Friday, April 26, 2013

Nonintegration, the Unintegrated State: the Silence of Falling Trees

One of the impressive features of Freud's "Thoughts for the Times on War and Death" is the emphasis that he places on the disjuncture between individual morality and the morality of the community, a disjuncture that is also at play in his account of the ambivalence of civilization and barbarism. The difference in the matter has to do with the role and the function of instinctual renunciaton, which both "creates" civilization (per Freud), but also (per Adorno) only creates civilization (i.e. leads to the appropriation of individual interests for the sake of "humanity"). In his effort to describe the primitive attitude towards death, from which he thinks we stand to learn something, Freud digresses about the function of the artwork in representing death:
"It is an inevitable result of all this that we should seek in the world of fiction, of general literature and of the theatre compensation for the impoverishment of life. There we still find people who know how to die, indeed, who are even capable of killing someone else. There alone too we can enjoy the condition which makes it possible for us to reconcile ourselves with death—namely, that behind all the vicissitudes of life we preserve our existence intact. For it is indeed too sad that in life it should be as it is in chess, when one false move may lose us the game, but with the difference that we can have no second game, no return-match. In the realm of fiction we discover that plurality of lives for which we crave. We die in the person of a given hero, yet we survive him, and are ready to die again with the next hero just as safely."
As he describes elsewhere (primarily in "Creative Writers and Daydreaming") through the concept of forepleasure, Freud here again attempts to account for that "extra" work that the artwork does; the so-called "incentive bonus" of the artwork, which elicits--also through identification--catharsis for an observing audience. But the suggestion that "compensation for the impoverishment of life" is provided by artworks links aesthetic "forepleasure" more explicitly with the performance of instinctual renunciation, with the renounced "death wish" that there is to experience (so his narrative of the primitive attitude of death goes) that is there in the observation of the deaths of others. The secret of forepleasure, then, is that it can provide us with the experience of the "plurality of lives," and this somehow provides the "compensation" for the feeling that life is impoverished. This is a feeling that Freud finds characteristic of the modern attitude towards death and one that he is optimistic that war (via aggression) could also work against, that is, counter-intuitively, that war could enrichen the experience of life.

Winnicott's similar interpretation of a patient that "All sorts of things happen and they wither. This is the myriad deaths you have dies. But if someone is there, someone who can give you back what has happened, then the details dealt with in this way become part of you, and do not die" (Playing and Reality 82) contributes to the development of the link between forepleasure and death. In the footnote to this interpretation, he comments: "This is, the sense of self comes on the basis of an unintegrated state which, however, by definition is not observed and remembered by the individual, and which is lost unless observed and mirrored back by someone who is trusted and who justifies the trust and meets the dependence." Here, and in other essays on the maturation of infants, he writes about the "unintegrated" state which precedes the important phase of "integration" in child development. This "unintegrated state," which he describes as also existing in older children and adults as a "non-purposive state" (74) is "the opposite of integration" (86).

The value of making a distinction between the pre-integration state (which is also not disintegration) and integration lies is Winnicott's desire to say something about "what life can be about for healthy children and adults" and thus to creativity and culture (there are also things to say, he notes, about the unintegrated state in relation to infant life and schizoid disorders). In "The Concept of a Healthy Individual," he writes, "In adult life, integration is enjoyed along with the ever-extending meaning of the term right up to and including integrity. Disintegration, in resting and in relaxation and in dreaming, can be allowed by the healthy person, and the pain associated with it accepted, especially because relaxation is associated with creativity, so that it is out of the unintegrated state that the creative impulse appears and reappears. Organized defence against disintegration robs the individual of the precondition for the creative impulse and therefore prevents creative living" (Home is Where We Start From 29). In his footnote, he also gestures towards forepleasure: "It is thought by some, as in Balint's paper (in Problems of Human Pleasure and Behavior, 1952) discussing Khan, that much of the pleasure in the experience of art in one form or another arises from the nearness to unintegration to which the artist's creation may safely lead the audience or viewer. So where the artist's achievement is potentially great, failure near the point of achievement may cause great pain to the audience by bringing them close to disintegration or the memory of disintegration, and leaving them there. The appreciation of art thus keeps people on a knife-edge, because achievement is so close to painful failure. This experience must be reckoned part of health." As Winnicott suggests, like Freud, the value of art, as described, is its ability to create conditions for the experience of nonintegration, a state that is lost unless observed and reflected back by someone (or in the case of the artwork, something). Much like the question of whether a tree can be heard if it falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, the enigma lies in imagining the parameters of a state that hinges on, but does not necessarily lead to integration (to being heard). The silence of the tree that falls without being heard is nonintegration.

