10. The Joys of Atavism
Every living being borders on death; or perhaps it might be more accurate to say that every being has one side turned towards the non-living. Without that border between life and non-life, without the living being closing itself off to some extent from the fullness of life, there would be a pure influx, intensity or becoming without any resistance or stasis. If there were to be something like pure life, then it would be akin to Bergson’s ‘pure perception’: in its purest mode perception would be an unmediated capture of what is given, without the distinguishing and forming marks of memory:
‘Pure life’ would be something like an unimpeded becoming, a bursting forth of energy, or what Bergson describes in the beginning of Creative Evolution as a force of explosive power that is not yet divided into an exploding or differentiating power and an exploded matter that is differentiated. But a living being is never ‘pure life,’ for a living being closes itself off, to some extent, from the world’s energies; a being is in part its open engagement with the world, but also a certain refusal of the dynamic life of the world, a selfsameness that remains unto itself and limits relations and stimuli. To say that every being borders on the non-living is to acknowledge a certain inertia that is intertwined with what it means for a being to become. Life can be considered as a double tendency, an explosive power of creative difference, and a counter-tendency of resistance: ‘it is probable that life tended at the beginning to compass at one and the same time both the manufacture of the explosive and the explosion by which it is utilized. In this case, the same organism that had directly stored the energy of the solar radiation would have expended it in free movements in space. And for that reason we must presume that the first living beings sought on the one hand to accumulate, without ceasing, energy borrowed from the sun, and on the other hand to expend it, in a discontinuous and explosive way, in movements of locomotion’ (Bergson 1911 A, 115-16).
But, like Bergson’s ‘pure perception,’ this pure life of explosive/exploded force is speculative: what we encounter are mixtures, which we can intuit by seeing each composed being as in part dynamic and open, in part closed and stable. Rather than refer to this counter-tendency of resisting creative difference as death, it is perhaps more accurate to say that the condition of any ongoing sameness is some capacity to resist the differentiating fluxes of time—a certain non-living or material fixity. This way of thinking about the fold between life and non-life would allow us to think about texts and their relation to a counter-vitality without assuming that texts were living beings (or it would allow us to think of living beings as texts, as in some part detached from the life from which they emerge and distinguish themselves). Today, more than ever, it might appear to be fruitful to mark a distinction between texts and life, for there is currently an efflorescence of theories seeking to explain writing and other technical systems as extensions of the living organism’s will to survive. Various evolutionary Darwinisms have reacted against the modernist insistence on the force of writing and disembodied voices and have sought to see literature as primarily adaptive and cognitive (Boyd 2009; Zunshine 2006). Insisting on a certain and necessary lifelessness in all beings, including texts, is perhaps one of the great ideas we can take from a Bergsonian/Deleuzian tradition of modernism. On the one hand we would need to insist on a certain lifelessness of the letter, but to do so would not be to mark a simple binary distinction between texts and living bodies, but to see all bodies as both living and non-living (and perhaps at their most alive when exposed to annihilation).
Perhaps a text, to be a text (or to be read), must at least in part be considered alive. When John Milton made a case for allowing books to circulate freely he suggested that one would destroy more life (or spirit) by annihilating a book than would be lost by murdering a human:
A book has the capacity to extend the spirit or sense from which it emerged well beyond the author's life; but it is also because of that afterlife that a book is always potentially dead, not only because it lives on by taking a material form that could be destroyed, but also because that same materiality has a force of its own that cannot be contained by the organic life of authors, readers or even the world from which it emerged. The condition for any being's survival, its ‘living on,’ is that it take on some distinct and repeatable form: but it is that very distinction, ipseity or separateness that also cuts the text or body off from an ongoing life that will necessarily outlast the living. If there can be something like ‘a’ life then this is only because there is a difference and distinction between a specified being and the milieu from which it draws its sustenance. In the case of literary texts: a book can survive and be read if it is incarnated or given a material support that is not reducible to the animating intention of author or reader, but it will also therefore have a life or force distinct from any animation or sense.
