Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Anarchism & Decadence (3)

Anarchism & Decadence
- David Tacium, Montréal

If there is a line of continuity between anarchism and decadence, it would have to be read under the common current of romanticism and its notion of the counter-cultural hero, whose losing battle with industrialism has been well charted. Yet I cannot make the link without discomfort, considering the solitary disbelief of the decadent individual in light of the revolutionary dimension of anarchism, its vision of the possibility of a world moving forward into a transformed world where government will be abolished.

What, first of all, is decadence? Is it the primitivism in pop culture today, of which the signs go all the way from piercings to medieval combat? Does it mean getting wasted on ecstasy? It might, but let’s recognize first of all that like anarchy, it is not something which this generation invented. In fact, both currents gained their modern day momentum some 120 years ago (I’m being a bit arbitrary in giving 1890 as a date, but it was certainly a moment of flowering). I’m confident that readers know enough about the origins of anarchism. But what did Decadence mean back then?

Herbert Bahr, a prominent Austrian critique of the time who grappled with the question, was hardly alone in laying emphasis on the aesthetic dimension of experience, to which he added the value of mysticism and close attention to the changing states of the soul. Other-worldly preoccupations, surely. The decadent was one who sought to alter his own life, and at most his immediate surroundings, and to hell with the larger picture. It was the bourgeoios “gentleman” who was prone to decadence. He still is: witness the stereotype of consumer-oriented gay urban male, for instance, whom the American Right is forever damning even while a significant sector of the economy is all too happy to know exists.

It is safe to say that decadence carried a predominantly negative connotation. However, regardless whether the decadent be a hyper-consumer who helps keep the economy afloat or a “burden on society”, it would be reductive to see the decadent simply as a self-indulgent egocentric. This would miss the point that at the same time, there was a strong current of culture critique in embracing decadence, especially as someone like Baudelaire did. For the latter, the decadent figure countered his society’s blind reverence to positivistic progress, machine technology. The radical critique of decadence, in Baudelaire’s thought, is to expose the artificiality of all human endeavor. In embracing decadence, Baudelaire takes a swipe at Charles Fourier and the socialists of 1848, whom he accuses of buying into the ideology of progress, the Western ideal par excellence.

Baudelaire too was once an activist, in his early years (he even mounted the barricades alongside Blanqui in 1848), until nature took over from history as the ultimate reference point and the dandy came to stand for the modern day apache, an underground hero made up of transgression and subversion. In his opposition to the world as it was leaning and not moving, a world which he saw as pure spectacle, he saw the value of reformers like Giuseppe Ferrari not for their belief in progress but for their capacity to observe politics as an aesthetic show lacking internal coherence. Indeed, the first decadents turned the sword the other way, accusing the progress-mongers of being themselves decadent. They were culture critiques first and foremost, using their own decadence as a way of nay-saying a world they meant to refashion.

The decadent project put the individual first , aiming to establish the human person in all his uniqueness and beauty against a society that reduced the human being to a uniform, to a mere fragment of a larger project. It was a society based on privatization that gave its subjects the illusion of freedom while it simultaneously reinforced the value of competition. Precursor of today’s anti-imperialists, Baudelaire discredits the Paris of his time for failing to see outside the box. He takes part in the Romantic discovery of the nobility of the North American native people, who stand for reality, not in spite of but because of the transparency of their artifice, their maquillage, their ritual and the like.

Now, none of this, so far, contradicts the anarchist vision of one like Pierre Kropotkin, whose pamphlet “Anarchist Morality” denounces the straightjacket of contemporary religious, political, legal and social education by positing the basic motive for all human activity as the lust for pleasure. “We recognize the full and complete liberty of the individual; we desire for him plenitude of existence, the free development of all his faculties.”

The decadent project of Baudelaire’s fictional hero Samuel Cramer, in La Fanfarlo, was to exaggerate the signs of personal eccentricity in a desperate attempt to imitate a natural style. His successors, such as Huysmans’ Des Esseintes (À rebours), continues the quest by resolutely subverting whatever is taken for natural in the society in which he lives, a determination that leads him to such “bizarre” experiments as the attempt to eat with his anus. Moreover, he justifies his conduct by illustrating all the ways in which nature itself is deviant, perverse, full of deformation, abortion, degeneration. All this is a profound critique of mainstream society’s reduction of nature to a machine that works.

Decadence is bound up directly to sexuality, and Baudelaire was hardly the only among “first” decadents to have understood the power of sex as a medium of cultural critique. In short, the full potential of the human person requires a breaking out of the restrictions of genre. All the ways in which genre is used to manipulate people into remaining obedient political subjects would lead me to write another paper. Conversely, deviance as an expression of revolt has a long tradition, leading to the early modern period with writers like Oscar Wilde, Jean Genet and critics such as Fritz Fanon and Michel Foucault. Jonathan Dollimore’s Sexual Dissidence (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991) develops the notion of a perverse dynamic whereby self-identity is seen for the fragmentary ploy that it is, and abandoned in favor of a fuller being that discovers its interconnectedness and enters the arena of repression and liberation, which is a political realm.

Here is where we can pin-point the important affinity of decadence to anarchism. In this realm, the decadent is not merely “against” in the sense of being opposed to something but also “against” in the sense of being close up , in proximity to, i.e., “up against”. Decadence is a position assumed within normativity – in fact, it is what the “normal” people call those whom they condemn – which enables the decadent to call normativity into question.

Decadence thus offers the possibility of social and indeed political involvement in the very trenches of the contemporary world. The decadent has the chance to make every minute of his life a struggle, not with the enemy but with potential allies. For as Kropotkin says, while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying life, ultimate satisfaction comes with the exuberance of free thought and feeling. He cites Guyau as summing up the whole question of anarchist morality when he says, “We are not enough for ourselves: we have more tears than our own sufferings claim, more capacity for joy than our existence can justify.” The decadent subject summons the full arsenal of human experience, from suffering to wit, in a sublime expression of revolt.

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