off the accursed share since it was not being squandered in other ways.


The point of all this is that failing to acknowledge the influence of materiality on the lives of everyone, and subsequently ignoring historical trends showing that production has limits, both lead to the transgression of these limits, beyond which economic and physical violence erupt. Bataille’s theory underscores the condition that if wealth, or energy, is not redistributed within the general economy, an increased share of conflict is the result. Matter is not preordained to be used toward certain ends. The world itself does not favor capitalism, socialism, libertarianism, or any other ideologically derived economic system.  To believe this is to mythologize, to succumb to ideality and ideology without interrogating and renegotiating them. What we should focus on instead is comparing the consequences of different possible paths—acknowledging that the needs of production and the false promises of deferred benefits do not outweigh the immediate material needs of individuals.

Smoke & Mirrors: The Ethical Lip Service of Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand


Ayn Rand is in vogue again. Although she operated in philosophical and political circles in the early 20th century, her style and thought, expressed most notably in her fiction espousing Objectivism, have seemingly endured. Indeed, some might argue that she never left the public consciousness, though it’s undeniable that her contemporary influence can be seen in any number of spheres, from pop culture to politics. For the uninitiated, Objectivism is described by Rand as “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute” (from the appendix of Atlas Shrugged). The notion that we are able to perceive objective reality and make volitional choices in our own rational self-interest using our own reason is central to fulfilling the goals that Rand describes here. Her entire philosophy hinges on the notion of the human subject as a rational actor whose primary responsibility is to achieve his or her own happiness.

It initially sounds like your garden-variety classically inspired philosophy, but Objectivism is both insidious and somehow far more deluded about the state of nature. As an ardent capitalist with a Lockean view of humanity, Rand somehow manages to be both deeply cynical and incongruously idealistic in her work. Her philosophy in particular functions as a framework that focuses more on justifying unbridled capitalism than working out a way of ethical living that accounts for how we should treat others. Her metaphysics, too, are deeply conflicted, rooted in a mish-mash of Aristotelian and Kantian tenets, although she purports to despise the latter in her writing. Finally, her halfhearted attempts at using deductive and inductive reasoning see her pulling entire propositions out of thin air. In spite of these contradictions, then, why has Randian thought continued to have such an impact—on pop culture, political discourse, classical education, and even actual capitalist industry?

When Logic Is Not Logical Enough

Strangely enough, it seems as though the answer lies within the contradictions. These contradictions, in turn, are perhaps most transparent in her book The Virtue of Selfishness. Specifically, the first section, titled “The Objectivist Ethics,” sees Rand developing an ethics that she believes to both ground and necessitate Objectivist thought. This section is illuminating in that it reveals the full extent of the precarity of Randian thought, balanced as it is on claims of scientificity and rationality that bely an egregious lack of both. Rand’s ethics, however, are important to try to understand, since Objectivism has, in tenets if not in name, systematically permeated the norms of capitalist society in a way that tries to conceal the system’s shortfalls. I am not blaming capitalism for all of society’s problems—the purpose of this piece is simply to underscore Rand’s lip service to the notion of a moral, ethical society as a kind of thoughtless hand-waving meant to dispel our fears about the negative effects of a fully laissez-faire capitalist system.

Thoughtfully, in “The Objectivist Ethics,” Rand at least acknowledges that historically, “most philosophers took the existence of ethics for granted, as the given, as a historical fact, and [they] were not concerned with discovering its metaphysical cause or objective validation [emphasis added]” (11). Rand is for the most part correct when she asserts this. Classical philosophers indeed tended to rely on metaphysical and epistemological assumptions to make claims about philosophical truth, if they even bothered to explicate a metaphysics of their own at all. We see this with the Aristotelian concept of virtue, the Kantian “thing-in-itself,” and a multiplicity of theories on natural law by everyone from Aquinas to Locke to Hobbes. However, because Rand claims at the beginning of the section that “Ethics, as a science, deals with discovering and defining such a code [of morality]” (10), she skews even further in the opposite direction—past even logical positivism.

Logical positivism was an early 20th-century philosophical movement out of Vienna, Germany, that embraced the conventions of science as the only means of attaining objective facts about the world. However, even the logical positivists didn’t go far enough for Rand.  In her book titled For the New Intellectual, she derides their reliance on convention and methodology as “neo-mystic Witch-doctory and Attila-ism” (34). For Rand, the logical positivists were just as bad as Hegel, who lay on the opposite side of the spectrum. Her derision of both reveals just how totalitarian the Objectivist ideology is, since it flouts the role of subjectivity and convention in equal measure in favor of “just the facts.”

