Journal #26 - Lars Bang Larsen - Giraffe and Anti-Giraffe: Charles Fourier’s Artistic Thinking
Journal #26
June 2011
Journal #26 - June 2011

Giraffe and Anti-Giraffe: Charles Fourier’s Artistic Thinking

1. After the War

The writings of Charles Fourier (1772–1837) are a glorious fuck you to all that exists. Yet they are neither punk’s provocation nor the apodictic objectivity of Marxian dialectics, but an enculage of civilization through the filigree work of total world reinvention.

Marx complained that Fourier’s utopia was all in his mind, that he was obliged to construct a new society “with elements supplied by his brain” because capitalist production was underdeveloped when he wrote.[footnote Theodor Adorno, forward to Theorie der vier Bewegungen und der allgemeinen Bestimmungen by
Charles Fourier, trans. Gertrud
von Holzhausen (Frankfurt am Main: Europäische Verlagsanstalt,
1966), 5.] But it is perhaps this appeal to reason rather than history that makes Fourier’s imagination so radical. Even today, it has not been bought and sold: there is still nothing that surpasses Fourier’s projected state of absolute Harmony.

For André Breton, who claimed Fourier for Surrealism in his poem Ode á Charles Fourier (1947), only minds as febrile and immoral as Fourier’s could possess the “extreme freshness” necessary to re-imagine the world in the aftermath of destruction: “Fourier they’ve scoffed but one day they’ll have to try your remedy whether they like it or not …”[footnote Theodor Adorno, forward to Theorie der vier Bewegungen und der allgemeinen Bestimmungen by
Charles Fourier, trans. Gertrud
von Holzhausen (Frankfurt am Main: Europäische Verlagsanstalt,
1966), 5.] Breton was the first to consult Fourier after World War II, echoing the time when Fourier himself was writing in the early nineteenth century, in a Europe that had similarly collapsed in wars. There was not much available in his historical present that one could appeal to.

Laurent Pelletier, The dreamt Phalanstère of Charles Fourier, 1868. Watercolor on paper.

According to Fourier, the world is cosmically out of whack. He blamed the arrogance of the philosophers and the charlatanism of priests for having systematically repressed the passions, leaving humankind stuck in an incoherent civilized state for 2300 years. Faced with this universal misery, Fourier heralds the triumphant reign of a Harmonian cosmic order based in his science of Passional Attraction—the primordial, ubiquitous force that connects the whole in social series.[footnote Theodor Adorno, forward to Theorie der vier Bewegungen und der allgemeinen Bestimmungen by
Charles Fourier, trans. Gertrud
von Holzhausen (Frankfurt am Main: Europäische Verlagsanstalt,
1966), 5.] According to this order, government must be based on a consultation of the passions since they essentially characterize the human being and its community. Conversely, a repression of the passions will result in hypocritical social institutions like marriage and the nuclear family, from which Fourier argued that women must be freed—and in fact, Fourier took the proto-feminist view that the measure of happiness was the degree of independence of women in society.

In Harmony, communal living will be the order of the day and will be organized in micro-societies called Phalansteries, founded on collective sensuousness and industry. According to Fourier’s group theory, each Phalanstery would be populated by 1620 people—one male and one female for each of the 810 temperaments Fourier recognized. This combination would enable infinite social, aesthetic, and sexual encounters, through which humankind would regain its equilibrium. It is “schlaraffisch eingerichtet” (Benjamin; “furnished like an El Dorado”), and even pleasures—hunting, fishing, gardening, playing music and theatre, staging operas—are to be rewarded. The children organize themselves in Little Hordes where they raise each other and contribute to the everyday life of the Phalanstery. The social series of temperaments, generations, and divisions of labor describe subgroups and passionate inclinations that work in complex ways across the collectivity, resulting in a communal euphoria, a constant social high. In Fourier’s famous phrase, “the passions are proportional to the destinies.” Forget about genital love: society is erogenous, and Fourier’s scorn for the doubt of the Cartesian subject is endless.[footnote Theodor Adorno, forward to Theorie der vier Bewegungen und der allgemeinen Bestimmungen by
Charles Fourier, trans. Gertrud
von Holzhausen (Frankfurt am Main: Europäische Verlagsanstalt,
1966), 5.]

