Class vs Identity

Could it be stated more clearly:

Our identity is the least important thing about us. And yet, it is the thing we have become most committed to talking about. From the standpoint of a left politics, this is a profound mistake since what it means is that the political left — increasingly invested in the celebration of diversity and the redress of historical grievance — has converted itself into the accomplice rather than the opponent of the right. Diversity has become the left’s way of doing neoliberalism, and antiracism has become the left’s contribution to enhancing market efficiency. The old Socialist leader Eugene Debs used to be criticized for being unwilling to interest himself in any social reform that didn’t involve attacking economic inequality. The situation now is almost exactly the opposite; the left today obsessively interests itself in issues that have nothing to do with economic inequality.

Only one quibble: The “Left’s” preference for pseudo-diversity over economic justice is not an oversight or a mistake. It reflects the reality that since the late ’60s, the “Left” has been captive to the interests of entitled, social climbing yuppies, the perfect exemplar of which is Hillary Clinton. It’s not a bug but a feature.


How can one fail to see that everything denounced by Céline at the end of the Thirties is true and even worse since then?

Quite. And the current squalid kerfuffle over the publication of his retroactively criminalized pamphlets merely adds to the evidence of how little the country that claims his genius deserves it. But then, what country could possibly stake a legitimate claim to Céline, the quintessential vagabond, the man who seemed to have a knack for making himself unwelcome wherever he went?

To really appreciate Céline, you have like him to lack roots in the modern world, to be a traitor to every party, to be intellectually and culturally homeless. Céline’s made himself an untouchable out of dogged loyalty to what he saw, touched, heard, smelled, tasted. His undoing was the the result of his steadfast refusal to lie. You sense that this refusal did not arise from some abstract moral principle. It came from artistic pride. Céline refused to lie because he was an aesthete of the highest order, uninterested in finding beauty by keeping his head upturned and contemplating the heavens but possessed by a fury to give form to the chaos encroaching from all sides. The lesson of his work is that beauty is not in the world but in suffering it, in enduring it, in voyaging to the end of the night.

Along with Nietzsche, he is one of the, perhaps, handful of writers who matter to me.


Liberalism is the contemporary form of aristocratic pretension–it’s what the better people are obliged to profess in order to pass themselves off as quality.

The panoply of liberal tropes have one thing in common: the pretense to uncommon moral refinement. Being a liberal consists largely in making a display of your exquisite sensitivity. This is often referred to as virtue-signalling and it is, but it is important to be clear about what precise virtue liberal virtue signalling signals. Invariably, it is the possession of an uncommon sensitivity to the plight of the uncommon, which liberal rhetoric designates as “marginal.” Liberal fervor is at root a fervor to achieve uncommonness, to be recognized as special, as a member of an elite.

Today, the easiest way to achieve this uncommonness is by professing support for the empowerment (phallicization) of women and the disempowerment (castration) of men. The very perversity of this position guarantees its exclusivity. You notice this quality of perverse exclusivity in everything that liberals profess to value, be it food, art, clothes, cars, or beer. Even when liberals admit to liking things that ordinary people like, they make a point of encapsulating their appreciation in irony. The commonest, kitchiest things are rescued from their commonness and consumed uncommonly, in a way that is superior to the way ordinary, dumb mortals consume them.

The paradox of how liberals, who are predominantly white, can profess disdain for white men is resolved if we understand that liberals see themselves as exempted from that debased racial category by virtue of their morally superior sensibility. For liberals, hatred of white man is not self-hatred but a means to achieve elevation above the commoners.

Likewise, the seeming paradox of privileged liberals posing as victims of “patriarchy,” racism, and “heteronormative” prejudice is resolved when we understand that what liberals understand by oppression is their lingering sense of their own phoniness. This is what the peasants have to answer for–that they make liberals feel bad about themselves. The entire liberal project is essentially an attempt to legislate the normalization of phoniness.

The liberal nightmare is that one of these days the commoners will rise up and force their inclusion in political discourse, which to liberals would be tantamount to ravishment. Perhaps this ravishment is something liberals secretly crave, hoping it would free them from the narcissistic prison of their hoity-toity uncommonness. That would explain the liberal obsession with sexual harassment, an obsession that combines an exaggerated estimation of the hysteric’s allure with a covert longing for a rough man to rescue her from her frigid loneliness.

Money Talks

The pressure to make gender a commodifiable choice testifies ultimately to capitalism’s drive to endow money with the ultimate power to define reality. In 1844, Marx had already understood this:

That which is for me through the medium of money–that for which I can pay (i.e., which money can buy)–that am I myself, the possessor of the money. The extent of the power of money is the extent of my power. Money’s properties are my–the possessor’s–properties and essential powers. Thus, what I am and am capable of is by no means determined by my individuality. I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women. Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness–its deterrent power–is nullified by money. I, according to my individual characteristics, am lame, but money furnishes me with twenty-four feet. Therefore I am not lame. I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honoured, and hence its possessor. Money is the supreme good, therefore its possessor is good.

Today we see just how far this power of money to nullify reality can extend. But we also see how the putative Left, which at its inception defined itself in virile opposition to capitalism, has become the primary agent of capitalism’s effeminizing corruption. For today the Left stands for nothing but the “progressive” normalization of moneyed indulgence and its freakish outcomes.

The Incurable

Disorders that in Freud’s time were still recognizable as disorders are today validated as forms of dissidence. Symptoms that testify to the diminished or wholly absent authority of the father are inverted into willful acts of disobedience against long-extinct patriarchal norms.

As a consequence, neurosis has become not only incurable but undiagnosable. The hysteric today is a model of the “strong” woman, the mother-dominated, inadequate male, a model of sensitivity. What used to be neurosis is now “marginalization,” which calls for “inclusion” and a strained intellectual effort to canonize deformity and flaccidity.

The result is a phallophobic culture that anathematizes its own traditions, devalues men and manly virtues, and insists on demoting reality to the status of a social “construct” subordinated to the self-esteem of snowflakes, morons, perverts, and shrews.

Listless and infantilized men and women may well imagine that technology has finally enabled them to become wholly artificial, genderless, and disencumbered of all inherited cultural and biological limitations. They have no inkling of where the indulgence of this fantasy will deliver them. For the artificiality they seek is itself a phantasm, an ego ideal constructed by gnawing self-hatred. The dream of the “post-human” can only yield a succession of ever-less-than-human until it finally reveals itself to be a death wish.

Liberal Ascent

You can track liberal ascent by sampling the effluent spewed out by the entertainment industry. Norman Lear’s anti-working class All In the Family (1971) is as good an indicator as any of when the cult of liberal virtue signalling achieved supremacy in this country.

All In the Family captures perfectly the social dynamic that propelled the rise of boomer liberalism: the need of upwardly mobile yuppie aspirants to make a public spectacle of their separation from their working class roots. Archie Bunker was a caricature of the working-stiff deplorable. Meathead was … well, Meathead was Rob Reiner playing himself, the prototypical future member of the sanctimonious liberal elite.

Liberalism was and continues to be a means to class segregation. It is snobbery cleverly disguised as sentimental concern for the “excluded,” a category nicely calibrated to not include the disowned working class.

Liberalism’s remarkable achievement was to make the total disenfranchisement of the working class a “progressive” cause. The consequence is that the working class has been left no means of political expression other than the nihilistic embrace of illiberalism. The working class has become subterranean, out of sight, out of mind, except on those occasions when a fissure opens and the stench of the deplorables wafts forth from underground in the embodied form of a Donald Trump or a Roy Moore.

The Bourgeois Avant-Garde

Modernism is a thoroughly bourgeois project, but this is obscured by the aura of transgression cultivated around it by both its promoters and detractors.

In reality, the avant-gardes did not so much set out to shock the bourgeoisie as to seduce that part of the bourgeoisie that craved recognition for its forward thinking. Patronizing the avant-garde gave this fashion-conscious section of the bourgeoisie a means to show off its rarefied taste. Without tycoons and society mavens willing to finance them, few if any modernist projects would have gotten off the ground. But the crucial role these wealthy bourgeois played (and continue to play) in the promotion of the avant-garde is obscured by the intellectual froth of critics and art historians who insist on looking at art and directing the rest of us to look at it through the blinders of its own self-mythification. A great deal of the critical genius these arbiters bring to the task involves hiding the crass reality of art marketing and speculation under a thick verbose layer of dense speculation about the connotation of essentially vacant art works produced to function as lures for just this kind of theorizing.

