Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Combatting Neutralization

This recent sequence of days has compelled me to recall that all my other, all my previous love stories, were unrequited. There is nothing quite like "love" or "desire" (distinctions withheld, momentarily) that better motivates paranoid reading, a kind of oscillation between what is palpable, and what felt, what is imagined and what fantasy, what is surface and what depth. In these days, I've finally been able to "get to" the way that "love" in relation to my academic work (such as I perceive it) has been in the position of perpetually repairing (and this term should resonate with all of its attendant psychoanalytic chords, whereby repairing is a way of recovering one's relations to objects that one has also destroyed), and all the while, I've thought that this reparation functioned as a way of working through the way that I've felt destroyed by my own lack of profession, my lack of a job, my lack of some kind of minimum environment that I can "love." But these are, of course, tentative thoughts.

In the past five or so years, there has been a good deal of writing about the "labor of love," the way that labor is effaced when we think of work, as low end theory writes in "A Love Letter to Radical Graduate Students: Present, Former, Future, part I," as producing a "social good," and the way, more generally, that this contributes to the ideology of the university; Marc Bousquet's essay, "We Work" (Minnesota Review, Winter/Spring 2009) is frequently cited, including in the recent essay, "In the Name of Love," by Miya Tokumitsu in The Jacobin (Issue #13, Alive in the Sunshine (Winter 2014)). Although each of these three essays points to the contradiction of being compelled, as Bousquet writes, "to find love, pleasure, and even success in making ourselves exploitable subjects," only the love letter makes a link between this insight and its centrality in Marxist feminist work: 
What makes this a love letter is the idea I want at once to express and in expressing, to make irresistible to you—the idea that knowledge work in the academy is most powerful because it is a domain of love, by which I mean a place in which intimacy, desire, attachment, and investment all hold considerable sway in keeping the machine running smoothly. Or otherwise.  So this is meant at once to serve as an expression of love and to carry a distinctly Marxist feminist lesson about it—particularly, that the idea of love has never been far from relations of domination and exploitation.
Invoking this tradition of Marxist feminist thought is really important, because although Tokumitsu and Bousquet both identify this realm (and the realm of care work traditionally associated with feminist work) as important to how we consider labor, this formulation points to its importance for how we think about love

And it's really to this topic that I want to turn, one that I think really does gain by being addressed by mobilizing, perhaps among other things, various aspects of psychoanalytic thought that usually get dismissed in the realm of politically-committed academic labor. In his essay "Against Heroism," (Minnesota Review, Winter/Spring 2009; subsequently republished in The Critical Pulse: Thirty-six Credos by Contemporary Critics, ed. Jeffrey J. Williams and Heather Steffen, Columbia UP (2012)), John Conley calls for a critique of what he calls "politically-committed academic labor," and before I get to the topic I really want to get to (love is always deferred), I want to say a few things about how this kind of critique is so useful for thinking about these relations of love that we (as radical graduate students past, present, and future) would like to reorganize. The distinction that low end theory makes between deprofessionalization and deprivatization, as attitudes that can be taken toward one's desire to do academic work, is on my mind from the outset, and I think that Conley's essay makes a similar recommendation, in wanting to think about a "critique" of politically-committed academic labor. Both of these raise the question of how we can "perform a negative function" (these are my words but I'm putting these words in quotes because I'm unsure about them) on work that we love. 

Having, as I indicated in my earlier post, just spent a few days thinking about how forms of divestment can replace the model of critical thinking that valorizes a model of consciousness raising, it seems to me that Conley's critique of politically-committed academic labor addresses some of the concrete aspects of critical divestment that were not the subject matter of the panel itself. Specifically, Conley proposes auto-reduction as a way of reducing workload: "We need to help each other work less." This, he claims, is the subjective side of the critique--this kind of "what can be done"--that actually correlates with our collective, de-privatized acting in the world; the objective side has to do with the way that we understand the construction of our own desire, of our "love." Conley writes, "By misrecognizing our labor as political work, our desires to participate in the construction of a better world are captured and effectively neutralized." Desire neutralized. Desire, as the desire for a better world, "to work within the 'belly of the beast,' to try to effect change in the world, etc." If auto-reduction helps us to think about deprivatizing or collectivizing (and maybe these are not equal processes) labor, in order to combat this neutralization (but how do you "combat"neutralization?), how can we, from the other side, the objective side of the critique, think about deprivatizing desire, about deprivatizing love? Or does the idea of deprivatization fall short here, in the face of an object of love (in short, to our "literary" objects) that so many of us experience in dimensions tropic, figurative, ephemeral, ethereal, oscillating, immaterial, or all too material, and so on?

