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CulturePrintCritical dictionary

Terror / Ecstasy

José Bragança de Miranda

Regardless of "psychology" or of neurological approaches such as António Damásio's and others', from the historical point of view there are no natural emotions. That says nothing against the legitimacy of the naturalist approach to emotions, but merely underlines its radical insufficiency. In fact, "natural" drives, impulses and emotions are always shaped by language, memory, literature, but also by power or by the economy.

Keywords: Archaic/Primitive; Georges Bataille; Psychoanalysis and Culture; Hunting

 


Regardless of "psychology" or of neurological approaches such as António Damásio's and others', from the historical point of view there are no natural emotions. That says nothing against the legitimacy of the naturalist approach to emotions, but merely underlines its radical insufficiency. In fact, "natural" drives, impulses and emotions are always shaped by language, memory, literature, but also by power or by the economy.


In this sense, we can say that during the emergence of history and the community underneath it, the shaping of the impulses was always there, in the search to stabilize and control them, so as to make them useful and usable (or to prevent their dangerousness). Before psychology emerged as a subject, the question was already dealt with by metaphysics and theology. It is known how philosophy was organized since always around some primary "emotions", such as "melancholy" in Aristotle, "joy" in Spinoza, "anguish" in Kierkegaard or in Heidegger, "nausea" in Sartre, etc.

The omnipresence of these psychographic "blocks" in the philosophical text - emotions interwoven by writing - shows well that affection built in this way transcends the physicality of impulses or their "animal" origin.  The scientific approach to emotions, by psychology or neurophysiology, is inscribed within the historical work which stylized impulses into forms which are transmissible through tradition. It is only in the space which was open by such stylizations that the "naturalist" - or any other - approach is possible. We are indebted to Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) for a significant approach to this issue. First, by arguing that affections are not merely subjective, but emerge from relationships with the state of affairs. Second, by dividing the plurality of affections between those which emanate from a particular state of the world, and ontological affections which he terms Stimmung (mood), relating to totality. Thus, psychology would deal with emotions which are already arranged socially and work the/in the "inside" of the subject, while the "mood" is the basic mode of our being-there (Dasein), in virtue of which and in consonance with which we are pulled out of ourselves and of the situation, and are interpellated by the totality of existence. A good example of this difference is the Heideggerian distinction between "fear" and "anguish".

