Published in Conference 5.1 (Spring 1994), 91-97.

Copyright (c) Conference: a journal of philosophy and theory, 1994.

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The Decadentism of Theory: Addiction and Postmodernism

David A. Goldfarb

Department of Comparative Literature

City University of New York

He had done with artificial flowers aping the true; he wanted natural flowers imitating the false.

the works of Barbey d'Aurevilly were still the only ones whose matter and style offered those gamey flavours, those stains of disease and decay, that cankered surface, that taste of rotten-ripeness which he so loved to savour among the decadent writers, Latin and Monastic, of the early ages.

(Huysmans 84, 151-52)

Decadence finds an interesting place in Frederic Jameson's recent book on postmodernism, where he points at ostentation in postmodern architecture, and revelry in trivia in postmodern fiction, film and the visual arts. He compares the decadentism of modernism to the decadence of the postmodern thus:
"Decadence" is thus in some way the very premonition of the postmodern itself, but under conditions that make it impossible to predict that aftermath with any sociological or cultural accuracy, thereby diverting the vague sense of a future into more fantastic forms, all borrowed from the misfits and eccentrics, the perverts and the Others, or aliens, of the present (modern) system. In history, finally, or rather in the historical unconscious, "decadence" comes before us as the ineradicable otherness of the past and of other modes of production an otherness posited by capitalism as such, but which it now, as it were, tries on, as with old costumes, since these ancient decadents (who have no concept of decadence themselves) are the others of an other, the difference of a difference: they look at their own surroundings with our eyes, seeing nothing but what is morbidly exotic, but complicitous and finally infected by that, so that the roles slowly reverse and it is we moderns who become "decadent" against the backdrop of the more natural realities of the precapitalist landscape. (Jameson 382-83)
For Jameson the decadence of the postmodern is its revelry in the irony of its own preconditions. It is capitalism delighting in its own absurdity, by the making-strange (ostranienie, Entfremdung) of itself. He does not, curiously, extend this to his analysis of postmodern theory, choosing to focus, in his theory chapter, primarily on the New Historicism and Paul DeMan's systematic readings of Rousseau. Perhaps Jameson spoke too soon in 1990, as postmodern theory that is in line with the decadent strains of the postmodern in other areas of cultural production is only coming into its own now. If postmodern theorists are the owl of Minerva, then dusk is truly upon us.

Two recent works, Avital Ronell's Crack Wars: Literature Addiction Mania and Richard Klein's Cigarettes are Sublime, are prime examples of what I would identify as a new decadentism in postmodern theory. They both interrogate, from a deconstructive perspective, a contemporary popular discourse through readings of the well-established cultural texts of Western modernity. In doing so, they make those historic texts seem uncannily familiar by making strange the tropes of those contemporary popular discourses. Then in postmodern decadent style, they revel in that act of making strange the everyday, taking up in their own writing the now gaudy tropes revealed as vulgar.

Avital Ronell's ostensive purpose in Crack Wars is to demonstrate that the rhetoric of "addiction," familiar in the Reagan/Bush "war on drugs" has a well developed career in the service of bourgeois ideology. She does so through a reading of the trope of addiction as uncanny (in Freud's sense) in Flaubert's Madame Bovary, taking that novel as a defining text for the emergent bourgeoisie in the Nineteenth Century. The form of Ronell's work and its physical design suggest in themselves the tropes of addiction.

This is an extravagant book. Its extravagance is made easy by the advent of computer publishing. One cannot help but notice its extravagance of fonts, point sizes, type densities, marginalia (very costly in the days of Linotype), and much envied by the editors of Conference white space aplenty. These styles alternately suggest movement from a scholarly to fictional to hermeneutic to clinical voice. The first thirty pages or so of Part One, "Hits," consist of alternating leaves with two page numbers on the left page and a brief paragraph or two on the right. These paragraphs frame the reading of Flaubert in terms of the discourse of "Being-on-drugs" epitomized by the recent rhetoric of crack addiction. The trope of crack will facilitate a critique of pure addiction, because it has no function to provide pleasure, "it is only about producing a need for itself" (Ronell 25). In Kantian terms, hallucinogens, uppers, and downers would be merely beautiful in an analytic of addiction, as they are interesting for their other effects, but crack would be a sublime addiction, because it is entirely "disinterested," at least from anything outside the self and its desire.

