Restraint: Between Fire and the Labyrinth: Jason Mohaghegh

Dana Dawud

The Cube, c.1943 - c.1945 - Hans Bellmer
The Cube, c.1943 - c.1945 - Hans Bellmer
[JASON MOHAGHEGH is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and Philosophy at Babson College. His work explores rising poetic, philosophical, and artistic movements across both East and West, with particular focus on concepts of chaos, illusion, violence, disappearance, delirium, silence, madness, apocalypse, night, and futurity. He has published nine books to date–including The Chaotic Imagination (Palgrave, 2010); Inflictions: The Writing of Violence (Bloomsbury, 2012); The Radical Unspoken (Routledge, 2013); Insurgent, Poet, Mystic, Sectarian: The Four Masks of an Eastern Postmodernism (SUNY, 2014), and his latest volumes titled Omnicide: Mania, Fatalism, and the Future-In-Delirium (MIT Press/Urbanomic /Sequence, 2019) and Night: A Philosophy of the After-Dark (Zero Books, 2020). He is the director of the Future Studies Program; he is also the Director of Transdisciplinary Studies for the New Centre for Research & Practice, co-editor of the Suspensions Book Series (Bloomsbury), and founder of the 5th Disappearance Lab.]

[Dana Dawud is an artist and writer exploring different modes of thought through painting, writing and film. Her current project  “The Pleasure Helmet” is a monthly podcast bringing together the artistic, academic and esoteric in experimental ways.]

Dana Dawud: At this juncture in time, we are faced by an intellectual and spiritual restraint, and are asking ourselves where the road to the road is.  Theories that have called for a totalizable understanding of political or economic systems usually start with erroneous premises and end nowhere; it is precisely why they are in a kind of deadlock.

Envisioning future economies predicated on dualities, such as need versus desire, requires that we first do away with the actual multiplicity of economies that exceed our desires and needs. There are war economies, shadow economies, collapsed economies—and they are distributed in manners that are heterogeneous and mediated by breaks, surges, and ruptures. In your book, Omnicide: Mania, Fatality, and the Future-in-Delirium (Urbanomic, 2019), one of the numerous labyrinths you construct begins with an excerpt from a poem by Mahmoud Darwish: “My heart exceeding my need, hesitant between two doors: entry a joke, and exit a labyrinth.” So, what does it mean to exit a labyrinth?

Jason Bahbak Mohaghegh: Let us begin from the most malevolent element of this premise: that to awaken in a labyrinth means to exist in someone else’s architecture, and thus to be the plaything of preconfigured disadvantages that were designed against its inhabitant. Unlike the figure of the game-master, the riddler, or the puzzle-maker who actually hope that their clients overcome elaborate challenges, we picture instead the delight of an overseer who deploys complexity solely for the sake of condemnation and spectacles of futile wandering. Their wish is either to eternally elongate the failure or to have you die there—amidst surrender, brokenness, exhaustion.

1. The first strategic impulse to surviving the labyrinth is therefore restraint: more specifically, to restrain oneself from the very desire to move and thereby disabuse the panicked reaction toward flight/searching/escape. Instead, one must resist falling further into the labyrinth’s logic of entrapment, where every step sinks irrevocably, and entertain the possibility of the no exit, no beyond, no way out. We learn this lesson from the Minotaur—perfect embodiment of austerity: no friends, no furniture, no titles or decorative embellishments of the atmosphere—who attunes himself to the bareness of flesh and stone alone. This restraint, which forfeits all dreams of the outside, is a fatal affirmation: it gives him absolute dominion over all who enter; it endows him with a rare, lethal focus combining animal instinct with monstrous consciousness.

2. Secondly, we must consider the backdoor relation between restraint and effusion as a tactic of labyrinthine quality. If one studies the ancient rituals of banquets, festivals, or even grand cannibalistic celebrations (indulgence, excess), one notes that the devouring hour is most often preceded by long bouts of fasting (deprivation). The pendulum therefore swings between the starved and the explosive, just like the containment of water or air generates the event of cloudbursts.

