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.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Paradigm, Attempt One

     Because my Leave No Trace post made extensive use of the term paradigm, I feel that an attempted full-fledge definition cannot be postponed any longer. As my "About" page indicates, I have appropriated the term from Giorgio Agamben’s chapter “What is a Paradigm?” in his most recently translated work, The Signature of All Things: On Method (the chapter was initially a lecture given at the European Graduate School in 2002; you can find it here. It is somewhat long, but definitely worth the time as an introduction to Agamben’s more recent work and methodology). I will be taking, therefore, most of the following definition from this seminal text.

     Our common understanding of paradigm comes primarily from Thomas S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in which Kuhn defines the term according to two phases. First, Kuhn defines a paradigm as a disciplinary matrix designating techniques, models, and values a group (of philosophers, scientists, theologians, etc) more or less implicitly adheres to(what we typically call the “paradigm”); second, Kuhn singles out a solitary element within that matrix which unifies it through its status as an example, therefore not only replacing an explicit set of rules or prescriptions, but also ensuring the formulation of a tradition of inquiry.
     Foucault takes up this second aspect of the Kuhnian paradigm, shifts the focus onto discursive formations in general (wherein the paradigm becomes, an “episteme”), and posits the problem, “In the enigma of scientific discourse, what the analysis of the episteme questions is not its right to be a science, but the fact that is exists” (Archeology of Knowledge 192). This facticity is crucial to understanding the paradigm, especially as concerning historical and critical inquiry (the purpose of my work as a scholar). Agamben asserts that Foucault’s paradigm seems to follow Kuhn, insofar as it is “not only an exemplar and model” but also “an exemplum, which allows statements and discursive practices to be gathered into a new intelligible ensemble and in a new problematic context” (“What is a Paradigm?” 18). However, what makes Foucault’s paradigm different from Kuhn is his treatment of it within historical inquiry; for Foucault, “the paradigm is a singular case that is isolated from its context only insofar as, by exhibiting its own singularity, it makes intelligible a new ensemble, whose homogeneity it itself constitutes.”
     Thus Foucault initiates a new understanding of the paradigm, one that radically calls into question the dichotomous opposition between the particular and the general through its radical singularity. And this is where Agamben takes up Foucault’s definition of paradigm and pushes it to its fulfillment. For Agamben’s paradigm can be, primarily, characterized by its absolute singularity, its radical suspension of several binaries of historical knowledge. Agamben’s (and by extension, mine) paradigm is, to take a phrase from Benjamin, a dialectic at a standstill.
     First, the paradigm is an analogical form of knowledge, not inductive/deductive; it accordingly moves from singularity to singularity (31). Second, the paradigm likewise suspends the dichotomy between the general and the particular (and that form of knowledge wherein the general is known through the particular/ the particular known through the general; i.e. deduction/induction) and replaces it with a “bipolar analogical model” insofar as analogies “intervene[] in the dichotomies of logic . . . not to take them up into a higher synthesis but to transform them into a force field traversed by polar tensions, where (as in an electrical-magnetic field) their substantial identities evaporate” (20). These suspensions are, in fact, a singular gesture, one that also entails the paradigm’s suspension of its belonging to the group of which it also serves as an example. That is, the paradigm exposes itself as an exemplar of a historical group (a sort of historical milieu) through its suspended belonging to that group according to its radical singularity (of course, by extension all historical objects are potentially paradigms, given the premise of historiographical discontinuity). The paradigmatic group, however, cannot be presupposed in the paradigms (they are, after all, absolutely singular, or, to borrow an object-oriented ontology term, “operationally closed”); instead, “it is immanent in them” (31).
     What this diagrammatic structure of the paradigm seeks to map is, namely, that implicit paradigmatic core which allows a discursive formation to exist at all; the diagrammatic structure of the paradigm given above is, then, the structure of the paradigm’s communicativity, its pure potential to be communicated. Accordingly, Agamben’s sketch of the paradigm outlines the particular manner a historical inquiry must comport itself to historical “material,” to those paradigms which will illumine previously ignored series of phenomena. Hence, for Agamben the homo sacer (Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life), the Muselmann (Remnants of Auschwitz), the state of exception (The State of Exception), and the anthropological machine (The Open) are all paradigms illuminating not the origin of modernity, but a series of discontinuous connectivity. Likewise, for myself Leave No Trace is a paradigm that, when treated in a specific manner, can be suspended from its belonging to a certain group (anthropocentricism) thereby making that group intelligible in a new light. LNT is, therefore, an absolutely singular historical object that serves as an example of a larger paradigmatic plane, but is nevertheless irreducible to that plane.
     While it has been implicit throughout this post, I will nonetheless make explicit the particular “region” of the paradigm. As a historical object it belongs, properly, to the realm of discourse (I do not use the term “thought” here because I wish to avoid the correlationist fallacy). The paradigm is accordingly a discursive formation (something that is part “thought,” part “lived reality”). So, when writing about LNT, I treated its discursive/expressive formation (as a slogan and proper noun) paradigmatically, i.e. as a singularity allowing the exposure of an under-exposed, “larger” paradigm (for LNT: anthropocentrism). Thus, something like LNT can allow the critic a glimpse at the paradigmatic core, or engine, of a Kuhnian “paradigm” (a set of discourse practices centered on an implicit “example”).

