The Beautiful Hell


The following text appeared anonymously in Lille, France in 2004, in a collection entitled The Party’s Over [La fête est finie], and in which no author attribution was given. Its aim was to respond to the assault known as "Lille2004 - European Capital of Culture,” an offensive aimed at nothing less than a complete conquest and reconfiguration of the city. The texts gathered in this slim volume offer a record of a lucid and articulate dissent, one which may still prove useful in the event of future battles. As a matter of fact, in 2013, when the city of Marseille suffered an urban planning campaign of comparable magnitude and intentions to that of Lille, the irriducibili of Focale named the film through which they asserted their opposition to what was intended to be done with their city La fête est finie. In this way, Marseille avenged the defeat suffered in Lille.

— Marcello Tarì [1]

The hell of the living is not something to come; if there is one, it is what is already here, the hell in which we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape its suffering. The first is easy for many: accept the hell and become such a part of it that you can no longer even see it. The second is risky and demands continuous attention and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the hell, are not hell, then make them endure, give them space.

—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

For us, everything having to do with aesthetics is irreducibly hostile. We use the word hostile here as distinct from enemy. As someone once wrote, “The enemy is our own question, manifested as a figure.” For us there is no aesthetic question. When some hipster publishes a novel by which he vows to “bring communism back into fashion,” we perceive very exactly the operation he is attempting against us. And we commit the book to the flames, without regrets. Here the foolish thing would be precisely to try and understand when destroying is all that’s called for.

If aesthetics were only the science of the beautiful, or of taste, or “a certain regime of intelligibility of the arts” — that point where, toward the end of the 18th century, one stopped speaking of the fine arts, the liberal arts, and the mechanical arts, in order to speak of “art,” a special sector of existence, jealously different from ordinary life — there would be no beauty salon at the street corner, or punk attitude, nor even any “free zones” in art galleries. And it’s certain that no one would get the idea of transforming the last small farmers into custodians of the landscape. There is less aesthetics in Warburg’s history of art than in one hour of the life of a publicist. In its entire framework, aesthetics is metropolitan existence and in a real sense it is the new “imperial” society. Aesthetics is the form taken by the apparent fusion, in the metropolis, of capital and life. Just as valorization now finds its ultima ratio in the fact that a thing or a being pleases, power — which no longer manages to justify its machinations without some reference to truth and justice — likewise recovers its fullest freedom of action as soon as it advances under the mask of aesthetics. A Nietzschean for managers wrote a few years ago: “The aesthetic paradigm is the angle of attack allowing us to account for a constellation of actions, sentiments, and specific ambiances of the spirit of postmodernity.” This statement was followed by celebrations of hipster-bar sociality,  of all that cybernetic conviviality and profitable superficiality, of those glacial loves that constitute the peculiar attraction of the metropolitan centers. Aesthetics is imperial neutralization — that is, where there isn’t direct recourse to the police.

Understand aesthetics? There is understanding only on the basis of empathy; and our empathy doesn’t extend to what harms us. Should we try to understand the police? No. Know how they function, how they operate, where they are currently, what means they have at their disposal and how to destroy them, yes; but not in order to understand them The whole work of metaphysics, the entire project of civilization in the West was to separate, at every opportunity, the “human” from the “non-human,” “consciousness” from the “world,” “knowledge” from “power,” “work” from “existence,” “form” from “content,” “art” from “life,” “being” from its “determinations,” “contemplation” from “action,” etc. — we put quotation marks because none of these things exists as such before it’s been separated from its contrary and thereby produced as such. Once this separation is carried out, and each of these unilateralities is produced, an institution will be assigned the task of maintaining them in their separation. The museal institution and its auxiliary, art criticism, for example, guaranteed on the one hand the existence of art as art, and on the other that of the prosaic world as prosaic world. A certain desolation ensued. Aesthetics then arose as an attempt to animate that desolation, to reunify everything the West had separated, but to reunify it externally, as separated. The epoch that gave birth to aesthetics is thus basically that of the crisis of all institutions; but if the walls of the museum and the schools, the businesses and the hospitals, like the very walls of bourgeois individuality, crumble and fall it’s in order to bring every space under the control of an apparatus, that is, in order to incorporate the apparatus into every being, given the extent to which we are affected by the things we pass through. Henceforth, we will no longer distinguish between existence and work but everyone will have a cellphone on whose directory the distinction between friends and colleagues will have been lost, so that they can be merged at any hour of the day. There will be no more lives devoted exclusively to contemplation or others to pure action, no more clerks or specialists in warfare, but reflexivity will take over every moment of existence, and no one will perform an act without making themselves at the same time a spectator of their own acts. At the limit, no one will make love without at every moment being conscious of making love, changing the erotic art into universal pornography. There will be no more bosses, no more slaves, but each individual will be their own boss, will have engraved in their heart the laws of self-valorization: everyone will have become for themselves a little enterprise.