So turning now to love. I remain stuck on D.W. Winnicott's idea about the counterintuitive nature of the reparative act (where love is or is an aspect of this act). In his 1964 essay, "Aggression and its Roots," he writes:
Naturally the fact that the patient was becoming conscious of the destructiveness made possible the constructive activity which appeared in the day. But it is the other way round that I want you to see just now. The constructive and creative experiences were making it possible for the child to get to the experience of her destructiveness. (121) 
As I described above, my own experience of unrequited academic love has led me through a pretty extensive sequence of reparative acts--it was me, it was you, it was not personal, it was the was already there from the beginning, the end began at that moment on the beach when you said--or ways of trying to manage and assign responsibility or blame for the conditions that contributed to the destruction of the object. Along the way, of course, there were Winnicottian therapists who made interpretations about my relation vis-a-vis structural conditions and all of that, and while I've been able to get it kind of abstractly, or to know that I should get it, I think I've only just hit upon what Winnicott describes as the other side of our relation to things that we love: the experience of destructiveness. Winnicott is clear that this destructiveness is the condition of loving relationships.

Such an acknowledgment aims at taking “full responsibility for the destructiveness that is personal, and that inherently belongs to a relationship to an object that is felt to be good; in other words that is related to loving” (117). For Winnicott, love is not just close to "relations of domination and exploitation," it is the outcome of domination and exploitation. And yet, Winnicott is not advocating making use of this relation as a way of justifying the socialization of such dynamics. 

Even more, however, Winnicott is suggesting that because this is so much the case, because it is unavoidable, there is no necessary correspondence between psychic domination and exploitation and social domination and exploitation. This correspondence is a contingency that, however, justifies or seems to justify the retrospective transformation of destructiveness (Winnicott's other term is aggression) into cruelty; in other words, that transforms a kind of unintegrated or objective destructiveness into a subjective or intentional "envy" (to use Klein's term, which Winnicott disputes). The distinction amounts to a critique of primary narcissism, to Winnicott's critique of Klein that "envy" just "puts the baby there" without an environment. An elaboration of this, Michael Balint's The Basic Fault develops the problem of primary narcissism in detail: "According to the theory of primary narcissism, the individual is born having hardly any or no relationship with his environment" (67). Counterintuitively, perhaps, "getting to" one's destructiveness implies an acknowledgment of the falseness of primarily narcissism, even though our experiences of "envy" as humans often seem to tell us otherwise. 

Winnicott does not quite say what it would mean to "experience one's destructiveness," and as a way of trying to come to the end of this train of thought, I'd like to make a few speculations that don't really get quite around to addressing, yet, the problem of how to love academic objects. Alas. However, in his discussion of the "baby," (he imagines that) destructiveness is experienced in the baby's biting and attacking of its first love object. In attacking it in this way, the baby externalizes it, brings it into being as an object. What is destroyed is not the object, but the "union," the idea that the baby and mother are one and exist in a state of nonintegration. Still, the baby is always asked--as we also always are?--to perform this psychic operation of imagining this "union," this identity of self and environment, when it is not there. That this is a paradox that is retained in love relations is little more than an observation, but one that might help us to think both about how easily it can come to pass that the "intimacy, desire, attachment, investment" are sapped or "neutralized" and about how, psychically, such feelings register not only an attitude about an object but also attest to a readiness to encounter this object destructively, that is, to see it as both external and persisting in its being as an object. To destroy an academic object--twentieth century German literature, for example--means something for disciplinarity, or field, although I'm not sure yet what.

This post is still a kind of hold over or extended conversation from "Critical Divestment"... 

No comments: