obscene wealth: the bolagram and quadrigia

The literal, the moral, and the allegorical. In the Medieval system of semiotics used to structure the rhetorical progress of sermons so that 'levels' of meaning could afford a stair-case-like ascent from the lowest estimate of ideas to the highest, metaphor constructed steps between a 'literal' narrative (which was, in Biblical terms, the 'received history' that had the status of a holy text) and subsequent understandings of and beyond that narrative. The first interpretive elevation was from literal to moral — the discovery of a 'lesson' or value for the contemporary Christian subject, a guide for behavior and beacon for meditation. Many of these involved the contrast between the (presumed) 'transitive' order of the Old Testament ('an eye for an eye') and the 'intransitive' nature of goodness and reward for goodness in the New Testament. The parable of the loaves and the fishes, where through a miracle insufficient supplies unaccountably feed the unexpected multitude who showed up to hear Jesus' sermon, is paradigmatic. 'Faith' provides the gloss between the 'doubt' of transtivity (which can be traced back to Job's or Abraham's doubt about God's intentions) and the unexpected surprise outcome — i.e. the feeding of the multitude, the vindication of Job, or the sparing of Abraham's son Isaac from sacrifice.

At the level of allegory, the 'miracle' interpretation of the transtiive order has the power to structure two parallel worlds of meaning. That is, the characters of a narrative are not simply 'doing the right thing' in order to guide the contemporary Christian, they are creating a code that can be guessed by referring to a parallel situation where the puzzling relationships in the literal story are resolved by the more understandable ones in the context concealed within the narrative. Allegory relieves the contemporary audience of such puzzling stories as Job's persecution or Abraham's sacrifice by providing a context in which the irrational elements have some understandable function. Allegory shares with historical exegesis the dependence on the discovery of a proper context. For example, the Abraham story can be seen as being 'about' the modification, in Hebrew culture, of the practice of live sacrifice.

In the final phase of the 'quadrigia' the Medieval system, an anagogical level moved beyond any motive for interpretive stability and transfered the narrative as effect/effective to the listener. That is, the listener's role is no longer to interpret and and understand/misunderstand but, rather, to participate in a way that will be ultimately disclosed/unfolded. The listener's identity is called into question; the listener's place as a subject is 'cleared out' and destabilized.

Why the comparison? In the substitution of cash economies for barter and other systems of exchange, the abstraction of wealth permits the move beyond the 'merely symbolic' use of currency and objects of value/exchange. In short, the position of desire-as-motive shifts from its 'objective' location 'behind' the screen of effects and symbols ('I want a car because of the status it confers on me as the owner') to a position oblique to the 'authority of value'. That is, in normative economics, a functional-practical 'value' is presumed to support the desire that is expressed symbolically. The use-value of a product, such as clothes, transportation, and shelter, is inseparable from the pleasure ownership confers and the basis of the desire for such objects. Thus, an expression of desire is indistinguishable from a condition of lack. If one needs something, one desires it to remove the lack of that thing.

However, we know all too well that desire quickly moves beyond the case of need and the basis of lack and satisfaction. It becomes self-sustaining, erratic, and volatile. (Example: a small part of Jay Leno's collection of cars, left.) The key to this move beyond the 'transitive' system of use-value and the symbolic networks use-value sustains involves viewing the use-value system as a set of allegorical potentialities where a variety of contexts can be brought to bear to make desire understandable and accountable. When, however, desire is displaced, so is the position of the subject. Removed from the systems of symbolic accountability, the subject is 'emptied out' and defined BY desire. Just as the Biblical case of anagogy inverted the roles of cause and effect, part and whole, and action and outcome, the anagogical status of wealth moves beyond symbolic enclosure to establish, anamorphically inside the usual allegorical contexts of value, a new and self-sustaining dynamic.

At the anagogical stage, motive for drops its dependence on a referent object of value and becomes self-sufficient. It is simultanteously the subject and predicate, cause and effect. It becomes 'self-identical' in the way that Hegel described as the idiocy of A=A, where argument is robbed of its expectation that 'A' will be predicated by some assigned value, as in A=x ('the sky is blue'). When the sky is 'just what it is' we have an idiotic (private) condition famously exemplified by the cartoon character, Popeye ('I yam what I yam and that's all that I yam'). Self-identity, idiotic as it is, stabilizes all other predications. Before 'A' can be anything else — tall, yellow, heavy, expensive, located in France, etc. — it has to be 'itself' in the sense that it must be independent of any and all predication. It has an existence 'before' it is judged to be this or that.

