The Surrealization of the Crisis*

2 April, 2012

Frédéric London

“Real knowledge of good and evil cannot suppress any affects, since it constitutes real knowledge only insofar as we regard it as an affect” is Spinoza’s1 categorical and unappealable statement, one that bluntly declares the impossibility of purely intellectual conversions and affirms that ideas have no effect whatsoever by themselves. (Pierre Bourdieu was to make this declaration his own when he stated that real ideas have no intrinsic power.) It would take all the sociocentric blindness of the demi-intellectuals—those who labour under the conviction that they are the bearers of the “ideas that move the world”—not to see that pure ideas have never moved anything, except as they have been accompanied by affects, which are the only things that can endow them with power (an extrinsic power, to be sure). Perhaps academics, or at least those of them who really harbour such illusions, will here encounter one of the causes of their resentment at seeing the meagre consequences of all their critical efforts. They will, therefore, have to get used to the idea that abstraction, of all possible arguments, is, in principle, the least potent, precisely because it deploys itself in an atmosphere devoid of affects. This realization doesn’t detract in the least from the solid foundations of their efforts, but it does demand, simply, that they temper their political and practical expectations.

It is art that by its very nature is able employ of all the means to create affects, first and foremost because it is aimed at bodies, to which it offers immediate affects in the form of images and sounds. The fundamental purpose of art is not to convey ideas; in fact it can be viewed primarily as the production of intransitive affects, in the manner of Deleuze’s “percepts.” Nevertheless, art can also succumb to a craving to say something. To be sure, this form of art has fallen out of the favour it had in the latter half of the 20th century, to such an extent that the label of “committed art,” where intentions are burdened with a surfeit of meanings, ponderous words, and hard lessons, has become practically a joke. We can list any number of complaints against art-that-tries-to-say-something, but the problem is that remaining on the “opposite side” are all the things that are waiting to be said. These things still have an urgent need to become affects, and with the retreat of “political art” they run the risk of having to retreat themselves, or of surviving with their vitality diminished, in the feebleness of mere analysis. Who will provide the affects that these things require? Without affects, how will they grow powerful, in other words, how will they be granted the power of being affective, empowered to enter into heads, that is to say, into bodies, where they can produce effects in the form of movement: acceleration of the heartbeat, elevated blood pressure, choleric disturbance, eventual uncrossing of the legs, the action of prompting them into motion, into locomotion that will lead to a place, to participation in a meeting, to entering the premises of a group, perhaps finally to taking to the streets?

Of course, the arguments we are characterizing as “pure” are never entirely so: do they not display themselves from the outset as signs that have already been viewed/read or as words that have already been heard—and therefore as affects of the body? Philosopher-stylists know this well, as they employ style specifically as a means to achieve the intensification of affects, in other words, to confer greater power on their words. The moment comes, however, when one needs to shift into high gear…

As much as we analyse the various aspects of the financial crisis, refine our arguments, dismount the systems, and expose the gears, nothing compares to an image for setting the blood boiling or, as the very pertinent popular saying goes, for giving you a brisk slap in the face (the face: the body). It’s not enough to talk about the crisis of capitalism; we need to show it, to make it heard. What makes this all the more necessary is the fact that the dominating power has time on its side: the time during which things are forgotten, the time of dislocation which, fraying the link between effects and causes, destroys the real sequence in our minds. Who, for example, would now think of connecting the suicides in France Télécom with an obscure privatization carried out more than fifteen years ago? Who’s going to be saying anything ten years from now about the deregulation of the postal service? Once the frenzy of private finance has been forgotten, are we not now faced with a public financial crisis? Time also brings resignation, and recovery by means of the usual channels, washing away all the scandals. Will capitalism really be unable to bear the excessive abuses of the current crisis, will it be unable to withstand the incredible intellectual and moral collapse that ought to engulf it? Any means may be of use against the inertial advantages of domination, anything is worth considering: film—whether fiction or documentary—literature, photography, comics, installations; we may consider all the methods of building affective machines. The theatre is one of them.