To this same end, there is indeed a secret embedded in the depictions of the tranquil warrior in ancient narrative traditions, for these epics often imagine the fighter roaming along desolate beaches or dwelling alone for years in mountain castles. These images of prolonged idleness always precipitate the later rage that shakes universes upon the warrior’s re-emergence. This is not a theory of conservation of energy but rather the accumulation of energetic potential—the hoarding, stacking, and then projection of temperamental intensity—for as one obscure artist once said: “Only density does not lie.” Moreover, it also links restraint to the notion of biding one’s time: in effect, sitting out certain rounds and waiting for the opportune moment to leap/strike (excellence in both wrath and craft). This is not a philosophy of passivity, then, but rather a philosophy of maximized chance.

3. Thirdly, let us follow those ascetic figures—monks, mystics, martial artists—into the far distances where they took vows of silence, poverty, flagellation, or degradation as routes to divine ecstasy. Let it be understood that the most incendiary versions of this practice had nothing to do with piety, modesty, or transcendent worship, but rather constituted wilder gambles toward the pure windfall of a becoming-god. Hence such agonizing codes of restraint—mutilation, hunger, solitude, filth—were nothing less than lottery bets whose stakes reached toward the ultimate turn of fortune, its apotheosis.

With these initial trajectories established, I would only add this final note: that restraint can in various circumstances exercise a profoundly subversive quality in that it stops a repetitive world. More exactly, it halts the tyranny of the same by discontinuing habit (myths of identity fall apart), succession (myths of power fall apart), and causality (myths of reality fall apart). We thus return to those same mystics whose radicalism lie. in the gesture of walking away from the world. Stated otherwise, sometimes to leave the labyrinth one must first abandon/forget the very notion of the labyrinth itself; this oblivion is its own willed restraint.

DD: The trajectories you map to obliterate the tyranny of the labyrinth signal timescapes that mediate the dense stacking of potentialities and the radical throw into chance. What shapes do these temporalities take—are they located somewhere that keeps spiraling into eternal moments of possibility, or are they a parade of presents that push us further into futurity? Moreover, how can a philosophy of chance be understood?

JBM: This question dares us to describe various philosophies of “restrained time”, and to ask paradoxically how certain practices of binding, coalescence, and tightening (criterion of the spell) might open secret temporalities. The first gate to any secrecy is always a vow of restraint.

Let us start, then, by imagining five unique powers held over time and, alongside them, five particular practitioners of these abilities: 1) the one who echoes time; 2) the one who freezes time; 3) the one who ricochets time; 4) the one who carves extra slits within time; 5) the one who surprises time (with untimeliness). Each of these figures must undoubtedly restrain some component of experience in order to gain such exceptional techniques, just as martyrs die young in order to access an alternative immortality, wielding existential contraction in a way that allows them to play the long game of the eternal. We thus ask again: What must one first acquiesce (the restraining price) in order to manipulate each of those concealed temporalities noted above?

To speak of the echo is to engage a timescape of partial resonances, most of which arrive too late and with lost origins. To speak of the frozen is to engage a timescape of suspended animation, where the clock’s slender hands ice over and phenomena mimic states of pure standstill. To speak of the ricochet is to engage a timescape of elastic collision, to subordinate all trajectories to the detour and the deflection, to the supremacy of the angle, as everything moves according to its own chaotic geometry. To speak of the carving is to engage a timescape of miniscule incisions, those that extend events by split seconds and thereby purchase a single stolen breath more in every transpiring instant. And finally, to speak of the untimely is to engage a timescape of irrelevant infiltrations and ambushes, where those deserters who willed themselves posthumously punish each self-important moment with tremors of the unexpected, the unparalleled, and the no-right-to-have-been.

But now, let us wrest these five schools of restrained time from abstraction and unravel them across a visceral axis, known both to the darkest totalitarian settings (the prison) and to the collapsing worlds of failed states (the riot). What do each have to offer those despairing in dank cells or those flung amidst debris? What force of consolation do secret temporalities render to the equally horizonless destinies of the tortured, the ruined, and the displaced? We can imagine the echo as something that smuggles messages into and out of the room of solitary confinement; the frozen as that which allows a captured final glance of a society burning down; the ricochet as a means of turning brutal impacts elsewhere and wherever; the carving as a narrow window to savor, mourn, or curse the passing world-under-siege; and the untimely as a vision that nevertheless accounts for those conceivable unborn worlds that pile up in archives of the hypothetical. For they also have their reckoning, in some silent eventuality.

