Doing Nothing: On the Unglorious Bodies of Ordinary Messiahs
ABSTRACT: This article begins with Eric Santner’s theories on glory, labor, and the People’s ‘spectral flesh’, as outlined in The Weight of All Flesh. At issue initially is the question of busy work, the buzzing of busy bodies that characterizes the modern world. Why does our busy-ness spill over the limits of normal work hours, tying us to constant availability and rendering social participation an anxious labor? What might explain our attraction to social media and the prosthetic devices which link us to the wider world and our own identities? The answer I will explore is glory, that intangible excess or ‘shine’ related to wealth, fame, and self-image. Glory pertains to our obsession with celebrities, commodities, and spectacles; but behind these phenomena, the production of the ‘spectral flesh’ of the People is at stake. Modern busy-ness is rooted in the need to incarnate and justify the social bond under capitalism, a bond produced, worshipped, and glorified through countless daily updates and secular liturgies. I begin by tracing Santner’s account of the rise of the commodity-form, the instability introduced into the social order with the loss of the Sovereign’s guarantee, and the debt that then devolves to the People to legitimize it. I then discuss the anthropology behind this analysis, in which the human is conceived as originally doubled into two bodies, or rather, suspended over a void between its ‘natural’ body and its ‘spectral’ body. Humans must labor to make sense of this void, to understand this ‘spectral’ dimension as it weights upon their very flesh. I show how capitalism exploits these efforts for the valorization of Value, the fetishization of commodities, and the glorification of abstract identities. At issue finally is how the apparatus of glory might be deactivated and the value-imperative overturned. Drawing from Santner’s notion of ‘idle worship’, I conclude with a meditation on unglorious bodies capable of ‘doing nothing’, with reference to a ‘non-Bartleby’ and to contemporary notions of messianity found in Agamben and Laruelle.
The Sovereignty of Ca$hMoney
For centuries, the production of glory was fixated on producing the King’s symbolic body, his ‘second’ or ‘glorious’ body, which divides and redoubles his real, physical body, and endows him with the radiant aura of sovereignty, legitimacy, and power. Without the robes and pageantry, the splendor of gilded palaces and ornament, all the hubbub surrounding the throne, the King would be a lump of clay like any other: nude flesh. But with the concentration of glory in his person, he is transferred onto a new plane of significance, inserted into the symbolic network that maintains and sustains him as King and legitimizes him as an authority capable of mediating the legal, economic, and communal relations among the people. It bestows upon him an ‘immaterial body’ in excess of his flesh though not different from it exactly; it is rather that spectral ‘something’ that gives the King an air of divine untouchability. This concept of the second body is essential to understanding how one person could come to stand and speak for an entire region or nation: the King assumes, effectively, the proportions of God. In a similar vein, Agamben remarks that without praise and adoration God himself would cease to exist: the glorified being is itself produced by the labor of glorification. Without on-going acclamation and applause, the ruler (or celebrity, politician, performer, etc.) loses the crowd and so loses power and influence. With no one to feed the production of glory, or to believe in its grand spectacle, it is de-potentialized. The King not only stands naked, he is abandoned—so much so that his robes no longer convey the slightest appeal of majesty, his throne just as well left empty.
To follow the evolution of glory and its production, Eric Santer returns to when the People overthrew Monarchy and popular sovereignty started to replace royal sovereignty. Revolution destroyed the King’s position and legitimacy, but at a cost. I will discuss later how the loss of the King exposes the social body to the abyss of its own construction. For now, we must understand how the productions of glory once concentrated in the King had to be taken over by the labor of the people once the King was dethroned.
