Un/Official Worlds
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Un/Official Worlds
The Official World

Mark Seltzer

Duke University Press
288 Pages; Print, $24.95

The Uncanny

Having hoped for some time to write a book defining the "Unofficial World," I read Mark Seltzer's The Official World (OW) with gratitude as well as admiration. Any concept enjoys dynamic complementarity with its contrary, so I will use this review to inventory Seltzer's design with the intention of creating a template of sorts for my own use. Cicero observed that one could invent a new work by treating an individual text as a poetics. My purpose does not go that far, although part of my interest concerns heuretics (the logic of invention) as a mode of reading, or even of hermeneutics, in the spirit of Roland Barthes's proposal that the proper response to a text is another text (there is no meta-text).

There is a certain urgency to our theme, however out of the loop the academy may be, but worth reporting nonetheless, in the spirit of Seltzer's implicit application of Ezra Pound's wisdom: "Artists are the antennae of the race but the bullet-headed many will never learn to trust their great artists." That last bit usually is omitted: the bullet-headed many. That would cover some of those proposing to abolish federal support for the Arts and Humanities? Marshall McLuhan cited Pound, creating an expanded field for this appreciation of consultant artists. Part of Seltzer's strategy is to take note of how the Official World (now hegemonic) was anticipated, which I will get to in a moment. My definition of the Unofficial World contributes to a larger project of creating a new consultancy, including a genre called "konsult" that is to digital learning what "dialogue" was to alphabetic learning in the original Academy.

Conventional consultants (representing the point of view of the Official World) prepare scenarios based on contemporary conditions, projecting into the future ten or even twenty years. There are instruction books teaching the rhetoric of these projections, involving best case and worst case scenarios, identifying tendencies and trends moving through the narrow frame of the present into the future: a weather report on time. To the extent that these projections neglect the arts antennae, they remain blind. This blindness is augmented by the fact that OW is cybernetically self-generating, an autopoietic construction. Konsult is practiced in a virtual consultancy called the EmerAgency, not in competition with Official competency, but as an alternative, available to those recognizing (as Seltzer does) the Official World's affiliation with the catastrophe known as the Anthropocene. How this catastrophe is modeled in imagined forms of violence is one theme among others addressed.

The urgency of understanding this interdependence of Un/Official Worlds is occasioned by the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. The shock of this event registers the fact that President Trump is literally uncanny, in a way that illustrates the relationship between the two Worlds: something that should have remained concealed but nevertheless came to light, became public. Looking for a term to name the predominant feeling of modern life, Freud settled on Unheimlich (unhomelike, uncanny), taken from Schelling's translation into German of the Greek term Nemesis. That Trump incarnates Nemesis explains everything, in a way. Freud and Heidegger drew upon the same sources for their differing accounts of dread as modern mood, encountering something familiar and established in the mind that has been estranged by the process of repression. The human involuntary response when Nemesis appears is laughter (Bataille's Sovereignty). It is the only response capable of escaping the strange attractor of Western metaphysics (literacy) codified in Hegel's dialectic (as Derrida explained in his reading of Bataille). OW is the (necessarily) failed attempt to overcome the conditions Hegel called Unhappy Consciousness: to accomplish through the light-speed feedback loops of systems recursion what metaphysics proper could not achieve: self-possession. Such is the wisdom of Achilles and the Tortoise, as Lacan applied it to the human condition.

Trump is a Joke, then, in a profound sense that is one of the...