Thursday, December 4, 2014

Words Edgewise

Today, I attended a talk by Eric Hayot at the University of Minnesota, which took as intertext his essay "Against Periodization," although the talk concerned cosmology and poetics; the connection between these is interesting--the desire to challenge periodization of course comes from a perspective that values history. So it's not just that this value produces an ideological blind spot, which goes by the name of "aesthetic experience," as if this is the kind of exception upon which the value of the historical then emerges. Perhaps it's true that every theory has such a spot, but what seems untenable about Hayot's approach is that the critical value of history, which emerges out of a desire to raise the value of the humanities on its own turns, emerges as a theory of everything, a cosmology, if you will. Hayot claims that his interest is in thinking about concepts that can themselves overcome a split that itself functions to signify cosmological worlds and post-cosmological worlds: a split between the premodern and modern.

What my interest is in is looking at the figure of this split. I don't think I would dispute the idea that periodization produces a rupture or fracture that is, perhaps, not all it is cracked up to be. I'm curious about the desire or gesture to unify around this split or to step outside of it from a distance that would render it invisible (Hayot uses the idea of asking his students what we will look like in 1000 years as an example of a distance that would render the division between Victorian and modern periods, for example, invisible), and mostly I'm curious about it because it seems to emerge from the shortcomings of the model of the split or fracture, which, I would propose, seems to assume the psychoanalytic model of projection or projective identification as its fundamental operating procedure. This models presents as the problem to be overcome the difficulty of stepping outside of your own aesthetic experience. When Hayot described the problem of not knowing if the split or rupture was there at the conceptual level (i.e. in terms of a presentist scholarly perspective) or at the level of the event (i.e. actually in history), he was invoking this model of the projection in order to conceptualize this split. Projection usually involves the idea of projective identification; it is there in formulations that make use of the figure of a self and other, in other words to think about how objects are set against and become external to individuals. As is often the case, the ethical problems associated with this model emerge from the difficulty in formulating a relation to the other that involves a problematic understanding of difference. The impulse to find a transconcept, or an idea that would assert the sameness of what lies on either side of the split, or a more general form that could traverse these sides can be understood as a way to negotiate with the difficulty of maintaining an adequate relation between these sides, to manage anxiety about one's blindspots actually--to include everything.

So, to return again, my interest in this moment lies perhaps in my desire to maintain the ambivalence of this split, and the psychical experience that it entails. It leads me, in fact, to a point where I wonder whether one of the real values of psychoanalytic theory is that it allows us to understand aesthetics not merely as a theory of beauty or perception, but as a theory of experience, in particular of sensory experience, or as Freud says in "The Uncanny," "a theory of the quality of feelings." From this perspective, the value of the historical, which I mentioned above, does not just have aesthetic experience as its blind spot, because it would say that it includes it, but the value exerted by the historical encloses the aesthetic within it as a kind of foundational gesture of the split it then goes on to critique. Much like the theory of projective identification, which includes the aesthetic as a form of perception or identification, this model of the rupture-to-be-overcome includes the aesthetic but is not able to let aesthetic experiences stand, as "things" in their own right, "things" that are experiences before they are reified or turned into objects.

This is, we might posit, the value of thought--which is not nearly equatable but always replaced in the institution with the idea of the value of the humanities. The value of thought, however, is less codifiable, less professionalizable, less justifiable. It made me think about how yesterday, when I showed students in my class on the rhetoric of everyday life Masao Adachi's film AKA Serial Killer, they had kind of set up some terms for thinking about being bombarded with the environment. Within the first twenty minutes, it becomes possible to experience even the image of a sunflower as a menace, or as demanding something from the viewer/the camera. In this way, it's about information overload before information overload (1969) and about how becoming desensitized is also, perhaps, a demand. I cite this because the film is the opposite of the mode discussed by Hayot; the mode that would relieve a viewer or reader of the perspective of rupture was one that "humbled" one, a view from a distance. Adachi loses sight of a rupture, split, or fracture because it is continually recast, and recast as the instantiation of environment. Rather than representing desensitization, the film produces an environment in which one is made to feel the demand or need for it. And by doing so, the film refigures the model of projective identification, which is generally assumed as the model of primary relating.

To return, then, to psychoanalysis, this is where both Balint's and Winnicott's ideas about the destructiveness of primary love become significant. According to Balint, primary love is a state in which one partner has all of the interests, desires, and needs and the other partner has none. It replaces or is prior to the scene of projection, because, as Winnicott describes, it is a state that precedes integration/disintegration--a state he calls nonintegration, in which what can be seen is that the primary relation assumed by projective identification (between a self and other, in whatever conceptual terms undertaken) already moves to turn an environmental provision into the demand of an other, an object, a thing. This is always a destructive move. Trying to turn it into an ethical or moral relationship (to an other) or to use it as a "humbling" experience misses the point that Winnicott identifies: that these various attitudes do not help us to "repair" our destructiveness, though they can function as a signal that we could "get to" it, or experience it, and therefore take responsibility for it. The problem is, though, I think, that any sort of ethical or moral or epistemological or whatever gesture often functions to defend against or prevent one from taking what Winnicott calls "full responsibility for one's destructiveness." The destructiveness he's talking about--to return to where I started--and the reason that it's defended against has to do with the otherwise very meaninglessness of aesthetic experience, which is also something that does not sit well with those who value history or (inter-)disciplinary professionalism--in the sense that such meaninglessness becomes intolerable, or always seems to be in need of a rationale, justification, or schematization. This is the scene of obliteration that Denise Ferreira da Silva describes in Toward a Global Idea of Race, the scene that is produced via the deployment of the racial. In the schema I've been describing, it might be possible to see how the state of nonintegration or primary love enforces the idea that the deployment of reparative knowledge (as Silva describes via the racial) always contains within it a moment of violence or destructiveness that it seeks to cover over. What's interesting about Winnicott is that because he's so interested in the psychical usefulness of his theoretical information, he does end up "prescribing" the usefulness of this insight into one's destructiveness. Taking responsibility in this sense is not an ethical or positive formulation; Winnicott suggests that what experiencing feelings of destructiveness allows us to do is "not to mobilize it in the service of hate." To do more than this, to think that one is doing more when one takes responsibility, certainly seems today to be the basis of so many misperceptions about where, for example, the problems of this system of racialized state violence lie.

picture: Sunflower, from AKA Serial Killer (Masao Adachi, 1969)--film reference, Rei Terada. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

letter nowhere

buoying moorland more land
hounds the steppe step
escapo the fogs fog

rise low where
otherwise where wise
they never

tundra ice melts mid
winter midst frost flower
fleeting because cause

pulls cause a string
a wooden car
on a string ten years

from now now mid
winter no more land
you said too to write of

trivialities but when
where wise
they never when

correspondence breaks
it breaks off
ex folium

the weeping once
black-eyed susan will
weep freeze again

escapo down
turn down the this
of this thaw that again

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Human Rights Poetry and the Writing of Disaster

With the grand jury decision not to indict the officers who shot and killed John Crawford, a 22-yr-old black man, in a Beavercreek, Ohio, Wal-mart (only four days before another young Black man, Michael Brown, was killed in Ferguson, Missouri), I can’t help but to gesture toward the way that the global reparative logic of human rights discourse—which I hope to say a few things about in terms of the archive, the intertext, and disaster—is informed by the capacity, as Umut Özsu points out in his also-recent discussion of the newly erected Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, to “nearly always ignore” socio-economic conditions and racialized state violence. Although this distinction between the civil/political and social/economic is often seen as a split within human rights discourse, Özsu argues that every instance of civil or political violation implies a racialized socio-economic violence that cannot be realized in the discourse.

Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, on John Crawford: “And the fact of the matter is, that the video not being released, the political apparatus in Ohio had weeks to criminalize John Crawford in death, the same way that Michael Brown was criminalized in death.” Although the shooting took place on August 5, in response to a now-altered 911 call reporting that Crawford was pointing a gun at customers (it was a BB gun from the store shelves in an open-carry state, and was never pointed at other customers), the Wal-mart surveillance video footage showing the shooting was only released this past Wednesday. And even though the special prosecutor identified Crawford as a “victim,” who did nothing wrong (he not facing the officers when they shot him and did not have time to react), as Robinson points out, in these weeks he was criminalized. It’s not that Crawford has been slandered or dehumanized in this period, even if he has been, that constitutes his criminalization; rather, his death is criminalized to the extent that his death was not made available to witness. The belated identification of Crawford as a victim, then, assures that the disaster, the injustice of his death would not be experienced on the streets, in public.

A critical discussion of human rights discourse turns on this question: How is it possible to have a victim but no crime? And yet we see time and again in cases of human rights abuses that the association of a victim and a crime misses the way that the disaster unfolds per “neoliberal measures of inclusive democracy” that follow a global mandate based on reparation. In Beavercreek Ohio, this occlusion is glaringly apparent in the multilateral operations that ensured that between the corporation of Wal-mart, the attorney general of Ohio, Greene County, and Beavercreek police, a closed circle of mutual protection functioned to prevent witnessing Crawford’s death as a disaster, a product of socio-economic conditions and racialized state violence.

“Since the disaster always takes place after having taken place,” writes Blanchot, “there cannot possibly be any experience of it” (28). Blanchot casts disaster as something that has always happened, which we have yet to have experienced. That this happens without our experience of it is the disaster. We might reformulate this: the (human rights) disaster takes place, then human rights (the disaster) takes place. Further, human rights takes away the possibility of experiencing socio-economic conditions of the disaster once the human rights disaster has taken place. In concrete instances, such as the case of John Crawford described above, the injustice is the disaster. The lag time pointed out by Robinson, the time between the death of John Crawford and this second death (statement from the family following the grand jury decision: “the family feels it has been victimized all over again”), highlights the way that justice has the first word, though it (or its lack) comes after.

In order to consider the limitations inherent in the role of witnessing in human rights discourse, I believe that we find ourselves—for better or worse—situated in the realm of poetry, but to be very clear: not human rights poetry as typified in the pervasive and humanistic association between poet and witness, in which the poet-witness produces the body of the victim, which characterizes what Bob Meister calls the extension of “Auschwitz-based reasoning into a new discourse of global power” (3). Human rights poetry of this sort is called upon to “bear witness” to atrocity, to catastrophe, to violence, following the global reparative logic of the European postwar (embodied in the 1948 Declaration on Human Rights).[1] It is only against this tendency that human rights poetry, as I would like to consider it, can ask its question: what corpi, what bodies, what words gives rise to discourse of human rights?

We can see this equation between poets and witnesses in Giorgio Agamben’s Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive. Agamben agrees with Foucault’s effort in the archaeology not to pose the question of the speaking subject, but his main point is to put forth the testimony in contrast to the archive. Foucault’s notion of the archive as a figure between langue, “the system of constructing possible sentences,” and corpus, which “passively collects the words that are spoken” (130), makes it possible to think about the “anonymous field…that defines the possible position of speaking subjects” (122). Agamben wants to clear a space for the speaking subject, but a specific subject: the witness, or the poet. He writes, “Poets—witnesses—found language as what remains.” But like Foucault’s discussion of the speaking subject, Agamben’s reconstruction of the speaking subject as witness seems to rely on the displacement and subsequent fetishization of the corpus, the text, the “poetic word,” which is “situated in the position of a remnant and can, therefore, bear witness” (161).

Human rights poetry, which casts off the role of the speaker as witness to always ask: Who is Speaker? marks the revenant rather than the remanent nature of the corpus, of the book, the text, the word. The revenant, because the disaster consists of that which cannot be experienced in the event of death. In poetry, one is tempted to say, this thwarted question returns: the speaking subject takes place not in, but as the “blank space from which I speak.” In contrast to Foucault, who wishes to ask about the conditions that produce the speaking subject and so comes to the archive as that which includes the very happening of language, via the statement, the possibility of language, human rights poetry proposes to think about how disaster arranges corpi in relation to discourses.

This discourse of the witness justifies itself by producing knowledge about the human, as was predominantly the case, for example, in a recent issue of Qui Parle devoted to the topic of human rights: the “mass intellectuality” of human rights yields new definitions of the “human,” of human “life.” This contains an extended tendency to see rights and genre as instances of law that contribute to our understanding of personhood or as Agamben notes, the human and inhuman. For example, in Human Rights, Inc.: The World Novel, Narrative Form, and International Law, Joseph R. Slaughter describes the common “humanistic social” vision of human rights law and the Bildungsroman, both “genres” contain a “shared image of the human person” (4).

Human rights poetry, the version I’m attempting to re-value, which raises the question of who is speaking, does not share this concern with the knowledge about the human person. It contains what Foucault might call otherwise “meaningless” sentences. He writes, “to say a sentence like this is meaningless presupposes that one has already excluded a number of possibilities—that it describes a dream, that it is part of a poetic text, that it is a coded message, that it is spoken like a drug addict” (90). For Foucault, a poetic text is able to give meaning to words, then, because it is able to index a still very functional human person. Consider this poem, then, which I confess to writing:
Map of 2014 Human Rights Risk Index 
Syria, Sudan
DR Congo Pakistan Somalia
Afghanistan Iraq
This poem, which takes as intertext the caption to a 2014 Map put out by the corporation Maplecroft, presents a corpus of knowledge, words “passively collected.” To what archive, what discursive formation do they give rise?

To what belongs a list of nations gathered by a corporation in a poem written by a person who does not witness? If poetry, it’s because poetry arrests the production of knowledge about the human, not because there is something essential or particular about poetry as genre, or form. It concerns the capacity of the person who witnesses to create a space for experiencing the “(human rights) disaster” by refraining from choraling it all into a discourse of justice, of witnessing, and in this refrain, working to set out the terms of the first disaster, the terms that describe the socio-economic conditions acting upon what Denise Ferreira da Silva would call affectable bodies. Human rights poetry is not a genre, not a law, but the explication of the problem of how the corpus, the passively collected words, the text, rearticulates the position of the speaking subject.

The subject of human rights poetry is always passing out of existence; it is a non-witness becoming non-victim, a human being “criminalized in death,” and it is the space of waiting that the poet articulates as a means of experiencing disaster. Consider these lines from the Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail’s Diary of a Wave Outside of the Sea, which depicts the US-led intervention in Iraq in 1991, offering an account of the disaster that marked one of the United States’s first military actions in the post-Cold War period:
One evening…

No…One Morning…
No…I don’t know…One waiting…
Death passed before our eyes, as it did every day.

I was not waiting by myself;
the river was there, too,
and the smoke that rose from the explosions
and from the cigarette of a lover
who contemplated his loneliness
like a pawn in the corner of a chessboard.” (5)
The proposal here is that witnessing changes its tune when it becomes everyday. Slipping into waiting, the subject of human rights poetry shifts between what Denise Ferreira da Silva would call the transparent “I,” a witness, who registers a world “passed before our eyes” and the affectable “I,” who is acted upon by the passing of time (“One evening…No…One Morning…No…I don’t know…One waiting…”).