Consumption is the metaphor, revealed through what Ronell calls a "narcoanalysis," that puts Emma Bovary on crack. The nineteenth-century novel is perhaps the first artistic form of the industrial revolution, produced by machines for mass consumption. The realism of Madame Bovary relied on the principle that readers would identify so strongly with the characters, that they could not put the book down. This identification produced a desire that translated into economics readily when novels were printed, as they typically were initially, serially in periodicals. Ronell rewrites this experience of fiction addiction as a kind of pseudo-memoir, made strange in the diction of the tabloid press: "I couldn't stop reading, it was like I was becoming these persons" (79).

She follows the metaphor of addiction and hunger through several strains of the novel, the most compelling of which is the reading of Emma's daughter Berthe as a "crack baby." The thesis is that Emma's consuming desire explains her "inability to nurture her child" (112). Recall that in the novel, Berthe is given up to a wet-nurse and Emma squanders her money on herself. Ronell convincingly reads this as a rejection of nature on Emma's part:

Emma stands out like an artifice, an obstinate resistance to the organic. And this is something to keep in mind: her refusal of the organic body, her startling capacity for disgust and toxicity, gradually grow in the figuration par excellence of the addicted subject (114).
Emma's problem is that nothing can satisfy her, and anything that feeds her desire, including motherhood, becomes toxic (Ronell 135, 146).

The last part of Ronell's work is a cyberhallucination1 of fictional conversations involving Ernst Junger, Heidegger, Derrida, Freud, Duras, Nietzsche, Goethe's Margaret and other curious characters, culminating in scenes of Flaubert's trial, a parallel trial of Baudelaire for Les Fleurs du Mal, and Emma's reaction, all fictional projections from the regressive analysis from George Bush back to Flaubert. This phase puts into practice an assertion made earlier in the book, "that electronic culture shares a crucial protect with drug culture. . . a project without an end or program, an unworking that nonetheless occurs, and whose contours we can begin to read" (Ronell 68). Drugs and cyberspace are both forms of virtual reality, or to use Ronell's term, "prostheses" (70) for reality.

What is revealed through this regression is that while Being-on-drugs may seem antithetical to the Protestant ethic, it is the sine qua non of the spirit of capitalism. What better commodity could there be than a product that produces nothing but an insatiable desire for itself? Crack is just capitalism at its limits--the ultimate commodity fetish.

Klein suggests several aims for his work. Like Ronell, he attempts to reveal the political interests behind the rhetoric of what he calls "Healthism," that may be associated with the anti- smoking movement, the War on Drugs, the "Slow Food" (anti-fast food) movement growing in some countries, and other forms of what Klein sees as "the commodification of health" (181-87). On a personal level he claims, with certain irony, that he wrote the book as part of his attempt to quit smoking and as an elegy to that fading cultural signifier. He offers this elegy by way of an effort to elevate smoking to the level of the "sublime," through readings of Italo Svevo's Confessions of Zeno, Merimee's and Bizet's versions of Carmen, Casablanca, and various photographs, advertisements, poems, popular songs, and ephemera in which smoking is an important trope.

Klein's usage of the sublime is perhaps not as strictly Kantian as he suggests, but that is not terribly important. We would not read Cigarettes are Sublime with the goal of better understanding the Third Critique. We should understand, though, that what he has done is to take what Kant took from Longinus, and read it through Derrida's readings of the Kant in La Verité en peinture. The primary elements of the sublime for Klein are the notions of its power, the negative pleasure, the perception of the boundless, and the peripheral. The power and organic wholeness of the sublime (Klein 122) is essentially a repetition of Longinus's proposition that the sublime "produced at the right moment, tears everything up like a whirlwind, and exhibits the orator's whole power at a single blow" (Longinus 192). The notion of a negative pleasure Kant takes from Burke's essay on the sublime and the beautiful (Burke 305). Kant describes this fearful pleasure as the result of the simultaneous perception of the bounded and the boundless:

