Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Plain Colour

Threading through the litany of anti-totalitarian tropes that have, since the 1930s, reconfigured our very epistemic wall – Hayek’s economics, Arendt’s politics, Popper’s journalism – runs the thematic stitch of absurd Fate. For these theorists, Fate, defined in its original incarnation as a predetermined misfortune precipitated by an ambiguous and uncontrollable external force, is given an additional twist. At first, to someone like William Faulkner, whose body of work is drawn with the myths of the lost and collapsing American South, and thus predisposed toward Fate’s Grecian meaning – where lack or death is attributed to a transcendental entity – this modern understanding is incomprehensible. Fatalism is, as they say, inscribed in a Southerner’s very being. It can be said, and done so convincingly by Bertram Wyatt-Brown in his Southern Honour, that I, and I include my forebears in that letter, am historically subject to a passive totalitarianism, one ascribed to the whims of Nature or to God. When I endure some insufferable calamity, the end is out of my hands. Of course, to outsiders it could be viewed as very much in my hands – if I were born of certain stock or position (what Alain Badiou terms a part of no part) my very hands could be seen as the arbiters of my misery. Even still, Fate is written into my existence.

To totalitarianism’s active subjects, God doesn’t work in mysterious ways…man does. Defining something as Kafka-esque has come to signify the paradox of modern Fate. In The Trial, for example, Josef K suffers lamentably at the hands of a vile bureaucracy, which subsequently convinces him to search out his own guilt. Such too was the fate of many victims of Mao’s purges, faceless and often putatively innocent, yet singled out by the ravenous and philosophically convoluted conjurings of a dictator. In each case, the end is out of their hands and in someone else’s. Beyond the unreason involved in each character’s belief in a blackly magical State, without a technologically-sophisticated surveillance facility at its disposal, there exists for the doomed protagonist the additional psychological dementia that his/her fate is designed especially for them. Among many of the injustices befalling the sufferers in Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita are decapitation, prison, madness, eye-gouging, public nudity, and lost love. What is at work then, is an appearance, for the subject involved, of a one to one relationship between the individual and his tormentors. This type of Fate is much worse, since not only is our freedom usurped by an unjust oppressor, but we also start believing we have committed some, unconscious, crime. In addition, we lose the deflecting comfort that the ancient conception of Fate supplies. Whereas I may have been justified in saying, upon learning of the destruction of my entire family or community by war or natural disaster, “Life is cruel!”, it would seem perverse if a victim of totalitarianism, locked in a cell awaiting torture or death, excused their plight in the same casual way.

Astute as they are, one suspects something is still missing in these tales of total government. But what exactly could this be? We are told by Zizek (and Marx and Freud) that the secret to fetishism lay not in a mystical substance behind the object, but instead, within the process of the object’s construction. The truth of totalitarianism is for its subjects only. Yet when narrating such abstract matters, authors tend to leave out an external, real dimension, a space outside the totality - the place, to turn Marx on his head, behind the process. Indeed, in these scenarios the characters are trapped, along with their compatriots, in a single world. They busy themselves so much in the inner recesses that they never conceive of the potentiality of a third world. There may often be some latent notion of the outside or the West as a symbol of freedom but there is rarely mention of the conscious other side. And here is where the third and cruellest twist of Fate emerges. Instead of occurring within the bounds of a closed society, this once literary conception of totalitarianism is now an established by-product of the consolidation of national-democratic regimes. After all, even “K. lived in a country with a legal constitution, there was universal peace, all the laws were in force.” It is for immigrants in Britain where this all too terrifying reality trumps 20th Century fiction.

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