Tragic Design today: 68th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes. (AFP PHOTO / ANTONIN THUILLIER)
The Internal and Eternal Stage
An actor is in possession of heavily curated, poetically designed content he skilfully executes on a stage of streaming light and relentless scrutiny. What comes before and after the performance, the behind-the scenes machinery and the technologies of memory employed to seal the transient moment in time link the flawless material presented in the limelight to the interior of the actor and his accomplice, the beholder. The interior represents the stage in its dismantled state and exposes its mechanics. One can say the internal actor is the only “doer,” the engine behind acting and the mere appearance of action. His script is the decisive one. The doer makes an `appearance in James 1:22, among other lines: “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.” A user asked the question how can a contemporary “doer,” actively collect, cure, and preserve a unique individuality from the plethora of available material goods. There are three components to address in this question: understanding proper action and its time; learning to value and research one’s unique and infinite interior as the dwelling place of the Lord; and mastering the two-way street between products in circulation and the interior.
Collecting and curating one’s identity as the dwelling place of the Lord is a life-long task and an indefinite therapeutic process. This internal action is therapeutic precisely because individual difference is always experienced as discomfort, loss, or as a symptom. At the very least, a symptom or discomfort, such as a chronic illness, a minor disability, or poverty, represents an opening and an invitation to enter a relationship with God and to begin the therapeutic process of establishing one’s interior identity as His dwelling place. This is the calling of iCulture therapy.
The term therapy is not applied loosely. At the centre of the practice iCulture teaches is the question of health. How do we think about health? How do we think about a symptom? I refer frequently to the knowledge base of psychoanalysis here because it is the only systematic discourse besides medical science that addresses health philosophically, linguistically, experimentally, in a way that can be meaningful to the individual in times of bodily and emotional distress. By definition the health standard is the common property against which the individuality asserts itself, so by default one’s unique individuality is experienced as a symptom. This is what made individualism a threat to ancient societies, which feared it and imposed long lists of laws designed to regulate and contain it. All ancient civilisations without exception used violent methods to suppress individual deviation from the law in the name of public health.
One example of ritualistic suppression of individualism is Greek tragic poetry, which staged trials of cases of conflict between the individual will and the will of the state, as we’ll see with the analysis of Sophocles’s 4th century BC “Antigone” below. In his 1912 work “Totem and Tabu,” Freud also observed that the laws of ancient sacrifice-based religions resemble neurotic symptoms. Freud may have confused individual symptoms with the symptoms of the social group, which also has a unique body and an individuality, but his insight into the compulsive-neurotic structure of the suppression of individual thought and expression is valuable. It indicates a constant threat of regression to the psychological mechanisms of ancient civilisations.
Only in Christian civilisation is the individuality pursued with vigour and passion, but also under condition that it acts — becomes a ‘doer’ — of the divine word. This is why forgiveness and mercy are the cornerstone of Christian teaching. Everyone is bound to make a mistake, even fall and get derailed, processes whereby an individual learns to collect his identity. It is through mercy, however, that the individual is granted the right to recover and give expression to his unique personal history. Unlike other founding books, the New Testament became the historical door to an infinity of books and spawned the only civilisation to invest in technologies of universal literacy.
Scientist are currently exploring the role of language in DNA modification, but the knowledge they produce on the subject would do us little good if all we can draw from it is further rules, laws, and common uses of language. To be effective in treating individual symptoms and transgressions, language must be both absolutely individual and unique to the person composing its works and translatable in common language. No easy task. Only in Christianity is every individual a reader of the book and a ‘high priest’ granted the authority to perform the sacraments. We don’t need special certification, permission, or training to read the Bible. For Christians individual prayer is as important as collective prayer. But for individual prayer to be meaningful as such, it must be written or spoken in one’s unique internal language. This requires us to develop a singular poetic idiom. It was this need for individual expression more than anything else that spurred the rise and fall of the splendid, but now as good as lost, era of European literary arts.
To pause briefly before we get to the main object of our discussion today, tragedy, let us define a “doer,” in the Jamesean sense of the word, as an actor on the divine stage directed by scripture and by the tale written in one’s unique linguistic DNA. This makes the collection of one’s interior out of the material goods and signs available in the world not some narcissistic whim or vanity, but the fulfilment of God’s design. It makes our relationship to language and poetry the central task in the life of a Christian. It is a labor of love. Soon the site will add a section where users will have the opportunity to pen, style, and share their stories and poems. But first we need to familiarise ourselves with the historic designs of grand interiors.
