Éris: everything is continuous conflict, 2

Thinking conflict, in essence

Benjamin, in the ‘Epistemo-Critical Forward’ makes a distinction between ‘knowledge’ and ‘truth’, with the former taking the form of a possessive, or appropriative relationship to phenomena it founds or contains (within a consciousness, for instance). Whereas truth is specifically related to issue of representation such that the form of truth itself has – in its very essence or idea – an inescapable relationship to representation. There is a degree to which this formal opposition relates to the how we might think of conflict, such that the latter is not so much ‘embodied’ or ‘concretised’ in certain ‘empirical’ instantiations, but rather conflict is the always-already process of un-founding, de-concretising, un-doing, de-sacralisation of the fetishism of the empirical. It is not necessarily an excessive, material violence so much as a subtle but relentless un-binding. I was going to write ‘process of…’ but that would be wrong, for the temporalisation of the processual might well be thought of as second order, always presupposed by the conflict that unbinds.

Alberto Dürer, Melancholia (MOMA). Adrian Leverkühn, the Dr. Faustus of Mann’s novel, always has the magic square (top right) hanging above his piano.

            Reflecting a little more on this is issue of temporality. To perhaps – simplistically, schematically – outline the stakes here. Amongst the multiple roles of the Hegelian dialectic, one that is perhaps the most problematic to modern sensibilities, is the telos that is inscribed in its movement, where although history may progress through its bad side, it does nevertheless progress. The arrow of time is part and parcel of the Hegelian dialectic. This throws up all manner of issues – not least that this rosy view of human development clashes with the daily experience of the increasing poverty – not so much material, but cultural and political – of modern life (that’s leaving aside everything from the Final Solution to the destruction of life on earth). On more strictly philosophical grounds, how can one think conflict without the negative? and how to think the negative as more than mere abstract privation without thinking of it as determinate negation, and without therefore a progressive complexity that is introjected and resolved in an ever-expanding, forward moving (or pacifying) synthesis? This is something that has been the object of vociferous critique from thinkers of the Left over the last half century and more, but which leaves the left either without a the ability to theorise conflict (Deleuze, Foucault – arguably even Negri?) or with one that is inevitably pacifying (social democratic, agonic, and discursive approaches), one in which conflict is ultimately conjured away – a process of occlusion that, if Nicole Loraux is right, goes back at least as far as the dawn of Occidental thought and politics. 


 What then if one could think of conflict without temporality, or at least with a temporality that is itself somehow extraneous to conflict itself, perhaps it is that which precedes – logically, not necessarily chronologically – its temporalisation. Perhaps conflict can be represented in the structure of an Etruscan arch, held together not by a binding material – such as cement – but is held together by enduring rock against rock, stone against stone, force against force. Standing back, however, the forces, the lines of conflict are lost behind the arch’s solidity, its existence as a unitary Thing, as if it were an archetype that must have always existed in order for one to be built at all. The Etruscan arch, then, almost as the ‘truth’ of the eidos – in the Benjaminian sense, or the Ding-an-Sich or, simply the Thing.[1]  

Etruscan Arch, Perugia

            The reflection on the Greek term stasis might provide us with a view onto this way of viewing conflict, where the intensity of the conflict is more extreme where the forces are more balanced, the more the forces aligned against one another are equivalent. Take for instance Loraux’s discussion of chapter 15 of The Iliad, in which ‘it is the two enemy armies whose hearts beat with the same rhythm – as if the combat itself were more valuable than its objectives, which are opposed to each other as the reverse to the obverse’ (The Divided City, p. 115). The ‘heightening’ effect of ‘stabilized conflict’ is of course problematic in its aestheticization of the political, but it might provide a phenomenological access to precisely this idea of conflict that operates at a level other than the epistemic, that is pre-supposed, posited before all else – to go back to Benjamin’s distinction. One must, of course be wary of aestheticization, but the turn to truth – in this case as an unbinding ligature – might open interestingly productive ways to access conflict in a way that is able to recognise it without subordinating it, ‘possessing’, and thus defanging it. Even those aestheticizing accounts, sometimes, show an awareness – however problematic and mystifying – of a different order opened by this other vision of conflict, one that ‘breaks through’ the apparent stability of contemporary structures, to show the arch – for instance – not as a static structure, but as concentrated, incompossible clash of forces in conflict.

God of war Laran/Mars (detail Etruscan school)

Take, for instance, the words of the narrator in chapter 30 of Mann’s Dr. Faustus, Serenus Zeitbloom, who is caught up in the nationalist fervour at the start of the war.[2] In this chapter, with its celebration of the onset of war, a curious phrase appears that seems to present us with a subtly different reading of the situation and perhaps is prophetic of post-war developments: ‘ethically speaking, the only way a people can achieve a higher form of communal life is not by a foreign war, but by a civil one – even with bloodshed’ (Dr. Faustus, Vintage, London 2015: p. 435). I take this to mean, that a foreign war reinforces, stabilises, sustains – in that it reinforces the unity of the Volk but is not itself transformative, the lines of force are lost behind apparent unity; whereas a civil war – an inner war, a necessary one since it is out of the very logic of what holds the community, society, together – is thus infinite, since it is necessarily infinitely open to itself, uncontainable (unable to end through defeat or victory like an external war).[3] Indeed, it’s clear that Zeitbloom is unsure of himself, caught between nationalist zeal and glimpses of another ‘break-through’, which only a ‘civil war’ can bring. It is Adrian Leverkühn, the Faustus of the title, who makes this ambiguity or contradiction more explicit once he points out how the ‘break-through’ has shut Germany off, rather than been the opening to anything new. He goes on: ‘There is at bottom only one problem in the world, and this is its name. How does one break through? How does one get into the open?’ (p. 446). Interestingly it is to Kleist’s essay on marionettes that he turns: ‘it would simply be impossible for a human being to even hold his own with the mechanical figure. Only a god could measure up to inert matter in this regard; and here precisely was the point at which the two ends of the ring-shaped world came together’ Kleist, Selected Prose of Heinrich Von Kleist, p. 310 of epub.). That is to say, only a god can attain the grace expressed by the mechanical figures so that one must ‘have gone through an infinity in order that grace finds itself again therein’ in what is ‘the last chapter of the history of the world’ (Dr. Faust, p. 446). To break through then, is paradoxically, access to the infinity of conflict as the truth of the social that overcomes its apparent containedness within bounds, whether these be national, religious, linguistic, epistemological. Only in this way can conflict be thought (and practised?) without preordaining its domestication. 

[1] The word Gegenstand, a common word for ‘object’ in German, is made up of two elements: gegen-, opposed or against, and stand, to be or to stand. Hence the object or thing, Gegenstand, can also be understood in terms of a ‘standing/being-against’. There are surely Schopenhauerian echoes here in the Ding-an-Sich as non-empirical ‘force’ that tears through the empirical that might well be worth building upon.

[2] This discussion has importantly different resonances to the later discussion, in the three-part chapter 34, where Zeitbloom takes part in conversations at a reactionary salon in the post-war period, amongst those who would no doubt go on to see a Volkish ‘breakthrough’ in ‘the inner truth and greatness’ of national socialism (Heidegger). 

[3] This is clearly untypical of the nationalism we know felt by many, including initially Mann himself, at the onset of WWI – and, one might even say, rings closer to turning imperialist war into civil war! I point this out as a curious anomaly, that is perhaps revelatory of something, rather than as a concrete suggestion of what was in play.

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