Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Federici and Arendt

Paolo Virno`s ``Virtuosity and Revolution`` pursues some of the lines I have been trying to draw between Arendt`s take on the ``subjective illusion,`` the contradiction between freedom and necessity, and the Marxist concern with the contradiction within the subjective modes of reproduction and productive to capitalism. Resolving such a contradiction on the side of a productive subject who is resistant, autonomous Marxist theorists such Cesare Casarino, Hardt and Negri, and Virno, posit the notion of the ``common`` as a way of thinking about positive models of subjective resistance. Casarino writes, ``To claim back and seize the common as production entails a drastic reorientation of subjectivity.... It entails the production of a form of subjectivity constituted by a counterdesire. Such a counterdesire is the desire to be in common--as opposed to the desire to be for the common-as-negated-by-capital, the desire to be captive of one`s own negation--in short, as opposed to the desire not to be`` (17). Such theories, which prescribe a mode of subjectivity, implicitly--or explicitly, as Casarino--corralling reason and desire, are predicated upon an opposition to the Arendtian model of subjectivity, or rather, the liberal subject that is assumed to be the model or the outcome of Arendt`s ideas about work, labor, and political activity.

Virno`s essay makes clear how central the opposition to Arendt is to work on the common, since, as he claims, ```To each his own` seems to be the message of Arendt`s The Human Condition, and every man for himself...the other two fundamental spheres, work and intellect, remain unchanged in their quantitative structures`` (206). Virno uses Arendt as an (or the) example of unfettered individualism, figured first as a feature of the intellect and then as a figure of work. Virno`s claim that this is what Arendt is doing is built upon the idea that she ``rejects out of hand the very idea of a public intellect`` (193). Conflating the ``life of the mind`` with the private sphere, Virno wrongly concludes that the intellect--which includes thought, willing, and judging, according to The Life of the Mind--does not entail a ``care for common concerns`` (Virno 193). As both The Life of the Mind and her Lectures on Kant`s Political Philosophy demonstrate, however, the care for common concerns turns out to be the central thesis of our intellectual life. What is perhaps more immediate to my concerns here is not this interpretive argument, but rather the noticeable absence of the term ``labor`` from Virno`s analysis of Arendt.

The absence of labor is all the more notable in light of Sylvia Federici`s critique of autonomous Marxists` work on the subject of immaterial labor, ``Precarious Labor: A Feminist Viewpoint.`` More particularly, the points that Federici claims to be missing from this work--namely that ``capitalist development is always at the same time a process of underdevelopment,`` and that unpaid reproductive labor continues to remain unrecognized, despite feminist analysis of the sexual division of labor--can be seen to be functions of the same type of disregard that is paid Arendt. For in Arendt`s case, labor involves exactly the realm of unwaged labor and the uneven development of freedom to which Federici refers. In her discussion of the private and public realm in The Human Condition, Arendt writes:  ``What all Greek philosophers, no matter how opposed to polis life, took for granted is that freedom is exclusively located in the political realm, that necessity is primarily a prepolitical phenomenon, characteristic of the private household organization, and that force and violence are justified in this sphere because they are the only means to master necessity--for instance, by ruling over slaves--and to become free`` (31). Later in this same section, she describes how the private realm, far from being a realm that individuals could choose (over, say, the common or the public realm) is the realm of labor: ``Hidden away were the laborers who `with their bodies minister to the [bodily] needs of life` and the women who with their bodies guarantee the physical survival of the species. Women and slaves belonged to the same category and were hidden away not only because they were somebody else`s property but because their life was `laborious,` devoted to bodily functions`` (72). These lines from Arendt describe how the freedom of the worker is dependent upon a realm of necessity--whether his own or the necessary labor of another--from which he cannot become free. It is her concern with the effects of feeling that one is free--the justification of ``force and violence``--that inform her insistence of making visible the distinction between labor and work.

