rkgk. This is the republication preface and first chapter from Atomic Soul by Hocquenghem and Schérer. I haven’t re-sourced most of the French citations.

The title of this book is a pun I haven’t come up with a way to translate, playing on the similarity between arme atomique (atomic weapon) and its idea of an “âme atomique” or atomized/atomist soul.

L’Âme Atomique: For an Aesthetic of the Nuclear Era


L'Âme atomique {4}

Éditions du Sandre 57

rue du Docteur Blanche

75016 Paris {5}



To accompany the current republication of this book, first published more than thirty years ago, a small clarification seemed necessary to me.

Its idea took shape with Guy Hocquenghem and myself at the beginning of the eighties. Guy having been tragically ravished by a premature death, it is left to me to situate this “atomic soul” in its history and to justify to the reader the ongoing interest that its project can present today.

1980 was the end of the famous after-May '68 decade which had bubbled with new ideas and revolts, the beginning of another period marked at the spot of a renunciation of dreams and revolutionary impulses; more subdued but also more bleak, and what Félix Guattari, in an admirable and clairvoyant vision, had described as “years of winter.” It was also the moment of an appeal to a return to what had just happened, to a clarification, a balance-sheet.

Circumstantially motivated by a murky dispute around a supposed “postmodernity,” this book, curiously named through a sort of oxymoron where there seem to commingle the archaic seductions of the soul and the altogether imminent threats of the atom, was a way of denouncing some pretenses and expressing an ambient uneasiness by formulating essential problems. The latter, moreover, commanded its writing.

The writing itself—which was always undertaken by two, first by agreement and then an incessant coming-and-going between us—found its point of departure in the courses Guy and I had in common at the university of Paris 8; they had been dedicated, from 1982–83 on, to the discovery and freely discussed reading of the work of Walter Benjamin: The Origin of German Tragic Drama, existing only in its original version published by Suhrkampf, which was to be translated into {8}French in 1985, as well as the Arcades Project [/Passagenwerk/], of recent edition in German and which was translated in 1989 by Jean Lacoste, under the title Paris, capitale du XIX^e^ siècle.

Not at all to claim a historical and orthodox interpretation, it is Benjamin, in fact, who provided us the spark or, as he himself said of Fourier, “gave the first push.” It's from him that we have borrowed a concept of the baroque and the idea of its permanence, as well as its decisive influence, throughout the modern age and up to us; it's from him that we gathered the concept of melancholy as the central affect and director of inventive genius and the contemporary sensibility; from him that I found the confirmation, which was dear to me, of the importance of Charles Fourier's thought, as well as the constant and recurring theme of a childhood that is the source of all creation and renewal.

This inspiration was thus Benjaminian, but not exclusively, because Baudelaire and all of romanticism are summoned in his line and his thrust; it's the open door to an aesthetic which would not know how to limit itself to a theory of arts, but which overflows onto all of life with all its aspects, borrowing from it in its turn its proper political and ethical perspectives.

L'Âme atomique is therefore presented as a response to the problems of our times, (the “theme of our times,” according to the known expression of Ortega y Gasset); to the multiple crises which our current events are prey to. A current book, therefore, but, in its way of handling the theme, in the responses that it offers, profoundly “un-current,” untimely, as Nietzsche writes of his “considerations.”

An untimely answer or reply to the debates and deadlocks of a poorly-crafted “postmodernity.” And this is so in two ways: traditional, through the anchoring points it establishes in the past, no more overlooking Immanuel Kant than Aristotle and Lucretius, but also inaugurating and provoking, insofar as, as a retort to a domination of the universe by technosciences in the atomic era, it proposes a rehabilitation of the soul as an immaterial, moving, omnipresent principle. An insubstantial soul, certainly, a force and not an object that can be seized, designating a higher potential and the infinity of bodies, the singular trace and the expressiveness of things. {9}

Without in any way being reduced to a theory of the arts, L'Âme atomique is bound to it as to the expressive fullness of life. Its aesthetic is that of a generalized expressionism, the latest avatar of the baroque for modern and contemporary art. In a transversal crossing the history of works, it draws the lines of a passional aesthetic or aesthetic of affects, in a space that is openly that of a utopian play whose end is the harmonic unity of the world, universal harmony, in the sense that Fourier gives it.

This end is that of an Empire as the aim of an aspiration, even before it has taken shape historically. But by this word L'Âme atomique does not at all mean to foreshadow some resemblance with the foils of the present globalization; what is sensed there, sketched out, is rather their opposite, their counterpart, in the conjugation of attractive forces that the present of a universe in perpetual discord only allows to show through in diffracted light.

