Charles Gleyre,  Lost Illusions  (1843)

                                                                                                                                                      Charles Gleyre, Lost Illusions (1843)

We will begin with the time of death and the futures thereafter.   The future is impossible to hold down in the first place, of course, especially in times formed without ends of history, but we will see if we might rest comfortably, and maybe even strike a chord from the rasping of market noise.


Bad information

June 28th, 1880


Doctor Jules Cotard presents a paper at the Societé Médico-Psychologique in which he describes a patient who believes herself to be dead.  Cotard introduces her malady as a form of delirious hypochondria. The patient, Mlle X, affirms that she no longer possesses a ‘brain, nerves, chest, stomach or entrails’; all that is left of her, she believes, are  ‘the skin and bones of a disorganized body’ (la peau et les os du corps désorganisé). This delire de negation, this negational delusion, extends, suggests Cotard, into metaphysical ruminations.  The patient renounces God and the devil and, believing herself to be the remains of this disorganized body, does not think it necessary to eat.  Setting herself afire, Mlle X believes, is the only way to rid the world of her remains, and so she repeatedly asks to be burnt, and attempts to do so herself on various occasions[1].  The syndrome is characterized by nihilistic, paranoiac delusions, a tipping of Cartesian logic beyond its limit, a negation or skepticism, with a denial of world or others, culminating in the belief that ‘I think, that I am not’ and an urging for the total destruction of her disorganized remains.[2]


formulas from Capital, Volume 1 (1867)




A linear progression, one with beginning, middle, and end, regulated by use.  A Platonic rhythm, metric, governed by the anticipatory, the laying forth of a theory of value constituted by mortal objects.  The future of such movement is knowable: it is constituted by the death of the commodity.




From line to loop, a tautology at that.  A circular, repetitive rhythm. The birth of an infinitely circulating movement.  This is the movement of an eternally returning figure: money. The future links back to its beginnings.  The origin becomes the goal[3].




The work of sorcerers.  Motion constituted by motion in excess of itself.  The universal equivalent conquers the whole of the loop, bursting the seams.  The time of capital has no end, is caught in a loop of things that refuse to die and which infinitely produce more of the same.  The dead loop expands outwards, across the edges of the knowable, the visible, and seeks to colonize all silences, chasms, questions, and empty time.


How might the dead turn against infinite linear time, find its break?


The figure of Cot(t)ard[4], the walking corpse, I would like to claim, provides a means of thinking through the subject, time and the future under capitalism, as well as revolutionary time and temporality in Marx, which is, as Sami Khatib describes, of a dual nature, on the one hand, “a homogeneous, cyclical, and ultimately ‘time-less’ time of capitalism and a disruptive, revolutionary opening-up of historical time” (Khatib, 47).  More specifically, Cotardian time involves a rejection of a knowable future, or the possibility of difference therein. It is as much an obsession with the present and a proto-existentialist rejection of the time of capital‑ one which ends in self-annihilation, but nonetheless opens the door to possible utopian alternatives and revolutionary temporalities. I am particularly interested in contrasting the ways in which the allegory of Cotard figures in early modernity and under finance capitalism, using as reference points the work of Marcel Proust and Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche New York, two works that explicitly reference Cotard, and that concern memory, temporality, history, and experience.  But first, we will begin with the undead time of capital.


“Capital- time structurally necessitates an endless repetition of its retroactive measurement – even though a final measurement is endlessly postponed. Against this form of spurious infinity, Benjamin called for a “messianic arrest of happening” (Benjamin, SW 4: 396) breaking off, interrupting, derailing the historical dynamic of the auto-temporalizing movement of capital-time…. The task of the Benjaminian ”historical materialist” is thus to seize this inner loop within time, giving us time to free and retroactively redeem the contracted, congealed time encapsulated in capital-time.”

Sami Khatib, The Time of Capital and the Messianicity of Time


Capital, Khatib tells us, contradictorily exists both in time and as a producer of time. Benjamin’s late Marxist formulation of messianic time, Khatib then suggests, becomes a way of moving outside the Newtonian physics as well as the Aristotelian ontology underlying orthodox Marxist constructions of time and linear evolutionist historiography (Khatib). Capital is dead labour[5], with capitalist production as a “complete inversion of the relation between dead and living labour, between value and the force that creates value”[6].  The time of dead labour is within and of past time, hours, days, weeks of alienated labour which nonetheless continues to exist in the form of capital. Capital is dead time, but in order to exist, it needs to keep moving.  What if this dead labor were to speak; given the opportunity, what would it say?

