Disestablished Orders:
Notes on Abstraction and Empathy in Culture and Politics

We recorded another episode of The K-Files last night (we’ve been on a roll), and though it was not the overall focus of our discussion, I ended up revisiting the excellent debate had on alt.movies.kubrick back in 2004, in which Mark Fisher makes the case for Stanley Kubrick being a “cold rationalist” Spinozist filmmaker (with encouraging cosign from The Shining‘s music editor, Gordon Stainforth).

There’s a section in the discussion where Mark draws on Wilhelm Worringer, who was central to his PhD thesis — knowledge of whom no doubt came from his readings of Deleuze and Guattari, who also cite Worringer in A Thousand Plateaus and, if I’m remembering correctly, Deleuze’s solo book on Francis Bacon. Specifically, there’s a really succinct summary Mark gives of Worringer’s 1907 book, Abstraction and Empathy:

The question of empathy is a fascinating one, and calls to mind Worringer’s distinction between abstraction and empathy — empathy is the emotion correlated with ‘organic’ or representational art (which reflects the subject back to itself); abstract art, by contrast, is mechanical, devoid of a sense of empathy (confronting the subject with something irrevocably unassimilable). The two fuse in what he calls the Northern line — essentially, Gothic art culminating in the German expressionist tradition — in which there is “a requisition of our capacity for empathy (which is bound up with organic rhythm) for an abstract world which is alien to it.” I think there’s more than a hint of a continuation of this Northern Line in Kubrick.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot today, not least because I think it’s a really interesting argument from Worringer and one that is just as applicable to a lot of art today. But what’s interesting is that I think we’ve lost touch of this quite classical sense of the Gothic, where abstraction and empathy intermingle. I think we could do with a collective refresh, not least because this critical amnesia leads to some odd takes on the timeline.

Here’s two I saw just today:

Elden Ring is turning out to have some reaaaally heavy anarchist tones. Even more so than the Dark Souls games. No one talks about it, but the foundational concepts of these games is that clinging to the established order for its own sake is Very Very Bad

Originally tweeted by C.M. Shigeta bird app hiatus-ish (@shigetacm) on March 2, 2022.

Assigning a political ideology to the Souls games sounds like a reach to me. We might as well just acknowledge that it’s Gothic… That’s not to say that we can’t formulate some sort of gothic anarchism, if we want to, but rather than assign an aesthetic with an innately political (or, rather, a specifically anarchist) motor (which is highly questionable), we are better off just acknowledging that the aesthetic role of the “Gothic” — which is by no means restricted to the Gothic as such, though it might be the first historical movement to really seize upon this function, later echoed in surrealism, et al. — is to denaturalize or derealize that which is supposedly “representational” — be that “figurative art” or “capitalist realism”.

This is something common to all “opposition” or “negative” forms of art — the Gothic, the surreal, punk, etc. We often make the mistake of thinking these forms have no productive potential, thinking that negativity is tautologically bad or pessimistic or nihilist, etc. Mark again has a clear argument here, rejecting such criticisms of his own work:

There has been some discussion of whether Capitalist Realism is a pessimistic book. For me, it isn’t pessimistic, but it is negative. The pessimism is already embedded in everyday life – it is what Zizek would call the “spontaneous unreflective ideology” of our times. Identifying the embedded, unreflective pessimism is an act of negativity which, I hope, can make some contribution to denaturalizing that pessimism (which, by its very nature, does not identify itself as such, and is covered over by a compulsory positivity which forbids negativity).

The reason why we shouldn’t assign this aesthetic to any particular political project isn’t just that it fits any project that opposes the current hegemon (explicitly or otherwise), but that it is an argument that is as aesthetically promiscuous as it is politically so. Indeed, it seems like this is something that is often thrown as “challenging” art in general. Here’s another tweet going viral, which has shown up on my feed at least three times over the last day or so:

If you want fiction to hold your hand and show you a world where nothing cosmically unfair ever happens, that’s your prerogative. When you begin making accusations of low moral character at anyone who wants to create or experience more challenging art, that’s a problem.

Originally tweeted by Gretchen Felker-Martin (@scumbelievable) on March 1, 2022.

This is seemingly in response to an argument made against various works of art — literature, games, TV shows, films — suggesting they stop abusing their own characters or refusing to give them happy endings. (I saw some tweet about this, which I presume has set the tone, which went something like: the worst contemporary trend in fiction is having traumatised characters get an inch from redemption or salvation only for the world to come down on them like a sack of bricks. This, to me, invokes the usual suspects: The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, just about every gory schadenfreude fest of the last decade or so.) But again, what we have here isn’t some new millennial cruelty; it’s Worringer’s Gothic line, wherein abstraction — specifically, perhaps, the abstraction of humanity itself — in a cold and indifferent universe is wrapped around our own capacity for empathy regardless of the circumstances.

There’s a beauty here, of course. The perverse and somewhat masochistic thrill of these TV shows (and it is something that has become an explicitly televisual trope of late) isn’t that they are somehow sadistic torture porn, but rather comes from the rush of sensing that our capacity for empathy survives our otherwise wholesale buying into an alien world of cruelty. The joy of watching The Walking Dead — whilst it was still good — was that, despite the utter indifference of the universe created, which hammers home to its audience that no one is safe and any character you love can die at a moment’s notice, is that the audience’s sense of hope is maintained along with the characters’ themselves. We just keep on watching in much the same way that they just keep on keeping on. Their resilience is echoed in our own — that they might become mindless and lifeless abstractions of the human form (in one way or another) at the drop of a hat intensifies our feeling of empathy rather than lessens it (when done right). (It’s Gothic emotional rollercoaster 101 — think Frankenstein.)