The Familiestère Godin was constructed between 1856-1859, by the industrial entrepreneur, Jean-Baptiste-André Godin inspired by the ideas of Fourier and Saint-Simon. As a social experiment, work facilities were linked to a communal settlement, equipped with all the necessary amenities: residential buildings, a pool, cooperative stores, a garden, a nursery, schools and a theatre (the temple of the Familistère community). This experiment lasted in cooperative form until 1968.

Harmony will bring about vast improvements, genetically and socially. In keeping with the redemption of its Harmonian birthright, humankind will mutate and over nine generations will reach an average height of seven feet and a life expectancy of 144 years. There will be plenitude on all levels. The Earth’s original five moons will be restored and its polar tilt corrected, and the oceans will have lemonade flavoring as the poles become ice-free by 1828. Constantinople is set to be the world capital and planet Earth will be crowned by a permanent aurora borealis. Fourier, a theoretical hedonist if there ever was one, also develops an entire gastrosophie that involves the gratification of all of our 810 senses (again 810!), trumping the common understanding that there are only five. Likewise, food is a cosmic vision, a “psychedelic gastronomy!” as the editor of the first Danish translation exults.[footnote Theodor Adorno, forward to Theorie der vier Bewegungen und der allgemeinen Bestimmungen by
Charles Fourier, trans. Gertrud
von Holzhausen (Frankfurt am Main: Europäische Verlagsanstalt,
1966), 5.]

If all this sounds far out, then consider Fourier’s margin of error: all his calculi, he writes in Theory of the Four Movements (1808), are subject to the exception of a fraction of an eighth or a ninth:

This is always to be understood, even when I do no mention it. For instance, if I say as a general thesis, civilised man is very miserable, this means that seven-eights, or eight-ninths of them are reduced to a state of misery and privation, and that only one-eighth escapes the general misfortune and enjoys a lot that can be envied.[footnote Theodor Adorno, forward to Theorie der vier Bewegungen und der allgemeinen Bestimmungen by
Charles Fourier, trans. Gertrud
von Holzhausen (Frankfurt am Main: Europäische Verlagsanstalt,
1966), 5.]

This margin of error can perhaps also be applied to Fourier’s own brand of radical Enlightenment thinking: if he argues in favor of the emancipation of slaves and women, his anti-Semitism, his prejudiced view of the Chinese, and his hatred of the English show the darker sides of his thinking.

Fourier cannot be taken seriously. This is exactly the power of his text against any esprit de sérieux. With his blatant inventions and inconsistencies, his writings are ridiculous, too much. Roland Barthes called Fourier’s science “overmuch,” and considered his work as a kind of literary practice. “Never was a discourse happier,” wrote Barthes, for it describes a new social order articulated on excess, bedazzlement, and, in Fourier’s own words, the “need to protect everything we call vice.”[footnote Theodor Adorno, forward to Theorie der vier Bewegungen und der allgemeinen Bestimmungen by
Charles Fourier, trans. Gertrud
von Holzhausen (Frankfurt am Main: Europäische Verlagsanstalt,
1966), 5.] Barthes writes with fascination on Fourier’s “vomiting of politics” in a “vast madness which does not end, but which permutates.”[footnote Theodor Adorno, forward to Theorie der vier Bewegungen und der allgemeinen Bestimmungen by
Charles Fourier, trans. Gertrud
von Holzhausen (Frankfurt am Main: Europäische Verlagsanstalt,
1966), 5.] As Adorno summed it up, “if it can be said about anybody, then these lines apply to Fourier: ‘a fool leaves the world, and it remains stupid’”[footnote Theodor Adorno, forward to Theorie der vier Bewegungen und der allgemeinen Bestimmungen by
Charles Fourier, trans. Gertrud
von Holzhausen (Frankfurt am Main: Europäische Verlagsanstalt,
1966), 5.] Benjamin, more politely, took a Nietzschean angle: “Fourier is more of an inventor than a savant.”10

