American Pyscho

Detail of Marshall Arisman’s cover illustration for the first edition of Bret Easton Ellis’s ‘American Psycho’ (1991)

Here’s an attention-grabber to whip out next time you’re at a party with a bunch of New School grad students:

Riddle: What do Catholic priests and Patrick Bateman have in common?

Answer: Both are only inasmuch as they operate.

Your explanation should go something like this. The Catholic priest — as Giorgio Agamben reminds us in his latest book, Opus Dei (Stanford, 2013) — is nothing apart from the liturgical work he performs by virtue of his priestly office. His individuality (whether he likes to ride motorcycles on Saturdays, or molest altar boys, for example) counts for nothing in the ecclesiastical economy, because it cannot affect the efficacy of the sacraments he exists solely to perform. As Agamben writes, paraphrasing Augustine:

[…] insofar as the minister is a sort of ‘animate instrument’ whose agent is Christ, not only is it not necessary that he have faith or love, but even a perverse intention (for example, baptizing a woman with the intention of taking advantage of her) does not take away from the validity of the sacrament.

In the time of Augustine, this conception of priestly office remained controversial; his opponents the Donatists fiercely opposed it. Nevertheless, through a process that seems inevitable, it eventually became standard orthodoxy. “As happens in every institution,” Agamben points out, “it is a matter of distinguishing the individual from the function he exercises, so as to secure the validity of the acts that he carries out in the name of the institution.” Just as every Starbucks employee is efficacious (he makes your latte, skinny caramel no whip, the same every time), so every baptism, and every mass, is efficacious, regardless of the particular cathedral or priest.

Fast forward fifteen hundred years and consider Patrick Bateman, protagonist (in case you’ve been living under a rock) of Brett Easton Ellis’s 1991 novel American Psycho. Bateman works on Wall Street, and he is a cipher (Agamben would say) of both the corporate economy and the consumer economy, in which people, places and things lack individual particularity:

I’ve forgotten who I had lunch with earlier and, even more important, where. Was it Robert Ailes at Beats? Or was it Todd Hendricks at Ursula’s, the new Philip Duncan Holmes bistro in Tribeca? Or was it Ricky Worrall and were we at Decembers’s? Or would it have been Kevin Weber at Contra in SoHo?

Like priests, investment bankers are interchangeable (in the novel, they constantly call each other by the wrong name, but no one ever bothers to correct the mistake) because they all have the same effect. Agamben considers the privileging of effect over substance a metaphysical mutation of great importance that first occurred in the Christian Church. “Effectiveness is…the new ontological dimension that is affirmed first in the liturgical sphere and is then to be extended progressively until in modernity it coincides with being as such.”

Effects can only occur within systems or economies, and another recent book by Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory (Stanford, 2011), traces the Christian genealogy of the economic worldview (oikonomia, a Greek word originally meaning “household management,” becomes in the Church Fathers a technical term for God’s “plan of salvation”). Patrick Bateman seeks a measure of particular, non-economic, non-interchangeable being via sadism — by killing, dismembering, and sometimes eating attractive women. He confesses these crimes outright to his peers, but they never hear what he is saying: what has no economic effect might as well not even exist. “Surface, surface, surface was all that anyone found meaning in…this was civilization as I saw it, colossal and jagged…”

I think of Patrick Bateman especially when reading Agamben, because Bateman is not just corporation man: he is corporation man at the end of history. The “accounts” that everyone gets rich by managing require (it seems) no time or energy to manage, and the income they provide fuels an eternal life of connoisseurship of endless differences (in restaurants, brands, bands) that mean nothing. In The Kingdom and the Glory, Agamben collects some extraordinary reflections from the Judeo-Christian tradition on what the end of history — the state of things after the Last Judgment — might be like. If, in the current dispensation, there are only works, effects, and economies, what will happen when all this is rendered inoperative? One can read in the Talmud that:

In the world to come there will be no eating and drinking, nor any generation and reproduction. There will be no commerce and trade, quarrels, envy or hostility; the just will sit with their crowns on their heads and will be refreshed by the splendor of the shekinah.

“Glory,” writes Agamben, “is what remains after the machine of divine oikonomia has reached its completion and the hierarchy of angelic ministries has become completely inoperative.” It is the eternal hymn of praise—and also, according to Aquinas, the theater of eternal damnation, for at that time the angels and the redeemed will gaze from paradise upon the tortures of the damned and take pleasure in the just spectacle of divine governance.

