Chapter 1 (Part 1)
Possessed Individualism: Technology and the French Postmodern
Man Ray's Fashion Photo is a perfect visual description of possessed individualism. Here, the world is in its terminal phase of aestheticization lips without a speaking subject and the body in dreams under the dark but charming sky of all the signs of seduction. There are no voices, no memories, only the aestheticized signs of the portrait of clouds and the image of the reclining body as indications of the purely cynical nature of the trompe l'oeil. The signs of difference are themselves indifferent. A topology of driftworks and subjectivity in the reverie of ruins remains. No longer "possessive individualism" under the Lockean sign of private property and use value, but now possessed individualism under the sign of abuse value. The aestheticization of experience to such a point of excess that nature, subjectivity, and desire migrate into seduction: into a game of chance and indifferent relations of pure positionality.
"Possessed individualism" is subjectivity to a point of aesthetic excess that the self no longer has any real existence, only a perspectival appearance as a site where all the referents converge and implode. Subjectivity, therefore, which is created out of the ruins of abuse value, a designer self which emerges from the cancellation of all the signs. An apparent self whose memories can be fantastic reveries of a past which never really existed, because it occupies a purely virtual space - the space of an accidental topology and seductive contiguity of aesthetic effects. No longer a private subject in a public space, but a public self in a private imaginary time: a parallel self among many others drifting aimlessly, but no less violently for that, in parallel worlds. And so, Man Ray was prophetic. Fashion Photo is constructed purely as an aesthetic trompe l'oeil, with its edges marked by two simu-visions: one photographic (the reclining woman) and the other a product of a painterly gesture (the portrait on the wall). Here, there are no human presences, only "significant images" that trace the implosion of subjectivity into a charmless universe of seduction, and of the body into a disappearing trace of an imposed imaginary.
At one time, it was still possible to speak of the subject as a possessive individual, that is, as an originary possessor or calculative owner of acquisitive and appropriative values. This would be the contractual self of early political economy where the subject represented the terminus ad quem of property rights so privileged in primitive capitalism. The possessive individual, then, as an energizing agent which, driven on by the inequality of property rights, was eager to lay waste to the order of the production machine. Now, however, it is the reverse. Not the possessive individual as the consumer par excellence, but the possessed individual as itself an object of consumption. No longer the production machine of primitive capitalism driven onwards by use value, but now the consumption machine of designer capitalism, the point where the subject is itself actually consumed by the laws of abuse value, seduced and disciplined in an indifferent game of chance and probability. And not an ideologically constituted self either, but a rhetorical subject, that is, possessed individualism as the exhausted sign of the disappearance of ideology into the language of rhetoric as the war machine. Horizoned by forgetfulness, charmed by seduction, disciplined by the codes of cynical power, the possessed individual is the form taken by nihilism in the last dying days of rationalism. Nietzsche's "maggot man".
I discovered that while waiting for the masters with their rods, we should, like Copernicus, reverse the reasoning to win out. Inasmuch as one couldn't condemn others without immediately judging oneself, one had to overwhelm oneself to have the right to judge others. Inasmuch as every judge some day ends up as a penitent, one had to travel the road in the opposite direction and practice the profession of penitent to be able to end up as a judge.
-Albert Camus, The Fall
But then the French mind has always exhibited a fascination for the study of subjectivity as the ruins within, comprising on the whole a brilliant meditation on the dark, and fatally charming, universe of the possessed individual. Think, for example, of Sartre and Camus who, if they can summarize so eloquently in their thought the fate of the modernist subject in political history, also represent a clear and present division between the final disappearance of the possessive individual of the age of classical liberalism and the triumphant emergence of the possessed individual as the inheritor of the nihilist legacy. Indeed, it is the ultimate failure of Sartre and Camus to think beyond the horizon of the modernist project which represents the beginning point for contemporary French theory. French intellectuality of the late twentieth century represents nothing less than shock waves spreading out from the failure of that fateful double sign of the French mind - Sartre and Camus - to resolve a problem which they posed with their lives, but were unable, in the end, to solve.
To speak of Sartre and Camus, France's two principal modernist thinkers of the mid twentieth century, is really to awaken to an older debate in the western mind between the nihilist (like Camus), who is finally reduced to the role of a witness testifying to the presence of evil, like a biblical prophet who has drunk so deeply of the banal darkness of everyday life that he can only mutter imprecations, and the political activist (like Sartre) who chooses immersion in history rather than silence, and for whom ambivalence over the question of the nature of good and evil, of love and murder, is suppressed in favor of political commitment. A political engagement to a certain vision of history which, if it loses its shadow of ambivalence and paradox, also acquires the strength of clarity and comprehensiveness.
To meditate, then, on Camus and Sartre is really to speak of an older quarrel between Nietzsche and Marx, of two deeply contrasting, and equally critical, visions of politics and life: of Nietzsche's tragic pronouncements on the will to power and Marx's decision to choose history and with it the will to power rather than sacrifice justice. Nietzsche and Marx, then, as a deeper debate between individual freedom and collective justice, of what it means to live today at that point where personal autobiography crosses over into public history. Camus, therefore, as the ambivalent individualist who might begin in The Rebel with a choice between metaphysical rebellion (revolt against God) and historical rebellion (political revolt) and who might write in The Myth of Sisyphus about suicide and absurd experience; but who ends up in that great Nietzschean book, The Fall, by choosing for himself the role of the judge penitent. Jean Paul Sartre, then, as the avenging judge of contemporary political history; and Camus as its judge-penitent. Thus speaks the Camus of The Fall:
In solitude and fatigue, one is after all inclined to take oneself for a prophet. When all is said and done, that's really what I am, having taken refuge in a desert of stones, fogs, and stagnant waters empty prophet for shabby times. Elijah without a messiah, choked with fever end alcohol, my back against this moldy door, my finger raised toward a threatening sky, showering imprecations on lawless men who cannot endure any judgment. For they can't endure it, tres cher, and that's the whole question. He who clings to law that does not fear the judgment that reinstates him in an order that he believes in. But the keenest of human torments is to be judged without a law. Yet we are in that torment. Deprived of their natural curb, the judges, loosed at random, are racing through their job. Hence we have to try to go faster than they, don't we? And it's a real madhouse. Prophets and quacks multiply; they hasten to get there with a good law or a flawless organization before the world is deserted. Fortunately, I arrived! I am the end and the beginning; I announce the law. In short, I am the judge-penitent.