Containing fluidity

On the permanent page, an extended quote from Brian Massumi’s A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari, pp. 109-112. It’s a reading of Louis Feuillade’s silent film Vendemiaire that captures some of the Othering produced by populist politics, its creation of an idealized past, and its reliance on transcendence.

Vendemiaire was made in 1919, in the aftermath of World War I. Every great war has a powerful deterritorializing effect: the mobilization of troops and supplies, families broken, entire regions leveled. The film presents an image of society apparently meant to insert itself into that disjointed situation to help induce a unifying reterritorializing in a new moral order. The gypsy’s role has to be downplayed because she belongs to a wandering race that does not respect territorial boundaries even when it is accepted into them. But her roles is nevertheless an important one: she gives the wine an opportunity to demonstrate its Christlike generosity. It absolves her of her sin of being born an infidel. Perhaps she will be the exception to the rule and embrace the French faith. Everyone left alive will be invited to communion.

In the film, wine instantaneously and incorporeally transformed the bodies to which the categories were applied into a strong and ordered nation mirroring the prewar period as the film wishfully remembers it. The social fluidity of the off-screen situation after the war is not in the fact unique to that period. It can even be seen as an accelerated, nightmarish vision of changes inherent to industrialization: the uprooting of individuals from their ancestral homelands, the blurring of territorial, racial and ethnic boundaries, the break-up of the traditional family structure. The mechanisms of selective evaluation the film sets in motion could just as easily be applied to social movement associated with forces other than war. The concern of the film is less a particular instance of social dislocation than the dangers posed by social fluidity per se. The film translates that perceived threat into its own terms. The real alternative between potentially creative chaos and reproductive order is transposed into a moral distinction between valued terms on the identity grid and devalued ones: honest French and conniving Germans, good self and evil other. This is exactly the kind of move we defined in the last section as an Oedipal mechanism. The distinction between the sameness of order and the indeterminacy of hyperdifferentiation is transposed into a distinction between identity and undifferentiation: some bodies are what they are and are good; others are not what they seem to be and are bad. Bad bodies combine two identities that should be mutually exclusive. They imitate a valued identity in an attempt to mask the devalued one that is rightfully theirs. Indeterminacy is presented as a criminal juxtaposition of two already-defined molar identities in a rigidly bounded body (as opposed to a superposition of any number of real but undefinable supermolecular potentials in a fluid body). A true identity and a false one: them or us, ally or enemy, lying thief or patriot. Before the bad body has been put to the test, it is impossible for the good guys to tell which side it is on. It passes in one identity, but under the surface continues to function in the other. It embodies a contradiction in terms. The problem is to resolve the contradiction, to determine which of the possible identity categories a given body should be confined to. Social fluidity–the hyperdifferentiated outside of every image–is “recognized” in the film as a masked Other that is in fact a devalued same: a bad identity. Fluidity is displaced onto a supernatural agent of selective evaluation that affixes a category to a body by the way in which it pools (for example, into the standard-issue wine cups of the battlefield heroes) or wafts (poison gas) in its vicinity. This agency makes it possible in principle to determine which category a given body truly belongs to. In practice, outside the theater, the situation is less clear; it is not at all certain that a substitute for filmic grape juice will step in to save the day.

In the image, the outside of the image is identified as Other(28). The identification is retrospective; the film not only transposes its outside into an internal contradiction, it projects it back in time to a point before the war was won, before the issue of what form a national rebirth should take could even be raised. The complicated, future-looking “elsewhere” of the autonomous zone has become a neutralized “other” relegated to the past tense.

Mechanisms of capture and containment like the one charted in Vendemiaire induct the outside into a system of interiority. That system consists in a grid of identities abstracted from actually existing bodies and transposed onto another dimension: from the here and now into the great beyond.

Molarization involves the creation of a “plane of transcendence”(29). In one aspect, the plane of transcendence is an image of the glory beyond (in this case, a utopian future France); in another, it is the identity grid coextensive with that image; in yet another, the medium that brings the image to light (the apparatus by means of which the identity grid is reapplied to and evaluates some of the bodes from which it was abstracted). The plane of transcendence, however, is best understood not in terms of the content of any particular image, or even in terms of a medium, but as the process presiding over the creation of a certain kind of image (general images: those constituting categories, identities, good/commonsensical ideas)(30) and certain media functions (reductions: from the multidimensionality of life in the flesh to the two-dimensional flatness of the silver screen and the lives of those who are identified with its images).

A plane of transcendence is a movement of abstraction, but at the same time of embodiment. It moves in two contradictory directions simultaneously: toward a beyond, and back to our world. Abstraction and reconcretization (application). For an image of generality can only exist concretely, on the screen or in a photograph; an Idea has nowhere to be, if not in a book or on our lips or in a brain. Applied abstraction is the only kind there is. Transcendence, despite its best efforts, is a mode of becoming immanent. This is its sadness: its very existence is a contradiction in terms. Molarization is the in-itself of contradiction. The abundance of oppositional images and binary distinctions it produces express its own impossibility. Its problem is always to take a both/and and make it an either/or, to reduce the complexity of pragmatic ethical choice to the black or white of Good or Bad, to reduce the complications of desire as becoming to the simplicity of mind or body, Heaven or Hell. The world rarely obliges.


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