Clearly, anything short of 100% objectivity is, to Rand, a cop-out. For her, facts are not the result of applying conventions of science, but rather the result of naked, self-explanatory ontology. We experience the world around us with “sense perception,” which we then feed into our machine-like minds through processes of concept formation and thinking (Virtue 17). Rand believes this is how we can live as rational beings. We sense, we think, we reason, we work (which gives us our sense of purpose), we produce—and consequently, we gain self-esteem and achieve happiness (the result of us fulfilling our purpose) (Virtue 21).

The Objectivist Life

Rand’s stoic dependence on the duty of work to supply purpose, happiness, and self-fulfillment in our lives is extremely Aristotelian. In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, he calls eudaimonia, or happiness, the greatest good, since it is “final and self-sufficient” (54). By living virtuously, which requires habitual, conscious decision-making on our part (ethos), we are more likely to achieve happiness. The emphasis here falls on choice and consistency, but while Aristotle prefers to think of politics as the arena for studying questions of attaining personal happiness, Rand looks to the economics of capitalism. Like Aristotle, Rand sees happiness as evidence of ethical fulfillment and consistent effort as the means of obtaining self-worth. However, unlike Aristotle, the emphasis falls not only on rational choice but also on productivity. We cannot have a sense of fulfillment or purpose unless we are working, which serves to generate capital and prop up corporate interests.

The root of this belief is Rand’s assertion that the ultimate value is an organism’s life. She writes, “that which furthers [the organism’s] life life is the good, that which threatens it is the evil” (13). According to Rand, then, ensuring one’s own survival is an inherently moral act. Anything that could potentially “threaten” one’s life is immoral, bad, evil. It’s a notion rooted in a traditional Judeo-Christian worldview, though as a vehement atheist, Rand struggles throughout her oeuvre to distance herself from such.

Her idea—the claim that life is good, but death bad; that pleasure is good, but pain bad; that reason is good, but passion (you guessed it) bad—is not only overly simplistic, but also an obvious deflection. Basically, Rand is trying to refute the critique that Objectivism does not value all lives equally, since not all people are capable of producing the same amount of material wealth, and therefore cannot have the same objective value as others. Her claim of life’s inherent good is also hugely presumptuous. Rand claims to hate classical metaphysics, yet she indulges in the exact same circular “reasoning” that arrives at such a conclusion. The prolonging of life is good because it prolongs our ability to reason, which allows us to survive longer, which is good because it gives us more time to use our faculties of reason, and so on. Rand leaves no room for nuance, and gives no examples of how Objectivism can solve the kinds of ethical issues that its praxis—capitalist “liberation”—causes. These issues include salient problems such as income inequality due to a high concentration of wealth in a tiny percentage of the population, loss of employment due to automation, unaffordable healthcare and medication due to corporate demand for increased profit margins, rising nationalist sentiment due to competition over jobs and other resources, increased stress on the family unit due to demand for 60-, 70-, and even 80+-hour work weeks—the list goes on.

Rand Contra Rand

I am not, of course, saying that life cannot have good in it, but rather that it makes no sense to claim that life is the ultimate value when the good in life is inherently corruptible, or dialectical. There is good and evil in each and every life, but the prolonged survival of evil individuals and the necessary suffering of life are just a couple of examples that Rand’s ethics shies away from directly confronting. Now, neither Rand nor capitalism can or should be held solely accountable for all of the issues listed above. However, arguing in a way that turns a blind eye to the very real material devastation that unchecked capitalism can instantiate is not just careless, but also self-serving and unethical.

Rand’s metaphysical assertions also just don’t make any sense beyond the surface level. Most philosophers are given a free pass for their underlying assumptions if they at least clear the air beforehand, but Rand makes no such conciliatory gesture in “The Objectivist Ethics.” Instead, she simply claims that “The fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do” (14). This simply doesn’t hold when we’re talking about ethics and morality, because a maxim like this inevitably leads to exploitative behavior. If my existence necessitates taking action to prolong and improve the quality of my existence, then it follows that I shouldn’t hesitate to take advantage of others to do so, right?

Not according to Rand, contrary to what the actual telos of her philosophy would seem to be. One example she gives for why Objectivism does not justify exploitative behavior is the part of society that “survive[s] by means of brute force or fraud.” Such people, she claims, are “incapable of survival,” as they “exist by destroying those who are capable, those who are pursuing a course of action proper to man” (20). This claim is philosophically untenable under the Objectivist framework she proposes, which can be seen as proto-libertarian. The main reason is that she simultaneously tries to claim that anything rationally chosen in service of one’s own survival is proper and moral. How is systematic exploitation of lower-class members of society precluded by reason? Isn’t reason the use of one’s own conscious, rational thinking to arrive at the most profitable conclusion? Isn’t that why the capitalist system, Rand’s praxis, naturally separates the haves from the have-nots—the wheat from the chaff? How are those individuals who are self-reliant and rational enough to exert their will over others not “pursuing a course of action proper to man”? Isn’t the “objective” fact of their dominance evidence of the opposite, or is Rand using the same metaphysical moral crutches that she accuses religion and mysticism of relying on?

