The Aesthetic Contingency Of Life – Narrating The Finite In A Time Of Images, Part 3 (Isabella Guanzini)

Below is a continuation of a series of articles corresponding to chapters of the book Preis der Sterblichkeit: Christentum und Neuer Humanismus (Freiburg im Bresgau: Verlag Herder, 2015), edited by Kurt Appel, translated by Rachel Thomas.  English editor, Carl Raschke.  This volume of essays represents one of the major works in the new Catholic “cultural humanism” from Central Europe. 

The following is the second installment an article, for which the first can be found here, the second here.

In order to gain a key to the understanding of the so-called post-modern epoch, it seems helpful to turn to some of the Spinozistic concepts of possible affects and the intensity of existence. Today, we are confronted with an expansion of “sad emotions”[1] that suppress social aliveness and lead to a decline of the vis Existenzi and the potential agendi of the subjects and of the entire Western society. These are affects that bring about unexpressed moods within the social body, nourish sinister and sad feelings.  Spinoza’s philosophy represents the first attempt by occidental modernism to de-traumatize or aestheticize the contingency of being.

This is accomplished by assigning a fundamental ontological value to the sensitive inner structure of enjoyment (happiness) as the sole meaning of desire. One could speak of an Extinction[2],  namely, from a subjective-objective space in which the form of the world finds its rationality and convenience in the un-foldings of the enjoyable joy of the individual. Joy, then, becomes the image of the rational fulfillment of being, not just the sentimental reflex of pleasing. In this sense, the model of Spinoza perfectly illustrates the postmodern attempt of a comprehensive aestheticization of life contingency as such, namely, the ideal of a perfect superposition of the principle of reality through the principle of enjoyment of life.

In Part V of Ethics, Spinoza elaborates a doctrine of affections that plays a central role in his ontology and understanding of the world and should be understood as an “affirmation of life.”[3] Humans, according to Spinoza, is first and inevitably entrusted to his own emotions. For Spinoza, the affects are the imprints that humans leave to each other, activating the creative power of sensibility. In the experience of the affectus, the subject is led outward, outside of himself.

The moment one is touched and touched, one’s own “relational energy”, as Luce Irigaray would say, is directed at the other. In doing so, the world is constructed[4].  Any passion that implies a reduction in the potential for action is called tristitia (grief), while laetitia (joy) denotes the passion in which it grows. Joy and sorrow also signify the proportion of activity and passivity of a human life[5].  For Spinoza, grief is “a transition of man from greater to lesser perfection”[6]. As soon as one feels sadness, the body falls into passivity and stagnation.

This sadness is heightened by the fact that the subject is constantly experiencing the social imperative of “feeling good” about himself, so that he also perceives his sad situation as the guilt of his own self. For Spinoza, a mode is an “inadequate cause” if it does not extend into the living flow of living affects, but represents an unfruitful self-affection.  Such self-affection interrupts the possibility of successful encounters in order to actuate the singular potency of existing in a forced isolation in which the relational abilities dry up and the passivity of life overpowers.

Therefore, Spinoza’s policy is to be the texture of living relations that create openings in the state body that become critical instances of a repressive regime. For power reduces the circulation of affects. It loves sadness because the sad mode does not move, obey and do not appreciate the possible. So sadness never leads to “intelligence” because it reduces the power to act by bringing the existence to a vicious circle of consistent closures.

For this reason, powers and governments need the sadness of the subjugated, who are increasingly exposed to the power of the other and thus weak and passive in their power of action. The sadness will never create “common concepts” or an intelligence of relationships between bodies, but will be exposed to the randomness of encounters and subject to unconformity and seclusion. In the output of Spinoza, one could say that today’s widespread sadness is an expression of the spread of a general melancholy, which appears like a subtle “radiation” of resignation and euphoria.

