WP 9: Serious

Against Self-Preservation, or Can SCUM be Serious?

Alexander García Düttmann

It stood out in this connexion that when you came to look into things in a spirit of earnestness an immense deal could be done for very little more than your fare in the Underground.

Henry James, What Maisie Knew

“I’d like to die. In the mountains, a lake, long before you. This is what I dream of, and this postal sorting nauseates me. Before my death I would give orders. If you aren’t there, my body is to be pulled out of the lake and burned, my ashes are to be sent to you, the urn well protected (‘fragile’), but not registered, in order to tempt fate. This would be a delivery of me that would no longer come from me (or a delivery that would come from me since I would have ordered to have it consigned, but not a delivery of me, as you prefer). And then you would enjoy mixing my ashes with what you eat (morning coffee, brioches, tea at five o’clock, and so on). After a certain dose, you would start to go numb, to fall in love with yourself; I would watch you slowly advance toward death, you would approach me inside you with inconceivable serenity, absolute reconciliation. And you would give orders…”1 If one found out that these phrases had been written by a philosopher and belonged to a published work of his, how seriously would one take him? Would one call him an ironist who undermines the distinction between philosophy and literature, the public and the private, arguing and playing? Would one take him seriously as a lover? Whoever the lover may be who speaks here, he or she seems to detach love from self-preservation so that “absolute reconciliation” can be attained, a reconciliation of ashes. Will such a wish for “absolute reconciliation” be dismissed as nihilism, as a love committed to a nihilistic fantasy that cannot be considered a serious commitment to love? Is it, in the end, scum? “It is said in the first Song that the earth has long—not forever—stood firm, and the leave-taker even calls it the dear earth, as something vanishing that is embraced. To the work the earth is not the universe, but what fifty years later could fall within the experience of one flying at a great altitude, a star. For the gaze of music that leaves it behind, it is rounded to a sphere that can be overviewed, as in the meantime it has already been photographed from space, not the center of Creation but something minute and ephemeral. To such experience is allied the melancholy hope for other stars, inhabited by happier beings than humans. But the earth that has grown remote to itself is without the hope the stars once promised. It is sinking into empty galaxies. On it lies beauty as the reflection of past hope, which fills the dying eye until it is frozen under the flakes of unbound space. The moment of delight before such beauty dares to withstand its abandonment to disenchanted nature.”2 If one found out, once again, that these phrases had been written by a philosopher and belonged to a published work of his, how seriously would one take him? Would one call him an ironist who undermines the distinction between philosophy and poetry? Would one take him seriously as a poet? Whoever the poet may be who speaks here, he or she seems to detach life from self-preservation so that a last glance of beauty illuminates the eye before it dies. Will such a wish for an experience of beauty as a final act of resistance against disenchantment be dismissed as nihilism, as a hope committed to a nihilistic fantasy that cannot be considered a serious commitment to hope? Is it, in the end, scum?

What is seriousness? It may seem rather simple to answer this question. Something turns into a serious matter when self-preservation is at stake. Each time I must worry about survival, about persevering in my condition or being, each time I must worry about how to continue living under circumstances that appear more and more precarious, each time that something or someone I care for is threatened by grave illness, destruction, extinction, demise, or death, I must feel seriously concerned. I hit the bedrock of reality and witness, in a flash, how my freedom of thought and action is significantly diminished, if not reduced to a minimum, the minimum of an exclusive focus. Seriousness, in this sense, is an attitude imposed upon me, a way of relating to the world, to others and to myself, that is borne out of the necessity of dealing with necessity, of relating to that which leaves very little space and time, very little leeway for a possible relation. Seriousness results from a subtraction, a selection, an exclusion. It is a concentration, a concentrated form of attentiveness that I barely choose because, in truth, the choice is inflicted upon me, or because any distraction could prove deadly. The more seriousness moves away from casualness, the more it borders on anxiety and despair. Seriousness is about the moment of truth that cuts through the obnubilation of affectivity. To be serious is to worry in a matter-of-fact manner so as to come close to the cause of concern without allowing it to become overbearing. To be serious is to have realised just in time that something implacable and ineluctable is on the way, something that is already there and that requires my full attention. Where there is seriousness, there is destiny. Hence seriousness is about form as the last resort against the chaos of a breakdown. Never is form so pure, never does content depend so much on form as when seriousness arises from a threat posed to self-preservation. Seriousness is the outlook of form, the coolness of making distinctions and feeling and knowing the weight of things. This is why seriousness must regularly guard itself, and the self, against the wrong form of seriousness, against a distorting, erosive and self-eroding form. A good illustration of an admonition to the “serious ones,” to the ones who are truly or seriously serious, serious without hyperbole, not to let a dissimulated lack of seriousness pervert their cause, can be discerned in the preface to The Birth of Tragedy, where Nietzsche denounces the facile invocation of the “seriousness of existence”3 that relegates art to an “easily dispensed-with tinkling accompaniment.”