While the distinctions between private and public or between labor and work themselves may be belabored, Arendt`s distinctions in general--such as between ``necessity and freedom,`` ``futility and permanence,`` ``shame and honor`` (73)--they do not serve prescriptive purposes, as I indicated above in the case of the Marxist subject, but rather they work to retain other distinctions that runs across and within both categories (see, for example, unquiet/quiet distinction, HC 15). Arendt`s concern is not only that as work ``assumes the character of labor,`` the value of work (its permanence, the durable world it creates) is denigrated, but that no longer being able to see necessity, the private realm, has its own consequences. In this regard, it remains for Arendt crucial that man knows ``he is subject to necessity,`` since in contrast to ``life in slavery,`` ``this condition [of being subject to need and necessity] is no longer fully manifest and its lack of appearance has made it much more difficult to notice and remember`` (121). But why is it that Arendt finds it so important to maintain the perceptibility of the private realm, which is indeed that realm which is about ``privation,`` about the ``life processes`` which are ``futile``because they appear and disappear? Is it the easing of this ``repugnance to futility`` (121) that she seeks, or, in fact, its opposite? It is the figure of ``socialized mankind,`` the indistinction between society and the life-processes themselves, that presents a threat large enough to defend against with the insistence on maintaining the perceptibility of the private realm.

In Arendt`s conceptualization, the private realm is like ``the other, dark and hidden side of the public realm`` (64), and thus perception of it, or the ability to perceive it does not have the same qualities as perception in public life, which is built around being among others. The perception of the private entails the capacity to see what is ``no longer human`` about human existence, to see that ``man exist[s] in this sphere not as a truly human being but only as a specimen of the animal species man-kind`` (46). And while it is true that Arendt does not elevate the capacity to perceive this to the realm of action, its clear function is to preserve the ambivalence within ``futility``--its not only that futility is to be guarded against, as indicated by the danger of the phenomenon of ``loneliness`` (59, which in The Origins of Totalitarianism has consequences for terror), or by the threatened reality of a world that appears impermanent--but the idea that the feeling of ``futility`` is one that provides individuals with the ``strongest impulse`` toward liberation (and thus also toward mastery, violence, and force). The ambivalent treatment of futility in the private realm has to do with the fact that registering it is like registering the desire not to be. That this still follows a model in which the darker ground is given meaning by ``rising into sight,`` does not minimize the potential for thinking about the impacts of losing what Arendt calls the ``non-privative traits of privacy``: ``a life spent entirely in public, in the presence of others, becomes, as we would say, shallow. While it retains its visibility, it loses that quality of rising into sight from some darker ground which must remain hidden if it is not to lose its depth in a very real, non-subjective sense`` (71). 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

the necessity of irresistibility

In The Micro-Politics of Capital, Jason Read describes the contradiction that is raised for the subject between “the total subjection of sociality and subjectivity to capital and the concomitant development of a subjective and social power irreducible to abstract labor” (119). Read points to a contradiction that gels into the problem of “thinking resistance” (11). I approach the problem of the production of subjectivity, in Read’s terms, of the “more than one” (Balibar’s transinidividual) from a different perspective, which is rooted in Arendt’s critical insight about how the “more than” of preference is not opposed to necessity, but rather, in its capacity to will or choose against the given, remains able to provoke necessity, to see the violence behind necessity. Preference, the “styles, desires, communities, and ways of communicating” (147), to use Read’s phrasing, that become productive in “real subsumption” do not represent a depature from the “necessities of “bare life’” (147), nor do they represent the shift or temporal progression from one mode of production to another; rather, these “preferences” are there from the beginning, first registered as qualities destroyed in “primitive accumulation,” by the “violence necessary to destroy precapitalist social relations” (14). The destruction of preferences is actually, however, the creation of “needs and wants,” the transformation of the oppressive violence of the master into the violence which is there is the force of necessity. Arendt’s interest in preference is linked to her abiding concern with “the beginning,” and with the potential for freedom that is created in this moment of expropriation, the unearthing of what appears as natural or necessary as man-made and political. Arendt describes this as Marx’s most explosive contribution, but following Hegelian turn, in which the recovery of the “ability to act,” which now places laborers under their “daily needs and wants” (53) makes action “irresistible,” not any longer from a feeling of “being violated,” but “by virtue of the very necessity under which emancipation had put the working class” (53).