Some critics speak of a new psychic economy[7] and of new subjects. These are not just simple changes in Western societies, but a hitherto unknown “anthropological mutation”[8] that fosters profound individual and collective relationships, and effects of our emotional household. It touches the mindset, the actions, the mode of our desire and the general way of understanding the subject. 

If, according to Lacan, the “discourse of the Lord” legitimizes itself according to a hierarchical conception of power and autonomy, then the “discourse of the capitalist” is grounded in an unlimited circulation of goods and the right of all to enjoy it. The “inner-worldly asceticism”, which according to a hypothesis of Max Weber made possible the arrival of capitalism, turns into an invitation to consume, to enjoy consumption. The uninterrupted cycle of objects creates the illusion that in infinite consumption, the “void of being” of our existence may find fulfillment.

The circulation of capital is kept alive by a proliferation of small jouissances and non-authentic discourses manifesting themselves in the obsessive supply of gadgets, fictional objects of desire – empty words, as Lacan would say. Such objects of enjoyment, of discourses, of culture, of industry, of sublimation extend to everything that seems potentially capable of filling a fundamental void, that of the true lost object. This generalization of excess in the free market reverses the nature of the “lost object”, the surrogates that make the system shine make for a portrait of the “thing” that tends to fill every void, even to the psychotic end.[9] 

In reality, the “thing” that stands for the enjoyable merging with the maternal origin is precisely that which resists any signification, that which has no object and around which lies the “gravity” of a deep silence, a radical alterity, a void that abolishes all subjective attempts to represent one’s own desires. The immediate enjoyment of the thing is a kind of “rejection” of the great visionary desire  – J.A.  Miller, in the context of this rejection,  speaks of a renunciation of the “heroic paradigm” – in the name of a cynical materialism of drive that expresses the nostalgic return to the oedipal father without acknowledgment and gift.[10]

The effect of subjective enjoyment is a new bio-power[11] in post-industrial Western societies. This manifests itself as a practice that is not characterized by desire and passion, but by indifference. The ethical imperative of the permissive spirit of the age, which stands in radical opposition to the repressive prohibitions of the premodern society of order and discipline, is “Enjoy!”. It is characterized by the fact that it has made excess the normality of existence. Desire takes on a despotic form that today no longer seems sustainable.

It goes down in enjoyment, which, paradoxically, the prohibition to enjoy turns back into a ban not to enjoy. This prohibition is no longer organized around a guilt complex, but rather a non-compliant ability. Being “in-form” and imperatives like “Be who you are!”, “Be happy!”, Or “Enjoy yourself!” Are proving to be the contemporary global ought of pluralistic Western societies that are not shared by all moral and cultural horizon.  But this production apparatus simultaneously creates and empties desire by giving “nothing” beyond the objects. The goods are not a substitute of the object small a, but phantasms without gravity, which can convey no well-being.

A perfect expression of such an all-pervasive aestheticization is the character of Jeune Fille (The Young Girl)[12], designed by a collective and anonymous (de-subjectivized) writing team, a radical dispositive of transforming and radicalizing commodity ideology into an imaginary anthropology the question of existence is conceptualized as a problem of gestation and the figure of the total consumer is drawn.  These are some of the characteristics and expressions of the “young-girl”: “I would like it if all people were beautiful.” … “The young-girl knows the value of things very well.” … “The young-girl never creates something; in short, it recreates itself. “…” The young-girl calls everything to which MAN ties it, invariably ‘luck’.

The young-girl is never just unhappy, it’s also unhappy to be unhappy. “…” The young-girl wants to be coveted without love or loved without desire.”[13] The young-girl seems to be programmed, as can be seen in these quotes to be for the seduction, the youth and the desire.  His / her experience ultimately results from being docile to any oppression and suggestion, so that his / her language and feeling are systematically directed by an economic, cosmetic, and mimetic machine, aiming for an incessant conversation through the merchandise spectacle. Self-care is directly linked to the totalitarian control of each stage of life, insofar as it is “human capital” that must be offered and handled in a continuous presentation and display of oneself.