In the case of literary modernism we can be even more specific: modernism could emerge and have being only because it made a claim to life, but this claim was destructive of life in its actual self-maintaining modes and appealed to another life, beyond organic survival. Key to this joyous atavism was a disdainful attitude towards the textual archive, alongside a recognition of deep archival forces. As a literary movement, modernism needed at once to regard the textual archive as so much noise and dead weight; at the same time, modernism could only take hold not by producing more literary life but by deadening the textual corpus that was at its disposal. One would read texts not as extensions or expressions of life, but as detached fragments with an odd afterlife. There is, I will argue, something to be gained—today more than ever—by reading modernism not as vitalism but as murderous textual annihilation. Further, this counter-vital modernism of the dead letter is best read through the supposedly vitalist work of Henri Bergson. If modernism were to be reread not as a lament on the infertility and deadening of the West, with the implied goal of revitalization of the word, but as a creatively destructive movement of willed extinction, then several consequences would follow. First, we would need to rethink both postmodernism and post-structuralism, given that both these movements are rendered possible by a certain response to modernism. Second, a new sexuality of modernism would emerge that would be essentially queer. (That is, it would be by deflection, divergence, deviation and dehiscence—and not reproduction—that modernist writing would operate: at once destroying the archive while allowing new archival forces to emerge.) To make this second point more clear and specific, I'd like to begin with the counter-thesis of modernism as a vitalism, with the underlying sexual (and racial) normativity that any vitalism or privileging of life would entail (Jones 2010).
Modernism and vitalism: responding to the mechanized, industrial, rationalized, quantifying, capitalist and reifying forces of an increasingly reductive world of homogeneous time and space, modernism sought to inject life into a desiccated western tradition by giving blood to the voices of the past. Descending into Hades where all the voices of history and becoming had been reduced to so much noise, the modernist artist would once again experience the opening or genesis of culture, retrieving life’s original, animating and fertile voice. (Pound’s first Canto begins with just such due homage to the prophetic souls of the past, with the task of finding voices other than the ‘impetuous impotent’: ‘Poured we libations unto each the dead … I sat to keep off the impetuous impotent dead, / Till I should hear Tiresias’ .) Such a theme of revitalization could be figured in profoundly sexual, and intensely heterosexual terms. Joyce's Ulysses returns to the murmur of Molly Bloom's body—ironically distancing itself from the novel’s long series of feminine/maternal oceanic motifs (such as Stephen's early figurations of his mother's image as ‘Ghoul! Chewer of corpses,’ or Leopold Bloom's recollection of Palestine as the ‘grey sunken cunt of the world’ [Joyce 2000, 8, 50]). Although Ulysses is in tune with so much of modernism in its depiction of a series of failed and infertile sexual encounters, it nevertheless ends with an affirmative, fluid, embodied, feminine and open return to life. It is as though the novel's narrative trajectory, from Bloom's urination and defecation, through the city of Dublin and a funeral—interspersed with the disembodied voices of newspapers, advertisements, fragments of the past and Stephen Dedalus's scholarly musings—can be opened towards a future, however fragile and ironic, of purely potential (not yet embodied or actualized) life. It is possible to read the canonical texts of literary modernism as all addressing the problem of an infertile archive by imagining some act of (hetero)sexualized and unselfconscious redemption. Such a claim is easy to make in the case of Yeats, Lawrence, Pound, and Eliot. Yeats's ‘Leda and the Swan’ presents the involuntary and inhuman event of sexual coupling as a violently creative force, and this could be contrasted with the personal and immobilizing passions that are elicited by women caught up in the petty and historical plays of politics. (‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ laments: ‘I thought my dear must her own soul destroy / So did fanaticism and hate enslave it’ [Yeats 2011, 212].) Lawrence also contrasted a dark, disruptive, and counter-bourgeois sexual force with the ‘human all too human’ (paralyzingly infertile) love of marriage. In ‘The Ladybird,’ Count Dionys tells the very English Daphne: ‘“The true living world of fire is dark, throbbing, darker than blood. Our luminous world that we go by is only the white lining of this’” (Lawrence 2002,180). Eliot’s The Waste Land diagnoses the inertia of the modern city by contrasting the mechanical and neither voluntary nor violent sex between ‘the typist’ and the ‘young man carbuncular’ with the absent and mourned softly flowing Thames. Pound situates bankers, journalists and homosexuals in the same infertile circle of hell. Like the other modernists, redemption is not gained by any form of Romanticisms’s ‘spousal verse’; classic muse figures are, if anything, ironized. But there is something akin to a distant oceanic feminine that would seem to offer life beyond the limits and disenchantments of actual women. That this non-reified, flowing, dynamic and pre-systemic life is feminine is clear in literary modernism (allowing the artist in turn to be something like a creator giving form to the formless).