Arendt’s critique of Marx in On Revolution and The Human Condition and her copious discussions of the thinking individual make her unpopular among theorists of the revolutionary subject. In fact, Arendt is often with the assumption of the liberal subject, but it is more accurate to say that Arendt hits upon the contradictions between the liberal subject and the revolutionary, proposing that the problem of this subject is not, as it has long been assumed, getting rid of the “responsible and isolated subject.” For Arendt, the illusion of the individual subject is necessary (or inevitable) and attempts to do away with it—to reveal how the singular “I” is a collective “We”—end up circling around the problems of agency invoked by this formulation. For Arendt, this illusion is a false problem (Scheinproblem), one whose calls for demystification end up contributing to a mystification that is far worthier of being demystified: the confusion of being at once spectators and actors and the tendency to mistake spectating for acting. It is this illusion, according to Arendt, that allows liberal and revolutionary subjects alike to develop a political morality grounded in the certainty of the self. Whereas this illusion can be disentangled from what appears as historical or economic necessity, the persistence of that other subjective illusion—of the “I”’s feeling that she is a singular one with wants and needs—reveals how “necessary” this articulation is to the concept of freedom.

Preference does not involve becoming free from this necessity, but continually unearths the violent, non-natural premises of necessity, developing the capacity to intervene in this necessity by foregrounding the role of the spectator—our role as spectators—even when it is more compelling to understand ourselves as actors. Arendt’s ideas about preference end up illuminating her discussion of how terror results when necessity replaces freedom, and these insights are significant—not only because of the implicit warning, but because the discussion makes an argument for a opposition of art and politics, based on the what has been seen to happen choices become mistaken as criterion for the endpoint of revolution. The opposition of art and politics is not, as first it may seem, an argument for an apolitical aesthetics. Quite the opposite: the aesthetic is unearthed as a political moment; this unearthing is what I will refer to as aesthetic activity, for it is—quite akin to discussion of the subject—about “recover[ing] its ability to act.” But in being read as political, this artistic “choice” does not, of course, become necessarily political or become a “criterion” for political activity.

picture: Marsha Cottrell, Hitherto Unknown Lights (2011, iron oxide on mulberry paper)

Monday, July 9, 2012

recovering poems

Austerity remarks to closure
minus breathing room
take your beautiful words and fuck this
pretend you did not see shadows
in the street at half past
mid hour, to be precise
pretend, tell yourself, these conditions
elide, elusive. [i have a small child
now, interrupting]. Didn`t you want
help, to help someone?

Friday, May 11, 2012


The revised Estranging Lyric proposes to examine the emergence of civilian guilt as one of the dominant modes in which the moral regime of financial capitalism comes to be developed out of the framework of postwar Europe. I argue that poetry creates a space in which the discourse of political morality becomes discernible, first, because the subject of poetry figures centrally in how the postwar dialectic of culture and barbarism reaches its so-called last stage, and second, because the processes of identification that become perceptible in this “crisis of lyric agency” map onto the crises of political activity experienced after the second world war. In short, the lyric “I” becomes a cipher for reading the newly construed “bystander,” who arose as the model of the world citizen after the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Part of the work of the book is to develop the terms for talking about this postwar period, in which, I argue, the terms of “culture” and the “economy” are developed together. In this book, I propose a strong reading of the “postwar,” problematizing characterizations of the period as the aftermath of trauma. Instead, I focus on how economic restructuring gets taken up through figures of guilt and responsibility. The unique focus of my project lies in approaching the discursive aspect of guilt and considers how this period yields the simultaneous constitution and crisis of the liberal bourgeois subject as the subject of lyric poetry.  The situation of this discussion around the figure of war isolates the problem of violence and representation by establishing barbarism as the term through which the continuity of European fascism and imperialism can be thought. In contrast to books that explore postwar culture as a problem or crisis of representation, this book addresses the continuity of aggression in the postwar through the construction of morality.

There are many historical pinpoints that elicit periods and readings of the “postwar” period, and there are multiple aspects of the restructuring processes, including the global economic policies put forth in Bretton Woods in 1944 implemented later in 1958, the Marshall Plan, the creation of the IMF and World Bank, the restructuring of defeated countries and the organization of Cold War states, decolonization, and wars of national liberation. Now, it is possible to see this all as the unfolding of capitalism, of neo-liberal economic policies, and to see it not as something inevitable, but as something with pronounced turning points throughout. Accompanying these discontinuous developments of today’s late capitalist world, are the moral and ethical positions that not only keep pace with development, but present us with the very capacity to make sense of historical periods. This is crucial: it is crucial that the construction of morality and the distribution of ethical behavior are not just the ideological underpinning of these economic and structural forms of violence, but that they are the very means  by which we can claim to be able to see something like the system from the position of the system, to see the very materiality and immateriality of labor. The arc that forms connecting one plotted point to the next coincides with a necessity that appears narrative. 