We can toss out the window all general discussions about “art,” that is, about what it “is” and what it “is not,” and we can dispense with the underhanded game of making claims that are foredoomed to be laughable, in order to return all the better to what is essential. Whether or not there is “art” here is the least of our concerns; what matters is that there are bodies affecting other bodies and adding their own personal arguments to the extrinsic power of affects. The condensed time of dramatic representation reconcentrates that which real social time has diluted and dismembered; it restores in their completeness the broken sequences, the missing links, it recouples the chain of events of the scandal and confers upon them a new density. One thing is visibly derived from another, everything is represented just once, and in this singleness an affective idea is regained. This is only possible, however, thanks to the power of theatrical affects to act as deputies, albeit surreal ones, of a reality that otherwise defies comprehension. The theatre of the crisis serves to surrealize the crisis, a pressing political urgency when all the temporal distensions of the social world tend to work to under-realize it and when every effort of the dominant discourse is aimed at de-realizing it.

The preconceived posture of this theatre is easier to understand if the idea is, first and foremost, to highlight the reality of the crisis. It is not about the torments of individual existence; minds are not probed and hidden corners are not explored. The characters are stock ones and, all in all, quite simple. With the exception perhaps of an overly idiosyncratic President of the Republic, we could exchange them for any number of others of their same kind. By themselves they are uninteresting: they are voices. These voices do not convey their moods but rather their positions: bankers talk about banking, traders banter about markets, governments discourse on power (or what remains of it), and, in very general terms, the dominators speak about domination. Critique, condemned to flow through unlikely characters, slips between the interstices. But all of them, borne along by one force or another, speak about the forces that carry them, or about the delirium in which, because of these forces, they are obliged to live, about the outer limits of ideological discourse where it is no longer known whether the speakers are cynics or idiots or whether they only pretend to believe or they blindly believe, about the indistinctness of a view of the world that presents itself as (and, moreover, believes itself to be) completely general, a view which effectively and perfectly adjusts itself to suit its own personal concerns. All of them are ventriloquists of their position and their personalities are constrained by the nature of their kind.

In addition, this theatre lacks profundity. This may be the one thing it can claim as its own: to be superficial, in other words, to inhabit only the surface of the force field. Consequently, it is a theatre of the surface, of these forces and of the exterior: a materialistic theatre, if you will. And in alexandrines2…? Oh gods on high, what a crazy idea! A principal justification might be because collisions by themselves produce effects, and the collision between the language of classical theatre on the one hand, armed with its refined golden-age universe, against contemporary capitalism’s all-encompassing vulgarity on the other, produces quite a few collisions indeed. We know that alexandrines are suitable for Bossuetian pomposity and for tragedy, but we also find that they’re capable of making people laugh, perhaps even more so when they’re tinkered with a bit—not such a trifling advantage when everything else makes you want to break down and cry. Applying a form known for accompanying lofty ideals to the most miserable manoeuvres of the world of finance may be one way of not completely succumbing to despair when we see the scandalous success with which those same manoeuvres are met in reality.

Those who are satisfied with the current state of affairs are happy to see in the potential exercise of mockery the indisputable signs of our wonderful freedom and “democratic” health. But it’s just the opposite! Once a certain level of generalization has been reached, we would do better to regard mockery as a disturbing symptom of a state of democratic decay, one in which—given that all protests will be overlooked—all the mediators have stopped mediating, all of the “representatives” have betrayed representation, and the final refuge of the great majority of the governed is laughter. Mockery is a desperate last resort for those who have nothing else, their last remaining weapon before, perhaps, they brutally rebel and take to the streets. In this, alexandrine verse brings all of its ambivalence to bear: it mocks with great liberality and, like Molière, ridicules the “pretty ones,” but it can also summon up dark clouds that herald storms to come. And precisely not the clouds of tragedy, if we take that to mean the collision of two just and irreconcilable rights or of two equally legitimate claims. For once, we can keep things uncomplicated: the situation of financial capitalism is not tragic—it is plainly and simply despicable.


* This essay was written to accompany the theatrical piece D’un retournement l’autre, comédie sérieuse sur la crise financière en quatre actes et en alexandrins (“From One Radical Change To Another: A Serious Comedy About the Financial Crisis, Written in Alexandrine Verse in Four Acts”), Senil, 2011, Paris.
1. Ethics, IV, 14.
2. Here I might make a brief allusion to the conventions I have followed: in addition to various other abuses, and aside from odd, easily identifiable exceptions, I have employed the systematic form of elision in the hemistich and the syneresis.