It would likely begin by asking where it was, and when it was: this confusion would arise from its dislocation from the past without meaningful continuity into the present, as well as its loss of content, its ability to produce value.  Sufferers of Cotard Syndrome describe feeling a distinctly unreal, dreamlike, out-of-time quality of life, as well as a having bodies without content[7].  It would describe itself as desensitized, confused by its continued motion as it remains encapsulated in the body of money in motion.  Cotardian subjects report bodily numbness and a sensation of a lack of organs[8].  Everywhere it would see and smell rotting things, commodities as the festering casualties of capital, self-verifying signs of a trajectory towards an infinite passing.  The Cotardian subject no longer finds it necessary to brush her teeth or bathe; her blackened teeth and putrid odour only confirm her being dead. Dead labour, however, unlike the Cotardian subject, does not necessarily recognize and confront the fact of its ongoing movement, nor the fact of its undeadness.  Here Cotardian time offers the potential for thinking through temporalities that alternative to the time of capital.

Cotard Syndrome involves a transformed relationship to the future, reality, and the body.  The Cotardian future, at first glance, appears nonexistent. But it is not that it has disappeared; the future—one’s death is always in the future, always beyond the horizon of the visible— has been relocated to the past, a future past that did not carry out its promise, the ultimate promise; the Cotardian subject thus endlessly seeks to return to a future that failed to deliver the only knowable, unalterable fact: the ultimate event, the End.  Whereas Cotard syndrome projects its own overcoming as the annihilation of the body without future, Proustian death, or extratemporality, seeks to overcome the limits of the present by reactivating the unseized potentialities of the past, though this ends at the level of the contemplative individual.

The Cotardian subject located at the heart of the search for lost time— time not dead in the past but living, wandering there— speaks both from and against the time of capital, a temporality which positions the time of the future as empty time that will be constituted by more of the present. So death has passed the Cotardian subject by, the future has been relocated to the past. A loop of known textures.  This does not, however, mean that the future has necessarily ‘become’ the past. If by ‘future’ we mean final event, or death, then the Cotardian future is in the past.


a note of interest


Marcel Proust publishes À la Recherche du Temps Perdu.  George D. Painter, in his biography of Proust, would later write, “the heroic age of French medicine was just beginning,” and among Adrien Proust’s, Marcel’s father’s, contemporaries, was a fellow student— and later friend[9] of Adrien Proust— “whose name sounds oddly familiar, and need only be spelt with a double ‘t’ to become recognizable: his name was Cotard” [10].


How is death figured in Proust, and for that matter, in the future?  Does In Search of Lost Time enact a glance from beyond the grave, and the time and future of the Cotardian subject?  The Proustian future may have fallen through the cracks[11], but does this mean it has been forgotten, lost, abolished, that it is repressed, or that it has settled into the infrastructure of the house in which it sleeps?   Does Proustian death smile behind us, hand in hand, main-tenant, with a future past?

There is certainly a difference between the abolishment and the death of the future; each involves a different temporality, and perhaps guides us towards the distinction that Khatib makes between the empty, endless repetitive time of capitalism (abolishment) and the full, revolutionary time of the discontinuous and disruptive, the time of the Jetztzeit, of historical materialism (death).  To abolish the future is to colonize it with the present, or variations of the present, and to give the appearance that it is eternally extinguished, rather than exiled. Once the future dies, however, once death, is absorbed by the time of capital, it does not truly die but becomes an unseized potential locked in the past. In Proust, this potential becomes accessible only through the unimportant detail, the fragmented pieces of what was once whole.  That is to say, it is not through the will, through language or a discursive act, through ritual or prayer that involuntary memory—both confirmation of and cure for death in Proust, as well as the potential for the redistribution of ways of thinking necessary for the production of revolutionary time and action— unfolds.


Out in Modernity

“What profoundly modifies [thinking peoples’] system of thought is much more likely to be something that in itself seems to have no importance, something that reverses the order of time for them by making them contemporaneous with another epoch in their lives.  And that this is so we may see in practice from the beauty of the writing which is inspired in this particular way: the song of a bird in the park at Montboissier, or a breeze laden with the scent of mignonette, are obviously phenomena of less consequence than the great events of the Revolution and the Empire; but they inspired Chateaubriand to write pages of infinitely greater value in his Mémoire D’Outre-tombe.”


Marcel Proust, 749, Time Regained


Origin is the goal [Ziel: terminus].  

Karl Kraus, Worte in Versen I [Words in Verse]


History is the object of a construction whose place is formed not in homogenous and empty time, but in that which is fulfilled by the here-and-now [Jetztzeit]. For Robespierre, Roman antiquity was a past charged with the here-and-now, which he exploded out of the continuum of history. The French revolution thought of itself as a latter day Rome. It cited ancient Rome exactly the way fashion cites a past costume. Fashion has an eye for what is up-to-date, wherever it moves in the jungle [Dickicht: maze, thicket] of what was. It is the tiger’s leap into that which has gone before. Only it takes place in an arena in which the ruling classes are in control. The same leap into the open sky of history is the dialectical one, as Marx conceptualized the revolution.

Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History


For Benjamin, revolutionary time involves the displacement of the nightmare of the present.  Time does not teleologically move towards utopia, with the present as a discrete point in this trajectory. “The concept of progress must be founded on the idea of catastrophe.  The catastrophe is that things continue to “go on as they are”…. Strindberg’s thoughts: Hell is not what awaits us—but the life we are living.”  (Benjamin, Central Park).  The upsetting of the supposed ‘progress’ of the linear movement of time is, for Benjamin, a radical gesture.   Cotardian death involves an interruption of history, absorbing the exterior or ‘out’ from life, and in so doing provides an allegory of the messianism of which Benjamin speaks.   Cotard’s delusion begins as a misreading, a misreading of events past, as well as a hypochondriac rejection of the world, the body’s referent and the very organs which allow the body to reproduce itself and its labour. How might this misreading, this stumbling into multiple temporalities, present not the desire for an out of capitalism, but an ‘out’ that enters the time of capitalism and transforms its very temporal landscape?

The figuring of Cotard differs in Proust and in Kaufman’s work, and here we find two different paradigms of temporality and futurity under monopoly and finance capitalism. Proust, whose In Search of Lost Time circulates and produces a looping universe of times and signs, brings together, via involuntary memory, the Cotardian body without referent, an interruption of linear time, and a negation of the infinite nowness of the present.


Looped Time

The time of modernity— Marcel’s time, that of monopoly capitalism—is, from the beginning, always already looped.  At the level of its narrative, we realize of course that the end of In Search loops back to the beginning, that Marcel will write a book about all the events past, a book that we have presumably just read.  Does this amount to a total disorganization of time, an outside-of-time-ness, or a book that was always already written, whose future was in fact there, at the outset?  In this sense, In Search is always read twice, from the beginning, and from the end.

In Search loops back to the beginning, but allows for the possibility that Marcel was content with the book written or that in the end, the book he apparently desires to write will be a different book from the one he set out to write.  All that we know, or at least can assume, is that we have just read it. This looping reconstitutes the present in relation to a future that is not constituted by empty time, waiting to be made full by a future present, but one that, in the end, through the end’s suture to the beginning, is always already historical.  It is no longer the place of the unformed, the silent and empty, but instead the idea of alternate, disruptive action.

If the promise of the futures lies in the goal of capture and recapture, or an infinite archival expansion, whereby every crevice of the world becomes ‘represented’, ‘documented’, ‘organized’, we are left with an infinite regression—once Marcel writes the book of his life he will have to write a book about the writing of the book, and then about the writing of the writing of the book, and on and on. The future’s utopian potential, however, lies not in some identifiable, delineable point, but in the disruption of the eternal time of capital via a messianic rupture of linear, teleological temporality, through the potential for new relations, new movements between the material once the knowable, the present and past ‘as is’ have already been declared dead, or looped.   


The Body Time Portal

In Time Regained, in the scene in front of Mme de Guermantes’s afternoon party, Marcel reflects upon the party’s frivolous appeal, and subsequently seeks to recollect, and possibly describe with ‘talent’ some of the frivolous pleasures of his past.  Marcel attempts to capture these ‘snapshots’, in particular those ‘shot’ in Venice, but “the mere word ‘snapshot’ made Venice seem to [Marcel] as boring as an exhibition of photographs, and [he] now felt that [he] had no more taste, no more talent for describing now what [he] had seen in the past, than [he] had had yesterday for describing what at that very moment [he] was, with a meticulous and melancholy eye, actually observing” (898).

Marcel tries to locate and enliven reified, dead images, but these signs remain emptied, cold, sterile.  Literature, the potential for the sign to say and distribute, suddenly is emptied of life, becomes “less charged with reality than [Marcel] had once supposed” (898).  But just as Marcel resigns himself to the idea that all is lost, he is almost hit by a cab, and as he jumps out of the way, trips against the paving stones. After recovering his balance, Marcel’s body chances upon a motion that will stitch together time against time, and in so doing, immure him both from the undetermined, chaotic materiality under which he and all of the ‘hes’ of other times are fully interchangeably under signs—whether timely or material— and from the weight of a future that seeks to extract and exploit fragments of the past in order to produce more of the same.  As Marcel puts his