2. Love of Lesbians and the Sound of Absolutely Positive Truth

Fourier’s happy discourse also relates to a systematization and practical application of his radical imagination. He was neither a mysticist nor a reformist or a revolutionary. Contrary to his reception by Marx and other socialist thinkers, he did not consider himself a utopian. Harmony does not demand work and sacrifice, but is rather the inevitable outcome of scientifically-adjusted human behavior. His controversial views on the permissive, innovative character of sexual practices—including homosexual, polygamous, extra-marital, manic, and “omnigamous”—were thus a purely scientific appreciation of one way of moving toward new social structures. (Fourier himself was prone to an ambivalent extra-mania he termed “Sapphienisme” whereby he was a lover and protector of lesbians and promoted their wellbeing. He assessed to be among about 26,400 companions worldwide with similar ideas.)

In this sense, the aim of science is simply to harness Passional Attraction as a cosmic source of energy and to bring mankind within the ordered domain of Passional Gravitation. Thus, Fourier’s socialism is not what ought to be (the essence of Marxian socialism, according to Marcuse), but what will be—naturally, rationally, and without revolution—as soon as our passions are realized socially; as soon as we are tuned in correctly, as it were, to a social space that in Fourier is reconfigured and proportioned harmonically.

The optimism of Enlightenment philosophers was often legitimized by utilitarian application. Truth—that in Fourier is “absolutely positive” (Blanchot)—was the practical task of helping humanity to become humanity, through the eradication of illness, poverty, ignorance, and so forth. The Phalanstery thus provided the ground for the commonsensical applicability of Fourier’s argument. Moreover, utilitarianism rejects the ranking of (moral) value according to a priori criteria in favor of the equal validity of each person’s own search for happiness and pleasure. Fourier, to be sure, accepts and celebrates the subjective multi-directionality of vanity, passion, and inclination. To him, one must embrace the delights of contrast, competition, and rivalry on the level of the individual and social series: in Harmony, Industrial Armies roam the world and compete in aesthetic battles to build large-scale engineering projects, cook the most delicious pie, or stage the most impressive opera. Thus Fourier’s anti-conformist God resides over a Combined Order whose permanent social revelation consists in variety and complexity—difference in age, fortune, ability, temperament. In the 1960s, the hippies would sum up such undogmatic tolerance with the slogan “do your own thing.” Let the pleasure principle rule. Don’t moralize, don’t pathologize.

Of course, Fourier also had a theory for the history of the entire world. His cosmogony is a theory of the “ages of happiness,” which explains the progress and decay of civilization in ascending and descending vibrations, together comprising eighty thousand years and thirty-two social metamorphoses, after which humankind will cease to exist. The ascending and descending vibrations serve to “pattern” movements between different stages of individual and historical being, corresponding to the progression from youth to decrepitude in the human life span. The musical analogy is elaborated in the way Fourier organizes the subject’s passions and senses as a keyboard with thirty-two keys. Like the passions are a keyboard, for example, so is the Sun surrounded by a claviature of planets arranged in octaves; thus social change on Earth will influence the entire solar system and affect the planetary orbits positively. This ties in Fourier’s theories with the ancient Pythagorean and Renaissance beliefs in an affinity between natural law and divine law, between the harmony of the passions and the harmony of the spheres.11

Engraving of A Perfumer's Dress.

In 1814, Fourier discovers the Aromal Fluid, a medium for the great chain of being, a connection between the Earth and the rest of the universe.12 The Aromal Fluid (or Aromal Movement) is a “system for the distribution of known or unknown aromas, which control men and animals, form the seeds of winds and epidemics, govern the sexual relations of the planets and provide the seeds of created species.”13 He notes that, “if everything is connected in the system of the universe, there must exist a means of communicating between creatures of the other world and this.” This means of communication is the Aromal Fluid, the supersensible exhalation of the planets. It is an exemplary vital matter: a single, all-pervasive, imperceptible substance—a bit like capital in our present cosmogony, we can say; a universal middleman.