As much as Rand might argue the contrary, Objectivism is not all about life, pleasure, virtue, and happiness. In fact, worldviews in line with Randian thought often bring out the worst in people by widening societal gaps, limiting access to resources that meet material needs, and closing off socioeconomic opportunities. By focusing solely on our individual happiness and adopting a passive approach to the well-being of others, we are not being ethical or moral just by existing alongside others. Indeed, even Heidegger, problematic as he could be in his personal life, noted the essential ontological condition of reliance on others (Mitsein). Rand’s claim that we help others when we help ourselves ignores the material conditions of the world we live in. At best, we’re amoral when we adopt that approach, and at worst, immoral and unethical. Ethics is not just about what’s best for me: it is that, but it should also hold me accountable for what I do out of my own self-interest. Ethics is not a science because no system of ethics functions in reality as an output machine that responds algorithmically to the inputs of specific, concrete moral problems.

An Ethics of Smoke & Mirrors

The endgame for Rand is pure capitalism, unhindered by regulation. That’s why libertarians and Tea Party types love her. If unbridled capitalism is Rand’s praxis, however, then it is failing her theory that we can look out for ourselves without trampling on others. Capitalism is proving that people can and will prey upon others and still be “rational actors,”  contra Rand’s claims that those who exploit others are “parasites incapable of survival” who exist only because they are “destroying those who are capable, those who are pursuing a course of action proper to man” (Virtue 20). Yet here we are. Capitalism is steadily forming a body of proof that price gouging, pressuring employees to work longer, and systemically violating civil rights are really well within the ethical jurisdiction of Objectivist principles.

Rand may claim that “parasitic” behavior is unethical because it cuts reason out of the equation and makes unearned profits off the work of others, but there’s simply no way she can say all this without keeping her tongue firmly in cheek. The only alternative is that she’s deluded herself into believing that she arrived at all of her presuppositions through calculated reasoning. Because really, if welfare recipients are parasites because they partially rely on the work and rationality of others, and if career criminals are parasites because they appropriate the work of others to make a profit, then so are corporate executives who were born into wealth, systematically eliminate jobs via automation, exploit immigrant labor, outsource jobs, and so on. The Objectivist shoe, so to speak, fits. All of these actions deprive people of the ability to work, which in turn denies them the ability to educate themselves in order to best exercise their reason, which ultimately prevents them from being able to achieve their own happiness—if Objectivism is to be taken seriously.

The Objectivist ethics is, at its core, a system of smoke and mirrors that belies its own role in causing the very problems it preaches against. It appeals to the age-old notion of the human subject as a purely rational actor whose has no room for error, passion, or hesitation. This notion fits in nicely with the “bootstraps” rhetoric that has seen a resurgence in recent years, not just among Boomers and Gen Xers, but also among millennials desperate to appeal to hiring managers and corporate executives. The reality is that no one is entirely self-made, dependent as we all are on the material circumstances around us. Theoretically, we can always rise above our present situation, yes. But doing so does not entitle us to a life of self-fulfillment without any thought about how our “rational” choices can have irrational effects on those around us. The world is not as epistemologically cut-and-dry as Objectivism would have us believe, and an ethics based on the “virtue” of selfishness will inevitably fail, because not one of us can reach a general definition of material success on our own.


A Garment of Flesh: Kawabata’s Snow Country and the Allure of Myth

“Wasted Effort” and the Deeper Malaise

As we live our day-to-day lives, what drives us to make the decisions that we do? Regardless of whether or not we are conscious of why we make these decisions, there is an abundance of rhetoricity at work that moves us to action and forms the words in our mouths, often before we are even aware of their effect. These forces work on not just us but others as well, driving us apart and then together again like specks on ocean waves. Through what means do these effects manifest in our material circumstances, and what is the irrational source from which they are born?

In the 1948 novel Snow Country written by Yasunari Kawabata, a wealthy city dweller named Shimamura befriends the country geisha Komako and pursues an extramarital affair with her. The novel follows the laborious progression and slow unraveling of their relationship as it plays out in a small hot spring town, tucked away in the snowy mountains of Japan. Throughout the novel, it becomes clear that Shimamura initially pursues the geisha because she embodies his obsession with the tragic futility of relationships—or as he puts it, “wasted effort.”

