Saturday, June 18, 2016

"self-incurred minority"

What, then, does the “intellectual elite” discover as it begins to take stock of its feelings? Those feelings themselves? They have long since been remaindered. What is left is the empty spaces, where, in dusty heart-shaped velvet trays, the feelings--nature and love, enthusiasm and humanity--once rested. Now the hollow forms are absentmindedly caressed. 
[Was findet “die geistige Elite,” die an die Bestandaufnahmne ihrer Gefühle herantritt, den vor? Diese selbst etwa? Sie sind längst verramscht worden. Was blieb, sind die leeren Stellen, wo in verstaubten Sammetherzen die Gefühle—Natur und Liebe, Enthusiasmus und Menschlichkeit—einmal gelegen haben. Nun liebkost man geistabwesend die Hohlform.]

--Walter Benjamin, "Left-wing Melancholy”

In "The University and the Undercommons," Fred Moten and Stefano Harney dwell on Kant's phrase, which opens "What Is Enlightenment?," of a "self-incurred minority" [selbstverschuldeten Unmündigkeit]. They are talking about a stage of "teaching for food," which is either surpassed if one is "successful" or consigned to the sociopathological labor of the university. Moten and Harney propose that those who refuse to move past this stage remain in the "beyond of teaching," continuing to take sustenance from others around them. Kant's notion of the selbstverschuldeten Unmündigkeit refers, as M & H also parse, to "having the 'determination and courage to use one’s intelligence without being guided by another.'” Schuld--here the root of selbstverschuldeten--both "debt," as its translation "self-incurred" seems to imply, and "guilt." And Unmündigkeit, which M & H take as "minorities," carries mündig, "to be of age," "mature," "responsible," within. I'm drawn to this double implication of "guilt" and "responsibility" as minor terms of this phrase. How is being not "of age" something that is brought about by one's own fault? How does being "one's own fault" relate to what on the other side is a "being guided by another"? At what point is it not a stage that persists, but the guilt/debt itself? And at what point (at that point?) is this "eines anderes" also not "another"? Where, when does this become a personification of something like a holding environment? Is there a determination here, about personhood, that arises from the indeterminacy of environment?

Moten and Harney write that "Certainly, the perfect subjects of communication, those successfully beyond teaching, will see them [the self-incurred minority] as waste." Being seen as "waste," as objects sold "at a loss," and thus remaindered in this way--is it from this perspective of feeling something quite irrecuperable about yourself, as your sense of yours and others' estimation of you, of a persistent guilt, that the fuzziness of personhood/environment can also be registered? Then, this describes not so much what there is to be gained from a stage that one persists in (as a kind of self-sacrificial model might have), but it can perhaps help to think about why one might want to remain in such a place, even when all the reasons, social, political, psychological, and otherwise, point to the advantages of not.

There are ample places here to link such a state of Unmündigkeit with Paula Heimann's idea of "children-no-longer," perhaps as the other side of it--for Heimann's "child-no-longer" is not someone who has surpassed such a stage, but someone whose being there "no longer" indexes a firm attachment to, rather than a leaving of, childhood.

It's all happening within my wondering about being able to "return" to a place where I am "no longer"--and so a place where I left my "heart," where my "heart" remains. There's feeling that, and then the badness of that feeling. And there's the not knowing what to do with any of it. There's a question that seems silly and completely besides the point about all of it, and also completely narcissistic, because it's not at all about me, but it's a question about why my return to Irvine, which I had not been able to undertake at any earlier point since I left six years ago, coincided with Joe's death. There's always that question, why?, about death, especially about the deaths of people like Joe, like Frank. It's so futile, it often can't be asked, is not bearable. I had told Imogen about Joe dying when I returned from California three weeks ago. I don't think I've talked about it since then. Today, just a long day of feeling all these things and feeling like there's no place to put them, and no place to return to here, in Minnesota. So it's evening, before bed, and I say, finally, after being beyond and at the edge of tears all day, I'm just feeling so sad. Several minutes later, Imogen says, "Mommy, are you sad because your friend died?" Three weeks, for a three-year-old, is a long time to hold a memory, to hold something in mind. "Yes, I am." "What was his name?" This, I've already told her, too. She's asking not to know, but to be reminded, or to remind me, or to let me know, and it gives me a small place to return to.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