As suggested by Winnicott, and by Bernard Golse's definition of "integration" in the International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, nonintegration is significant because it implies the trust to "yield to this regressive movement"; such a negative state occurs like depression between integration and disintegration, civilization and barbarism, and guilt and aggression to indicate the work of alternative forms of rearrangement that enhance our understanding of agency and activity--political, emotional, and otherwise.

photo: Philli Workman
Disclaimer: Above thoughts and associations might only be confused at this point...

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The "empathy gap"?

As news of the Guantanamo Hunger Strike continues to come to the forefront of media outlets, including the New York Times publication of Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel's op-ed of his experiences in the camp, a major victory for the counter-terrorist state took place in Boston. Last September, Amnesty International published an article, titled "Why Close Guantanamo? A Dead Man's Poem Speaks" by Zeke Johnson on the death of Adnan Latif on September 8, 2012, which has been determined to be suicide (but as Marc Falkoff writes before the autopsy was done, was a result of "detention"). As Andy Worthington states in an article first published on the Close Guantanamo website, Latif was released for return to Yemen, but the actual release was prohibited by Obama's moratorium on releasing Yemenis in Guantanamo following the (failed) 2009 Christmas Day bomb plot. Latif's "Hunger Strike Poem," published in the 2007 collection Poems from Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak functions to phrase those pertinent questions about the role of the "world" that have similarly been raised in the juxtaposition of the victims of the Boston Marathon Bombing and the victims of US drone attacks, and relatedly about the characterization of certain violence as "terrorism." Latif writes,
They are artists of torture,
They are artists of pain and fatigue,
They are artists of insults
and humiliation.
Where is the world to save us
from torture?
Where is the world to save us
from the fire and sadness?
Where is the world to save
the hunger strikers?
The questions raised by contemplating the role of the "world" as observer have come down, in some accounts, to an "empathy gap," a term which writer Teju Cole has used to describe the "heavy silence" surrounding the use of drones to assassinate people outside of the country, and in general the incapacity of the American public to care about the victims of its violence.

But there are problems with the "empathy gap," and in general with using empathetic identification as a guideline for moral action or responsibility, and Latif's poem addresses some of these problems, which I would like to deliberate over here in both a preliminary and a restropective way. The primary problem with what I call "empathic identification" is the way that it constructs the subject as a victim of imperial aggression without taking into account the fundamental ambivalence of this subject as victim and as an agent who exposes aggression. In an essay published in Postmodern Culture in 2011, "The Enemy Combatant as Poet: The Politics of Writing in Poems from Guantanamo," I argued that the status of guilt assumed by the "enemy combatant" is related to this exposure of the aggression of his enemies and that even liberal commentators do not get past reading the poems as testimonies of the violence and of their suffering. And while this testimonial function is important to effecting an actual change in either conditions or in the existence of the prison on the basis of Human Rights violations, the poem, like other poems in the collection, also challenge at a more fundamental level the complicity of the discourse of Human Rights with US and Western interests. The poems point out that this complicity, and not a lack of empathy, informs the blindness of Western, in particular, US observers.

In Latif's poem, as in other poems, the language of universal human rights is pursued through the figure of the “world” as an impartial judge or law outside the prison: a world “that will wait for us,” to which “photographs of my corpse at the grave” will be sent, “before” which men will bear a “burden” and, finally, as an implied addressee, if “justice and compassion remain in this world.” As Latif writes, “Where is the world to save us from torture? / Where is the world to save us from the fire and sadness? / Where is the world to save the hunger strikers?” In these formulations, the world becomes a figure for human rights, the neutral observer who is there to witness suffering. But as we know, and as critiques of Human Rights Discourse have long established, such neutrality is a pretension. Despite this, there is little sense about how to move past these constructs and frame the terms of moral responsibility in another way. The poems, however, which challenge the triangular relationship between "Us," "Them," and the "World," present a poetic speaker that takes place within a history of forms that is irreducible to the enunciation of a universal human subject. The ambiguity of this poetic speaker resists discernible efforts to provide a “close-up” of the terrorist turned victim, and in this way, the poems operate critically in a milieu otherwise rife with na├»ve assumptions about the self-evidence of testimony in expressive work.

In important ways, reading this poetic speaker yields a take on aggression that might help us to perceive some of the alternative expressive aspects of "terrorist" violence. It's this--and not empathy--however, which the American public does not want to hear, since then it would also have to confront the violent contours of its own guilt--not the aggression of imperialism as a national phenomenon, but the aggression that figures in the experience of complicity (as a registration of both empathy and the "empathy gap"). Such ideas, I would suggest, could help us to think about the ambivalence of aggression and victimhood, or of civilization and barbarism, in constructions of morality in imagining alternative experiences of political and ethical subjecthood.