There is a tension, then, in the vitalist strategy of modernism: on the one hand, literary revitalization takes the form of a critique of already actualized and bounded forms (and is implicitly powered by a drive to overcome already constituted norms of ‘man’ and gender); on the other hand, this shockingly new vitality is figured via a highly sexualized metaphorics of the force of life infusing passive matter. The vitalist philosophers of modernism—including Bergson—would seem to be so focused on a critique of human and bounded figures of life that nothing like a gendered or sexual normativity could be valorized. And yet if we take the accepted reading of Bergson as a vitalist who was critical of ‘man’ into account, it seems hard to avoid the problem of sexual difference in two senses: Bergsonism would be set against a static norm of man and yet would affirm all those masculine figures of active, forceful, creative, incisive, penetrative and productive life that have marked gendered thinking (Hill 2008). Why, we might ask, has sexual difference been such a rigid and persistent figure in questions of life? Apart from narrowly psychoanalytic answers, which have their legitimacy, it seems obvious that questions about life would take their cue from the image of the living being, and that sexual reproduction—despite being one mode among many of reproduction—would be a ready figure for considering not only the emergence of bounded living forms from an otherwise not-yet-specified matter, but also the living being's relation to the life that it expresses. What psychoanalysis contributed to the understanding of the imaginary conditions of life was that the border between living and non-living was sexual. That is, the living being, in order to live, must be open to what is not itself—must bear a relation of desire (or of attaining what is not yet the case) towards its milieu. Life must be open to influx from the outside. But in order to be a living being, the organism must also close itself off, in part, from the full force of the life from which it emerges: full overcoming of desire or difference would annihilate the being's individuation. Sexual difference figured as gender allows this strange border between living being and life to be negotiated imaginatively or (following Bergson), intellectually, for the intellect is that faculty that allows the complexity of life to be managed through concepts that reduce intensive difference. Life would be imagined as some fluid, oceanic, maternal plenitude from which the bounded form of a distinct and representing body would emerge. To think of mind as a camera that cuts the world into assimilable units of information: this, according to Bergson, is at how the intellect manages and imagines itself. An ‘image of thought’ is formed in which mind is a picturing machine. This capacity of the intellect to reify itself via some image of detached mind could only be countered by retrieving an intuition of life that would be at odds with all our figures of ‘man.’
In many ways this Bergsonian appeal to life beyond the bounds of the already formed organism is in line with a broader modernist critique of the figure of man as a Cartesian subject. Anti-Cartesianism generally has proceeded by appealing affirmatively—against man—to qualities that had once been figured as feminine but that now seem to offer ways of thinking about the vital order as such. Life would not be rational, bounded, logical, efficient and progressive, but dynamic, open, fluid and affective. One would move from gender—or older motifs of man as subject relating to formless but potential matter—to sexual difference. Fecund, creative, explosive, fluid, unbounded, potential, and intensive life would be that from which the desiccated and disenchanted intellect would emerge. All those predicates that had once been attributed to a chaotic femininity opposed to male reason would now characterize life as such, and the modernist-vitalist critique of the subject would be a critique of man. Man would, through an intuition of vitality, destroy the gendered binary that had locked him into an affectless, lifeless, disembodied Cartesian prison; he would become one with—and not simply the medium for—all that had been projected onto the feminized figures of life. Whereas other modernists used scenes of jouissance to overcome the miserable pleasures of bounded male-female coupling, figuring a form of un-self-conscious depersonalization achieved through sexual boundlessness, Bergson contrasted the joy of transcending intuition with the self-serving consumption of bourgeois pleasure:
Bergson’s vitalism—like modernism more generally—could be considered as a passage to impersonality via something like ‘becoming-woman.’ Not surprisingly, then, Bergson's way of thinking about thought's overcoming of its own imprisonment in the image of man takes on a phallic mode: penetrating what is not itself, emerging with ever more nuanced, distinct, differentiating and dynamic forms (Hill 2008).
Imagine, though, another Bergsonism, another modernism and—in turn—another twenty-first century (another way of proceeding after modernism that would not be the usual—if multivalent—postmodernism). What if modernism were not a vitalism? How would a different reading of Bergson create a different present, after a different, non-vital, and essentially queer modernism? Before exploring what this might mean I want to put forward the following claim: post-modernism, especially as it ceases to theorize a dynamic relation to modernism and becomes a form of proclaimed post-humanism, becomes an ultra-humanism. This is especially so if we take note of the turns towards affect, literary Darwinism, and cognition, all of which seek to explain complexity and systems as extensions of life rather than pursuing Bergsonian notions of splitting, bifurcation, and the branching out into differences in kind (rather than degree). If we reverse today’s vitalisms and then trace a genealogy of a counter-vital post-modernism, we can find another Bergsonian modernism. Such a historical move would be in accord with a Bergsonian method of retracing the path of evolution in order to explore certain bifurcations, at once finding an explosive origin that would yield the force from which distinction emerges, while also finding a more profound difference. To revisit a tired question: what then is/was modernism, and how did postmodernism mark its difference from the former?