In this space persists the potentiality of victimhood; the witness persists, but in the disaster, through disaster, she waits, neither as witness nor as victim—but as corpus, something to be “passively collected” after the fact, about the disaster. The poem establishes the tension between this state of waiting, on the one hand, and the forces of intervention, on the other. But Mikhail is not thinking about his contradiction between the rhetoric of the witness, via intervention, and the experience of a potential witness-victim. She wishes to point to a space for the waiting of a body that eschews these positions of witness and victim because, above all, the “responsibility” that inheres between them is “a response to the impossible” (Blanchot 26). “Responsibility,” says Blanchot further, “is itself disastrous” (27). The word—the corpus, the text—intervenes in the archive as an intertext, as Blanchot’s disaster enters Mikhail’s text:
The disaster watches over us at night
—our recurring, endless night—
like a verb with no subject or object.

And look, here we are,
trying in vain to jump over it
—over the disaster—
so that we stumble from nowhere
every time.

We become acquainted with death at the wrong time,
and no one uses their “veto.”

You think, therefore you realize the disaster.

Maurice Blanchot, the French intellectual,
thought that while disaster removes the haven that is the thought of death,
and turns us from the grievous or surprising thing,
and makes us dispense with any will or movement,
it does not, however, give us an opportunity
to raise this question:
What have you done to realize [gain knowledge of] the disaster? (20)
In the poem, Blanchot’s words, which come from early on in The Writing of Disaster, “while disaster removes the haven that is the thought of death, / and turns us from the grievous or surprising thing, / and makes us dispense with any will or movement,” extend the terms of the waiting-processes. The disaster is not the waiting, or the bombing, or intervention, or a veto of intervention. It is none of these things and yet it involves each of them; it is the aggression or violence that cannot be experienced in each. What I’d like to note about Mikhail’s use of Blanchot is the way that the terms of disaster enter into the problem of witnessing that Mikhail proposes: the contradiction between mere thinking or being as a realization of disaster and the subject’s responsibility for realizing disaster.

At the same time that it is a testimony to the atrocity of Desert Storm, the poem struggles with the question that is not posed—what have you done to realize the disaster? Although the question seems to concern one’s complicity in the disaster, or one’s responsibility for preventing it—ultimately, it is a question about that which is impossible. To return to the question with which I began: what corpi, what bodies, what words gives rise to discourse of human rights? The words of disaster, which speak in and through waiting, will always be realized in the human person, but each instance of this realization, each “haven” taken “in the thought of death” crops out the socio-economic conditions of the non-witness.

[1] The ambiguities of witnessing have been theoretically grounded in Holocaust testimony, predominantly through Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub’s Testimony, in which they conceptualize witnessing as a crisis of literature, “insofar as literature becomes a witness” (xviii). The discourse of human rights assumes this literary function of witnessing, as the terms of Carolyn Forché’s anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness, make explicit, in which victim and listener merge in the experience of witnessing in order to “co-own” the atrocity (Laub 57).

Note: This is an abbreviated version of a paper given at "Intellectual Properties," a graduate student conference at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, September 26–27, 2014.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014


“To describe this hitherto unstudied object relationship with our present terminology would be anything but easy, though not impossible; for instance, by straining a point and using the idea of projective identification. This would explain why the individual should feel that his environment agrees with, and even rewards, his aggressiveness directed against it; but it would not help us to understand the fact that the environment really does so, and still less why this queer object relationship is mutually satisfactory both to the individual and his environment.” 
--Michael Balint, Thrills and Regressions (21-22)
I propose two ways of exploring how projective identification functions to assure that the discourse of human rights continues to reproduce and to safeguard the desires of the European subject: through poetry and psychoanalysis. For example: the poetry of Bosnian writer Ferida Durakovic—in contrast to the narrativistic assumptions of the relationship between human rights and literature—raises questions about the testimonial function of human rights literature. The indeterminacy of the poetic I—which is illuminated by fact that the speaker of the poem and the author “who suffers” are not the same—helps us to see how poetry written under the sign of human rights in the Post-Cold War presents an alternative, a form of poetic “nonintegration,” which returns to questions about the characterization of aggression as ethnic. Ideas of “nonintegration,” theorized in psychoanalysis as related to primary aggression and primary love, can explain things that projective identification cannot; most importantly, it explains not just the fact of Europe’s “attachment” to its others, nor the nature of misrecognition involved in it, but the fundamental destructiveness of this type of relation, in which the desire of the European subject “destroys” only to “create” the others of Europe. 
This can be extended to describe the way that human rights “intervenes” only to create a very specific form of aggression. I like the phrase “only to,” since it remains ambivalent about the intentionality of the European subject, making it seem like the secondary “creation” of the other is both nonvoluntary and voluntary. It should be noted that this secondary “creation” can be thought of as projective identification, so that in relation to this, nonintegration, or primary love, or primary aggression first takes place. In developing this psychoanalytic aspect, I look at the Hungarian psychoanalyst Michael Balint’s theory of “primary love” and British psychoanlayst D.W. Winnicott’s description of a state of “nonintegration,” which involves his ideas about “primary aggression.” Both Balint and Winnicott were postwar object-relations analysts who worked in Britain, and the concepts that I highlight account for their differences from Melanie Klein’s theorization of the primacy of projective identification and of human envy.
My discussion of Post-Cold War poetry aims to show how the idea that consensual processes of "becoming-the-same" extend global capitalism is based on the reparative framework of Euro-American human rights that congealed around ideas of projective identification predominant in postwar psychoanalysis, to the extent that it was also a response to the aggression of wartime. Post-Cold War poetry thus figures the production of this “human” other as an extension of the production of postsocialist or postcolonial space “outside” Europe, but rather than explore this as a projective relation in which the problems of Europe are displaced and externalized, I consider how the gesture of reparation (and the ethical moment it is premised upon) destroys the capacity of this human to be a subject. This reparative gesture is less an act or a recognition of the other, as it is understood in Levianasian (and projective) ethics; rather, it is a rewriting of the environment as a potentially therapeutic space—encapsulated perhaps in the phrase that identified the goal of NATO in Kosovo: “Serbs out, peacekeepers in, refugees back”—that destroys the subject. This process, of creating a potentially therapeutic space, requires that the “environment” can also be seen to “agree with and even reward” aggression, and this process describes the way in which the “Balkans,” as a geographical space, as an environment, is understood through the terms of “ethnic conflict” to be a space that “rejoices” in its destruction. 
I’m not suggesting, of course, that the model of “primary love,” in which only one partner can have interests, desires, and demands, describes Europe’s relation to its others, but I am suggesting that it helps to illuminate the violent, racist, and destructive processes that are not just contingently related to the seeming inevitability of global capitalism, but fundamentally constitutive of its desire. In this, my argument is not new, involving an investigation of those conditions through which society is violently reproduced (as has been the work, for example, of Marxist feminists, Black Marxism, and Afropessimism), but it remains quite astonishing how this violence and aggression remains theorized as a consequence rather than a condition in much of the work that engages with the reproduction of global capitalism. In thinking, therefore, about the role that “consensus” plays in depicting the idea of “becoming-the-same” as an inevitability, it may be helpful to note that while global capitalism and the logic of sameness might be inevitable, the aggression and violence that it enacts is not inevitable, though it is necessarily presented as such. Much more than an explanatory device, psychoanalysis as a field of inquiry and a practice can bring to the surface the difference between inevitable and intentional aggression, which implies the perhaps the modest recognition that every ethical relation includes an element of destructiveness.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

cruel attachment and negative preference

In a recent lecture, “Debt to Society: Accounting for Life under Capitalism,” Miranda Joseph disputed with the celebratory revival and appropriation of Bartleby; seeking a subject that was more “neither/nor” (neither capitalism nor revolution), a subject that is theorized following the terms of Lauren Berlant’s “cruel optimism,” Jospeh opposed Bartleby’s negative preference with Berlant’s idea of negative attachment. In Cruel Optimism, Berlant also references Bartleby:
Cruel optimism is in this sense a concept pointing toward a mode of lived immanence, one that grows from a perception about the reasons people are not Bartleby, do not prefer to interfere with varieties of immiseration, but choose to ride the wave of the system of attachment that they are used to, to syncopate with it, or to be held in a relation of reciprocity, reconciliation, or resignation that does not mean defeat by it. (28)

I also think there is much to be critical of in the elevation of Bartleby as a figure of political resistance, and yet I think that the figure of Bartleby raises more questions than it answers about political subjectivity. To begin with, then, the primary question raised by Bartleby is the question of what it means to prefer. The story of Bartleby never resolves the ambivalence about preference that some would read into it; rather, it sets in motion the problem of preference as a political gesture. 

