Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Sensational Fiction and the Thrilling Enculturation of Correlationism

             D.A. Miller names the process through which reader and text enter into mutual yet vicarious contact with each other “thrilling,” an arcane nominalization of the verb “to thrill.” For Miller, thrilling harkens back to its originary 14th century meaning of the piercing or penetrating of material bodies. In claiming that Miller’s Too Close Reading shares much with Object Oriented Ontology, I pointed primarily to his revised scope of textual focus. His stress on the original meaning of thrilling – and in contrast the now common meaning of the word as a subjective emotional transport – hints at a deeper sympathy with OOO.
            Thrill, originally referring to material bodies’ penetration, undergoes a dramatic shift in meaning at the close of the 18th century, when it takes on its subjective, anthropocentric meaning of an emotional transport. Although first used in this modern sense in 1616 by Shakespeare (King Lear: “A Seruant that he bred, thrill'd with remorse, Oppos'd against the act.”), this meaning lay dormant until Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe used it in 1789 (Romance of Forest: “A kind of pleasing dread thrilled her bosom.”), followed sixteen years later by Romantic heavyweight Wordsworth (“Waggoner:” “His ears are by the music thrilled.”). That this anthropocentric shift in meaning emerges out of both Gothic fiction and Romanticism cannot be an accident. On the one hand, Gothic fiction is the thrilling genre par excellence, initiating a genealogy of fiction that peaked during the fin de siècle with Sensational fiction. On the other hand, Romanticism shares strong roots with Kantian idealism – the parallel German Romanticism, after all, took its philosophical cues from Kant and his descendants Fitche and Schelling. The crucial philosophical presupposition with Romanticism and its redefining of thrilling is the Kantian sublime, an intensely internal experience stemming from an external object, the representation of which infinitely exceeds the power of reason and intellect. The sublime, in this sense, is not something out in the “world,” but instead a subjective experience of the infinite excess of that world; accordingly it is an experience of human freedom. Thrilling, as an emotion transport, corresponds with the Kantian sublime in two crucial senses: first, as internal transportation and reorientation presuppositionally sparked by an external influence; second, as a purely human experience.
            Thus it is no accident that thrilling undergoes such a radical shift around 1800. To hazard a generalization, thrilling’s redefinition registers the emergence of correlationism.  What then, of the Gothic heritage and the gradual ascendency of thrilling’s currency during the 19th century?
            Using Google books new and amazing database tool, we can see that thrill’s usage steadily climbs throughout the later half of the 19th century – approximately the period when sensational fiction garners gross popular appeal – before briefly peaking around 1900 and ultimately climaxing at the close of World War I:
Now, while Gothic and Sensational fiction may appear different from the Romantic poetry of Wordsworth, they do, I argue, share a similar paradigmatic foundation. After all, Sensational fiction concerns the subjective experience of a thrilling transportation of characters and, ultimately, readers. Hence the excessive stress of such fiction on nerves, nervousness, and hysteria.
            Plugging nerve and hysteria into the Google book database we see for these nouns a trajectory similar to that of thrill: a steady increase in use peaking at the close of the nineteenth century.
Of course this pattern correlates in large part with, among other factors, the rise of Sensational fiction, broadly conceived. Yet, I wonder, might something else be going on with this historical trend? If thrilling and its progenies in fiction (nerve and hysteria) undergo a dramatic anthropocentric shift at the beginning of the 19th century, it is possible that the ascendency of these terms at the end of the century represents an intensification and widespread enculturation of the anthropocentric paradigm of correlationism. Of course tying correlationism with something as seemingly disparate as the sensational fiction of, say, Wilkie Collins seems farfetched, but I have a hunch that this radical hypothesis is, in truth, not that radical. 
            In Victorian studies it is now commonplace to understand the novel as a technology of bourgeois subject-formation, as what Foucault calls disciplinary power and Miller, in The Novel and the Police, defines as an “amateur supplement.” Given the novel's intense popularity during the Victorian period, it certainly had a dramatic impact on the underlying, paradigmatic conception of subjectivity within a capitalist culture (critics often turn to the most popular of English writers, Dickens, for evidence of such a subject-forming project). The novel’s cultural work, then, was to provide readers with a sense of what it meant to be an effective subject within the capitalist system at large. While 19th century critics lamented the rise of “thrashy” sensational fiction, this genre too participated in the general cultural project of the novel: producing subjects who effectively particulate in a capitalist system, albeit a system undergoing drastic changes during the fin de siècle (a shift to a predominately consumer-driven economy).
            Taking this critical conception of the Victorian novel’s disciplinary role and the concurrent rise of the anthropocentric “thrilling,” might we see the novel as also participating in the proliferation of a correlationist paradigm? Although it exceeds the scope of a single blog entry, this quirky hypothesis might help to historicize and expand our understanding of correlationism as not simply a philosophical issue, but a much broader cultural paradigm – a paradigm under whose bankruptcy we now limpidly drift and wallow in inaction over crucial issues like climate change. And if correlationism lies at the heart of sensational fiction and nouns such as thrilling, Miller’s evocation of the now arcane definition of a non-anthropocentric “thrill” serves as nothing less than an attempt to forge a post-humanist, post-correlationist interpretative method.

Monday, December 20, 2010

D.A. Miller's "Too Close Reading"

      And now for something different. In a recent Critical Inquiry essay, superstar Victorianist D.A. Miller sketches a new method of reading called “too close reading.” This hyper-focused reading short-circuits the traditional hermeneutics of New Criticism’s close reading, opting instead to comport itself towards textual elements at such a scale that they can no longer relate organically to higher levels of meaning. Accordingly, TCR involves two things: first, it rejects the close reading project and telos of offering a ‘reading’ or ‘interpretation of ‘the work as a whole’”; second, it seeks to both “bring out” a text’s “shadowy and even shady quality” and to measure “a text’s drive to futility” (“Hitchcock’s Hidden Pictures” 126). TCR performs these two tasks in order “to create— discreetly, for the true initiates—an alternative universe in which the celebrated storytelling, suspense, and entertainment of the manifest style all get derailed” (127).
            With TCR Miller gives us a horizonless method of reading. By focusing on textual aspects that not only fly below the radar of traditional close reading but also on those aspects that fundamentally dissolve a text’s telos or meaning, Miller sketches something not only very close to what I call gestic reading but also something that shares a lot in common with Object Oriented Philosophy. TCG obliterates all relational horizons (character, meaning, plot, theme), an approach inherently object-oriented because it seeks to sever a textual object from all its relations, thereby getting to the point of a text’s shadowy and shady withdrawnness. Thus, TCR marks out a text’s withdrawnness, its “secret style” (121).
Since his first book, The Novel and the Police, “secret” has never meant for Miller inscrutability; rather a secret is always an “open” secret, something hidden but nevertheless ultimately visible or knowable. Thus, in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train Miller locates marks of a secret style in the “hidden” appearances of Hitchcock himself: the director’s face on a book held by Bruno, a copy of Hitchcock’s Suspense Stories resting under Guy’s feet. These appearances may be hidden insofar as they are not readily perceivable, but they are nevertheless absolutely visible.
What is this secret style if not the mark of an object’s withdrawing from intelligibility? If a real object is never fully visible or knowable, then there must remain something marking the threshold across which the real object withdraws. For Miller, this threshold is located in a text’s secret style, which is, above all, composed of all those nondiegetic textual objects pointing to the shadowy and shady withdrawal of a real object.
         The philosophical scope of TCR should be overly apparent. By rejecting New Criticism’s “close reading,” TCR participates in a seemingly widespread trend in contemporary theory and philosophy: overthrowing correlationist tendencies. After all, the genealogy of close reading goes directly back to the Kantian divide between humans and external reality lying at the heart of correlationism. Close reading is, above all, a mastery of this divide: the reading subject becomes such only through an inclusive exclusion of everything it deems as not itself, namely the “text.” Thus the close reading relation is that stretching between a human subject (reader) and a non-human object (book). The reading subject evidences his mastery (aka his “subjecthood”) by manipulating the components of the textual object into a coherent whole. It is no wonder that close reading is central to the liberal humanist subject-forming project – hence all that bunk about a good reader making a good citizen (Sure being able to tell that Glenn Beck is full of shit will make you more critically “conscious,” but that doesn’t make you  better citizen. It only means you aren’t a Beckerhead and more that you than likely suffer from what Morton calls “beautiful soul syndrome.”).
         TCR tosses all of this philosophical and political baggage into the garbage heap and opts instead for a method paying no heed to the human-nonhuman divide. As Miller claims, TCR is too close not only in its hermeneutic focus, but also because of the intense intimacy it engenders between reader and text. This intimacy consists of a sort of vicarious contact that director and viewer, text and reader enter into: “the dream of touching Hitchcock— of probing his secret parts— had become indistinguishable from the nightmare of being touched by him, of being likewise deeply probed. English used to have a word for this horror: thrilling; it meant penetrating or piercing” (128-129). The thrilling point of exchange between the touching of the reader and the touching of the text is secret style. Thus, this nondiegetic style not only marks a real object’s withdrawal, but also serves as that which can mediate between the text and the reader’s real objectness. In this crucial regard secret style is gestically located on the threshold between the text and the reader, a threshold across which forces of vicarious contact ferry themselves.

