1.11.2014

There is No Outside: Nietzsche, Foucault, Jason Bourne

The Bourne films argue that there is no outside. Power is all pervasive. The trick is to operate in the creases and gaps, the lags in roving surveillance cameras. 

The allure of the outside is compelling. Just to breakthrough! To shed all this nonsense and be on the other side! It's the allure, often deceptive, of self-awareness: Before I didn't know myself but now I do! Of freedom: I finally shed that constricting grasp! Of God: Someone, sorta, who is free of rent and hemorrhoids! And, of course, it's the promise of death — death is the ultimate outside, the ultimate promise, scaring and seducing us in the same breath.

Witness the sanctimony, the obsessive habit, of the middle aged who demand daily yoga, gluten free meals ripe with kale, maybe a glass of wine, and always a reasonable bedtime. These are all good things, no doubt. What rubs me wrong me is that these are proffered with such determination and vigor (who the fuck cares that you do yoga? Why does every woman on a dating site tell me she does yoga? Just do your fucking yoga! Ahem....). Anyway, when you encounter someone who's so sure of their ways, it's because they believe they've discovered self-awareness. Before this, they ate bread and lounged with horrendous posture and went to sleep at all hours. They didn't know. Ah, but now they do and they're telling everyone.

When I hear of someone's great revelations, I usually reply with a certain mockery. Which, in turn, is met with resentment and anger after which I am promptly dropped as a friend. Lucky me! But my mockery is never meant to belittle this or that claim. It's to say, Well, yeah, of course, and in two weeks, two months, two years, two decades, you'll be declaring something else. Right? This whole thing is in flux and nothing is certain, not even the obvious truth of downward facing dog.

Only people don't see it that way. They want whatever they've last discovered to be the final thing they need to discover. Aha! I got it! The ultimate state of this desire is the one that says: I know that I never know. This is Socrates' form of sanctimony, he's so cocksure that it's impossible to know anything that he derides everybody until they either agree they know nothing or walk away. Or, of course, murder him — justice, if there ever was such a thing.

Our banal, ideologically drenched notions of liberty are premised on this allure of an outside. Don't shackle me! Don't keep me inside! I need to get out of your powerful grasp! But Foucault taught us all too well that that's not how power, or freedom, work. We are always already enmeshed in any number of power discourses that constrain us, define us, produce us. Gender, for instance. Career is another. Home owning. Humanity. Oh, and of course freedom: we think we're free. Ha! We have to pay taxes and fill out forms and get permits for everything; we, who in order to live must agree to make some anonymous asshole rich by toiling away 60 hours a week in some ping pong office, think we're free! Why? Because we get to choose which of the three available condos we want to live in. We sign the form for the $1.4 million mortgage that tethers us to the banks for eternity and this is what we call freedom. Oy gevalt. And don't get me started on those fucking ubiquitous Google death busses.

The Jason Bourne films do a fantastic job of showing us a world with no outside. This is the world of the capitalist spectacle (pace Debord) where continuous surveillance folds every place, every moment, back into the media-power machine. You are owned by ads or by the NSA: it's the same thing. It's all the spectacle, all putting their eyes on you, assuring no outside. Bourne tries to get off the grid, as it were, and a for a little while enjoys some peace in Goa.  But he's found and his girl killed. His only mode of operation is not to flee but to operate in the folds and creases of this spectacle, in the tiny gaps between roving cameras, in the delay before the next drone. Those films argue that there is no outside; power is all pervasive. The trick is to learn how to operate within.  Freedom is not breaking out of anything precisely because there is no outside. All you do is move to another realm with its modes of control. This is not to say that all is fascism. It's to say that all is power and negotiation. There is no outside power. Il n'y a pas de hors-texte, as Derrida liked to say.


Nietzsche argued that the Judeo-Christian desire for an outside — for heaven, for life after death, for an eternal God — is nihilistic. Christians want out of the messiness of life. They want out of the relentless toil and headache of shitting and hemorrhoids and trudging through work and lousy lays and asshole neighbors who play video games on their surround sound until 4:00 a.m. God is the one who doesn't have to deal with any of this — no ass, no mouth, no need to make rent. So we yearn for Him and what He promises. What's that? Death.

Death winks and tries to seduce, its own kind of outside, its own kind of nihilism. I, for one, dream of an affirmative suicide, a suicide that is not a fleeing from but a claiming to — to dignity, to grace, to self-affirmation. At least, this is how I imagine the way of the samurai. So every now and again, I walk myself through the steps of my own demise: buying the gun, loading it, destroying the hard drive overrun with things no one should ever see, and pulling the trigger as I ask myself: Is it the right thing to do today? Is this beautiful? But, no doubt, death is just another pain in the ass. If not worse.


I will admit that I don't eat gluten. Messes up my precious belly, gunks up the digestive paths. I used to eat gluten. A lot of it. Then it began to, uh, sully the metabolic passages. So I stopped. At some point, I assume my body will change again and want this and not that — nothing but spaghetti and seitan! Whatever it is I am doing now, whatever it is I know, is both specific to me and temporary and hence not anything I could or would ever suggest to anyone else. It's just a temporary mode of operating within the infinite complexity of the universe.

Life keeps happening. It's relentless like that. Moods and bodies and climates change, constantly. What's right one moment is wrong the next. And there's nowhere else to go — not to the Sierras or the kitchen or church or the grave. No place, no thing, will relieve you once and for all. You are always somewhere, doing something, negotiating the tireless, merciless, exquisite, humiliating demands of existence.  Nietzsche says we should love it, every aching moment. I try. In the meantime, I just try to live it.

3 comments:

TomG said...

Everyone at every age thinks their conception of the world is absolute. Even my young grandson, some years ago, with his concept of "ball." I just can't quite buy into Hegel's project of relentlessly criticizing every such absolute so as to eventually realize The Absolute. And, meanwhile, my grandson still excels at anything involving a ball. That might be reward enough.

Donald said...

I hear you, man. These latest posts flesh out / fold in the multivalent arguments from Rhetoric 10, which I have been listening to all week. I just finished lecture 12, and I am so freaking high, it is all coming together. The idea of The Fold metaphor feels like a key opening locks revealing new connections-- "solving" the one:many problem, making a cut/distinction without the excluded middle. But you are also more human and personal here, I can relate, and play that same death game. But death is just another pain in the ass, that is hilarious. Camus long ago robbed me of the dream of a noble suicide, yet the loss of that dream is like my own mini death of God/Author moment. Still itches. Thanks for the scratch.

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ TomG: No doubt. And the fact is, your grandson is probably the wisest of the bunch, master of the ball that he is.

@ Donald: Thanks for the note. The fold continues to teach me, as does Deleuze in general. It comes together, spreads out, winds to and fro and back again. Which makes me happy. Glad it seems to do the same for you.