Eric Santner’s Tanner Lectures begin with the observation that, in contemporary society, human bodies at work do not only produce products or services, but a surplus over them, “work in excess of any apparent teleological order, work that [keeps] one busy beyond reason” (Santner, The Weight of All Flesh, 23). What is this extra busywork for and why is it so exorbitant and unreasonable? Why does it spill over the limits of normal work hours, such that all participation in social life feels like work? What is this surplus? The short answer is glory, that intangible excess related to reputation, fame, and status. Glory lies behind our obsession with media and its images, celebrities and politicians, with any shiny new commodity. But it also has to do with the People themselves, with incarnating the social bond under capitalism. In this essay, we will examine the relation between glory and labor in some detail, before discussing some potential responses: Santner’s idle worship and our “really doing nothing” with the help of the imaginary number.
The Sovereignty of Ca$hMoney
To trace the development of busy-work, Santner returns to the moment when, starting with the French revolution, the People overthrew the Monarchy and popular replaced royal sovereignty. For many centuries, the production of glory was fixed on the King’s symbolic body, his so-called “second body” or glorious body, the one that divides and redoubles his real body, inserts him into the symbolic network as King, and sustains his authority. Once the King has been deposed and his throne emptied of its splendor, the necessities of glory do not simply vanish, for the “legitimacy” of the social world is at stake in them. To see where they go, and how they are transformed, we will have to look to the new forms of legitimation and administration of the social body, to capitalism and political economy.
For Santner, glory “descends” from royal transcendence into the realm of commodities, which is why they take on a sort of magical power, and why Marx called the commodity, “a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.” With modernization, the political theology of sovereignty is replaced by the political economy of the wealth of nations (30). The King is deposed and replaced by monetary value. What emerges is the, “perverse vitality of money qua symbolic medium of exchange” (50). Money is God: this is no cliché, but a perspicuous recognition by popular consciousness of who runs the show now that there is no King to run it and even time is money. The fetishism once aimed at royal persons is displaced onto new sites of ecstatic union between political subjects and commodities (and spectacles) in a generalized movement of the fetishization of things. But what is fetishized through them is, in fact, the “second body” of the People, who produce them to produce their own consistency. We will return to this, but first we must untangle the link between the glory left over from the collapse of the gods and labor itself.
Generally speaking, what produces glory is the performance of a liturgy, which literally means “work of the people” (litos ergos). Although we normally think of liturgy in connection to the religious context (the Mass, rituals, prayers, etc.), it is imperative to see it from a broader perspective. In the royal context, it took the form of a sort of constant vigilance over the King’s second body, his virtually real double, in a way that maintained his symbolic authority at all times and everywhere, and thus sustained the legitimacy of the social world itself (36). It is easy to compare in this way the constant bustling about of the King’s representatives and the constant trembling of worshipers at the altar: both are obsessed to produce and sustain the glory which sweeps them up and sweeps them away. Just think of monks rising at 4 a.m. every morning to chant Psalms, who spend all their waking hours praying to God. Or think of those in the King’s office who must constantly represent his infallibility, and must stay in the know lest they miss an opportunity to get closer to him. Following Agamben, who has amply shown that without these glorification practices there simply would be no God or King, Santner interprets capitalist society from this perspective: the production of glory (liturgies) that first manifested in these contexts has not been eliminated but only transformed in secular times. When capitalism itself is the religion, the process is “immanentized” into universal busy-body-ness. Just as the Jesuits called for the unlimited increase of the glory of God (“the continual increase of the glory of God that can in no way be increased” (100)), the call under capital is for the unlimited valorization of Value–for the unlimited increase in the splendor of the social body that supports it, and for unlimited capital accumulation.