Here the empire is the product of police terror, there the product of aesthetic synthesis. The continuation and deepening of the Western disaster everywhere takes the form of its subversion. THEY claim everywhere to be repairing, only to commit further damage. THEY destroy everywhere irrevocably, on the pretext of reconstructing.

Aesthetics or Revolution

That aesthetics was given the mission of rejoining what the West constantly strove to definitively divide is something that goes back to aesthetics’ official beginnings, in the Kantian system. Kant’s 1788 Critique of Judgment confers on the beautiful and on art the task of reconciling the infinity of moral liberty and the strict causality that rules nature, of filling the “incommensurable chasm” that at first separates the Critique of Pure Reason and the Critique of Practical Reason. Less than six years later aesthetics will be recast by Schiller as a counter-revolutionary program, as an explicit response to the communist insurrectionary tendencies of the French Revolution. This masterpiece of Western reaction is called Letter on the Aesthetic Education of Man and appears in 1794. Its reasoning is as follows: there are in man two antagonistic instincts: the sensual instinct that anchors him in particularity, in vital necessities and feelings — in short, determination — and the formal, rational instinct, which through reflection draws them out of particularity and the affects, and lifts them up to the universal truths. These two aspects are always in conflict in such a way that what the one possesses is always taken from the other, except at a juncture of harmony where they meet and comfort one another. This point of miraculous conciliation, of supreme grace is the aesthetic state, and what corresponds to it is the instinct of play. “One of the most important tasks of culture, then, is to submit man to form, even in a purely physical life, and to render it aesthetic as far as the domain of the beautiful can be extended […] Thus to make the sensual man rational, the only route to follow is to begin by making him into an aesthetic man […] The sensual man must first be brought under another sky […] In the aesthetic state the most slavish tool is a free citizen, having the same rights as the noblest; and the intellect which shapes the mass to its intent must consult it concerning its destination. Consequently in the realm of aesthetic appearance, the idea of equality is realized.” In fact, the equality spoken of here is the ideal of imperial neutralization where, with everyone simulating, feigning to do what they do, to be what they are — the worker, the boss, the minister, the artist, the male, the female, the mother, the lover — no one ever adhering to their facticity, all conflict is defused in advance. “I’m not really who you think, you know,” whispers the metropolitan creature, while deconstructing themselves in your bed. But it’s actually German idealism in its entirety that draws its own operation from these Letters. The Phenomenology of Spirit, which concludes after all with two verses by Schiller, endlessly unmasks the insubstantial character of every determination, the falsity of sense certainty. For the problem with sensual man is that he doesn’t let himself be pushed around, he resists discourse, he builds barricades and sometimes takes up arms and refuses to be reasoned with — that he has, in sum, a strong propensity to irreducibility. And then there is that that anonymous manifesto, alternatively attributed to Schelling, to Hegel, and to Hölderlin and known as “the oldest systematic program of German idealism.” There one reads: “The philosophy of the spirit is an aesthetic philosophy. One cannot be clever in anything, one cannot even reason cleverly in history, without aesthetic sense. […] At the same time we so often hear that the great multitude should have a sensual religion. […] Then general freedom and equality of spirits will reign. A higher spirit sent from heaven must establish this religion among us, it will be the last work of the human race.” This new religion, this sensory religion found its fulfillment in our epoch of design, urbanism, biopolitics, and advertising. It is nothing other than capital in its imperial phase.

