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.

Culture Will Be Phallocratic or Not at All

My ambition is to fully exploit the rhetorical devices of poststructuralism–invariably employed in the promotion of queer theory, feminism, multiculturalism and related liberal intellectual excrescences–to reveal and demolish the sentimental moralizing on which these positions covertly rely. Postructuralism has copped a bad reputation because of its all-too-close association with these perverse liberal projects. But in every instance these resentful attempts to subvert the authority of the phallus unwittingly demonstrate its indispensability. Liberal naiveté consists in the assumption that the revelation that “normative” categories and practices rest on unequal power distribution fatally undermines them. I overturn this assumption. Given that no civilization worthy of the name has ever existed exist without the unequal, phallocratically administered distribution of power, “oppressive” norms and hierarchies prove to be fundamental. What should concern us as a culture is not the various phony phobias hurled at critics of liberal “diversity” (homophobia, transphobia, etc.) but the naturalization of the prissy phallophobia that threatens to reduce what remains of Western culture to a pile of malformed shit.

Stop Your Ears

Freud’s fundamental error is that he listens to women. He listens. He encourages complaint. Freud teaches men to listen to women when what women actually require in order to not become bitches and shrews is men refractory to female protest. Hard men. Dominant men.

Not for nothing did Odysseus stop the ears of his sailors against the keening of the sirens. Women will drive men who listen mad. Freud listened. The result was psychoanalysis. Women have not stopped talking since, and men have lost the ability to shut them up.

In Shakespeare’s time it was understood that indulging a chronically dissatisfied woman would only makes things worse. Petruchio’s cure for the shrew was to acquaint her with real deprivation. Unlike Freud, Petruchio did not ruminate over “what a woman wants.” A woman reveals what she wants not by what she says but by the kind of man she surrenders to. She wants a man who will put her in her place. But for a man to be capable of putting a woman in her place, he must know her place without asking. And he must show he knows by adroit conquest.

A man who starts down the path of asking what a woman wants, as Freud does, never gets to the end of it. For such a man has forfeited the knowledge that should constitute an essential part of his masculinity. The man who asks will never know. He is impotent.

A woman becomes a woman through subjugation. To ask her what she wants is to undo her as a woman. The question hystericizes her. Freud’s technique makes hysterics. It does not cure them.

This undoing of woman does not produce a man. It produces a malformed creature who is neither woman nor man, neither fish nor fowl: a harpy. The harpy is a creature who loathes herself and takes vengeance on the men who failed to make her a woman.

Expressed as feminism, this inchoate rage against ineffectual men is legitimate punishment for the white male abdication of virility. The old covenant between the sexes has been broken. Men preoccupied with the vast modern enterprise of subduing and exploiting nature have forgotten how to conquer women. They only have themselves to blame if in their modern cities they are now beset by the disordered, misgendered creatures they have loosed upon the world.

Freud was an early exemplar of the inadequate man engendered by modernity. What he invented was not a cure but a symptom, a symptom of a spent, ineffectual patriarchy no longer capable of form-giving and resigned instead to suffer the incessant chatter of disappointed women.

Vicissitudes of the Sign

The distinction between premodern, modern, and postmodern cultures can be expressed semiotically in terms of the “naturalness” of the sign in each semiotic regime. As long as tradition regulates knowledge, the sign is stable and, as postmodernists would resentfully say, naturalized. When the authority of tradition starts to break down, there is a modern interregnum that discovers the constructedness of signs and delights in their willful abstraction and rearticulation as constructions, which in visual art is most pointedly evident in Cubism and the work that descends from it. We could refer to this semiotic phase as the neurotic or hysteric phase of the sign. The sign appears to gain a wealth of connotations that make its meaning vague but also intimate depth. It is no coincidence that psychoanalysis is born at the moment that the sign is beginning to take on the mysterious qualities of the symptom.

Postmodernity marks the full disintegration of the sign, a semiotic psychosis. In Lacanian terms, this is the phase when the name/no of the father has been foreclosed and unmoored signifiers slide past each other in chaotic confusion. In Nietzschean terms, this is the moment of deicide that empties the world of meaning and inaugurates the era of nihilism. The sign is reduced to the concrete signifier, to the psychotic floating signifier, detached from any signified, simultaneously hyperreal and mesmerizing but like the glittering mirrored panels that clad postmodern buildings void of meaning, a surface that merely reflects other surfaces. As Frederic Jameson has noted, the floating signifier absorbs rather than bestows meaning. It is stupefyingly blank, brazen in its banality, unsettling in its aggressive superficiality.