How Object-Oriented is Agamben? The Unsavable

      Gleamed from Saturday's red-eye flight back east, some fresh evidence of Agamben’s object-oriented tendencies: the “unsavable.” Concluding Nudities’s first essay, “Creation and Salvation,” Agamben defines the unsavable in a manner that coyly suspends it from all relationality: the “unsavable . . . is that in which creation and salvation, action and contemplation, operation and inoperativity persist in every moment and, without leaving any residue, in the same being (and the same nonbeing)” (8).  Now, the list of paired nouns Agamben claims inhere within the unsavable without defining it ontologically, are all, within Agamben’s technical dictionary, relational. Takae creation and salvation, the focus of this essay. Casting aside the frustratingly religious overtones of these two terms, both are grouped under the heading of praxis (2), creation as the angelic work of emergence, salvation as the prophetic work “which makes creation comprehensible” (3). As praxis, both terms function as relational forces producing objects: created being and redemptive being. Creation and salvation, while being distinct from each other, remain, “nevertheless inextricable” (4) because of “the extremely close and yet disjointed proceedings” of each. The function, therefore, through a “rhythm according to which creation precedes redemption but in reality follows it, as redemption follows creation but in truth precedes it.” This field of polar tensions hovers around the unsavable in such a manner that neither creation nor salvation collapse and correspond with it: “created being and the potentiality [i.e. redemptive being, the terms for which shift throughout the essay] enter into a threshold in which they can no longer be in any way distinguished from one another” (8).  This threshold is the unsavable – a sort of middle or between drawing creation and salvation into intense promiscuity with each other, while, it must be noted, they only appear to ontologically collapse into each.  And, crucially for an elucidation of Agamben’s object-oriented tendencies, this threshold-between is the site where “the ultimate figure of human and divine action appear” in “opaque splendor, which vertiginously distances itself from us like a star that will never return” (emphasis added).
            Once again, here appears something like the image, but in such a manner that calls explicate attention to its fundamentally withdrawn nature. Of course, the unsavable is not a real object per se, but the site wherein not only the praxes creation and salvation enter into promiscuity with each other, but created being and redemptive being as well. I want to hazard an OOO reading of the terms created being and redemptive beings by extending the implications of Agamben’s own definitions. Created being, as produced by creation, is a real object; redemptive being, as produced by salvation, is a sensual object insofar as it makes created being comprehensible. Therefore, the site wherein created being/real object and redemptive being/sensual object are placed in tension is the threshold “unsavable.” Now, to extend this model to include my previous comments on the image, the unsavable corresponds with the image in that it is that which makes created beings and redemptive beings apparent, while it itself remains inapparent in vertiginous opaqueness. Thus, the unsavable is a site who consistency is inapparent appearance – or, simply, an image. 
            So, what we have in “Creation and Salvation” are a cluster of terms mappable within an OOO framework: creation and salvation as relation or sensual praxis; creative being as real object; redemptive being as sensual object. But again, we are presented with a figure that seemingly exceeds this framework: the unsavable. I am consistently at a loss with what to do with such a figure, be it the unsavable or the image. I have, however, a hunch: it is something that exists within the middle of the tensions structuring Harman’s quadruple object; or, perhaps more specifically, the unsavable, the image, and some other figures (the signature, among others) are the “faces” of this structural middle. This middle or between I envision as a sort of membrane of inapparent appearance. But again, the faces of this middle, being inapparently apparent, are neither sensual objects nor real objects (although the middle itself may turn out to be a real object in the end).

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Title Change

In reconsideration of the title of my recent post on Deleuze, I have altered the title to "Anti-Deleuze: How the Deleuzian Victorianists Got Hardy Wrong." This is, I hope, more specific than the old title, which was far too wide sweeping and, frankly, unnecessarily controversial.

How Object-Oriented is Agamben? Withdrawnness and the Image Part II

     In my last post, I left out a crucial aspect of the image, an aspect that perhaps hints at the image's being neither a real nor a sensual object (a thesis I am still tenuously clinging onto). Concluding the previously quoted sentence, the image “is neither a mere logical object nor a real entity,” Agamben writes, “it is something that lives (‘a life’)” (“Nudity” 83). Putting aside Agamben’s aside (“a life” and its invocation of his essay on Deleuze’s “Immanence: A Life”), this assertion that the image is something that lives as the medium between real and sensual objects gets greatly complicated at the close of the paragraph. Unfolding the ontological status of the image, Agamben continues, “inasmuch as it is nothing other than the giving of the thing over to knowledge, nothing other than the stripping off of the clothes that cover it, nudity [image] is not separate from the thing: it is the thing itself” (84). How is the image not the real object, insofar as it is a living medium, yet also the real object, insofar as it is the giving over of the thing to knowledge? Further, this final statement is contradicts the immediately preceding claim, “the image is not the thing, but the thing’s knowability (its nudity).”
     Perhaps the key to this bizarre assertion that the image/nudity is the thing itself is the word “itself.” Much as in The Coming Community the phrase “as such” indicates a slight (messianic) difference between the thing and its appearance in language, might this “itself” indicate a similar division between the real object and its image? After all, Agamben claims that image=thing itself, not image=thing. What function is the “itself” playing? Here I can easily pull out a long genealogy of all such similar figures in Agamben’s thought: genius, dignity, persona, identity, and so on. Basically, then, the “itself” indicates not the thing/real object, but the embodied thing/real object within its appearance. The “thing itself” is, therefore, a certain modality of the real object. As this “thing itself” is the image, and the image is not the thing/real object, it could follow that the “thing itself”/image indicates something like what I asserted at the very close of my last post; namely, that the image is the pre-condition of vicarious contact. If the image is a certain, essential modality of the real object, it therefore serves as the medium through which the real object becomes a sensual object, and, of course, therein undergoing vicarious causation. Crucially, the image is neither real nor sensual object, but the membrane between the two. It is therefore the “face” of any object. Yet, I wonder, might the image itself simply be another real object in startlingly close proximity (even promiscuity) to the real object and its sensual object? Again, the “itself” would lead to this possible conclusion. But (and this is merely a closing question to be picked up later, perhaps in the context of apparatuses), might the image in some fundamental way inhere without become a part of the real object, perhaps as a sort of halo? As a halo, might the image be then both of the real object and of itself autonomously?
     One more comment. If the image is another real object it fits within an OOO universe of “objects all the way down.” If we crack open the medium-functioning image and we get another real object. But, for Agamben, the image does not participate in this breaking down. Rather, it is a sort of firewall against such a fragmentation: “One could define nudity [i.e. image] as the envelopment that reaches a point where it becomes clear that clarification is no longer possible” (89). Or, more simply, the image is that which “remains ‘inexplicable,’” a term the translators note as meaning, etymologically, “that which cannot be unfolded.” Thus, the image marks the withdrawnness of a real object such that the real object cannot be broken down into other objects. The image is, again, neither the withdrawnness of the real object nor the real object, but instead that which points to its withdrawnness. It is, therefore, the signature of a real object.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