complice in humanity

In his 1931 essay “Left-wing Melancholy,” which presents a critique of the poetry of Erich Kästner, Walter Benjamin makes a proposition about the “task” (Aufgabe) of “political lyric”:
Was Wunder, da sie ihre Funktion darin haben, diesen Typ mit sich selbst zu versöhnen und jene Identität zwischen Berufs- und Privatleben herzustellen, die von diesen Leuten unter dem Namen »Menschlichkeit« verstanden wird, in Wahrheit aber das eigentlich Bestialische ist, weil alle echte Menschlichkeit – unter den heutigen Verhältnissen - nur aus der Spannung zwischen jenen beiden Polen hervorgehen kann. In ihr bilden sich Besinnung und Tat, sie zu schaffen ist die Aufgabe jeder politischen Lyrik, und erfüllt wird sie heute am strengsten in den Gedichten von Brecht.

[It is surprising that their [the poems’] function is to reconcile this type of person to himself, and to establish that identity of professional and private life which these men understand by the name “humanity” but which is in truth the genuinely bestial, since authentic humanity—under present conditions—can arise only from a tension between these two poles. In this tension, consciousness and deed are formed. To create it is the task of the all political lyricism, and today this task is most strictly fulfilled by Bertolt Brecht’s poems.]
In this somewhat involuted formulation, Benjamin describes as the task of political lyric its capacity to create “authentic humanity.” In contrast to recourse to a humanity that is actually “bestial” because it is formed through the identity rather than the difference of professional and private life, “authentic humanity” would be formed through the maintenance of this tension. In Benjamin’s estimation, the easy reconciliation, or identity, of professional and private life involves the absorption of “life” into professional interests, constituting the “bestiality” of bourgeois consciousness. The formulation is marked by the indeterminacy of the object (sie) of this task: sie zu schaffen--“to create it,” humanity; “to accomplish it,” the tension between poles; “to form them,” consciousness and deed. This indeterminacy is not merely an index of overdetermination, of the multiply determinate processes invoked by the task, but points to a series of mediating processes that must be moved through in order to oppose humanity and bestiality in such a way that an idea of “genuine humanity” can also be preserved.

This scene, a scene that retains “genuine humanity” as a possible outcome of not reconciling one to oneself, begins to articulate the terms of complicity upon which political consciousness—and political lyric following the Brechtian model—is based. Benjamin values political lyric because it prevents an individual from becoming reconciled with himself—and from this tension, “consciousness and deed” can be seen to arise. Such tension can be described in the terms of guilt that complicity proposes.

Complicity, Mitschuld, or Teilhaberschaft, is defined as “association or participation in or as if in a wrongful act,” and it’s the “complice” part of this that is important, as it sets up a relation between the act, or crime, i.e. what has been done, and a nebulous idea about what counts as “association or participation” in this act. In this sense, then, the problem that underlies complicity—and onto which this work opens—is a problem of part/whole relations, and how one can be seen, or see oneself, as having a part in a wrongful act. It could be said that complicity raises a question about the phantasy or reality of the wrongful act—and this, perhaps, in a way not dissimilar to the stakes of reality/phantasy in Freud’s thinking about seduction. So if complicity begins with an assumption that there is a crime and therefore someone who can assume guilt for it, it ends more speculatively, with relations of guilt as Freud describes in The Ego and the Id (and/or Civilization and Its Discontents), where something like aggression, the need for punishment, pushes guilt into a fantasy formation. Indeed, it becomes easy to see how complicity is a structure of fantasy. I am interested in relations of “associations or participation” that register at the most minimal level, and thus that hold this question of in what way the notion of “taking part” can be construed. If the effective relation of guilt/aggression holds complicity in place, at once offering an explanation for it and suggesting how it contributes to the compelling hold that complicity seems to have in thinking about political agency. 

