Sunday, March 18, 2018

States of Decay (short version)

A statement such as ‘we live in an era of unprecedented social and moral decay’ might be hard to substantiate empirically. Still, you are less likely to be ridiculed if you make the above statement than if you make a statement such as ‘we live in an era of unprecedented social and moral regeneration’. The mood of our time is depressive and we are more likely to hear of social, moral, urban not to mention ecological degradation, decline and atrophy than the contrary.
But what is really meant when we say we are in a period of moral or ecological decay? For Christians around the world Ash Wednesday (or Monday among eastern Christians) marks a day of ensuring that believers remember that they exist in decaying bodies, that they are ‘of dust and to dust they will return’. And as Masashi Kishimoto’s famous manga character Orochimaru tells us:All things that have form eventually decay.’ But it is clearly not in reference to such a ‘normal’ process that one declares things to be decaying.
Nietzsche has differentiated between a normal and pathological deay. For him, the pathological state was a specifically modern disease associated with Christian morality. As he put it ‘…when anemia is construed as an ideal, and contempt for the body as “salvation of the soul”—what else is this if not a recipe for décadence?’ One should note the etymological connections between decay and decadence here.
As Heike Schotten explains, Nietzsche’s decay ‘is a decay that has exceeded its healthy boundaries and convulsed the entire organism.’ It seems to me that the latter sentence puts us on the right track towards understanding what people mean when they use the term decay to refer to decay as a perceived problem. Being a process, decay has a temporality, a pace and a tempo. Pathological decay is an acceleration of that pace and tempo. Martin Demant Frederiksen has written a rich ethnographic piece detailing the oppositional politics triggered by public renovations that have decayed too soon in Tbilsi. Frederiksen’s piece conjures the spectre of so many development projects in the world that begin as a vision of a better future but then decay too soon.
In all of the above decay is felt and is feared as announcing a premature death, or less anthropocentrically, it is announcing that another non-anthropocentric principle of life is taking over the individual or the social body. Simmel, in his brilliant essay on ruins, sees the latter as a taking over, by natural forces, of what were architecturally-inspired spaces (buildings) defined by a kind of balance of power between human design and nature prevailed: “… decay appears as nature's revenge for the spirit's having violated it by making a form in its own image.”
In this sense decay is a perspective. We can watch a leaf on the ground that is rotting and speak of decay. But from the macro-perspective of the rainforest where it is located it is part of the process of the forest’s regeneration. Likewise, from the micro perspective of the rot itself, decomposition is itself an effervescence of a multiplicity of forms of life. In that regard, Baudelaire’s famous Une Charogne (The Carcass) is an avant-garde text:
The flies the putrid belly buzz'd about,
Whence black battalions throng
Of maggots, like thick liquid flowing out
The living rags along.
And as a wave they mounted and went down,
Or darted sparkling wide;
As if the body, by a wild breath blown,
Lived as it multiplied.
‘Jazz is not dead’ announces Frank Zappa ‘it just smells funny’. He at once takes us to the two most distinguishing dimensions of the phenomenon: First, decay is metaphorically and metonymically connected to the figure of the not-yet-dead, or worse, the figure of the should-be-dead-but-isn’t, the zombie. Second, decay always plunges us into a sensory and particularly olfactory order of reality.
In what way can we say that decay necessitates an ethnography of zombie-ism? The figure of the not-yet is the figure most associated with hope in the work of Ernst Bloch, the not-yet meant the ‘not-yet-born’. Decay is the direct opposite for it conjures the figure of the not-yet-dead. The living that is pregnant with the signs of its decomposition and disintegration.
It is also hard to read someone describing an experience of decay without reference to its stench. As with Baudelaire’s poem above:
The sky regarded as the carcass proud
Oped flower-like to the day
So strong the odour, on the grass you vow'd
You thought to faint away.
It is interesting that in her essay Imperial Debris where she concentrates on the trail of ruins and ruination that colonialism leaves behind, Ann Laura Stoler encounters the stench of decay in many places but her gaze at them from a ruins perspective reduces them to precisely that: ruins without the sensory and affective dimension that is attached to them.
The point is not to reduce all decay to organic decay. But it is to argue that this olfactory dimension here is more metonymic than metaphoric, that it connects us to an unavoidable sensory/affective dimension of decay that needs to be captured ethnographically if we are to fully answer questions such as ‘what form does rot take?’. This is the sensory/affective dimension where Fanon was particularly at home and which made his experience of a ‘tinge of decay’ a non-metaphoric one. Nietzsche’s is also at home in this domain:
My instinct for cleanliness is characterized by a perfectly uncanny sensitivity so that the proximity or—what am I saying?—the inmost parts, the “entrails” of every soul are physiologically perceived by me—smelled...

An ethnography of decay unlike an ethnography of ruins might have to capture decay bodily and sensually. It has to experience its stench and feel the disgust of being present in its proximity. It might need to be a politically disgusted ethnography.

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