How Object-Oriented is Agamben? Withdrawnness and the Image

     In my last post I set out to determine in what sense Agamben’s inoperativity is object-oriented, concluding that it is and it is not. Clearly, such an answer sidesteps the real question, how object-oriented is Agamben? This post will attempt to show how in two crucial regards Agamben evidences tendencies towards Object Oriented Ontology.
     A major feature of OOO is the assertion that there exist objects “all the way down.” In Prince of Networks, Graham Harman claims that because of the withdrawnness of all objects, whenever one “opens” any given object, we see that it is composed of other objects. And when we open those objects, we see more objects, an so on down into the rabbit hole. In “Nudity,” Agamben makes a nearly identical claim. Discussing Clemente Susini's anatomical wax sculptures, Agamben writes, “But no matter how much we open the wax model and scrutinize it with our gaze, the naked body of the beautiful, disemboweled woman remains obstinately unobtainable” (79). In the context of his essay, these comments do not refer simply to Susini’s sculpture, but to all real objects. Hence, like the sculpture, all real objects remain obstinately unobtainable. In this crucial regard, Agamben is object-oriented.
     Now, we have objects all the way down precisely because each object is radically withdrawn: “the being of any object is always deeper than how that object appears to us” (Harman 180-181). And by being radically withdrawn, the real object undergoes a series of divisions of which the split between a real object and its sensual objectness is primary (the others being between a real object and its real qualities [essence] and a sensual object and its sensual qualities [time]). A consequence of this primary division is vicarious causation; because all real objects are ontologically withdrawn from all other real objects, they can only contact each other through a third, mediating object. This mediator is, according to Harman, the inside of a sensual object. Thus the division between a real object and its sensual object becomes crucial in explaining not only movement and change, but also all interaction between real objects. In some way, then, this split breaks off the infinite downward spiraling of objects by creating a disjunction out of which the object becomes, to a degree, intelligible through its sensual object. The disjunction itself is not that which is intelligible, but rather what is intelligible is the sensual object produced through and out of this split.
     What does this have to do with Agamben? In “Nudity” Agamben sketches out a form of visibility -- nudity -- that takes shape as an inapparent appearance. That is, nudity is an appearance that signifies nothing because it has no content and is, thus, the pure appearance of a human. While the technical term nudity refers to humans in their pure and inapparent appearance, it belongs to the genus of “image.” Drawing upon Meister Eckhart, Agamben claims that in the image the “real thing” (i.e. real object) stands “trembling” and “quivering” in “the medium of its own knowability” (83). For Eckhart and Agamben, the image is, simply and profoundly, the pure knowability of the real object. And like nudity’s pure appearance, the image’s pure knowability is inapparent and nonsignifying because it too lacks content. The question now arises, is the image (and with it nudity) a real object’s sensual object?
     Decidedly not. Rather, the image “is a perfect medium between the object in the mind [sensual, phenomenological object] and the real thing [real object].” Accordingly, the image is “neither a mere logical object nor a real entity” because it occupies the between stretching from real object to sensual object. This medium or between is nudity’s pure appearance (appearance without secret, an inapparent appearance signifying nothing because it lacks content) and, in general, the image’s pure knowability. Thus, both nudity (corresponding to humans) and image (corresponding to all objects, humans included) constitute a medium of absolute knowledge, or, in other words, the pure knowability of objects.
     Yet “knowability” is a misnomer. “Knowledge” here is not in any sense correlationist or in any way connected with a cogito. Rather knowability refers to non-knowledge. Because the image is pure knowability, the capacity for any object to be known and made to inapparently appear, it is not properly “knowledge” insofar as it, in having no content, does not signify anything. For Eckhart, the image, as a medium between sensual object and real object, exists in a “between.” As quoted by Agamben, Eckhart asserts, “The forms that exist in matter tremble incessantly, like an ebullient strait between two seas.” The image, then, resides in a “zone of nonknowledge” (the “ebullient strait” between the seas of the real object and the sensual object) that, as Agamben claims in Nudities’ final essay, we “keep ourselves in [a] harmonious relationship with” through a “recipe” (“The Last Chapter in the History of the World” 114). Now, Agamben holds that as of yet, we have “no recipe for articulating a zone of nonknowledge,” not, however, because such a recipe is impossible, but because Western thought has focused solely on developing archives of knowledge (113). A recipe of nonknowledge is, therefore, completely possible, and, more importantly, crucial, as the zone of nonknowledge, in being constituted by imagistic pure knowability, defines the rank and file of the known (113). The problem with this zone is that, if peeled open, it will reveal nothing definite, because, after all, it is composed of inapparent appearances -- images. These images are, Agamben concludes, “gestures” (114).
     A quick recap: Harman gives us a four-fold division of real objects, the primary division being that between a real object and its sensual object. Thus, on the one hand we have objects all the way down because each real object is infinitely withdrawn, a point similarly made by Agamben. On the other hand, a real object connects with another real object only through a mediating third -- a sensual object, something that Agamben hints at with the image. However, Agamben’s image is located at a curious crossroads for each object: it belongs to neither the real object nor the sensual object, but instead it the medium between “the object in the mind and the real thing.” This medium could mean one of two things. First, it could mean that the image is the eidos of a real object, which Harman defines as the tension between a sensual object and a real object’s qualities. Second, the image could be something else entirely. Being the medium between real and sensual object, the image performs a role somewhat different from the eidos: the generation of all knowledge. The image is pure knowability and is accordingly an inapparent appearance lacking all signification. Thus the image is, on the one hand, not a real object insofar as it is partially a sensual object by being an appearance, and on the other hand it is not a sensual object insofar as it is partially a withdrawing real object in its inapparentness. Thus, the image finds itself located in a zone of nonknowledge located between the real and the sensual object. This zone is a between out of which an inapparent appearance becomes not only possible, but visible as a “gesture.” Thus the image is the gesture of a zone of nonknowledge, for which we need a “recipe.”
     What the heck is a recipe in this case? In cooking, a recipe is a form of “knowledge” in the broadest sense -- a comportment towards the real objectness of food. Accordingly, a recipe is a performance of the ingredients; or, in other words, it is, partially, a medium between real objects (the food) and a sensual object (the food in our mind). The recipe is, more properly, the vehicle through which the gesture or image stretching between the food and the food in our mind inapparently appears. Not the image or gesture itself, the recipe is that through which the medium is performed.
     Therefore, to return to my ongoing efforts to develop a “hermeneutic” of the gesture, I can no longer call this project a hermeneutic. Instead, what will be developed will be a recipe book.
     And for vicarious causation: the image or gesture does and does not mediate between real objects insofar as it is the potential mediator between real and sensual objects. Thus it is the pre-condition (“pre” not in a chronological sense) for vicarious causation without which a real object could never contact a sensual object, let alone a real object (through, of course, the sensual object). No image, no vicarious causation. For this reason, the image cannot be what Harman defines as eidos -- the tension between sensual object and real qualities that, like a real object, withdraws itself from all direct access.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

How Object-Oriented is Agamben: Inoperativity

      Now for the first of a possible series: How Object-Oriented is Agamben?

      Per Tim Morton’s comments on Agamben in a recent course lecture on Object Oriented Ontology (Agamben seeks to out-meta Heidegger, to find The Ground beneath Heidegger’s ground), my readings in OOO, and Agamben’s own recently published essay collection, Nudities, I feel it is time to put the radical Italian philosopher to the test.
     First, in regards to Tim’s assertion that Agamben seeks to out-ground Heidegger: he does, repeatedly and exhaustively. Take for example the final pages of The Open, where Agamben explicitly attempts to work beyond the aporia of Heidegger’ conception of the open and human Dasein. Yet, I wonder, is Agamben, in general, actually out-grounding in a meta-critique? While this question may not fit well with The Open, it does with the essay “Hunger of an Ox: Considerations of the Sabbath, the Feast, and Inoperativity.” Much like his concept of profanation, Agamben’s inoperativity is a process that renders all hegemonic (specifically “sacred” -- a term that for Agamben, means all life, activity, objects, and use within hyper-capitalism, which functions through sacralization, the jettisoning of objects from the realm of free use into a separate, isolated, alienated sphere) objects and activities free from “productive” ends. Inoperativity is, therefore, not abstinence or idleness, but rather “a particular modality of acting and living” that opens itself up through the suspension of the sacred (105). At first glance, inoperativity looks like a meta-process: one steps outside of hegemonic forces (hyper-capitalism) in order to enact a more authentic (or at the least, different) manner of living. This appears “meta” by such a stepping outside -- in the suspension of sacredness. However, to be properly “meta,” this suspension must double its glance back towards that which it enacts itself upon: our inoperativity would then distance itself from the forces imbricating living being in order to perceive them lucidly (“What is the Contemporary?” calls for such an activity: “Contemporariness is, then, a singular relationship with one’s time, which adheres to it and, at the same time, keeps a distance from it” [41]. Clearly, Agmaben's thought runs in two direction: a meta-grounding rightly criticized by Morton, and a radical lateral removal from all previous ground. This second direction is, to a degree, a minor chord in Agamben's work, although the political implications might attest to its ultimate significance).
     This, however, is not the case with inoperativity as sketched in Nudities. Inoperativity is simply a radically lateral removal and intervention in the processes of sacralization that seeks in no way to interpret or interrogate those processes. It simply is the modality of living and acting in a post-sacred society. If it has an aim it is merely “to open [human activities] to a new -- or more ancient -- use in the spirit of the Sabbath” (112) -- the hiatus of time in which all activities are stripped of their productive force. Suspension here is not an excepting process; inoperativity does not come about through a constituting exception of sacralization (this would be the meta-suspension -- a distancing that remains constitutively connect to that which it excepts). Instead, inoperativity is a radical suspension in which all aspects of sacralization are obliterated and those beings and activities that were previously imbricated in forces of sacralization are open to their free and proper play.
     Of course, Agamben repeatedly ties inoperativity to the human -- a decidedly un-OOO maneuver. And while this focus may in large part result from spatial constraints (“Hunger” is only eight pages long), it nevertheless represents a potential blind spot in Agamben’s recent work: the re-ascendant primacy of the human (granted a “humanness” not defined by the anthropological machine). Nevertheless, might inoperativity be extended to all objects? Take my earlier post on apparatuses. Near the conclusion, I claimed that the apparatus refers to a certain potentiality for capture inhering in any given object that is activated only when placed in the correct circumstances. For example, a book is simply a paper weight until it is picked up and read, therein serving its apparatic function of capturing the living being of its reader, who not only expropriates his/her mental faculties to the text, but his/her living being: he/she renders themselves relatively immobile and docile. Of course, the book prior to reading is still an apparatus (it captures the papers it rests on top of), but this is not the “proper” or intentional apparatic function of the book. Now, the book's undergoing inoperativity would be involve the cessation of its apparatic potential -- to capture both the mental and living being of humans and the mobility of a loose pile of paper. The book may still be read and sit atop papers, but it would do so in a manner that does not capture objects within a larger field of forces -- the reading-human within hypercapitalism, the papers within the strictures of an “organized” desk. This inoperativity of the book is performed by foreclosing the possibility of placing it within the contingent circumstances of capture. What was once a vessel ferrying one object into a larger object (the reading human into hypercapitalism) becomes merely an object. The book can therefore be read, but in so being read the book does not shuttle the reader into contact with hypercapitalism. The reader simply reads -- he/she enters into contiguous (vicarious) contact with the book through the sensual object “text,” a mediator hovering between the book and the reader that is both of the book and of the reader -- something like the “gesture.”
     Insofar he does not extend inoperativity to all objects, Agamben is not object-oriented; nevertheless, inoperativity does provide the means for an object-oriented analysis of apparatuses and the political consequences of contact and causation.

