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.