Shimamura’s notion of wasted effort as a particular kind of tragic beauty is a motif that is often revisited in his ruminations on the farce of his affair with her and the immeasurable distance between them that resists closure. However, as I’ll explore in further detail later on, his obsession with wasted effort is really just a symptom of a deeper emptiness. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that he is motivated to overcome this emptiness, or impurity, by means of an unconsciously enacted myth of purity.

The Signification of Waste—The Myth of Purity

Shimamura projects fantasies of authentic love onto Komako as a way of coping with his obsession with waste. At one point, he ponders the local gossip that she chose to become a geisha to support her dying fiancee, which he chooses to believe. Thought the rumor proves untrue, his belief in it is further evidence that his cynicism is a sham. Indeed, at the end of the novel, Shimamura’s cynicism is stripped bare as the means of repression that it was all along: inspired by the sublime beauty of the Milky Way in the night sky, he realizes his smallness in the grand scheme of the universe, experiencing something akin to profound humility for the first time.

Part of the Chijimi cloth-making process—the cloth is “bleached” in drifts of snow.

However, this moment of transformation only occurs after Shimamura has further indulged in his obsession with wasted effort. Nothing more fully encapsulates this fixation more than the summer kimono he muses about toward the end of the novel. Bathed and “bleached” in snow in a kind of ritual cleansing, the Chijimi cloth used to weave the kimono is treated as a kind of totemic fetish that Shimamura regards as a waste of effort for a number of reasons.

First, he seems impressed by the amount of labor required to make an “authentic” Chijimi kimono—“the thread was spun in the snow, and the cloth woven in the snow, washed in the snow, and bleached in the snow.” All this work is done by young women, in a specific manner, and during specific months of the year. This laborious process comes off as a kind of purificatory gesture intended to imbue the kimono, a consumer product, with a sense of authenticity. Second, he is strangely attracted to the complete irrationality of his desire for the item in the first place, as there is no guarantee that such a kimono is truly authentic—a fact that seems to amuse him.   

In this way, the Chijimi kimono takes on the qualities of Roland Barthes’ version of the Saussurean signifier. In Barthesian thought, almost everything we can speak of or write about using language functions as text, since everything has a linguistic, symbolic function of signifying an abstract something-else. Barthes articulates this difference as the distinction between form and concept, which operate in tandem to generate signification. Signification, in turn, is the interplay between the form and the concept that leaves room for ambiguity. Most importantly, however, the signification of an object, concept, or person always has the potential to be transformed into myth.

Barthes’ distinction between the semiolotic and mythological orders of signification


“Myth is a type of speech,” Barthes writes in his essay “Myth Today,” albeit one that operates on a more abstract level than linguistics. Thus, Barthes works with a particular conception of myth, one far more ubiquitous and banal than the word’s usage in common parlance. Here there be dragons, and although they’re figurative instead of literal, Barthesian myths are just as elusive as the mythical beast. Because myth draws power from the ambiguity resulting from the constant alternation between the emptiness of form and the fullness of meaning, it gains a rhetorical capacity that would otherwise be unavailable to it. Returning to the novel, we can view the Chijimi kimono in Barthesian terms. The cloth itself is the empty form of the signifier, while the meaning—the somehow desirable “wasted effort” that Shimamura sees in it—constitutes the signified for him.

The slipperiness of the relation between the physical kimono and the abstraction of what it signifies is “read” as a sign, or signification. This signification is meaningful: utterly compelling in its implications of decadence and comfort, yet somehow impossible to put a finger on. Myth, an irrational force, seizes on this ambiguity, drawing power from it in order to take on a life of its own. By feeding upon the signification of decadent yet wasted effort in the kimono, the myth that governs Shimamura in his everyday living holds sway over his thoughts and actions while remaining invisible.

This governing myth is the myth of purity that I mentioned earlier. It is a myth dialectically opposed to Shimamura’s impurity, yes, but is also a motive that has pre-consciously arisen as the answer anticipated by this very impurity. What this means is that, for Shimamura, waste is analogous to impurity, which cannot exist without its wholesome counterpart, purity. Therefore, the myth of purity that drives his actions is simultaneously wholesome and unwholesome—a cycle of bliss and sorrow in which the former is nonetheless at the end of the novel discovered to be the master of the latter.


When a Kimono Is Not Just a Kimono

We can see the mythical effect that the kimono has on Shimamura in the following passage:

The thread of the grass-linen, finer than animal hair, is difficult to work except in the humidity of the snow, it is said, and the dark, cold season is therefore ideal for weaving. The ancients used to add that the way this product of the cold has of feeling cool to the skin in the hottest weather is a play of the principles of light and darkness. This Komako too, who had so fastened herself to him, seemed at center cool, and the remarkable, concentrated warmth was for that fact all the more touching.