The Anti-Deleuze: How the Deleuzians Victorianists Got Hardy Wrong

      My first quarter of PhD coursework is officially over. It has been, not unexpectedly, a condensed, rapid, and profoundly re-orienting three months. In this, my first post since moving west, I will attempt an introduction to the new directions I will be heading for the foreseeable future.
     The big break through: Deleuze and the Deleuzian Victorianists got “it” wrong. This realization occurred through two independent progressions of thought. On the one hand, I began the quarter with the very vague hope of developing a hybrid research-theory project merging what I now see as a vastly scattered array of theorists into a reading of Jude the Obscure and, through that reading, a sort of pitiful methodological manifesto (a “look at me, this awesome first-semester PhD student with his world altering methodology!”). Back in early September, the project was to feature Aby Warburg, Benjamin, Deleuze, Object Oriented Ontology, and Agamben. What remained: some presuppositional OOO and a re-worked paradigmatology loosely based on Agamben’s (then) recent work. No Warburg (I am reading him right now -- I simply never had the time to do his “unnamed science” justice). No Benjamin. But plenty of Deleuze.
      Not, however, in a positive light. Mostly because of two Deleuzian Thomas Hardy studies (John Hughes’s Lines of Flight: Reading Deleuze with Hardy, Gissing, Conrad, and Woolf and David Musselwhite’s Social Transformations in Hardy’s Tragic Novels: Megamachines and Phantasms), I found a serious hindrance to my positive appropriation of Deleuze: the violent machine of deterritorialization and reterritorialization. I should have caught this sooner. As early as my final master’s essay, I have attempted to merge Deleuze’s machine with Agamben’s “suspended machine.” A quick re-cap on the term machine: in The Open, Agamben sketches out the machine as a relational force placing two independent “terms” into tension with each other such that they collapse into indistinction; out of this indistinction a decision is made; this decision, in the case of the anthological machine, places man and animal into tension, decides upon what is human, to the excepting detriment of the “weaker” of the two terms. This formulation should be familiar with my readers by now, as it is the structure of modern subjectivity I attempted to sketch last summer. I had previously claimed (and believed) that both Agamben and Deleuze performed a double suspension: they suspended the suspending of machines (a machine suspends through an exception-inclusion: the human is constituted through man’s excepting of the animal; through that expecting, however, the animal is included as the other/limit figure that ultimately constitutes the human). Agamben does this. And as I now realize, Deleuze decidedly does not. Rather, his definitive (and much ballyhooed) relational structure merely initiates a machine: deterritorialization places something (a living being, language, epistemic forms, etc) into dissolution such that a “decision” can be made that will serve as the basis for a new formation, reterritorialization. Now, for Jude the Obscure, Musselwhite claims that Hardy deterritorializes the hegemonic discourse of the Victorian realist novel, citing Jude's notoriously aberrant prose (a contemporary reviewer called the novel, “a somewhat dull novel” on account of its style). Fine. The novel’s prose is radically different from, say, George Eliot’s or Henry James’. But Musselwhite’s next Deleuzian step is the problem: citing Hardy’s insistence upon a “geometric” plot, Musselwhite claims that the novel reterritorializes itself in a manner mirroring fin de siècle consumer capitalism. The novel is, according to Musselwhite, schizophrenic, and thus Hardy must be a proto-Deleuzian practicing schizoanalysis seventy years before Deleuze and Guattari.
     Yet this deterritorialization-reterritorialization dynamic is a machine, whether or not it “mirrors” capitalism’s constitutive structure (i.e. the infinite proliferation of apparatuses). Jude performs much more than that. It asks for a radical resistance to reterritorialization, so much so that the first Deleuzian term (deterritorialization) no longer applies. Hardy’s novel is a novel of absolute horizonlessness -- a dimension in which all epistemic horizons have been obliterated. What this obliteration demands, then, is a hazarding of all thought and language within that dimension -- to risk ourselves without recourse to any reformulation of horizons. Hardy is, in this crucial regard, much like Agamben; he doubly suspends all machines. The Deleuzian model will, therefore, always fail at reading Jude.
     But why? What leads Deleuze back into the clutches of mechanization? Simply: monism, the assertion that all reality is ultimately composed of a singular and absolute substance. For Deleuze this substance goes by numerous aliases, most notably the “plane of consistency.”
     Now, this realization did not arise out of my work on Jude, but instead from Tim Morton’s incredible lectures on rhetoric. For the first nine weeks of the quarter, I was deeply resistant to Tim’s claims that Deleuze was a monist. I keep telling myself (and complaining to my partner) that Deleuze, or at least “late-Deleuze,” was no monist desiring to collapse all reality into a monistic goop. No, the monistic Deleuze was not the “real” Deleuze, but Deleuze-Guattari. Just look at his work on Leibniz or cinema . . . But then I re-read large portions on Anti-Oedipus (for work on Jude) and a smaller portion of Thousand Plateaus (for Tim’s course). And there is was, monism, staring out of deterritorialization-reterritorialization. For Deleuze (and I admit, these two works are by D/G, not Deleuze . . .) this process of ontological collapse works only because whatever two things are placed into tension with each other are ultimately the same. Thus they don’t merely dissolve into indistinction such that something new can emerge, but that they simply return momentarily to their monistic proper state (an ontological point 0) only to be reborn. Now Musselwhite is correct, to a degree, in asserting that this mechanization mirrors capitalism (the larger, paradigmatic framework being biopower, not simply “capitalism”), but positive moral valences thrown over this machine by Deleuze (and the Deleuzians) are troublesome, especially in context of D/G’s subversive hopes. Anti-Oedipus and Thousand Plateaus were, after all, designed as revolutionary texts seeking not only new methodologies or a new conception of lived experience, but ultimately as an ontology. By inadvertently mirroring the ontologically monistic machine of capitalism, Deleuze’s subversion simply becomes a new articulation of the very structure it attempted to revolt against. And this is perhaps why Deleuze’s philosophy is so popular: at the bottom of it all, we already know it because it implicitly reproduces the constitutive structure of the biopolitical society in which we live. (I still have one lingering hope: in the short essay, “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” written a few years before he died, Deleuze appears to regret his previous valorization of deterritorialization-reterritorialization, seeing it then as what it always was: the mechanization of ontological violence constituting capitalism)
      This did not occur until last week, when writing an essay on Bacon’s “Two Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer,” which my last entry discussed. In this essay, I began with a quick breakdown of Deleuze’s conveniently concise method for reading Bacon’s paintings: through the three elements of Bacon’s paintings -- figure, contour, field -- a dual process of diastolic and systolic flows pass the figure into the field and the field over the figure, therein rendering visible the invisible body without organs. Having wrapped up a quick sketch of how “Two Studies” might be read according to this logic, I realized: these two bodies (cartoon and figure) don’t evidence both flows (a necessary indistinction in the Deleuzian logic). What the hell does this mean? And then it hit me, the entire quarter’s progression crystalline in a moment: this logic is a monistic machine! Diastole and systole are equivalent to deterritorialization-reterritorialization! And accordingly, all that such a mechanization will render visible is its own misplaced faith in an underlying substance girdering all reality.
     So some other process must be at work in Bacon’s painting that does, in fact, render living being in its facticity visible. As this process points my work in an entirely new direction (or, at least, clarifies much of my work for the last year), I will leave it for future posts . . .

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Francis Bacon's Cartoon and the Messianic Resemblance

     In its original meaning, “cartoon” refers neither to Sunday comics nor Saturday morning animation; instead, a cartoon was, originally, a large drawing on scrap paper used as a design, of the same size, for a painting, fresco, mosaic, or tapestry. The cartoon, then, stands in a curious relation with the artwork as such, with any given, reified work. Neither sketch nor artwork, the cartoon finds itself lodged in the gap between imagination and reality, the potentiality and the actuality of a given work of art. Structurally, the cartoon is a pre-resemblance to an artwork, art’s latent ghost showing up not post-mortem, but before the work is even born. And following Benjamin’s lead, could one argue that the cartoon lives in the daydreaming world of Proust’s cult of similarities?