René Schérer {10}{11}

To the memory of Guy Pasquier

And that its particles are tiny – tinier for that matter

Than are the particles of fog, or smoke, or liquid water –

For it is nimbler by far, moves at the slightest jog,

Being triggered by mere images of smoke and fog,

Lucretius1 {14}

*Les Mystères de l'infini*, Jean-Jacques



Ethics and aesthetics are one and the same. . . . If the good or bad exercise of the will does alter the world, it can alter only the limits of the world . . . It must, so to speak, wax and wane as a whole.

Ludwig Wittgenstein2

/A prelude where it is seen that the soul's return, the awakening of the aesthetic, distends the prosaic cohesion, the gravitation, made by decompression on command, of a tarnished modernity; and that modernity, in its aesthetic aim, has always gone beyond itself, to escape its own imprisonment—Let the atomic soul break with an obvious fact: we are moved, determined atoms—Let utopia, in a reduced world, by collapsing on itself, to its positive and technical aspect, complete the destruction of all trust in progress and political illusions—Or one refuses, nevertheless, to play at eclectic and disabused modernity, and where one takes up the categories, extracted from history and its concepts, suitable for eliciting the “Why?” of our aesthetic destiny./

Giving up the ghost [/rendre l'âme/]: the exhausted ideas, the values and disputes, with the world of beliefs that they wore, do seem on the point of doing this. To general satisfaction, for that matter, the twentieth century closes the era of ideologies.

How, in this case, can we give a soul [/rendre une âme/] to the mundanity and positivist disenchantment which surrounds us, without recourse to the bitterness of the laudator {15}temporis acti? How can we give a soul that would not be the sentimental knock of a cynical kitsch?

A soul is not manufactured on command. It is what appears and disappears when it wants. This spontaneity defines it. A transmigrator, it can only be pursued to the regions of its refuge, where it makes itself fleetingly visible like a winged vapor, at the moment it escapes.

The moment of this pursuit would be ours: that of the return of the soul, less extinguished than vanished.

The disappearance of ideals briefly lets one catch a glimpse of another, unfulfilled sense of the past. It's a moment of reversion that makes an end into a beginning.

The spirit of the times demands it: caught by the impossibility of progressing in the ancient delineation of ideas, as to find the necessary space for a change of direction, we need to, as skiers say, effect a conversion; a 180° turn in place on the steep and icy slope of an ambient realism, which resolved no longer to listen to concepts or strong feelings. Since it can't be gotten out of, but only skid into the modern, it is a question of converting to whatever it contained of the unsurpassable. An unsurpassable thing which founds it, and which promises more than it has.

This spiritual conversion or metanoia gathers the universe of messages and myths of the modern on the lips of a nearly-deceased, the paradox of his expiring soul. Why wish to give a soul to a modernity collapsed on itself, an immense dwarf star with frightening gravity, if not to detach oneself from this weight of the reasonable, from this heaviness of death which burdens the obscured of our society, like that of an old jogger lagging behind?

It has forced on optimism and heart muscle, it contracts to prove its youth. We would like to make a swerve, catch a breath, a draught in this tense world, which the effort of will to show oneself healthy and competitive stunts.

The injunction to good health smells of agony. This gravity of the reasonable, this weight of realism which flattens all relief, have become the dominating traits of modernity. It's in this sense, in this sense first of all, that the modern is no longer enough for us. It is urgent, in flying over it, to escape its {16}centering, to create a gap in it, to unbind ourselves from its constricting imperatives.

Where to find this breathing space, this magic carpet?

Everyone perceives the effects of the bewilderment of consciousness and reason induced by the technical, political, and economic deadlines which assail the moderns, affront the range of the present. The same thought of a Universe is dispersed, shredded, between the powerless and soulless cogs of individuals without individuality, discredited by presumptuous knowledge, totalitarian and fragmented. Only the overkill of the real is profitable. Regarding questions like those of the soul, and its unity with the world, such as were asked from Plato to the Renaissance, up to the romantic birth of modernity, the social, the technological of today, not the least trace of memory is preserved. If need be or in a pinch, a heart could still be found, but it would be sanctimonious, excavating catechisms, retro through snobbery, the one that the young cadres make an indication of their standing. The aesthetic, poetic and utopian soul, linked to the fates of the universe, has been suppressed by a whole coalition of blockages.

These adjectives are not simple qualifiers of the soul. They express its essence. A soul can only emerge when the weft of information and orders is distended, can only relax the merciless hunt which enjoins everyone to keep up to date with a practical world occupied with successes and failures.

To the aesthetic reduced to being accessory or recreational, and to the bad conscience attached to it, a pervasive aesthetic can be opposed, overflowing the moral and the political, the physical and the logical. It then becomes a fulfillment, a vital imperative.