One can think of the rise of identity politics as an attempt to escape the total relativization of values. Against the prospect of the complete flattening out of discrimination, identity politics preserves a semblance of difference by elevating the enervated deferral of sexuation to the status of a refusal of (a phantasmic) patriarchy. Yet, it is precisely the problematization of sexuation that signals the encroachment of an excrementalizing homogenization. Proliferating queerness does not signify greater diversity but the collapse of the cultural distinctions that constitute difference.

The disintegration of the sign is irreversible. It is the terminal phase of the scientific revolution, whose epistemic “advance” was paid for by a loss of contact with reality even though it was supposed to yield greater purchase on it. For what science defines as real is pure abstraction, a set of “laws” expressed as mathematical formulas, an implacably indifferent and empty real. When this scientific real displaces the symbolic order constituted by myth, the gain in instrumental knowledge comes at the price of exile from the godly order that formerly shielded us from the radically inhuman contingency of the entropic universe. It would take a new Dark Age to rid us of this curse. Covertly, this is what we dream of.


A disordered society in which men have grown too feeble to rule women, inevitably produces an epidemic of misshapen, unrealized women. This is bad enough in itself. But what’s worse is that such a society eventually must also produce an ideology that makes a virtue of ugliness. Disorder is rationalized as diversity. Ugliness is rationalized as emancipation from the strictures of male domination. Delusion is celebrated as enlightenment.

And, yet, this nonsense never really takes root. Beauty and ugliness produce involuntary responses. No quantity of Dove commercials can turn cows into swans. Ideologies that attempt to “redefine” beauty to make it a more “inclusive” category themselves acquire the taint of ugliness. They seem forced, artificial, risible. Feminist.

Desire imposes aesthetic hierarchies. It manifests as pure, indefensible prejudice: her, not her.

Conversely, the abolition of aesthetic hierarchies requires the abolition of any manifestation of desire. This is why liberals resemble gray, unsexed zombies. Gender neutrality is death. The battery of desire requires polarity not equality.

Equality is noxious to fantasy. It is equally noxious to sexuality and aesthetics.

Don’t Stop Believing

The exquisite regard currently lavished on prêt-à-porter identities likely has something to do with the transformation of the American economy into a froth of speculative bubbles. Identity is a stock whose value rises according to how many people can be induced to invest in it. This is why overnight Bruce can become Caitlin. We go along because otherwise the make-believe foundation that supports American self-regard might give way. Burst one bubble and the whole economic soufflé might collapse.


A curious shortcoming of Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents is that Freud never considers the libidinal economy of the pagan world, which seemed far more tolerant of sexual enjoyment than the Christian civilization that displaced it.

The fundamental difference between the pagan and Christian cultures is that the former was a culture of customs with no claim to universality. Paganism unlike Christianity did not distribute personhood evenly. It did not preach the communion of souls now or in the hereafter. It did not concern itself with abstractions like love of neighbor. It had rituals but little in the way of theology. Its orientation was worldly rather than otherworldly.

What poisons European sexuality is the introduction of the Christian notion of personhood, which is later secularized into the doctrine of rights.

Enjoyment is in opposition to rights because enjoyment is predicated on use (usufruct). To put it bluntly, fucking is not loving. “Respect” and mutuality are alien to sexual enjoyment. Sade was perhaps the one modern European who cut through the accumulated miasma of a millennium of Christian sentimentality and articulated the precise terms and implications of sexual enjoyment:

DOLMANCE: . . . What is it one desires when taking one’s pleasure? that everything around us be occupied with nothing but ourselves, think of naught but of us, care for us only. If the objects we employ know pleasure too, you can be very sure they are less concerned for us than they are for themselves, and lo! our own pleasure consequently disturbed. There is not a living man who does not wish to play the despot when he is stiff: it seems to him his joy is less when others appear to have as much as he; by an impulse of pride, very natural at this juncture, he would like to be the only one in the world capable of experiencing what he feels: the idea of seeing another enjoy as he enjoys reduces him to a kind of equality with that other, which impairs the unspeakable charm despotism causes him to feel. ‘Tis false as well to say there is pleasure in affording pleasure to others; that is to serve them, and the man who is erect is far from desiring to be useful to anyone. On the contrary, by causing them hurt he experiences all the charms a nervous personality relishes in putting its strength to use; ’tis then he dominates, is a tyrant; and what a difference is there for the amour-propre! Think not that it is silent during such episodes.