How to organize a People beyond the centralized, sovereign form is a question humanity has not yet answered, for it involves humanity’s continuing entanglement in the question of glory. As it stands, we know the people’s labor is almost totally submitted to the profit-motive of capital, to a capitalism which inherits the divine right of kings and is in the process of destroying even the meaning of nationhood. No longer mediated by sovereigns, the social is given over to mediation by money. According to Santner, glory “descends” from royal transcendence into the realm of commodities, which comes to exert magical power over us. Why? Because the commodity is a vessel for glory, for social value and status. It signifies a great mass of abstract labor, but its ‘shine’ blinds us to this underbelly. Like the King, the commodity conceals from sight the fact that its form, no less than the sovereign-form, is a norm of human interaction built upon an abyss, possessing no inherent legitimacy. The King deposed, what emerges is no less alienating: “the perverse vitality of money qua symbolic medium of exchange” (50). Money is God, C.R.E.A.M.: these are not clichés but clear-sighted recognitions in popular consciousness of who runs the ‘show’ now that there is no King to run it; and of the need to hustle for glory that remains now that the fetishism once aimed at royal persons has been displaced onto new sites of ecstatic union between political subjects and commodities and spectacles in a generalized movement of the fetishization of things and the glorification of abstract identities. What is fetishized in these commodities and spectacles is the ‘second body’ of the People, who produce them to produce the consistency of the social. The spectrality of this body, its hallucinatory and englobing aspect, is made plain by the millions of channels and pages that populate our screens. But so is the incredible labor it takes to maintain this body, to bear the weight of producing the People. We will return to this, but first we must clarify the link between the glory left over from the collapse of gods and kings, 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 with a religious context (Mass, rituals, prayers), it is imperative to see it from a broader perspective. In the royal milieu, it took the form 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 (36). It is easy to compare the bustling-about of the King’s representatives and the bowing of worshipers at the altar. Both are obsessed to produce and sustain the glory which sweeps them up and sweeps them away, absorbs them in a movement of a higher power or indeed of the whole cosmos. 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 the King’s officers who must represent to all his infallibility, who must stay ‘in the know’ of palace intrigue lest they miss an opportunity to draw closer to his center of influence. As Agamben suggests, without these glorification procedures there would be no God or King. Furthermore, cognitive allegiance is not enough, for it is not a matter of beliefs but of producing the glory of what one glorifies, of actively endowing it with its aura of importance and right.
Santner interprets capitalist society from this perspective: The production of glory, first manifested in the direct form of liturgies and royal ceremony, has not been eliminated but only transformed in secular times. We have inherited the paradigm, multiplied and personalized the liturgies. At the same time, we lack the transcendence and elevation of God or King, and so all these liturgies turn upon themselves in an endless cycle, producing the ‘second body’ of an utterly fragmented and disparate People. When capitalism itself is the religion, the process is “immanentized” into universal busy-body-ness. Each body is the locus of the glorious body’s upkeep, each one working to maintain the fabric, “in excess of any apparent teleological order, work that [keeps] one busy beyond reason” (23). For 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)), under capitalism the call is for the unlimited valorization of Value, for the unlimited increase in the ‘splendor’ and wealth of the social body that supports it (even if its ‘shine is a mere phantasm or spectacle), and for unlimited capital accumulation, in which humanity glorifies its own abstract labor.
Emptying the throne and unseating the positions once held by gods and royalty, thus progressively destabilizing other social institutions, is part of a process often called disenchantment. But otherworldly spirits do not vanish in this secularization, nor are modern subjects much 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). We are under the spell of reason if we think we have overcome the mechanism of glory. The center of the machine has only lost its compact transcendence. An inversion has taken place, such that this disenchanted world, “vibrates with a surplus of immanence” (80). Vibration is an image Santner often uses to characterize modern labor culture. It indicates that the task of dealing with the “royal remains,” what is left over from the King’s second body, has become immanent. Maintaining the People’s second body is at stake in all our buzzing around. It is “at work” in the commodity, alive in an “undead,” haunting way. The royal remains assail us and suspend 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 play a large part in this buzziness, but they are only visible manifestations of a 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—the duty to take care of this ‘surplus of immanence’ hasn’t slackened a bit (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). The “liturgical hum” that once sustained theological sovereignty is now fully discharged into godless, commodity-producing labor; and its real product is not just goods and services, but the spectral materiality of the People’s second body, the modern equivalent of divine splendor, but without any stable figures to settle the tension or relax the labor (239). It is this spectral materiality [gespenstische Gegenständlichkeit] that characterizes the spooky action of the commodity: much more than the object itself, it is the glory in it that attracts.