Tragic Design: Portrait of Louis XIV, after Hyacinthe Rigaud, Gift of J. Paul Getty. Digital image courtesy the Getty’s Open Content Program
Tragic Design: Je m’en vais, mais l’État demeurera toujours
To understand the action of perfect objects, we have to begin with the object that emerges in the course of tragic action. Proportion and perfection of beauty is something we have been studying copiously from classical antiquity. We expect the same from our plastic surgeons. Yet, the price of material perfection, the token of its exchangeability, is tragedy. How we frame, use, sublimate, and ultimately overcome tragedy determines our actions on the divine stage.
No one understood the importance of tragic spectacle for the fashioning of political power better than the French cardinals of the seventeenth century who set up the stage, literally, for the most opulent display of rulership that was the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV. What the cardinals ignored, however, as they reached for the ancient Greek formulas of unsurpassed beauty, proportion, and clarity of purpose in a public figure was the increasingly complex, profound, and ever better articulated psychological reality that had penetrated the vernacular languages with the introduction of Christian thought and sacrament.
The translation of the Bible into vernacular languages was not so much the beginning as the end of a long process of linguistic evolution that culminated in the psychological virtuosity of Shakespeare’s oeuvre. The French cardinals who designed the first and last monarch to be be fully identified with the state — L’État c’est Moi — were driven by their ancient rivalry with England, a country that had moreover just broken off from Catholicism and espoused the Protestant faith. The unprecedented power of Shakespearean theatre to move, educate, and influence public perception of rulers without sparing any of the flaws and symptoms of their individual personas was a gauntlet on the ground to the French clergy. In response, France focused on a revival of the Greek tragic arts instead of pursuing the psychological depths Shakespeare discovered for language, poetry, and the stage of political spectacle. This single development in what may seem an off-the-cuff literary peculiarity in the history of French design set powerful linguistic processes in motion that dominate French thinking to this date, as we will see is the case with Lacan’s reception of German philosophy and psychoanalysis in his reading of the classical drama “Antigone.”
We may not have access to the original purpose and setting of Greek tragic spectacle, not in any absolute terms, but we do know it was rooted in something like contemporary public health, a social extension of medical practice. Enough evidence exists that the original mis-en-scene consisted of ex voto devotional objects, which served to represent a healthy body or outcome to implore or thank the gods for healing. The pinax (http://www.stoa.org/diotima/essays/fc04/Skinner.html) entombing the action unfolding on stage are also among the first technologies of memory. Eventually they were used for such mundane transactions as writing down debt. As in medical theatres, tragic action performs a dissection of a vital social organ, specifically the moral or state organ, by showcasing a diseased version of it in its relentless course toward death and decay and concluding with the triumph of the state as the final instance of healing and reconciliation. Unlike Western democracies, which inherited the Christian moral order and eventually separated it from the state, in ancient Greece the state was the ultimate instance of moral authority. The gods were equally subject to transgression and hence hardly a paragon of moral health, but since they were immortal, they could afford it. For humans, on the other hand, transgressions were much deadlier. Per Aristotle’s definition (https://www.stmarys-ca.edu/sites/default/files/attachments/files/Poetics.pdf) the players on the tragic stage are royal, heads of state, and their transgressions are the engine driving the action. The spectacle unfolded among rich folds of the votive pinax: representations of wholesome and healthy human, social, and family bodies. Tragic spectacle is an early technology of memory that served to imprint the consequences of bad moral choices on the impressionable minds of the spectators much like healthy figures were engraved on votive tablets:
Nietzsche believed tragic poetry was born of the need to give forbidden emotional states full expression in dithyrambic verse. Like Heidegger after him, he longed for a perceived innocent childhood still nestled in the pure state of Greek antiquity, which both philosophers believed to be the native land of the only creative power available to humanity, poetry. Both thinkers ignored, forgot or simply failed to consider the movement of translatio studii and translatio imperii that took place first from Greece to Rome and then through the advent of Christianity to the Holy Roman Empire and Western civilisation. The transformations of ancient Greek civilisation through these monumental changes in the cultural and belief systems of the West were so significant that we no longer have direct access to the original context. In a sense, ancient Greek civilisation is extinct and has buried its secrets irremediably. One major transformation that changed the role of tragic spectacle was the transition from prehistoric religions based on sacrificial worship to a religion that abolished sacrifice once and for all through the Last Supper and the sacrament of the communion. Eschewing their Christian formatting, both Nietzsche and Heidegger, not only failed to reflect on that part of their thought structure, but also failed to recognise that ancient Greece was a claustrophobic world of animal and human sacrifice for which tragedy was a final and irreversible outcome, not a private expression of interior opulence.