But this kind of approach isn’t good in and of itself. In fact, there is a counter-reading that emerges here, which further undermines the one-dimensional “anarchic” reading of Elden Ring. It is the insanity of ideology, of a kind of “Blitz spirit”, the keep-calm-and-carry-on of it all. The further layered horror to the Souls games (all of them) isn’t just that “clinging onto [a politically] established order is Very Very Bad”. The established order, at the level of the metagame, is the tumult of life and death itself and their accompanying drives. Indeed, what is held onto above all else is the eternal return of the game’s punishing universe. The player holds onto the promise of their own victory, although it never really arrives. Fell all the enemies you wish: most of them respawn anyway; meanwhile, let go of any desire you might have not to die: death is a certitude. Instead, the prevailing order is the addictiveness of the game’s system and the satisfaction of the gains made from your own perseverance when faced with a world that cannot ever be won with any finality (I’m thinking of Dark Souls — the only game in the series I’ve seen through to completion so far; I’m not sure if this is true of them all — where, upon completion, you are taken unceremoniously back to the very beginning of the game). If the overall message here is that holding onto the “established order” is Very Very Bad, then so is playing the game itself. The deeper political reading of a Souls game, if we want one, is that we persist without the promise of a final victory or final defeat. The knights and samurai of Dark Souls, Sekiro and Elden Ring are fundamentally Kierkegaardian in this regard: it is up to us whether we become knights of faith or knights of infinite resignation.

But furthermore, there is a perversion here — a literal “perversion”, in the sense of an onanistic “turning-over”; a “thorough” or “excessive turning”; a “per-vertere“. As Deleuze writes in “Coldness and Cruelty”, having discussed the role of repetition within the pleasure principle and the role of the death drive beyond it, all within the wider context of sado-masochism:

There is a kind of mysticism in perversion: the greater the renunciation, the greater and the more secure the gains; we might compare it to a “black” theology where pleasure ceases to motivate the will and is abjured, disavowed, “renounced,” the better to be recovered as a reward or consequence, and as a law. The formula of perverse mysticism is coldness and comfort.

We have to be careful with this. As affecting as it can be in our fictions, our videogames, we have just as readily seen it emerge grotesquely from the political abstractions of Twitter pundits and our journalist class in recent days.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and, by ideological extension, Europe is seen as an assault on liberal orthodoxy. But the subsequent jousting with mutually assured destruction stinks of liberalism’s own “black theology”. The greater our renunciation of other life — Russian life; Ukrainian life — the greater and more secure the gains for the liberal world order. Warmongering becomes a kind of moral abstraction, but it is nothing new. Ultimately, it’s the same sadism we see extolled by Tories all the time, abstracting the lives and values, hopes and dreams, of anyone not like them, at home or abroad. This isn’t to say that the Tories have a wanton disregard for Russian life, although they clearly do, but also for the other peoples of Europe in their desire for an escalating moral crusade. Their abstractions, though disguised through a load of noralistic hand-waving, are devoid of empathy of any kind. They are pure abstractions, which are the generic output of the war machine, but the Gothic line, whilst acknowledging the potential sublimity of such a mechanical perspective, nonetheless perverts such abstractions with a defiant empathy nonetheless.

It’s not an empathy that tells us how or what to feel, but rather one that interrogates the way that abstraction is itself a way of controlling our emotions. Returning to his discussing of Kurbick, Mark makes an interesting point about the coldness or slowness or some of Kubrick’s films and his overall editorial sensibility:

I wonder why it is that ‘cold’ and ‘slow’  are automatically deemed to be negative.

It is precisely Kubrick’s coldness and slowness that are missed in a contemporary culture that is so obsessively ‘warm’ and ‘fast’; ingratiating, emotionally exploitative, relentlessly fidgety. Kubrick took us out of ourselves: not via the transports of ecstatic fervor, but through the icy contemplation of what drives and traps us, and the vision of a universe indifferent to our passions. To see the mechanical deathliness of the human world from the perspective of that indifferent universe: that is what Kubrick offered us. […] Kubrick evokes the desubjectified affects of awe and dread, rather than the compulsory, socially-endorsed, ‘warm’ emotions of empathy / sympathy, as homage to a universe whose indifference entails not pessimism, but freedom: freedom from the miserable prisonhouse of the human.

What I wouldn’t give for some coldness today, amidst the relentless fervor of the 24hr news cycle or yet another Avengers Endgame analogy, which somehow demonstrates our solidarity whereas gothic horror “perverts” (in a wholly negative sense) the liberal abstractions of human nature. The truth is that a cold, somewhat dispassionate perspective on this crisis (or any crisis) makes more room for empathy and solidarity, not less — precisely because it obscures the promiscuity of ideological manipulation, which can come from anywhere, especially those regions where it is loudly denied.

We’re told that anyone saying “hold on a second, let’s think about this” is a Putin apologist. Anyone wanting to lay bear the contradictions, the cruelty, the paradoxes of a kind of hot-headed yet dispassionate foreign policy is a coward. But holding open a space for imagining, describing, modelling and hypothesizing our worst impulses and their potential consequences — whether in our political sphere or in our most transgressive media — is necessary, because it actualises the “requisition of our capacity for empathy [in and] for an abstract world”.

In this sense, it is hardly a coincidence, from where I’m sitting, that a Twitter discourse around the virtues of horror emerges as all too real horrors sprawl outwards from Ukraine and elsewhere. No matter what we’re fighting for, culturally or politically, it is a perspective that warrants defending, even encouraging, but only if done right and with the very cold rationality it simultaneously demands and rattles.

This blog was founded on the vague idea that the Gothic is now a caricature of itself, but the forgetting of what the Gothic is for, and how its functionality might help us in realms far beyond the aesthetic, has never been more apparent than right now.

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