The question I approach is thus an inversion of one that is often posed elsewhere, such as Christopher Nealon’s notion in his article “Value| Theory | Crisis” (PMLA 127.1 (Jan 2012)101-106) that it is “not the pursuit of a transcendental vantage point or the critique of that pursuit but the relentless surveying of possible grounds for solidarity among those for whom the regime of capital spells only suffering” (106, cites after During 115). The turn to poetry made recently and explicitly by Nealon and by Joshua Clover (whose essay of the same title also appears in this issue of PMLA, pages 107-114), as a response to the narrative (and I would say performative) supremacy of the linguistic turn (and post-structuralism), involves thinking about the suitability of poetry as a form to deal with the contradictions of “value theory” (Clover 110). 

Acknowledging, as Nealon does above, that the pursuit of the subject and its critique are one and the same, his positing of a third, of the “solidarity [of] … suffering,” raises similar contradictions about how to think of the position of subjectivity. If Nealon exhibits “the optimism of the will,” Clover, in his own phrase, inhabits “the delusion of the intellect” (Clover 113), something that, if I am to read him correctly, is only a good thing. Postwar poetry too has a lot to say about the tension that holds between the collective “we” and the individually deluded “I,” and more explicitly about the claims that are made to either of these positions. It is for good reason that Adorno maintains the tension and distinction between individual and collective identifications--not, of course, to place one above the other, but because of this very tension, which is at the heart of the production of morality. 

The value of addressing the terms of identification in poetry is that it opens up questions about how we can theorize the crisis of agency and also possibilities of subjectivity. These are important because they concern “the subjective life-world of labor” (Clover 111). If it is true that poetry is better equipped to deal with the “axial transmutation” of price into value, as Clover claims, or with “passing off time as space,” it is not because it has resolved and put behind the debates and discussion surrounding poetry in Europe in the 40s and 50s, and in the U.S. in the 60s and 70s, which track the emergence of the problem of the subject. By “problem,” I mean, perhaps, what Jason Read has identified in The Micro-politics of Capital: Marx and the prehistory of the Present as the “philosophical” nature of the mode of production, which Read emphasizes is not “just another name for economy or society,” but relates to the production of consciousness and subjectivity (6). My study of poetry develops this aspect of Marxist and poetic thought, proposing that the lyric “I” is a cipher for this problem of subjective agency. 

The experience of feeling “haunted,” which Clover describes in “Autumn of the System: Poetry and Financial Capital” (Journal of Narrative Theory 41.1 (Spring 2011) 34-52) as akin to Jameson’s account of the “waning of affect,” is the experiential grasp of this subtraction: “the feeling of M-M’; haunted by the C to come” (Clover 46). The experience of this haunting has a correlate in postwar writing on the problem of civilian guilt. Different, and yet not unrelated to mourning, or the working through of the atrocity of the Holocaust, civilian guilt involves thinking about the limits of language, that is, precisely those points at which things become unsayable. Normally read through trauma theory, the unsayable also pertains to the intractability of the moral and economic and to be more precise to the figure of indeterminacy and delusion that is well-taken by the “I” in postwar lyric. My thesis is that the crisis of agency in the lyric speaker of postwar poetry corresponds to the experience of civilian guilt. Civilian guilt, in the figure of the bystander, in turn, becomes the founding narrative of postwar reconstruction; it describes how subjects experience the postwar but it also involves the subject’s capacity to maintain the delusion of a moral regime that accompanies capital’s global expansion. 

Postwar poetry makes the argument that wartime aggression continues into daily life, that it becomes everyday. But this argument is supplanted by another, more critical discourse, which notes a similar phenomenon. This critical postwar poetry regards the continuation of aggression into society as the extension of European imperialism and thus as the continued project of European self-making. These “I”s are thus critical of both reconstruction and the denunciation of aggression because they are two sides of the same construction of morality. The project is thus to think about the genealogy of the bystander, the guilty civilian, who becomes the figure of morality that accompanies the regime of postwar globalized capital. There are reasons to locate this figure in the context of Germany. The bystander, I propose, is not immediately the liberal subject, but the barbarity of bystanding becomes internalized or introjected; it provides us with a model for thinking about the problems of the liberal subject that is no merely not-not-a-collective, and by taking the conflict between ethical and transcendental subject head on.       