This emptying of the throne and, more broadly, of the legitimacy of the positions once held by gods and royalty — and thus progressively of all social institutions themselves, as all heads of state lose their head — is part of a process often called disenchantment. But otherworldly spirits do not just vanish in this “secularization,” nor are modern subjects any less enchanted. In this transition, “from the glorification/valorization of sovereigns… to the self-valorization of capital,” there is simply a corresponding, “shift to new forms of the production of glory, splendor, and valor” (73). The center of the machine of glory loses its transcendence, and a sort of inversion takes place, such that this disenchanted world, “vibrates with a surplus of immanence.” Santner will use this image of vibrating often. It incidates that the task of dealing with the “royal remains,” what is left over from the King’s second body, has become immanent, assailing us and suspending us in a state of “petrified unrest,” such that even when our labor is meaningless, useless, or redundant, we are still producing the vibration of the social (82). Mass and social media obviously play a part in this, but they only reflect a more pervasive program that should grab our attention: the non-stop, 24/7, no-sleep pace of the modern capitalist world is a “democratization” or “popularization” of the ideal of the rex exsomnis, the King that never sleeps (36). In this constantly vibrating world, we are the busy-bodies who must, “discharge an excess of demand… that keeps us driven even when we are ostensibly ‘idling,’ keeps us negotiating even in the midst of otium” (80-81). In sum, the “liturgical hum” that once sustained theological sovereignty is now fully discharged into commodity-producing labor, whose real product is a spectral materiality, the modern equivalent of divine splendor (239). And it is this spectral materiality [gespenstische Gegenständlichkeit] that Marx says characterizes the metaphysics of the commodity.
The production of glory thus suffuses the very fabric of everyday life, and every social space becomes a site for it. Because no royal “second body” is there to uphold the social order, the People themselves must take it over. Lacking a royal person to fetishize, the need to upkeep glory infects the entire expanse of “valuable” things. Value-form itself becomes sovereign. The result is, “a ubiquitous pressure for productive wakefulness.” It is so extreme that only when we are asleep do we, “inhabit a truly human world, one not fully adapted to, (de)created for, the inhuman rhythms of 24/7 routines of work, consumption, connectivity, and vigilance” (34). The symptoms are well known: “constant production, consumption, communication, interconnectedness, interindebtedness, and profit-oriented self-management” (34). In this modern scenario, the flesh itself is invested with a debt drive, for it is everywhere indebted to produce the People’s “second body.” Thus the business of busy-body who must see to it that this body doesn’t fall apart. No one can get away from the office because the flesh itself houses it. That we work increasingly from a “home office” only confirms the coincidence of these two orders, where the flesh embodies the intersection of the household and the global. Even in our downtime, and certainly very often unconsciously, we “entertain,” and are entertained by, the radiant God of capital, through all the channels of the culture industry. But whether we worship money directly or its mediation by a commodity, it is really the abstract labor underneath it, which it veils, that we love. Both laborous and liturgical, this worship reaches so far that society as a whole looks like a non-stop cultic celebration of the spectral body of the social, to whatever degree it surfaces explicitly or is concealed underneath the products it produces.
Weighing the People’s Flesh
What we are fascinated with in the commodity or the spectacle is nothing less than the flesh of the people. Debord’s desgination of the spectacle as a worldview materialized, as a unification obtained in the language of universal separation, is confirmed here. As Santner writes, underlying this feverish 24/7 restlessness of the capitalist world is, “a new form of business—of quasi-official busy-ness and busy-body-ness—[that] comes itself to function as the work of incarnation, as the production site of the flesh of the People” (26). To understand this, we have to return to the beginning and ask: what purpose did the King actually serve? Nothing less than the justification of social space itself, its laws and normative rules. Once he is no longer there to serve as this guarantee, this justification will have to be found through other modes of social upkeep. The world of “business” is only sustained by the busy bodies that buzz to uphold it. But if so many suffer under this busy-ness, why is it too not abandoned, deposed like the old royalties? Quite simply because then the lack of ultimate foundations of human forms of life would be exposed–in other words, the originary and anomic violence upon which the juridico-social order and its laws are built. (The crucial point is that glory is an apparatus that captures this void, this originary lack, and conceals it; and in doing so, it makes the whole apparatus shine with splendor, i.e., makes it work.)
It is this dimension of juridico-political normativity, the violence of law itself, which the King’s “symbolic body” once served to conceal. Law in fact does not function unless there is some “little piece of the real” to conceal the void at the heart of the law’s vicious circle (its legality is founded on something extra-legal, for example, on the sovereign who is an exception to the law). By “law” we understand not just the laws upheld by the police and the procedures followed in courtrooms, but the entire field of political-social normativity (including the etiquette and politeness we practice even when we don’t believe in them; Zizek would say this is ideology at its purest) (83). Once this “little piece of the real” is gone, the social world is opened up to an abyss, because now the violence at its origin is no longer concealed, and thus its violence no longer has an excuse for its existence, no alibi to vouch for it.