Modernism—against notions of revivification and the vitalist critique of technology—can be considered as a profound attention to the force of the dead (Goldman 2004). We should not, I would suggest, see James Joyce’s most explicit presentations of the dead voice—the newspaper lines, malapropisms, clichés and mechanical voices of the city—as points of inertia to be overcome by the life of writing. We could consider a transition from the paralysis of Dubliners, where the dead letters of cliché and script seem to immobilize life, such that the absence of expression leads to a detachment between bodies and their desires, to a liberation of proliferating voices in Finnegans Wake. But I would suggest that there is already a counter-vital, counter organic, and lifeless (pro-paralysis) celebration of the word in Dubliners. Consider, here, Bergson’s theory of both laughter and dreams. For the most part the body’s energies are organized towards survival, focused on the efficient and productive present; when that organization breaks down, and the body appears less as organism and more as machine, the body convulses in laughter (Bergson 1911 B). Similarly, when the body is asleep, no longer oriented to tasks at hand, the images of dreams surge forth. In Dubliners it is the functional, embodied, practical, and seemingly expressive relation to language that operates through a unified, rigid, and organic image of life. In the ‘easy’ flows of conversation and banter, life moves on, steadily, progressively, automatically—and it is perhaps this ongoing life that is the real paralysis of Dubliners. By contrast, it is when language appears as dead, when the body is no longer given expressive passage to the word, that there is a break with the line of time; something like the perception of ‘time in its pure state’ emerges. It is, for example, when writing is seen as a proper and personal extension of the self—when writing is organic—that Joyce describes the same dull round of suburban normality: it is only when writing is liberated from life, when one no longer grounds systems of inscription on the supposedly self-maintaining organism, that one disrupts the normalizing figure of bodily life.
Bergson laid the grounds for formulating a counter-vitalist approach to system and techne. Consider his key thesis of creative evolution: in the beginning is an explosive force of differentiation, with no distinction yet between differentiating force and differentiated matter. If this original explosive power or potentiality to differ could be considered to be life, then we would have to redefine life beyond its bounded forms, and beyond organic notions of self-maintenance. Certain vitalist moralisms would have to be rethought. We could not, for example, hold the standard narrative that begins with an organism or relatively stable form, with bodies then becoming enslaved to and alienated by the systems it created for its own efficiency; nor could we conclude from such a narrative of life-alienated-by-techne with the resulting imperative to revitalize the raison d’etre of life from which all systems emerged and towards which they ought to return. Reading Bergson and Modernism against this normalizing mode would open a new counter-politics.
It is no surprise, perhaps, that Derrida—commenting on Heidegger’s theory of time—makes a brief remark pertinent to today’s renewed interest in Bergson and life: the problem, Derrida argues, with any attempt to avoid a ‘vulgar’ (spatialized, quantified, punctuated) notion of time is that in order to think about time or have a concept of time we must have some notion of time in general. The very nature of cognition or conceptualization must render any supposedly proper, fluid, pre-articulated or originating temporality into some repeatable mode. In so far as one thinks and experiences time as time there will always be a reduction of time to what cannot be considered as some pure temporality of difference. For Derrida, then, Bergsonian notions of intuition or of creating a concept adequate to every perception would be typical of a logocentric metaphysics of presence (Derrida 1982, 60). Rather than appeal to a proper temporality before the ‘fall’ into techne, language and quantification, Derrida suggests that one can might think forward to the promise of the concept. It is not the case that there is some proper origin of life belied by language; for it is the idea created by language that offers something like a time ‘to come,’ a future beyond any of the actualized forms of the present. This promise of concepts—or the difference of concepts from any already given life—yields a politics of futurity. We do not look back to a lost life, a lost democracy, a belied justice or a mourned origin. We allow the concept to open ‘justice to come,’ or ‘democracy to come,’ via a messianic promise without the full body of the messiah (Derrida 2005, 86). Not surprisingly, then, Derrida reverses a Marxist ethics of alienation and the proper: it is not the case that one could or should ‘exorcise’ all the phantoms and ghosts that have deflected life from its original and purposive striving. The condition of ‘life’—some ongoing self-sameness—is death; some technical system that is not the body itself allows for a stable bounded form. The lived body is possible because of systems of labor, action, language, society and relation that are not the body’s own. Thus, Derrida’s ‘Marxism’ focuses on the double bind of spirit: on the one hand, the future, reading and ‘living on’ require some notion of spirit, of what life would or should be beyond its already actualized forms; at the same time, that appeal to spirit will always haunt and alienate the very life it supposedly fulfils (Derrida 1994). Not surprisingly, Derrida, exploring the difference and distance of the ‘letter’ from anything like a bodily or originating life, increasingly focuses on the ‘word’ in modernist writing, especially the writing of Joyce. Whereas in his early work, Derrida (1978 A) had questioned the Joycean project of the book and its claims to equivocity—adopting all the languages of the world and time—he increasingly celebrated Joyce and literature as offering a mode of deconstruction and democracy. The word in Joyce would not be grounded in sense, and—as in all literature—the detachment of word from the presence of voice would allow the word as such, in itself, to circulate freely in a democratic opening that would not anchor language back to some putative origin. Democracy would not be some return of all systems (such as language) to the expressive life of man; democracy is the free circulation of anything that can be said, the open right to ‘say anything.’