“foot on a stone which was slightly lower than its neighbor, all [his] discouragement vanished and in its place was that happiness which at various epochs of [his] life had been given to [him] by the sight of trees which [he] had thought that [he] recognized in the course of a drive near Balbec, by the sight of the twin steeples of Martinville, by the flavor of a madeleine dipped in tea, and by all those other sensations of which [he] had spoken and of which the last works of Vinteuil had seemed to [him] to combine the quintessential character.  Just as, at the moment when [he] tasted the madeleine, all anxiety about the future, all intellectual doubts had disappeared, so now those that a few seconds had assailed [him] on the subject of the reality of [his] literary gifts, the reality even of literature, were removed as if by magic.” 899

Marcel then attempts to repeat the movements, but cannot.  The pure repetition of the movement does not allow access to the unseized potentialities of the past. He cannot locate the signs, or snapshot images, of the past through a will to capture; the senses can only chance upon involuntary memory, through irreproducible collisions of bodies in simultaneous movement.  Marcel then recognizes the vision, the parallel image: “it was Venice, of which [his] efforts to describe it and the supposed snapshots taken by [his] memory had never told [him] anything, but which the sensation which [he] had once experienced as [he] stood upon two uneven stones in the baptistery of St Mark’s had, recurring a moment ago, restored to [him] complete with all the other sensations linked on that day to that particular sensation, all of which had been waiting in their place—from which with imperious suddenness a  chance happening had caused them to emerge—in the series of forgotten days” (900). The body, in motion, the gesture and sensation of two feet slung against pavestones as they once fell, years ago, produces a repetition which weaves together moments in time, snapshot images, signs. Involuntary memory thus occurs not through the present’s relation to and rewriting of the past, but through the body’s registering of movement and the relational as a mode of thought, through the vertiginous suspension[12] by which the feet in motion act as sinewy tendrils stitching time to time.  

“This explained why it was that my anxiety on the subject of my death had ceased at the moment when I had unconsciously recognized the taste of the little madeleine, since the being which at that moment I had been was an extra-temporal being and therefore unalarmed by the vicissitudes of the future.  This being had only come to me, only manifested itself outside of activity an immediate enjoyment, on those rare occasions when the miracle of an analogy had made me escape from the present. In the observation of the present, where the senses cannot feed it with this food, it languishes, as it does in the consideration of a past made arid by the intellect or in the anticipation of a future which the will constructs with fragments of the present and the past, fragments whose reality it still further reduces by preserving of them only what is suitable for the utilitarian, narrowly human purpose which it intends them.  But let a noise or a scent, once heard or once smelt, be heard or smelt again in the present and at the same time in the past, real without being actual, ideal without being abstract, and immediately the permanent and habitually concealed essence of things is liberated our true self which seemed—had perhaps for long years seemed— to be dead but was not altogether dead, is awakened and reanimated as it receives the celestial nourishment that is brought to it. A minute freed from the order of time has re-created in us, to feel it, the man freed from the order of time. And one can understand that this man should have confidence in his joy, even if the simple taste of a madeleine does not seem logically to contain within it the reasons for this joy, one can understand that the word ‘death’ should have no meaning for him; situated outside time, why should he fear the future? “(904-906).

The interchangeability of the sign and of times in the chaos of an ever expanding materiality and an anachronistic, out-of-time-ness is juxtaposed against this particular bit of disorganized flesh (the stumbling foot), weaving two movements in time, inscribing the dead signs into a life-after-death.  The body registers the two snapshots of time—the scene in front of the Guermantes and of Venice—only through motion, through sensations unreadable, uncapturable, unquantifiable by the sign, that are out of time, unseizable by a future that captures in order to produce more of the same (unseizable by the future of capital time). Movement and the relational—the unreifiable but producible via persons, or bodies— here is staged as a productive mode of thought, as well as that which has the potential to inscribe, arrange, and redistribute signs, without fearing the weight of the future.

Here the loop does not abolish the future, but instead resituates it, diffuses it within itself as congealed potentials, as undead crystallizations of ecstatic possibility.   In Proustian time, however, this transformation amounts to little more than the psychological revelations of the individual; through experience, contemplation, and the grazing of his archive of memories, Marcel learns about life, the nature of memory, the future, death, and in so doing seeks out these rare, solitary ‘experiences’ of involuntary memory in order to live a ‘richer’ life, characterized by a ‘coming to terms’ with death at the individual level, and involving both a quantitative desire for more time, and a qualitative desire for more control over time.  This is where Cotardian time in Proust fails. The revolutionary alternative involves the obverse of the Cotardian subject mainly described thus far, not the one who believes themselves to be individually dead, who speaks and writes from the death bed or coffin and seeks to be freed from their terrifying material remainder, but instead a collective Cotardian subject, or Cotard syndrome as an apparatus that disrupts historical and linear time, that takes the time signature of ‘life span’ and renders it looped, with death situated within the loop, thereby providing alternatives to capital’s time and the redistribution of the conceptual, political and material from within the loop.


