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)

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