Hans-Christian Dany, 4.97
THE ILLUSION OF IDENTITY
Under the heading of contemporary issues, it might well be rather disconcerting
to begin at a point in time some 350 years ago, so I would like to begin
this little time journey to possible aesthetic and political strategies
for the near future with a brief sojourn at another point in time only about
35 years ago.
In Paris in the 1960's, a group of people began drawing attention to themselves
with scandals and radical pamphlets. The head of this phantom, a certain
Guy Debord, venomously raged in convoluted sentences against everything
and everyone. Yet just before his audience was about to give up in disgust,
this unorthodox Marxist repeatedly produced brilliant analyses of "the
society of the spectacle", which he then compiled in 1967 in a book
of the same name.
The "Situationist International" devoted a great deal of time
to their club's obscure ritual of throwing out its few members one after
another. In the end, Debord was basically the only one left, and he retreated
into silence for many years. During this period, incredible heroic deeds
were ascribed to him by his fans, such as being the mastermind behind the
Parisian May uprising of 1968. The assumed hero shrouded himself mysteriously
Doubtlessly aided by Debord's seductive anti-charm, the Situationists have
able to maintain their position as a model of subversion to this day.
Although the writings of the Situationists were not widely read in the original,
through Debord's admirers such as Jean Baudrillard or Greil Marcus' book
"Lipstick Traces", they found their way, albeit in a somewhat
diluted form, into the world of art. One of their preoccupations, the concept
of subversion, was subsequently used in such an inflationary manner during
the 1980's that it became nearly devoid of meaning. However, its underlying
strategies may soon blossom again in new array.
For this reason, it could be interesting to take a closer look at one of
the sources of Situationist thinking, which has previously received little
attention. The tracks leading to this source may be found in Debord's memoirs
"Panegyric", where the unrepentant alcoholic surprisingly quotes
one of the great teachers of abstinence: "I can count myself among
those, of whom Baltasar Gracian wrote: There are people, who have only been
drunk a single time, but that one time suffices for an entire lifetime."
Baltasar Gracian, who is quoted here, was the author of a theory of heroism
and guidelines for attaining eminence. The hero delineated therein has little
in common with Nietzsche's "blonde beast", he is not poetic, but
rather laconic and inscrutable to the point of deliberate deceit. Gracian's
text dissects heroism and its concomitant eminence by analyzing its inherent
regularities and mechanisms. The way in which the techniques for attaining
eminence are identified and made comprehensible also makes it possible to
learn them, so that they become more generally accessible. "El Heroe"
could be read as one of the first attempts at a democratic theory of heroism,
and in its ambiguity it is also a text on pop, because it describes a world
constructed on the basis of appearance.
The Spaniard Gracian was born in 1601 in Aragon, and he entered Ignatius
of Loyola's Jesuit Order when he was 18 years old. Under the pseudonym "Lorenzo",
he published his first book, "El Heroe", when he was 36. At the
same time, he was also appointed confessor at the court in Madrid. Other
important writings were "The Hand Oracle and the Art of Worldly Wisdom
" and "The Clever Man of the World". The Jesuit father was
able to maintain his double life for nearly twenty years, although not without
coming into conflict with the order. Following the publication of his novel
"El Criticon", he was expelled from the order and died shortly
Nevertheless, his books continued to circulate and inspired admiration from
very different people. Gracian has been repeatedly understood as presenting
spiritual training in the borderland between humanism and the barbarism
of increasingly confrontational social conditions.
In the Jesuit's writings, morality is reduced to tactical rules for a world,
from which truth, suffering from the cold, has withdrawn itself, while the
concept of identity is transformed into working on the construction of the
alter-ego. Gracian regards authenticity as an obstacle to mobility and the
ego as an "illusionary thing."
Elements of Gracian's idea of the personality as a mask may be found in
such diverse areas as aesthetic theory, seminars for managers, strategies
for guerrilla warfare and personal homepages on the Internet. While all
kinds of self-help books on the art of living are springing up everywhere
now at the end of the millennium, there are signs of renewed interest in
Gracian's writings that are partly shrouded in this attire. For instance,
the publishing company "Merve-Verlag", which has introduced many
theory trends over the last twenty years, has published a new edition of
"El Heroe." In this case, Gracian's heroism is spelled out as
a metaphor for the beautiful and the sublime so that it may be transported
through periods of extreme exploitation in masks, in much the same way as
glamour mimics beauty.
Gracian divides "El Heroe" into twenty master skills. The first,
"That the hero may practice the inscrutability of his abilities",
examines the secret and its blurred edge as a strategy of seduction. As
it is formulated in the summary: "So that everyone may know you, but
no one may see into your heart. With this device, that which is moderate
will seem much, that which is much will seem endless, and that which is
endless will seem even more." With this staging of a diffuse identity,
the Situationists were able to make their small movement convincing as a
politically relevant force.
Gracian's second master skill examines the enciphering of the will, "
so that no subterfuge" may be able to "decipher his will."
Since it is not uncommon for proclaimed political credos to be treated as
at least temporarily irrelevant in a case of conflict, the question arises
as to whether it may be necessary to deny targeted goals in order to achieve
them. Yet there is also the question as to whether it is not self-love,
rather than a political assertion of will, that motivates the constant determining
of identity. Gracian denies the possibility of represented identity and
a stringent stance as a political form. In their stead he places an attentiveness
that reacts to each particular situation with strategic cunning.
The seventh master skill analyzes the "excellence of the first one",
not as the inventor of a "new path", but rather as the one who
sets the invention in the right place at the right time. In addition to
some of the Jesuit father's other ideas, this one is also reminiscent of
the "Cash for Chaos Lessons" of the "Sex Pistols" manager
and pop situationist, Malcolm McLaren. Bands "that couldn't play"
have always been around, but 1977 was the "right moment" to launch
punk as hype. In the monastery, Gracian had time to polish his phrasing.
He wrote: "There is no art to feeling the pulse of fortune, because
its humor is a-normal", however, choosing the right time and the right
place is precisely a question of learning to read the signs of deviation,
so that the hero may calculate his fortune before venturing anything.
Other master skills tell of the necessity of the text over the deed or of
a certain something. The relevancy of Gracian's writings may be described
with an apparently anachronistic term, that of gallantry, in which his aesthetic
theory finds its inner logic. Gracian's thinking is neither moral nor practical,
but rather aesthetic or, to be more precise, post-aesthetic.
In his writing, the beautiful is something sharp and pointed, and gallantry
necessarily includes a provocation. It wanders between friendship and enmity,
between uniting and fighting. It necessarily includes a devotion that is
simultaneously a refusal. It includes guarding a secret, from which it constantly
draws its interest and its attention.
However, it is also possible to read Gracian politically, enabling the development
of perspectives for this now seemingly fatal terrain. What occurs to me
in this context is a transfer of Gracian's delineation of the hero along
with his masks to certain political gestures, in order to transport these
in mimicry through a phase of extreme depoliticization and capitalistic
demoralization under the premises of neo-liberalism. In other words, a case
could be made for not using a certain political language at this time, in
order to thus protect it from devaluation. As Gracian might say, it could
be an option to train feeling the pulse of fortune, in order to revitalize
a recharged arsenal of political ability for action at a more propitious
Erschien in Siksi, Sommer 97, Helsinki.
Übersetzung: Aileen Derieg