The production of glory thus suffuses the very fabric of everyday life. Every social space becomes a site for it. Because no royal body is there to uphold the social order, the People themselves must take it over. Lacking a royal person to fetishize, the need to produce glory infects the entire expanse of valuable things as potential fetishes. Value-form itself becomes sovereign, the creation of surplus value the imperative. The result is, “a ubiquitous pressure for productive wakefulness,” so extreme that, for Santner, it is only during sleep that 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 is invested with a debt drive, for it is everywhere indebted to produce the People’s virtual flesh. Ergo the business of busy-body who must labor incessantly so that the social body doesn’t vanish into thin air and lose all consistency. No one can get away from the ‘office’ because the flesh itself houses it. The wireless gadgets we carry with us are but an outward manifestation of this constant, nagging, haunting imperative to produce sociality. That we work increasingly from a ‘home office’ only confirms the coincidence of these two orders, where the flesh embodies the excess weight of social relationality at the intersection of household and globe. Even in our downtime, and probably often unconsciously, we entertain and are entertained by the radiant God of abstract identity, through all the channels of the culture industry, from buzzwords to viral videos. But whether we worship money directly or in a mediating commodity, what we love is actually the mass of abstract labor underneath it, which money occludes and the commodity represents. Both laborious and liturgical, this worship reaches so far that society appears like one 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 this flesh of the people in its ‘spectral materiality’. Debord’s definition of the spectacle as a worldview materialized, a unification obtained in the language of universal separation, is confirmed here: in the fetish, the entire socius seems revealed. As Santner writes, underlying the 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 as such, 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 not abandoned like the old royalties? Because then the lack of ultimate foundations of human forms of life would be exposed. The originary and anomic violence upon which the juridico-social order and its laws are built would be revealed. It is this dimension of juridico-political normativity, the violence of law itself, which the King’s “symbolic body” once served to conceal. This “law” is not just the laws upheld by the police and the procedures followed in courtrooms, but the entire field of socio-political normativity, including the etiquette and politeness we practice even when we don’t believe in them (83). All these laws and norms in fact do not function unless there is some “little piece of the real” to conceal the void at the heart of the law’s vicious circle, the fact that its legality is founded on something extra-legal, like the sovereign who is an exception to the law; or money, around which the production process circles, but which itself is merely an abstraction. Once this “little piece of the real” is gone, the social world is opened up over an abyss, for then the violence at its origin is no longer concealed or justified. It follows that it no longer has any excuse for its existence, no alibi to vouch for it.
The crucial thing to observe here is that glory is an apparatus that captures this void, this originary lack at the heart of the social body, and conceals it; in doing so, it makes the whole apparatus shine with splendor, i.e., it makes it work. Furthermore, no one needs a justification for it. Rational explanations for the social order only serve as a cover for its brilliant heart. In the minds of most, the splendor of glory, the chance one might come close and participate in it, is enough to continue the production of the glorious People, no matter how abstract its identity, no matter how reluctant one may be. (Note: The chance at glory is not just about the lifestyles of the rich and the famous. Glorification protocols under capitalism are highly ‘personalized’, based on any mix of ‘values’. The quest for prestige, notoriety, and infamy, for a ‘spectral’ body to haunt the socius, is no doubt also at play in mass shootings and terrorist acts, but this exceeds my scope here.)
Let us examine the anthropology which allows this doubling, this in-dwelling of a concern for spectral glory in an otherwise material nature. In effect, following Santner, human life is distinguished by a gap that opens up in it between the somatic and the normative, between bare life and the worldly life into which it is thrown. This begins before the human child is even born. By dint of its name, it is inserted into what Lacan called the Symbolic. Put otherwise, 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). Because of this inaugural incidence of language (or more broadly, of human-social meaning, of ‘spectral realities’) on the living being, the human being “is” in the sense we understand it: a speaking being (what Lacan called parlêtre) or one whose social being determines its consciousness (Marx). Its ‘life’ will play out at the intersection, at the jointure or break, between the natural and the worldly. The latter is not a biological but a social given, acquired insofar as we are exposed to shared meanings and social forms of life. At the same time, this distinction natural/worldly, material/social remains an unresolved question. The point is not to draw attention to two static sides but to the machine that divides them, since without it being a human, inhabiting a world, having symbolic significance, would not be possible.
