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Negative Constant                                                     





Sated (is there a negative constant?)                                



One unlikely, if intimate, saviour of civilisation is the tendency of the nervous system to be sated after a given amount of stimulus. Over long as well as over short periodscollectively as well as individually. And not only with prolonged exposure to a given stimulus, but (not least) to satisfaction itself. What we have is a kind of law of diminishing returns as applied to the human nervous system; a law running on what appears to be a double track - one of external, the other of internal origin. The one, the continued exposure to the same (smell, image, personality type); the other, the sated desire (to sleep, to eat, to have sex). Both combining to reduce the level of desire -and so the accompanying degree of satiety- incited by any putative response to the question posed by desire. Both finally reduced by the depredations of repetition (and if in the end pure desire remains, the object nevertheless must change). Continuous exposure can only offer a downward curve of interest or awareness (the decline in the pungency of smells, the potency of newness). Furthermore, desire-influenced stimuli (and indirectly what is not influenced by desire) such as the wish for sex, the recognition that confers identity, even the answers called up by religious/metaphysical impulses, all produce a reaction up to and including revulsion (in what was once the new lover, the new acquaintance, that new religion or big idea).


At issue is our capacity to be dulled by familiarity and dazzled by novelty… and of the latter experience to turn unbidden into the former. Unwelcome gift of our internal cut-off point, physiological switch in our hardwiring. Could it be this that is responsible for our incest taboos, the nature of pornography, and our obsession with adultery (historically in the Novel, now propagated by other media). And poetry: the ‘courtly love tradition’ in both its consummated and non-consummated variants (the long history of the genre of complaint as well as of the mal-mariee form)? Perhaps we are also offered a key to the varieties of transgression? For all rituality requires its spice, its salt (in the wound), its quota of transgression, of necessity at the heart of ritual. Rivalled only by ritual’s (even if severely attenuated) call to eternity, another kind of transgression… and another site of unsateability, ultimate support for that most greedy of all desires, identity, with its endless thirst for recognition and belonging balanced against (or should that be with) its desire for self-aggrandisement, the ideology of individualism (impossible in mass society, whence the resort to killing as the sacrifice offered at the altar of this monster, the headline as homecoming, celebrity as final solution). Also in the realm of solutions we may also discern here the stubborn reason behind the failure of all utopias: their actual rendering as the utopias of someone, some generation; whose realisation and redemption will become the new moral and economic straightjacket, the unjustifiable constraint of the next generation.  A received hell for those newly arrived with other tastes…. The products of utopia never recognise their good fortune. Their eyes are on a new horizon, elsewhere…


Sated. Partaking (perhaps) in the definition of the inner and outer limits of what it is to be human. Our limit case. Track. The groove into which we are forced… our biological ‘short-out’. An indicator arriving at the ‘full’ position. Signalling re-entry into a feedback loop (negative). Lurking behind all cultural mediation, the foundation stone of the genetic code, governing the physiological constraints that command the senses and their response to stimuli. Most famously (and evidently) to smell, so also to food, to taste, also to images, as indeed to sex…to attraction, desire, fantasy. So also to taboo, law, marriage (the workings of prohibition, proscription, or their lack…). A limit inciting fantasies. Like the limit of the law as its own eroticisation, the erotics of the margin, the charging of both sides of the taboo line… situating again the invitation to transgression. (Unintended).


Too much of a good thing. This formula is also true for the commodity and its evolution, the promotion of desire as correlate for the growth of the market. The desire for it! As applied to both personal and collective cycles of taste or style this built in cut-of point gives us our taste for the new (the new style… the latest thing). The new; to be found in clothes, a sense of ‘class’, of ‘culture’, casting all previous joy into the negative; but of course also functioning as a positive, as a defence against other categories of life - or just as signs of belonging (the badge of a community of identity). But what of those long, Baroque-type periods; periods of less rapid change than now? Then we have a time of variations, or (historically) the policing of signs, canons and their limits, their exclusions. But today do we not precisely see the evolution of a new ‘Baroque’ as multiple trends coexist simultaneously (as did, once upon a time, the Realism of a Carravaggio with the Baroque swirl of a Rubens, or the competitive relation of (neo)Gothic and (neo) Classical forms in later centuries…)  A time of variations (a new Rococo…!)   Otherwise the flow of rapid change may itself be read as the constant of recent times, a constant reinforced by this simultaneous co-existence of many trends, in constant variation and cross fertilisation, as in the recent history of Art, the history of Art in the late 20th century (and, so far, in the 21st…).


Influence. Where there is little choice (whether due to the constraint of the exhaustion due to freedom), there is a push to the cycle as powered by the motor of alternance. The return of the same…stimuli, are tolerated if alternated. The Eternal Return only requires the intervention of an episode to reveal itself as just another species of Rondo.


Economic cycles also take their cue from the accumulation of our small wants and their attainments, as desire powers up the market for a boom (with the coming of the new) and the next cycle of satiety prepares the way for the next recession (as the new in turn become the old). Indeed ‘the machine’ would indeed stop if we ourselves stopped, stopped our relentless consuming, our expenditure without end. Yet despite the survival of a utopian delusion built upon the wish for this cessation (itself a new variant of pastoral) in reality we would all be the poorer - most of all the very poor. The spindle that drives the machine can not be unwound.


Conditioning the inner relation, as well as relations between the twin poles of the world of recognition, the relation to ones self and (of this) to others, here again we find our negative constant, our constant companion, purveyor of the sell-by-date of the soul. In the realm of ones own self, the precious icon of self-image, the desire for stability (for sanity) is leavened by options on the varieties of role play, offering a (temporary) break from prescribed forms of self (presentation). Yet the full force of the sated limit is too destabilising, operates too close to home, is too anxiety-making, all to conducive to identity stress, to be unleashed on the unprotected self; therefore the fiction of the stability of the self to be maintained, ever reborn through a variety of consumption (of things and of others). Ritual is the counter to the entropy of the self. Safeguard against the gamble of schizophrenia.


Regarding others, the work of satiety runs on unimpeded, limited perhaps only by our dependency on certain significant others, of others per se, personalities, media personalities, icons of our time, the tide of novelty reveals itself as a driving force behind the succession of celebrity, the passing, and passing on, of its cults. Indeed the law of novelty plays a key role in shaking up the fixed, melting the congealed and so making space for the new (a force often synchronised with generational difference).


Positive antidote? Creative activities (even rituals) are designed to counter this tendency (exacerbated under advanced capitalist conditions into our individuation as lone consumers, players of the market of desire). All anti-entropic formulas are but variations on the same (whilst maintaining the same as stable), the oft-told tale of care and responsibility, and among them their apogee, our gift to others, our gift of self to others (as well as the gift of self to self), the love of others.


Willed agape offers itself as the slight, wholly insufficient, but only answer to the negative conundrum posed by our programming. By our unwilled allegiance to the whims of the negative constant. To be opposed only by the negative proffered by constancy itself.





Copyright 2007 Peter Nesteruk