In Fourier’s cosmic order, the world is folded in upon itself in analogies mirroring the principles that constitute it (with octaves, harmonies, planetary orbits, and so on). It has no messianic horizon because it is held together by divine, mathematical laws—geometrical principles that contain parcels of all states of being, including their respective polarities and all ambivalent and transitional forms, and that are only complete in the totality of their variety and infinite multiplicity. Every moment in a geometric time-space corresponds to myriad events that are distributed across a plane defined by cycles, scales, and symmetries.

In the few remarks that he made on Fourier, Maurice Blanchot deconstructs the status of desire in the former’s system. To Blanchot, the “strange gift” of Passional Attraction is a “passion without desire.”14 Where desire is that of an individual subject, of a sovereign “I” that affirms the law that it destroys in the consumption of a transgressive desire, a passion without desire—measured, non-erotic, yet obliging the entire universe to modify itself—never coincides with pleasure, even if pleasure is one of its moments. Blanchot’s reading implies that cosmic happiness goes beyond the individual human subject: instead, Passional Attraction becomes a tendency that rises into the non-time of 80,000 years of ascending and descending vibrations toward universal harmony and sympathetic fusion within the given order of the cosmic household.15 Fourier’s harmonial vibration is the cosmic timbre of a higher pattern to which the soul is already attuned.

Max Ernst, Une semaine de bonté, 1936. Graphic novel.

3. Fourier as a Way of Life

Fourier’s vision for communal living, liberated sexuality, and cosmic harmony resonated with countercultural, “tribal” emancipation and holistic utopian projects of the 1960s, such as Buckminster Fuller’s “spaceship earth” and Martin Luther King’s “beloved community.”16 After his writings were republished in France in 1966–68, commentaries and new translations sprang up across Europe and his work was almost obligatorily referenced in critical writing at the time, as well as and in architecture, with the Phalanstery being an inspiration for Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation (1947­–52). In art and counterculture, Fourier's work had an at least a spectral presence, as in Constant’s New Babylon, the mandatory daily exchange of sex partners in Otto Mühl’s Aktionsanalytische Organisation, or in the name of the Danish student and youth organization Det Ny Samfund (“New Society”). In general, Fourier’s conjoint theorization of labor and love dovetailed with the many post-World War II attempts at thinking Marx and Freud together.

As Fourier’s teachings had been sporadically realized in communes in Europe, North America, and South America in the nineteenth century, so was there also the psychedelic Phalanstery. As members of the San Francisco commune Togetherness explained to Dominique Desanti in the late sixties, “We are Fourierists.”17 Asked whether they have actually read Fourier they reply, “we’ve been told.” Theirs is “Un Fourier par ouï-dire,” infused with elements of Gandhism, concocted in a mix of memory and invention that in itself is quite Fourierian. Still, the members of the commune remain faithful to Fourierian pillars of faith such as the inclusion of children in production, the division of the working day into two-hour shifts, and the integration of male and female tasks. Visitors have told the members of Togetherness that Fourier condoned the use of drugs as an adjuvant or stimulant, and they sell the handicraft of the commune in the Haight-Asbury district: “ex-hippie-capital turned into necropolis, where the bourgeois come to watch the post-hippies, drugged to the point of drifting away, voluntary onlookers, the foam of a broken wave.”18 While Fourier’s nineteenth-century followers tended to underplay or even censor his emphasis on the unrestrained development of desire, it seems that his resurgence in sixties’ collectivism was focused on exactly the Dionysian aspects of his socialism. Accordingly, Togetherness was built on the rule of love, and its denizens embraced Passional Attraction in an amour diffus that included lesbian and gay relationships, and in which orgies, instituted by Fourier as a superior form of love, is an act of principle. In Desanti’s micropolitical turn of phrase, the drop-outs of Togetherness have found “their universal love, a total tolerance of minoritarian and singular tendencies.”19