Monday, April 22, 2013


why, Leben? And after that,
it snowed
translucent middle night
the margins of the page
absorb color,
icicle snow | fantasize that

it's the construction of the battlefield,
too | in all the elsewhere
guilt, the palpable emotion

the child |is| the revolutionary spectator
above all, this is what
being |a parent|
implies, and yet, we close it off
there are "real, active men" out there
setting out

lost in all the drifts

Tuesday, April 16, 2013


what a |lovely| day
the spring
already up
with sun
the outside
world again
--you have a fantasay
that you have
a job--so robbing,
the indigo bunting
migrates by night.
this is enough.

this is enough

One of the most common desires of critical work is to get beyond the binary. There are many figures for the division--contradiction, antagonism, double bind, splitting--terms that also involve the construction of definitions that function to make clear the boundaries at work between terms. As Maria Mies describes in Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale (London: Zed Books, 1986), the strategy of the feminist movement to reject "all dualistic and hierarchical divisions, created by capitalist patriarchy, viz., between public and private, political and economic, body and mind, head and heart, etc.," was the right strategy, and I agree with her assessment that there is still work to be done here, in demystifying "all colonizing divisions," but the next part of the argument, which for her involves the "desire to 'become whole' again" (35), raises more questions about what kind of strategy there is to have in moving forward, and this in no small way relates back to how the divisions, splitting, and difference are conceptualized in the first place.

Of primary interest for her analysis is "the interplay between the sexual and international division of labor." She reflects on what terms we should use to describe these divided and yet related sides of the world market (and similarly, it's a question of how to refer to the divided and yet related aspects of the sexual division of labor). She writes, "If we follow the feminist principle of transcending the divisions created by capitalist patriarchy in order to be able to establish that these divisions constitute only parts of the whole, we cannot treat the 'First' and 'Third' world as separate entities, but have to identify the relations that exist between the two" (39). Her effort to relate the two parts involves thinking about "polarization": "one pole is getting 'developed' at the expense of the other pole, which in this process is getting 'underdeveloped'" (39). The terms of development thus function to describe the international division of labor, but the structure that she presents here is generalized as well to other divisions. Unlike "First" and "Third" world countries, or "center" and "peripheries," she argues that the process of polarization put to use by capitalist patriarchy requires terms that "identify the relations between the two" at the same time that they clarify how the processes produce distinct poles. The polarization that she describes happens both on the level of material reality and on the level of the concepts--both in relation to mental and material labor (see her reference to the distinction in Marx, page 51), and it is because it is preceded by a division of labor that for her is thoroughgoing that this division (like the others that she describes) does not adequately describe the conditions of capitalist patriarchy, but its effects. The division that she finds as primary or thoroughgoing is the designation of the "'production of new life' as 'natural' and not as a historical fact" (51). The polarization of the production of new life and the production of historical life is covered over by the division of labor (between mental and material labor), with the result that the production of new life is underdeveloped, economically and conceptually, and the production of historical life is overdeveloped. 

The "desire" to transcend these divisions, to find a place of "wholeness" again (as problematic as this might be, as Paige Sweet points out) is supposed to take place in opposition to the desire or the force that compels polarization (for the benefit of overdevelopment). She writes: "The very motor driving on this polarization of the world economy, namely, the capital accumulation process, is based on a world view which never says 'This is enough'" (39). As a "motor" of the world economy, polarization functions because there is a world view behind it which never says "enough." Here, the belief in an endless, limitless process functions to describe that "world view." What is the relation between the desire to overcome the binary, to find wholeness, and to say "this is enough"? Who, or what, would such a revolutionary spectator be?

pictures: Philli's feet and a drawing of a pufferfish; Rosemarie Trockel, A Cosmos (2011)

Friday, April 12, 2013


the glance backwards
within is read
as unbecoming
look down, to look up
I wouldn't say otherwise
but it's forgotten, forgone,
becomes depressed, sunk
returns as

Tuesday, April 9, 2013


sucking is infantile
pleasure and aggression
the primordial all in one
in the figure of
the child

Monday, April 8, 2013


before depletion
when the fibers were more luminous
fantasy of maternal imaginary
the oceanic, of plethora
the thinness now
not wear

Saturday, April 6, 2013


The world spools around us,
this enclosure, wringing out
incessant clicking around
filtering, the new
mechanism for administration--
but how to enclose the content
of the world? It's not the
word's inadequacy, but

Friday, April 5, 2013


Imagination monsters in
the end also incognito
it's far easier to draw
the beginning, blackness--
the zero force out of which

but it's not that darkness
that stills, of necessity--

and speaks of loss
tiny and circumspect,
small harbor
indigo drift.