To restore the soul to the world is to live it aesthetically. Besides, everyone well suspects that this spontaneous passion which, at the expense of the “social,” is attracted toward what is for lack of a better term called the “private,” takes on the sense of an aestheticization. Against the socialized weight, everyday life (is there any other?) teems with floats. Let the desire for survival plunge into a soul of the world, that instead of relaxation on command, let the instant enter into weightlessness, and each moment then, according to the words of Walter Benjamin, take the form {18}of an opening onto a “messianism without a messiah.”3 To live aesthetically, to think of oneself allegorically in a world become allegorical through and through, in domestic life as in the relationships between peoples, opens up a breakthrough. The cure to disenchantment resides in another regime of signs, in an absolute swerve away from a language whose only measure tends to become realist adequacy, impoverishing classification, and informational constraint.

Applied to life, the word “aesthetic” is suspected as a monstrous outgrowth of self-infatuation. Yet, we do not hesitate to claim it, for the salvation of the modern man, this cut of a dandyism in which Baudelaire saw a heroic affirmation of the spirit, a discipline of the soul, in front of “the rising tide of the democracy that invades everything and levels everything.” Today, the levelling by democracy of the trivial has the name of mass culture or media information: it is expressed in opinion polls, the research of individual, ethnic or racial identities, where banalized “difference” becomes a tribute to the norm.

Baudelairean dandyism was the jolt of an aristocratic “distinction”: not the blissful satisfaction of elegance according to fashion, but “symbol.” Our dandyism, our universally sharable aesthetic jolt, is the one that rejects the confusion of individual particularities in the grayness of conformity. For it, there are only glittering exceptions, myriads of nuances. The reference to the aesthete, the dandy, does not carry us toward frivolity, but to a “gravity in the frivolous.” These figures are utopia in act, critique. They work at the derealization of the social, at the overhaul of hierarchies. A contemporary of Brummell and Byron, by his respect for the inequalities founding any agreement, for the least passional details, for the refinement which acts as motor to the “societary” (and not the “social”), Fourier, too, was a dandy. A dandyism which, all around the Universe, resurrects the quivering of the soul. {19}

Soul of the crowds

The soul is circular. Ancient thought did not distinguish it from a form which, for the spirit of geometry, is the most perfect, the most harmonious, the most finished.[^1^] The modern, atomic soul is caught in the whirlpool of an unstopping infinity about to penetrate or dissolve it. Its circle is constantly warping and opening up, moving and living. If there is a circle, still, it's a circle that pulses.

In the hyperbola, according to the definition given by Pascal in his Essay on Conics, the circle, split in two, projects its image, with the exception of “two missing points.”[^2^] These are the vanishing points, where the imperishable and immobile circularity breaks when it is deformed by projection in a continuous movement. The modern soul resembles this bursting of the image. It is connected to the world and as a circle dissolves into it; if it retains anything circular, it can only be through these vanishing points, not through the closure of a secure faith.

Punctured, perforated, it can only respond, to whoever would look for it in its eternal and closed form, just like the child playing peek-a-boo: “Nowhere, nowhere do I close again.”

The circle of the soul is certainly there, but projected to infinity, in the opening of a hyperbolic doubt, of a definitive gap.

The circular soul and world cannot be brought back; nevertheless, beyond the hyperbola and its vanishing points of lives in tatters, there can be projected the infinity of a circle and its intrinsically deferred unity.

The soul of the crowds, the soul of the masses, fickle and sensualist, holds more of the circus than the circle. When the policeman orders the onlookers gathered {20}around an accident: “Circulate!” he utters a very contemporary paradox. Wanting to say “Disperse yourselves!” he utters: “Make a circle!”

The circle of the street show, the ceaseless flow of passers-by, the frustrating paradox of a moving and unclosed circularity, which flows incessantly outside itself, making emotion and consciousness slip outside the subject and identity, has long had its soul exhibited by Poe and Baudelaire. It is the anonymous and faithless one belonging to the man of the crowds. This placeless soul circulates in modernity, in the shadow of the efficient and technical achievements. The outcome and reversion of the depersonalizing process, it does not return to the rear-view mirror of an artificial sentimentality.

The crowd disperses, but only so as to circulate. The environment and individual in fluid tension, it's the moment of all the vague expectations, of hanging availabilities. An atomized soul, which is put together to be undone, there projects its cycle of dispersal and instantaneous condensation in a point. The outcome of the void, it is affirmed by migration, alteration and simulacrum. A simulacrum according to Lucretius, which is to say a spectacle perpetually emanating outside of itself.

The world of social reality is at once too heavily centered and without unity. It lacks circularity as well as circulation.

Indispensable to its expansion is a soul which circulates and assembles, and yet is broken, multiplied, unpredictable, atmospheric. Crowds, the sea, and morphogenesis are like it. A soul immanent to this dispersion, and yet one which is not closed on itself.

A projection to infinity of the possible coherence of every monad, in which it retains their integral singularity—such a soul of the world has no other reality than the aesthetic.