One might say, then, that post-structuralism is indebted to a certain counter-organic vitalist reading of modernism: the word is not an extension of the body, and cannot be returned back to the living voice without remainder. The word itself has force or life, creating relations and events that are generated neither by bodies nor subjects. Close to this post-structuralist counter-organic vitalism of the word or trace—and yet importantly different—would be an attention to the power (if that is the correct word) of explosive destruction or atavism. Recall that Derrida’s philosophy is, on his own insistence, radically open and futural. It is the power, not of life, but of the word, trace, concept or idea that generates an open promise: there can be no actuality that can exhaust the idea or concept of justice, and it is the force of the concept—as that which would insist on a sense above and beyond any actual instance—that will yield a ‘justice to come,’ allowing us to conclude that deconstruction ‘is justice.’ For Bergson, rather than moving from the ideal promise of the concept to an open future, intuition would destroy what has come to be assembled by concepts. Intuition of differential movements would fracture ongoing sameness and the forward movement of concepts, and would ‘retrace’ the path from which concepts emerged. This would ultimately allow for the emergence of ever finer differences that would be destructive of the word, and would explode the forward propulsion of organic striving. Life is at war with itself: it is at once an explosive differentiation that would preclude anything like a line of time in which a past would be retained in order to organize a future, while life also harbors a tendency towards quiescence that diminishes the force of the differential for the sake of self-sameness.
Bergson’s criticism of organicism traces a different path from what would become the post-structuralist elevation of writing, not only in Derrida but also in Foucault. Despite Deleuze’s celebration of Foucault’s corpus, he criticized Foucault for focusing on language as the locus of deterritorialization (Deleuze 1988): yes, literary writing would detach writing and the word from ‘man’ as a reasoning and communicating animal, but one could also imagine life, and not just writing, in a deterritorialising mode. Here, Deleuze cited the force of silicon to produce syntheses that would not be organic. We can look at the genealogy of this remark to assess its consequences for thinking about Bergson and modernism. First, looking back we can see that Deleuze (unlike Foucault, Derrida and other post-structuralists) took his departure not only from phenomenology but from Bergson. Whereas for Husserl the thought of time would require us to think of something like pure synthesis, not a subject who synthesizes but synthesis as such or a transcendental subjective power, Bergson would regard subjects as effects of an impersonal, dispersed, and synthetic power that would have various rhythms and tendencies ranging from the matter of rocks to the expansive memory of the minds of saints and mystics. Derrida, always more in the phenomenological tradition than Deleuze, would extend the phenomenological theory of temporal syntheses to see language itself as a power to create forces or ideas beyond intentionality and life. Not surprisingly, then, Derrida would turn frequently to Joyce, the futural force of the word, the promise of spirit along with all the ghosts, hauntings, and spectres that could not be grounded in anything like life.
The modernism of this post-structuralism would be critical of the closed efficiency of the organism, and would focus on the release of the word into a future that could be neither contained nor regarded as an extension of life as it actually is. One could cite, here, beyond the free indirect and stream of consciousness styles of Joyce (and the tendency of the word to operate beyond intentionality and to open up networks and systems of its own), the mournful mode of Eliot’s The Waste Land where the bourgeois self-interest of bodies is at odds with the fragments of literary tradition, and where words indicate a lost lyricism or deeper meditative time in contrast with urban efficiency. One could also include Pound’s emphasis on the machinic qualities of texts, on non-phonetic script, on the autonomy of the image and the force of text. By contrast, although he was also indebted to phenomenology, Deleuze took up Bergson’s task of intuition and—though he referred to a modernist range of texts including Joyce—made more of the work of Woolf and Lawrence. If one does not focus on the synthetic and futural force of concepts and their power to open up to an ideality that cannot be grounded in life, and if one does not regard time as tradition or history (as a panorama or wasteland of dead voices) but takes up Bergson’s challenge of destroying concepts to go back to the explosive power of life, then this might open up the importance of pre-linguistic forces and a radically geological atavism.