For Santner, it is through the amplification or “potentiation” of our vulnerable biological life, through our exposure to historical forms of life, that the “flesh of creaturely life” unfolds, including all the labor it must undertake to “make sense” of this gap (84). We are endowed from the first with a kind of ghost, a surrogate to represent us at a distance in the minds of others, something that is only partially under our control, which can haunt and ‘go viral’ unexpectedly and whose effects we could never enumerate or fully account for. This is our reality in the symbolic order of human meanings, and from it follows our responsibility. It is different from our physical body, yet all our physical acts contribute to it, since it is through it that we represent ourselves. At the same time, this insertion is never complete. Subjectivity is the tear in ontological completeness. Our being is never fully acquired, because something always misfires and escapes symbolization. The gap is never fully closed, the subject remains out of place. A hiatus persists between our physical and spectral body, though both dwell in and divide our one flesh.
Human flesh thus always involves this ‘surplus of immanence’ or spectral supplement that makes it unequal to itself and thrusts it into the sphere of memories, hauntings, and afterlives, as well as rumor, reputation, and all the other ‘mediations’ of the living human made possible by its social labor on prostheses, texts and other vibratory exchange-mediums (including bank accounts). Flesh is not just brains and muscles, but these plus the weight of social relations. Thus the stress, the almost immaterial pressure, that bears in on us when we stand before a review board 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). Here the intrication of capitalist accumulation and ego-inflation is clear: both are submitted to the imperatives of spectral glory, of producing a glorious body. Whether or not we perceive the unfoundedness of these imperatives and the norms they shape, they put us to work in a way that is not just physical or cognitive. The politeness a waitress must show her rude customers, night after night, condenses well the burden of this weight, the cost she must pay to vibrate with the busy-body rhythm of Capital. But because these forms of life are historical, they’re subject to break down any moment, to show their contingency and illegitimacy.
As creatures made up of spectral ‘flesh’, we feel more than just the pressure to uphold the norms of social life corresponding to our placement in it, our role. We also feel the pressure of the void around which all these norms orbit, “the lack of any ultimate grounding or authorization of those normative statuses,” and increasingly the precarity and dispensability of that role (84). But this void is terrifying. Exposed to it, our world threatens to fall apart. Santner calls formations of the flesh the manners in which this “ontological vulnerability” is covered up. He emphasizes that the King covered this void in two ways: by veiling it (this is the immediate effect of the glorious body: to captivate) and by vouching for it (backing whatever debt in justifications for society were outstanding). With the deposition of royal sovereignty, this function of veiling and vouching comes to spread itself across the whole fabric of the social, such that its justification is an immanent practice. The “subject-matter” of the modern citizen-subject directly involves these formations of the flesh, which labor over the legitimacy of those forms. This is work on the manifestation of 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). Going by appearances, the more illegitimate the world is, the greater the debt drive before it, the harder our flesh must work to legitimize it, to knot together something to make sense of it.
Political economy thus pertains to the maintenance of the People’s Two Bodies. Not just material life (the management of biological life and death), but also spectral life (the glory and spectacle of its symbolic, undead body). It inherits the duty to vouch for the normative order and its suture to the somatic, and thus to “redeem or indemnify” a lack at its origin. Biopolitics doesn’t just address man as species and population, but also as this dimension of flesh, as 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, on this level, is the regime of the justification of veils and their securitization. Foucault even showed in his genealogical 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. What appears to be the mere “policing of empirical bodies and forces” conceals its liturgical dimension, for this administration is responsible for covering the void upon which social existence is built. Still, it is not just the police but every political subject who inherits responsibility for the People’s second body. All of us have a hand in it. 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 concerned with the production and maintenance of this spectral materiality of glory, the glory of the social bond itself. Yet work proper is just 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. According to this doxology, what matters is to “vibrate” with the social body, in unison with this 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 para-doxological, because it must work through the doxological dimensions of Work, albeit by looking at it from the side.
Worshiping money is not limited to its monetary or commodity forms. It is present wherever the social liturgy is invested, wherever the fundamental void at the heart of social normativity is captured for a certain end, made to work and operate, to produce surplus values and surplus-egos. What’s more, capitalism is indifferent to the specifics of this labor or of the place where this liturgy is practiced. All that matters 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)– value which in itself is a weightless, quasi-spiritual thing. This is why the “weightless” commodity 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, not of raw resource or capital, but a substance of valor, glory, radiance, and splendor. Flesh and gold become interchangeable: both sparkle with the promise of an unlimited increase. Both are the “instrumental cause” of Value’s self-valorization (113). Both are fetishized for their possible shine, their glory-potency.