“Inoperativity” is a key word in Agamben. What does it mean? The Greek comic poet Aristophanes called it apragmosynê, literally “a state of no business.” Not hassled, not hustling. Aristophanes, unlike the Christian theologians, imagined “the peace that passeth all understanding” as a garden of very earthly delights, attainable (though agonizingly elusive) on this earth. Agamben, like Aristophanes, wants to render the present world inoperative. How the Italian philosopher envisions the state of inoperativity is, however, annoyingly unclear. His claim that poetry renders language inoperative is his most telling illustration, and that “what the poem accomplishes for the power of saying, politics and philosophy must accomplish for the power of acting” is an intriguing suggestion. Of course it is much easier to violate semantic laws with impunity than it is to abolish civil or biological laws. (To abolish biological laws — what could that even mean?)

Fortunately, Agamben is not just another bring-on-the-chaos leftist: in The Highest Poverty (Stanford, 2013) he suggests, as an alternative to Law, the monastic rule.

Agamben’s interest in monasticism centers on one group in particular, the Franciscans. The Franciscans established the rudiments of a theory of the use of things — a use that neither appropriates nor claims ownership — a deep lacuna, Agamben believes, in Western thought. Hmm, interesting. But assuming you are not going to become a friar, what is the present correlate of Franciscanism?

The answer, it seems to me, is sustainability.

We all know what “sustainable living” means: turning out the lights when you leave the room; recycling, or better, reusing; using the toilet three or four times before flushing… The problem with all this is just that it isn’t very fun. More precisely: there is a small set of people for whom it is intensely satisfying, but the set is nowhere near large enough to bring global economic growth and destruction to a grinding halt.

J. M. Coetzee’s latest novel The Childhood of Jesus addresses this problem, imagining a stable, sustainable but rather bland “ideal society,” which the main character finds pleasant enough, but also lacking. “Friendship by itself is not good enough for you,” a woman he is sleeping with rebukes him. “Without the accompaniment of storms of passion it is somehow deficient.”

“This endless dissatisfaction, this yearning for the something-more that is missing,” she adds, “is a way of thinking we are well rid of, in my opinion.”

How can sustainability compete with the romance of excess? It was with this question in mind that I happened to read Tristan Taormino’s Opening Up (Cleis Press, 2008) right after Agamben’s Highest Poverty. It’s hard to think of two more different writers: she is relentlessly practical (Opening Up is basically a self-help book) while he is relentlessly abstruse. Nevertheless, if you’ve been reading Agamben, the lifestyle Taormino explains and advocates may begin to appear, like sustainability, oddly similar to Franciscanism. This lifestyle is called “polyamory.”

Polyamory means, “loving multiple people.” The “love” in question is especially, but not exclusively, the Greek eros: sexual, erotic love. As it is currently not possible to appropriate (“make one’s own”) more than one person through marriage (and in some states, to people of certain sexual inclinations, the law does not even allow one), polyamory implies the possibility of a very intimate and pleasurable, but non-appropriative, use of people.

Taormino does not draft a Benedictine Rule for this lifestyle; instead, she offers a smorgasbord of features of non-monogamous lifestyles culled from interviews with polyamorous people. Couples (or higher multiples) who are interested should begin, she suggests, by drawing up their own list of rules, subject to negotiation and revision. It is interesting to read this suggestion in light of Agamben’s work on monastic rules, and to think about both in connection with sustainability.

The pleasure one can get from intimate relations with other people is a renewable resource. It is one of the few pleasures, furthermore, that can compete in intensity with the pleasure of possessing enormous powers of appropriation (i.e., lots of money or political influence).

Most people find that strict monogamy can have diminishing returns pleasure-wise (Western literature widely attests to this). Sexual dissatisfaction can fuel destructive substitution compulsions, such as unnecessary shopping. Having sex with many different people, with the consent or participation of your partner, is more earth-friendly than shopping. Or starting a business. Or starting a war. But your personal life will be a war zone if you try this without a rule.

Constructing forms of human life that combine sensitivity to earthly beauty with novel explorations of the intense pleasures of human intimacy seems a more attractive (and sustainable) project than the irrational (and ineffective) types of rebellion typically on offer from the “radical left.” Is it possible? I don’t know. But if you are tired of talking about bookish continental philosophers, it might be worth a try.

Opus DeiThe Kingdom and the Glory and The Highest Poverty by Giorgio Agamben are available from Stanford University Press.

Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships by Tristan Taormino is available on Amazon.

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Samuel Cooper

Samuel Cooper is a writer and freelance mathematician. He tweets.

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