Bergson allows us to think of a modernism that is pre- or counter-linguistic, but this is so not because language is returned to organic or vital life but because, for Bergson, vitality is only one of the tendencies of life. Other tendencies, such as those in conflict with the organism, are not found in concepts—which are thoroughly organic and synthesizing—but in intuitions or the tendency towards pure perceptions, which are fragmenting and dispersing. It is true that Bergson wrote of a human potential of spirit to open life beyond the closed forms of ‘man.’ If morality is enabled by bodies gathering together to maintain themselves against others, then one can take that capacity for bodies to extend their interests into communities and moral groupings, and release that capacity from any actual body and open an intuition of what it might be to act selflessly as such, not self-sacrifice now for the sake of gain later, but self-sacrifice or self-annihilation (becoming-imperceptible as such) (Bergson 1935). Contrast, again, with Derrida: Derrida recognizes that if we can operate with a comportment of justice or ethics towards this other here and now, then this is because there is something like the concept of ‘the other’ in general, which might be opened by a face to face encounter but always exceed that presence (Derrida 1978B, 102). The concept of the other in general, of hospitality in general, or democracy in general would liberate thought to move beyond actuality towards futurity. By contrast, even though Bergson (1935) does write of the saint or mystic who can think beyond any actual ‘humanity’ towards spirit in general, this power is not achieved through language and it is the same power that will operate in the smallest of intuitions. It is neither a futural move nor a nostalgic return but an explosive atavism that then allows for an inhuman future—not a posthuman future, which would be man’s capacity to think beyond himself, but a thought of a world without man that is released from the orbit of evolving time.
Here I would suggest that we take our cue from Deleuze and Guattari’s reading of Woolf and Lawrence in A Thousand Plateaus in order to open a modernism of inhuman time—not a modernism of either stream of consciousness or stream of text (Deleuze and Guattari 2004, 278). This atavistic modernism might in turn allow for a re-reading of other modernists and post-modernism. Rather than posit something like tracing, marking, writing, text, differance or the word that would disperse and fragment any supposed grounding life, Bergson makes a direct claim about life as that which creates difference. Life is neither psyche, nor organism, and certainly not an inchoate chaos that is repressed by the order of psychic and organic wholes; life is an organizing power that operates in part by reducing the proliferation of intensive difference to allow for ongoing selfsame wholes, but life operates also by creating complexities and relations that cannot be contained by the human logic of organic efficiency. A modernism that followed this positively destructive atavism of intuition would not look beyond man to some higher human promise, but would allow the human to be invaded by the forces of the cosmos that he has all too efficiently silenced.
Consider D.H Lawrence’s poem, ‘The Shadow of Death,’ which opens with a description of the earth’s movement (‘again,’ so that we are already adopting a planetary duration). The point of view is initially not that of any human observer; a space, rhythm and ‘seeing’ that is non-human—‘the sun stands up to see us’—precedes the poetic ‘I,’ and when the ‘I’ enters, it is as though the human is an emergence and intrusion from a far deeper time:
The human voice, far from being the word through which the world is mediated, seems to be nothing more than a deathly silence, incapable of viewing what is other than itself other than in terms of death (‘What are they but shrouds?’):
As in most of Lawrence’s poetry, there is a transition from a sense of deathly struggle with a world of inhuman forces, towards a sense of the perception of inhuman durations followed by a joyous sense of the minor resistance or rhythm of one’s own existence at odds with a complex time of the planet:
The defiance of voice emerges as perception overcomes the sense of haunting and disjunction to intuit a ‘virility’ of life that is not that of man and that—more importantly—gives itself in the form of a ‘bright’ ‘living darkness’:
The poem then shifts from the relation between perceiving speaker and perceived world, to a perception of a ‘conflict’ of light, as though intuition had somehow passed from point of view and observation to something like the force of life as light:
If there is a vitality here it is not one of self-furtherance and homeostasis, but one of splitting, bifurcation, recombination and multiple paths. From here it follows that concepts do not open life to some ideal and non-actualized future, but anchor perception into known forms; those forms can, though, be pulverized beyond human recognition and point of view, to achieve something like a ‘fretting’ of darkness. It is as though our usual notion of perception as illuminating representation, passes over into illumination as a fleeting ‘fretting’ of a deeper geological plane of darkness.
