Moth & Silkworm

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In reading the Prologue to Giorgio Agamben’s The Use of Bodies (Stanford, 2016; originally L’uso dei corpi, 2014), I now more fully understand why Tom McDonough, in his prepared comments for the recent roundtable discussion of my book The Decision Between Us, turned to Guy Debord’s last film, In grim imus note et consumimir igni (1978) and juxtaposed Debord with Roland Barthes, and Barthes’ essay, “Leaving the Movie Theatre” (1975).  Debord’s title, which translates as “We turn in the night, consumed by fire” is, in its Latin inscription, a palindrome. More specifically, it is a palindrome that—as Agamben points out—in turning on itself performs what it says. Namely: loss and death as the result of a fatal desirous attraction to a luminous light in the night. I am not sure if this was part of Tom’s unspoken intention, but I wonder whether one of the reasons he referred to Debord’s last—and what he describes as Debord’s greatest—film, was not only because Debord has been so central to his own work for the past several decades, but perhaps also because the theoretical argument that I present in the first chapter of my book is equally structured by a palindrome that also serves as its title: “Name No One Man.” My title, like Debord’s, also palindromically performs what it says: in this case, the multiplicty of anonymity. An anonymous multiplicity that is here enacted by erasure as its own aesthetic-erotic praxis of withdrawal and loss (e.g. Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953—which is the focus of that chapter).

As Agamben goes on to explain, Debord’s title functions like an emblem (impression/phrase/motto) + image, of moths (the “we” that is speaking in the Latin) drawn to the flame of a candle that will consume them in its heat. The moths then, are sort of like moviegoers going to the cinema, in which an equal attraction to a bright light in the night represented for Debord one of the principal (although perhaps not ultimately fatal)  forms of alienation within what he called the society of the spectacle.

But as McDonough points out, for Barthes, it is not so much a matter of “going” to the movie theatre and of being attracted to the light that shines in its cinematic darkness (one might say that the diurnal time of the cinema is always nighttime), but precisely of “leaving” the movie theatre—yet without forfeiting an experience of pleasure. Indeed, as I have argued in both The Logic of the Lure, and in The Decision Between Us, there is an art to (and ethics of) “leaving” (departure, withdrawal, retreat), and in this way is its own source of pleasure for both the leave-taker and the one who is left. I think here for instance of Foucault telling us, in one of his last interviews, that the most erotically intense moment is when—presumably after a one-night stand— the boy leaves in a taxi. In turn, there is another sense of pleasure that is derived from the implication that in leaving, there is yet another place to go and where, in departing, one might be headed. As we know, this was exactly Barthes’ modus operandi: of“taking off” (as he himself puts it) from the gallery opening, the dinner party, the opera, the theatre or the cafe, and then going to the club, the drugstore, the bar, the park or, simply wandering the streets at night on the way back home, and along the way cruising and sometimes picking up hustlers.

For Barthes, the cinema is defined by its darkness, one that he describes as “the very substance of [a twilight] reverie” and “the ‘colour’ of a diffused eroticism.” Such that, as he goes on to say, the movie house “is a site of availability (even more than cruising), the inoccupation of bodies, which best defines modern eroticism—not that of advertising or striptease, but that of the big city.”

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In his essay from 1975, Barthes draws upon another Latin motto, emblem and figure. In this case, that of the silkworm that weaves its cocoon and, once encased inside there, glows in the night, as though enveloped—like the moviegoer—by the bright light of its own desirous attraction. Inclusum labor illustrat: “It is because I am enclosed, that I work and glow with all my desire.” And at the same time, like a moth, the moviegoer is attracted to the light of the movie projector: “that dancing cone which pierces the darkness like a laser beam” as Barthes describes it.

As McDonough notes, the tactic for Barthes is not to break the fascination of the lure, but to exacerbate it, “to be fascinated by the image twice over” (Barthes). That is, to be fascinated by the image and by its surroundings, and hence to have something of a perverse relation to the cinema that is contingent more so upon “leaving” rather than going to the movie theatre.

Thus in seeking a figure (or emblem) for the specific pleasure that is derived from that form of desiring that is leaving at night, and into the night, neither Debord’s moth nor Barthes’ silkworm will suffice. Instead, it is none other than Marx who provides us with the most apt image for any number of those nocturnal creatures who, once the sun has set, set out into the night in search of that source of attraction—that light in the night—that always stands the chance of being fatal, or exhilarating in the risk that is the intimacy of the outside. As Agamben notes, it is in The German Ideology that Marx writes: “and it is thus that nocturnal moths, when the sun of the universal has set, seek the light of the lamp of the particular.” It is the clandestinity (at once secret and illicit) of this move from the universal to the particular, that Agamben will focus on as the means of rethinking the political by reviving the political’s attachment to that register of the everyday that otherwise goes unremarked and unnoticed—which includes that which remains unremarkable and unnoticeable. In turn, it is Stacey D’Erasmo who, in her response to my book, arrived at a sense of the importance of noticing precisely those things that are not readymade but that often seem to be (or are) unmade and perhaps even un-makeable (including as what might be legible as politics).
This move from the universal to the particular is the move from generic form—including something simply called “life”—to a form-of-life that, in its essential clandestinity, promiscuity and inoperativity, might be described as queer.
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