Where aesthetics claims to reunite what it has essentially separated, the messianic gesture consists in assuming the union that is there. [2]

It’s a spectacle that, for a century, has never ceased to be hilarious: the chronic paralysis of those seeking to “overcome the separation between art and life,” all those who, in the same gesture, create a separation and claim to abolish it. The aesthetic operation dominates our epoch through this double, duplicitous movement of bringing everything together so as to place everything at a distance. In this sense, it is indeed that moment of final recapitulation in parody, that “recollection of memory” which Hegel speaks of in reference to absolute knowledge, where everything is archived. It’s not only all “past” events, the whole “history of civilizations” and of “cultures,” it is even the present attempts to make a breach in the course of time, down to the event happening yesterday, all of which are apprehended as already past and projected into the merely possible. That famous “perpetual present” which we keep hearing about ad nauseum is only a house arrest in the present-to-come. The aesthetic hell in which we are evolving presents itself in this way: everything that might inspire us is gathered there, visible in the distance but resolutely out of contact. Everything we are lacking is held in reserve, in an inaccessible limbo. The aesthetic state, from Schiller to Lille2004, names this state of suspension in which all of “life” seems to unfold, in all its luxuriant possibility, in all its imaginable plenitude, at a distance, held at bay by a savagely guarded no man’s land. Nothing better materializes the aesthetic operation than the triumph of the installation in contemporary art. Here it’s the apparatus itself that becomes a work of art. We are absolutely included in it just as so many avant-gardes had dreamed, and yet at the same time absolutely rejected, excluded from any possible use within it. Through one and the same diabolical movement, we are integrated as strangers in its little portable hell. THEY don’t call it relational aesthetics for no reason.

Against all aesthetics, Warburg sought to show that, contained even in the image, in the most anthropomorphic representations of Western art, there were points of irreducibility, extreme tensions, energies which the work withholds and invokes at the same time, that there is “life in motion” even in the immobility of Renaissance statues. And that these forces, these “formulas of pathos” are able not only to touch us but to affect us. Benjamin notes similarly: “The currently messianic elements appear in the work of art as content, the backward elements as its form. The content advances towards us. The form freezes in place, doesn’t let us come near.”  We say that there are everywhere, integral with the real, with words, with bodies, with sounds, images, and gestures, similar points of irreducibility where forms of life, man and his world, perception and action, being and its determinations are not separated. Marx, for example, is the name of a certain irreducibility between communism and revolution. Everywhere, words are mingled with affects, bodies with ideas, perceptions with gestures. The way man speaks is connected at very detectable point with the grammar of his organs. The sense that certain words assume for him offers the best indications of his physiology. If you doubt this, you only need to see what the Haukas filmed by Jean Rouch do with the intensities that are captive in the colonial decorum. We call these points forms-of-life. We call them that because no one can separate, in these points, the “individual” from the “species.” Each form-of-life that affects and traverses a body is charged with a collective intensity — past, present, or future — saturated with a moment of the “life of the species” — “species,” what a repugnant term! If the artisan can be a form-of-life, this is never, when you come down to it, without some faint evocation of the medieval town and the regime of the trade guilds. That collective intensity is present in the very perception I have of the artisan and in their way of being in the world. In a similar fashion, the autonomous warrior never looms forth without bringing with him the swarm of savage hordes. The child never plays Indians without something threatening in it. It’s not that they are animated by that past, but that the same form-of-life assembles them into a constellation, haloes them, passes through them. In the same way, every Christian captures a little of the shared intensity of so many Jewish sects of two thousand years ago, beginning with the Essenes, and every young girl neutralizes in her way some Greek maenad. Undoubtedly, this is why there cannot be any question of history in the matter, because there are channels of subtle circulation that make the so-called “past” present, albeit by fragments, by floating concentrates. The messianic gesture consists in clearing a passage for these forms-of-life that emerge in the most rarefied language, in the most semiotized environment, in the dullest of gazes. It consists in freeing the chaos of forms-of-life from the grip of aesthetics.