In the end, all are forced to operate to produce the People’s body, and we 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 its entitlements, its being in the Other” (102). The cliché that those who serve the machine are the ones who benefit from it is corroborated here. Only those who help capital valorize itself and remain sovereign, who feed the machine of the desire for Value and Glory, 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 privilege. Of course, there is no one for whom this liturgical service is optional, given that without reaping benefits one will be excluded from the social body and starve. Santner does not address how, for most, liturgical service is compulsory, but probably only because he assumes we recognize how it blankets our reality. Any critique of capital today calls for an interruption of its Wertesdienst and the glory-transferring dimension it sustains, where, “each day commands the utter fealty of each worshiper” (Agamben, Kingdom and the Glory, 88).
Unfortunately, our conscious condemnation of nation-states, our dis-identification with the People, even our interventions into extant social organizations, do little to remove this demand, for it is unconscious. Our bodies buzz with busyness, act out symptoms in spite of us, since the question of meaning itself and of consciousness plays out in this gap between the somatic and the normative. We are compelled to act upon the holes in the social’s justification and the debt drive felt deep in 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 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, pull the plug on, “the machine that sustains the religious structure of capitalism” (114, 120). What we must induce is a general strike against liturgical labor (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 separate sphere. This means introducing into social practices, into the buzzing formations of the flesh that serve the invisible hand of Glory and Value, a coefficient of non-doing, recognizing that humanity lacks any fundamental task or purpose (including glorification of God or expansion of Capital) 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 sovereignty and without need of it, neither on the level of singular existence, nor on the level of communal achievement.
On Doing Nothing
What would happen if, once work has lost all sense of usefulness, we all joined in ‘idle worship’, a sabbatical idling? The answer to this, Santner’s closing question, obviously cannot be ‘nothing’. What can be meant by the “passive sabotage” (Berardi) called for here? What manner of doing characterizes idling, what form-of-life near to its own void, respecting the gap between soma and norm, material and immaterial? We have to be careful and distinguish between the doing nothing that does nothing (‘it doesn’t do anything’) and the doing nothing that does nothing, as when one says that one does the laundry or one’s duty: it carries the object of activity through, sees it to completion. Only here the object is nothing but ‘inoperativity’, generic human (im)potentiality itself, prior to being captured in an apparatus of glory, economy of exchange value, or abstract identity. The difficulty of avoiding such capture should be apparent by now, since the apparatus of glory is required wherever ego and superego stake out a domain, certainly wherever things shine.
Doing nothing is counterintuitive, and certainly non-prescriptive. In essence it prescribes a void, or rather, the exhibition of the void already there where the norms are broken and unjustifiable, and furthermore, where every form is kept in contact with its potentiality-to-(not-)be. Idle worship recommends that one act non-telelogically—that one introduce the nowhere, the ‘part of no part’, everywhere—to honor being ‘human’, that animal with no proper work, no biological or cultural end—that strange creature of pure means without end, refusing any glory for itself or its group or God.
Doing nothing creates a type of cause relevant only for its openness: one that doesn’t work, that doesn’t add up, that is “good-for-nothing” and can succeed “at not being pictured” (270-1). This (non-)labor is for a different type of future, for a community not dedicated to erecting its own self-images and worshipping them. It works on the side of nobodies, the inglorious and excluded, raising its oath for the “league of the world-evicted” (Celan). For the nothing is also what cannot be bought, sold or counted, what is inexchangeable, invaluable. In that sense, it is a sign for the priceless present, for a flesh subtracted a priori from estimations of its ‘value’. It is an emblem of incompleteness, a portal to redemption. Doing nothing means working for, becoming ‘no one’, and extracting no surplus value or egoic splendor from that work.
Yet it is almost blasphemy to assert that a form of ‘doing nothing’ might be revolutionary or engaged, even if only in the form of suspending the apparatus of glory-production. Is it possible to produce no surplus value without surrendering oneself to 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. But how could we see such interventions if we weren’t ourselves caught up in them, believers in the power of doing nothing? The political difficulty is the quietist nature of “idle worship,” its clandestinity. But how else could doing nothing leave its mark, in a world overloaded with titles and reputations, ensnared in exchange value?
