The Irrational Event and HBO’s The Leftovers

I’m looking forward to the HBO series The Leftovers, which will begin its second season on October 4. I enjoyed the show immensely last summer despite my initial reservation regarding the involvement of a former Lost producer. One of the reasons for my enjoyment, of course, is that I think the premise of the show is quite beautifully explicative of a lesser known or recognized aspect of Max Weber’s theory of religion: The rejection of a totalizing material explanation for religious ideas in favor of understanding the latter’s efficacy in their political, social, economic, and historical contexts.

Last summer, I caught a review of the pilot episode from Slate‘s Culture Gabfest podcast. The questions and speculation surrounding the supposed aims of the show were what drove an ultimately tepid review. As I say, the reservations are not without good reason given the way that Lost spiraled out of control and, in retrospect, never really found any solid footing in terms of a premise to begin with. Reflecting back, the entire series was mystery all the way down with the promise of some kind of satisfying explanation. Deep down, I think most of us knew by the end of the fourth or fifth season (maybe much earlier) that the writers and producers probably weren’t going to be able to pull off anything satisfying. What drove the popularity of the show was the allure of a material explanation that would tie up all the mystery in a nice bow, giving us a collective sigh of relief. So strong was this allure that everything that happened in the show was somehow tied back to this center–which ended up being essentially non-existent. In other words, both action and character development on Lost never moved forward in any meaningful way. It was always directed backward, or inward, to the mysterious core, the material explanation that would make everything make sense.

And so this review immediately jumped on the premise of The Leftovers, which is based on a novel of the same name: 140 million people worldwide disappear on Oct. 14, 2011, and no one knows why. Given the first season, one thing is clear: We will never find out what happened to those people because the answer to that mystery is not what drives the narrative. It is fundamentally the opposite structure of Lost even though both shows begin in more or less the same way–the introduction of a mystery whose fog hangs over the entire series.

Rather than the cause of the mystery, The Leftovers is interested in exploring what Weber would call an irrational interjection into the rational progress of history. How do human beings respond to incomprehensible tragedy, paradox, revolution, and prophecy? The Leftovers is about the formation of new ideologies–religious ideologies in particular–out of the chaos of history. It is about the consequences of the introduction of the unexplainable, the prophetic, and the mystical into history and the ways in which these introductions render everything that follows irreversibly changed.

Weber’s understanding of theodicy is germane here. In Sociology of Religion, Weber devotes a chapter to a material account of the rise of theodicies among both wealthy and impoverished classes. His argument is that theodicies provide rational explanations of evil and fortune that would be able to reconcile why some had much and others had basically nothing. This explanation is not new. Weber is essentially borrowing from previous intellectualist traditions in theories of religion from the 19th century. The explanation is also weak and, frankly, not that interesting, but Weber then follows this analysis in the next chapter with a really interesting move. He drops the intellectualist explanation for theodicy from his analysis of what theodicy does. In other words, the political, economic, and social effects of the popular circulation of theodicies within a society have nothing to do with their “original” material cause. You can’t get to those effects from the material causes without the circulation of religious ideas (their social psychology) that bridges them.

One could potentially trace a line from the beginnings of rational explanations for fortune and evil to, for example, the development of the Protestant ethic and then the spirit of capitalism, but the reasons why Weber thinks these kinds of rational explanations devlop fit more into his broader theory about rationalization as a general feature of human life rather than as something that has specific explanatory purchase on later historical concepts like the spirit of capitalism. And when an irrational experience, idea, figure, event enters the scene, material explanations go completely out the window. That’s because, for Weber, the “concepts” that drive history in radically different directions are formed out of confrontation with the irrational.

For example, for Weber, the Calvinistic belief that one stands alone before a God whose motives are wholly irrational (i.e. not approachable by human reason) coupled with the previously existing general dominance of “moral behavior” in Christianity, generates a particular mode of moral activity (inner-worldly asceticism) that in turn produces the spirit of contemporary capitalism: the earning of money for the sake of money itself. (You can find a more detailed explanation of these moves in Weber here and here.) Importantly, it is the specific Calvinistic formulation of the problem of the relationship between God, world, and individual Christian that has causal efficacy rather than the underlying, “rational-material” cause of that formulation that would tie it to any other such formulation (i.e. in other religious practices/systems.) There is an irrational, terrifying relationship between God-I-world that necessitates the generation of new modes of social organization.