Friday, May 4, 2012


in night
                           all cats are gray
                  all dreaming generalizations
                                        are equally guilty
in dark   in time
                           all cats are becoming
zones of dark times, eventuating
and we are all equally guilty
                                        in night
                                        in dark times
by night all cats look gray
(to me?) I    to you     to he/she/it
to we       you all       they
they are gray, indiscriminate
                         plucked from the sea of shade
for posterity.

is this what the big party is all about?
                         returning them in their little parts
(P.A.R.T.S.) to the sea
                                         to shades
of gray cats

[the red square, the concrete plaza
            (the grass will not do
            ) the closet will not do
felt. wares.
the little red felt square
wears the gray
                                         by night.

reference: Lyndsey Stonebridge, The Writing of Anxiety, gray cat/Marx, most recently.

Monday, April 30, 2012

being born later

In his recent book, The Bonds of Debt, Richard Dienst devotes a couple of paragraphs to Bertolt Brecht`s poem, ``An die Nachgeborenen.`` It is actually Benjamin who Dienst is discussing, and in particular a phrase of Benjamin`s that is often difficult to locate, and may in fact only be represented here in fragments: ``for the sake of the hopeless, we are given hope.`` Dienst describes Benjamin`s awareness of the schizophrenic organization of the Jetztzeit, that ``complex interval between wishful expectation and dread, teaching us to practice different modalities of anticipation and suspension, long patience and outright refusal (166),`` connecting Benjamin`s notes on Brecht`s poem to these ``conflicted moods`` (166, Dienst`s words). Benjamin`s notes read:
[line scratched out:] Example of genuine historical representation: `An die Nachgeborenen.` We claim from those born later not thanks for our victories but rather remembrance for our defeats. [not scratched out:] That is consolation: the only kind that can be given to those who have no more hope for consolation. (Dienst 166)    
The footnote attributes this passage to Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften Band I/iii (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag), p. 1,240), and although it is not the passage that I mention above, the common theme of consolation, from which Dienst distills an idea about remembering defeat, and in fact, establishing continuity on the basis of notions of defeat or failure. These grounds of  ``infinite indebtedness,`` which for Dienst also refer to the phenomenological aspects of the given, aspects that qualify it not as inert or fixed, but as fluid, ``to be drawn out in our encounter with it,`` form the basis of the types of political subjectivity that Dienst imagines possible.

Dienst`s point of departure suggests that thinking in dark times has to do with negotiating this point of historical continuity and transition. In the last lines of the poem, Brecht writes,

When you speak of our weaknesses,
Also of the dark time
That brought them forth.
The lines anticipate the perspective of historical judgment, proposing that the consolation is not only a form of historical forgiveness, but that such a position of spectatorship is central to the formulation of subjects who take up the project that Brecht (or Dienst or Benjamin) describes. Brecht`s seemingly straightforward caveat is also contorted by his effort throughout the poem to articulate the limits of speaking in dark times. And although his poems tend to be organized around the themes of state oppression and class conflict, they articulate less visible arguments about political agency. In actuality, they articulate the struggles of the bourgeois subject, struggles that become presented and seemingly resolved in terms of morality, and predominantly, in terms of complicity. If complicity is the only way that the bourgeois subject experiences political agency, the problem (and its solution) is not that to deal with the problem of debt we must refuse the morality of guilt and personal responsibility that accompanies it, or that, as Nietzsche found, guilt produces bad morality, but that the refusal of guilt as a form of moral or ethical activity or the construction of an alternative (take for example, Timothy Bewes` promotion of ``shame`` in his book, The Event of Postcolonial Shame) is an expression of its very centrality in conceptualizing political agency. Brecht is the great thinker of this bourgeois guilt, the thing that keeps the bourgeoisie from being able to identify as proletarians, and this is also why the problem of morality is one of identification. In other words, the circularity of refusal and recuperation works much like the aesthetic identification that is the object of Brecht`s critique. Projects that articulate the possibility of  ``refusing guilt,`` or ``refusing debt,`` are thus not that far from Brecht`s project refusing aesthetic identification, and there can be something to take from his determinations of complicity.
picture: Selected Poems by Bertolt Brecht, cover by Roy Kuhlman (Grove Press, 1959).