“The atomic soul” is, at the same time, the surpassing and the demand of a world dominated by the imperatives of a realism which has itself taken on the allure of a new religion: fear of never being flexible enough, up-to-date enough with technical innovations, competitive; submission to computer science, to the look, to normalized dispersal. In it, in its contradictory expression, resounds the force of an atomism which, since the Greeks, has constantly, and in renewed forms, signified the struggle against the mythologies of fatality and fear: a liberatory atomism. {21}

But this that we aspire to is also today an atomism that liberates us from any conceptual obligation, any enclosure and dwindling of the soul. The strange convergence indicated by the phrase “atomic soul” glimmers, in its inadequacy to any concept, like a fateful idea: an aesthetic idea of a modernity at its conclusion.

Aesthetic categories

Our system of information-communication is therefore made to be, at the same time, narrowly informational (pure contents transmitted without emotion or judgement) and strictly empty (message for message's sake, sent and received for the fattening of the media network). The question of meaning, like the question of reality, dissolves in such a bath. The demand for integral signification is mixed with insignificance; the call for objective realism makes all spontaneity illusory.

As for reality itself—you never come across it, of course, only ever its apostles.

We begin to see, around us, a certain number of myths collapse. The principles and beliefs which, until a recent period, modern societies were built on and experienced, reveal themselves to perhaps only have been myths of recovery, mythical fabrications. What is called the reconsideration of the values of Progress and Enlightenment (Aufklärung) is no longer a matter of opinion, but a matter of fact. The advance of science and technology can certainly no longer pretend to make progress towards humanity, taken as a whole, towards more unity, comprehension, wellbeing. It's equally certain that barbarism has not given way before civilization, which latter rather seems to secrete, as proof of its progressing, unknown and unequaled forms of barbarism.

The discourse on the virtues of Work, Family, Fraternity and Equality appears more and more like pure discourse, an abuse of words substituted for things, busy maintaining their mythology in the face of situations which are of different substance to them, and which resist, not dominated or possible to dominate. {22}

Sharp divisions between forms and government and political regimes blur to make way for pure and simple differences of management of a global economy, whose decisions are not precisely localizable.

Once thought progressive, the path of history seems blocked by a repetitive stagnation, as if history itself had been, for a time, the major myth we now have to denounce; as if, in impotence, we became the spectators of its end.

This epoch of the suppression of values, more than their overthrow, which is thought to be rid of ideologies, yet conveys at least one of them: the one which proves that it is possible to affirm nothingness. We mean the absolute value of “communication” in itself and for itself. This communication is no longer that of the absolute medium of language, but of the absolute media reality: the sum of information which constitutes saturates the world of media.

What is the end of this complexity, this technological virtuosity swirling with messages that have no more recipient than identifiable sender? “What about the motherhood of meaning?” Jean-François Lyotard recently asked.[^1^] In a world, a nature of which no patch escapes technology, there is no mother, nothing but matrixes, laws of organization. Conformity to technological demands then becomes the meaning and destiny of humanity. It's at this point that myth, expelled, is reformed as technological and communicational. The matrix forms learn to mother their own remythification.

Utopia and the aesthetic revolt stand against this effective myth (or myth draped with efficiency) stands utopia and the aesthetic revolt. The play of aesthetic categories is not suggested as the return of the mythical or its prolongation. In contrast to myth, which belongs to the vocabulary of journalism, politics, and society, the aesthetic utopia and the categories that carry it break with a continuity, they distend an enclosure. {23}

Therefore, it is really a question above all of disengaging this essential utopian dimension from all the myth which surrounds it, perverts it, takes it for its exact opposite. Does one not hear, in politics, State totalitarianism described as “realized utopia” (Alexandre Zinoviev), which in contrast has everything to do with the Concept pushed to the tip of its myth? The moralism inherent to any totalitarian regime, and which Stalinism remains the unbeatable illustration of, has nothing in common with utopia except obsession with detail. But this is in order to fashion it to its measure, to make it the mark and proof of its achievement. Totalitarianism's detail, the mastery of the everyday that it strives for, saturates it. For utopia, detail is a vanishing point, the sign of the impossibility of any saturation. Its mere mention is enough to make any idea of complete and closed totality fanciful.

Totalitarianism is a limit, but it expresses the whole of politics in its trend: it is only interested in details to make them insignificant, by designating or de-signifying everything fanciful and unforeseeable it contains, by submitting it to the order of real possibilities or concepts. On the other hand, utopia, with the aspiration and aesthetic categories (which are not concepts) that it bears, at all times designates us not as the simple possible, but the impossible.

Let's specify this distinction properly. It does not get confused with a resignation to nonsense, having to do with a kind of determination to claim it, faced with the downfall of the great organizations of sense. It is not the answer to the end of systems, the general transformation of the order of explanations and causations. It cannot be reduced to the rise of unforeseeability and indetermination in the sciences themselves, all of which emerge from an epistemology. The pressing need for aesthetic categories capable of airing out the everyday, alleviating it, and at the same time intensifying it stands out only on this background of transformations. Certainly, when we goes from linear causality to relations of incertitude, at the finer, particle scale, when chance becomes law and disorder becomes constituent; once the living cell is commanded like the mind and the mind like the cell; when the the frontiers of science blur {24}and the problem of edges (in the sense Michel Serres gives the word[^1^]) becomes central, profound repercussions affect the conception we form of ourselves and our relationship to the world.