We introduced psychoanalytic thought with Jacques Lacan to help us understand the world of objects from the point of view of psychological reality. But with Lacan we also hit a snag and a dead end, because his attempt to reconcile Freudian pre-historic thought with the classicist philosophy of Heidegger left a major historical component out of the picture, Christian experience. Lacan is Catholic and took a very critical view of Christianity. Moreover, Catholicism stalled centuries ago, because it was unable to process its own experience and to this day remains stubbornly resistant to subjective experience and to history, which is paradoxically its major calling. But the Latin base of historic Christianity remains central to the material, worldly articulation and manifestation of Christian practice, which is historically tied to Catholicism through the Nicene creed. Rome remains the portal through which Christ entered history and changed it forever.
The task of reconciling the Christian world and getting the Catholic Church to perform its duty may still be ahead of us, but for our purposes, in order to establish intelligent, reflected, meaningful consumer practices that honor the time and labor that goes into the creation and manufacture of objects, we need to understand the world of objects and consumer products. The classical definition of the object as something that confronts the subject is still prevalent today, but no longer reflects the reality of the Christian and post-Christian experience. Like Heidegger, Lacan was unable to think outside the constraints imposed on his philosophical platform by the classical Greek concept of the object.
Insofar as the interior is not entirely independent from historical formatting, the public articulation of its individual design not only includes the national or ethnic identity as a component, but in cases of complete foreclosure of individual development is perfectly identical with it. In this case of sacrificial identity construction, the internal format is an engineered object entirely dependent on the national historical art and literary archive. This structuralist reality is mirrored in Lacan’s perfectly French, perfectly tragic, and perfectly Catholic philosophical system. His reception of psychoanalysis was in full accord with the cultural tradition of classicism he as a Frenchman and a Catholic inherited from the state. The death of Louis XIV, as the king himself predicted, was the birth of the modern French state, an ex nihilo Catholic bureaucracy, born of the death of the individuality and perfectly subordinated to the radical finitude of tragic action. We only need to search out the arguments in Lacan’s oeuvres about action and tragedy to establish a full and consummate accord between his object of observation and his thought process. The utter exclusion of individual development is striking and allows for a perfect, closed system that perpetuates itself in endless revolutions of the same cycle. The French system of revolutionary cyclicality was then perfectly copied and reflected in Hegel’s phenomenology.
Let’s take a closer look at Lacan’s reading of Sophocles’s “Antigone.” He positions the tragic figure of Antigone between two deaths and tells us this is the linguistic space where technological invention happens. He writes: “The style of the poem [Sophocles’s “Antigone”], which is that of the chorus, represents Polynices’s soldiers and his shadow strangely enough as a huge bird hovering above the houses. The image of our modern ears as something that glides overhead was already made concrete in 441 BC.” Though he doesn’t cite it, Lacan is referring to Heidegger’s essay on technology, which suggests that the transformation of Antigone into a threatening bird and a menace for the community in the course of a tragic performance constitutes the poetic invention of the airplane. Lacan is most certainly referring to Heidegger’s airplane as he searches for the ethics of psychoanalysis among the remains of Greek tragedy.
Though he tells us we don’t have the key to read ancient Greco-Roman civilisation in its original context, he nevertheless performs a classicist reading of ethics as a code of law for regulating human relations. Lacan’s greatest discovery was the dependence of human desire on the law, an insight he believes to have borrowed from Freud’s interpretation of the tragedy of Oedipus as the most fundamental human psychological structure. Antigone is Oedipus daughter and sister, a child of incest, like her brothers. The basic formula of the exquisite tragic poem is: a conflict breaks out between her and her uncle Creon, the king of Thebes, when he announces that only one of the dead warring brothers is to receive state funeral, Antigone refuses to accept the decree, defies her uncle and buries her brother Polynices, getting herself excommunicated and buried alive in the process. This is why Lacan is referring to a time span between two deaths. He is referring to the time between her live burial in the self-made tomb of her brother and her eventual natural death. He is suggesting that every tragic process whereby subjectivity is born, lives and dies, is a live burial in the structures of the community, which he views as tombs. The poem is indeed breathtakingly beautiful. Every word is in perfect position and proportion to harmonise with every other and together they produce a veritable music of the cosmic spheres. The perfection of the poem is almost otherworldly and supernatural. The structures of the community, the burial caskets of Classical subjectivity, are gloriously seductive, as Lacan never tires of reminding us.