Dead Space and the Rotting Loop



Caden Cotard is a man already dead, living in a half-world between stasis and antistasis. Time is concentrated and chronology confused for him. Up until recently he has strived valiantly to make sense of his situation, but now he has turned to stone.

(Synecdoche, New York 144)

While Kaufman’s works deal with themes commonly associated with the postmodern and late capitalism—multiplicity, difference, depthlessness, simulacra, the image, the omnipresent inauthentic— he is also formally aligned with a more modernist project— his interest in the great, sprawling, unfinished work-of-the-world which is forever in progress, as well as his desire to break from what he has described as formal constraints and restrictive filmic conventions of a newly instituted, rigid artistic tradition[13].  An autobiographical, Proustian impulse informs Kaufman’s work, which strives towards the capture of totality; we also find a recurrent interest in memory, authenticity, meaning, experience, the passage of time, death, and the problems of representation in his work.

Several common features suggest the link between Proust’s tome and Kaufman’s picture: their looped narrative structures, characters named Cotard, hypochondriac and sickly narrators, seemingly infinitely expanding universes—though in Proust this occurs through individual memory and in Kaufman cultural memory, the multiplication of characters and expanding architectural spaces.  This link is made especially explicit after Madeline is seen reading a book and the viewer gets a momentary glance at the first page of Swann’s Way.  As the camera returns to her, we see the other volumes of In Search nearby.  The contemporary staging of such a total universe is mediated not through the literary and its temporal structure of In Search, however, but with an emphasis on space, through the moving image, with the stage, performance and the theatre director as narrative focuses.  

Synechdoche, New York (2008) traces the fate of Caden Cotard, a severely depressed theatre director whose wife leaves him (daughter in tow) right as he wins a MacArthur 'Genius' grant and, with it, the means to radically 'scale up' his theatrical ambitions. When we meet Cotard, he is in the final rehearsal stage of a production of Death of a Salesman; the production is 'ambitious' (it has hundreds of lighting cues), though, as his wife implies, it is simultaneously all too much a part of a standard, easily consumable repertory. After the departure of his family, now with a melancholy-fuelled sense of grandeur, Cotard tries to put 'the whole world' on a stage, in order to see the world 'truthfully', for what it 'really is'. Inside an immense sound stage, and its built-up city, he attempts to duplicate the whole world as he knows it. This simulacrum produces a world in which characters mingle with their actor doubles (and also the doubles of those doubles) in an endless rehearsal of a spectacle whose 'final performance' never arrives--and never could arrive.  

The potential for scale to create new horizons of the infinite for capital to colonize, as well as scale’s representability, or lack thereof, come into question in Synecdoche.  Cotard’s wife makes use of increasingly miniature canvases —until they are only viewable with the aid of special glasses— to this end.  Caden’s architectural synecdoche expands not only outwards, creating a larger and larger cityscape until presumably he will replicate the entire world, and then the world replicating the world, and so on, but involves the creation of a warehouse within a warehouse staging a smaller infinite universe, and within this warehouse an even smaller warehouse, and so forth.

Kaufman’s Synecdoche was released at the Cannes Film Festival in the summer of 2008. He had been working on the film for five years[14].  He had attempted to sell the film prior to its release at Cannes, and while the media seized on the fact that he was not immediately able to do so, what was often omitted from discussion was the fact that eight of twelve specialty film companies had gone out of business that year; the ones that were left grasped at the commercially-viable genre of indie comedy[15]. Synecdoche emerges as finance capital speeds towards the great recession that will involve a doubling in unemployment from 2008 to 2009,[16] record levels of private debt in America, and on and on.

This is time through which the prime of M-C-M1 has colonized not only every crevice and silence, but also every liminal and negative space, a virus that has commodified its very disease.  It involves the culture of disaster capitalism, planned obsolescence, bubbles pressing up against bubbles, investment in derivatives, debt and the future, wherein profit is maximized through the engineering of and banking on disease, disaster, death, and dead labour past enslaved to the future, past time enslaved to a future time further and further deferred[17].  The Proustian fantasy of sensuous transcendence is realized in the proliferation of affect-intensifying commodities and entertainment, but the force of chance to disrupt the market has been largely absorbed as a gambling practice of the rich.