Does this emotional repercussion escape the mothering desire for old myths? Could an orphan sense be born from these fluctuations, which would not be a nostalgic return to a sense frozen with age or the cynical acceptance of technoculture's mythologized nonsense?

Other questions could arise from the latter itself than those mortgaged by the imperative of success, information, or even of a knowledge lacking its object. Questions that escape any binary logic of yes and no, which do not expect any precise answer, but sow the field of the undetermined, that open and fertilize the field of a new reflection. Such are the questions Gregory Bateson formulated in an exemplary fashion in his short Metalogues, calling knowledge into question through childish naïveté: “Why do things get in a muddle?” — “Why do things have outlines?”[^2^]

These could be the real questions of a postmodernity delivered from its vanity. Bateson's daughter teaches us the lesson. She is ahead of us like the classical child who, confident in the parent's or tutor's infallibility, was being taught “what lightning is,” “where rain comes from,” or “how clouds are formed.” A “What is it?” rather than a “Why?” controlled her question, which either way, passing from the naïve to the scientific, the pedagogical answer would have pointed in the safe direction of the “how.”

The postmodern object is so climatic that it is almost objectless. There is, to be sure, disorder in knowledge. But more, to us, there is this change in the relationship to knowledge which translates into the disappearance of the one who can give a clear answer. When the child sets about leading the father's impotent knowledge by the nose, the “Why?” inherent to childish language proves to be the place of resistance to any {25}transformation. A stubborn “What for?” diverted from the efficient cause, that points to inaccessible final causes, grounding the fruitfulness of any reflection in the dialogue. This “What for?” is the answer to the “anyhow” of the disorder of things, the tenacious interrogation which prods investigation, even scientific investigation, towards something more than itself.

This is indeed what the aesthetic categories help approach, a “thing from another world” not reducible to anything, which is at the heart of modernity, outside the grip of its technician orientation. This thing, whose presence is sensed by the sci-fi-loving child, is manifested by the very form of their questions. At the moment when the question's choice interferes with its object, when the problem is no longer to choose a content but a form, modernity cracks itself ajar on what no longer belongs to it and is no longer relevant. It stops being a condition in which we are all housed, and which does not await questions, but asks them.

Hence the mysterious thing that defines the childish “Why?” can only be articulated in questioning. It is not asked before or after. An aesthetic conversion of the modern into the modern, a fluorescent and intangible thing, the “Why?” of the contours is only revealed in the play of modernity's categories, and not as a beyond or a “post-.”

The categories are not classes of objects or concepts. We understand them according to Aristotle's definition” as that which says being several times and in various ways. Pollakôs legetai.4 The categories that mark out the constitution of the intangible aesthetic thing are our mode of access to it and summarize all its substance. They are neither a priori determinable nor arbitrary. They are at the same time historical and contingent, and indicative of final ends, destinies.

The soul, genius, melancholy, allegory, the baroque, the sublime, and the aura, from the antiquated Renaissance to our time, form a trail, a moving constellation of categories which are never truly extinguished. They do not shine only on the horizon of the past; they reach us directly, through their very relativity, at the moment when the genealogy of the modern becomes {26}a question about its end, and when the concept of “Science” implodes, taking History with it. These are categories, and not museum items, that diving into the most contemporary brings back to us. The crucible of the imagination's infinite faculties, whose evocation has haunted modern philosophy since Kant, is still boiling. We look through the categories there for the shadow of the "Why?" that they diffract, not the pretext of a mythic resurrection.

Diffraction, bizarreness

The exploration of the aesthetic categories belonging to the modern past makes no sense unless it takes on critical value for us, today. The movement which has caused these categories, which have reached our present, to cross history, is transhistorical. The light they give off is still alive, because they are constantly wrenching themselves from their proper definition, just as they wrench themselves from the past time that saw their birth. If we want to make postmodernity more than the simple observation of a state of affairs and to animate it with the force of a desire, we must understand it as that which, from the heart of modernity, escapes the raw illumination of the tables of organized incoherence that the present, along with history, imposes on us. A light comes from the categories, which does not illuminate them directly, but diffracts them.

Diffraction is defined, in optics, as the phenomenon of a light ray's deviation when it brushes the edges of an opaque body, a dark body. These deviations cause fringes at the outlines of shadows, arrayed in a rainbow. The screen becomes a source of light, colored light: an attractive source which, while veiling, reveals and protects from the violence of illumination.

