In the late nineteenth century Alfred Jarry created a prototype of the modern wannabe in his pot-bellied Père Ubu, a figure that raises entitlement to a high art. Ubu doesn’t want to be king; others urge him to it. But he is also the others. And when he does become king, CEO, or US president, he doesn’t know what it means, or if it means anything at all. He just states his claim. And so he shimmies from statement to power. And having obtained power, Ubu decerebrates the world, exposing the grounds for groundlessness, to paraphrase Ortega y Gasset. Ubu is a tautomaniac, that is, he can be explained in his own terms and is thus always in the right (being in the right is all he is). He needs no proof, but on the contrary wants “to turn the absurd into the highest power of thought” (Deleuze & Guattari). This impulse fuels the autopoiesis of a power that no longer needs to decide between the sign and what it designates. Its paradise is literal. When resistance stirs against Ubu’s law of value, he whines under the table, blows his brains out, or flees to his private island. As much as he gives himself airs, Ubu is still just a windbag. And even though his character is based on Jarry’s old schoolmaster, on stage the figure mutates into the typical “new man,” whose self-referentiality is reflected in the l’art pour l’art of the avant-gardes, who celebrate the tautomaniac as a savior, “licking the twilight and floating in the huge mouth filled with honey and excrement” (Tristan Tzara). In Jarry’s line of succession the Dadaists call for the “installation of the idiot,” that is, the dialectic of wisdom and stupidity, which is supposed to result in an “active simplicity.” Related ideas can be found in the Zenitists’ concept of the barbarogenius. Even in clean clandestine crystalline sublime futurism-suprematism Ubu’s “pshit” pops to the surface: after the discovery of an overpainted inscription on the Black Square (1915), researchers recently established that Kasimir Malevič’s modern icon apparently traces back to Alphonse Allais’s racist caricature Combat des Nègres dans une cave, pendant la nuit, from 1897, which in turn goes back to a painting by Paul Bilhaud. A running gag. Allais’s picture shows a black square. Malevich paraphrases its blackness as “sense of abstraction.” This will have come as no surprise to anyone who beheld the painting in the 0,10 exhibition. The Black Square stares down from just below the ceiling like a television on which Ubu might have given the weather forecast. Somewhere in there too is a cancellation of the October Revolution still to come. As canvas- and stage-crasher, Ubu has a pataphysical trajectory, not futurist, and certainly not revolutionary, which perhaps originates with Courbet and the Paris Commune. Yet despite or because of this, the absurd king is the epicenter of an epoch-making reversal.
“Isn’t injustice as good as justice?” Ubu unwisely wonders. His figure is closely linked to the Western problem of nihilism, as later examined by Camus in relation to Nietzsche and the modern confrontation with the absurd. But nihilism is more symptom than position. It doesn’t imply an “invalidation of all values,” as an aspiration to invalidation is itself the supreme value. So suicide turns out to be the greatest good in Camus’s Caligula. Nihilism radiates like a black hole. Tautomania operates analogously in the active mode of self-sabotage. This ontological constellation always becomes politically clear when ideological marginalia overwhelm their center and reveal the absurdity of the status quo. In this respect today’s tautomaniacs—from conspiracy theorists to settler communities, from political gamblers to financial sharks—are in no way mere online aberrations in a wide stream of offline common sense. Irrational tribalists aren’t the antithesis of rational globalists, and victory over them wouldn’t automatically be equal to a global coming of age. On the contrary, even the best of all capitalist worlds, as outlined by Panglossians like Hans Rosling or Steven Pinker, are unthinkable without absurdity, decerebration, and self-sabotage. Their soma is of the vocal kind, while Ubu rumbles as a complementary principle in the bowels of the political economy. The mainstream is driven by a meme operator who shows processes only as intelligible in their own terms. Physicians call this idiopathic, “of its own kind.” Everything new is a pose in the alcoves of capital, in the assumption of being able to break the seal of the milieu. Everything applies in a specific sense—and even the general sense applies specifically. At the same time, we’re aware that this can’t be true, that it’s absurd to the same extent that it’s real. This pataphysical knowledge—that something can’t be true but is in fact real—stands out today in the problem of the political right and “right-wing populism.” It should be clear that when twenty-first century people start marching for “the Occident” or attacking maritime rescuers, the absurdity level is off the dial. I roughly call this domain of the absurd the “fascism complex,” because it’s such a mixed bag—even of opposites. For today we have a post-fascist trinity of (1) palingenetic ultra-nationalism, in Roger Griffin’s sense of a traditional coalescence of epochal power, territory, and a cult-like signification of birth and death, that is, the idea that a country miraculously “belongs” to you, or that you have effectively come to own it in an act of national reawakening, even if you own no property, which explains the fervor with which the tribalist pounces on the migrant, even before the question of “social systems” arises; (2) (petit-)bourgeois democracy, in Adorno’s sense as the result of a permanently deferred revolution, Adorno deeming the afterlife of National Socialism in democracy to be potentially more threatening than that of fascist tendencies against democracy, meaning that fascism’s entering of democratic procedures—today, for example, in connection with the National Socialist Underground complex and the German intelligence service—goes deeper than the “attack on our democracy” from outside; and (3) a semiotic world integral, in Guattari’s sense of a “worldwide development of a new form of fascism” that wires up market and psyche to ensure that all individuals feel the same sense of happiness. Then, like the two decerebrated black servants in Jordan Peele’s horror drama Get Out, they are animated by the same empty white-liberal smiles. Achille Mbembe writes in a similar context about the triad “human-thing, human-machine, human-code,” outlining a “becoming black of the world” based on this white smile, that is, the general enslavement of humankind (conditio nigra). In the idiom of Père Ubu there are three decerebrations here: the reduction of time to space (utopian ego-decerebration = people/nation), the reduction of space to time (uchronic superego-decerebration = culture/value), and the annulment of time and space as total market activity (idiocratic id-decerebration = global mall; Green, Brown, or New Economy). This division corresponds, not by chance, to Philip Bobbitt’s three global future scenarios of the market state: park, garden, and meadow. In the meadow every tautomaniac can take a dump, in the park he plays guard, and in the garden of sustainability he is the outright ruler of his own paradise.