In my reading, this problem is also explored in Hannah Arendt’s theory of proairesis, which precedes or informs the distinction between the social and political. I’ve described all of this elsewhere, highlighting preference not as a form of activity, but as a problem for activity. Rather than seeing how Arendt problematically divides these “realms,” I was focusing on how preference not only exposes assumptions about ideas of (political, revolutionary) activity, but poses the question about how these models are formed in the first place. The question of preference does so because, as Arendt spells out, it is an issue of proairesis, literally of pro-airesis, of a choice before choice. It thus occurs at the intersection of one’s political activity and one’s social status, at the intersection of one’s capacity to produce one’s identity or attitude or to be produced (structurally, logically, institutionally) as an identity. Tracing out the consequences of some of Arendt’s observations, I have described how that faculty, that capacity, is worthy of being seen in its own right, not merely as an extension of the idea that in spectating or observing (or in judging) we are already taking action, as Jacques Ranciere formulates, for example, in The Emancipated Spectator.

An important part of this conceptualization resides in Arendt’s formulation of preference in “Reflections on Little Rock” as something has the capacity to intervene in the social realm. This is an understanding of preference as pre-political that I think is important to rethinking reified notions of political action that are understood as revolutionary. But an aspect that I did not initially explore is the fact that this presentation of preference in “Reflections on Little Rock” emerges in the context of the issue of school segregation and interracial marriage. And here, Arendt’s insistence on identifying school segregation/integration and miscegenation as things belonging to the social realm rather than the political is clearly in error. 

In her book Hannah Arendt and the Negro Question (Indiana UP 2014), Kathryn T. Gines argues that Arendt’s distinction represents a severe limitation in Arendt’s thinking about the Negro question (which also rests on her understanding of anti-Black discrimination as a “Negro problem” rather than a “white problem”) and that this has consequences for her ideas about representative thinking and judgment. Gines argues that these shortcomings can be seen in light of her presentation of the Jewish question and the ways that this question is extended, although not explicitly connected to the Negro question.

Seen from this perspective, it’s hard to read Arendt’s essay, along with her other discussions of the problem of race in America, as something other than emissions of a form of white privilege that is little different from white racists of the time, as Gines points to. To consider the concept of preference from this perspective, however, allows for a consideration not so much of how racism emerges through preference, as Arendt is arguing it should (and should freely be allowed to), all the while, of course, not being able to see the contradictions and discriminations (those private, interested things) that she was applying to the political (the realm that she believes should be disinterested, a reading that Gines also thoroughly exposes the contradiction of in terms of her response to James Baldwin, refuting “love” as a political emotion (extension of this in recent debunkings of dwyl (do what you love)).

Rather, the conjunction of preference (via Arendt’s explicit and implicit formulations of preference as something that has the capacity to intervene in the realm of the necessary) and race allows us to turn the way that the “white problem” rewrites as “choice” things that are always mediated by necessity, always mediated not only by the economic necessity or social, but by the way that these political, institutional, and structural conditions get coded or written as bodily necessity. In describing this process, I am following Denise Ferreria da Silva’s formulation of the way that the racial already marks a place for the rewriting of the body via cultural difference. Although it’s difficult with Arendt, and one wants to be very clear about her problematic assumptions and ideas, I do think that she, like Bartleby, provides not so much a model in which these issues are resolved as the kind of nexus in which they can be perceived.

What becomes interesting about this to me is the way that “choice” remains very much at the center, conceptually and otherwise, of the problem, contemporarily phrased, of the “post-racial” or of “racism with race” and also in the critical elaborations of this paradigm. I’m thinking, as I loop back around to where I began, of the way that this emerged in Miranda Joseph’s lecture. Although gesturing to some of the ways that the financial crises of 2008 and 2009 disproportionately affected people of color and also gesturing critically to the discourse of fiscal “responsibility” that drives the terms of debt under capitalism, Joseph’s terms for understanding the problem of debt remain the problem of an “entrepreneurial” subject, a subject, who, as Arendt figures the black parent in “Reflections,” is “involved in an affair of social climbing” (194). Arendt’s whole point—that “free choice” be upheld—is discredited by the fact that segregation is not the same as forcing parents “to send their children to an integrated school against their will” (212). But her point remains important, abstractly, because it is this same version of “free choice” that remains powerfully imbedded in liberal desire.

Joseph highlighted this dynamic at the end of her talk when she identified the way that the desire for quality education and safety fuels middle-class decisions about home-ownership, namely by buying one’s distance from racialized poverty. What I thought was interesting about this conceptualization was that Joseph returned to Berlant’s problem of attachment as a way of talking about this very complex dynamic, in which the desires of white parents about the choice of associations can be seen not to produce race (as Joseph described) but to deploy produce a subject for whom raciality is something substantive, something essential.

My question, which has to do with how this complex dynamic could be understood, was recognized as a question about what constitutes this desire for distance from racialized poverty, and Joseph described (in terms that would also befit the parvenu) how African Americans that were showcased on Oprah’s “Debt Diet” were shown to also have the same desire, that is, the desire to distance themselves from their race, from racialized poverty. What is remarkable about this response is that the terms of “free choice” remain embedded even as the ideology of personal responsibility is brought into question. And it’s interesting that free choice emerges here, where race is identified by recourse to a projective structure (here, the Berlantian attachment to an object that inhibits one’s aims, that is produced as “other” and thus as “bad” or “cruel”) that seems capacious enough to include the “problem” of race as one of its possible “objects.” In this sense, Joseph’s slogan, to “seize the means of temporal production,” is even more explicit in its erasure of the inhering relationship between temporal production (the production of the entrepreneurial subject, for whom “choice” is a real possibility) and the production of others in space as racialized subjects. 

picture: Francisca Sutil, Mute 14 (2009/10)