Charles Fourier applied the image of diffraction to the multiplicity of passional sprouts that even in Civilization allow a glimpse of the promise of the harmonic order's bliss. With its bright colors it constellates a world marching backwards, a society entirely astray in its institutions and beliefs. Like Fourier, we understand diffranction as "the light born from the excess of gloom," "the appearance of good {27}at the height of evil," "the sudden gleam of harmony that cuts the center of subversion," "the bright light that is born from the darkest effect, as when a black-feathered wing or a black felt hat placed between the eye and the sun reflects on its edges the seven rays as would a crystal prism!"5

Applied to the social world, diffraction is weirdness, the incongrous detail, upsetting any prediction, which makes it possible to sense the infinite gamut of passions, tastes and particularities. In Fourierist Harmony, the peculiarity of personalities, an effect of singular quirks, of exceptions, wields the most indispensible function, but this is precisely because, even in Civilization, it diffracts the light within the gloom of conformism. But, even more, this weak and weird gleam is not at risk of fading before a brighter other. Or, to put it another way, it does not need any "liberation," which would only be a reduction to the norm. It shines already by itself and for itself, preventing, as Barthes put it, "monotony in love, despotism in politics, the oppression of the smaller number by the larger."6

Hence difranction always plays on subtle ambiguities: in a sense it announces, makes one feel the imperfection of the current order, in same way that misanthropy makes one who expects too much from men withdraw from commerce with them; but, in another sense, it suffices for itself. In utopia, more than an improbable future order, than a universal Harmony, we are concerned with this weak self-sufficient force of detail, this chink, this luminous escapee. Baudelaire, who with a very Fourierist spirit saw a "promise of bliss" in the productions of art and aesthetic sensibility, never believed in its "realization." For him it was enough to affirm the exception, the anomaly with its diffracting power: "The good {28}is always bizarre . . . reverse the proposition, and try to imagine a beautiful commonplace!"7

Bizarreness is aesthetic individuality, irreducibility to any norm or concept; it flouts common evaluation and universal assent, even if it happens to impose it, as Kant did in the Critique of Judgment.8 It equally endorses invincible disgust at all social power and at any levelling by science.

If "art," among the current aesthetic options, has had the dissenting force on its side, this is a function of the diffraction it operates: not only with what are called the great artistic movements, but even in those parva aesthetica that are quirks of dress, tattoos, punks' put-up and dyed hairstyles. Through the grain of weirdness that makes the beautiful escape academics, the child, too, skids out of control, converts suffocation into an escape from the overtight fabric of the social and its conveniences.

Destinies, destinateds

The comparison of social phenomena to models borrowed from the exact sciences is, in itself, perilous. Nevertheless, it is inevitable and fruitful, when, kept in strict limits, it incites the imagination, and when, less by metaphor than by slippage, annexation, it contributes to that which, aesthetically, can be called a vision. Fourier dreamed magnificently starting from Newtonian attraction—lending itself, it's true, to fantastic extrapolations. Today, the science of fluids, thermodynamics, and the seduction of Prigogine's "dissipative structures" have habituated us to the idea of a self-organizing exuberance at the molecular level, born from the continual and irreversible modification of the laws by {29}which phenomena are dynamically linked together. René Thom's catastrophe theory and the theory of fractal objects have at once aroused and revealed, with our contemporaries, the taste for morphogenesis, an interest in a birth of forms in the random, outside the field of a patchy determinism.9

This assimilation is not a homogenization, however. In our strange age, a balancing act is carried out between perfectly heterogeneous fields of knowledge. Those same informed people who, prizing the esoteric mysteries of particle theory, no longer believe in the purely determined in nature, transplant it into the social. The point on which they have renounced their dreams of emancipation becomes the ressentimental center of all thought. What seems mythical to them, from now on, is that there be anything anarchist [libertaire] in human collectives, while what seems to them subtle is that there be nearly a will of independence in material phenomena. The technological myth replaces that of political liberation. Random, unpredictable—these words, which in the sciences mean the indefinite progress of an investigation modfiying its own premises, by migrating into the mediatic become synonyms of uneasy resignation, the impossibility of thinking.

When, in the culture of journalism, the marvels of "postmodern science" invade every article, the model of rationality proposed to the reader is evidently not the too-complex one of the researchers. Rather, it's that of an expert knowledge, incommunicable and omnipotent, compared to which all thought lags behind, useless and outdated, just as the literate adult is overtaken by the computer.