In what way—in what place, in what time—is living itself a form of complicity; more: in what way—in what place, in what time—is it not?

Thursday, June 2, 2016

asking too much

the egregiousness of living on, the ontology of death. when laura cubarubbia died in 9th grade, having hung herself in a forested area near her parents' house in ohio, there was no way to understand what had happened. remembering her life, her living, the moment of her death, or the moment of hearing about her death--none of it goes anywhere in thinking about the absence of her in the world. what i'm thinking about now is the feeling that comes with this. there were a couple of the teachers we had been close to, and whom we had all met with the next morning, and they told us not to act like we could just go on, that it was not like any other day. in many ways, that was the only thing to hold onto, the sense that just because everything else did, you didn't have to continue on. already quiet, i didn't have anything to say. i remember that about being in the counselor's office at school, and i remember that about being together with other classmates--not being able to say a thing, and how everything that was said felt like a blow; the incommensurability, a kind of violence enacted by just being there. as if this was asking too much.

i've felt that in the past week, returning to minnesota from california, from the death of someone who was, unlike laura, very distant to me, but part of a community that i feel very close to. there is only a limning of a connection, and yet, there is a loss and an absence that i continue to stumble over, to not get beyond.

writing about the death of her adult son in Time Lived, Without Its Flow, Denise Riley tries to account for an experience of time--located specifically in the experience of a mother following the death of a child--that is the stopping of time. She begins: "I'll not be writing about death, but about an altered condition of life. The experience that not only preoccupied but occupied me was of living in suddenly arrested time: that acute sensation of being cut off from any temporal flow that can grip you after the sudden death of your child. And a child, it seems, of any age" (7). death as "an altered condition of life." if death is what happens to the dead, then this altered condition is a way of describing how this death--and the person who remains dead--continues to relate to those who (must) live on. a state of insufficiency that is also an asking too much. and then one wonders, what is life ever, if not this?

i've also been thinking in the past months about the acuteness or sensitivity to feeling after a loss of life, after a death, about what opens up here that does not elsewhere and what remains in this space that others seem to want to evacuate too soon, as it's suffocating or a form of death itself. i came to this in thinking about how palpable the sense of loss is to me in indiana, where my young cousin died, now nine years ago in a car accident. it's still not possible to go there, as i did just over a month ago, and not feel that his death lives on. it's not possible to not feel this everywhere, but especially, perhaps, in forms of silence that reach out to you, still. thinking about the poignancy of this, i went to thinking about how, with the death of my dad's mom when i was a year, it would have been quite possible to have a very acute (although unrecognized) sense of one's life being itself the continuing on after/of another's death. my dad's 30+ year depression is in this case not insignificant, itself something that has altered, it seems, only in the past two or so years.

when laura died, all i could see for years was the side of death. it was only possible to see everything about "life" i was learning--i remember it especially in the case high school history--as about death, or end, or stoppage, or disappearance, or non-existence. it was as if it was some kind of hallucination, like the only thing you could see was something that wasn't there for others.

riley writes, "How, then, can I struggle to convey this sharply distinctive life inside a new temporal dimension--while in the same breath I want to save it from being treated as unapproachable, and exceptional? That, straightforwardly enough, might be a question of allowing the myriad specificities of loss their distinctive impacts on lived time" (52). i have questions about what this temporal dimension might be--how to even think of "stopped time," making quick recourse to the tropes of repetition and the kind of stoppage or movement toward stillness that is deliberated there. a temporal dimension that opens up from image loss, or absence of impression, for example, of no longer having something you can "hold in hand," maintain (main-tenir).

all of the photos of california i took after the party were on a camera that i then lost/left behind, somewhere between the car rental place and the airport. probably nothing special, but i wondered, like rei's having lost her keys, if there was a desire for divestment, or a sense of insufficiency, or a hint that that was already asking too much, about continuing.