In effect, according to Santner, human life is distinguished by a gap that opens up between the somatic and the normative, bare life and the “worldly” life into which it is inserted. This insertion begins before the human child is even born. Even by dint of its name, it is inserted into what Lacan called the Symbolic. It is only because of this inaugural incidence of language on the living being that the human being “is” in the sense we understand it, namely, as a speaking being (or what Lacan called parlêtre, a speakbeing). Its entire “life” will play out at the intersection, at the jointure or break, between the natural and the worldly. The latter is not a biological given, but acquired insofar that we are exposed as a being in language and thus “thrown” into the world. Even more, this insertion is never complete, nor is our being ever fully acquired, but something always misfires, the gap is never fully closed. For Santner, it is through this amplification or “potentiation” of our vulnerable biological life, through our exposure to historical forms of life (ultimately, the space of what we call “meaning” and significance), that the “flesh of creaturely life” unfolds, including all the labor it must undergo to “make sense” of this gap (84). Put otherwise, our biological life is “inflamed” by this insertion, and we work to give meaning to this inflammation, which for the most part we did not choose (239).
Flesh is not just brains and muscles, but these plus the weight of social relations. Thus the uncanny pressure that encroaches upon us when we stand before a board of review or in the immigration office. We feel the pressure of a self-amplifying dynamic, where, “the ego is, in some sense, under constant pressure to live for the greater glory of the super-ego, to ‘fatten’ its status as Über-ich, which might indeed be better translated as surplus-ego” (99). Whether or not we consciously percieve the core unfoundedness of these spaces and of the norms they enforce upon our body, we know they put us to work in a way that is not just physical or “cognitive,” but social. The politeness that a waitress must show to her rude customers, night after night, condenses well the burden of this “weight,” and the cost she must pay to “vibrate” to the busy-body rhythm of Capital.
Clearly, because these forms of life into which we are inserted are historical, they are subject to breaking down at any moment, if we can say they ever truly, fully, succeed in covering the gap. As creatures made of this “flesh,” we do not only feel the pressure to uphold the norms of social life that correspond to our placement in it. We also feel the much greater pressure of the void around which they orbit, “the lack of any ultimate grounding or authorization of those normative statuses” (84). Santner calls formations of the flesh all the manners in which this “ontological vulnerability” is covered up, where formerly it was the King who covered up this void and absorbed this pressure of the radical contingency of social forms of life. He emphasizes that the King covered this in two ways: by veiling it (this is the immediate effect of the glorious body) but also by vouching for it, that is, for whatever debt in justifications remained. It is this function that, with the deposition of royal sovereignty, comes to spread itself across the whole fabric of the social. The “subject-matter” of the modern citizen-subject directly involves these formations of the flesh which labor to veil the void and to vouch for the legitimacy of those forms. This is the People’s second body, which must now function, “as glorious guarantor covering the missing link at the ‘anthropogenetic’ knotting of the somatic and the normative” (86). And, going by appearances, the more illegitimate the world appears to be, the greater the debt to the commodity-form of sovereignty and the stronger the debt drive, the harder human flesh must work to legitimize it and to knot together some sort of logic to make sense of socio-historical life.
Political economy thus pertains to the maintenance of the People’s Two Bodies, not just its material life (the management of biological life and death), but its spectral life (the glory and splendor of its body). It inherits the duty to vouch for the normative order and its suture to the somatic, and thus to constantly “redeem or indemnify” a lack at its origin. Biopolitics does not only address man as species and population, but this dimension of the flesh as the bearer of royal remains, for, “the threshold of modernity is marked by the ‘massification’ of the physical-juridical flesh of the king, its dispersion into populations that for that very reason must be placed in the care of biopolitical administration” (89). Biopolitics, in this sense, is the regime of the justification of veils and their securitization. What appears to be the mere “policing of empirical bodies and forces” actually conceals a liturgical or sacramental dimension, for this administration is responsible for covering the void upon which social existence is build. Foucault even showed in his geneological analyses that policing was originally conceived as, “the art of the state’s splendor as visible order and manifest force,” not just the maintenance of rule but the maintenance of glory. But it is not just the police but every political subject who inherits responsibility for the People’s second body. This is what underlies modern busy-body-ness, what weighs uncannily upon us: the production and shaping of the glorious flesh of the social bond (99), the imperative to care for this “spectral flesh of the sovereign People” (86).