The Aestheticization of the Lifeworld

In the time of the “vaporization of the Father”, what remains is the enjoyment of the appearance that the world of goods and “images” offers us. There remain the “technocratic strategies”, as Michel de Certeau calls them[14],  namely, the way to manage between habit and invention. The “capitalist discourse” exaggerates enjoyment and fragments the affective forms of the relationship. He feeds on the ideology of the homo felix,  an illusory to the narcissistic satisfaction of one’s own potential, directs one’s life to a time without a feast.

There is no life without “one can not be projected and prognosticated, that is, a contingently accidental addition”[15]. In the terms of Lacan, this supplement would be the object petit a, insofar as it is an object that has always been lost, namely, that passion that orientates and attracts the desire of the object without any representation of it. According to Spinoza, it is the possibility of existing, to register its natural existence in the substance according to the variations and developments of the own vis existendi and potentia agendi

In the infinite production of contingent existences that compose an affective texture of the world, separation is overcome only in working on a collective, in the pleasurable circulation of encounters and good relationships within a social body that constitutes the substance of life. In contrast, the flow of goods and the endless media and internet entertainment that (re-)produce a texture of digital humanity every day weaken that collective texture and dramatically reduce the field of variation and variation “gravitation” of living social relationships.

Alain Badiou is convinced that ruthless self-censorship, namely, a civil program of self-restraint and discretion, the conditio sine qua non politics of emancipation. An excessively tolerant approach does not take into account the fact that power today is no longer in censorship, but in an infinite permissiveness that, as Badiou says in Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art’s 14th thesis, “all art and all thought is ruined when we accept this permission to consume, to communicate and to enjoy. We should become the most ruthless pitiless of ourselves “[16].  In the absence of borders and friction surfaces, in fact, every thing is in a free fall. All runs at the same speed without interruption. What is missing is the grounding and necessary connection for a web of relationships and a common world of reciprocal and vital alternations and attractions.

We are currently experiencing an uncertain state of seeing, between a technological fetishism and a constant skepticism about the visible, which demands the question of the true nature of human experience[17]. This question is at the center of the fundamental dynamics of post-industrial societies, in which, as Vitta notes, “the process of history is bluntly diverted: the world of” forms “has changed the” form “of the world[18]

The aesthetic construction of the figures and images becomes the dominant tendency of the new industrial and consumerist affluent society. The enticing power of the aesthetic in the production and communication system does not produce a generalization of the aesthetic categories and values (the style, the fashion, the design, the marketing, the entertainment, the cosmetics, the creativity, the culinary art, the furnishing, etc.). In the last analysis, through the technological acceleration of traditional means of expression (photography, cinema, new media, etc.).

The aestheticization of the lifeworld is currently not only a question within the realm of aesthetics, but rather concerns a new order of the social world; namely, a new psychic economy as well as the way to understand the human experience. It therefore concerns not only a partial access to the artistic world, but rather our general encounter with reality. Therefore, aesthetization is a fundamental phenomenon of our society, as is the secularization and technique to which it has a strong connection. “The aesthetic,” says Perniola, “is the socio-anthropological dimension of the Western way of life”[19].

It should be emphasized first of all that the aestheticization of the lifeworld places the latter in a strong connection to the “aesthetic economy”; namely, the area of all products that are under the dominant influence of the new media. The market system appeals to the aesthetic sense, it relies on the enchantment and enthusiasm that surrounds its products, the consumerism of the mechanisms of lure and fascination, namely, the aesthetics exploits. The market has become so strong and effective because the visions and dreams of globalized citizens are being increasingly entrusted to the advertising narratives of goods. The enchantment of the media world thus creates the dream of a new possible reality. 