By 1969, Togetherness suffers a meteoric decline and is dissolved by its members. The former communards choose social revolt as their next endeavor, in factions of post-Proudhonism, post-Marxism, post-Leninism, or “para-Maoism.” Even in its collapse, Fourierism generates difference. Short-lived as it was, the example of Togetherness during the Summer of Love seems to refute Benjamin’s claim that “only in the summery middle of the nineteenth century, only under its sun, can one conceive of Fourier’s fantasy materialized.”20 Writing in 1969, Roland Barthes predicted the decline of the Fourierist commune,

Could we imagine a way of living that was, if not revolutionary, at least unobstructed? No one since Fourier has produced this image: no figure has yet been able to surmount and go beyond the militant and the hippy. The militant continue to live like a petty bourgeois, and the hippy like an inverted bourgeois; between these two, nothing. The political critique and the cultural critique don’t seem to be able to coincide.21

Similarly, to Herbert Marcuse it is also close but no cigar with Charles Fourier. In his Eros and Civilization (1955) Marcuse notes that, “Fourier comes closer than any other utopian socialist to elucidating the dependence of freedom on non-repressive sublimation.”22 But the nature of Fourier’s idea is based on the repressive elements of “a giant organization and administration,” which for Marcuse risks fascism, for the working communities of the Phalanstery “anticipate ‘strength through joy’ rather than freedom, the beautification of mass culture rather than its abolition.” To accuse Fourier of aestheticizing politics seems to rationalize his work through the historical knowledge of a totalitarian modernity. In the mid-twentieth century, however, it was no doubt inevitable to comment on the fascist connotations of the Phalanstère. (Or maybe it was simply a question of irreconcilable temperaments between Marcuse, the well-intentioned utopianist schoolteacher and Fourier the “delirious cashier,” as Flaubert called him.)

Also other post-World War II thinkers were uncertain as to whether Fourier’s imaginative intoxication could be reclaimed for critical purposes. While his work was eagerly referenced, it remained exotic if not intractable; thus Kenneth White asks whether Fourierism is of “any interest to us in the present historical conjecture, or whether it is to be placed, once and for all, as a particularly grotesque item, for dilettante admiration and curiosity, on the shelf of political antiquities.”23 Fourier never quite fit history, yet his happy discourse is a specter that seems to trans-illuminate any given historical moment as an x-ray of that which is not, but exists anyway because it can be imagined.

Fourier wasn’t read only as a “vomiting of politics,” but also as a regurgitation of psychoanalysis. His philosophy was in a sense already anti-Oedipal, corresponding to Deleuze and Guattari’s assertion that desires don’t belong to the realm of the imaginary, and are never transformed through desexualization or sublimation. Once sexuality is conceived as a force of production in its own right (the unconscious as a worker), it escapes restriction into narrow cells of family, couple, person, object. “Sexuality is everywhere,” Deleuze and Guattari wrote, recalling Fourier’s “vibrations and flows” to evoke how libidinal energy proceeds directly to the entire social field:

For the prime evidence points to the fact that desire does not take as its object persons or things, but the entire surroundings that it traverses, the vibrations and flows of every sort to which it is joined, introducing therein breaks and captures—an always nomadic and migrant desire, characterized first of all by its “gigantism”: no one has shown this more clearly than Charles Fourier.24

As a result, and as per Fourier, “we always make love with worlds”—which is, in fact, a good definition of artistic thinking: to make love with worlds—nothing less.

Franscisco Goya, The Witches' Sabbath, 1797-98. Oil on canvas.

4. Giraffe, Reindeer, Dog

Planetary lovemaking makes us recognize strange signs in civilization. According to Fourier, the hieroglyph of truth is the giraffe:

The hieroglyph of truth in the animal kingdom is the giraffe. Since the characteristic of truth is to surmount error, the animal that represents it must be able to raise his head higher than all the others: this the giraffe can do, as it browses on branches 18 feet above the ground. It is, in the words of one ancient author, “a most fine animal, gentle and agreeable to the eye.” Truth is also most fine, but as it is incapable of harmonizing with our customs, its hieroglyph, the giraffe, must be incapable of helping humans in their work; thus God has reduced it to insignificance by giving it an irregular gait which shakes up and damages any burden it might be called upon to bear. As a result we prefer to leave it to inaction, just as nobody will employ a truthful man, whose character runs counter to all accepted customs and desires.25