Synecdoche begins as does Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless[18] mind, with a protagonist lying in bed. Unlike Eternal Sunshine’s Joel Barish, who turns to face soft light, green leaves and branches peeking through clear windows, markers of biological and circadian rhythms and temporality, Cotard’s turn to the time of the mechanical clock.  The narrative structure of Synecdoche, as in other Kaufman works, is also looped.  Sammy, the character hired to play Caden following his winning of the MacArthur Fellowship is seen stalking him— presumably to do a character study— early on in the film, long before Caden hires him or has begun writing his play.


HAZEL: Yeah. The end is built in to the beginning. What can you do?

(Synecdoche, New York, 133)


The passing of time is central in Kaufman’s work, but unlike the unified consciousness of Marcel’s narrative trajectory—regardless of its production of only dialectically perceivable conceptual clusters (made most explicit by his consistent use of the ‘reversal’, whether in describing an impression, a character, an idea or opinion)—Kaufman’s characters are multiplied and splintered, and as such, Cotard syndrome and Cotardian time have seemingly diffused into architectural space of the city and the set, though without any revolutionary ‘undeading’.  Hazel does not attempt to set herself on fire, but she lives in a house rendered affordable due to the fact that it is and will remain ablaze.


HAZEL:I've always loved this house.

REALTOR: Yes. It's a wonderful place.

HAZEL:The truth is, I never really imagined I could afford it.

REALTOR:The sellers are very motivated now.

HAZEL:It's a scary decision. I never thought I'd buy a house alone. But, y'know, I'm 36, and I wonder what I'm really waiting for.

REALTOR: Home-buying is always scary.

HAZEL: But I mean with the fire and all especially.

REALTOR:It's a good size though, twenty-two hundred square feet. Not including the partially-finished basement

HAZELI don't know. I'm thinking I should go.

REALTOR It's a perfect size for someone alone.

HAZELI like it, I do. But I'm really concerned about dying in the fire.

REALTORIt's a big decision, how one prefers to die. Would you like to meet my son? Derek?


In a future 2025, Caden and Sammy look out onto a cityscape on fire. The past itself is also dead; Caden seeks no comfort in his dead, empty memories, they are no different from the present, let alone offer the potential for alternate futures.  Future time has disappeared, and the future dead in the past is that of the present. Hypochondriacal intensities have spread from the individual to system as well. There is every reason for the characters to believe that they are in fact diseased and dying.  Caden’s daughter is excreting neon green feces, Caden’s ophthalmologist casually informs him that he needs to see a neurologist—the city is rotting and covered in smog, the water is likely poisonous; why wouldn’t Kaufman’s characters be suffering from every and any disease?  The characters, however, remain willfully ignorant of the disease, destruction and decay around them. Adele tells Olive that her toxic feces are “fine” and to “just flush”. Caden informs the ophthalmologist that he must be wrong. Hazel buys the fire-engulfed house and lives in it undisturbed.

After winning his MacArthur Genius Grant, Cotard tells Madeline that he is going to create “A theater piece. Something big and true and tough. Y'know, finally put [his] real self into something” (56).  The play will be a synecdoche of the totality of his life, of the city itself, but his reproductions of the city feel empty, devoid of authenticity, so he attempts to spatially reproduce more and more of the world in order to achieve the eternally deferred promise of unity, realist capture, and meaning.  Here the dream of the new has died, as has the belief in meaning or authenticity.  The desire for meaning and authenticity, however, is alive and well, and, like capital, is a machine no longer tied to mortal objects or ideas of completion.  

Though capitalism is said to produce the means of its own unraveling, its inexhaustible expansion and manipulation of scale has rendered these tools, as well as those bubbles of unseized temporal potentiality, increasingly difficult to see or hear, let alone decipher, leaving all at its wake in Cotardian numbness, sensuously immobilized, immured in a body without future or access to the world.  The desire of late capitalism itself has no interest in authenticity or meaning—it is a bloated methamphetamine addled world-denying hypochondriac that paradoxically seeks only to produce more and more of itself, as well as the rotting world it aspires to deny.  As it accumulates more of itself it demands that the bodies propelling its motion become increasingly austere, numb-in-the-world.

Synecdoche thus offers the nightmare of the omnipresent and eternal present time of capital.   As far as this map of the world extends, Utopia is nowhere to be found.[19]  Moreover, synecdoche cannot represent totality not only because of its complexity, illusory command of perception and scale, and constant fluctuation, but also because the synecdoche itself is shown to be constituted by these same structures. In these descriptions it is difficult not to return to spatial metaphors and analysis, but we should return to the question of time.  How does the obverse of the failed time of Synecdoche point towards alternative, or revolutionary time.