It would seem that the anagogical phase is a reduction to the self-identical state or, possibly, a stripped down version of identity that holds that the object is not just independent of its predicates but antithetical to them, in the same way that God is held, theologically, to be unnamable. What's going on? Normally the process of predication can be broken down with the classical syllogistic process of linking a particular instance with a universal condition. The condition can apply to many particulars ('great' can apply to a large object as well as to God), so predication is, fundamentally, a limitation. Socrates is a man, all men are mortal, so Socrates is stuck with being mortal. In the syllogism, the middle term in fact functions as a reversable term. It is in one instance a universal ('Socrates is a man') and a particular ('all men are mortal'). The middle term is called such because it doesn't appear in the conclusion ('Socrates is mortal'). It is 'silent'. It is also the term identified with the audience's common assent, its acceptance of the terms of the argument and its structure. Without a common understanding of the term 'man' (which is otherwise undefined), there can be no syllogism, no attribution, no predication. Even in terms where predication has not yet been unpacked using a syllogism, a middle term (the presence of the audience and their silent endorsement of the act of predication) is present.

If something like A=A exists in every act of predication, it is precisely this 'impossible-Real' condition that makes terms such as 'wealth' capable of anamorphic conversion. It is what makes them simultaneously attributes of reality and 'reality itself', self-structuring, conditioning rather than conditioned — a 'master signifier' as Lacan would put it. (A master signifier is capable of stabilizing the 'slippage' of signifiers through an action Lacan characterized as 'quilting'.) Thus, the Hegelian claim that A=A also produces its own negation, A≠A, is true of every master signifier and, by extension, every middle/silent term which, such as wealth, can produce meaning by destroying the 'evidentiary' and transitive basis of meaning.

The bolagram of obscene wealth demonstrates how
anagogy uses the self-negating, self-identical middle term
to create the anamorphic reversal of utility-based value.

This connection (with the middle term and Hegelian negation of self-identity) sheds light on the anagogical process. The radical discontinuity between the analogical and anagogical has troubled scholars who have attempted to explain the comparison of the quadrigia system with a ladder or scale. What is the element that allows anagogy to seem to be an extension of the process of allegory? True, allegory differs from analogy in its radical reconstruction of the context by which the allegory appears first as a puzzle (cf. Spenser's Faerie Queen). The allegory is not simply a code arranged to disguise literal realities using a veil of fictive constructs. The original is contaminated through a reverse-action that makes the literal 'more than itself' through the transformative comparisons of allegory. In a famous short story, Jorge Luis Borges tells of a project of a purposefully fictional encyclopedia designed to describe a planet where process is valued over material. Scholars able to invert the premise of this world contribute to the gradual understanding of another (nonexistent) world through careful reworkings of the usual entries of an encyclopedia. When the secret project becomes public, the fictional planet, Tlön, becomes popular. Tlönian institutions, expressions, and concepts invade the common consciousness and, per miraculum, convert the ordinary world into Tlön.

A more literal example occured during the French revolution, when comparison to Rome's Republic led to the imagination of Paris as a literal Rome, with seven hills and corresponding municipal features. As the Revolution unfolded in its early days, specific events were compared to Classical ones, individual players were judged as counterparts of ancient originals. In one sense, one could say that Rome 'happened' in a more definitive way in Paris than it did in its actual inception.

Clearly, in allegory what happens in this backwards contamination is something like the negational logic of the middle term. Space and time, along with the logic that projects onto them, are disrupted and redefined. In short, the foundation for anagogy is established. What is the extra step required to move from allegory to anagogy? In the syllogism, the middle term present 'silently' in the act of predication is an irrational element put in to 'afford' the workability of logic. This is the logic of exclusion, the element that 'doesn't obey the rules' in order for rules to exist at all. The king is the exception to the rule of kingship; the barber does not cut his own hair. These are the principles that present the classic Gödelian-Russellian paradox of class logic: 'Can a set be a member of itself?'

At this point we can return to the case of wealth, to see that the exception (the irrational case where value is not related to any possible utility or analogical relationship that would place it within the symbolic systems of exchange that constitute economies) is in fact the basis. We can see this extend in two 'destructive' directions: (1) potlatch, the cultural instance of excessive consumption/waste, practiced at various times by various groups but most famously identified with American Indians of the Pacific north-west; and (2) late capitalism, where excess is tied to the need to sustain economies on the limitless consumption of materials, services, and objects that have no clear relationship with utility, need, or symbolism. In fact, it is precisely the destructive element of the wealth-concept that makes every detail and every instance of late capitalism radically intranstive. Zizek's examples of 'false choice' (Coke and Pepsi are really the same products, minimally differentiated to give the illusion of choice) and product-as-master-signifier (the Marlboro Man, who 'quilts' the ambiguous properties of conservative individualism) show how, in fact, the system works only through its details, not through a top-down process of regulation or diffusion.

In art, quadrigia has the additional function of regulating the consumption and comprehension of art, the antipode of late-capitalist consumerism. Predictably, the same structure that supports the consumption of such ambiguous objects as Coke and Marboro cigarettes affords the consumption of Jackson Pollock, Peter Greenaway, and Michael Graves. This is not to say that art cannot or does not function as an ideological counter-force to capitalistic consumptionism (before being commodified through curating, exhibition, and collecting), but rather to show that the same principle of the 'universal exception' operates effectively to define the experience of art.

    © 2012, Donald Kunze, all rights reserved