     Take Francis Bacon’s “Two Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer.” Not part of a series, this painting’s two studies reside entirely within it. On the right, Bacon places the figure of George Dyer, seated legs crossed and staring without eyes beyond the canvas. On the left, situated upon a plane of monochromatic black, a second figure of Dyer, this time naked, his opposite leg crossed yet staring beyond its own plane into that of the first Dyer and out into the void beyond the canvas itself. This second figure, pinned to its own void-like plane, is, properly, a cartoon. A bizarre cartoon, however. The painting’s layout – seated portrait study, hovering canvas with corresponding and emerging portrait – harkens to a long tradition of meta-paintings (ala Velázquez or Rembrandt). Yet, what Bacon gives us is not a portrait, but another study in the form of a cartoon. Where we expect another canvas to stare back at us like an endless self-reflective hall of mirrors, we find such extension instantly foreclosed with a pinned down scrap of a painting (which, one immediately sees, resembles and plays with Bacon’s style from the 1950’s – those fleshy figures composed against black backgrounds).
     What is the relation between this cartoon and the seemingly absent work of art? Is there, somewhere, a destroyed canvas with a naked Dyer resembling this cartoon? That this cartoon bears a relation stretching forward in time as if it were an as-yet-unrealized work is, given the title and dynamics of this work, difficult to support. Rather, we see a suspension of the traditional cartoon-artwork relationship. Instead of the cartoon serving as a latent painting whose potentiality is swallowed up in the final work, Bacon places the cartoon in relation to the painting itself as if the two were coeval. The two figures are, after all, the two “studies” for an as-yet-unrealized work (such a title is a typical gesture of Bacon’s). The cartoon, then, resembles the portrait, the portrait the cartoon, each locked in a discontinuous connectivity stretching from one plane to another.
     From this discontinuous connectivity arises something miraculous. As the stylistic clues the cartoon throws at us, what the cartoon itself resembles in the portrait (the more-or-less “realistic” Dyer) is the lived experience of a living being. Yet not just any old “experience.” As with Bacon’s work in the fifties (“Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X,” in particular; Figure 1, below) this cartoon constructs through indirection an image of pure sensorial experience. Yet where the “Study” used Eisenstein’s nurse (in Battleship Potemkin; see Figure 2, below) to refract how lived experience can be captured by some external force (how the experience of the body’s contortion in terror is constrained by a filmic image), the cartoon itself constructs a shimmering reflection of the lived experience of a living being’s simple, profound, and immanent flow – the body pulsing unknowably through veins, the flesh wincing unnoticeable underneath a gaze. Here the filter that illuminates experience is not an apparatus the living being experiences through (as with the nurse-pope), but a messianic sieve with which the living being’s experience is rendered visible.
     Just as Proust’s endless projections of similarities open upon a messianic world wherein living being can stand in relation with its own nature, Bacon’s cartoon bears the image of such a messianic being standing in resemblance to itself.

Figure 1: "Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X", 1953

                                  Figure 2: Still from Battleship Potemkin

Monday, August 16, 2010

Reading Gesture Part II: To the Lighthouse and Discursive Planes

     My last post’s example of the gesture in Dickens’s Oliver Twist raises another question about gestic reading: what, beyond content, is the consistency of the gesture? What “form,” in other words, is read in a gestic reading? This is clearly the point at which Oliver’s hypnagogia falls short in pointing towards a truly gestic reading: Oliver’s dream world is, simply, a matter of the novel’s content, not its form. While finding instances of the gesture’s messianic world are illuminating, they do not lead, in actuality, towards a hermeneutic of the gesture. Instead, the gesture can be, I hope, found in the non-diegetic passages between discourse levels within the prose of certain authors.
     Take Virginia Woolf and a random passage from To the Lighthouse: “No, she thought, putting together some of the pictures he had cut out – a refrigerator, a mowing machine, a gentleman in evening dress – children never forget. For this reason, it was so important what one said, and what one did, and it was a relief when they went to bed. For now she need not think about anybody. She could be herself, by herself” (62). And so on . . .
     Now, conventional wisdom holds that Woolf’s style falls under the category of "internal monologue." I will not contest this convention. Instead I want to point to, as best I can with the limited typographical techniques available on Blogger, the enmeshment of discourse planes that constitutes Woolf’s gesture. The first word, “No,” clearly indicates a thought Mrs. Ramsay has, an actuality Woolf makes painfully clear (“she thought”). However, this first word introduces a discourse plane, one upon which Mrs. Ramsay’s more-or-less conscious thoughts will unfold. At first glance it is this plane of discourse upon which the list of paper cutouts belongs, as if Mrs. Ramsay were thinking “refrigerator, mowing machine, etc.” Another initial reading could be that the list belongs to the discursive plane of the narrator (who is first inserted into the text with “she thought”), such that the list is an objective, external list of the paper cutouts. Yet the text’s dashes foreclose both readings. Instead, the discursive plane of the list belongs to something between an “objective” exteriority and a “subjective” interiority; that is, the list belongs to a plane between Mrs. Ramsay and the world around her.
     And things get even more complicated from here. The phrase following the second dash (“and children never forget”) seemingly belongs to the plane of Mrs. Ramsay’s more-or-less conscious monologue. Yet, the manner of this phrase – its detached “universalism,” its all children do X – shifts the discourse into another plane whose “genre” can be called “middle-class domestic wisdom.” The phrase itself could have easily been cut from a domestic manual’s pages, much as James’s cutouts were cut from a catalog. And the passage continues along upon this ambiguous plane until the series comma (“, and . . .”) – the genre register is, until that comma, clearer with its instructive “one” pronouns. Yet this plane could very easily be attributed to Mrs. Ramsay’s conscious thought – and now I want to have my cake and eat it too. For the discursive plane introduced with “children never forget” belongs to both Mrs. Ramsay and the genre of domestic manuals. Here we see something like an apparatic capturing emerging from the text: Mrs. Ramsay’s thought’s capture by the apparatus of the domestic manual. Yet the only way this capture becomes visible in the text is through the intersection of two discursive planes registered by marks read non-diegetically (those dashes and pronouns). And this is, I think, Woolf’s point entirely: that we can, through her style, see Mrs. Ramsay’s capture by the various Victorian, domesticating apparatuses prevalent at the fin de siècle. What Woolf’s style reveals to the reader gestically is not Mrs. Ramsay as captured, but the actual processes of Mrs. Ramsay’s capture – of Mrs. Ramsay’s capture as such. Such a gestic style is not limited to Woolf and other Modernists (especially both Joyce, who makes explicate use of genre play, and Faulkner), but writers as seemingly disparate as Samuel Richardson (Clarissa) and Thomas Pynchon (Gravity’s Rainbow, Against the Day, and in particular, Inherent Vice).
     I must reiterate, the world of the apparatus and the world of messianic are, startlingly, closely related in that they occupy the “space” beside living beings. It is as if the messianic world and the bare life that apparatuses produce are two poles of the same “world,” a world a certain reading can bring into language.

Reading Gesture Part I: Benjamin and Dickens

     A couple of posts ago, I introduced a self-revolution in methodology, rejecting the underlying logic of deconstruction in favor of a type of reading based in an element I tentatively called the gesture. Yet the post left the consistency and means of ascertaining the gesture in a text unexplained. I did, fortunately, indicate that the gesture rests somewhere on the margins of a text – both inside and outside the text. The gesture could be, therefore, defined as a sort of textual membrane of a specific sort, one which produces a self-reflective resemblance.
     In “The Image of Proust,” Benjamin outlines, in one of his most lyrical passages, Proust’s “cult of similarity.” Proust’s similarities (resemblances) do not point towards a likeness of one thing to any other thing, but instead, towards “the deeper resemblance of the dream world in which everything that happens appears not identical but in a similar guise, opaquely similar one to another” (204). Here, the underlying context for Benjamin is his concept of the Messianic as a world wherein “Everything will be as it is now, just a little different” because of a “tiny displacement” occurring (and this is Agamben on Benjamin) at things’ “periphery, in the space of ease between everything and itself” (Coming Community 54). The messianic world in which everything is just as ours only with a tiny displacement between the thing and itself is the dream world of Proust’s cult of similarity. Importantly for any understanding of the gesture, things in this messianic dream world (which, crucially, is a state of absolute between-ness) appear as “images.” Through the Benjaminian/Proustian image appears “the world distorted in the state of resemblance, a world in which the true surrealist face of existence breaks through” (205). Benjamin continues (and I will just quote this amazing passage at length): “To this [Messianic] world belongs what happens in Proust, and the deliberate and fastidious way in which it appears. It is never isolated, rhetorical, or visionary; carefully heralded and securely supported, it bears a fragile, precarious reality: the image. It detaches itself from the structure of Proust’s sentences as that summer day at Balbec – old, immemorial, mummified – emerged from the lace curtain under Francoise’s hands.” m
     This detaching emergence is precisely what any reading of the gesture must address and bring into language. The gesture, a declension of the messianic image, belongs to both any given sentence and the “air” surrounding and supporting it within a world that simultaneously is and is not the text’s and, very powerfully, our own. Once again, this world that we, in reading gestically, share with the text, is a messianic world, a world of the resemblance of the thing to itself in a typology allowing the thing’s fulfillment in language. Through the gesture the thing as such both enters into language and emerges as a crystalline image of itself.
     Now for a concrete example. Benjamin’s Messianic world of resemblance bears a striking parallel to Dickens’s states of hypnagogia, of which his fiction is rife. An early (and particularly illuminating) example occurs midway through Oliver Twist. One evening at twilight, Oliver, lodged in middle-class privilege and comfort, sits reading in his “little room” overlooking the Maylie’s idyllic gardens and fields. Fatigued from his studies, Oliver passes into that “kind of sleep that steals upon us sometimes which, while it holds the body prisoner, does not free the mind from a sense of things about it,” and Oliver, in this state of bodily sleep, retains “a consciousness of all that is going on about [him], and even if [he] dreams, words which are really spoken, or sounds which really exist in the moment, accommodate themselves with surprising readiness to [his] visions” (281). Now, while we all can remember such moments of half-sleep (so often when we drift away from our reading, the text running on according to our own thoughts, the author’s cadence flowing underneath our own half-thought words), Oliver’s particular moment of hypnagogia is of a momentous occurrence. Dreaming that he is once again back in Fagin’s den of thieving children, Oliver overhears Fagin speaking to an as yet unrecognized man. Startled within his liminal rest, Oliver pushes himself into a more conscious state and, in a flash, recognizes both Fagin and his gothic accomplice: “It was but an instant, a glance, a flash before his eyes, and they were gone. But they had recognized him, and he them” (283). Out of his hypnagogia, Oliver recognizes the unrecognizable, the mysterious strage stranger’s resemblance only to himself. Such recognition, Dickens asserts, is possible only through the preparation of the liminal state of hypnagogia. Oliver, pushed to the threshold of sleep and consciousness, enters into the Messianic world of profound resemblances and glances, however momentarily, the gestic guise of his never before glimpsed brother.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Food Court Heterotopia: Spatially Reimagining Left Politics