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

the cunning of negative accumulation

It must be the affinity I associated with reading Denise Ferreira da Silva's Toward a Global Idea of Race that brought me to actually open Hegel's Science of Logic again (although the chain of connections that I right now have the luxury of making actually went from the question of sky coloration to the question of why sea water is blue to the idea of quantity transforming into quality) and from here to his description there of the transformation of quantity into quality. This is perhaps the most poignant part of the Science, the part of it I most remember from my reading of it almost ten years ago. In my post on Silva, I described how she identifies the duplicity of the moment in which the others of Europe are produced as global subaltern subjects, and that this Hegelian moment is related to this moment is indicated, textually, in Hegel's description, here, of the cunning, not of reason, but of "the concept [Begriff; notion]." The notion he is referring to is the notion of "quantity"; its cunning aspect is its appearing as an "indifferent limit," that is, its capacity not to signal that qualia is always already inherent in quantum. When we misapprehend this, Hegel explains, we feel embarrassment. He describes the moment:
At last the qualitative alteration is revealed: the head or tail is bald; the heap is vanished. In conceding the answer, it was not only the repetition that was each time forgotten, but also that the individually insignificant quantities (like the individually insignificant disbursements from a patrimony) add up, and the sum constitutes the qualitative whole, so that at the end this whole has vanished: the head is bald, the purse is empty. (21.332; "Specific Quantity," 290)
The "embarrassment"is nothing more than a contradiction, and Hegel aligns this logical problem with Aristotle's notion of elenchi, a refutation that rather easily leads to fallacy in syllogistic or deductive reasoning. It is worth nothing that Hegel's examples both entail the loss of a whole rather than the constitution of a whole (for example, adding drops of water to a body of water that changes from colorless to blue), since this initiates a logic of accumulation and dispossession (David Harvey, "accumulation by dispossession," cited in Chakravartty and Silva, "Accumulation, Dispossession, Debt"), which Hegel also signals by extending the example of the purse:
Quantum, when it is taken as indifferent limit, is the side from which an existence is unsuspectedly attacked and laid low. It is the cunning of the concept that it would seize on an existence from this side where its quality does not seem to come into play—and it does it so well that the aggrandizement of a State or of a patrimony, etc., which will bring about the misfortune of the State or the owner, even appears at first to be their good fortune. (21.332; "Specific Quantity," 291)
What I get from this (Silva's grammar sticks) is Hegel's positioning of the subject who observes (who misapprehends) the cumulative effect of subtractive projects. Forgetting you've debited your account is one thing; not getting that these cumulative debits add up is another. Hegel highlights subtractive processes here, we might say, because the dialectic writ large is a catalog of the additive moments, of moments in which the subject overcomes the loss of the transformation of quantity into quality because it does "add up" to a new whole.

The vanishing whole, however--perhaps better, the threat of the vanishing whole as an index of the inherence of dispossession in accumulation--signals the duplicity of reason via quantity, emphasizing how the production of the others of Europe, as an effect of modern reason, involves a similar misapprehension of the "indifference" of quantity. I don't, of course, follow Hegel's assertion that quantum and qualia are inherent and eternal extensions of one another, but I do think that this problem is the problem of thinking about the relation between individual instances of racialized inequality, death, and dispossession and the institutional, structural, or global dimensions of these acts. For while, as Hegel claims, it's only natural (or moreover, only human) to misapprehend the situation and think that the basic assurances of life are there, even though yet another individual is plucked from them, the knowledge of this loss is always retrospective. Unlike his description of the dialectic, Hegel does not here account for the recuperation of loss. This is interesting because the relationship posed here between the "whole" and the subtractive processes as something to be defended against reveals the extent to which the dialectical process is engaged with the production of the "whole"; in Silva's terms, I think, this is the production of "globality" (29) "as a modern context of signification, one that refers to a mode of existing before historicity, the horizon of life, that the ontological context transparency thesis produces."

What my reading of Toward a Global Idea of Race left open were questions about the way that so much non-truth can be produced about the global and why this does not, as is the case for Hegel's bald head or empty purse, result in the evacuation of this site as productive for reason. For how closely do the terms of quantity and quality map onto Silva's terms of interiority and exteriority? The problems that emerge for Hegel from the transformation of quantity into quality reveal how globality, like totality, as a harmonious sublation of quantity and quality, is an achievement for Hegel. Even where these relations are subtractive and not recuperated, they still allow us to imagine the heap, the head, the purse as an entity. In this regard, globality is an "embarrassment," a quantity about which an "indifferent limit" can be assumed. But what is the process of signification that for every sun finds a sun dog, a false sun, that does not just produce globality or reproduce the relations of globality but that reproduces globality?

Monday, April 21, 2014

on not extending transparency (denise ferreria da silva)

I have gotten to the end of Denise Ferreira da Silva’s Toward a Global Idea of Race (University of Minnesota Press 2007) and I feel much in its aftermath. In attempting to understand da Silva's argument in the past months, I have read through these notes on Seminario Permanente de Teoria y Critica a number of times, which I have found extremely helpful. 

Descriptively, da Silva’s writing is iterative, generating its logic; the experience of reading it often reminded me of reading Hegel’s The Science of Logic, although these are very different books, of course. The book is a study and critique of modern representation, specifically of how the racial has functioned as a “signifier of globality,” producing “the others of Europe as modern subaltern subjects.” She contrasts this project with the project of what she calls “post-theory,” which she understands as the valuation in postmodernism, poststructuralism, and postcolonialism of historicity, or the deployment of “a good version of historicity.” She finds that this move reproduces the logic of historicity, which “relies on the modern construction of distance as a temporal metaphor to circumscribe the place of emergence of the colonized as a transparent I” (168).  Understanding that the project of modern representation is the project of the transparent I is key to being able to understand the duplicitous condition that produces “the others of Europe as modern subaltern subjects.” I use the word duplicitous to characterize this process because it denotes the doubleness (the being “twice affectable” that da Silva describes of the female slave in colonial Brazil (241)) but also the question of truth/falsity that science brings to the scene of modern representation. But this is also a duplicitous condition because da Silva suggests throughout the book that this process is informed by both “European desire” and by the “displacement” of race through the play of other key signifiers and strategies in modernity.