a feeling of pain arising from the want of accordance between the aesthetical estimation of magnitude formed by the imagination and the estimation of the same formed by reason. There is at the same time a pleasure thus excited, arising from the correspondence with rational ideas of this very judgment of the inadequacy of our greatest faculty of the sense, in so far as it is a law for us to strive after these ideas (Kant 96).
Klein's reading seems somewhat more limiting than what Kant offers. Klein refers to the sublime pain or awe as a kind of "shock" as opposed to the "calm enjoyment and reposeful exaltation" of the beautiful. Klein's best paraphrase of Kant's description here is:
The imagination suffers a shock in the presence of infinite perspectives that, in a first moment, is painful. But that negativity is the very condition of sublimity. Thus Baudelaire writes in his journals: "Il y à dans l'engendrement de toute pensée sublime une secousse nerveuse qui se fait sentir dans le cervelet" [At the conception of every sublime thought there is a nervous jolt that is felt at the base of the brain] (Klein's translation, Klein 63)
This metaphor of "shock," particularly familiar from Walter Benjamin's reading of the "shock" of the crowd and the "shock" of the camera's shutter in Baudelaire (Benjamin 174-76, 193), seems more fundamental to Klein's notion of the sublime than Kant's definition as the "want of [logical] accordance" between the imagination and reason, though that would be a likely characterization of the condition of the persistent smoker who knows it is unhealthy.

The indulgence of negative pleasures Klein describes as a kind of dandyism the characteristic signifier of modernism and decadence, which is opposed to "Healthism." As "Healthism" places a premium on longevity and survival, the dandy "would say that living, as distinct from surviving, acquires its value from risks and sacrifices that tend to shorten life and hasten dying. A life, in that view, is judged by the suicide it commits." The destructiveness of cigarette smoking is inherent to its pleasure. Klein's case in point is that of Theodore de Banville, known most for his famous coinage "l'art pour l'art," who describes the pleasure of smoking in terms that sound remarkably like Ronell's characterization of addiction:

[Banville] acknowledges explicitly that to give oneself to cigarettes is "to put one's unique concern into creating a desire that cannot be satisfied." And yet he concludes his "little study" with a question that is inescapably rhetorical: "However, is it not a pretty dandyism," he asks, "to give one's life to a cruel, inextinguishable, and completely useless desire?" (Klein 45)
The task of Klein's "fumo-analysis" (a term he takes from Svevo) is to explain this persistent self-destructive desire. Shadowing Svevo's novel throughout,2 he suggests that one can only give up smoking when one gives up the ideal of health (Klein 100).

Klein's reading of photographs of smoking demonstrates compactly his application of the sublime, as it derives from Derrida and Benjamin. One of the most interesting photographs of smoking is Brassai's self-portrait looking through a camera with his back to the camera that is photographing him and a cigarette burning in his mouth. Klein offers the external information that Brassai used cigarettes to time long exposures "Une gauloise pour une certaine lumiere, une boyard s'il faisait plus sombre"3 therefore "[t]he cigarette is not a cigarette but a clock" (24). This is one of Klein's most productive themes, as he notes in other contexts that the cigarette "opens up space and time" like a moment of prayer or contemplation, or a thought balloon in a comic strip (Klein 16, 59, 138).

Though it may be possible to photograph a cigarette-as- timer, it is impossible, for Klein, to photograph smoking itself. The Ding an sich here, Klein argues, is the fire, "[b]ut fire is not exactly a thing, it is its mobility, the work of energy, ergon, force in movement over time." The camera stops time; therefore, it cannot record movement (Klein 158-59). If it cannot record ergon, then all that is left is parergon, or what is "outside the work." Longinus was the first rhetorician whom we know to have catalogued an extensive list of rhetorical tropes or figures of speech. These are what produced sublimity, not the content of the speech. Sublimity lies outside the work. Similarly in Kant, the beautiful is the useful and contained, the sublime exists for its own sake and is boundless. In Derrida's first essay in La Verité in peinture, meaning is not in the work, but in the frame, or parergon.

Klein's readings are fraught with obvious self-indulgence in their play with the material form of utterance and setting aside of the question of reference. Here are a few delightful concatenations:

[All Quiet on the Western Front:] lying there and smoking "beat-ifically," the soldier is raised up and blessed among the saints, with what seems like an eternal life in which all sensations are new and strong; at that moment, he is also Kerouac "beat" very high, very real, very free (148).