For a Paradoxological Idle Worship
Santner sums all this up under the heading of the ‘doxological’ dimension of labor itself. Here, work is conceived as the performance of a liturgical practice, a “public service” in the sense that it is increasingly concerned with the production and maintenance of this “spectral flesh” or materiality of glory, the glory of the social bond itself. In short, work is one form of the doxology of everyday life (100). This logic of glory far exceeds rational self-pursuit, even if capitalism justifies its worship through this ideology or knotting procedure. According to this doxology, what matters above all is to “vibrate” with the social body in unison with this strange order of busy-body angels who no longer produce glory to God but the self-valorization of Value. Santner summarizes: “the labor theory of value is fundamentally a theory of the production of glory, of the liturgical dimension of labor performed in the service of the greater valor, glory, splendor, of Value” (115). Thus, any critique of political economy must be paradoxological, because it must work through the doxological dimension of Work, albeit by looking at it from the side.
Worshiping money is not limited to its monetary or commodity forms, but is present wherever this social liturgy is invested, wherever the fundamental void at the heart of social normativity is captured to a certain end, made to work and operate, to produce value. What’s more, capitalism is indifferent to the specifics of this labor, or of the place where this liturgy is practiced. All that matters to it is the quantity of value-producing labor, the “simple average labor” to which even the most complex labor is reduced (103, 106). What disappears in the commodity, what its fetishism denies or willfully overlooks, is this massive reduction of all the specifics of labor into a, “gelatinous mass in and through which our sociality is constituted as a kind of quasi-religious, quasi-secular mass in the liturgical service of the self-valorization of Value” (106)– of value which in itself is a weightless, quasi-spiritual thing. This is why the “weightless” commodity, in its gespenstische Gegenständlichkeit, exerts such an “enormous gravitational force on everyone and everything” (276). Santner calls the alchemy of capitalism this process whereby our bodily expenditure is reduced or abstracted to become a substance of valor, glory, radiance, and splendor. It is here that flesh and gold become interchangeable: both sparkle with the promise of an unlimited increase in glory. Both are the “instrumental cause” of Value’s self-valorization (113), which is why both are fetishized for their “shine,” their glory-potency. In the end, of course, all are forced to operate to produce the People’s body, and are operated upon by capital for it, whether or not our bodies can bear what it demands.
This operativity, which weighs upon the flesh and which the flesh weighs, is at stake wherever the subject sustains-entertains the Agency of Value, “feeding it with the splendor of surplus value,” so as to effectively enjoy the entitlements that it enjoys from this work, nothing less than “its being in the Other.” The cliche that those who serve the machine are the only ones to benefit from it is confirmed here. Only those who help capital valorize itself are worthy of reaping the benefits of the value produced (“pay the cost to be the boss”), just as only those who glorified God were worthy of reaping the benefits of his grace, or those who served the King faithfully could benefit from his priviledge. Obviously, there are many for whom this liturgical service is not optional, given that without reaping some “benefits” of Capital one will starve. Santner does not address this problem in his lectures, namely, how for most this liturgical service is obligatory. Nonetheless, it is certain that any critique of capital today demands an interruption of its unending Wertesdienst and the transferential dimension that it sustains, where, “each day commands the utter fealty of each worshiper” (Agamben, Kingdom and the Glory, 88).
Of course, our conscious condemnation of nation-states, our disidentification with the People, even our interventions into social organization, do little to remove this demand, for it is ‘unconscious’ in the strong sense. It is our bodies that are busied and act out these symtpoms in spite of us. And, as Freud learned, one does not “conceptually annul” a fetish. Critique must analyze the spell cast by the doxological machine over everyday life, so that it can later intervene into, “the labor process itself along with the quasi-somatic, quasi-normative pressures informing it” (120, 87). Santner suggests a lived critical practice on par with a psychoanalytical working through:
the often difficult, sometimes comical, and always repetitive emotional, cognitive, and practical reelaboration of the lived and embodied ways in which one participates in one’s own unfreedom, of the modes of busy-body-ness in which one’s capacity for freedom is held in a sort of suspended animation (263).
