Testament to the wanderers

March 29, 2014 § 1 Comment

Sean Landers, 'Around the World Alone (The Gloucesterman)'

‘Around the World Alone (the Gloucesterman)’; Sean Landers captures the sensation of an exiled wanderer in a series of twelve clown portraits in 2011

The modern condition is one of displacement, we’re often reminded. It has disconnected us from the demand of stories with an aim, the nature of which is to make a record under the hue of an intent — equating the output to the input. That is what positivistic [sometimes called rational] science & philosophy offers: a reconfirmation of what is presumed. Universally, however, the approach to “recording” has come under a new methodology which challenges past means of documentation, preservation, historical narration, & exhibition. Openly ambiguous knowledge is the counter-attack of the positivistic loophole described above. It is non-systematic, negative, seeped in dubiety. This is the modern direction of intellectual sympathy.

Negative philosophy — that which negates the perpetuation of the world in static knowledge — has a long tradition of attracting the social imagination [first for its difference, & then for the potential it stands to offer Being]. Works of fiction have had sole reign of textual representations of this strand of thinking. Here, authors are free to develop depth comprehension of the irresolute, emotional character motive in ways inaccessible to non-fiction genres. The advent of psychoanalysis is monumental precisely because it relays literary freedom to clinical procedure — allowing for negative philosophy to penetrate popular academia. While the understanding offered by psychoanalysis was often bad [ineffective & discriminatory], it still marks the beginning of attempts at serious understanding.

Now, the long-time subscribers — & often martyrs — of negative philosophy could be exhumed from the cloud of fiction. They could become real subjects at last. As wanderers & exiles, they correspond closely to the modern condition of a displaced sense of self. This coincidence has raised the stakes for the study of minorities.

In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche uses the figure of the Criminal to embody them [as “illegals” to social order]:

men so constituted that, for one reason or another, they lack public approval & know that they are not felt to be beneficent or useful — that Chandala feeling that one is not considered equal, but an outcast, unworthy, contaminating. All men so constituted have a subterranean hue to their thoughts & actions; everything about them becomes paler than in those whose existence is touched by daylight. Yet almost all forms of existence which we consider distinguished today once lived in the half tomblike atmosphere: the scientific character, the artist, the genius, the free spirit, the actor, the merchant, the great discoverer. (‘Portable’ 550)*

The point of distinction [homologous to the point of conflict], can come from excess as well as insufficiency. Exclusion from the greater middle-class bars a group from concerns of the majority. Common interest is the basis of trust. Persecution of those outside popular interest is very familiar.

Perhaps there is no stronger association of this in the public imagination than the Exodus & its subsequent incarnations. The task of Hannah Arendt in ‘Part One: Antisemitism’ of The Origins of Totalitarianism is to begin the rationalisation of Jewish oppression in the 19th & 20th centuries. Antisemitism was enabled by public discontent with imperial rule & the nobility. Arendt argues that the Jews were conflated with these groups for the following reasons: the financing of wars, especial state protection, insular dependence of the family, the assumption of an international network, & relative independence of popular social interest. Because socially integrated power is tolerated as useful to structure, the imperial ruling class were able to retain their role. Disintegration of the presumed dependence between the Nation-State & Western Jewry may have alleviated earlier forms of antisemitism but it would bring a second danger. Without any perceived social function, their eradication was allowed to enter the political debate. In France & the Austro-Hungarian Empire in particular, as well as in Germany, Jewish neutrality was turned into an instrument of enemies & traitors [Dreyfus].

Throughout Europe, a separationist classification was developed for the “exception Jew”, one able to use their difference to reach heights in fame without conforming to the traditions for which society finds them fascinating. Homosexuals make a comparable example in Arendt’s argument: “In both cases, society was far from being prompted by a revision of prejudices. They did not doubt that homosexuals were ‘criminals’ or that Jews were ‘traitors’; they only revised their attitude toward crime & treason” (81). In the late 19th Century, the tolerance for flaunted dissent increased remarkably — reaching its epitome in the decadence movement of literature & music. Foreigners, sinners, & sensualists continued to be that against which the norm could define itself under the duality of natural/unnatural.

In a previous post, the tangential biologic nature of Monstrosity has already been documented. Although in the organic world society has only had to deal with the metaphor of monsters, there has been an international phenomenon of humanising the monster when we compare their early narrative appearances [Grendel of Beowulf, the Gorgons] to cautionary & suspense stories closer to our day [The Elephant Man, Pokémon]. One condition remains, & so it makes for a good definition of monstrosity: the thing that cannot persist in nature, is a mistake, & therefore must prove its impossibility by dying. Giving up notions of essence [eternal identity] is the beginning of dethroning hegemonic powers.

I don’t propose that we are in a neo-decadent age, in spite of comparable present preoccupations.** More & more we find honest attempts at understanding the groups included in the above survey & others like them, especially the Woman’s Liberation Movement. Their [hi]stories are finally being composed by the minorities themselves: that is what makes the difference. Minorities are in a privileged position for insight, adversity having made them retrospective. To return to Arendt, who inspired this post: “The contemplator of inner experience resembles the onlooker in society insofar as neither has an immediate approach to life but perceives reality only if it is reflected”(63). By recording a timeline of themselves, a position in the world can at last be asserted & a heritage used to form a community. That is the majesty of history.


* Nietzsche is a case at the extreme of negative philosophy: for him, belief in a systematic world order was as unimaginable as belief in god, with absurdity being the only solution. This should not be forgotten when using Nietzsche to negotiate your own terms with negative philosophy.

** Intellectually speaking, this is true. When observing more popular media, it might be that the reverse argument is more convincing. Now that literacy is relatively wide-spread, it is impossible to judge writing as a whole; some division of avant-garde & genre fiction should be followed [many authors have opted for remaining in the high-culture sphere by practicing strictly theoretical writing targeted at other theoreticians].


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