Only a few situations is modern secular society seem sufficiently extreme and uncommunicative to have a chance of evading cooptation. Madness is one. What surpasses the limit of suffering (like the Holocaust) is another. A third is, of course, silence.
– Susan Sontag, “Artaud,” 1973
I don’t know if this is going to be fair. I’ve been tracking the impact of Hegel’s “Master-Bondsman” discourse forward toward the postmodern. The similarities aren’t just substantive; there’s also a stylistic affinity. In short, a lot of these guys seem purposely hard to understand. It’s not because they write in dry technical jargon; it’s because the way they write seems a little bit mad. The reader has a hard time telling whether they’re making sense or talking gibberish.
Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit purports to describe the history of universal Spirit coming into conscious awareness of itself. Spirit which is not yet conscious is, by definition, unconscious. As Hegel struggles to make himself undertstood (he was by all accounts a popular lecturer), perhaps he is also struggling to understand himself. The flights into unintelligibility may constitute Hegel’s unconscious making itself heard in a way that language cannot quite capture. Is this ecstatic language a sign of transcendence or of madness? Within Hegel’s theory it’s a little of both.
I can’t quote chapter and verse of Lacan, but here’s the idea as I understand it. The father is the master, channeling the subjected child into conformity with structured social interaction. The most important structures are morality and language. But the specific father is a placeholder for the Name of the Father, the universal signifier, the ultimate master of the Law and the Word. To become socialized is to subject oneself to the Law and the Word, to allow oneself to participate in these intricately-structured systems that sustain the meaningful order of things. But there is always a resistance, an incomplete containment of the self in Law and Word. This resistance expresses itself in “symptoms”: socially inappropriate, anomalous behaviors and mannerisms that take place beneath the threshold of consciousness, in the realm of irrational and nonverbal communication. This morning I wrote a comment on Church and Pomo about Deleuze and Guattari, who advocate a kind of “schizoanalysis” for freeing the flows of desire from “territorialization” in any sort of social or linguistic order. In explicitly moving beyond Hegel they acknowledge the source of their project: the link between the incoherent and the transcendent, a kind of metaphysical glossolalia. As Sontag observes, The literature of the crazy in this [i.e., the twentieth] century is a rich religious literature — perhaps the last original zone of genuine Gnostic speculation.
The blurred distinction between transcendence and madness characterizes quite a few postmodernists. I recently discussed Baudrillard as one example. There are plenty of others: the dadaists, Breton and the Surrealists, Lacan himself, Deleuze and Guattari, Derrida sometimes, Zizek, Badiou. Then there are the half-mad writers they admire: Sade, Poe, Baudelaire, Lautreamont, Rimbaud, Jarry, Artaud (see my post on his Theater of Cruelty), Henry Miller, Beckett, Genet, Dick. The last hundred years of les artes plastiques have been dominated by non-representational expression.
There’s something rebellious in non-representational verbal and visual expression, something unwilling to become subjected to the rational-linguistic order imposed in the Name of the Father. This inability to be contained also manifests a transcendence, an excess over the usual registers of exchange. The mad, the transgressive, the transcendent — all are expressions of mastery in a society dominated by mutual enslavement.
I often put myself into this state of impossible absurdity, in order to try to generate thought in myself. There are a few of us in this era who have tried to get hold of things, to create within ourselves spaces for life, spaces which did not exist and which did not seem to belong to actual space… What is difficult is to find one’s place and to reestablish communication with one’s self. Everything depends on a certain flocculation of things, on the clustering of all these mental gems around a point which has yet to be found… Do you know what it means to have a suspended sensibility, this point of necessary cohesion to which being can no longer rise, this place of terror, this place of prostration?
– Antonin Artaud, “The Nerve Meter,” 1925
In witnessing the self-torment of someone like Artaud you realize that it’s better to be the master of your own uncontainable excesses than to be enslaved by them. In other words, it’s more fun to play at madness than to be really mad.