Alongside this mode of critique, however, Santner does propose a more positive project: a para-doxological “idle worship” that would be revolutionary in essence, a form of idleness, of non-capitalist and non-glory-producing worship that would “unplug” us from the constant vibration whereby the busy business upholds itself and produces its glory (114). What we must induce is a general strike against liturgical labor (which is both political and economic), such that the void, “the absence of purpose and destination proper to human life,” the fundamental otium or inoperativity that marks it, is no longer captured and incorporated into a seperate sphere (politics, economy, religion, etc). This means the introduction into social practices, into the formations of the flesh that predominantly serve the invisible hand of Capital, an coefficient of non-doing that would help us recognize the fact that humanity lacks any fundamental task or telos, that it is fundamentally without purpose, and that man, “in his essence… is completely devoid of work [opera], because he is the Sabbatical animal par excellence” (Agamben, 246). For us, “devoid of work” also means: devoid of glory and without need of it, neither on the level of singular existence, nor on the level of communal accomplishment. (I would even suggest a radical critique of radiance itself. All that glitters is gold and that precisely is the problem. I refer the reader to the introduction to FOR NOW which, however inadequate (because stuck to an ontology of singular being and not yet seeing that glory itself is not a human necessity), sets out a partial program for a “technics of glory” that would know how to never fill in this void of inoperativity, how to leave open the lived absence of all telos, and thus how to disqualify and depotentialize glory at its source, the soulflesh.)
On Really Doing Nothing
The answer to Santner’s closing question–what would happen if, once work has lost all sense of usefulness, we all joined in ‘idle worship’, a sort of sublime or sabbatical idling?–obviously cannot be “nothing.” To begin such idling is precisely to start doing nothing, but what does “doing nothing” really do? What manner of doing characterizes and what can be meant by the “passive sabotage” (Berardi) called for here? We have to be very careful and, in the development of this paradoxology, distinguish between the doing nothing that does nothing in the sense of “it doesn’t do anything,” and the doing nothing that “does something,” or rather does nothing, as when one says that one does the laundry or does one’s duty: carries the object of the activity through, sees it to completion, only here the object is no-thing but inoperativity, generic human (im)potentiality. Doing nothing then, in this active sense, is counterintuitive and radically non-prescriptive, since in essence it prescribes a void. It nearly ‘commands’ that one act rigorously non-telelogically– that one install nowhere everywhere?– and this in order to honor being ‘human’, that animal with no proper work, no proper biological or cultural goal or end-point, that strange creature of pure means whose heart is filled with the very void whose flooding into the world is both the greatest risk and its potential saving force.
To really do nothing is to introduce into the world the only type of cause that is relevant: one that doesn’t work, that doesn’t add up, that is “good-for-nothing” and can succeed “at not being pictured” (270-1). An enigmatic signifier, a cause of the future.
Yet it is nearly blasphemy to most ears to assert that there might be a form of “doing nothing” that is revolutionary or somehow interventionist, even if only in the form of suspending the apparatus of glory-production. Is it possible to produce no value without surrendering oneself to total uselessness? Bataille developed this problem under the heading of the accursed share, that little piece of the real that could not be included in the global system of the work world. Perhaps it takes a special ear to hear that call, or to see its motion in history, beginning with the first moment of contemplation up to the development of the scholē and into our age where even the last remnants of authentic leisure and silence, withdrawal and inactivity, are being liquidated–at least on the surface, but can “doing nothing” ever be detected on the surface? How would we see such interventions, were we not ourselves so caught up in them, such believers in the power of doing nothing, that it had become impossible not to believe? The difficulty is, and I suspect will remain, the quietist nature of “idle worship,” even its invisibility. How will doing nothing leave its mark in a world overloaded with titles and reputations? Are we not, after all, hard working?