This points to the position held by the term “exteriority” in da Silva’s argument, which signals the overlap of the productive and reproductive in her project, by which I mean to point to the way that the subaltern subject’s exteriority is both assumed by and produced in the scene of modern representation. Da Silva describes how this logic informed early anthropological projects:
When deploying the cultural to incarcerate the others of Europe in their traditions and to safely keep post-Enlightenment Europe in the moment of transparency, these social scientific projects have already been approaching their objects as racial things. Not because these versions of these disciplines failed to refute the “original sin,” the writing of man as an effect of the tools of productive nomos, scientific reason in the guise of Spirit, but because, as they did so, they incorporated racial difference as a substantive trait of the human body. Had this not been the case, it would not have been possible to carve their separate niches in such a way as not to distinguish them from history. (150)
Da Silva describes this “incorporation” of racial difference as a strategy of engulfment, through which “racial difference” becomes a “substantive trait.” She describes how Boas (1911), who sought to classify the impact of “natural environment” on primitive races, supposed a fundamental difference between “civilized” and “primitive thought,” which was based on his finding that the “primitive mind” is determined by its environment, whereas the “civilized” mind, via Descartes’s efforts to secure the transcendental subject as its non-determination by exteriority (42). Thus it is the valorization of the interiority of the mind as what is “true” that occasions the displacement of “exteriority.” Because this exteriority, per Descartes, is seen to be based on  its identification as an “extended” thing, that is, as “body,” it allows for, in fact, inaugurates, the displacement of bodies that are not “minds,” that are not, in other words, containers of the transcendental mind. This gesture is already a gesture that is reproductive, or reconstructive, not just projective. By this, I mean to refer to the way that da Silva identifies the forward- and backward-facing aspects of the productive moment—that the others of Europe are “produced” as the reproduction of the transcendental I. Behind this is the moment in which race is transformed into the racial:
My first move is to describe the first moment of the analytics of raciality, the science of man, to show how, although it inherited the eighteenth-century naturalists' correlation between global regions and bodily and social configurations, it is the first project of knowledge to write post-Enlightenment Europe's particularity by deploying the apparatus of scientific reason manufactured in the account of productive nomos. Its arsenal does this when it transforms race (a term previously employed to describe collectivities in terms of blood relationship) into the racial (a scientific concept), the strategy of engulfment that produces the human body as an exteriorization of productive nomos. (116)
The moment that da Silva describes is key to modern representation, because it accounts for the transformation of a something descriptive (the manifoldness of human bodies) into a concept. This process of signification thus turns on the process in which the exteriorization of the mind is made manifold. Literally, it hinges on this moment, but this is also the moment in which modern representation, the working of the transcendent I, deceives or betrays, or can be seen as duplicitous in its movement of self-realization. It would be a stretch to call this moment intentional, in da Silva's schema, and yet, it also does not really seem sufficient to call it structural either. This is the problem that da Silva encountered, it seems, in trying to get to the limits of her own understanding, as she describes the development of the project:
Yet earlier I had failed to comprehend so many events! Events that are, to be sure, fully explained by what and how I know: another death of a black or brown youth at the hands of law enforcement, another death related to drug trafficking, another prison rebellion where many prisoners die, another suicide bombing, another legal act whose objective is to place more and more "others of Europe" in a state of illegality. When I learned about them, I got mad. Because that which enables my "understanding" explains away these events (and the fear they entail), resolving them in neat sociological formulas that write the deaths I hear about and the ones I can only imagine as events foretold....Haunted and mad, I engaged in the project of mapping the trajectory of the racial, that modern signifier that delimits all the murders producing the place where the lives, the social trajectory, of the racial subaltern subjects unfold. (261)
Here, da Silva describes how sociological or structural (institutional) analysis of race and racism deploys the logical gesture that "explains" away these deaths, which is, I think, a method that could similarly be ascribed to the explanatory gesture of biopolitics today. She begins the book with a discussion of Foucault, and specifically of the limit of Foucault's critique of "truth," which she attributes to his separation of the racial as a "symbolics of blood" from the "production of minds" (24). Thus, she finds that he does "not reach the place where European particularity is but an effect of the strategies of this productive ruler [universal reason]" (25).  She describes this as his inability (refusal?) to "relinquish" interiority. Thus, the question that occupies me, I suppose, is how to relinquish interiority. In what is arguably one of the more prescriptive moments of the text, and in its last lines, da Silva writes: 
We need to trace every and each articulation of raciality, including those that profess its irrelevance, trace at each moment how it rewrites the racial subaltern subject in affectability, producing statements that not only excuse the violent effects of this rewriting but also redeploy the transparency thesis. (267)
I think the operation that da Silva calls for here involves thinking about how one can talk or think about race without it being folded into raciality. Indeed, this seems to be Seminario Permanente de Teoria y Critica's question as well, phrased differently: "My question: if racialization is inevitably part of the modern paradigm, then is there is no way to revise it out of that paradigm?" For it seems that each "articulation of raciality" implies the relation in which "interiority" is not relinquished and comes to displace race, so that tracing such articulations would account for the displacement of race from the scene of representation and its revision as culture, etc,. I believe this still leaves, however--and perhaps this is the point?--the question of what race is, nonsubstantively: collectivities of blood relationships, symbolics of blood, manifoldness of human bodies. Is it the nonsubstantivity that is key, a "mix-up"? And finally, how is this related to the question of how to not extend transparency, how to not "redeploy the transparency thesis," a question I am always afraid to ask for fear that it also already always reproduces my own transparency. There is so much more to say about this book.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Preference and the Revolutionary Spectator

or, another rejection (this one, from the Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry, theme: Errans)

Abstract: In contrast to the importance placed on acting in theories of the revolutionary subject in the twentieth century, this project explores the errantry of contemplative activity. Going astray “in the mind” leads, both in political and in psychoanalytic theory, to the philosophical problem of preferring and “preferring not to,” to preference, the mediation of freedom and necessity, of unconscious and conscious desires. The project aims to highlight forms of activity that have been historically marginal in traditions of revolutionary thought and action, such as contemplation, spectatorship, the private realm, aesthetic judgment, and reproductive labor. The project takes up the central question proposed by the core project Errans: how can the negative capacity of errantry be maintained without its being valorized as negativity and thus reinserted teleologically? In answer to this question, I propose to explore the aesthetics of preference, which encompasses various attitudes of contemplation and spectation that are employed in the realm of political activity and can be seen to underlie actions or movements described as errant.

Beginning in the 1970s, Marxist theories of revolutionary transition have tended to emphasize the importance of what I call “negative preference,” a moment that is supposed to escape, through a form of negative agency, subsumption into the system of capitalist production. Theorists of negative preference, such as Deleuze, Hardt and Negri, and Ranciére, have frequently applied Melville’s Bartleby’s utterance “I would prefer not to” as one of its absolute instances, but I argue that this version of negativity is also a form of errantry, a truth statement that produces further questions about freedom and necessity. During the last fifty years, feminist Marxists who argue for the importance of reproductive labor, including Maria Mies, Silvia Federici, and Selma James, have provided ways for thinking about freedom from the reproduction of circumscribed choices within gendered institutions. Taking up the problems of freedom and necessity marked by these traditions, contemporary thinkers of revolution craft a space for contemplation as a condition of praxis, but the tendency of theories of change is to convert the tension between the voluntaristic (or contemplative) subject and an involuntary negativity into a form of necessary action or the necessity of practice. More often than not, passing over moments of spectation and contemplation reflects gendered assumptions about the priority of practice, dismissing depoliticized forms of life that become equated, through the idea of preference as personal choice, with liberal and neoliberal dispositions and with deliberation about “means” rather than about “ends.”

In contrast to the importance placed on the necessity of acting in theories of the resistant or revolutionary subject, this project explores the errantry of contemplative activity. It provides a counternarrative to these stories of the resistant or revolutionary subject by looking at the subject’s tolerance—rather than its sublation—of the conflict between voluntary and involuntary activity. Going astray “in the mind” leads, both in political and in psychoanalytic theory, to the philosophical problem of preferring and “preferring not to,” to preference, the mediation of freedom and necessity. The project aims to highlight forms of activity that have been historically marginal in traditions of revolutionary thought and action, such as contemplation, spectatorship, the private realm, aesthetic judgment, and reproductive labor. This project takes up the central question proposed by the core project Errans: how can the negative capacity of errantry be maintained without its being valorized as negativity and thus reinserted teleologically? In answer to this question, I propose to explore the aesthetics of preference, which encompasses various attitudes of contemplation and spectation that are employed in the realm of political activity and can be seen to underlie actions or movements described as errant.

Although not herself a Marxist, I turn to the texts of Hannah Arendt, written during the sixties and seventies, to work through the problem of freedom and necessity as it pertains to judgment, contemplation, and the gendering of these faculties within the Marxist tradition. The project develops a theoretical framework based on the Arendtian notion of “preference,” which Arendt introduces through the Aristotelian term proairesis (literally pro-airesis, a “choice before choice”) to describe a “proto-will” involving the ambiguity and mediation of freedom and necessity. In her 1970 The Life of the Mind, Hannah Arendt describes proairesis as a faculty that modifies willing, meant to establish an alternative to the development of willing as the realization of thinking into action.

Arendt does not develop preference as one of her central terms, but it returns in her discussion of the importance of judgment, where preference refers to the desire to “go astray”: “I prefer before heaven to go astray with Plato rather than hold true views with his opponents [Errare mehercule malo cum Platone…quam cum istis (sc. Pythagoraeis) vera sentire].” Preference is thus an articulation of the voluntary-involuntary nature of willing in general, and of the role played by aesthetic judgment in thinking and acting. I argue that insofar as it represents the problem of the voluntary-involuntary subject, preference underlies contemplation and errantry. Its claim to validity departs from accepted or normative truths, but rather than being a purely active negation of the truth, this departure signals an acceptance of the ambiguity in acting and spectating, and in the production of truth and error.

