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Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum: Sefirot, Phantasms, and Collectives

I am remembering now (as I remembered then) in order to make sense out of the chaos of that misguided creation of ours. Now (as then, while I waited in the periscope) I shrink into one remote corner of my mind, to draw from it a story. Such as the Pendulum. Diotallevia told me that the first Sefirah is Keter, the Crown, the beginning, the primal void. In the beginning He created a point, which became Thought, where all the figures were drawn. He was and was not, He was encompassed in the name yet not encompassed in the name, having as yet no name other than the desire to be called by a name….He traced signs in the air; a dark light leapt from His most secret depth, like a colorless mist that gives form to formlessness, and as the mist spread, a burst of flames took shape in its center, and the flames streamed down to illuminate the lower Sefirot, and down, down to the Kingdom.
But perhaps in that simsun, that diminishment, that lonely separation–Diotallevi said–there was already the promise of the return. (18)

I’m not spending enough time with it to really be astonished the way I remember being when I first read Umberto Eco‘s Foucault’s Pendulum, but I feel as if I’m getting more of it. Certainly an enormous part of that is that as I’m older, I catch more of the references, and can more easily appreciate the offhand way in which Eco seems to throw off philosophical concepts as easily as easy custard pies. The above has multiple referents within the book itself: the structure of the book, in which sections and chapters are named after different Sefirot within the cabalistic understanding of the cosmos, especially that as developed by the cabalist’s cabalist, Isaac Luhria.

What the extract above identifies the sefirot as a metaphor for creation, it also highlights the temporal dimension of creation, and the return of creation to its source. But it also explicitly refers to the creation of the narrative of the book we are reading: supersections of the book are the supersections of the sefirot themselves, grouped into distinctly different aspects, listed here. A further one, defined as the absence of any sefirot, is occasionally listed as ‘law,’ or ‘order.’ It is symbolized, according to the entry at Wikipedia, as a dead child. Which may bring us to the next image I want to examine from Eco’s novel:

Now I know that Hesed [the name of a sefirot found earlier in the production of creation] is not only the Sefirot [sic: Sefirah] of grace and love….[I]t is also the moment of expansion of the divine substance, which spreads out to the edge of infinity. It is the care of the living for the dead, but someone also must have observed that it is the care of the dead for the living.” (213)

Hesed is the site of the beginnings of the beautiful tragedy of creation, when God broke apart, but it is also the site of the expansion of God’s grace and compassion into the world. It is the broken bridge, or valve, or wound, through which creation as tragedy and beauty is made possible. It creates time and chaos at the same time, since creation becomes less ordered as it evolves, and more chaotic.

This is also the point in the book where creation in the pure, ideal, sense, begins to bleed into repetition, mimesis, farce, and tragedy. The intellectual male protagonists of the story create an immense and fantastical plan out of intellectual boredom and superiority, harming no one. But the plan, which outlines the existence of mystical secret societies, is seized upon and imitated by thousands, who claim to be its representatives. Even this story is not original, since we are told earlier in the novel that this was precisely the history of the Rosicrucians, who seem to have been created out of myth and rumor into concrete (but inauthentic) existence by imitators and false claimants.

And so the broken fragments of their enormous plan are adulterated and brought to life by people claiming to be the bearers of actual historical secret societies. This is a lovely novelistic approach to what the wonderful, late, scholar Begoña Arextaga called phantomatic production, following Derrida in his Spectres of Marx (see also, and for those with access to JStor, this). The mode of phantomatic production can perhaps be summed up as a mode in which the production of a social reality through the projection of it in an environment where ideology has strong effects on behavior.

Environments where ideology can maximize its effects tend, in many cases, to be those where they can least successfully maximize their control: that is, power contains its opposite in control. Ideology can have many effects, but they may be quite different from those intended by the ideologists. Similarly, careful and absolutist ideologization must be propped up by immense and powerful taboos against critical thought, such as in many sectors of religious fundemantalism, or else by powerful and expensive security protocols, like the secret police or counter-insurgency movements within a state government. The former, taboos against critical thought, tend to absorb those willing to throw critical thought out of the arena, at least in wide parts of their lives; as such it can only rely on increasing stridency and evangelism among the believers, while striving to reduce the capacity for hope and critical thought among nonbelievers. The latter, state apparatuses of control, are expensive and quickly cultivate the opposite effect – the cynicism of power which pervades such situations works against hope, but it also spells the end of the powerful themselves.