Threads being woven into Chijimi cloth

The fact that Shimamura’s governing myth of purity is invoked in terms of a garment is significant for specific reasons. However, a more general takeaway is that myth always appears in seemingly innocuous forms. The kimono is not just a kimono, but rather host to a myth buried deep at its center—coiled and interwoven within the materiality of form, yet powerful and resourceful. Indeed, once we realize a given myth as such (this is not to say “false” or “untrue,” but rather “hard to pin down and yet tangible, potent, and hyperreal”), much of its immediacy fades away momentarily. This is what happens when we experience a temporary lapse of faith in an institution, system, philosophy, religion, etc. The rhetorical appeal of myth sometimes falters when we recognize the emptiness of its form, yet myth always regains its footing due to its own ineffability and the ambiguity of language.

Indeed, as Barthes writes, “Myth is a value, truth is no guarantee for it; nothing prevents it from being a perpetual alibi….” Myth is many things, but above all it is an alibi—a scapegoat. When the meaning of life feels strained, we look to our myths to save us, just as Shimamura does with his myth of purity, albeit unwittingly and indirectly.

I’ll get to the particular significance of the myth taking up residence in the Chijimi kimono momentarily. First, it’s critical to note a few things. The individual myths that suffuse our individual lives appear to have, within them, the inscrutable power to contain the very motives of the “principles of light and darkness”—the seeming essence of things—that Kawabata writes about in the above passage from Snow Country. Yet the very thing that myths draw their power from—meaning—is depleted by the forms in which they present themselves to us.


The Naked Subject and the Garment of Identification

This is a side effect of language, which 20th-century rhetorician Kenneth Burke observes to be the reason for why we function as symbol-using and -misusing animals. By putting things into words—by acknowledging their textuality—we simultaneously open and close doors of possible meaning. Indeed, as Burke writes in Permanence and Change, “a way of seeing is also a way of not seeing.” By buying into myths, which is something we all do, we close off, regulate, and deplete meaning. Not only that, but myth also has the uncanny power to naturalize phenomena, causing us to fall into a type of essentialism that can be harmful and burdensome—e.g., Shimamura’s defeatist worldview concerning the possibility of authentic love.

Not only are we cursed with this burden of ambiguity, which is instituted by language and our human tendency toward irrationality, but according to Burke, the core of the human subject is empty at birth. This is essentially a Freudian position, but Burke uses it as a point of departure to develop his concept of identification. Identification serves as another building block of myth, albeit one that expands beyond semiotics and signification to underscore myth’s sociologico-rhetorical function.

Identification is a deceptively simple concept that can be tough to make sense of, so here’s a loose definition by way of example: all of the identifications we make in life—whether with the parents that raise us, the friends we make, the products we buy, the work we perform, the hobbies we pursue, the politics we engage in, the religion we adhere to, etc.—are attempts to “clothe” the naked emptiness at the core of our subjectivity. Borrowing from the philosopher Thomas Carlyle, Burke writes the following on this subject:

For round a man’s “mysterious ME,” “there lies, under all those wool rags, a Garment of Flesh (or of Senses), contextured in the Loom of Heaven….”

Although this passage initially seems enigmatic, it can be decoded if we attend to a passage from Snow Country:

[Shimamura] was conscious of an emptiness that made him see Komako’s life as beautiful but wasted, even though he himself was the object of her love.

The “emptiness” that Kawabata references here corresponds with the “mysterious me” that Burke and Carlyle draw upon. It is therefore evident that Shimamura is likely in great part motivated to pursue a relationship with Komako not for the purpose of pure escapism, but in order to try to fill the emptiness inside himself with an excess of “wasted effort.” Obviously, this is a futile kind of behavior. However, for the majority of the novel, Shimamura ironically pursues his myth of purity by attempting to exorcise the emptiness inside himself with impurity, perhaps as a form of catharsis mingled with masochism—basically, atonement. Still, it holds that this impurity manifests in forms that are rhetorically and sensually appealing—i.e., having an extramarital affair with a young geisha, hiking up snowy mountains in a pastoral locale, purchasing expensive kimonos crafted with an absurd inefficiency, and so on—so Shimamura finds its allure almost impossible to resist.

Returning to the passage from Burke, we should next examine the “Garment of Flesh” woven by the “Loom of Heaven.” What Burke seems to be alluding to is the idea that we “wear” the identifications that exist between ourselves and other subjects and objects in the world—that we “put them on” and carry them with us. Referring back to the passage from Snow Country, we can see this occurring with Shimamura when he muses about how Komako seemed to have “fastened herself to him.” Just as he depends on Komako to shield him from the emptiness inside him, so does she use him as a cloak for a similar function.