The collective character of The Guilty Remnant in The Leftovers represents Weber’s analysis quite explicitly–to the point of actually incorporating it into the core of their own system and ritual practice. Their aim is to continually instantiate the original event that generated a new way of being in the world. They don’t want anyone to forget what happened on the day 140 million people disappeared. But their interest is not simply the exercise of memory. As in Christianity, it is performative. It’s the institutionalization of the event’s irrationality into the collective memory which will generate a new politics, social structure, and economy. The Guilty Remnant, however, reverses the Christian performance of the Eucharist (or, one might say, negates it) because the very idea that reasons don’t matter–that a causal explanation for the mass disappearance is irrelevantis actually integral to their practice.

In the penultimate episode of season one, Patti Levin (Ann Dowd), the leader of The Remnant, tells Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) that she thinks about the day of the disappearance “every fucking waking moment” but that “it doesn’t matter what happened.” This is precisely the opposite of Christianity. In both cases, we have an event which, for the faithful, utterly changes universal history. Yet in Christianity, we have a teleological cause; God’s ultimate and final reconciliation of the world to himself necessitates the Christ-event. In the case of The Remnant, there is no cause. They have explicitly institutionalized the original charisma of the event-sans-reason. It is a rejection of both the classical religious explanation as well as the reductive materialist explanation. There is no why and it is in the very act of performing this rejection that the center of The Remnant’s religious power resides. In continually instantiating the irrationality of the event, they attempt to resist the reification and institutionalization of the event on its behalf. For example, in the finale, by orchestrating the placement of the life-like mannequins of the disappeared in their former homes, The Remnant forces the citizens of Mapleton to recall the charismatic power of the original event, which in turn tears down the edifice of normalcy and solemn acknowledgement erected by the local government.

It’s unclear what endgame, if any, there is for The Remnant other than to be a living negative force (in Adorno’s sense) against the institutionalization of the event–to ensure that people understand that everything has now changed. All attempts to return to “the normal” reify and mask the irrational event as merely an aberration, a tragic but ultimately insignificant historical event to be commemorated like any other tragedy (with State acknowledgment, parades, memorials, holidays, etc.) The Leftovers, then, is not merely an indictment of institutionalized religion. It is also an indictment of the modern project of history, of empiricist accounts of religions. It is critical of attempts to synthesize the once irrational event into a rational flow of cause and effect, rather than attempt to seize upon the tension the irrational produces within the political, social, and economic and ask how its circulation contributes to new forms of social organization.

Encountering Tragedy: Thoughts on Nietzsche and Plato

The goal of this post is to put onto ‘paper’ some thoughts regarding Nietzsche’s rendering of tragedy in The Birth of Tragedy and the way in which tragedy functions in Plato’s The Republic. I have prepared these thoughts within the context of writing a paper on Nietzsche and Bloch and preparing the syllabus for the introduction to philosophy course I am currently teaching at California State University Bakersfield. As I am now unable to produce anything like a lucid non-academic blog post, I have chosen to write this in essay format.

Thesis

The confrontation Nietzsche seeks throughout his project with the figure of Socrates, I argue, is summarily available to his readers through the way in which Plato construes tragedy negatively as an inappropriately imitative form of art. My thesis is that Plato’s censorship of particular genres and modes of storytelling reflect the positive content Nietzsche locates within tragedy for the unleashing of the human without the constraint of a purely Apolline, epistemic, ontological commitment.

Defining Key Terms

Several key terms forms the basic building blocks for my argument and necessitate clear definition – aesthetics and tragedy. Ancillary concepts, which I define within the body of the essay, are “affirmation” and “repetition.” The order of my argument follows: aesthetics, tragedy, repetition and affirmation as tragic, and hope.