Socially, such a model, far from returning to an underlying evolving concept, expresses and propagates the despair of being determined by a superior fatalism, that of chance. When chance equals necessity (the formula Jacques Monod gave to determinist pessismism), its laws escape any possibility of giving meaning to human destiny. {30}

Certainly, we can assimilate social comportment, in its conformisms as in its crowd phenomena, among the political calculations and speculations of private life, to the unpredictability of an elementary phenomenon, but on the condition that we aim for its complexity, not its massive simplicity. A formidable or favorable unpredictability, never neutral, simplicity disconcerting from self-chaining, the soul of the crowds is yet not a principle of molecular organization, even if refined. What Jean Baudrillard considered the ingenious apathy of the masses,10 protesting by abstention against their proper definition (typical of recent days), is not the simple crushing of any indepedent will. It is not pure resignation before a determinism resented as the condition of a depersonalizing society. Indeed, it's a problem of strategy, even if a negative one. If there is an apathetic and passionate soul of the postmodern's scattered crowds, it is that which, at every instant, in each bit, prevents its own image from being sealed, keeps the little circle from closing up, by opening it infinitely on another possible unity, a vaster, broken, diffracted circle.

Though it may look like it, this movement is no longer that of the atom, nor of the particle with its elusive localization. Comparison with the atomic model is only fruitful if we draw it from the unlimited side of the soul, instead of resolving the social in the clash of its elements.

There exists a model of contracted atomism, where chance and necessity cross the barriers of destiny even more closely than any previous positivism. There is a technical wisdom complacent with thinking itself acted upon and summoning science to the service of this surrender. Being acted upon, the crowd no longer has any soul; it is the great mechanical blind man of destiny manifested in familial predestinations; the blind destiny of the judge, the social worker, a destiny arbitrary and yet completely determined, scattered and yet sealed by its statistical equilibria.

Are we propelled atoms, doomed to nuclear massacre, objects of a determinist natural hisory, or bits in a mad computer, or whatever? {31}Destiny, nowadays disorganized, liberated from perceptible finality, is not for that reason any less inexorable. It's more so, because it has eliminated the least of interrogations about the destinies [destinées] of humankind and of the world as inadequate, incompetent, unbelievable, let's say it, ridiculous. Even more than in the time when Fourier wrote in the name of destinies [destinées] against the destiny [destin] that civilization imposes11, political learning, passing fashions, scientific myths are at the service of that destiny [destin]. Also at its service are those that assert their disillusionment. The density of a system plug up all its gaps easily absorbs the atomization of disorder. On one hand, lives in pieces, on the other, a system that works by itself. It has become impossible, and to include this individual start and individual end, in a hope, a belief, to integrate them into a cycle of expansion, larger than itself, and to challenge this automatic system, since the slightest question that carries the mind toward its final destinations now terrifies those who, more scared of totalitarian forms of political thought than really cured of them, assert their resolution to have done with ideologies. The soul, individual but also the soul of the world, is the power to oppose the destinies [destinées] that belie this destiny [destin]. It is a challenge launched from the very whirlwind of atoms, by seizing their unpredictable, irreversible upward movements. These convections, these atomic movements, splendid Lucretian images, are able to thwart destiny [destin]. In the atoms' endless drop, they indicate the inflection, the clinamen that makes it unfold in life and forms. They introduce into it the creative game. The play of the undetermined, atoms playing in freedom, carry the man, with the "nature of things," towards his aesthetic destiny [destinée], beyond the social destiny [destin].

This aesthetic is not perfectible; no cultural imperative commands it. It draws a cutting line, it crosses. In its categories, the multitude of diffracted rays coalesce. It is Man envisaged in his aesthetic destiny [destinée], and no longer the Aesthetic conceived and organized as a means of perfecting man. Such is the reversal that makes it incessantly escape the specialists' grip, and can release a postmodernity {32}from the modern. Because postmodernity aims for more than it says of itself in the discourses that it holds (its manifestos or antimanifestos, its trans-avant-gardes or anti-avant-gardes). Its own is less creating new works (of art) or new tendencies (of fashion) than formulating a new way of behaving with regard to aesthetics itself, forging an aesthetic life that is not an aestheticized experience.

The aesthetic question, opened on the destinies [destinées], brings into play the springs, the cogs of modernity Just as the childhood game, through the passions it mobilizes, makes the futility of serious occupations emerge, the game of destinies [destinées] reveals the mediocrity of the emergencies that politics proposes itself. Yet it is necessary that they confront each other, in one way or another, and that the aesthetic categories leave the child's bedroom or museum hall.


So we don't have to form a concept of postmodernity, we can only dream by making contradictory guises vary in the orb of categories. The categories furnish the auxiliary circles that allow us, while gravitating around modernity, to escape its flatness. These are the supplements that, as Adorno wrote about Walter Benjamin, make "philosophically fertile what has not been mortgaged on great intentions." Thanks to them, we escape the centered weight of the myth of technological reason; they create attractions, drawing the modern toward other destinies [destinées].

These circles, in the style of ancient astronomy's epicycles, which accounted for the aberrations of apparent planetary movement, are displaced with their center. Their decentered trajectories make it possible to move into a world whose infinite dilation they express. Such a circularity with multiple centers would be the atomic soul, joining individual singularities to the world-soul in an epicyclic mode.