The waning of light and the increasing absence of human conceptual order is not presented by Lawrence’s poem as some descent into lifeless chaos, for the absence of light as we know it—light as cognizing illumination—gives way to light as the play of darkness, as though our perceived illuminated world were a fragment of a broader life, time and cosmos beyond the man of reason. Lawrence takes the great motif of man’s gaze into the cosmos (‘wonder’) and attributes it to the heavens, ‘arrested, beating thick with wonder.’ Far from this inhuman world being a negation or absence of life and order, the poem discloses rhythms (‘swinging rhythmic’), durations, and even ‘myriads / Of twin-blue eyes.’
Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse also describes a familial, gendered, historical and thoroughly archived world in the first section of the novel: Mr. Ramsay and his philosopher friends are concerned both with ‘subject, object and the nature of reality,’ and with their possible legacy and reputation in the maintained tradition of philosophy. Mrs. Ramsay is caring, nurturing, primarily concerned with overseeing the marriages of the next generations and largely devoted to maintaining social cohesion. In this first section of Woolf’s novel, the younger Lily Briscoe aims to paint Mrs. Ramsay, even though she is told by Charles Tansley (an aspiring philosopher) that ‘Women can’t paint, women can’t write....’ At the level of narrative, this section of the novel, ‘The Window’ ostensibly concerns whether or not a journey towards light—a trip to the lighthouse—will be take place. As in the first stages of Lawrence’s poem, a human world of love and filiation is set over against a world of what can broadly be referred to as climate—forces that play havoc with human intentionality and cannot be mastered by either a philosophy of subjectivism or an art of representation. Accordingly the middle section—‘Time Passes’—shifts away from a human temporality of expectation and calculation to the falling of darkness. Here the point of view shifts from the novel’s characters, with their desires and expectations, to rhythms, durations, and interactions of the earth’s forces entering the house. Narrated in third person, the subject of the journey through the house is not even the single personified wind, but ‘airs’ that question the stability and steadfastness of the human world (again, an inversion of the human observer looking into a cosmos):
These ‘airs’ interacting with the human world of objects are directed by ‘some random light.’ Eventually the narration moves towards what I would refer to as the geological sublime: a sublime that is not that of the world appearing as if in accord with our intentionality, a world that is not that of harmonious order, but that is destructive of the anthopomorphic sense we make of things:
Here, in conclusion, I would suggest that we take our line of thinking from Woolf’s Bergsonian modernism—destructive of concepts, order, and any notion of a single illuminating light of reason—towards Deleuze and Paul De Man. De Man, discussing the sublime, insisted that going beyond the order and human harmony of beauty would allow for a thought, always resisting figuration, of a blank and inhuman materiality: ‘The dynamics of the sublime mark the moment when the infinite is frozen into the materiality of stone, when no pathos, anxiety, or sympathy is conceivable; it is, indeed, the moment of a-pathos, or apathy, as the complete loss of the symbolic’ (De Man 1996, 126). Deleuze, writing on Bergson, also focused on the power of intuition to arrive at inhuman durations: ‘To continue Bergson’s project today, means for example to constitute a metaphysical image of thought corresponding to the new lines, openings, tracings, leaps, dynamisms, discovered by a molecular biology of the brain: new linkings and re-linkings in thought’ (Deleuze 1991, 117).