The act of enjoyment is a passion which, I confess, subordinates all others to it, but which simultaneously unites them. This desire to dominate at this moment is so powerful in Nature that one notices it even in animals. See whether those in captivity procreate as do those others that are free and wild; the camel carries the matter further still: he will engender no more if he does not suppose himself alone: surprise him and, consequently, show him a master, and he will fly, will instantly separate himself from his companion. Had it not been Nature’s intent that man possess this feeling of superiority, she would not have created him stronger than the beings she destines to belong to him at those moments. The debility to which Nature condemned woman incontestably proves that her design is for man, who then more than ever enjoys. his strength, to exercise it in all the violent forms that suit him best, by means of tortures, if he be so inclined, or worse. Would pleasure’s climax be a kind of fury were it not the intention of this mother of humankind that behavior during copulation be the same as behavior in anger? What well-made man, in a word, what man endowed with vigorous organs does not desire, in one fashion or in another, to molest his partner during his enjoyment of her? I know perfectly well that whole armies of idiots, who are never conscious of their sensations, will have much trouble understanding the systems I am establishing; but what do I care for these fools? ‘Tis not to them I am speaking; soft-headed women-worshipers, I leave them prostrate at their insolent Dulcineas’ feet, there let them wait for the sighs that will make them happy and, basely the slaves of the sex they ought to dominate, I abandon them to the vile delights of wearing the chains wherewith Nature has given them the right to overwhelm others! (1)

But Sade in a sense arrives too late. He is himself tainted by a post-Christian tendency to speak in absolute terms, to oversystematize, to dogmatize. Pagan worldliness in regard to sexual enjoyment is depaganized when Sade expresses it as willful blasphemy. But the hegemony of Christian slave morality prevents the attempt to revive pagan sexual mores from being expressed any other way. In the end, Sadean “libertinism” can only invert but not escape an internalized and undislodgeable Christian ethic of personhood.

Still, Sade, in proposing a sexual ethic predicated on a return or reinvention of a society of masters and slaves, alerts us to what Freud overlooks in Civilization and Its Discontents. It is not civilization per se that imposes neurotic sexual repression but post-Christian European modernity, which recast the Christian doctrine of universal personhood into the modern democratic doctrine of human rights. It is modernity that makes it impermissible to use another for one’s capricious enjoyment. Freud will not broach this subject, but it is the modern emancipation of women that has impoverished the sexual life of Europeanized peoples and contributed to the rise of neurotic illness in both sexes. Freud’s complaining hysterics (whose characteristic symptom according to Freud is that they experience disgust in circumstances where they should experience sexual pleasure) are the paradoxical product of this emancipation. The woman who can do as she pleases turns out to be a woman who can no longer be pleased.

Once the doctrine that all are equal before God is transcribed into the secular language of rights, it strangles enjoyment. The emancipations inaugurated by modernity diminish rather than increase enjoyment as concern for mutuality and consensuality reclassifies the enjoyable use of the other into abuse.

Freud attributes the strangulation of enjoyment to the over-aggressive repression of aggression in the service of civil peace, but he fails to take note that this surplus repression, is a specifically modern, European phenomenon.

Today, under the rubric of “harassment,” enjoyment to excess (which Sade tells us is the only enjoyment worthy of the name) is forbidden even to the elite. The result is that in Western societies libidinal energy is increasingly forced to find discharge in spasmodic outbursts of scapegoating that canalize the cruelty of the sexual drive into moral crusades. These puritanical convulsions are not a new phenomenon. If anything, they indicate that long after its secularization, European culture retains the essential repressive characteristics of its Christian origins.

1. Sade, Richard Seaver, and Austryn Wainhouse. 1966. Justine, Philosophy in the Bedroom, and Other Writings. 1st paperback ed. New York: Grove Press., 344-45.

Cruel Beauty

There is an irreconcilable antagonism between diversity and beauty. The former is a principle of nonselection and nondiscrimination. The latter is a principle of the harshest discrimination, a discrimination without possibility of appeal. The ugly invariably find solace in beauty’s lack of a sufficient and universal definition, which they wrongly interpret as license to create definitions that favor their deformity. But the reason beauty lacks definition is because it is lawless. The effect it produces is involuntary, dislocating, and beyond argument. What cannot be defined also cannot be redefined.

Cultures that respect beauty do not concern themselves with rights. The opposite is also true: Concern for rights presages cultural liquefaction. “Fluidity” is an invertebrate virtue and its current glorification is perhaps the clearest indicator that we’ve devolved into worms. Nietzsche predicted this.