Hence, it is no coincidence that three of the most iconic authors of the Arab region, all simultaneously withstanding the Lebanese Civil War from their different vantages in Beirut, would compose silhouettes of the damaged city that experiment with such strains of time-disturbance. Mahmoud Darwish writes: “Three o’clock. Daybreak riding on fire. A nightmare coming from the sea. Roosters made of metal. Smoke. Metal preparing a feast for metal the master, and a dawn that flares up in all the senses before it breaks.”[1] Ghada Samman writes: “When dawn broke, we were all staring at each other in amazement, wondering: How did we stay alive? How did we survive that night?”[2] Adonis writes: “Through the years of the civil war, especially during the siege, I learned to create an intimate relationship with darkness, and I began to live in another light that does not come from electricity, or butane, or kerosene. / This darkness, this secret light, can wrench you even from your shadow and can toss you into a focal point of luminous explosion.”[3] These authors are prophets of high restraint, overlooking the touch of catastrophic centuries with a consciousness somehow not of this age; we play eavesdropper to their disquieted words in order to trace the footsteps of such shadow-temporalities.

All of these tactics hold crucial applications in the most devastated places, whether inside the dungeon or on the street. They demand a dire tradeoff of some kind from their subjects, for most often secret temporalities are won by selling away our remaining shares of linear time. Such is the inexorable war between the chronological and our best dreams of delirium/flight, and a reminder that “endurance” (perhaps the most vital concept we can fathom) is itself also a principle of restraint.

DD: The temporality of restraint is one of endurance, and of sacrifice, in the sense where the latter is engaged with as an active force of creation that offers arising subjectivities a form of control over their dwindling fall. Artaud writes: “I no longer wish to be possessed by Illusions. / […] I have had enough of this lunar movement making me name what I refuse and refuse what I have named. / I must end it. […] / I will fall into the Void […]”[4] It is this break with linear temporality and teleological representation that allows the different forces and tactics you have previously outlined to be traversed.

In the same text Artaud speaks of fire. Fire has been a recurring motif in my readings this year, it’s as if I keep encountering it by chance—in books, images, and real life events. There is something about fire which always creates a break in how layers of life are perceived. In

Heinrich von Kleist’s novel, Michael Kohlhaas, the main protagonist, faced by injustice, sets whatever catches his eye into a raging fire. Once fire is introduced in the novel, it engulfs everything; it even takes the place of metaphors and descriptions of different characters’ affects. Everyone speaks the language of fire. Kohlhaas encounters a gypsy woman who is known for her prophecies; she turns her gaze upon him and gives him a paper, telling him it would save his life. When he is caught and is sentenced to execution, right before being beheaded, he swallows the paper and the secret within it. What could fire tell us about restraint?

JBM: This is a beautiful last move to the dance—choreography itself is almost always about negotiating the secret pact between restraint and movement. Consequently, your overture here requires us to keep company with the ancient fire-worshipers, whose priests of the eternal flame would stand guard all night in the temples to prevent it from extinguishing (sacred insomnia as restraint); or to sit in the caravans of old fortune-tellers who offered themselves as vessels of fatalistic bursts, reading incendiary particles of messages encapsulated in their crystal balls or in scattered ashes (oracular inspiration as restraint); or to study with the first pyrotechnic guilds who discovered the capacities of self-contained exothermic chemical reactions, and whose firework displays were near-miraculous manipulations of heat and light (spectacular detonation as restraint). All of these various alliances realized that the setting of great fuses in the world requires patience, neutrality, pressure, and the allowance of a countdown. All of them knew that their likelihood of stealing powers from the infinite, like any Promethean theft, depended entirely on the minimalism of their gestures—subtlety, slightness, anonymity, and the will to imperceptible violations. For one is always careful when playing with fire.

[1] Darwish, Mahmoud. Unfortunately, It Was Paradise, tr. M. Akash, C. Forche, S. Antoon, and A. El-Zein. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003. p. 4

[2] Ghada Samman, Beirut Nightmares , trans. N. Roberts (London: Quartet Books, 1976), p. 2.

[3] Adonis, Selected Poems, tr. K. Mattawa (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), p. 209

[4] Artaud, Antonin. The Death of Satan and Other Mystical Writings, Tr. Alastair Hamilton and Victor Corti, Caldar and Boyars 1974, p. 64