Paradoxically, the reign of aesthetics is first of all that of a general anesthesia. The imperial epoch is thus a highly methodical prevention of the messianic. It’s the time of citation, of reference, of existential prudence. In it all the forms-of-life are held in respect: they are possibilities, of art, of history, of the past. Subjectivities get absorbed in glosses on some bygone figure. They delight in lost worlds only to take fright when these threaten to return. One tries to live “as in the time of Muhammed.” Or as in the time of the Templars. There is an aesthetic quality in the Trotskyist relationship with the political, just as there is snobbism in the relationship of the ultra-left with the 1920s. The array of metropolitan subjectivities gives, in general, the full measure of what snobbism is capable of. Instead of clearing a passage for forms-of-life, the snob endlessly reiterates the aesthetic operation of incarnating the form it has previously extracted from what was living. “Which means that while speaking henceforth in a suitable way of everything that is given to him, post-historical man must continue to detach ‘forms’ from their ‘contents,’ doing this no longer to actively transform the latter, but in order to set himself against himself as a pure ‘form’ for himself and others, taken as whatever ‘contents.’” This is how Kojève describes the hypothesis of a snobbish end of history, in the Japanese manner, an aesthetic end of history. “Aesthetic consciousness, poor Vattimo confirms, doesn’t make a choice; it confines itself to freeing the object which it focuses on from everything that connects it to the real world, as a world of knowledge and decision, and transferring it into the sphere of pure appearance” (Ethics of Interpretation). Aesthetics is the time of the infernal synthesis. The time of sociability [3]. The reign of specters.       

Empire as Religion for the Senses

A fallacious etymology has the word religion derive from the Latin religare (to bind), insinuating that religion has as its vocation to connect humans to one another and to the divine, instead of from relegere (gathering one’s thoughts, recollecting in the sense of “reconsidering what one has done, reflecting or rethinking, redoubling one’s attention and application,” as happens in every ritual whose forms must be scrupulously repeated. Every religion, by causing to exist a special sphere of the sacred, sets itself up as the guardian of its separation from the “sensory world.” This is to say that it produces the sensory world as sensory world. The fact that it becomes hostile to everything, without and within, that maintains itself in a non-separation between “sensory” and “suprasensory” — mage, sorceress, mystic, messiah or convulsionary — results logically from its definition. One better understands the malaise that took hold of the entire profane world with the “death of God.” With the place of the divine deserted, the profane world revealed itself as being not even profane. Even the pleasant immersion in immanence was lost. What was to be done? The aesthetic project responded historically to this situation, with German idealism in the forefront. Witness that strange fragment by Hölderlin titled Communismus der Geister (“Communism of the Spirits”). Strange first of all by its title: Communismus is spelled with a C – that is, à la française in a period (1798) when the Babeuvists themselves scarcely dared call themselves anything more than “communautistes.” Strange too is the name of its first paragraph, “Disposition.” There one reads: “We start from the exact opposite principle, from the generality of unbelief, in order to prove their necessity [of institutions] for our time. This unbelief is correlated with the scientific critique of our times, which accelerates ahead of positive speculation; lamentation is fruitless, the task is to remedy.” The unbelief in question here is not essentially a lack of belief in this or that religion, or in God himself. The unbelief in question — as our contemporaries attest daily, those who can experience their own destruction as an aesthetic enjoyment of the first order, those who see a tsunami approaching and think they’re in a movie — it’s well and truly the inability to believe in what’s right in front of us, in the sensory world itself. This kind of haunted incredulity that can be read in so many eyes, in so many gestures, this state of irresolute absence, this crisis of presence is precisely what the aesthetic project, empire and its apparatuses are tasked with remedying.

