Wednesday 5 September 2012

Dusapin's "Passion", Bataille and Nigel Howard

I'm in Brussels at the moment for the iTEC project, but I managed to take in a performance of "Passion", a fairly new opera by Pascal Dusapin. I very much like his music, and musically this was an interesting evening - although in the end I thought it was all over-long and took itself far too seriously. There was one moment where three pink telly-tubby looking creatures all rolled around on the floor: I  wasn't sure if this was supposed to be funny.

The opera is a curious mix of a re-framing of Monteverdi's operas (especially Orfeo), a philosophical nod to Descartes's Traité des Passions and a study of melancholia in women. Sung it Italian, it nevertheless felt very French with octatonic melodies reminiscent of Messaien. There were other borrowings I suspect - long-held organ chords which reminded me of Britten's Church canticles, and some baroquesque harsichord interludes to remind us of the Monteverdi connection.

But death and eroticism suffused the piece. It made me think of my dad's experience (if it could ever be called 'experience') in dying. It also made me think of Bataille, and I'd like to focus on Bataille's work and his take of 'passion' for the rest of this post.

I've blogged elsewhere on Bataille's emphasis on exhuberance and waste - particularly as it might apply to education (see I think Bataille's economic theory in privileging waste over rational equilibrium is extremely important, not least because there is no other theory out there like it. There are others (plenty of them) who have challenged homo economicus. But ultimately, they end up reinventing homo-economicus from a different standpoint (for example, Kahneman reinvents homo economicus from the standpoint of neuro-psychology). Only Bataille is there to point out that rationality itself is an epiphenomenon of passion, waste, exuberance and destruction. Given that world history provides him with some compelling evidence for this view, it is astonishing that nobody else (especially in economics) has really picked up on it.

The problem with talking about Bataille's theory is that it is difficult to get hold of anything concrete - and economists (on the whole) like concrete things. But of course the theory itself shies away from concreteness. It isn't that Bataille is being irrational: he had one of the most penetrating and analytical minds on difficult issues like sex, eroticism and religion. But his reliance on anthropological concepts like 'potlatch' immediately cause problems for those starting from the perspective of the contemporary economist.

This is where I wonder if Nigel Howard's "Paradoxes of Rationality" might help. When Bataille talks about waste, he is talking about a divestment of attachments: it is the moment when we say "to hell with it!".  For Howard, that might be seen as a particular meta-strategy in a game. Howard quotes Russell who said that the epitome of irrational action was "to become so agitated at the airport as to jump on the first plane that I see". Howard would then frame the question: "What's the game?"

This  is an important question, and Howard provides some very powerful tools for addressing it. Currently I am in the process of exploring how those mathematical tools might help understand the divestments of attachments that seem to lie at the heart of Bataille's 'waste'. In short, I believe there is a logic to it, but paradoxically, it is a logic which exists as a recursive process where meta-strategy is piled on meta-strategy (or meta-meta-strategy). It is Howard's genius to have unpicked the logic that sits behind classical game theory, and follow it to its logical conclusions, and show it to lead to irrationality. But nevertheless, this is an irrationality which can be situated through analysis, and in doing such an analysis, I believe new life can be breathed into "passion".

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