The phenomenon could be described as follows: the paradoxical event of the twentieth century is that the whole legacy of the Fine Arts has gone into the system of commodity production and mass communication. “Supermarkets are similar to museums,” Andy Warhol once said. The goods, the shops and the streets are the new places of the aesthetic[20]. It is a continuous phenomenon that permeates all forms of our collective existence.

Last but not least, it transforms religious experience by providing aesthetization with a massively subjectivist component that promotes the search for identity, the anesthesia of collective life, and the liberation from individual responsibility. The aestheticization dramatically expands into the political sphere, which has meanwhile made of itself an object of representation, exposing the insecure masks of its own spectacle unrestrainedly to the civil and media scene. It concerns the “whole system of objects” as defined by Jean Baudrillard, namely,  it permeates the products that define our social context.[21] 

The dominance of “putting oneself in the scene” promotes an “aesthetic atmosphere” through design, cosmetics and advertising, which, according to the judgment of Gernot Böhme[22], is a hybrid creates a virtual and phantasmic universe that extends beyond all truthfulness to all spheres of individual and collective life.  Today, aesthetics corresponds to an “access” to the world, which is a point of reference shared by all, insofar as it produces an ideal beauty as a continuous enchantment of everyday life. This enchantment comes clearly in the pursuit of self-realization, in the optimization of enjoyment, in the ever-increasing quest for the well-being of the body, in the search for the product image and the “look”, in the new development in cooking and eating, in the political personality cult etc. expressed.

Creativity is for selling, selling is for enjoyment, pleasure is for prosperity. The ingenuity and the talent of enjoyment of using empty-handed luck in the process of aestheticization expresses the power of thought that must be practical in terms of psycho-physical well-being.

Isabella Guanzini is Professor of Fundamental Theology at the University of Graz. She is the author of Hegel e Paolo: L’amore fra Politica e Messianismo (Vita e Pensiero, 2013) and Europa mit oder ohne Religion? (Vienna University Press, 2015).


[1] See M. Benasayag / G. Schmit, Die denigerte Zukunft: Not the children are sick, but the society that sends them into therapy, Munich 2007 (or Les passions tristes, Souffrance psychique et crise sociale).

[2] Extimity is a neologism of Lacan that associates the prefix “ex” – meaning “out- side”, which is called extraterritoriality – with the intimate adjective that refers to intimacy, the interior. Thus, the character of the extraterritoriality of what is called the most intimate for subjectivity is signified.

[3] B. de Spinoza, Complete Works, Ethics in Geometric Order (2), ed. by W. Bartuschat, Hamburg 1995.

[4] Luce Irigaray claims that “human energy is not just about growing, as it happens or at least seems to happen in the plant world. There is a relationship energy to be experienced that should be educated because it is human. This type of education is still absent in our culture. The majority of us live most of our own lives split between a non-educated energy in terms of their own sexual orientation and a formally codified and imposed modality of appearance and action that is inappropriate to their own nature “(L. Irigaray , Elogio del toccare, Genova 2013, 11).

[5]   G. Deleuze, Cosa può un corpo? Lezioni su Spinoza, Verona 2007, 58. See A. Böhler, Deleuze in Spinoza – Spinoza in Deleuze. Do we know what the medium is

“Body” can, in: V. L. Waibel (ed.), Spinoza – Affektenlehre and amor Dei intellectualis. The Reception in German Idealism, in Early Romanticism and in the Present, Hamburg 2012, 167-186.

[6] B. de Spinoza, Complete Works, Ethics in Geometric Order, E 3, Definition of affects 1-3.

[7] Ch. Melman/J.-P. Lebrun, La nouvelle économie psychique: La façon de penser et de jouir aujourd’hui, Toulouse 2009; M. Fiumanò, L’inconscio è il sociale. De- siderio e godimento nella contemporaneità, Milano 2010; Recalcati, L’uomo sen- za inconscio.

[8] Pier Paolo Pasolini had already written of an “anthropological mutation” in relation to the deep transformations that came with the arrival of consumer society. This mutation consists of the impoverishment of human space and the tragic destruction of singular qualities, be it superficial, deep, or spiritual. See.