Seriousness, seriousness as an outlook of form, and exaggeration are at odds with each other. Hunger, for example, hunger as an intense physical sensation willfully pushed to a limit, exceeds the problem of self-preservation. Knut Hamsun traces the consequences of this excess in his famous novel. Exaggeration does not solve the problem of self-preservation, it simply relinquishes it to a frivolous and perilous transgression, or it leaves it behind by crossing a point of no return. Beyond this point, there may lie different types of monstrosity, or scum, or saintliness, or there may lie rebirth in the guise of an impersonal life.

As is well known, Spinoza, in his Ethics, defines the very essence of things or beings as a “striving for self-preservation,”4 or as a “power” to persist in one’s being and to do so for an “indefinite” amount of time. Such perseverance is said to be a “virtue,”5 or rather the virtue that precedes all other virtues, an originary self-determination, an essential determination of the self, that reveals every thing or every being to exist in unimpaired accordance with itself. In his extensive commentary on expression and expressivity in Spinoza’s Ethics, Gilles Deleuze describes this “striving” and this “power” that maintain a thing, a being, a mode in their being, as the “existential function of essence.”6 Each time we encounter other, external things, beings, modes, the effort to persevere communicates itself to us as it compels us to act differently. Depending on how we act, on whether we manage to avoid sad thoughts or not, we pass into a state of greater or lesser perfection. Consciousness, Deleuze reminds the reader of his other book on Spinoza, of his book on Spinoza’s practical philosophy, emerges as the experience of such passages.7 Could seriousness not be understood as the existential function of essence which at some point shows in our being as an informing transitivity or receptivity, as a witness to how our striving and our power are affected? Obviously, self-preservation is not to be understood as sheer indifference to everything outside. The mind would be less “perfect” if it were “on its own,” “sola,” as Spinoza puts it in Latin.8 The more perfection a being reaches, the more active it is, the more it seeks a connection with a being of the same nature; and the less it suffers, the more it exerts its imperishable mind, and the less it relies on its ephemeral imagination, the more reality it has. Ultimately, this reality can no longer be referred to a “striving” or a “power,” to the effort of self-preservation, for the cessation of suffering is deadly only for the one who has not attained any such reality and in death must surrender to “abstraction,”9 while the one whose mind has gained control over affects, over the imagination, exists by virtue of the reality attained, of the eternity intensely experienced, though not as a striving, more or less powerful being, not as a being seeking to preserve itself, not as a being making an effort, but as a being that has fully effectuated its essence. This means that there are at least two different notions of seriousness that must be kept apart when pondering the Spinozian argument about self-preservation. On the one hand, there is seriousness as an existential function of essence accompanied by consciousness. On the other hand, however, there is also seriousness as beatitude, as an awareness of “God and things according to a certain necessity,”10 as acquiescing restfulness, or as intellectual love of the absolute. This seriousness cannot simply be linked to self-preservation. It would seem that there is always more to it than the confrontation and the satisfaction of a need. Hence the answer to the question “what is seriousness?” now appears as less simple than initially presumed. Perhaps, if one wishes to continue alluding to Deleuze’s thoughts on Spinoza and to the opposition he introduces between a feeling of “self-satisfaction” at the moment of one’s death and a “curious benediction” that one receives from oneself when dying, the question “what is seriousness?” can be paraphrased by asking, “what do people judge to be important in their lives?”11 It is not as if one first had to ensure one’s own self-preservation in purely material terms to then be in a position to think about what else one may wish to accomplish in life. Such a separation would already amount to a distortion of seriousness, although insisting upon it may also serve as a warning against ideology, against the downplaying of an unequal and unjust distribution of wealth in a specific society—this is how one should understand the well-known exhortation from Brecht’s Threepenny Opera that puts grubbing before moral reflections. And it is not as if one first had to come up with a personal life plan. The undertaking of its fulfillment would generate self-satisfaction at best and would not lead to a “benediction” that, by definition, does not ensue from the merits one has accumulated and the rewards one deserves in return, as if, in spite or even because of the effort made, such a benediction implied a sense of surprise rather than a calculus, or as if the benediction of oneself could never merely come from oneself, or as if this “curious benediction” required some latitude, some scope for unpredictable play, to be a serious gesture. Seriousness, regardless of what it is that prompts it, always involves a minimal detachment and therefore a minimal scope for unpredictable play, even when survival ranks foremost.