We fear something well defined and concrete, which emanates from the state of affairs - we are afraid of being attacked or of falling sick, for instance - whereas anguish is a fear without figure or a figureless fear. In the first case, we can anticipate danger, in the second we are at its mercy. While the first type of affections can be dealt with practically, in the second case that does not happen. Starting from this primary division, Heidegger can show how, from the historical point of view, affections were stylized and structured, assuming the question is always to conceal the essential relationship with anguish (Angst). That stylization is the proof that emotions vary historically, showing signs of a historical distortion of the fundamental "mood" or affection. Thus, in Greece metaphysics lets itself be determined by "awe" (Aristotle), and terror by the withdrawal of the "Being". Already in modernity, haunted by time, "monotony" dominates. Taken to the extreme, monotony is confused with the fundamental affection which becomes widespread in modern times. As Heidegger says: "The anguish regarding the Being is greater today than ever. Its proof: the gigantic device which seeks to stifle it". Despite the importance of these analyses, the privilege granted to "anguish" and to its variations - such as "fear", "terror", "restlessness", etc. - comes too close to the theological scorn for the world, aiming at producing a withdrawal from the present. It would be necessary to neutralize the assumptions of this approach, to withdraw it from the program which builds the very device of affections, a little like Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) did in his approach to "affect". For Deleuze, "affect" is distinguished from "affections" since, unlike the latter, it is not of the order of subjectivity. In Qu'est-ce que la philosophie? (1991), affect is defined as "a non-human becoming of man", meaning it is crystallized in certain works or "devices" which have the power of acceleration, intensification or petrification. The artist is the creator of "affect", an inventor of "new affects", as he exemplifies with Acab's becoming-whale in Melville's Moby Dick. Deleuze neutralizes the Heideggerian option for "anguish", but the idea that affection aims at the invention of "new" affects, being the result of an aesthetic crystallization of emotions, should lead to the recognition that there is a plurality of forms of extraction and, above all, a series of affects, already stabilized historically and produced as ready-made affections. For instance, a soap opera produces a sentimentality which is pre-elaborated and ready to consume.
The general paradigm of this permanent elaboration, and of its use by technological, political, etc. devices, is found at the original division which is played, not within the world built historically, but in the relationship with "nature". That division is permanently haunted by the phenomenon which Quentin Meillassoux defines as "archi-fossil" and which creates an irreducible tension within culture (Cf. Après la finitude, 2006). It is around this relationship that everything is played, as Hans Blumenberg upholds, according to whom the origin of culture depends on the fragmentation of "nature's absolutism", defined by density, immediacy and opacity, so as to create a distance. For Blumenberg, the question is to control the "original panic", which is not far from Adorno's idea that "all art records the primordial fear like a seismograph" (Cf. Aesthetic Theory, 1970). Just like Heidegger, many authors insist on "fear" and strongly underline "terror", which would be grounded in the fear of death. Nothing more "natural" or "animal", it will seem. But the essential is the way that original division creates a certain distance and the possibility of control, through which animal impulses are modulated. The priority given to fear or terror is explained by the fact that these are political and easily manipulable passions. Everything indicates, on the contrary, that all affections laboriously enunciated by philosophy or psychology - (Cf. Remo Bodei - Geometria delle passioni. Paura, speranza, felicità: filosofia e uso politico, 1991) - are connected to two more original emotions, the metaphysical and political passions par excellence: "terror" and "ecstasy". Their shape changes permanently and the very names with which we seek to target them do not even reach them, just as it is not easy to grasp them without having before put them to use. In the beginning of modernity, marked by the will to start from zero, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) in Leviathan will typically insist on terror as origin, which would be the result of the state of nature characterized by the "war of all against all" (bellum omnium contra omnes). This war is originated by the impetuosity of the desire to possess everything instantaneously, not accepting delays. But the very fact that Hobbes starts from the image of war shows well the ambivalence of the process.
Terror is the affection which strikes the victim, whereas the hunter, who seeks to fulfill his wish, exults in "ecstasy", as described in The Call of the Wild by Jack London, when he describes the hunt led by the dog Buck at the head of a pack: "There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. (…) This ecs-tasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad on a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight". Therefore, everything happens as if in history a stylization of primordial "affects" were under way, plaited affects from which a permanent work of creating emotions, and devices for their use, is carried out. Historically, one of the most powerful systems of this work is found in theology which, unconsciously, was always based on the presence of these two affections. From this point of view, the analyses of Rudolf Otto (1869-1973) in Heilige (The Sacred, 1917) are exemplary. The sacred is defined by Otto as "mysterium tremendum et fascinans". In the same phenomenon of the "numinous", two affections are merged, affections which are impossible to distinguish as they exist in a relationship. The mystery refers to the exteriority or absolute distance of the divine, "the totally other being" which rouses a "sacred terror", while the fascinans implies the will to move closer and to be fused with God, corresponding to a "powerful enchantment", similar to "intoxication". It is a relationship where the absolute power of the divine mysterium imposes a passivity which is no less absolute, made at once of terror and ecstasy, in practice inextricable.
The big difference in the twentieth century was the ability to think this co-belonging of terror and ecstasy explicitly, which had already appeared in Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy which grounds in Freud's metapsychology the co-presence of the life drive (eros) and the death drive (thanatos), which grants all the virulence to Georges Bataille's theses in L'érotisme (1957). All emotions are variations of these archaic "affects" which work in the depths of culture and return incessantly. This fact becomes more evident in modern media, as is the case of film – and not only horror films - where horror and pleasure are wisely machinated by directors such as Hitchcock and others, far more trivial. Current technology shows that a techné of emotions was, since always, in question. It is known how the production of fear has been infinitely easy, to produce effects of all kinds. But the same happens with ecstasy. Ek-stasis comes from the Greek verb ex-istano, meaning separation or abandonment, or possession. In the historical work it underwent, it points to very diverse experiences - from shamanism to the effusions of Saint Teresa d'Ávila, from the orgiastic to prostitution - and can be produced chemically, like in the drug called ecstasy.
Without that permanent work around terror and ecstasy, repeating once and again the line which links and separates them, history would be impossible. Therefore, all utopias which seek to free "ecstasy" and "eliminate" terror do no more than intensify the latter.

 

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