After the Second World War, George Orwell observed that the concept of fascism had lost all precise meaning and simply indicated something “undesirable.” But perhaps this very vagueness, applying as it does to a historical reality, indicates the tautomanic strength of fascism. The petit-bourgeois Hitler, for example, was once able to rail against territorial fragmentation, so as to enthrone the cross-class concept of race, and at the same time to revive working-class Germanness. He was able to fetishize the now material state and at the same time to invoke an esoterically airy “thousand-year Reich.” He was able to use revolutionary architecture for prestige buildings and at the same time to apply Bauhaus principles for functional ones. He was able to propagate the Germanization of culture but reject the Germanization of language. He was able to steal for the national economy and at the same time to announce a transnational European postwar economic order—anticipating the “EU model” to a certain extent. As shown by Sebastian Haffner, Hitler didn’t know what he was talking about for most of his life. His lack of education was known by those around him, and a high degree of feigned subordination was required. In this useless idiot the fascist structure of meaninglessness was acted out so perfectly that now this, now that aspect came to the fore. Big industry would never have offered its services to a wily intellectual or an entrepreneurial sunny boy—it would have been allergic or seen its reflection all too clearly. Only a tautomaniac was able to unite street and chimney—so that eventually there were chimneys everywhere. In Ubu’s words: “Combat of the ravenous and cartilaginous. But the hungry have completely eaten up and devoured the stringy.” Tautomania, high finance and its refurbishing heirs survived, but there’s nothing left of the Reich, the Führer, and his black nasal square.
Today neither the secular nor the religious right wish to get rid of the value chain, for the simple reason that they are part of its threefold principle of operation. Like all other players from Beijing to Moscow, from Istanbul to Washington, they have realized that capitalism functions best where authoritarian structures are established under authoritarianism and liberal structures under liberalism. This epochal complex can be broken down patapsychologically to a wave of entitlement, and to the phrase I am due more than my due. This applies equally to territory, derivative, and sale packaging. The pataphysical subject continually loses itself between capital unconscious, territorial libido, and deterritorial consumer world: I want me, and I want my opposite. I is not another; I is everyone else … Omnes et singulatim: the paradox of the herd has superseded the “paradox of the shepherd” (Foucault). The malleable mass has disappeared; the swarm of the subject oscillates between individual pluralities and pluralities of individuals, feeding the “grammar of the multitude” (Paolo Virno). The proliferation of self-politics creates new sensors, sightings, and selections. But in a world that sees more and more, blindness is also multiplied. All three classical avant-gardes (military, politics, art) related to what was visible: the enemy, the bourgeoisie, naturalism. The military vanguard knew where an enemy battalion was stationed. The proletarian avant-garde knew where the means of production were reproduced. The artistic avant-garde knew where aesthetic form coincided with political form. None of this we know today. We don’t know where social models are contended. We don’t know which servers store what content. We don’t know which utopias control the production of artistic images. And our not knowing is different every time. So in the post-avant-garde era we’re all either in the vanguard or asleep in the lap of capital. In this sense everybody is avant-garde—or nobody. Paradoxically, this is just what the absurd onstage king wants to tell us, but right now he’s being confronted by a pesky bear …
If we can learn anything from the reception history of modern art, it’s that its impact is sometimes greater than intended: after the October Revolution, Malevich runs out of suprematist jokes and becomes a common or garden painter. The dialectic neutralization of abstraction can also be found in the West—in Francis Picabia, for example. For a long time Picabia’s wonderful late work was ignored by the museum mainstream as an aberration, because it contained figurative paintings that could be used as hood motifs or tattoos—and why not? In the late 1990s the New York MoMA discovered the real Picabia, and with him its own modernist reservations, in a big retrospective. Nowadays the global museum is attempting to reconcile the divergences and synchronicities of world history in the required art-based woke hype. But one day this will also mean having to integrate Ubu’s chaosmic scrub marks into a future museum of decerebration, possibly as a “hotchpotch of banalities, prejudices, stereotypes, absurd situations—a whole free association of everyday life” (Guattari). As for this, perhaps the artificial intelligences that will come to dominate the museum world will be at once classier and more classless than today’s natural intelligences.