We can view the “Loom of Heaven” in Burke’s analogy as the prehistoric birth of humanity, whether by pure chance or intelligent design. However, it can also be read as the originary purity that we struggle all our lives to reattain. When Shimamura experiences a kind of mono no aware at the end of the novel, gazing up into the vast womb of the Milky Way, it is that purity that he finally experiences for the first time, after only glimpsing it earlier in the laborious process of “purification” that goes into a simple summer kimono.

The Milky Way Galaxy


Overtaking Myth

In light of all this explication of semiotics, myth, and identification, the Chijimi kimono is perhaps best viewed as the signifier for Shimamura’s governing myth of purity. Rationally, he has tried to convince himself that purity and authenticity in human relationships are impossible. This explains his cynicism and “occupation” as a dilettante—he sees the pursuit of authenticity as wasted effort. Irrationally, however, he continues to “waste” effort by pursuing Komako, as well as desiring the Chijimi cloth and other excess and finery.

So, whether Shimamura realizes it or not, his obsession with wasted effort signifies his impulse to gravitate toward a myth of purity. The quietude of the snow country, the noble and lonely geisha, the revitalizing hot springs, the sublimity of the pastoral landscape, the cool Chijimi cloth bleached in snow, and so on all point toward this governing myth. Even so, that purity is the primary myth around which Shimamura organizes his life remains unidentified by him, even at the end of the novel.

This, I think, is the main takeaway from Snow Country, and also discourse on myth in general: myths are deceptive and elusive, and we will always fail to fully identify or understand them because of this. They can persuade us to do things in the heat of the moment, appear to be a natural part of the “order of things,” and are composed of an entanglement of both Light and Darkness. Not all myths are created equally however; in some, purity dominates impurity, while in others the opposite may be true. Therefore, it is up to us to be mindful of the multiplicitous myths that are always there to guide us, because if they remain unexamined, then it is them that we end up serving instead of the best interests we share with one another.

But what are these vaguely invoked best interests, exactly? They’re too much to satisfactorily expound on here, so maybe I’ll try to draw out some specifics in a later post. For now,  think about the proliferation of the Golden Rule throughout time, and how the Rule itself has escaped the confines of any one place, ideology, or religion, transcending the contemporary moment to become a transhistorical, transcultural ideal. This ideal that exists outside the bounds of any single system of ethics or morality is precisely the kind of metaphysical foundation in whose direction we should look, so we can attempt to find better myths.


Transforming Abjection: How a Photo Can Change Us

The Hatred of Our Times

On December 19, 2016, a lone gunman shot the Russian ambassador to Turkey at an art exhibit in Ankara, the Turkish capital. Accompanying the breaking story by the New York Times was a striking photograph of the gunman. In the photo, Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş, a 22-year-old off-duty police officer, is sharply dressed in a black suit, standing over the body of Andrei Karlov, the Russian ambassador. One hand clutches a handgun, and the other is poised in the air as if a lightning rod. “Do not forget Aleppo!” he shouts in the video footage of the incident, pacing near the fallen ambassador like a jungle predator.

The gunman, Mevlüt Altıntaş, standing over the body of the fallen Russian ambassador

It is this photo that has endured the subsequent explosion of media coverage of and political upheaval over the act, which was quickly denounced as an act of terrorism, though the gunman was linked with no known terrorist organizations. Indeed, the photographer who took it, Burhan Ozbilici, earned the 2017 World Press Photo of the Year Award for what award jurist Mary Calvert hailed as “an explosive image that really spoke to the hatred of our times.”

As with other photos of  similar watershed moments in history, there is something electric about this image that not only haunts, but also titillates us. Separated from the moment at which the photo was taken by distance and time, many of us are probably less repelled by the plainly presented violence and hatred so much as we are magnetized. By what? Perhaps we are drawn by the promise of a glimpse into the sublimity of pure passion—by the promise of a dark mystery opening up, only to divulge a deeper mystery still.

Abjection and Voyeurism

Julia Kristeva calls this sensation “abjection,” a concept that goes beyond schadenfreude, sadism, and even catharsis in its primordiality and complexity. The abject, she writes in Powers of Horror, “draws [us] toward a place where meaning collapses.” When the abject—or that sensation that is too horrific for words, which can manifest in anything we find repellent, ranging from a glimpse of a cockroach to a photograph of a corpse—brings us to the boundaries of our own humanity, the structures of society that we believe to represent an ordered reality crumble away. This dissolution causes us to momentarily lose grasp of our distinction between ourselves as human beings and the “object,” or lifeless matter, The abject is, in short, an involuntary reaction to any terrible image or act that “disturbs identity, system, [and] order,” as well as “borders, positions, [and] rules.”