That is, to be after Bergson’s modernism, would be to continue the two tendencies of life: both the durations of matter, and the capacity—from those durations—to produce ‘a metaphysical image of thought.’ Art and writing in their human modes are neither mutations of a single archive of man (for the archive is in concert with times and rhythms not its own), nor would art and writing be simple extensions of the planet’s rhythms. Art and writing are pulsations that are irreducible to the cosmos, but also in vibration with the cosmos—the chaosmos. Those modes of writing, today, that are responding to the new rhythms of the earth—writing that aims to imagine what it might be to perceive a world without humans—are provocatively postmodern. I would conclude, then, by contrasting various post-humanisms that aim to imagine one life of interweaving and interacting powers—where man overcomes his distinction to merge with digital technologies, animal life, or the ecology of the planet—to a more radical atavism, suggested by Bergson, where humans intuit rhythms that are distinct, inhuman, and beyond the time of the present. A postmodernism of this mode can be discerned, not only in a range of texts that are concerned with life after the end of humans, but in new modes of writing that aim to take point of view beyond that of man as a speaking animal. One example might be Don DeLillo’s Point Omega, which takes the novel form but adopts the point of view of a man viewing an art installation (Douglas Gordan’s 24 Hour Psycho), with the art installation, in turn, being a slowed down scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. It is as though Delillo is at once writing in language in the genre of the novel, and yet tracing the temporality and distributed rhythms of non-literary visual and cinematic forms. Just as Woolf concludes her novel To the Lighthouse with Lily Briscoe painting a single dark line down the centre of a canvas, Delillo opens Point Omega with sentences that follow the path of an eye following the slowed down frames of a section of film. Delillo writes of the movements of light and the display of unseen images before turning to the perceiving eye and its relation to the screen, as well as the screen’s capacity to produce cadences that alter the relation between eye and cognition. Eyes, screens, light, and images: all harbor their own tendencies, and yet all enter into contingent relations, generating distinct rhythms and lines of becoming. The sentences of the novel’s opening double the repetitive rhythm of the gaze and the different angles the screens are able to produce of the same scene; the simple syntax and shift to present tense empties the point of view of any mental content, affect or interiority—‘Anthony Perkins is turning his head’:
The gallery was cold and lighted only by the faint shimmer on the screen. Back by the north wall the darkness was nearly complete and the man standing alone moved a hand toward his face, repeating, ever so slowly, the action of a figure on the screen. When the gallery door slid open and people entered, there was a glancing light from the area beyond, where others were gathered, at some distance, browsing the art books and postcards.
The man at the wall watched the screen and then began to move along the adjacent wall to the other side of the screen so he could watch the same action in a flipped image. He watched Anthony Perkins reaching for a car door, using the right hand. He knew that Anthony Perkins would use the right hand on this side of the screen and the left hand on the other side. He knew it but needed to see it and he moved through the darkness along the side wall and then edged away a few feet to watch Anthony Perkins on this side of the screen, the reverse side, Anthony Perkins using the left hand, the wrong hand, to reach for a car door and then open it.
But could he call the left hand the wrong hand? Because what made this side of the screen any less truthful than the other side?
The slightest camera movement was a profound shift in space and time but the camera was not moving now. Anthony Perkins is turning his head. It was like whole numbers. The man could count the gradations in the movement of Anthony Perkins’ head. Anthony Perkins turns his head in five incremental movements rather than one continuous motion. It was like bricks in a wall, clearly countable, not like the flight of an arrow or a bird. Then again it was not like or unlike anything. (Delillo 2010, 1)
It is true that Bergson regarded the cinematic camera as the ill of the modern eye: we carve the world into so many snapshots, and then regard the world as nothing more than a collection of unified images, forgetting that the frozen image is a lesser cut in a complex and intensive ‘open whole’ that cannot be reduced to a collection of distinct atoms or moments. But Delillo’s style here takes a certain strand of modernism and carries it forward into the perceptual power of the machine; the slowed down frames of Hitchcock’s Psycho allow the human eye to experience durations and angles not its own. That perceiving eye, in turn, allows for a mode and style of writing that is not the linear narrative of a novel, but closer to a haiku, as if composed forces yield a certain meter that allows writing to form. If Bergson’s modernism challenged the human point of view of subjects representing objects and did so by suggesting that intuition might find other durations, he also opened a tradition of writing that would not rest easily with its own structures and systems but would—through encounters with other perceptions—strive to think, from within language, of rhythms beyond language.
I would suggest that Bergson’s formal method of intuition, whereby perception in the present decomposes the evolved forms of experience to disclose the tendencies from which bounded and organic life has emerged, enables a genealogy of the future. If we slow down the frames through which the world is given—not assuming one whole life of interconnected unity, but an open whole of divergent and incompossible potentials—then what has taken to be posthuman (or the vanquishing of our own being to perceive life as such in its full reality) may be surpassed by the counter human. Living beings are at once emergent from life and at war with life if life is defined as temporal progression towards complex and self-maintaining systems. If, however, there is no such thing as life as such—if there is only an ongoing war between bounded complexity and unbounded dissolution—then we will be compelled to confront the human stain: ‘man’ cannot erase himself, for he has always composed himself as self-erasure, as a being who can become nothing more than a life and world that he properly perceives. It is precisely this stain of non-erasure or the awareness of our geological mark on the time of life that may enable us to think a future that is neither post-human nor human so much as superhuman. If humans exist it is through a deflection of survival, a strange torsion of being at once closed off from life while at the same time claiming to be nothing more than life: this history of the human as an oscillation between self-formation and self-destruction rather than the joyous and blind declaration of the post-human provides a thought for the future beyond our assumed right to life.