[Platoon, the novel:] If a smoke is grass, is a joint a cigarette? And if grass, is it the same thing to "profer" a joint as to proffer a cigarette? assuming this is the author's misspelling, and a telling one. Perhaps the error was simply motivated by the fact that profer, accented on the first syllable, sounds more like "reefer" (155-56).

[Reading Rick as a figure for FDR in Casablanca:] The beginning of a beautiful friendship between (f)Ri(n)ck(lin) and "Louis". . . (175)

What did Remarque know from Beat? How does Klein know how to pronounce "profer"? He certainly can't pronounce "proffer." Klein offers a good political reading of Casablanca, but "(f)Ri(n)ck(lin)" is hardly evidence for it.

It is worth remembering that though seemingly self-indulgent criticism fits well with the aesthetics of deconstruction and postmodernism, that extravagance has long flourished in the history of the interpretation of texts. Klein's and Ronell's readings seem no less plausible, say, than Masoretic, Kabbalistic or numerological readings of scripture or studies in biblical onomastics. The difference that separates ancient from modern and postmodern here is a metaphysical one: Klein and Ronell surely know that their readings are neo-Romantically subject- centered sprung organically from the genial mind of the critic; whereas medieval biblical scholars saw their activity as verifying the sacredness of the Bible by discovering its systematicity. The pleasure of the postmodern critic is the exercise of raising the vulgar to the sublime by means of an extravagant hermeneutic conceit.

Klein appears to descend from the sublime whenever he sets aside his virtuosic unraveling of symbols to consider the practical regulation of smoking. It seems unsurprising that this elegy and apologia finds its vehicle at Duke University Press, since James B. Duke, who is repeatedly praised as the democratizer of smoking, built his fortune through the application of steam power to the mechanical cigarette maker (Klein 4, 14, 40, 45, 195 n. 3). Klein begins to risk his credibility as a critic and starts looking like a jingoist for the tobacco industry when he suggests the constitutional implications of his reading of smoking as discourse and likens smoking to prayer. Indeed, if smoking is discourse, then its restriction is censorship, and if smoking is prayer, then its regulation violates the separation of church and state (Klein 16, 70, 182). But wait. Klein is at least smarter than that. This jingoism (though it may be what sells books and attracts publishers like Duke), is just the height of extravagance, like Banville's rhetorical question. The strange satisfaction of the critique of corporate culture that seems to play right into its hands is also what we might take as a distinguishing mark of postmodern decadence, as it abandons the modernist myth of a lost state of grace to be longed for.

To what end all this excess? Ronell's layering of criticism upon the pastiches of recognizable critical voices leaves the reader in true doubt of whether the false is aping the true or the true is aping the false, as modernist Huysmans proposes in his famous decadentist novel. Klein indulges in a self- acknowledged critical dandyism, like Huysmans's hero Des Esseintes, exploring his trope through its manifestations in all five senses. Both works conclude in remarkably similar fashion. Ronell's extravagant hyperdrama ends with the following lines:

      (Emma felt the cold of the plaster
    descend on her shoulders like a
  damp cloth.) (Ronell 165)

Klein's last word runs:

A good butt that can be smoked entertains the illusion that the dream of smoking, the smoking dream, can go on being consumed with no remainder. But the illusion veils the cruel fact that every butt that is smoked in turn leaves a butt that must be discarded. In the end, the dream is stubbed out. (Klein 193)
Klein's ending reads like a confession, as if he's been caught with the smoking dream and knows the gig is up. For Emma to feel the cold and weight of the plaster is to feel the return of reality and the end of virtual reality. Theory's decadence ends when the book, like the novel, is safely closed, and the prostheses of extravagant fiction are removed.


  1. To see the real referent for this form, try logging on to PMCmoo, an Internet fantasy space associated with Postmodern Culture, an electronic journal published online by Oxford University Press. [RETURN]
  2. Note esp. the ambiguous references to "this autobiographical memoir," "this novel," "this fiction" in Klein 82-83. [RETURN]
  3. A Boyard is thicker than a Gauloise, thus takes longer to burn. [RETURN]

Additional Works Cited


Last updated June 22, 1995. If you have any suggestions or comments on this page or anything in this archive, please e-mail me.

David A. Goldfarb


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