     In preparing for my teaching assistant position at UCD, I recently read Foucault’s “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias,” a 1967 lecture posthumously published. This relatively early Foucault work concisely outlines the structure of a very real type of space: the heterotopia, essentially a kind of pastiche materialized in real space in which different spaces and times are juxtaposed for the ultimate purpose of creating an illusory-real space revealing how illusory our actually real spaces are. A near perfect example, one not that had yet to reach its zenith in Foucault’s lifetime: the American mega shopping mall.
     Typically, Foucault notes, while all cultures perhaps have heterotopias, the heterotopias themselves fall into two main types: those of crisis (the boarding school and the honeymoon suite , both places where sexuality is first realized for boys and young women, respectively) and those of deviance (prisons, rest homes, mental clinics). Okay, then what crisis or deviance does the mall respond to?
     Any stroll through a food court can, at some level, hint at what almost entirely marginalized and sublimated deviance the mall harbors in neat a semi-circular, white-lit smorgasbord. At most malls one can find Japanese, Indian, Mexican, Cajun, Chinese, Italian, and, if you are a truly “lucky” bourgeoisie, Thai food stalls. And for domestic pride, a MacDonald’s or Burger King (but never both in the small food court!). Here unfolds in cordoned-off compartments bearing too eerie a resemblance to Bentham’s Panopticon prison (a favorite paradigm of Foucault’s) all those ethnic identities (and what expresses an ethnic identity more than food, that most personal and communal a heritage?) in plain view for the leisurely consumer, each disparate culture (always so alien-like from our own) offered up to us for easy and inexpensive consumption. Each stall has its obligatory ethnic representative, each representative its requisite and appropriately accented English.
      What startles one most forcible, when detached just enough from this scene, is the absolute habitiualization of the entire space. No one thinks anything is deviant, any one food is anything other than what is common at a food court. And one would be, from a certain perspective, correct. Certainly, the Indian food isn’t properly representative of Indian food (of what region and style of “Indian”?). Instead, and this comment is, clearly, very banal for any “multi-culturally” adventurous dinner, each ethnic food is greatly “Americanized” by not only our food distribution networks, but our tolerance for culinary deviance: not too spicy and not too strange looking, please.
     What each food culture has undergone is, clearly, a process of acculturation requisite for belonging to the heterotopic space within the mall. And this is precisely Foucault’s point. Entrance into a heterotopia can occur only after “one has completed certain number of gestures” designed as “rites of purification.” To participate in the economic system of the mall, various marginalized cultures must purify themselves of certain culinary deviances (spicy strangeness).
     Yet, what is truly included in the overall heterotopia of the mall (the food court being a sort of heterotopia within a heterotopia)? Clearly one doesn’t see too many Japanese clothing outlets or, rarer still, a Spanish speaking sales person at the Gap. Here, one can see the slightly horrific resemblance between the food court and the Panopticon, the perfectly semi-circular layout of stalls and the circular organizations of Bentham’s cells, both so ordered to facilitate easy visual examination. No doubt the shopper is not ogling the Mexican worker selling burritos to make sure he isn’t plotting a prison break (as if the shopper were a panoptical security guard), but instead simply looking over the stalls to find what culinary exoticism he or she will indulge in. Yet the two gazes are, structurally speaking, nearly interchangeable. Both are gazes implicated in the same action of deviance’s containment. While the prison serves to localize criminals, the food court serves to localize within the whitewashed corridors of the American cathedral those cultures that otherwise would slip from visibility into the cracks and corners of our invisible, domestic third worlds.
     Such resemblance between gazes underscores the bipolar function of all heterotopias. According to Foucault, heterotopias operate between two poles: on the one hand “they perform the task of creating a space of illusion that reveals how all of real space is more illusory.” For the mall’s food court this means, brutally, look, these marginalized ethnicities are here, in the mall, being economically successful and represented; those domestic third worlds cannot be all that real. On the other hand, Foucault writes, heterotopias “have the function of forming another space, another real space, as perfect, meticulous, and well-arranged as ours is disordered, ill-conceived, and in a sketchy state.” The food court’s very real spatiality says, blatantly, there may exist a world were these cultures are even more marginalized then here, but at least in the mall we have a clean-cut, white-lit hall of nations from which we can experience all that each disparate culture has to offer.
     When viewed spatially, these ethnic and class disparities call more forcibly for a new conception of politics – a post-identity politics based upon one’s relation to dominant power. In her seminal 1997 essay “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: the Radical Potential of Queer Politics?” (another essay I read in preparation for TA’ing), Cathy Cohen calls for precisely such a reimagining of radical, left politics. Cohen, questioning the efficacy of the queer political movements in the late ‘90’s for their too limited (and often class-privilege blindness) power binary of heteronormative/queer, petitions for an entire reworking of the conception of political belonging: “Far too often movements revert to a position in which membership and joint political work are based upon a necessarily similar history of oppression – but this is too much like identity politics. Instead, I am suggesting that the process of movement-building be rooted not in our shared history or identity, but in our shared marginal relationship to dominant power which normalizes, legitimizes, and privileges” (458, emphasis added). What the heterotopia of the food court reveals to us spatially is the shared, seemingly abstract (but no less real) relation of each seemingly disparate ethnicity to the dominant power – the predominantly white, middle class shoppers and dinners. And this heterotopia can do more than reveal such a shared marginal relationship to dominant power; it can provide a concrete site for the fostering of shared political action (unionization, collective rent bargaining, voter registration drives, etc) among these otherwise disparate ethnic communities, subversive because the food court, like its ancestor the Panopticon, is laid out such that those in their little stalls and compartments cannot communicate, cannot unionize, cannot create a common political identity.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Human Nature Won't Work for Free