Saturday, April 14, 2012

R/hode I/sland, P/rovidence

This series of photographs is meant, in ways, to be a response to this running water is death, a film presented by Rei Terada at the ACLA plenary session (March 31, 2012), Thinking Disaster, and to the ACLA panels and Providence encountered there, and perhaps in particular to the continuing and profound conversations with Michelle Cho (missing Travis Tanner and Annette Rubado, of course). In ways, it was as if everything in the past ten years had wound up to this point, and the images that follow are all taken relatively blindly, from the car as I was driving away through Rhode Island. It was the driving away that was inevitable.
If there are claims that pattern reduces all figure to ground, as something like improper contrast or the lack of optimal lighting conditions, the phenomenon continues to circulate the myth of being able to distill the one from the other, not just the figure from the ground, but the intention to do so from the lack of mastery. 
Call it a happy accident; the question is why frame action in this way? Even above, you can see how it tends to the edges, already suggesting that there is something to see like the womb in abyss...

It would be funnier, if every time someone in the ``After the Subject`` stream said ``model,`` talking about the need to come up with better models of resistance, it was replaced with ``womb.`` Funnier, I mean, for anyone not in the room, for those outside of the room. ``Womb``--it`s not much of a jump, of course, they are both there, under synonyms for  ``matrix``--invites the ridicule of those who would scorn creation, and aesthetics was also never mentioned.

Such things involve taking into account one`s role as a spectator of the action in which one is also acting. Like driving over bridges whose other side is not yet visible, one`s role as a spectator of the conversation that one is having is illuminated by glimpses of the bridge`s underside--not for any structural considerations, or grounding, or for the security of making such a leap of faith--but for the impossible perspective that you can sustain.

Sometimes, it is the foregrounding of coincidence that makes perceptible the continual registration of ``phenomenal death,`` of death already.

But there are many cases where the examples, to be taken as models, at one remove, and as figures, at the next, are not of much weight, or much consequence. They can seem to be things to merely be regarded and to posit a fairly neutral perspective, as when we`re talking about frames, geometrically, not otherwise.

For example, I thought that the guy who I was sitting catty-corner from was very smart and even liked his insistence that ``biosemiotics`` was the word to save if the project was ``opening other forms of sociality that exceed models of subjectivity.`` But you get outside of the room, and you ask yourself, what is it about the weight of his models? Why do examples of state violence and crowd phenomenon seem to necessitate a return to militant rationality?

He had, after all, stated that the Arendtian liberal model needed to be ``heavily worked on.``

When I think about thought--someone`s thought--being taken to task, being ``heavily worked over,`` for its imputed liberal subject, I imagine the decrepitude of such a warehouse, become waiting room, as if Arendt, herself, were such a place.  

On the freeway, too, disaster presents as a loop. Others, whose projects I admire, want to be committed to the decrepitude of life under regimes of institutional, racial, structural, financial, economic, urban, geographical, physical, empirical, social, and state violence. I can`t help feeling caught in idle, wondering about the tension between ``direct`` intervention in and objections to the violence of this world. 

Then, there was another discussion about ``underdevelopment.``
Which I understood as a form of disaster, something like the logical, but irrational, underside of development.

And yet, in remarking about this term, I felt it was impossible to move beyond a determination of whether or not that meant I was complicit with development, or with projects of development. There were its limits, that we never got around to talking about.

As where we are when we are between the necessary and the intolerable.
At least from there we can think about figures of resistance without feeling we are obliged to do away with the beauty of decrepit buildings.
In this room, we arrived at three terms for signifying a form of community ``after the subject``: ad hoc, emergent, and spontaneous.

Although this was true, spontaneity was found dubious on the grounds of its fantastic nature. Since, once we can give a fuller account of a seemingly ``spontaneous`` event, or once we can historicize or contextualize or narrativize, the spontaneous event is more of a myth of self-organization than a reality. This does not answer the question, however, of why such forms of fantasy exist so powerfully in the experience of activity.

For example, if you would believe it, I took this picture because I kept wanting to capture the ---.

Do we just end up getting bored if we find we don`t have an answer? Is this the type of thing that gets deemed professionally uninteresting, or un-``fit,`` because the answer does not take the shape of an argument?