But the neoliberal option, which organizes not ideas but desires, is extremely effective, though also extremely expensive (though, not as expensive as state security apparatuses). Neoliberalism must be associated with the atomizing effects of modern capitalism, of which it is really just a mode. Neoliberalism focuses on the individual consumer, who must be stripped down to essentials, demographied, and marketed to, and then recreated in the image of the mass consumer created by ad companies, ‘branding corporations.’

I realize that it seems we’re getting far from the Sefirot and Umberto Eco, but hang on for just a moment longer, because I’m about to connect desire, collectivities, and phantasms through Eco’s novel.

You see, the theory of the Sefirot as reflections of divinity in creation, themselves created through a divine explosion, is a lovely expression of neoliberalism. Eco would undoubtedly scream bloody murder, and I don’t mean to implicate him in my interpretation here. But I see in the Sefirot a beautifully human cosmography, in which all of creation possesses part of the divine spark, and all is necessary; but it is also a cosmography which ranks and hierarchizes the parts of creation, and in which not all is, even remotely, equal. More importantly, it is encyclopedic. All of creation is animated by the Sefirot, and all outside is Daath, law & order, symbolized by a dead child. One is not permitted to identify with something outside of the Sefirot, for that is only gross and dead matter. Anyone attempting to do so is naturally already dead, and was probably brought there through the forces of law & order.

So the Sefirot, like Neoliberalism, allow you many different choices, all of which are upheld, although a ranked hierarchy is necessarily maintained – all choices are possible, but some are better than others. But not all choices are indeed possible. Instead, Neoliberalism, like the cosmography of the Sefirot, does not allow for choices outside of the scripts of desire and consumption dictated by the media and its commercial enterprises, which organize and shape capitalist desire. (The desire for a new ipod, a specific brand of clothing, or the latest shampoo with specially formulated free-radical destroying pantheons.) There is no way in cabalistic thought to identify in any positive sense with gross matter unilluminated by the sefirot’s light. There is no acceptable way to identify with real communities in neoliberal regimes. Instead, we are told to identify with phantoms, mass-market demographic study-created images of happy human beings, or human beings with needs that products can fill, or patriots, rebels, revolutionaries, or fitness buffs.

Whatever we call it, that’s what is happening in Foucault’s Pendulum. Collectvities begin to emerge out of fantastic desires organized into a possible process, by people who are not themselves (they suppose) also drawn by those desires. Although the Plan outlined by the three friends is imagined into being for the purposes of entertainment (and to make them feel superior to those they are forced to flatter, the crazy conspiracy theorists), the Plan they imagine becomes a form of reality as those same conspiracy theorists begin to announce themselves as members of this secret society. This is reality at a second order (which one feels is intended as a criticism by Eco, but when is reality originary?), a reality created in a phantomatic mode of production, to use Aretxaga and Derrida’s terms. We might simply gloss this as ‘life imitating art,’ though the implications go much farther than any limitation to the normally-categorized ‘arts.’

The Plan gave focus and shape to the conspiracy theorist’s desires, which were shaped prior to their encounter with the plan, but which were welded into the Plan knowingly by the three friends. They welded the objects of the conspiracy theorists’ desires into a conspiracy intended to satisfy their desires. And instantly, the conspiracy theorists transform themselves into conspirators. They are now a collectivity, and quickly become capable of acting as one.

The imaginaire, which is where the Plan belongs, categorically, as a manifestation of a conspiratorial representation of the world, is powerful enough to cause consquences, to be sure. That is why it is required, and its explanatory power (perhaps it belongs in that engorged section of anthropology dealing with the intersection of ideology and culture, as a subset of culture’s discursivity). But the imaginaire is not necessarily in the control of those who work on it. It can be appropriated by others who take it much more seriously than its creators, and put into action.

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