Excerpts reproduced from a talk on Best Wishes: A Psychophilology of Supplication given by Steven Connor for Cambridge Digital Humanities in May 2020. The full paper can be found on Steven Connor’s website.
The anthropology of wishing may not seem to have any obvious relation to contemporary forms of discursive action. Unless, that is, or until, one begins to notice how much of contemporary discourse may in fact be considered in the light of what Wyndham Lewis called ‘blessing’ and ‘blasting’ (Lewis 1914, 11-28). The strenuous efforts currently being made to regulate what is called ‘hate speech’ themselves have a strongly magical force, prompted by the sense that ill-wishes, like blessings, have a new kind of malefic autonomy conferred not only by the magical act of writing, so indispensable in both blessing and cursing, but by the kind of writing seemingly capable of writing itself that is represented by the virulently mimetic memesis of internet discourse. Academic discourse shadows media discourse in being driven either by the work of promotional benediction, or of denunciatory malediction. The two come together in exquisite coaction in the ambivalence of the celebrity, the one who is deified in order to be defiled, in the fulfilment of chiaroscuro collective wishes that dare not speak their name (Connor 2010).
Digital humanities can easily be thought of, especially, but not exclusively by those who are wary of or opposed to it (them), as part of a new cycle of calculative rationality. Digital humanities can certainly give the appearance of moving the arts further towards the humanities, that is to say, moving intellectual habits and traditions founded upon individualising invention and interpretation towards professional disciplines founded upon collectivising analysis and processing.
My view is that every change in the understanding of knowledge, including, perhaps, the idea, outlandishly unintelligible for so many centuries, that the humanities ‘produce’ ‘knowledge’, has both an objective and a reflexive aspect or, as they might otherwise be understood, an epistemic and an epistemopathic dimension. The epistemic dimension involves what is done and how it is done: so, systems, structures, processes and practices, of enquiry, communication, management and certification. That is to say, in short, actions of sorting, of which all labour, according to Michel Serres, consists (Serres 2007, 86). The epistemopathic dimension involves feelings about what you do and how you do it, of excitement, fascination, resentment, rage, dread, desire and so on, these being imperfectly articulated at best, and so all the more powerfully productive. Epistemic rationality is practical; epistemopathic rationality is magical, always subject to the proviso that magic is not the opposite of practice but a certain mood of it. (The affinities and procreant intercourse between terms like mood, mode, medium and modulation would repay explication at length.)
By magical, we must understand something other than simply false or fictive: magical things are things we want to be, or wish were, true. Magic is the mattering of human thought to itself, or to use the reflexively epistemopathic Freudian term, the cathexis of intellectual practice (Connor 2019a, 96-7). For every new technology and accompanying set of implementing techniques, there is an equal and not-quite-opposite psychotechnography. For every new machine, there is a new machinery of fantasy. Of no concept could this be more bawlingly obvious than that of what is called ‘artificial intelligence’, and the fantasy it kindles that there has ever been any other kind.
So machinery is magical through and through, and in no wise more potently than in the fantasy-saturated social-distancing of operation from experience, calculation from passion, method from mattering. The great global enclosure of 2020 and the massive enlargement of uterisation it has produced may be seen as an intensification of that process of explicitation identified in Spheres by Peter Sloterdijk (2011, 2014, 2016a), in which we simultaneously expose ourselves to risks and secure ourselves against them by epistemisation, thereby enclosing ourselves in bubbles of epistemic and epistemopathic self-maintenance.
In times of crisis and duress, rituals of propitiatory humiliation become as irresistible and psychopolitically potent as the purgative excommunication of scapegoats during less obviously dangerous times (when things are precarious, imprecation is always called for). National days of fasting and humiliation were regularly declared in England and elsewhere during times of plague, the voluptuous self-sacrifice acting as a means of paying for the remission from affliction for which the self-imposed suffering makes penitential petition (Connor 2019b, 107-9). Such outbreaks of ritual wishing and counterphobic ceremonial are far from wishy-washy affairs; they are part of a solemn-sinister drama of symbolically-effected SOS and succour which forms and sustains stress-collectives:
Certainly, every social system needs a foundation of institutions, organisations, and transport means; it must ensure the exchange of goods and services. The maintenance of the feeling of social cohesion among the shareholders, however, can only follow through chronic, symbolically produced stress. The larger the collective, the stronger the stress forces need to be that counteract the disintegration of the uncollectible collective into a patchwork of introverted clans and enclaves. As long as a collective can work itself up into a rage over the notion of doing away with itself, it has passed its vitality test. (Sloterdijk 2016b, 8).
The self-supplying performance of symbolic supplication, both in benediction and malediction, is central to this ‘crisis-work’ (Connor 2016). It is, immunologically, at once the carrier and the calmer of duress, hence, very likely, its maliciously masochistic addictiveness. The time has not yet come, though it is surely coming, for an account of how an entire world economy has been, in the literal sense, brought to its knees, carried on a tide, not of tyranny and martial law, but of what can only be described as a militant docility among entire populations, with not a murmur to be heard from academics or intellectuals. For it is the perfervid demand from below for preemptive atonement (Lock Us Down, O Lord) that has driven governments to take punitive action to imperil the basis of their populations’ future security, ‘saving the National Health Service’ in the UK by means of measures the cost of which is neatly equivalent to burning to the ground ten fully-equipped hospitals per day.
In extremity, an extremity hugely amplified by the media systems whose role is thereby fully disclosed, not as the means of conveying anything external to itself that might be called information, but rather keeping soothingly stoked the socio-cytokine storm of emotional inflammation, humans revert to their primal eleutherophobia, insisting on their right to have had no choice. In such extremity, they can be relied on to rely on the most immemorial magico-symbolic immunology of all: the oblation performed in immolation, petrolled by the incinerating ardour of the exponential. The thaumaturgic covenant contracted through the sumptuary obscenity of sacrifice feeds and famishes the current craving for petitionary prostration and penitentiary observance.
Connor, Steven (2010). ‘Defiling Celebrity.’ In Modernist Star Maps: Celebrity, Modernity, Culture, ed. Aaron Jaffe and Jonathan Goldman (Farnham and Burlington VT: Ashgate), pp. 221-36.
——————- (2016).’The Crisis Work.’ Online at http://stevenconnor.com/crisiswork.html
——————- (2019a). The Madness of Knowledge: On Wisdom, Ignorance and Fantasies of Knowing. London: Reaktion.
——————- (2019b). Giving Way: Thoughts on Unappreciated Dispositions. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Freud, Sigmund (1953-74). The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. and trans. James Strachey. 24 Vols. London: Hogarth.
Lewis, Wyndham, ed. (1914). Blast: Review of the Great English Vortex. No. 1 London: John Lane.
Serres, Michel (2007). The Parasite. Trans. Lawrence R. Schehr. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.
Sloterdijk, Peter (2011). Bubbles: Spheres Volume I: Microspherology. Trans. Wieland Hoban. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).
——————– (2014). Globes: Spheres Volume II: Macrospherology. Trans. Wieland Hoban. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).
——————– (2016a). Foams: Spheres Volume III: Plural Spherology. Trans. Wieland Hoban. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).
——————– (2016b). Stress and Freedom. Trans. Wieland Hoban. Cambridge: Polity.