So why are we so drawn to images such as the World Press photo of the year, for all its upsetting qualities? For one, it can, somewhat ironically, make us somehow feel more alive through a process of catharsis. Susan Sontag discusses this notion as a kind of voyeurism in her essay Regarding the Pain of Others. She writes that “there is shame as well as shock in looking at the close-up [photo] of a real horror,” that in only looking and not doing anything to alleviate horror, “[we] are voyeurs, whether or not we mean to be.” By taking on the role of a voyeur, separated by time and space from the act or aftermath depicted in an image, we become something of a victor—a survivor.

Transforming Abjection

As Kristeva points out, this is a notion of catharsis that we inherited from Aristotle. Through a “mimesis of passions” during which we engage with the very emotions we wish to divest ourselves of, “[our] soul reaches orgy and purity at the same time.” Aristotle, however, did not go so far as to endorse this process in relation to the abject. If we mimic the passions of chaos and degradation wrought by abjection, Kristeva writes, we attempt to cleanse ourselves of the abject by locking ourselves in engagement with it. This is what we do on a regular basis when  we give in to the fraction-of-a-second conflict of whether or not we should click on a link to a particularly lurid news story (like the one I’m currently writing about). We want to be revolted, moved, and “purified” by the abject all at once. The irrational, pre-ontological drive to do so is ingrained in all of us.

But this process of entangling ourselves with the abject does not get rid of it, and repetition of the impure does not necessarily bring with it knowledge of how to detach ourselves from impurity. This is what Aristotle opposed: the tendency to chase the violent/sexual gratification of the abject without any consideration for whether or not we are attaining new knowledge of our conditions, motives, and fears. Later in her essay, Kristeva advocates literature as a privileged means of purifying the abject through catharsis. Earlier on, though, she writes a more universal statement:

“Abjection is a resurrection that has gone through death (of the ego). It is an alchemy that transforms death drive into a start of life, of new significance.”

By mindfully examining the abject in everyday life—in first-hand experiences or in image, video, text, etc.—we can influence how the abject is “reborn.” But first we must allow it to break down the structures of meaning and order so we can be humbled,  reexamining what we hold to be significant. Only once we have been humbled can we pick up the pieces of our world so we can reconstruct new and better ways of engaging with it.

So how can something like the image of an assassin standing triumphant over another man’s body help anyone? Is it worse to take Altıntaş, the gunman, at his word—to remember and be enraged by what’s happened in Aleppo—or to merely forget injustice? After all, as Sontag writes, when presented with photographs of suffering that are too vast, too global for individuals to feel they have a chance of alleviating, “[their] compassion can only flounder—and make abstract.” This sense of smallness in the grand scheme of things is a product of abjection, but we don’t have to leave it at that. Indeed, to do so would be to normalize an Evil that is abnormal. Instead, we should treat abjection not as it is, but as the thing it has the potential to be: a means of rejecting the normalization of suffering and horror. To do this, however, we first have to confront and reconstruct the very things that horrify us.


Beyond Simple Irony

I’ve heard it said many times in recent memory: irony is cynical, destructive, and dangerous. This negative perception of irony as a destructive force is also regularly cast as a primarily postmodern issue. The cyclical pattern of this fear indicates a shunning of nonbinary worldviews that manifests regularly due to ideological impatience. (Here, I’m not using ideology as a whipping boy. We’ve all got it, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing so much as a thing that’s simply here to stay, and whose worst tendencies toward scapegoating and violence should be actively avoided like the plague.)

Just like the dialectical opposition between the political Left and Right, irony is often seen as a pure contrast to sincerity. Sincerity, in turn, is cast as a direct, purposive means of achieving change within a community, nation, or other sociopolitical body. It is also frequently seen as the only real means of remaining beholden to Truth in a world swirling with the dark profusion of the Lie.

However, to blame irony for a lack of sincerity is commit two errors at one stroke. First, and perhaps most grievously, it is to mistakenly conflate postmodernism with relativist nihilism. Second, it is to dyslogistically pigeonhole irony as a concept with purely cynical intentions. Both of these errors detract from the ability to move beyond simple, or mere, irony and go on to understand irony as more of a tool that can instigate harmful or helpful attitudinal shifts, depending on how it’s used.

In regard to the first error I mentioned, I think it’s fair to concede that postmodernism at least gets a bad rap for honest reasons. After all, innumerable definitions are thrust so carelessly upon it that it often is brought to its knees, unable to sustain the conflicting expectations simultaneously thrust upon it. That said, I’d like to temper the more negative definitions of postmodernism for the sake of dialectical movement. So: let’s toss another definition onto the pile, shall we?