Why did Arendt maintain that there was something to recuperate--or at least, to hold on to--in spontaneity? She is concerned to the point of obsession with how to distill these experiences of ``beginning,`` which would reflect some kind of capacity to disambiguate spectator and actor, or to confuse them entirely. At what point does the ``assumption of a liberal subject`` become a shorthand for saying that contextualization and historization actually preclude narrative?
In other words, value is no longer aligned with aesthetics, but with production.

But all things point towards retrospection, as what is inevitable. For Joshua Clover, this has something to do with line break, ``the dominant formal fact of poetics.``

I am less inclined.

Monday, February 27, 2012

the ou mallon

Georgio Agamben`s discussion of the Skeptic term ou mallon (``no more than``) provides ground for theorizing the Arendtian notion of preferring-as-discrimination, which she introduces in her discussion of taste as a political activity in ``The Crisis in Culture.`` Agamben describes how the ou mallon functions in the Skeptic tradition as the radical ``suspension`` of possibility: ``no more this than that.`` The upshot of this is for potentiality, which is ultimately what Agamben wants (the essay which includes this term, ``Bartleby, or on Contingency,`` is published in his book Potentialities. But potentiality is not as much about the future as about the past--about saving ``what was not.`` Agamben thus finds fault with Nietzsche`s captivation with the liberatory aspect of being able to will backwards. Agamben writes, ``This is why Zarathustra is the one who teaches the will to `will backwards` (zurueckwollen) and to transform every `thus it was` into a `thus I willed it`: `this alone is liberation.` Solely concerned with repressing the spirit of revenge, Nietzsche completely forgets the laments of what was not or could have been otherwise`` (``Bartleby`` 267). Agamben, who mentions Deleuze`s essay on Bartleby (``Bartleby, or the Formula``) in his own essay, does not draw out the connection between ``willing backwards`` and Deleuze`s idea of the automatic passage of the two phases of Bartleby`s refusal into one another, but together, these form the logic of preferring-as-willing. In models of this logic, preferring is seen to be a form of willing. Although she does not fully articulate this in her effort to distinguish between preferring and willing, Arendt`s concern about how freedom is surrendered to necessity even in willing guides her conceptualization of a liberatory moment that does not make this exchange. Arendt`s criticism of Marx for eventually surrendering freedom to necessity, which arises from her belief that freedom needs to be preserved as a social right, anticipates the problematic treatment of the transitional and transitory phenomenon of social change in the work of Deleuze, Zizek, and others who raise Bartleby to the position of a figure of revolution.

In my effort to articulate how the Arendtian preferring-as-discrimination functions as distinct from the above logic of preference, I take recourse through the figure/ground problem, which foregrounds (so to speak) the problem of discerning to whom boundary lines pertain, and thus of making judgments about what constitutes object and what context, what activity and what passivity, what artistic and what aesthetic, and so on... Agamben`s discussion of the ou mallon helps to make the case for Arendt`s version because he is also interested in substantializing the loss, not as an object, but as a continuation of the problem of what constitutes the overlap between artistic and aesthetic activity. In the series of essays published in The Man Without Content, Agamben takes up the issue of the split between genius (and artistic production) and taste (and aesthetic judgment) which Arendt also discusses in her lectures on Kant`s political philosophy. Preferring-as-discrimination thus denotes a realm of aesthetic activity, in which individuals are called upon to be both spectators and actors. As Arendt found, this complex and oftentimes confusing state marks human experience in the world. Her elevation of judging as the highest form of political activity derives from her idea about individuals as ``world spectators,`` including the notions of sociality and communicability that follow from being public beings. Arendtian necessity comes in, however, in the idea of the ``dark times,`` and her imposition of this term to describe periods of ``foreordained doom`` curtails the freedom that should be attainable in this sphere. The ``dark times,`` it begins to seem, are not a period, but something like the obverse of that revolutionary and free spontaneous beginning, the darkness into which figures recede and withdraw.

Arendt does not go so far as to develop these ideas about aesthetic activity, and her discussion of the political aspect of aesthetics does not involve the conflict with the artistic in the sense that Agamben wants and that, thirty-six years after her death, is more clearly invoked in the spectator society of the late twentieth- and early twenty-first centuries.   

pictures: winter, Minnesota (2010); Nasreen Mohamedi, Untitled (drawing)