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 challenging 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’. We do not need a shallow repetition of the drop-out model or the withdrawal of the contemplative. We continue to circle around this point central to Agamben’s own project: how to work the unworking into the work? How to exhibit the contingency of the social order such that its less legitimate aspects whither in esteem and cease to garner attention? How to enact the de-activation of the glory apparatus, overturn the value-imperative? How to ensure that in our work something draws it back, retracts it, such that nothing is ‘in’ the work, save its potential to work-or-not-work?
For that too is part of “idle worship”: the contemplation of what one can not do—all the things one can abstain from and “prefer not to do”—like, for example, refusing the buzz of instaculture and participation in the mediatized game of glory and repute, or putting these channels to a new, ‘deactivatory’ use. Here, love of the social is no longer routed through spectacles, images, discourses, abstract identities and values that serve primarily to mask the void at its heart, the inconsistency and illegitimacy of any society based on glorification, surplus value, and sovereign powers. Idle worship implies finding those margins of resistance to the many social liturgies and turning them into new centers of inoperativity by maintaining and articulating the gap between bare and political life, the flesh weighed upon by the symbolic-spectral, without feeding its (surplus-)ego form.
Agamben has advanced the Pauline ‘as-not’ as one solution to these questions. It means treating ‘as-not’ all factical and juridical conditions, revoking them without erasing their form. It works to maintain the gap of subjectivity already mentioned, conceived now as the gap between the life that I live (circumstance, cultural position, biography, facts and events, fame and success, physical health, etc.) and the life through which I live (human-generic potential with no proper ‘work’, unequal to any actual being). The ‘as-not’ introduces a measure of non-being and dis-identification into all determinations, restoring them to their potency for the form-of-life still in process. Messianity means the nullification of the entire subject, its reorientation away from inflationary practices, keeping it in contact with a vital praxis.
Perhaps what we need is a non-Bartleby, borrowing his famous “I would prefer not to” without yielding to the catatonia of one who has to be forcibly removed from the law office, only to die unknown in an asylum somewhere. A non-Bartleby, 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. We might even imagine this with the help of complex numbers, which have real and imaginary components (a + bi). “I would prefer not to” would correspond to the imaginary component: it leaves the real coordinates of work be, while simultaneously bending, sending, or otherwise redirecting them toward idleness or inoperativity, adding to them a factor of non-action or zero-potentiality, turning them into vectors upon a new plane of strike. Perhaps this is what all art which combats utilitarian schemas, as well as thought in general when it suspends the ‘practical’ imperative, contains. Accepting the imaginary number as an algebraic constant for the human equation could help us fulfill Santner’s wish to, “strike something other than what’s there.” Properly understood, we would identify it with the “messianic dimension of human action,” what Bonnie 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, allowing us to focus on concrete goals without falling into the trap of generating surplus value and glory for self. By this coefficient of non-action, perhaps we can reattune our interventions, envisioning if not an “unbusied” Bartleby as Honig suggests, then at least an unglorious one — one who gives all glory away, or disbelieves in it entirely.
Doing nothing produces nothing even when it produces something. It manifests the Non-, the “unthinkable emptiness” at the heart of human operations. The ‘as-not’ puts being-in-the-world to a new use, aware of the passing nature of all evaluations of sovereignty. In such productions of nothing, we contemplate our own potentiality to do and not do, held ever slightly on this side of actualization. Once considered as an algebraic constant of human behavior, the non- is that which accompanies every work, its virtuality or messianity, undoing from within its very purpose– though again the purpose is upside down, for here every purpose is to its repurposing, without the false legitimacy of imposed ends. Or perhaps it shows the parody of purpose at the point of utmost purposiveness, unconcealing the radical indeterminability and undestinability of human work, its insubordination to every sovereign or symbolic order. It links up to dimensions of play and fiction, of basic comradery without motives or end-games, as well as to festivals and other counter-cultural meet-ups, at least to the extent that they create a space for communitas not subject to the debt drive. Put otherwise, ‘doing nothing’ cannot do without subtraction from the imperial form (Badiou), an un-binding of the positivity of what is by introducing into the order of the positive a “negative” which acts in the present as a positive cause of the future, against the mere reproduction 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 restless tizzy into which it sends our bodies appears wildly counter-productive, since after all all glory fades.
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