Fourier reasons that just like truth is only beautiful when it is inactive, so the giraffe is only admirable when it is at rest. With this analogy he proves that God created nothing without a purpose—even the giraffe, which is supremely useless. Thus, if one wishes to know what purposes it will serve in societies other than Civilization, one can study this problem in the “counter-giraffe,” the reindeer. A creature that only lives in hostile climates, the reindeer is “an animal which provides us with every service imaginable: you will see that God has excluded it from those social climates, from which truth will also be excluded for as long as Civilization lasts.”26 Fourier continues,

And when the societary order has enabled us to become adept at the use of truth and the virtues which are excluded from our lives at present, a new creation will provide us, in the anti-giraffe, with a great and magnificent servant whose qualities will far surpass the good qualities of the reindeer, which so excites our envy and arouses our anger at nature for having deprived us of it.27

Fourier’s delirious parable will get us nowhere near objectivity and consensus, yet it in its irreducibility it circumscribes the absence of truth. As we wait for this fantastic animal—the anti-giraffe—to arrive, we can delectate its profoundly aesthetic incongruence with all that exists, its devastating power of counter-actualization. If one wants a social aesthetic, then this is it: all that Fourier’s philosophical system talks about is the social, yet it can never be socialized, never become one with society, never become operational or ameliorative. Power will never be able to use Fourier to heal the miseries it has created. More than 200 years after Fourier wrote his first book, at a time when art is encroached by economy like never before, this fact alone seems more important than ever for the thinking and the making of art.

If we were to consider Fourier’s text a blueprint for a new life-world then we will, melancholically, get sucked back into the Real that we can never master. Just think of the personal misery of Charles, who each day at noon waited for the patron who would sponsor the realization of one of his Phalansteries, but who never arrived; who dreamt of gastronomic orgies but ate bad food his entire life; who was found dead kneeling by his bed in his old frock-coat… Instead, if contemporary life appeals to none of your 810 senses, one can take a hit of the perverse systematic of Fourier’s Harmony to invigorate sensing and speculation. “It was all in the mind,” said Marx of Fourier—but so is any other theory, institution, and discourse that reproduces the world. Most of all, reading Fourier today is a perfect anachrony to capital’s pre-emption of the future through calculated responses in the present. Even (or especially) capital will never catch up to this. It is a text that tops off all the absurdities that we are being served, by economy and politics alike, revealing them not as false and theatrical, but as gnomic and forlorn—incapable of touching Fourier’s divine and unapologetic bullshit that makes you defenseless, lifts you up and sets you free.

Adorno and Horkheimer write that in the culture industry, imagination goes to the dogs. Not so in Fourier. Here we always make love with worlds.


Lars Bang Larsen is an art historian and curator based in Barcelona and Copenhagen. He has co-curated group exhibitions such as
Pyramids of Mars (Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, 2000, a.o.), Populism (Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam 2005, a.o.), La insurrección invisible de un millón de mentes (Sala rekalde, Bilbao 2005), and A History of Irritated Material (Raven Row, London 2010). His books include Sture Johannesson (NIFCA / Lukas & Sternberg 2002) and a monograph about Palle Nielsen’s utopian adventure playground at Moderna Museet in Stockholm,The Model. A Model for a Qualitative Society, 1968 (MACBA 2010). The series of pamphlets Kunst er Norm, Organisationsformer and Spredt væren (’Art is Norm’, ’Forms of Organisation’ and ’Dissipated being’, published by the Art Academy of Jutland), discusses the experience economy as a mutation in art’s DNA towards a new normativisation of art. He is currently collaborating with Maria Lind for a project at Tensta Konsthall titled The New Model, and with the Roskilde Museum of Contemporary Art for an exhibition that deals with the genealogy of Conceptual Art.

© 2011 e-flux and the author
Journal # 26
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