Far from shocking the bourgeoisie, modernism gave the bourgeoisie a means to segregate itself into a new aristocracy. The invention of modernism coincided with the invention of the liberal elite. In the terminology of Pierre Bourdieu, modernism marks the moment when economic capital finds a means to translate itself into cultural capital.

Because the avant-garde exists to cater to bourgeois progressive pretensions, it is always careful not to exceed what is liberally permissible. This takes fine calibration. From time to time, the avant-garde will even propose the abolition of art—but always as a means to ensure the continuity of the avant-garde. When the real abolition of art was achieved in the Soviet Union and elsewhere by the forceful subordination of art to the propaganda requirements of the state, the Western avant-garde either remained aloof or recoiled from this violation of art’s vaunted “autonomy.”

This alleged autonomy of the avant-garde has been its greatest and most successful lie. The doctrine of épater le bourgeois was never more than a cover for the avant-garde’s contempt for common taste. (On occasion, this contempt is disguised by the “appropriation” of the debris of mass culture, which permits the ruling class to enjoy its own propaganda as art.) Indeed, at no time in the history of Western culture, was there ever a time prior to the modern era when art so slavishly devoted itself to promoting the elite’s self-regard. In the bad old days when art served the church and nobility, it did so in ways that even the commoners could appreciate. Upper class taste did not then need to so radically distinguish itself from the taste of the commoners because the upper class was assured its social position regardless of its taste. But in the modern, democratic era, the bourgeoisie is a ruling class that is obligated by democratic pretension to justify its fitness to rule. It was for the purpose of giving the bourgeoisie a means to manifest the superiority of its discernment that the avant-garde was invented. And it is because it continues to serve this purpose that the myth of the avant-garde survives, albeit in postmodernist guise, as the myth of art’s continuing transgressive potential.


We look to form to succor us from chaos. Kristeva argues that the representation of formlessness is already a victory over the abject, a removal from it. The more immediate the threat of encountering the abject, the closer the aesthetic object will approximate the very thing it defends against. This is why in the modern period, art is driven to simulate its own absence—as the last recourse against capital’s radical desublimation of all objects by their transformation into coinage.

Capitalism is the Midas curse. The touch that turns the object to gold at the same time symbolically impoverishes it, flattening all objects into interchangeable currency and simultaneously depriving gold itself of symbolic distinction.

The world turned to gold is the world turned to excrement.

Art Reduced to Shit

In retrospect, Michael Fried’s stance against “theatricality” and the literalization of the object can be read as a last-ditch defense against the impending desublimation of the art object. While Fried’s position was perhaps vitiated by his embrace of Anthony Caro’s gentrified constructivism as an alternative to minimalist vacuity, his thoughts on the dire consequences of literalism bear rereading.

I read Fried’s notion of “theatricality” as a euphemism for perversion. The literalization of the object, its “subjective destitution” in Lacanese, is a formula for its transformation into an object that imposes itself on the viewer as a debasing physical ordeal. Of course, this “real” object of minimalism is no more real than any other object. Its stripped-down “realness” is merely the artifact of an ostentatiously performed debasement, which is the hallmark of perversion. This becomes fully evident when the literalized, debased object is the body. Literalizing the body involves subjecting it to endless masochistic indignities in an effort to establish its dissociated “materiality.” Chris Burden’s early performances come to mind. Or Marina Abramović’s. Or Ron Athey’s. Or countless others.

Why this compulsion to debasement? Likely because it reenacts what capitalism and the commodity fetish have done to art and to the possibility of symbolic production in general. It reflects the dire condition to which artistic expression is reduced when the phallus is de-mythified and can no longer function as a semiotic organ. In this condition, art is reduced to a freak show that aims no higher than to produce physical disquiet in lieu of what it cannot produce: delight, absorption, a heightened sense of vitality.

Despite what Hal Foster claimed, desublimation did not constitute a “return of the Real” because the Real is just what the frame of art rigorously excludes. Art only admits fictions and, when the efficiency of the modernist fiction of autonomy begins to wane, it is replaced by the fiction of an abolished fiction, the fiction of producing the “Real.”

Fried’s response to the alignment of art with perversion was correct in its assessment of the impoverishment that would result. The putative de-aestheticization of the art object did not bring “art” closer to “life.” It brought it closer to shit.