By aesthetics, I am referring to the realm of experience in which concepts of beauty, terror, or any other example within the range of human being finds expression through art and by which art elicits from people such emotions and experiences.[1] Such experiences do not occur in abstraction from philosophical concerns regarding ontology and politics, rather, the aesthetic names an integral doorway into such concerns, engaging them in ways that formal discourse cannot reach.[2]

By tragedy, I refer to particular aesthetic performances on dramatic stages. Such narratives are those that frame heroic existence against the background of the inevitability of the heroes demise. Fate will always destroy the life of the tragic person. Yet, the person continues to fight, she resists her fated destiny even to the point of death. It is precisely this resistance that occupies my attention; tragedy renders individuals in-themselves, against any transcendental grounding or guarantee of their ontological identity.

What Aesthetics Do

Insofar as I identify the tragic as a particular kind of aesthetic production capable of producing specific effects in the political lives of persons, the role of aesthetics in relationship to other modes of inquiry becomes clear; the aesthetic dimension acts together with other modes of human creation as an access points into the metaphysical realities of the world. Poetic prose, musical movements and other formations of creative art expose what Nietzsche, following Schopenhauer, refers to as the primordial one. The primordial one is the basically immanent unity from which individuated entities, social formations and power relations all arise. The one is the causal core of the world, its common substance. This “one” is precisely that which individuated being, in its initial formation before the tragic experience, denies in its persistence to remain individuated, within the status quo’s projected ontology.

With regard to the general concept of art in this context, the aesthetic moves the person from the everydayness of life in which people find themselves individuated in their notions of identity and truth. The presupposition is that the ways people exist in societal structures of power correspond to reality as such. Hierarchical thinking in morality, religion and politics serve as examples for this initial state of the person in the world.

The critical function of aesthetic production is to collapse the structure of being, to render the world to the audience as essentially one with regard to its causal contingency, its lack of teleological grounding. Such a collapse disorients notions of propriety with regard to social relations. Thus, Nietzsche’s writing on the genealogy of morals proclaims, “It might even be possible that what constituted the value of these good and revered things is precisely that they are insidiously related, tied to, and involved with these wicked, seemingly opposite things – maybe even one with them in essence.”[3]

The aesthetic is always metaphysical even as it seeks to project an anti-metaphysical posture; the aesthetic is in a verbal sense, claiming something about the nature of reality within its moving of individuals toward a reflexive awareness of one’s connection to nature’s unified causal meaninglessness. The critical nature of tragedy is that the tragic performs the function of instilling in the audience a reflexive posture with regard to such meaninglessness.

The reflexivity Nietzsche wishes to engender through tragic drama is not the sort of posture one finds in the form of idealist thought. Rather, in affirming that existence, that nature itself, is an aesthetic phenomenon, Nietzsche advances a vision of human being that turns the nihilist pain of nature’s being into a resource for what Deleuze refers to as “the joy of affirmation as such,” the reorienting of the self to the immediacy of experience. The problem is not individuation in-itself but rather the sort of individuated structures of life that obscure primal realities of chaotic force in the erection of concepts of meaning.

Affirmation in the context of the movement into the primordial pain and chaos of existence and back out into an individuated state of self we may term “repetition.”[4] I want to position “repetition” within Giles Deleuze’s reading of Nietzsche; repetition denotes the affirmation of the validity of every singularity of being, different from the other and from transcendental definition. Repetition is the affirmation of every individuation that occurs after exposure to the primordial pain of reality humans experience through aesthetic exposure.[5]

Here I must be clear with regard to the differentiation between an affirmation of individuation and that of subjectivity. Subjectivity is a concept reliant upon the structures of traditional ontological discourse. Repetition, however, is the affirmation of life’s unlimited singularity within the univocal reality of the world’s chaos. In this sense, Nietzsche’s tragic movement of the person constitutes an affirmation of agency in the moment.

Nietzsche’s tragic person corresponds to an agency of “will.” This is a notion of agency in which all transcendental conditions for “the subject” become diffuse across the plane of immanent exposure to the primal realities of life .