     The freshly minted Newsweek article “Take This Blog and Shove It!: When Utopian Ideals Crash into Human Nature – Sloth Triumphs” makes the general argument (clear even from its puerile, Capitalist vs. Communism title and its adman-like play on “Bolshevik”) that the downfall of the cultural democratic movement of Web 2.0 (the blogosphere and examples like Wikipedia as simple, economically objective and disinterested pursuits of a common formulation of collectivity and collective knowledge) boils down to a “far deeper and enduring truth about human nature.” Now, immediately upon reading this line my ‘hermeneutics of suspicion alarm’ sounded: Really, ‘human nature'? Sounds like more hypercapitalist snake oil. And that was before reading beyond the sentence’s colon “: most people simply won’t work for free.”
     This article hits the note of “human nature” pitch-perfectly. Human nature is, both in this article and in a hypercapitalist system, reducible to survival of a specific kind: economic survival that is prescribed entirely within a system (in the article, the hypercapitalist system of the internet) whose primary means of self-generation is the complete and absolute isolation of individuals into wealth-generating units. The article says, in essence, the People will blog and edit Wikipedia if it gets paid for the effort because it is in its nature. And that payment changes the entire game. After all, what makes “human nature” both human and natural (what delimits that which we can call “human,” that which belongs to “humanity” only through the exclusion of all other potentially “human” living beings) is the belonging to a specific, material, economic system; accordingly, to be human is, the article says, to be paid. This assertion should send up all sorts of red flags, like, were the monks who laboriously glossed not only the scriptures but also a vast canon of ancient thought not human because they did their work for “free”? Or, what I really have in mind: are academics who write critical texts about, say, hypercapitalism not human because they do so for “free,” relatively (the writing and critical work are part of belonging to academia; the actual act of writing and thinking critically is not, therefore, getting directly paid for in a free-market of “ideas,” like the blogosphere, but instead in an alternative economy whose genealogy stretches beyond both hypercapitalism and its burgeoning in Protestant and early-Capitalist ideologies like the Elect and the Individual).
     What was once a seemingly disinterested pastime (and these two terms themselves, which the camp of Web 2.0 defines itself with, are implicated in the same hypercapitalist system they appear to be absolutely independent of) has thus become another component in the hypercapitalist system. Through the discursive point (a sort of monad, to steal from Leibniz) of “human nature,” the article (and with it, hypercapitalism, because the article itself replays hypercapitalism’s violent expansion into another facet of living being and its incorporation of any other system, here Web 2.0, attempting independent self-constitution) shows how the living being of humans has become once again imbricated in a system that even at face value has no concern for the living beings it captures. Yet the People, so the logic must go, turn to the hypercapitalist system for its very survival in an act of seeming pleasure and preference. Then again, such is “human nature” to blog, but only for money.
     Why is it in people’s nature (because I am not denying that, in some terrifying way, we are inclined) to do so? Because they have been constrained and enmeshed in the hypercapitalist system irrevocably such that their seemingly most intimate desire (what Deleuze defines as desire of life, a desire immanent to itself) of their living being is, in the brutality of fact, constructed by that system. This is what it means to be captured by an apparatus, by a vast system of networks forming one large, ontologically destructive apparatus: that one’s most intimate desire is nothing more than the prescribed rules for “survival.” And the phrase "human nature" captures and reflects the entirety of the hypercapitalist paradigm, making living being’s capture crystalline in a violent brutality of fact (because seeing how we are captured in a system that cares absolutely nothing for us is infinitely horrific).

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Trace and the Gesture: Towards a new Hermeneutics

     I have been thinking through what follows clumsily for some time, occasionally bringing it up in conversation. It concerns hermeneutics (methods of reading). The default hermeneutics in the academy (in particular, English and literature studies) is deconstructionism, which is, as I hope to prove, a negative, binary means of reading. In contrast to this negativity, I wish to propose a positivist hermeneutics that avoids the constitutive lack of any binary. Whereas deconstruction proceeds from the discovery of an author or text’s betraying accidental mark, my new positivist method proceeds from an author or text’s revealed gesture.
     First, however, the negativity of deconstruction must be laid bare. Certainly, Derrida claimed that deconstruction was, at heart, an affirmation, a joyous play with the infinite unfolding of a de-centered language. Contrasting such affirmation with the “saddened, negative, nostalgic, guilty, Rousseauistic side of the thinking of play,” Derrida positions deconstruction as the “joyous affirmation of the play of the world and of the innocence of becoming, the affirmation of a world of signs without fault, without truth, and without origin which is offered to an active interpretation” (“Structure, Sign, and Play” 292, Derrida’s emphasis). Such an affirmation is, Derrida claims, an attempt to move beyond anthropocentrism, which has “throughout the history of metaphysics . . . dreamed of full presence, the reassuring foundation, the origin and the end of play” – all centerings that deconstructionism has toppled through its revelation of the central hiatus of all language, its displaying language as the play of difference alone. Now, such a conception of language and our comportment towards such a language can, in truth, form a move away from anthropocentric thought. Hence, Tim Morton’s quite amazing extension of deconstruction’s infinite play of finite signs through difference to all (Spinozian?) “existence,” in what he calls the “interdependence theorem.” And I agree with much of Morton’s extension, at least on the surface. Where Derrida and deconstructionists see language (and thought) as the infinite play of finite signs, Morton sees categories like “species” as the infinite play of finite matter, such that all existence faces the threat of passing into a profound indistinction (of life/nonlife in RNA, species/non-species with DNA) – thereby washing thought clean of binaries.
     Yet, I find at the heart of deconstruction’s seemingly joyous play a central hiatus that initiates a recapitulation of anthropocentrism’s constitutive structure: binary or mechanic articulations. Let us look at how deconstructionist reading works. Deconstruction functions through the discovery of a text’s accidental mark, from which the deconstructionist can discern the paradigmatic composition of that text (seeing through it, perhaps, the historical epoch the text emerges out of [New Historicism] or the text’s belonging to an unnoticed philosophical genealogy [as Derrida does to Plato in Plato’s Pharmacy in order to show that Plato, too, was a deconstructionist]). That is, the author or text’s accidental mark – or “trace:” deconstruction is a “seminal adventure of the trace” (“Structure” 292) – betrays its own belonging to the historical set and thusly can be said to stand as an example of that set. Yet the text can only become an example (can make the set intelligible through its own exposure) through the process of betrayed exposure. Such a method is supported by a system of interdependence, a system without a transcendental signified grounding it wherein meaning becomes lost in the infinite play of differences. Now, a difference is always negative (A is not B), and these differences likewise take the form of those accidental marks or traces an author leaves behind like clues for the deconstructionist private eye (Sherlock Holmes is, perhaps, the first deconstructionist). These traces and differences are, specifically, exposed visions of “errors” which open a text to example-ness, to a text’s standing in for the set such that the set becomes knowable. Here we see the reemergence of a particular-general, general-particular logical binary (inductive/deductive model of thought), a binary deconstructionism thought it had overthrown. Rather than relegating such a model of thought to the trash bin of Western thought, deconstruction has unwittingly taken it as its constitutive mechanics, which play out infinitely at its core. Difference is, properly, a decision machine setting two “terms” (it doesn’t matter what they are) in opposition such that they can enter into an indistinction that the machine itself can decide upon, thereby generating not only meaning and distinction between the two terms, but the power and perpetuity of the machine itself. Deconstruction, therefore, did not revolutionize Western thought; instead, it revealed the central workings of a bankrupt machine and brought it to its apex.
     What I want to propose is, hopefully, the overthrow of this bankrupt model of reading. In place of the deconstructionist accidental mark, the betraying trace, I offer the “gesture.” The gesture is, constitutively, a positive “mark” within a text or an author’s oeuvre in that it suspends the particular-general, general-particular logic of inductive/deductive thought (it accordingly shares much with the paradigm’s structure). What the gesture does, precisely, is reveal positively the author or text’s model of thought, its Entvichlungsfahigkeit, the philosophical element, its capacity to be developed. That is, it reveal’s a text’s potentiality, its ability to be able to not be and accordingly generate meaning. Yet in so revealing the text’s potentiality, the gesture does not reduce itself to a mere error or difference; rather the gesture reveals a text’s model of thought as such: a model of thought as a gestic model of thought, which is not a set, but rather a singularity.
     What then is the consistency of the gesture and how does one read the gesture? The gesture reveals itself in various manners, but, perhaps, never through a single element in a text. The gesture will not become visible in a single word, phrase, sentence, paragraph of a text as does the trace. Rather it seemingly unfolds both inside and outside the text, in the space between reality and virtuality, actuality and potentiality. If it were to be found in a text it would, perhaps, be in the subtle shades of other writers in a text, say, how Agamben recapitulates late-Deleuze, or how Benjamin comports himself towards Saint Paul without referencing him. Reading gestures is like an “art of citing without citations,” as a certain philosopher says. The hermeneutic of the gesture belongs, therefore, to the tradition of typology – the reading of the Old Testament for events that become fulfilled by the Messiah: Adam’s prefiguring the Messiah is the paradigm of the gesture. Such a hermeneutic involves the cultivation of a text’s capacity to be developed, to become fulfilled absolutely through an allowance of the fruition of a text’s “crystal-pure elimination of the unsayable in language” (Benjamin, Briefe 127) The gesture and the reading of the gesture are, then, aimed at the resurrection of language from the false death of the ineffable, from all mystery, all lack.
     The reading of deconstructionism that brings its central hiatus, its genealogical belonging to Western thought’s mechanic articulations to light is not a negative, derisive reading; rather it is a reading that brings into language that which has been secreted away, concealed in mystery. In other words, a reading of gesture.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Zizek on Consumer Capitalism

Found this over at Tim Morton's Ecology without Nature. This video is amazing for so many reasons. Zizek gets to the heart of hypercapitalism (our global capitalist culture roughly beginning in the 1960's) and our current systemic bankruptcy. And it is a cartoon!