On its face, postmodernism is a playful reaction to the stone-faced seriousness of modernism, with all its post-realism, post-Enlightenment holdovers pertaining to an over-reliance on science. This modernist over-reliance typically manifests itself in positivism and logocentrism. These are viewpoints that have the tendency to oversimplify the material and metaphysical conditions of the world, and postmodernism seeks to “out” these tendencies for transparency’s sake. Indeed, postmodernism also seeks to acknowledge our irrational, passionate dispositions as a fundamental part of our human subjectivity: we are rational animals, yes, but irrationality in the forms of both hatred and empathy still lingers.

Postmodernism, like its predecessors, is a transdisciplinary movement. As such, it feeds into philosophy, art, literature, and so on. In doing so, it seeks to play with the modernist reliance on innovation and logic, which postmodernism views as inadequate (in itself) in approaching what G.W.F. Hegel calls “the end of history.” Now, for the purpose of moving beyond simple irony, it’s not necessary to draw out precisely what the end of history entails. In order to understand irony as a tool with a multiplicity of uses, it will suffice to view the end of history as a theoretical point of sociocultural equilibrium, after which human society will more or less remain constant. Basically, it’s up to us as human subjects to move, behave, and communicate in such ways as to ensure that the end of history is a positive one. Coming to understand irony as a multifaceted tool is critical in this.

Let’s move on to the second of the two errors often committed when speaking of irony: the dyslogistic treatment of irony. In this, irony is scapegoated as an insincerity that stands in opposition to sincerity and capital-T Truth. This pessimistic view need not be the case. Indeed, on its most basic level, irony is a grammatical vessel to be filled with a message, and the accompanying attitude of irony does not in itself signify insincerity. One can be entirely sincere in one’s condemnation of, say, a political regime and yet present their message using the mechanism of irony.

To illustrate how this can happen, I’ll briefly call upon Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Napoleon Bonaparte to lay out how irony can be used to move us toward a more positive end of history. In his essay, Marx addends Hegel, writing the following:

“Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”

Here, Marx is of course referring to the campaigns of domination undertaken by both Napoleon Bonaparte and his nephew, Napoleon III. While Napoleon I was able to bring a degree of order and stability to a traumatized France following the French Revolution, his jingoistic policies and murderous land-grabs pushed him well into sociopath territory. With the similar reign of Napoleon III, we are left to perhaps naively, yet understandably, question the value of historical studies. If we cannot demonstrably learn anything from history, then what can we do to resist when it inevitably repeats itself?

Irony has a part in this resistance of farce. To continue with Marx’s example of Napoleon, let’s take a quick look at this famous political cartoon by James Gillray, The Plumb Pudding in Danger (~1818):

The Plumb Pudding in Danger by James Gillray, ~1818

Here, irony plays an indelible role in making the cartoonist’s point. The visual rhetoric of the image converts the all-too-real atrocities of Napoleon’s regime to a far more innocuous set of tropes. For example, Napoleon’s oft-lampooned stature translates to a sense of childishness that is reinforced by the activity he engages in: feverishly carving up a plum pudding representative of the entire world. Ironically, the effect is that a brutal dictator take on the form of a greedy child, and the world in all its grandeur and complexity a mere after-dinner dessert.

Is this manner of portrayal intended to make light of real atrocities? Clearly not. The irony of the scene is supposed to make the viewer loathe Napoleon all the more, not sympathize with the trace of innocent frivolity evoked by his childlike form. Here, irony encourages the recipients of the cartoon’s visual rhetoric to criticize characteristics of despotism—to resist history from returning to its own vomit, farce, by moving dialectically in the opposite direction.

This is the appeal of satire, which draws much of its strength from the subversive capabilities of irony, which in turn “tarries with the negative” (Hegel’s terminology) to advance toward the end of history. Irony—and satire by extension—explain the enduring appeal of this cartoon in particular, as well as political cartoons in general. Now, direct, unironic usage of the indicative grammatical mood has its place as a fundamental basis of argumentation and everyday speech. I’m not suggesting that ironic modes of communication should, or even can, supplant this condition. What I am claiming is simply that irony can be a rhetorically powerful way of leading others toward an understanding of a particular opinion, perspective, or what one holds to be Truth— but only if we let it.

It may seem silly to consider that someone could mistake the simple political cartoon above for an earnest, de facto representation of reality. However, when one distances oneself—whether by one’s political, social, ideological, or religious affinities—from the context of specific rhetorical engagements in the perplexity of wider communicative circumferences, that is a very real risk. Irony is grounded by context. Trite as it may sound, context is key. To what? Discerning the playful earnestness of irony from the more straight-faced variety. And understanding the difference between those is key to discerning rhetorical intent. And so on. In light of this, let’s not leave “simple” irony by the wayside. Instead, let’s pick it up, brush off its dingy accoutrements, and behold it with something at least closer to appreciation for the fullness of its rhetorical capacity.


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