The headless advise looking both ways: nothing is ever completely lost, because “everything” doesn’t exist. “Everything” is the flow of existence. So there’s no reason for a thorough “revocation of the twentieth century” (Bazon Brock). For the absurdity of the absurd is that modern decerebration should also be understood as a creative practice. Here we need to follow the path described by Frederic Jameson with reference to Marx as “dialectic imperative”: “Marx powerfully urges us to do the impossible, namely, to think this development positively and negatively all at once; to achieve, in other words, a type of thinking that would be capable of grasping the demonstrably baleful features of capitalism along with its extraordinary and liberating dynamism simultaneously within a single thought, and without attenuating any of the force of either judgment. We are somehow to lift our minds to a point at which it is possible to understand that capitalism is at one and the same time the best thing that has ever happened to the human race, and the worst.” The aim is to think accelerationistically and stagnationistically at the same time. Overdoing, or doing what doesn’t work. I can only find my way out of my self-inflicted immaturity if I don’t completely understand, if I remain a beginner in relation to my feelings, my knowledge, my new impulses. Smart unenlightenment, ingenious dilettantism, new buildings collapsing and old ones growing back. This similarly applies to the modulations of the absurd king: the tautomaniac “march through the incompetencies” forms new, absurd competencies. Some esoteric settler groups—as regressive as they might appear—are redefining the earth and colonizing it like a foreign planet. Can we learn anything from these right-wing freaks? Can we also learn anything from the teen diplomacy of Donald Trump? Will it, for example, lead to Rocket Man denuclearizing his country with the aid of Super Donny and Magic Vlad? Will the future Nobel Peace Prize be awarded in Fortnite Creative? Won’t Trump, most embarrassing of all birther racists, have long won over the European gamer lefties with his anti-free-trade, anti-Nato, and pro-Russia politics? To put the questions another way: Shall we allow the truth to be unpalatable? Shall we allow the future to be past? Shall we allow politics to be acephalous? Is this the same “acephalous supranational world order” that Hardt and Negri call “Empire”? Even the unpolitical, “brainless” Internet trend of planking proved that obstructionism was possible anywhere in the world—from operating theatre to mountain peak. If everyone voluntarily does the same thing, everything will be different. If everyone goes to the bank, there’ll be no more banks (bank run). The sick world is separated from its recovery by only 50 meters, if they’re walked together. Today’s reification of consciousness is manifested in the thing-gesture of the individual. But perhaps we can only get things moving now as inert objects? Here bitcoin consciousness, there barter economy? Here gilets jaunes, there breakdown triangle. Here fluid activism, Extinction Rebellion, there Stolpersteine before your door or tedious memorials in the neighbors’ garden? “It is necessary to recognize in doing a type of differentiation not seen before. An interrogation of the doing itself comes after the dehiscence of theory and practice and the will to lessen any deviation in carrying out the project,” writes Jean-Luc Nancy in “What is to Be Done?” For “Sense is never adequate to an object, a project, or an effect.” This is a recommendation of what Paolo Virno sees as an analogy of virtuosity and politics, which he discerns in a centrifugal force “from the One to the Many.” The paradox of the herd ultimately calls for a paradoxical politics, and the road doesn’t always take the most clearly marked expert route. The Marxian technocratic paradise of the necrotic state falls back on itself in the end, raises the administrative class above the class of the classless, and leads to the withering away of communism. Every activity requires its self-generated “flow of warmth,” once sought by an erstwhile apologist for the Moscow Trials, Ernst Bloch. No alibi for a lifeless rationality, at best an incentive to wear oneself out “for no other reason than the desire that you have to do so” (George Bataille). Here sympathetic goodwill elevates to the absurd.
“Isn’t my ass just like everybody else’s?” Ubu fervently asks. The tautomaniac not only stands for a con-fusion of global signifiers, a general regress or the intended death of image and language, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” but also for something much more radical, namely what Guattari calls “a matter of reconciling chaos and complexity,” when he writes about “chaosmic immanence.” There are many words for this modus operandi of social life. I call it idiocracy—own rule. But koinocracy, mutual rule, can’t ever be separated from it. As David Foster Wallace emphasizes in This is Water, there are mutually encouraging majesties strutting about all over the world whose opinions are their kingdoms and emotions their scepters, and whose crowns attract. So it’s no surprise that the earth has been declared flat once again in online memes. As its website claims, the Flat Earth Society has “members all around the globe.” Meanwhile, the absurd world is as flat as its immanent hierarchy. Not philosophers but cosmopolitans as kings. Or the silent majority? The curtain falls. Pshit!