When, in their Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno quote the corollary to the twenty-second proposition of the Ethics which states that striving towards self-preservation is the first and only foundation of virtue, they present it as the “true precept of all Western civilization,”12 that is, as the true precept of the dialectic of Enlightenment itself inasmuch as it has determined the process of civilisation in the Occident. The self of self-preservation, they claim, is transformed by this process so that it can keep ensuring its agency. In other words, the process of civilisation in the West is a teleological process and involves the very self it seeks to produce. Only once the self has emerged as a non-natural, bloodless and soulless self, as a self that does not require embodiment, can self-preservation be secured, the self-preservation of “Western civilization,” the self-preservation of the self that guides the process of civilisation and that is to be brought about by this process itself. For self-preservation to reach its goal and the self to become invulnerable, for the self to be no longer prone to unpredictable external influence, a rationalisation must take place that constitutes the self as an instance incapable of abandonment, of yielding to life’s vicissitudes without further mediation. The “power” to maintain oneself in one’s being must be the power of a “logical” or “transcendental” self purged from both drivenness and superstitious beliefs, the power of a self that experiences neither the self-forgetfulness of thinking nor the self-forgetfulness of pleasure, the power of a self that does not know the pleasure of thinking. Yet the seriousness with which the self engages in the pursuit of its goal, a pursuit that at the same time generates seriousness and fashions it on the basis of a model of mere form, or formalism, turns into a mask, into an intentionality so focused and so residual that it becomes indistinguishable from a formal and machine-like device. The self ends up abolishing itself in the course of the division of labour that assumes the task of preserving the civilisation of the self. Horkheimer and Adorno suggest that there is a double division of labour, a substantial division imposed upon society by class antagonism and the extrication of intellectual from manual labour, and a formal division at the origin of social organisation: “In bourgeois economy, the social labour of each individual is mediated by the principle of the self; it is meant to restore increased capital to one group of individuals and the strength necessary for overtime work to all the other individuals.”13 In the end, the mechanism of self-preservation as a “mechanism of regulation” dispenses with the self and appears as a “technical” or “technological apparatus” that functions autonomously and adopts arbitrary features. Once again nothing is left of seriousness except an abstraction. Possibly Horkheimer and Adorno do not do justice to Spinoza’s argument when, in a polemical and hence reductive interpretation, they dismiss the movement that takes self-preservation beyond itself and that is the movement of seriousness, a movement that could not be explained if self-preservation were not from the beginning connected with seriousness or, to put it differently, if it could not trigger the question “what do I judge to be important in my life?” Yet, just like Spinoza, Horkheimer and Adorno demonstrate how self-preservation can have a blinding effect on the seriousness that witnesses it in the manner of an awareness of necessity. What they call enlightenment is an awareness that liberates the self from suffering as an experience of necessity. With seriousness, which accompanies self-preservation, self-preservation ceases to be an instinctual activity or a preconscious behaviour, and more and more gains control over the relationship between the inside and the outside. Seriousness, however, also remains a precarious disposition as it moves between, on the one hand, blindness, the blindness of self-preservation caught within itself, as it were, the blindness of “tautology,”14 or the blindness of a self-preservation without a robust and stable self, and, on the other hand, a beatitude or an enlightenment that is no longer a sign of self-preservation, even though it must be arrived at by way of self-preservation. It is thus undecidable whether self-preservation is the carrier of seriousness, its possibility and its constant threat, or whether seriousness allows for self-preservation and in so doing eventually carries it to the place of its own deactivation. This is why one can always maintain that the attempt to surpass self-preservation cannot be serious, and why one can equally maintain that nothing can be more serious than such surpassing.