We are to recognize that everything which comes into being must be prepared for painful destruction; we are forced to gaze into the terrors of individual existence – and yet we are not to freeze in horror: its metaphysical solace tears us momentarily out of the turmoil of changing figures. For brief moments we are truly the primordial being itself and we feel its unbound greed and lust for being…we are pierced by the furious sting of these pains at the very moment when, as it were, we become one with the immeasurable….Despite fear and pity, we are happily alive.[6]

Nature as Aesthetic Phenomenon

Nietzsche defines nature as an essentially aesthetic phenomenon, and in so doing addresses the problematic political relationship between oneness and individuation. Individuation in the first instance denotes a political ontology of an authoritarian nature; it denies the primal oneness and contingency of the world, and subsumes the subversive transgression against nature that is human agency in light of contingent being. Only an ontology that abandons this notion of individuation within the order of nature is able to posit a concept of identity that does not subsume the person within a hierarchical, or theological, structure of being-qua-being.

Rather, the Nietzschean realisation of tragic being attempts to ‘ground’ singular existent persons on no thing other than their self-assertion, their will-to-be, in themselves.[7] Tragic individuation turns out to be a notion of agency, which denies nature’s order in the assertion of the person’s singularity against the backdrop of death. The person in everyday existence is transformed into a tragic hero insofar as she asserts her singular newness of life in the face of her fated being-in-one, insofar as she grabs ahold of the contingency of her being and lets go of the false individuations, which metaphysicians and moralists sale for comfort.

In order to undo the condition of un-reflexive individuation and reach the concept of subversive agency, Nietzsche must render nature itself as an essentially aesthetic phenomenon. Nietzsche’s assertion takes form in the theoretical arena of metaphysical problems concerning transcendence and immanence, oneness and plurality; the question is how does one justify existence in all of its individuated forms, which include Church dogma, when the nihilistic reality of oneness in-death looms overhead?

By posing the question in this context Nietzsche takes aim against both the theoretical underpinnings and the societal structuring of human reality itself. Tragedy is that movement of music, bodies on the stage and emotions that confronts the individuated audience and beckons them into reality’s inevitable unity. The tragic rendering of the gods, for example, illustrates this function of tragic drama insofar as the gods are made to live the lives of humans and represent the elemental forms of nature. Through this representation the gods seduce human beings to continue living through a catharsis of seeing the truth of their being mediated. Thus, Nietzsche calls nature as an aesthetic phenomenon “the only satisfactory theodicy,” justifying the world through solidarity as opposed to logic.[8]

Here the importance of thinking tragedy becomes clear with regard to religion; the gods who correspond to the capricious natural elements function in a mythological sense in the same way as the stage itself, creating the necessary distance in which the audience is able to approach the nihilistic core of being without being overwhelmed and destroyed. Religious imagery and experience will function for Bloch in a similar fashion, bringing the religious person into contact with parts of their political and ontological reality that are unknown prior to the aesthetic experience.

The Mechanism of Tragedy: Schein

I want to explain the mechanics of Nietzsche’s tragedy that allows for the creation of the necessary distance between the audience and the reality of the world through the gods and stage. I wish to draw attention to the role of “semblance” as the primary vehicle through which tragedy accomplishes its dual task of deconstruction and reconstruction of individuals. The link between ‘representation’ and metaphysics is the essential feature of Nietzsche’s theory of nature and semblance is where this link occurs; semblance is the artistic creation on which human meaning is founded.

Semblance names the aesthetic element that Nietzsche finds basic in human existence. Nietzsche begins The Birth of Tragedy by accounting for the occurrence of dreaming as one instance of semblance’s appearance, denoting its basically hidden place in the constitution of human nature. Nietzsche writes, “When this dream-reality is most alive, we nevertheless retain a pervasive sense that it is semblance…philosophical natures even have a presentiment that hidden beneath the reality in which we live and have our being there also lies a…quite different reality…this too is a semblance.”[9] Thus, the world of human life is essentially aesthetic semblance.

To be clear, semblance does not denote something unreal, but rather identifies the mechanical reality of how humans think about the real. Tragedy does something to the audience insofar as it engages this hitherto unknown metaphysical feature of human being. Tragedy moves the audience into the flux of the emotive and spiritual realms of their existence. This movement questions the terms of agreed upon social ontology in its exposure of ontology itself, as a discourse of power, as semblance. The deconstruction of ontology itself frees the individual, empowering her to assert her will in-the-world without regard for essentialist notions of identity or ultimate meaning beyond her immanently given self.