Doing nothing and becoming nothing, or becoming no-one, no doubt overlap; such is the extent to which the discontinuation of glory must go. The mystics were perhaps the first technicians of this, at least to the extent that their activity was not entirely absorbed in glorifying God. For our part, we would like to emphasize the importance of raising the banner of the generic in this debate. In our view, both dissolution into the They-self (the mob-mind that unthinkingly worships Value) and the set-up of singular existence (the withdrawn-mind that thoughtfully worships the unique Value it creates for itself, often philosophy’s own concern) must be avoided. Both appeal to radiance and forclose human-generic potentiality, which we might call a takeoff-without-landing or a lightness-without-light. Perhaps we must learn to detect and depotentialize the appeal not just of gold but of whatever glitters, whatever flashes or wishes to turn its flash into Value. Perhaps this does imply the assumption of a radical night for thought?
What is certain is that we need a strong theory of “idleness” if we are going to prevent thoughts like these from sinking back into a nihilism of relaxation, spectatorship, ironic distance, and laziness. The paradox is that it is incredibly hard work to do nothing–to both keep oneself apart from the apparatus of glory-production, while also not defaulting on the easy solution of “vegging” out indefinitely. We need something different from the “drop out” model of the hippies or the “withdrawal” of the philosopher-contemplative. We ourselves continue to circle around this point central to Agamben’s own project: how to work the unworking into the work? How to exhibit inoperativity, to act the de-activation, to de-stitute the constituted and instituted powers, to depotentialize the value-imperative? How to ensure that at each moment of its deployment something draws it back, retracts it, such that nothing is ‘in’ the work–yes, nothing–, save its potential to work-or-not-work?
For that too is part of “idle worship”: the contemplation of what one can and cannot do, but also what one can not do–all the things that one can abstain from and “prefer not to do”–like, for example, refusing to participate in the mediatized game of glory and repute, though not without putting its channels (like social media) to a new, “deactivatory” use. Idle worship implies finding those “margins” of resistance to the social liturgy and turning them into new centers of inoperativity and, in this sense, of anthropogenesis.
What we need is a non-Bartleby: borrowing his famous “I would prefer not to” without giving ourselves over to the catatonia of one who must be forcibly removed from the law (office) by the narrator/lawyer, only to die unknown in some asylum. A non-Bartleby for the streets, virtual or otherwise, who has internalized or radicalized the “I would prefer not to” so much that there is no prohibition on work or activity attached to it–no refusal to scriv. We could even imagine this with the help of complex numbers, which have a real and an imaginary number component (a + bi). Here, “I would prefer not to” is the “imaginary” component: it leaves the real coordinates of work be, while simultaneously bending, sending, or otherwise redirecting them toward “idleness,” adding to them a factor of “ultimate” non-action or zero-potentiality, “reducing” them to a generic vector of redeemed humanity, and so destining them to a humanity ever on the threshold of discovering the properly “imaginary” dimension of its “real” work. In a sense, this would mean the embrace of a purely spectral materiality– we would prefer to say material futurality— that did not once again refer exclusively to any “real” component or “real” social body. Accepting the imaginary number as an immanental algebraic constant for every “human equation” could indeed help us fulfill Santner’s wish to, “strike something other than what’s there.” Properly understood, we would unhesitatingly identify it with the “messianic dimension of human action,” or with what Honig calls “Sabbath-power” (47, 259). At the very least, it is a speculative way to avoid making a contradiction out of teleology and the ateleological.
Really doing nothing “produces” nothing in two senses: (1) the manifestation of the Non-, the “unthinkable emptiness” or inoperativity at the heart of human operations, but also (2) the “overturning of the Nothing” insofar as the latter might imply a destructive or negative figure, which is here excluded. Especially once considered as algebraic constant, the Non- is simply that which accompanies every work, its virtuality or open messianity, undoing it immanently and from within its very purpose– though again the purpose is upside down, for here every purpose to its repurposing; or it shows the parody of purpose at the point of utmost purposiveness, thus “unconcealing” the radical indeterminability and undestinability of human work. Put otherwise, really doing nothing in the active sense cannot do without un-binding the positivity of what is– whatever value, whatever social, whatever being— by introducing into the order of the positive a “negative” which acts in the present as a positive cause of the nothing or of the future, against the mere (re)production of the present or the past. In this way, the folly of producing anything with the aim of producing glory shows itself, such that the global business of producing it and the restless tizzy into which it sends us all now appears wildly “counter-productive.”