In a short text written in the mid-nineteen sixties immediately after the death of his friend Siegfried Kracauer, Adorno sketches a rather different theory of self-preservation, once again with reference to Spinoza’s “sese conservare.” It is as if, in relation to the critical ideas expanded in Dialectic of Enlightenment and also in Negative Dialectics and Aesthetic Theory, he were now following a humorous drift. What is “tenacious”15 about self-preservation, Adorno observes, may contribute to keeping someone not only alive but also young. Curiously, or whimsically, or even wondrously, one needs to hold fast to oneself and not let go, if one wishes to withstand growing older and resist the approach of death. Selfhood remains impenetrable and insoluble, something opaque, hard or rigid that accounts for its blindness, for a petrification caused by the urgent necessity of facing the pitiless inflexibility and stubbornness of the outside, of the world. Yet the unintelligibility of selfhood also denotes individuality. It denotes the singularity, the idiosyncrasy, the contingency, the strange mobility of a “blind spot” in the self that defies conceptualisation and for this reason must attract thought. By accepting the challenges of life, by accepting life as a menace and a challenge, the individual strengthens its will to life, petrifies itself as it becomes more and more mature and surrounds itself with an aura of foreignness and remoteness that expresses not a premature death but the improbability of ever succumbing to death, a flowing and inexhaustible fountain of youth. This “blind spot” of vitality stands opposed to, and inevitably also communicates with, another “blind spot,” namely death, though the “blind spot” of death is not so much the “blind spot” of singularity as the “blind spot” of universality, of the reification or the thingly obtuseness that universality comports: “That he had to die,” Adorno states about Kracauer, “this most individual of all circumstances, denounces the universal.”16 Dying as the “most individual of all circumstances” is proof like no other that the individual remains agile and graceful, that it maintains itself young in spirit and young at heart by virtue of a “blind spot.” It is precisely because one dies that death cannot take hold of the self and that, when it does, or when it puts an irrevocable end to self-preservation, to the guard the self posts at its “blind spot,” annihilating its vital and spiritual force, the event fills others with incredulity, as if a benediction of one’s life remained unthinkable. From this angle, self-preservation is about preserving something so deeply rooted in the self, so indissociable from the self, that it is like an outside within the inside, or the very possibility of a relationship, if indeed to relate to something must always mean to relate to an outside, for example in the course of conceiving of an idea. In self-preservation, the self preserves the only thing that it can preserve, or guard, precisely because it cannot appropriate it, and this absolute resistance to appropriation is perhaps also the reason why the “blind spot” of the self’s singular being keeps the self young, and forever young in the extreme experience of dying. The seriousness one would need to conceive in connection with such self-preservation would be a seriousness aiming at the otherness off which self-preservation feeds but that it can never touch, the otherness of a death directed against death and the otherness of a life that is incommensurable with death. Where the individual affirms itself blindly, it has died so as to confront death, or a hostile environment in which it must subsist. At the same time, though, it also guards an unobtainable youth, a youth of which it partakes to the extent that it has no command over it, a youth that presents the individual with a singular life, with a life that follows an unmistakable bent and cultivates a unique partiality or an irreplaceable disposition. Thus seriousness would not have an outward outlook since it would look inward, at the individual’s “blind spot.” It would be a relation of the individual to the individual, or rather a relation of the individual to what grants it individuality, both in the sense of allowing individuality to preserve itself against all odds and in the sense of bestowing individuality. The individual is always too old to die, it must be as old as death if it wants to triumph over it, and it is always too young to die, it is so full of a singular life that it cannot be beaten once and for all. The seriousness of self-preservation defined in terms of this “blind spot” signals that the individual has taken upon itself to respond to the constant defiance that it harbours: to the fact of never knowing whether its petrification is commanded by death, or by youth, or by both. Hence the question concerning seriousness to be asked now is neither “what can I do to avoid being crushed?” nor “what do I judge to be important in my life?” but rather “how can I be old and young enough, old enough to be young enough?” Since this question addresses the “blind spot” of self-preservation, which gives the self its impulse, the impulse to protect itself from death through a mimicking of death as a strategy of survival and through a conservation of youth that outwits death, it may give the self a lot to think about, it may attract the self’s “absorption”17 and incite the self to absorb itself in the elusive and resistant distinctiveness of beings, too, without, however, being simply another function of its preservation. Maybe the difference between thought and cognition consists, as Kantian philosophers know only too well, in that cognition targets a result it must attain to deserve its name while thought never comes to an end and never transforms itself into knowledge.

