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.