The no-future quality of Kaufman’s time need not accept the past, present and future as dead time, but can, in fact, mobilize this time, render it in Cotardian fashion as undead time of unseized potentiality with an emphasis on the utopian, materalist future and past embedded in the looping Now of the present.  Benjamin posits a ‘tradition of the oppressed’ through which the present connects to this past[20].  Khatib writes in A Non-Nullified Nothingness: Walter Benjamin and the Messianic Libre that “access to [the images of the totality of historical time], which can no longer be represented in chronological terms, never opens up through intellectual and contemplative intention, but is available only to the politically involved collective subject at the incalculable moment of historical crisis. Thus, the subject of history is not a transcendent subject,” but “the struggling oppressed class in their most exposed situation” (84 A Non-Nullified Nothingness).  Kaufman’s focus moves from the contemplative volition and experience of the individual to a dead and rotting world, but I am not sure that he posits the turning of the collective Cotardian subject, the assemblage in and making up the time of capital, against itself.  Caden Cotard’s ‘out’ is more literal and follows Cotard to the letter, in that it, in the last scene, involves his being commanded to ‘die’.

Khatib also refers to Benjamin’s Theologico-Political Fragment[21], in which he points towards the relationship between the profane and the collective social striving towards happiness involved in his concept of the messianic.  In the mysterious fragment, Benjmain writes that “whereas, admittedly, the immediate Messianic intensity of the heart, of the inner man in isolation, passes through misfortune, as suffering.  To the spiritual resitutio in integrum, which introduces immortality, corresponds a worldly restitution that leads to the eternity of downfall, and the rhythm of this eternally transient worldly existence, transient in its totality, in its spatial but also in its temporal totality, the rhythm of Messianic nature, is happiness.  For nature is Messianic by reason of its eternal and total passing away. To strive after such passing, even for those stages of man that are nature, is the task of world politics, whose method must be called nihilism.” (313). Benjamin’s emphasis on rhythm here is notable. Where the task of this collective time of passing becomes interesting is in the reimaging of rhythm—the organization of time— from that of the linear, mechanical clock, to the mobilizing of atomistic rhythm, from synecdoche that captures to the collectively aroused conceit, the tracing and linking of images of dead, unseized potentialities past not to see what they might represent, or show, but what they can do, how they might, in their undeadening, reassemble the time of the present.  This points towards a much larger project, the speculative reimagining of alternate, revolutionary times and rhythm. Though I intend to investigate this further, I hope that I have begun to work out some of the problems of capital’s time, and the places the meandering, dead time of Cotardian time might lead us.



[1] These descriptions are my translation of Jules Cotard’s Études Sur Les Maladies Cérébrales et Mentales, Paris, Librairie J.B. Baillière et Fils, 1891

[2] Cotard Syndrome might initially appear to be some kind of proto-Deleuzian body without organs.  Deleuze and Guattari in fact briefly mention Cotard Syndrome in Capitalism and Schizophrenia, in a reference from the section on ‘How to become a body without Organs’ where they write, quoting the above case study of Cotard’s, “The BwO: it is already under way the moment the body has had enough of organs and wants to slough them off, or loses them.  A long procession. The hypochondriac body: the organs are destroyed, the damage has already been done, nothing happens anymore.  Miss X claims she no longer has a brain or nerves or chest or stomach of guts. All she has left is skin and bones of a disorganized body.  These are her own words”[2]. The Cotardian body without organs does not, however, easily fit into any of the BwO subsets: the cancerous—endlessly reproducing—empty—fully disorganized and nondirectional—or the full—productive but without hierarchically structured organs, and closer to virtual BwO-scape governed by connection and movement.  The Cotardian body is disorganized, governed by chaotic movements, and is, in a sense, caught in a repetitive, obsessive desire for total destruction of their remains. otheirthese remainders.

[3] Here I reference Benjamin’s Kraus quotation in Theses on the Philosophy of History.

[4] Emil Régis coined the term “Cotard Syndrome” which was the popularized by Jules Séglas. (2)  Cotard Delusion or Syndrome?: A Conceptual History; G.E. Berrios and R. Luque, Comprehensive psychiatry, Vol. 36, No. 3 (May/June), 1995: pp 218-223

[5] Page 160 Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks. The time during which the labourer works, is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labour-power he has purchased of him.4 If the labourer consumes his disposable time for himself, he robs the capitalist.5

[6] Page 214 An example will show, in conclusion, how this sophistication, peculiar to and characteristic of capitalist production, this complete inversion of the relation between dead and living labour, between value and the force that creates value, mirrors itself in the consciousness of capitalists.

[7] Cotard’s Syndrom: A Review.  Hans Debruyne, MD, Michal Portzky, MSc, Frédérique Van den Eynde, MD, and Kurt Audenaert, MD, PhD.