Animula, the little wandering, hesitant soul, like the butterfly released from its chrysalis, though well aware of not being appropriable by the inidividual closed on themself, it lets itself slip from a geometrically-deployed {33}universe, combining the atom, in its unrepresentable and sensual materiality, to fluidly-moving gears and dynamic tension. This privileged association of the particle and the field is the juncture that the Greeks called harmonia; it is the interface between the soul and the material. The fragrant flat notes of fluids, the smells dear to Fourier, the tones of Harmony, project the atomic soul to the interstellar level of galactic empires, animating the icy course of celestial bodies, lodging it in the tiniest pores of our skin.

Infinite and minuscule, animula and soul of the world, decentered point and circularity in motion—the atomic sould hardly is hardly expressed at the size of the traditional questions on the important and compact vicious circle of sociopolitical thought. It is caught in a different place than that of the moral and humanist beautiful soul. It is not in its assigned place, in the grown-ups [or great people], the catechisms and myths. The thing that matters, the animic, is the fragment, the opportunity, the click and offset that carry the soul outside itself. The voluptuous sublime, visionary geometry, and living allegory ease life.

For a symbol of Harmony, Fourier chose the cycloidal crescent.12 This figure, a fragment of an ever-moving curve, is the closest homology of the atomic soul whose deployment it expresses in geometric terms. Let us think of it in the epicyclic circle, where everything is at once circumference-point and center.

It is useless to think of toppling modernity by converting it to a new Copernican Revolution. The axis of postmodernity does not go from one mode of centering to another; it is one of constant decentering. Properly speaking, our aesthetic demand has no center; this is precisely what, through it, allows us to sense a still-unfinished form of unity underway. More than centers, what it aspires to are always-displaced foci of attraction, transported in the course of the soul's atomization. {34}

Ephemeral and daily-reborn butterflies escaped from modernity's chrysalis, stirred up by a desire that goes beyond its ambitions, we flutter over its head, from peripheral foci, from focal peripheries, wherever the inanimate breath makes itself felt. If the modern is no longer enough, for all that we will not call ourselves postmoderns. Better instead: epimoderns.

  1. Titus Lucretius Carus, The Nature of Things, trans. Alicia Elsbeth Stallings (London: Penguin Books, 2015), sec. III, 427–430. 

  2. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. David Pears and Brian McGuinness (London: Routledge, 2003), l. 6.421 and 6.43. 

  3. Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” in Selected Writings Volume 4, 1938-1940, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 2006), 389–90, 396. 

  4. Aristote, Métaphysique, livre Delta, 6–7 ; livre E, 2. Cf. P. Aubenque, Le Problème de l'être chez Aristote, Paris, Presses universitaires de France, 1966, p. 170. 

  5. Ch. Fourier, « Des transitions », manuscrit publié par La Phalange, 1847, paginé 212-213. Cf. Descartes, Lettre au P. Mersenne, janv. 1630, éd. de FE. Alquié, Œuvres philosophiques 1, Paris, Garnier, p. 255 : « Mais pour voir des couleurs plus apparentes, prenez la peine de regarder de sept ou huit pas une chandelle au travers de l'aile d'une plume à écrire, ou bien seulement au travers d'un seul cheveu… et alors vous apercevrez une grande variété de belles couleurs. » 

  6. KR. Barthes, Sade, Fourier, Lovola, Paris, éd. du Seuil, 1971, p. 113. 

  7. Ch. Baudelaire, « Exposition universelle de 1855 », Curiosités esthétiques, Paris, Calmann-Lévy, p. 216. 

  8. E. Kant, Critique de la faculté de juger, trad. A. Philonenko, Paris, Vrin, 1965, livre I : « Analytique du beau : le beau est ce qui est représenté sans concept comme objet d'une satisfaction nécessaire », p. 55. 

  9. I. Prigogine et I. Stengers, La Nouvelle Alliance, Paris, Gallimard, 1979. KR. Thom, Modèles mathématiques de la morphogenèse, Paris, 10/18, 1974. 

  10. «.. les masses, elles, passent à travers le sens, le politique, la représentation, l'histoire, l'idéologie, avec une puissance somnambulique de dénégation » (J. Baudrillard, À l'ombre des majorités silencieuses — La fin du social, Paris, Denoël/Gonthier, 1982, p. 54). 

  11. Ch. Fourier, Théorie des quatre mouvements et des destinées générales, nouvelle édition par MS. Debout, Paris, J.-J. Pauvert, 1967. 

  12. Ch. Fourier, « Du parcours et de l'unitéisme », manuscrit publié par La Phalange, 1847, Œuvres, t. XII, Paris, Anthropos, 1966, p. 475 et suiv. Voir aussi t. IE, p. 145; t. IL, p. 164, avec la correspondance analogique : « Ut-unitéisme-blanc, puissances-cycloïde-Mercure ».