Under empire design and urbanism inscribe the unity of a world become problematic directly into things. They fashion the brand new “sensory world.” Mass media invents the common language of the day on a just-in-time basis. The various “means of communication” make available, at any moment, all those whom we have always already left, and whom we still call, absurdly, “our family.” And finally, culture and spectacles guarantee us the existence of that which we could experience and think, and which we now only glimpse. So it is that locally, cranium by cranium, household by household, city center by city center, the imperial metropolis does its work, reconstructing for itself an apparently stabilized, credible, and consensual universe, an aisthesis: a shared perception of the world. Empire is this planetary factory of the sensible. And just as religion claimed to divinely reunite men when in reality it kept them separated, the sensory religion of empire, which claims to recompose the unity of the world from its base, from the local level, only establishes a new separation in every place and every being: the separation between the user and the apparatus. In this way, the aesthetic imposes itself on a global scale as the impossibility of all use. The prospectus of a recent exposition in Bordeaux announced, with a wink: “The artists transform what you’re sold at the supermarket into a work of art.” One sees how aesthetics alone manages to fulfill the impossibility of use contained in every commodity, manages to convert it, behind a store window or at the heart of an “installation,” into pure exposition value. In the end, the aesthetic program aims to extend this scission even to man himself, to incorporate the apparatus into him, to make him a user of himself. It is easy to grasp the extent to which the biopolitical disposition to apprehend oneself as a body and the spectacular disposition to reflect oneself as an image both conspire to transform us into users of ourselves, to make us aesthetic subjects. 

Communism and Magic 

The office manager all alone shouting into his cellphone. The sales rep attached to his briefcase. The driver cursing at the wheel of their car. The stylish party freak on his techno dance floor. The seller at the hip store with their company bullshit. Our contemporaries act like they’re under a spell. All the world’s leftists may very well claim to be opening people’s eyes about the extent of the catastrophe, but the matter was decided over seventy years ago: it doesn’t serve any purpose to awaken the consciousness of a world already sick with consciousness. Because this bewitchment isn’t the product of a superstition or an illusion that would only have to be dispelled; it’s a practical bewitchment: it’s their subjugation to apparatuses, the fact that only when they’re coupled to some apparatus do they experience themselves as subjects. Artaud speaks the truth when he writes, in January 1947, that “much better than through its army, its institutions, its police, it is through enchantments that society holds together.” 

In every use there resides a possible escape from bewitchment. For use liberates the forms-of-life contained in things, in words, in images. In use a curious circulation is established between “subject” and “object,” between “species.” Gesture short-circuits consciousness, temporarily abolishes the distance between ego and world, and calls to others. The gaze incorporates perceived movements and forms into our being. Something happens in us and outside of us. “The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice,” say the “Theses on Feuerbach,” but it can be grasped and understood magically as use, at least “if magic is a constant communication from interior to exterior, from act to thought, from thing to word, from matter to spirit (Artaud). That matter is animated by innumerable forms-of-life, that it is peopled with intimate polarizations is something that Marx himself was not unaware of. Writing in The Holy Family, he says: “The first and most important of the inherent qualities of matter is motion, not only mechanical and mathematical movement, but still more impulse, vital life spirit, tension, or to use Jacob Boehme’s expression, the throes of matter. The primary forms of matter are the living, individualizing forces, of being inherent in it, producing specific differences.” These “primary forms” are what we have called “forms-of-life.” They affect us, whether we intended it or not, through all that links us together, through all that we are connected to. We have a hard time granting that we are interconnected, because we are possessed by an aesthetic idea of freedom. An idea of freedom as detachment, as indetermination, as extraction from any determination. “This intermediary disposition where the soul is determined neither physically nor morally and yet where it is active in these two manners, merits in particular the name of free disposition, and if one calls physical the state of sensory determination, and logical or moral the state of rational determination, one will give to this state of real and active determination the name aesthetic state. […] Doubtless man possesses this humanity virtually before each of the determined states through which he may pass; but he effectively loses it with each of the determined states through which he passes, and for him to come to a contrary state it must be rendered to him each time by the aesthetic state (Schiller. Letters…). This idea of freedom is the freedom of the manager, who travels the globe from luxury hotel to luxury hotel, that of the scientist (sociologist or physicist, no matter) who is never anywhere that he describes, that of the metropolitan anarchist who wants to be able to do what he wants when he wants, that of the intellectual who makes sovereign judgements about everything from his office, or that of the contemporary artist who makes his whole life a “work of art” and for whom the single imperative is “invent yourself, produce yourself by yourself,” as the vile Bourriaud says. To this aesthetic idea of freedom, we counterpose the material evidence of forms-of-life. We say that human beings are not simply determined, in the sense that there would be on the one hand being as such, pure of any determination, that would don the set of its attributes, of its predicates and its accidents — French, male, son of a worker, plays football, has a headache, etc. What there is, in reality, is the manner in which each being inhabits their determinations. And in this regard, the determination and the being are absolutely indistinct, and they are form-of-life. We say that freedom doesn’t consist in detaching ourselves from all our determinations, but in elaborating the manner in which we inhabit this or that determination. That it doesn’t reside in the liberation from all ties, but in learning the art of forming ties and undoing them. That this art has long been referred to as magic doesn’t cause us any embarrassment. And we embrace its scandal: that of accepting the threat, in us, outside us, of the crisis of presence. We even say that if there is an effective equality among humans, it is an equality in the face of this threat — which is what makes Kafka a great communist. We prefer that, and by far, to the all-too familiar paradox: the more someone takes themselves for an individual, the more one finds them reproducing the structures of the behavior most stupidly characteristic of the “species”; the more one takes oneself for a subject, the more we see them abandon themselves, through random access, to the most sadly conformist penchants. We see quite clearly that for the moment, being in limbo, the forms-of-life remain in a formidable chaos — that it’s this feeling of chaos, plus the attachment to that idiotic idea of freedom, that throws our contemporaries into the nets of apparatuses. But we also see all the potential at the disposal of those who’ve learned the art of forming ties and dissolving them. And we imagine what terrible force is in the hands of those who, collectively, are elaborating the play of the forms-of-life that are affecting them. We are not afraid to call communism the general sharing of that force [4]. Because this is how humans arrive at maturity,  while their gestures carry in them the sovereignty of the child.