[8] Delusional Paralysis: An Unusual Variant of Cotard’s Syndrome Andreas Reif Waldemar M. Murach Bruno Pfuhlmann

[9] From a text on fictional doctors in À la Recherche: “Dr. Cottard’s models include several physicians of the time, including Adrien Proust himself.  The name ‘Cottard’ was derived from ‘Cotard’, a friend of Adrien Proust, who made his thesis with Charcot on brain hemiatropy, and later wrote a famous paper, ‘Delire des negations’ [17], which is still called Cotard syndrome today” (252)

Bougousslavsky, J, Diequez S (eds): Literary Medicine: Brain Disease and Doctors in Novels, Theater and Film.  From Neurol Neurosci. Basel, Karger, 2013, vol 31, pp 245-254 (DOI: 10.1159/000343240)

[10] It would be too simple to suggest that Proust’s Cottard is somehow modeled on the biographical details of Cotard’s life[10], or that the character in some way embodies Cotard syndrome; Painter suggests, in fact, that Cottard was modeled after several physicians.  What is sure, however, is that Proust would have known of, and likely personally known, Jules Cotard, as well as the peculiar syndrome that would come to bear Cotard’s name in 1893. In A biographical note on Marcel Proust’s Professor Cottard, J. Pearn and C. Thorpe argue that Cottard was in fact modeled after the ‘real life figure’, and that their lives show ‘striking parallels’.  The authors’ lack of research however—for example their belief that Cottard’s character appears only in volume two of the tome—discredits their thesis.  Moreover, even had the research proven more accurate, a biographical parallelism is not of particular importance in relation to this paper.

[11] Fredric Jameson, Has the Future Fallen Through the Cracks?;  Joyce or Proust?

[12] A reference to Maurice Blanchot describing Michel Leiris’s most important passages:“A great share of the terror which I experience at the idea of death derives perhaps from this: vertigo from remaining suspended in the middle of a seizure whose outcome I can never know because of my own unconsciousness.  This kind of unreality, this absurdity of death, is its radically terrible element.” Blanchot also adds, “we can see from these words which are so clear: the fear of dying is also the fear of not being able to die…. Such a vertiginous suspension between living and dying explains, according to Michel Leiris, that in life, whatever constitutes a simulacrum of death, any loss of self, can sometimes reassure us against death and help us stare it in the face… We do not want something beyond death for its own sake but rather, artificially, we want to see ourselves dead, to assure ourselves of our death by focusing upon our nothingness, from a point situated beyond death, a true gaze from beyond the tomb.”

[13] Moreover several interviews, Charlie Kaufman has described his desire to ‘put everything he knows in everything he writes’. Yet, whenever Kaufman has been pressed to comment on this ambition, he has invariably responded that that he too is “moving through time”, and that the author, the writing, and rewriting of his scripts occur through a subject changing with and against time.  Kaufman points not only towards the impact of the movement of time and passing of events as they make up the transforming assemblages with which humans interact, but also the body itself as matrix constantly transforming via its translation of the complex, rhythmic webs within which it is embedded.

[14] Interview with Charlie Kaufman,

[15] Interview with Charlie Kaufman,

[16] Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; Graph: Civilian Unemployment Rate,

[17] These last two refer to debt.

[18] Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), written by Kaufman and directed by Michel Gondry, stars an unaffected Jim Carey playing Joel Barish, a man who has recently suffered a break up, and upon discovering that his ex, Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet) has undergone a memory-altering procedure that has wiped him from her memory, he decides to do the same.  Much of the film occurs from Barish’s bed (another reference to Proust perhaps?), as neurological engineers propel the viewer, and Barish through his memories of Kruczynski— not, as in the Proustian universe, in order to enliven the present via the past, but in order to destroy his memories, to have him relive them and subsequently watch them dissipated, one by one.  A horrified and regretful Barish soon discerns the extremity of his blunder, and willfully accesses increasingly repressed and traumatizing memories in order to evade the memory hunters. Like Synecdoche, it contains a non-linear but looped narrative structure—the first scene of Eternal Sunshine, we later learn, occurs at the end of the film.  Much of what the viewer perceived to be a linearly progressing film is fact temporally discontinuous and has occurred after the memory wipe, or death; the buried memories from within this cluster of temporal fragments reveal that the protagonists have in fact chanced upon each other again and have a received a second chance at love, and later have it revealed that they had known each other all along.  I would have liked to investigate this film’s treatment of memory and time, as well as the larger body of Kaufman’s work in relation to this paper, but, due to time constraints, am unable to do so.

[19] “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing.” Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Capitalism

[20] Walter Benjamin and the ‘Tradition of the Oppressed’.  Sami Khatib, 2015

[21] Derrida & Sons: Marx, Benjamin, and the Specter of the Messanic, Sami Khatib, 2013

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