Antigone stands for absolute individualism after the classical conception of both object and subject. Her figure represents the right of the non-reproductive part of family identity, that which is truly unique among immediate family members. Greek law was founded on the prohibition of incest and hence it must have considered the kind of individualism Antigone stands for to be absolute barbarism. Exclusion from the community is death. This was the meaning of sacrifice in prehistoric religions. A sacrifice was offered as a token of one’s renunciation of one’s individuality. The part of the individual that remains banned from the community is in a sense dead, but this is also what makes it valuable to the future, because its action, unlike tragic action, is an event. Tragic action is not event-producing. The final founding sacrifice of the Christian creed, on the other hand, the death of the Christ on the cross, changed the game completely. Instead of sacrificing one’s identity, one dedicates it to Christ, the last material sacrifice — last supper — and that allows the otherwise doomed individuality to unfold in the immaterial realm of sublimation. In the Christian world Antigone would not encounter the resistance her tragic figure needs to be born and to define itself, but she has an important function nevertheless: through her the entire underworld peopled with the dead of ancient Greece and Rome gets a chance at salvation in Christ. She carries her unburied brothers in the splendid, blinding beauty of her tragic features.
For Lacan the ethics of psychoanalysis was the promise to liberate desire structured by libido. He found desire ‘sandwiched’ between two deaths because of the prohibition of incest, which formats the private sphere on one end and the law of the community, which structures the social sphere, on the other. For Lacan, there is no such thing as interiority or at least there is no way of communicating it. Indeed within the classical frame that is true. But this is precisely what Christianity liberated. Greco-Roman civilisation had no concept of the interior, the individuality, which it equated with barbarism. Ultimately, this inability to reflect the interior doomed ancient civilisations to extinction. They were star-crossed to find their desire trapped between two deaths and be irresistibly drawn to their own doom on the barbaric outskirts on which they projected their dreaded interior.
The case is very different with the Biblical tradition. Its law is not based on the prohibition of incest. To be sure incest is prohibited, but it does not form the core identity of the group and its desire, as in classical thought and society, to which Freud and Lacan also belong. Biblical law, because it is not grounded in the prohibition of incest, can only be fulfilled in its own dissolution in love, caritas. The second death of which Lacan speaks in a sense is dissolved in the absolution of the first. As mere text, an individual literary work, “Antigone” represents the legacy of the defeated and unburied Polynices. This is exactly what takes place in the Christian practice of caritas, a carrying forth after death, a survival after death. This was the secret Shakespeare buried in his poetry, which is all that remains, as he tells us in Sonnet 18:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
In the Greek scenario, instead of Antigone, Oedipus returns to lay down the law of the community. If that were not the case, Antigone would have no reason to oppose Creon’s decision and entomb herself with her disgraced brother. Had she believed her participation in Greek civic life could have carried forth the memory of Polynices, she would have obeyed her uncle. But because Greek civilisation had no place and no knowledge of the interior, it also had no formats to which women could contribute. The fact that Antigone considers a potential husband and child insufficient means of preserving and transmitting the legacy of her excommunicated brother, speaks eloquently for the low regard of the family in classical civilisations. Hence emphasis was placed on military action, where lost and confused men sought in vain after what they could have found in the family, namely private glory. Shakespeare revisits this problematic in “Coriolanus,” which is his rendition of Polynices’s tragedy.
Was the airplane invented in poetry with the splendid image of tragic Antigone? Heidegger considered poetry the driving force behind all technological invention. Poetry, techne, was simply state-of-the-art means of representing being, which is hidden in language. Lacan follows in his footsteps when he claims Sophocles invented modern airspace warfare with his poem “Antigone.” Lacan and Heidegger are absolute classicists, for whom death and its form of power among the living, which is the law, represent an absolute limit. This is why they could not conceive of human desire as anything beyond carnal pleasures that do not participate in poetry. Not so for Shakespeare.
The transition from the classical philosophical categories of the traditional object and the stage to the psychologically conjugated concept of technological design makes film an especially intriguing ‘engineered thing.’ A later post will offer some thoughts on the role of the intriguer in Shakespeare’s proto-film/video industry. The design of the festival of Cannes is yet another stage somewhere between classically tragic and modern psychological. Given that the traditional theatre and its stage belong to the class of the object, whereas the motion picture is the paragon of modern techne, the politics at Cannes remain understandably classicist and tragic.
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