Turning from Arendt’s formulations of preference as an aesthetic activity that tolerates the ambiguity of spectating and acting, I explore the problem of the voluntary-involuntary subject in work that seeks to rearticulate the terms of private life in order to produce a resistant subject. I consider how writers have sought to transform literature into a forum in which an automatic resistance to capitalism can be theorized as a matter of aesthetics, and as a poetics. I explore this politicization of literature in several different contexts: the problem of “coerced freedom” in global feminist work of the 1980s (Maria Mies, Rosemarie Trockel, Silvia Federici, Selma James); the construction of the “other” in European poetry of migration (Zafer Senoçak, Zehra Çirak); and contemporary anticapitalist poetry’s intolerance of “apolitical” poetry (Jennifer Moxley, Joshua Clover). Methodologically, the project examines how literary form as poetry has borrowed from sociological models of political agency, but has also complicated sociological notions of history and subjectivity by giving poetic form to the epistemological aporia of the voluntary-involuntary subject.

In bringing together Marxist discourse, Arendt’s writings on preference, and anticapitalist poetry, I focus on two main theoretical issues: the concept of transition, or how necessity is overcome to yield freedom, and the priority of action as a mode of subjecthood. Arendt’s thinking about revolutionary transition and her critique of Marx form an important point of tension with post-Marxist ideas about the immanence and the immediacy of revolutionary transition, because while Arendt also critiques the idea of the transformation from necessity to freedom implicit in the transition, she helps us to think about how making the transition immediate, or doing away with it, does not solve the problem about freedom—or how, in modern thought, freedom is surrendered to necessity. Safeguarding freedom in periods of transition becomes important in the literatures I explore, which think about how contingent needs and desires are the first things to be destroyed in moments of crisis.

Monday, April 7, 2014

silent i

A comment that (apparently?) continues to await moderation at The New Inquiry, in response to Aaron Bady's "(Some Provisional Writing on) Time, Poetry, and the ICC Witness Project” (March 29, 2014). Original comment date March 30, 2014:

I’ve been reading your blog [zunguzungu] for a little while…and i’m kind of provoked by these issues to finally respond in person, although i’ve kind of (i hope you don’t mind) referred to your writing (specifically, on Bartleby) in other places. Among other things, I’m interested in your formulation of the “violation co-extensive with silence,” which seems to propose that this is both something to question and also the condition upon which “agency,” under the model of human rights discourse, is conceptualized. As you describe, this moment also, then, contributes to an event’s being determined as “past” and thus as “historical” and thus as something that can be dealt with, versus something that is not perhaps turned into an object of the past, to be dealt with, and so on.

It seems like silence is kind of falsely reparative in this sense–or as Bob Meister might say in *After Evil,* that this is an instance of “manic reparation,” a kind of reparation that is about inscribing the legitimacy of juridical structures (of HRD) rather than doing justice for the victims (these are his terms). I guess I tend to think that silence, when invoked, does get used against those who were violated, in this way. But silence, as you suggest, that is co-extensive with violation, might be something else. It’s interesting in the report you cite, how “silence” is listed with “tears” and “emotion” as something that cannot be expressed in the form of the report, almost as an index of emotionality itself. Silence seems to stand here for the unsayable, the unspeakable, for the inadequacy of language–already kind of pushing it over into the kind of silence-as-manic-reparation. But I don’t know if this is how you are reading it or how you are thinking of it, in this passage or in other places. It also seems like “silence” as an extension of violation could help to think about ongoing violence/violation that is not captured as an object of the past.

And it’s interesting–I think that poetry, when it gets roped into this context, does sometimes help get to different questions about the place of political violation/violence in psychosocial trauma, questions that emphasize–as I think you are saying–the importance of looking at political violence instead of just seeing psychosocial trauma (sorry–i’ve kind of falsely opposed political and psychosocial here, maybe it’s not necessary). I tend to think about this as a matter of how the “I” becomes a problem in (lyric) poetry. But it is also perhaps less about poetics and just as much about a narrative of poetry in which poetry disappoints its expressive function, or the expectations of this function (as perhaps coalesce around the poetry/barbarism/Auschwitz question)…I’d be interested in more about Kenya, about how the span indicated with the initiation of the commission (1963-2008) also comes to count 2008 as a kind of endpoint, or the term around which the *post* is figured. These are really just associations, or actually, kind of rephrasings of what you’ve written. I hope it’s okay. It follows my own kind of burst of idealism about SC, as well, fwiw, and thanks–

Sunday, April 6, 2014

on therapeutic utility

In a rather astonishing passage in The Writing of Disaster (trans. Ann Smock, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), Blanchot discusses Serge Leclaire’s and D.W. Winnicott’s “child,” the dead child, the child who is “always already dead.” The discussion takes place in his reflections on “impossible necessary death,” and the death of the child is understood as the first death; in contrast to “organic” death, the second death. One of the remarkable things about the passage is that Blanchot identifies the object of one’s destructiveness in a way that Winnicott himself does not quite get to. This object is “the dead child”; “what we strive thus to kill is the dead child: not only the one who would have for his function to sustain and maintain death in life, but the one for whom the ‘confusion’ of the two deaths has been unable not to obtain and who, therefore, does not ever authorize us to ‘lift’ this confusion” (69, italics mine). This child is perhaps really two: the child, like Leclaire’s infans, whose death is the instance of our being able to speak and to live; and the child for whom the first and the second deaths remain confused (double negative: unable not to obtain), which for Blanchot signals the “the infinite passivity of dying” (70). That child who is the condition of individuality (who is in this sense a “me”), is also not an individual, is a “not-me.” Both of these “children” are dead; they are “confused,” on this basis.

What I find worth noting about the passage is the way that Blanchot qualifies psychoanalysis. He does so, first, by noting that Winnicott’s explanation, which is “fictive,” is perhaps “therapeutically useful”: 

Or rather, this explanation of Winnicott’s is only an explanation, albeit impressive—a fictive application designed to individualize that which cannot be individualized or to furnish a representation for the unrepresentable: to allow the belief that one can, with the help of transference, fix in the present of a memory (that is, in a present experience) the passivity of the immemorial unknown. The introduction of a such a detour is perhaps therapeutically useful, to the extent that, through a kind of Platonism, it permits him who lives haunted by the imminent collapse to say: this will not happen, it has already happened; I know, I remember. It allows him to restore, in other words, a knowledge which is relation to truth, and a common, linear temporality (66).

As Blanchot describes, Winnicott’s “primitive agonies” entail a state in which the child is not yet a subject, and the function of this state, the unintegrated state, is to allow the adult individual to have a narrative in which organic death, the “immemorial unknown” can be known as a memory that refers back to this primary state, a state of primary nonintegration. It’s perhaps precisely because it’s “fictive,” or “therapeutically useful,” that Winnicott’s explanation functions as the obverse to Leclaire’s assertion that “one lives and speaks only by killing the infans in oneself (in others also)” (67). The condition of living and speaking is the death of the child, not just of the child, but of the “dead child.”

Thus, one of the dead children is “therapeutically useful” insofar as she allows the lifting of confusion, to return to knowledge, to establish a linear temporality. I think Blanchot is right about this utility, and in identifying it, he points to something that is perhaps obvious but that might seem too much so. It’s one of the aspects of Winnicott’s writing that I think others, including Michael D. Snediker, in Queer Optimism, have highlighted, which is the terrific metaphorical capaciousness of Winnicott’s writing. What Blanchot underscores is that this “fictive” or metaphorical capacity is its therapeutic utility.