P. P. Pasolini, Pirate Writings. Essays and Polemics on the Destruction of the Individual by the Consumption Society, Berlin 1978

[9] See S. Žižek, The Merciless Love, Frankfurt a. M. 2001, 66-81

[10] The psychoanalyzer and publisher of the Seminars Lacan Jacques-Alain Miller writes: “Lacan calls her a litteette, a small piece of jouissance. Modern society is full of such jouissance substitutes, little trivia. The small pieces of jouissance characterize a certain lifestyle and a mode-de-jouir (J.-A. Miller, Paradigmas of Jouissance, in: Lacanian Ink 16, New York 2000, 33).

[11] V. Codeluppi, Il potere della marca. Disney, McDonald’s, Nike e le altre, Tori- no 2001.

[12] Tiqqun, basic building blocks of a theory of the young-girl, Berlin 2009. Tiqqun is the name of a collective that publishes the magazine “Tiqqun” in Paris. The chapters of the book are, among other things: “The young-girl as self-technology”; “The young-girl as a commodity”; “The boy-girl as living money”; “The boy-girl as a compact political dispositif”; “The boy-girl as a war machine”; “The young-girl against herself: the boy-girl as impossibility”.

[13] Tiqqun, basic building blocks of a Young Girl’s Theory, 23-28

[14] De Certeau, The Practice, 85-92

[15] K. Appel writes: “Time (or world time) is therefore more than just the accumulation of its moments; it only becomes human when Chronos is lifted in favor of the unimaginable feast, which, though in time, the it precedes, is often prepared to the smallest detail, but receives its power only from an addition that can not be projected and predicted, that is to say, a contingent addition. Perhaps at this point, one might already ask the question, whether it is not an aspect of the feast, that in it the ‘overflowing’ (overshooting) coincidence itself solemnly expresses itself as coincidence ‘(Appel, Gott – Mensch – Time, From World Time to Feast and Death, 22).

[16] „14. Since it is sure of its ability to control the entire domain of the visible and the audible via the laws governing commercial circulation and democratic communication, Empire no longer censures anything. All art, and all thought, is ruined when we accept this permission to consume, to communicate and to enjoy. We should become the pitiless censors of ourselves“ (A. Badiou, Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art, in: Lacanian Ink 23, New York 2004).

[17] In the imaginary horizon, the facts lie at the same level of vision, which is neither imagination nor imagination, but rather a third afflicting plane, a phantasm. The technological recording of the real event depletes the content and transforms the real violence into a fictional phantasmagoria. The wonder of the special effects creates a mass insecurity against which common sense used to say: “But that’s just a game!”, Which does not work anymore today.

[18] M. Vitta, Il rifiuto degli dèi. Teoria delle belli arti industriali, Torino 2012, 6.

[19] M. Perniola, Contro la comunicazione, Torino 2004, 64.

[20] To speak with Lacan, art has lost its symbolic meaning and has fallen to the level of the imaginary. The classic artistic designs were deconstructed in the 20th and 21st centuries (Lucio Fontana, Alberto Burri, but also Picasso), while the beauty of art was shifted to the field of production and communication (from Andy Warhol to advertising) ). Camille Paglia writes: “[The Avantgarde] was killed by my idol, Andy Warhol, who in his own art was the most conspicuous commercial capitalist imaginary (like Campbell’s soup can) that most artists had so far consistently spurned , has included “.

[21] “At the opening of the Holy Year, it was decided that Wojtila should wear a lurex coat because this synthetic fabric was more luminescent than the other materials and therefore more effective for television. So we are faced with a backdrop that has already planned reality. “(G. Dorfles, Il feticcio quotidiano, Roma 2012, 7).

[22] See G. Böhme, aesthetics. Lectures on aesthetics as a general theory of perception, Munich 2001

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