Plato’s Censorship of Schein

It is the role of schein in the tragic production which Plato finds damaging in The Republic. Semblance of this kind enables humans, through an imitative experience to sympathize with and to live-into the reality of the stage, in opposition to the hitherto unacknowledged semblance of everyday existence in ordered society. Such imitative possibility is the definition of subversion with regard to the necessary ordering of the polis’ life.

Plato establishes early on in book III of The Republic a sense of moral propriety with which the rulers of the polis are to judge particular stories. Interestingly, and politically telling given the above analysis of Nietzsche, Plato positions the poetic merit of a story as coterminous with a story’s potential to affect corruption upon the city’s youth.[10] More pertinent to the theoretical divide between Nietzsche’s upholding of tragedy against the figure of Socrates, however, is the way in which Plato proceeds to define three specific modes by which one is able to tell a particular story. “Now I think I can make it clear t you what I couldn’t make clear before, that one type of poetry and storytelling is purely imitative – this is tragedy and comedy, as you say. In another type, the poet tells his own story…The third type, using both imitation and narrative.”[11]

Each type of storytelling corresponds with a particular set of behaviors and habits that each story produces within people. In short, the founders should censor any aesthetic production that engenders imitation inappropriate to one’s “natural aptitude” and corresponding role within the city.[12] It is precisely this schematization and censorship of aesthetic production itself, suspending concern for particular content, that separates the Socratic posture and the liberated will of human spirit in Nietzsche’s work.

The drive of the Socratic posture is the equation of knowledge and wisdom, and the political correspondent equates to each manifests as the properly ordered, intelligible, society.[13] The power of the unconstrained tragic production to pull oneself into the purely imitative posture subverts this rational, scientific and moral order.

“For there is an infinite number of points on the periphery of the circle of science, and while we have no way of foreseeing how the circle could ever be completed, a noble and gifted man inevitably encounters, before the mid-point of his existence, boundary points on the periphery like this, where he stares into that which cannot be illuminated. When, to his horror, he sees how logic curls up around itself at these limits and finally bites its own tail, then a new form of knowledge breaks through, tragic knowledge, which, simply to be endured, needs art for protection and as medicine.”[14]

Conclusion

What tragedy breaks apart is the inability of the person to exist in limitation with regard to one’s relationship to aesthetic production. The danger Plato’s locates in comedy and tragedy as imitative kinds of aesthetic production is exactly where Nietzsche locates the horrific freedom for life after tragedy. Tragic truth obliterates the surety of moral and epistemic order, leaving the door open for tragic agency in the world to emerge in opposition to every sense of propriety.

What I find most interesting is how each thinker’s analysis, opposite as they are with regard to prescriptive argument, details the same affect aesthetic form has upon people. The formal movement that occurs in the imitative tragedy is what is most dangerous and liberative. In this sense, both Plato and Nietzsche locate the potency of tragedy in the same fashion. The only difference is with regard to ontological commitment.

[1] Audi, R., The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. Second Edition: 1999, Cambridge England; New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 12. “Questions specific to the field of aesthetics are: Is there a special attitude, the aesthetic attitude, which we should take toward works of art and the natural environment, and what is it like? Is there a distinctive type of experience, an aesthetic experience, and what is it? Is there a special object of attention that we can call the aesthetic object? Finally, is there a distinctive value, aesthetic value, comparable with moral, epistemic, and religious values?”

[2] Eagleton, T. The Ideology of the Aesthetic. 1990, Oxford, UK ; Cambridge, Mass., USA; Blackwell. p. 3. Eagleton, admitting that his readers will most likely find his definition of aesthetic too vague or all-encompassing with regard to the political qualifications of aesthetics writes, “But is the aesthetic returns with such persistence, it is partly because of a certain interdeterminancy of definition which allows it to figure in a varied span of preoccupations: freedom and legality, spontaneity and necessity, self-determination, autonomy, particularity and universality, along with several others. My argument, broadly speaking, is that the category of the aesthetic assumes the importance it does in modern Europe because in speaking of art it speaks of these other matters too, which are at the heart of the middle class’s struggle for political hegemony.”