Deleuze, in his lecture course on cinema, mentions the sublime in Kant and Kant’s “humour”18 when trying to attach the experience of the sublime in mighty nature to a safe place, as if, should the self need to worry too much about its preservation, it could not have access to the sublime, elevate itself above nature and the understanding on the strength of reason’s reach into the suprasensible, and realise its unique capacity to think, or to conceive meaningfully of ideas, of concepts bereft of intuition, of concepts as “blind spots.” Removing the self from its position of safety, this is how Deleuze puts the experience of the sublime into a series of exclamations and apostrophes: “What does my human life matter!” And: “Furious nature, I dominate you because of my spiritual faculties. You may kill me. Why would my death be important to me!” And even: “God, I spit on you!” If despair can be detected in this last interjection, or outcry, Deleuze specifies that it is the despair of “revolt,” not an expression of the fear of death. “How can I be old enough to be young enough?” is the question of seriousness as a question of thought, as a question that has begun to free itself from the anguish of self-preservation. But who, then, asks this question? In Aesthetic Theory, Adorno describes the “shudder” that the work of art provokes, the “agitation”19 or the “commotion,” as a liberation of the self from self-preservation, as a non-regressive “liquidation of the ego,” non-regressive inasmuch as exposure to art’s unsettling effect requires the “highest and most tense concentration.” In Negative Dialectics, the self that has wrested itself from its own unity, from the ego of self-preservation, is said to resemble the “lineature of an intelligible being,”20 which in turn resembles the “diffuseness of nature”: “Contemporary art innervates some of this.” What “contemporary art” registers is perhaps an unsuspected kinship between nature and spirit that becomes patent in the most extreme natural and spiritual manifestations, namely in mere “diffuseness” and pure “lineature,” in outlines so refined that they appear blurred. One may be reminded at this point of drawings by André Masson, to whom Adorno refers repeatedly. In a letter addressed to Thomas Mann that dates from the mid-nineteen fifties, Adorno encourages the German writer to visit Galerie Leiris when in Paris and ask his friend Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler to show him the later works of the “former surrealist”21 Masson.