“Perhaps stone age man only drew the elk in such an incomparable way because the hand that wielded the point still recalled the bow with which it brought the animal down.”

The mana is fleeing. Let’s reinvent the magic.

Translated by Robert Hurley Images: Abelardo Morell


  1. Note appended to the Italian editionIll Will.

  2. There is a messianic time, which is the abolition of the “time-that-passes,” a rupture of the continuum of history, and which is lived time, the end of all waiting. There is a messianic gesture that we are concerned with here. There are even beings that move within the messianic, which means that they have — in their way, and most often fugitively — “exited from capital.” Which also means that there are messianic sparks scattered through the foul darkness of the real, that the Kingdom is not purely to come, but already present among us, by fragments. Messianic is therefore the practice that starts from there, from those sparks, from forms-of-life. Anti-messianic, on the other hand, are all religions, all the forces that hinder and hold back the free play of forms-of-life. Anti-messianic, at its highest point, is Christianity and its modern avatars – socialism, humanism, Negriism. To be clear, we have never come across “messianism,” except in the putrescent mouth of our slanderers.

  3. Simmel delivers in 1910 a masterful analysis of that wound of the present epoch: sociability. The article addresses sociability as a “ludic form of association,” as a “particular sociological structure, corresponding to those of art and play, and which draw their forms from reality, while nonetheless leaving it behind them,” doing perfect justice to the hip utopia of a “society of conversation.” “In purely social conversation speech is an end in itself; it is not in the service of any content; it has no goal other than to perpetuate interaction while avoiding delicate subjects, than to allow enjoyment of the excitement of relational interplay […] The association and stimulating exchange through which all the weight and all the tasks of life are realized are consumed here in an artistic play, in the sublimation of the forces of reality that only appear at a distance, while their heaviness fade as if by enchantment.”

  4. One only has to go back over the definition of communism in the Manuscripts of 1844 (“communism is the real solution to the antagonism between man and nature, the real solution to the conflict between existence and essence, between freedom and necessity, between the individual and the species”) to convince oneself that the aesthetic gesture is not absent from the communist program itself. This is to say that the present, aesthetic phase of capital where the latter fashions conjointly a new humanity — the citizen — and a new sensory world — the metropolis — forces us to revise our very conception of communism.