Blanchot goes further. In a parenthetical comment in the next paragraph, he claims that psychoanalytic vocabulary should be used only by analysts: “only those who practice psychoanalysis can use—only those, that is, for whom analysis is a risk, an extreme danger, a daily test—for otherwise it is only the convenient language of established culture” (67). Only the analyst, perhaps, writes and speaks and lives these terms through their practice, terms that would otherwise merely describe “established culture.” Winnicott’s position as an analyst allows him to function in a realm in which the metaphorical aspect of language is therapeutically useful because it does not have a correlate with social experience; it “has not been experienced.” To turn the language of psychoanalysis over to ordinary language implies that this metaphorical dimension will be lost. This is the dimension of language that is at work in representation.

The dead dead child—this means not just that we kill “the marvelous (terrifying) child which we have been in the dreams and desires of those who were present at our birth (parents, society in general),” but that we kill the identification of the child with “primary narcissistic representation,” a representation that “has the status of an ever-unconscious, and consequently, forever indelible, representation” (67). The “indelible ever-unconscious representation” is the impossible necessary death, and it’s this that we seek to destroy (and that in destroying gives us the ability to live, to speak). Blanchot writes: “Whence the literally ‘maddening’ difficulty: in order not to remain in the limbo of the infans, on the near side of desire, one must destroy the indestructible and even finish off (not at one blow, but constantly) that to which one has not now, nor has one ever had, nor will one ever have, access: impossible, necessary death” (67). We destroy the representation itself, though we want (hence the limbo) to maintain it. This, among other things, getting to the end, leaves us confused…

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Adjuncting Love

Recently, questions about desire and love have come out of the woodwork in conversations about graduate/adjunct labor, the work of academia, and intellectual occupations more generally. Meanwhile, student workers at the University of California are on strike protesting unfair labor practices. In the last five years, writing on the working conditions in California public education has been instrumental in communicating the terms of this struggle to those located within and without; the website Remaking the University and the blog/journal Reclamations are prominent examples of places where this writing is taking place. Even while not the explicit subject matter of this writing, the affective intensity of such work is evident here as well as in the on-the-ground organization, activism, and struggle that much of the writing work grapples with, describes, inspires, and responds to. Two recent examples of work that exhibits this affective intensity are "Why We are Striking," a document signed "some strikers, some friends," which puts forth the terms of the current strike at the UC over unfair labor practices; and Earl Perez-Foust's "Why Solidarity Is Important, or an Open Letter to UC Faculty," which addresses the importance of faculty members supporting the strike as a way of making conversations about the conditions of the academic workplace more transparent.

One thing about the intensity of this work that's worth noting is the way that it considers itself to be destructive, or it understands that this is its potential; this is to be understood in opposition to the do what you love ideology that allows the labor of academic work to go unacknowledged as such. While such a naive "love" is widely recognized as "too much," it also becomes quite clear, as Hannah Black describes in "You Are Too Much," that a model, or perhaps better, a narrative, of love that affirms the fitness of the object is long past. Black identifies the way that the model of heterosexual love is not only not available to those who don't identify with this narrative, but "how blackness or queerness or even being gendered female in a white male supremacist world can make it hard to accept love because you are encouraged from childhood to hate yourself." I'm extending her discussion about race and sexuality to academia, because I think that her central insight about love, that the choice we have about it is reserved for the attitude we have toward hate, poses something worthwhile for the discussion. As she finds, there are two positions indicated by the White Family: over-attachment (the maintaining of a belief in attachment as health, as figured in the overly attached girlfriend) and hate or destructiveness (being foreclosed from the narrative, refusing the narrative). Black writes, "For the White Family love is health, but for us love is at once a symbol of a possible future, a vanishing present, and the sign of the patriarchal white permafrost that threatens to destroy us. If we are ambivalent about love in its present form, it is only because, against the odds, we choose to feel something other than hatred."

We might export these two positions to the realm of academic labor: over-attachment or destructiveness. This invites a brief (as brief as possible) discussion of an essay that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Elizabeth Segran's "The Danger of Victimizing Ph.D.'s." Her argument can be surmised from the subtitle, "No one but you is forcing you to accept low-paid adjunct work," and what's shocking about the piece (in addition to the fact that there's no mention of the "productive" ways that people at her former graduate institution are also, on the same day, attempting to influence the "labor market") is that there's no account of the complexity of "choice," as an instance of coerced volition in a narrative that's not just ideological, but "bad" psychology.

Segran's presentation of this choice ("Yet Ph.D.’s have the power to resist. They can choose to reject academe altogether and find satisfying work elsewhere.") and her valorization of professionalization (if you fail in being a professional academic, you just need to choose another field in which you can be a professional success) is laughable, perhaps, on certain days, at certain times, because the other side of what she presents is all that cannot be included in such choices, including the very idea of a "choice" as something that can be made "freely" by an individual. As 1970s Marxist feminism has shown, and as this article by low end theory also notes (thanks to Michelle Ty for the reference), choices, in particular about objects of love, are always also coercions. I keep dwelling on this insight, now outdated—perhaps too outdated to explain love now, but also, I suspect, not—in thinking about the close residence of love and hate and the role of destructiveness in love. For as much as Black writes against "love," she also gets that the joke about overattachment is not that funny: "One side of the joke — that a woman would have to be crazy to long for entry into a couple — is negated by the other — that a woman who can’t negotiate her way into a couple is crazy." Put otherwise: One side of the joke—that a PhD has to be crazy to long for entry into academia—is negated by the other—that a PhD who can't negotiate her way into academia is crazy. This ambivalence cannot be resolved by simply choosing another object to love, another profession, another .com identity.

At least, it's not a choice of the sort that I'd want to make. There's no "choice," for example, in some strikers, some friends' phrasing "Today’s strikers, tomorrow’s adjuncts." But there is something to think about in the continuity that is asserted between these positions, which are often seen as occupying different places in society: one, choosing to feel something other than hatred (i.e. choosing destructiveness) and the other, overattached, atomized, nostalgic, failed. The continuity is further asserted at the end of the document with the statement, "We are striking so that we do not end up like the fortunate ones."  In other words, I think, we are striking so that we don't have to be the professionals, the ones for whom choice is both a matter of production and consumption.

Although throughout grad school I resisted professionalization and I was a striker, it's taken me quite some time to see where this leaves me, outside of feeling like I am not a part of anything--too far from the UC (and from my life as a grad student) to be anything but a spectator and too alienated from the University of Minnesota (and my life as an academic) to do anything there. But the insidious component, which I've been trying to describe, is the way that my market failure has contributed to my feeling that I also am not worth enough to contribute to these conversations—the ones at the UC that I described above and read so avidly—as anything more than an overattached spectator. It's been harder to resist feeling like my lack of success on the job market is not tied to wanting "too much," harder to think in an un-atomized, de-individualized way about the plethora of rejection and nonadmittance to the institution.

In other words, it's hard to go from being a striker to an adjunct; it's hard to feel like overattachment is your fate (or that the White Family is) and to come up with a way to articulate a resistance to this structure of affective relations when your relation to the institution seems to affirm that fate. But what the continuity that is described by some strikers, some friends suggests is finally quite helpful for thinking about the very real reasons that are there for not wanting to count oneself as part of the "fortunate." For the Tenure-Track Professor and the White Family (and with the understanding that these are not social categories but upheld and often invisible ideals), there is no longer a reason to feel ambivalent about love, or perhaps better, there's always another reason to feel ambivalent about love, but perhaps too there's no longer a reason to feel ambivalent about one's love objects. In addition to the fact that this is "too bad," the loss of such ambivalence, of a relation to a loved object that does not involve the capacity to hold one's destructiveness, is a profound but perhaps less apparent price to be paid for professionalism.