But is self-preservation always only about the preservation of the self? Is it always about me, here and now and in the near future, is it not also about future generations, about generations in the more distant future to whom a legacy needs to be transmitted? Valerie Solanas, in her virulent and unforgivingly funny SCUM Manifesto, which first appeared in a private edition in 1967 and then came out commercially the following year, argues in favour of the extinction of men. On the one hand, she considers men to be less than animals and not even machines, for at best they must be regarded as badly functioning machines, as machines so deficient that extinction is the inexorable fate all men must meet: “The male has a negative Midas touch—everything he touches turns to shit.”22 Whether he likes it or not, “the male is gradually eliminating himself,”23 Solanas affirms. As machines, men delay the institution of a wholly automated society in which the computerised management of basic human requirements releases its members from the concerns of self-preservation. For men have “a horror of being replaced by machines,”24 and it is this horror, this clinging to self-preservation in the guise of an established “male control system,” this inability to turn themselves into fully functioning machines, that testifies to a flawed being. On the other hand, however, the elimination of men is also the active pursuit of SCUM, an acronym that perhaps stands for “Society For Cutting Up Men” and the name given to a female “Elite corps.”25 This gang consists of both “hard-core activists,” or an “unwork force,”26 whose mission of destruction is to “fuck up” the “male control system” of law and government, property and money by way of sabotage, and the “killers,” or the “Elite of the Elite” whose mission of “criminal disobedience”27 is to dispose of men as efficiently as possible, for example by instituting “friendly suicide centers” for those men who, rather than slowly dying as passive spectators, want to be “quietly, quickly, and painlessly gassed to death.”28 The reason for the acceleration of induced death, for the urgency of the elimination of scum, of a gender condemned to disappearance anyway, may have to do with the male incapacity to change once the possibility of an automated society can no longer be ruled out technologically, and the choice of collective suicide that ensues from this incapacity: “we may very well all die.”29 But it has also to do with the “impatience”30 Solanas attributes to SCUM, an impatience that derives from the fact that no consolation can be sought in “the thought that future generations will thrive.” SCUM is impatient to undo a stagnant and hence self-abolishing world of “isolation”31 and “gang-banging,” and replace it with a world of “differentness” and “relationships,” a world of “individuals” and “self-forgetfulness.” The male, Solanas asserts, “has no deep-seated individuality, which stems from what intrigues you, what outside yourself absorbs you, what you are in relation to.”32 In the automated society that is not simply a “society” but rather a sort of association of “rational” individuals free from the stress and distress of self-preservation, relationships to the outside will allow females to “explore, invent, solve problems, crack jokes, make music,”33 though not forever. “Why should we care that there is no younger generation to succeed us?”34, Solanas asks after having envisioned the advantages of “laboratory reproduction of babies” and “genetic control.” The answer to the question of tradition and transmission, continuity and persistence, is a literally ultra-feminist appeal to the eventual “cessation of the production of females.” Solanas is the star of SCUM, a deadly and simultaneously more life-giving sun than any other heavenly body, a sun (in Latin and Spanish “sol”) against (in Greek “ana”) self-preservation, a sun shining on ashes, if to touch upon the outside entails a becoming-cinders, a loveable virginal “remainder of what is not,”35 to quote from Jacques Derrida’s polylogue Feu la cendre, a remainder that dissipates as soon as it is skimmed or glossed.

It would seem that the aim of SCUM is to secure the immediate evolution of a female individual incompatible with the self of self-preservation since it strives to exist only for the short lapse of time that separates the death of the last man, a “rational”36 being who makes no fuss, a dandy who “sit[s] back, relax[es], enjoy[s] the show and ride[s] the waves to [his] demise,” from the birth of the first and last woman, from the woman who can finally prove creative without procreating. Can SCUM be serious? What would be more serious than the idea that once one has absolved oneself from channeling one’s energy into self-preservation, and that once one has, as a result, touched upon an outside, there is nothing left to be achieved and hence no justification for perpetuation of the self? After all, the one who touches upon an outside in this way, the one who is able to touch, if to touch is always to touch upon an outside and if it is touching men are incapable of, is not an isolated individual, not an individual opposed to other individuals and competing with them, but a collective individual, a collective individual that succeeds in surpassing humanity and in so doing exhausts whatever appears as a possibility to still achieve something else. Does it matter whether one touches upon an outside time and again, if SCUM already touches upon it in different manners? Does it matter that there may be another manner of touching upon the outside in the cosmic reserve? Does not one single touch of the outside, for which the effort of a collective individual is indispensable, compensate for any other such touch? Is not the insistence on immediate and future repetitions of creative acts an indication of an incomplete emancipation from self-preservation, of a shortcoming of seriousness? Seriousness must, from the vantage point of such emancipation, signify the insane, flippant, absurd and yet pressing and absolutely necessary concentration on a point so decisive that reaching it would amount to the disclosure of eternity.

In conclusion, it can be said that the question of seriousness, a question that no doubt sounds ceremonious to many ears, needs to be understood as a wreath that binds together, if only loosely, at least four distinct, conflicting and at the same time interdependent questions, four questions posed against self-preservation, against the background and against the imposition of self-preservation. The four questions are: “What can I do to avoid being crushed?”; “What do I judge to be important in my life?”; “How can I be old and young enough, old enough to be young enough?”; and “How can I, how can creation, disclose eternity?”


Alexander García Düttmann lives in Berlin and teaches aesthetics and philosophy at The University of the Arts (UdK). Recent publications: Participation: Awareness of Semblance (Konstanz: Konstanz University Press 2011), and Naive Art: An Essay on Happiness (with an afterword by Christoph Menke; Berlin: August Verlag 2012). In preparation: The Birth of an Eye: Art and Philosophy.