Friday, July 30, 2010


      It is official: my tour of landscaping duty with the “Enterprise” has ended. For ten of the last eleven summers, I cut grass into an endless variety of lengths, lines, and patterns for an even odder assortment of golfers, flatlanders, and rednecks. This season’s close comes with great relief. Of the ten summers I have spent exposed to poison ivy and sumac, swarming hornets and wasps, flying sticks and rocks, spewing gas and diesel fumes, blistering exhaust and sun burns, only three were spent working for MDP Enterprises, a landscaping company in humble Springfield, Vermont named after its illustrious and ever humble snake oil salesman proprietor (yes, what my boss lacks in imagination, he more than makes up for in ego). So, to observe this special occasion: a post on grass, my evergreen constant of the past eleven years.
     My last post discussed, perhaps too abstractly, a concept I find crucial to navigating our contemporary condition: the apparatus. Concurrent with this effort, Levi Bryant over at Larval Subjects posted some simply amazing comments on the mediality of . . . grass! Because his argument meshes so well with my clumsy attempt at defining the apparatus as the medium between objects that establishes and articulates a power relation, I offer it to you at length:

It is not simply that media extend man, but rather humans often extend media. Take the example of lawn grass. Does grass extend the human? Certainly we see children playing in the grass, laying in the grass, having picnics in the grass, etc. However, isn’t it equally true that grass uses humans to extend itself? From a Darwinian perspective– and especially from the perspective of sexual selection in the Origin of Species –isn’t it true that grass has seduced humans so as to get itself reproduced? Isn’t the softness of grass, its rich verdant color, its pleasant earthy smell, the satisfaction it provides when being mowed, etc., a sexual strategy to get itself reproduced? Is it at least not partially true that contemporary Western civilization is an effect of grass’s drive to get itself reproduced? Has not grass carefully cultivated local manifestations among humans (primarily male humans) that take pleasure in neat lines on their lawn, the sound of a lawn mower, the luster of a thick lawn, and so on? Have we not been engineered by grass? Moreover, we could even say that in its race to domesticate man, grass generates an antagonistic war against not only weeds, but rather different varieties of grass, all using humans as queer sexual organs to get itself reproduced and to get achieve the hegemony of its particular species or variant.

First off, with “media” Bryant is at once evoking Marshall McLuhan’s definition of media as anything that extends man and expanding it to including anything that extends any object. Hence grass’s use of humans as media (or queer sexual objects) to extend themselves (an argument that Michael Pollan makes in Botany of Desire). Now, I see grass’s use of humans as media objects as an apparatic relationship wherein the grass captures human living being, getting us to do all kinds of weird things (like getting me to wake up at five every morning for ten summers).
     But how exactly does grass capture us in order to extend itself? Bryant cites several aspects grass has developed that seemingly lead to its force of capture over humans: softness, color, smell, mowing satisfaction (how many lawns has Bryant mowed?!). Now, these aspects are, properly, accidents, not the substance of grass (to revert to Scholastic terminology). That is, the pleasing (to us) texture, smell, and color of particular varieties of grass are modifications of the general “substance” of grass (of grass-ness). And it is these accidents (or evolutionary affectations within the performative of queer reproduction) that induce humans to supplicate themselves before the lush thrones of Bermuda, Kentucky blue, and fescue grasses.
     Are these accidents, then, the manner of the grass-apparatus, which is (from a certain standpoint) external to grass as such? Take color. The pleasing aspect of grass’s color is visible primarily to the human eye, not to the eye of the grub burrowing at the grass’s roots or the deer grazing on its leaves. The pleasurable color of grass is so only externally – when caught within the apparatic relationship established between humans and grass. Likewise with smell and texture. These accidents serve as the manner with which grass comports itself towards human in order to lock both into a power relation that will extend grass’s own living being. Thus, the grass-apparatus does not consist of grass, but the peculiar accidents located within a specific power relationship between grass and humans.
     But what does grass capture thusly? Well, just about anything. Grass’s apparatic extension implicates the plant in nearly all aspects and power relations of hypercapitalist society. Take my snake oil salesman boss. He has become defined through his company’s name, MDP Enterprises, within the public sphere of Windsor County Vermont. M is known, literally, as the “M” of the “Enterprise.” Yet M has come to be known publically in this manner because of his simultaneous capture within the grass-apparatus. The Enterprise that has created M’s discursive existence comes from his response to being captured by grass’s color and texture: cutting it into pleasing lines.
     Now this power relation between M and the grass apparatus extends into large power relations. M can control other humans through his manipulation of his own capture in the grass-apparatus. As a successful snake oil salesman, M has convinced countless out-of-staters that their rarely-visited vacation homes need their lawns mowed weekly at seventy-five bucks a pop (some homes are ski homes, so why the owners think they need their grass cut weekly defies any logic). But, the really fascinating thing here is that grass has once more manipulated M (and M’s manipulation of all sorts of other relations within a hypercapitalist culture: petro, consumer, labor, and advertising cultures) into extending its living being into places it otherwise would not exist (those rarely visited lawns). And again, what centers all of these mutually penetrating power relationships is the apparatic manner of grass – its pleasing color, smell, and texture.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Apparatus: The Technological Capture of Living Being

      At the close of my Leave No Trace post I introduced the technical term “apparatus” as LNT’s corporate face, defining the term according to Agamben’s lead: an apparatus is a anything “that has in some way the capacity to capture, orient, determine, intercept, model, control, or secure the gestures, behaviors, opinions, or discourses of living beings” (“What is an Apparatus?” 14). Now, this definition is exceedingly convenient in hinting at the objects hypercapitalism produces (from cell phones to automobiles to televisions to blogs to LNT). And certainly, Agamben is on to something very significant with his definition, especially when considering the scope of his inquiry. In attempting to define our contemporary condition, Agamben asserts, “It would probably not be wrong to define the extreme phase of capitalist development in which we live as a massive accumulation and proliferation of apparatuses” (15). Further, the inquiry into such a proliferating plane of apparatuses (the implication being the absolute capture of all aspects of being) is of crucial importance because “today there is not even a single instant in which the life of individuals is not modeled, contaminated, or controlled by some apparatus.” Such is the “experience” of our contemporary condition: the infinite proliferation of these “things” which capture all aspects of our existence and in so doing separate ourselves from our very being (the apparatus’s division “separates the living being from itself and from its immediate relationship with its environment” [16]). And what makes our current apparatuses peculiar, Agamben claims, is their ability merely to desubjectify their captives, in contrast to other, non-hypercapitalist apparatuses, which function according to a desubjectification-subjectification articulation (the classic example being confession, an apparatus which demands the abnegation of the “self” [desubjectification] in order to offer that individual a rebirth without sin [subjectification]).
     However convenient Agamben’s definition of apparatus may be I feel that it makes only a good starting point for our understanding of the crucial role these formations play today. I would, therefore, like to modify Agamben’s definition, in part reverting to one source of his term (Foucault) as well as amending it with Walter Benjamin’s concept of technology.
     Foucault understands apparatus (for him, dispositif) primarily according to three aspects. First, the apparatus arises as a response to an urgency. Second, because its raison d’etre is derived from a historical (actual) urgency, the apparatus always consists of a concrete strategic function located in a power relation (think: Bush’s “Patriot Act”). Third, because of its concrete, functional relationship with power structures, the apparatus emerges at the intersection between power and knowledge relationships and accordingly forms “the network established between” a “heterogeneous set consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral, and philanthropic propositions – in sort the said as much as the unsaid” (Power/Knowledge 194). Thus, Foucault defines the apparatus as “a set of strategies of the relations of forces supporting, and supported by, certain types of knowledge.”
     Now, for Foucault, the apparatus does not come down to a singular technology of power (a single law of the Patriot Act . . . which are truly terrifying in their “being in force without signification,” the very status of the law within a state of exception), but rather that larger set existing between discourses, technologies, laws, etc – a tack differing from Agamben’s singularization of the term. What I above all want to stress with Foucault’s definition is the apparatus’s status between elements of power – a special status that, I argue, gives the apparatus, no matter the scale, its force of capture.
     Thinking of the apparatus as between structures of powers allows for the examination of living being’s capture at all levels and all scales. To think apparatus thusly is to think of them according to Benjamin’s concept the technological relation (which Benjamin cites as the particular relation modern man has with nature): “technology is the mastery not of nature but mastery of the relation between nature and humanity” ("One-Way Street" 487). Technology is the mastered relation with the thing, not the mastery of the thing itself. And that is precisely how the apparatus captures. An apparatus never captures the living being as such; instead it captures living beings, technologically, through a form of bare life the apparatus constructs with its concomitant mechanism of desubjectification. This is precisely why each apparatus involves desubjectification: by separating living being from its nature, the apparatus constructs a “medium” (a figure of bare life) through which it can master living being.
     The apparatus is, accordingly, this articulation through a medium, the very passage of living being through a one-sided play of power in which living being is striped and separated from its nature. Because the apparatus is something “between” objects locked in a power relation, the term cannot be reduced simply to one of the objects within that relation. Instead, the apparatus will never be this or that particular object (this or that cell phone, television, police act, homeland security law), but a specific manner external to that specific object. This manner generates the apparatic force of any object we deem an “apparatus.” This manner is force of capture, the potentiality of an object’s controlling another object. Crucially, this manner is potential; it is able to not be. An object taken as such is never an apparatus inherently; the apparatic manner particular to an object can, in cases, not be. Yet, with the right conditions (when objects are imbricate within larger networks of power relations), the manner forcibly constructs an articulating power relation between objects, wherein one object can capture the other object. Only after the actualization of such a relation can (and do) we call an object an apparatus.
   However, the apparatus as such is the potentiality of the apparatic articulation – the manner that articulates a power relation between objects.