[3] Nietzsche, F.W. and W.A. Kaufmann, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. 1989, New York: Vintage Books. p. 10

[4] Deleuze, G., Nietzsche and Philosophy. European Perspectives. 1983, New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 71-72. Here Deleuze offers a picture of how repetition manifests within Nietzsche’s work via the concept of the eternal return. “The eternal return is the being of becoming. But becoming is double: becoming-active and becoming-reactive, becoming-active of reactive forces and becoming reactive of active forces. But only becoming-active has being; it would be contradictory for the being of becoming to be affirmed of a becoming-reactive, of a becoming that is itself nihilistic. The eternal return would become contradictory if it were the return of reactive forces. The eternal return teaches us that becoming-reactive has no being. Indeed, it also teaches us of the existence of a becoming-active. It necessarily produces becoming-active by reproducing becoming…The old song is the cycle and the whole, universal being. But the complete formula of affirmation is: the whole, yes, universal being, yes, but universal being ought to belong to a single becoming, the whole ought to belong to a single moment.” Repetition is the continual movement into the newness of life in-the-world, a decision to be oneself, to create oneself, to be(come) one’s singular existent, to borrow from Jean-Luc Nancy’s lexicon.

[5] Deleuze. Difference and Repetition. p. 57. Here the relationship between the dismantling of transcendental reasoning and the affirmation of will-in-itself, through within the singular occurrences difference as ‘will’, becomes clear. “It is always differences which resemble one another, which are analogous, opposed or identical: difference is behind everything, but behind difference there is nothing. Each difference passes through all the others; it must ‘will’ itself or find itself through all the others.”

[6] [6] Nietzsche, F.W., R. Geuss, and R. Speirs, The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings. Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy. 1999, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 80-81. Here Nietzsche is specifically describing the function of Dionysian art. However, for the purposes of my analysis of agency, his description illustrates the sort of movement into the univocal reality of chaos from which the will emerges in assertive, tragically heroic, force.

[7] Nietzsche. The Birth of Tragedy. p. 82. While Nietzsche provides other examples of the sort of hierarchies he attempting to deconstruct, or more appropriately ‘reevaluate,’ here Nietzsche illustrates the logic behind such hierarchical individuations of human being. The logic which Nietzsche opposes is, “the dialectical drive towards knowledge and the optimism of science…there is an eternal struggle between the theoretical and the tragic views of the world.” Socrates represents the quintessential anti-tragic thinker insofar as he embodies this posture toward knowledge over and against tragic embodiment of life in-the-world as primary. While Nietzsche refers specifically to science in this instance, theological morality Here, as my invocation of Heidegger’s neologism suggests, the Nietzschean posture informs the Heideggerian disavowal of metaphysics, of the onto-theological constitution of metaphysics. Against “Being” as “ground,” the most elementary definition of “nature,” both Nietzsche and Heidegger render Being as somewhat perverse, as chaotic and in opposition to singular beings, participating in reality with them but not defining their various essences. See: M. Heidegger, Identity and Difference. 1st ed. 1969, New York,: Harper & Row. p. 57.

[8] Nietzsche. Birth of Tragedy. p. 24.

[9] Nietzsche. Birth of Tragedy. p. 15.

[10] Plato, G.R.F. Ferrari, and T. Griffith, The Republic. Cambridge texts in the history of political thought. 2000, Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 71-72. Here, Plato specifically refers to the censoring of theological stories. “We shall have to ask them to stop being so negative about the underworld, and find something positive to say about it instead…Not that they lack poetic merit, or that they don’t give pleasure to most people. They do. But the more merit they have, the less suitable they are for boys and men who are expected to be free, and fear slavery more than death.”

[11] Plato. The Republic. p. 82

[12] Plato. The Republic. p. 52. Natural aptitude, the natural place of each individual in the world, forms the basis by which the person socializes into society. “And one thing immediately struck me when you said that, which is that one individual is by nature quite unlike another individual, that they differ in their natural aptitudes, and that different people are equipped to perform different tasks.”

[13] Plato. The Republic. p. 60. “And are love of knowledge and love of wisdom the same thing?’ ‘They are.”

[14] Nietzsche. Birth of Tragedy. p. 75.