by Tom Lee
In the previous post I quoted from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. I suggested that the logic of Judge Holden and his war games was perhaps nothing other than maladapted techniques to mitigate bad affects associated with solitude. War doesn’t predict truth, in the sense that it decides the winners of history, as the Judge would have us believe. War is a romantic quest that protects one from loneliness and boredom. In this post I will consider some ideas for an alternate way to think about solitude.
In his recently translated You Must Change Your Life, Peter Sloterdijk looks afresh at institutions of human practicing, or rather, looks afresh at anthropological history through the lens of the practicing human. The scope of the book is typically ambitious; like much of his work it is as much philosophy as “civilizational analysis” (Connor 2011, 109), with Sloterdijk looking at religion alongside sport, fasting, mountain climbing, icon painting, meditation and acrobatics. What all these things have in common, argues Sloterdijk, are specific, organised sets of practices, which he also identifies by the synonym, “anthropotechnics” (2013, 3-4). For Sloterdijk, a practice is “any operation that provides or improves the actor’s qualification for the next performance of the same operation, whether it is declared practice or not” (4). Practices are in this sense not simply things humans do, or routines they follow, but what they live within, their “symbolic immune systems and ritual shells” (3).
In a section entitled, “Solitude Techniques: Speak to Yourself!”, Sloterdijk discusses the process of “self-doubling”, the basic idea of which is to create an internal monitor for one’s actions and to develop both a sense of culpability and being cared for. According to Sloterdijk, it is important that the relationship with this other self or double is asymmetric, in the sense that the other self is something of an authority:
Those who practice successfully rely without exception on an asymmetrical self-doubling in which the inner other has the association of a superior partner, comparable to a genius or an angel, who stays close to its charge like a spiritual monitor and gives them the certainty of constantly being seen, examined and strictly assessed, but also supported in a state of crisis. While loneliness makes the conventional depressive sink into the abyss of their insignificance, the well-organised hermit can profit from a privilege of notability, as their noble observer—Seneca sometimes call it their custos, guardian—constantly supplies them with the feeling of having a good companion, in fact the best, albeit while under strict supervision. (233)
The use of the word ‘genius’ here harks back to a meaning prior to its exclusive association with the intellect. The concept of genius employed by Sloterdijk denotes the spirit of generation that is celebrated at birthdays, our supervisor from birth until death. Genius is a god that in Roman times was originally not fond of blood sacrifices. As noted by the philosopher Giorgio Agamben, Genius preferred “only incense, wine, and delicious honey cake” (2007, 9). Although I won’t go into it here, both Sloterdijk and Agamben discuss the dynamic relation that is established between Genius and ego, the former of which is described by Agamben as at once a “zone of nonconsciousness” with which the ego seeks an intimate relation and “our life insofar as it does not belong to us” (12-13).
While the Judge fears solitude and games without opponents, the mystic figures Sloterdijk idealises are experts at keeping themselves occupied and content while alone. The Judge wanders looking for similarly dispossessed figures that fear solitude and loneliness. He lacks an adequate ritual shell. In his bloodlust and desire for dominance over others, the Judge has mistaken a need for rituals as a need for games. Claude Lévi Strauss encapsulates the distinction between the two when he describes games as what generate asymmetry from symmetrical or fair conditions (hence the rules of the game, which notionally ensure fairness). War is the ultimate game because by definition it assumes fairness in all situations despite generating radical asymmetry: all is fair in love and war. Rituals, by contrast, are what generate symmetry from asymmetric conditions. The example Lévi Strauss uses is the rituals that develop in response to death, which result in an asymmetry between the living and the dead. Death proves that we cannot control life. It is the epitome of an ‘event’. Rituals seek to mitigate this disruption by creating a structure in which death makes sense and doesn’t seem like the end of the world. As Boris Wiseman puts it: “games use structures to create events (and generate asymmetry); rituals, events to create structures (and generate symmetry)” (2001, 4). Whereas games create winners (the slayer) and losers (the slain) through trials of unpredictability (combat), rituals create multiple ‘winners’ if predetermined operations are followed with adequate commitment. The predetermined outcomes of a ritual provide a support structure for participants such that betterment is potentially an outcome for all parties.
The asymmetric power relation between the practitioner and a noble, internal observer allows rituals to develop in response to this imbalance. In order to please the guardian angel, inner voice or spirit monitor the practitioner must complete the required rituals with adequate devotion, otherwise all is lost, as it is for the Judge, who without an internally cultivated sense of being watched over by another seeks to dominate all. Agamben’s description of the Genius as a non-conscious accompaniment makes sense in light of the fact that rituals are commonly developed as ways to accede to meditative states in which non-consciousness and consciousness exist in an intimate relation.
In Wiseman’s essay he mentions the following example from Lévi Strauss’ The Savage Mind: “When the Gahuku-Gama from New-Guinea were taught to play football they devised a tournament in which they played as many games as was necessary for both sides to draw. In doing so, Lévi-Strauss comments, they were treating a game as if it were a ritual” (3). This is the inverse attitude to that adopted by the Judge, for whom all rituals must become games where blood is spilled and everything is risked in order to prove there is a winner.
The enduring relevance of a character like the Judge to our world is evidenced in the obsession with games that characterises modernity. The sporting field isn’t the only place where there is demand for a steady supply of winners and losers. Politics, celebrity culture…our taste for scandal dictates that each day brings new success stories and failures. Coaches and politicians must either succeed immediately or be regarded as losers. Gambling adverts, combined with smartphone technology, and cathedrals of pokie machines, create a pervasive atmosphere demanding that people risk something to see whether they will be chosen as one of the lucky. All occasions must generate events. And never is the feeling of being deserted by one’s guardian more pronounced than when staking a wager on which nothing returns, an emptiness that is surprisingly detectable when the outcome is the opposite and the wager returns two or threefold. In a world where rituals remain only an effervescent presence, a culture of games, gambling and spectacle has taken root.
List of Works Citied
Agamben, Giorgio. “Genius”. Profanations. Trans. Jeff Fort. New York: Zone Books, 2007.
Boris Weisman, “Claude Levi-Strauss, Chiasmus and the Ethnographic Journey,”Arachnofiles no. 2 (Autumn 2001). Available from: < http://www.ed.ac.uk/polopoly_fs/1.81508!/fileManager/Claude%20Levi%20Strauss%20Chiasmus%20and%20the%20Ethnographic%20Journey.pdf>
Connor, Steven. [Review of the books: Terror from the Air, Rage and Time, God’s Zeal by Peter Sloterdijk]. Critical Quarterly, 53, 2. 2011, 109.
Sloterdijk, Peter. You Must Change Your Life. Trans. Wieland Hoban. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013.