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Brian Jungen's Hyperobjects

In the closing pages of The Ecological Thought, Timothy Morton introduces the “hyperobject,” something that “appears more real than reality” and which will, Morton warns, form “our lasting legacy.” Hyperobjects – plutonium, Styrofoam, polystyrene – “do not burn without themselves burning” (131), do not break down without doing so to themselves. Those disposable and convenient Dunkin Doughnuts coffee cups –symbols of the seemingly infinite transience of hypercapitalist culture – will not only form the fossil record of our existence, but will also be perfectly fit for the use of any living being discovering our traces in ten thousand years. And because “hyperobjects [will] outlast us all,” it is the task of ecological thought “to think the future of these objects.”
 Visual artist Brian Jungen’s 2002 Cetology thinks the ecological thought by re-fabricating polystyrene chairs into a life-sized replica of a museumified whale skeleton. Locating his arresting piece at the intersection of numerous historical vectors, Jorgen seems to answer Morton’s question of the future of hyperobjects, claiming that our future record will not be our fossilized remains (the very physicality of our living being’s past presence, as with the whale fossil Jungen evokes), but the indestructible objects we will leave behind. Jungen says, disturbingly, that if some future “natural history” museum were to exist, we would be present there only indirectly, our actual existence reduced and displaced onto our ubiquitous objects of inexpensive and infinite convenience. What we once believed to be the lasting trace of our non-mortal remains of mortal being (our skeletons) will have, Cetology argues, been superseded by a new trace unique to our contemporary condition: the hyperobject.
     To some degree, fossilized human objects forming a more lasting non-mortal trace of mortal life is nothing new. After all, isn’t that what most archeology sifts through, the buildings and pots of fallen empires? Yet the hyperobject-as-archeological trace explodes any previous historical scale. While the Etruscan tombs have brooded north of Rome for three thousand years, their once vivid murals have lost not only luster but their very “force” (their "use," namely, signification). A hyperobject will never face such a threat of diminution. In three thousand years the configurations of Jungen's Cetology will have de-composed, thus the “content” of the work will be lost; the work’s materials, polystyrene chairs, will not, however, have lost their force. They will not only remain chairs, easily reassembled and returned to proper use; their very materiality will remain as chemically potent as the day they were extruded. Expanding the historical scale will change nothing. Even once we become as extinct as the faux fossilized whale to which Cetology alludes, its unadulterated materiality will remain suspended in a permanence Keats never imagined for his Grecian figures and Ivan Igor lusted after with each wax-entombed corpse (Mystery of the Wax Museum).

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Leave No Trace: The "Wilderness" Isn't Wilderness Anymore

Any outdoors enthusiast knows by heart the mantra and commandment of all wilderness activity: “Leave no trace.” Straightforward stuff: go into the wild and neither leave nor take anything. A seemingly simple directive of outdoors behavior, except Leave No Trace has a curious half-discursive, half-physical composition. On the one hand LNT, is, in the form we all were typically indoctrinated by, simply a set of discursive precepts for behavior in the “outdoors;” and on the other hand LNT is a 501-c-3, nonprofit incorporation (literally Leave No Trace Inc). Here, then, we find ourselves confronted with a curious, complex hybrid of an ideology; nevertheless, out of this intentional confrontation I wish to outline a specific biocultural entity for which I currently lack a technical term – something like a “paradigm-apparatus,” although such a term is, clearly, quite clunky.

Leave No Trace Paradigm: How We Think About Others Knowing About Us Out “There”
        What makes LNT so curious is, perhaps, not so much its being both discursive and corporate (in its fullest etymological sense, as a body [corpus] and as a business: something “actual”), but how and for what reason it intersects the discursive and the corporate. LNT is, at its face, a campaign to mobilize a specific manner of behavior within a specific locality. Within the American wilderness (an oddly “out-there” beyond-civilization place), LNT directs us to move through said wilderness without affecting the environment you are an outsider of such that you remain alterior to the environment (a hermetically closed off system of beings who are, by being so closed, non-human . . . according to such a logic). Taking LNT at its face, we appear to be in the realm of ontology (the study of being and its modes of existence considered as such). Yet, why “leave no trace?” Why shift discourse into a seemingly alien field from that which the ideology is purportedly concerned with? That is, why take an ideology that is concerned with ontology and express it with a term ripped from epistemology such that the entire campaign’s “text” ( the slogan and proper noun “leave no trace”) becomes about visibility, about the control over one’s visibility-yet-to-come in a specific medium (those “traces” left behind for others to see), and, ultimately, about the manipulation of the erasure of one’s self within both locality and time (the trace isn’t a trace until it has entered into history, until your presence has “left”)?
      The historical contingencies LNT was created to meet help explain, in part, such a bizarre discursive shift. In the 1970’s our National Parks found themselves inundated with visitors, thus prompting the United States Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and Nation Park Service to draft pedagogies for instructing “non-motorized visitors” how to behave in wilderness areas (for more:
     Crucial here: the parks were flooded with people. To make sense of this particular urgency as pertaining to LNT’s paradigmatic structure, we must examine the “scale” of self-other articulations when considering how an object is known to other objects. A 1:N scale expresses the articulation between an object to an alien object (for LNT, human-animal): in a formula of intelligibility, the “sign” left by an object would not be intelligible to another object that is comporting itself towards knowing the first object; or, more simply: the “sign” of Object A is not visible to Object B as intelligible (it is not information, which is, according to Levi Bryant, “the difference that makes a difference”). A 1:1 scale would correspond to a human-human (or chipmunk-chipmunk, bear-bear, whatever-to-whatever) articulation: the “sign” left by Object A would be intelligible to Object B as a signifying sign, as information (and that sign would with time become, properly, a “trace”). The historical contingency (flood of human visitors) to which LNT responds consists not only of this later scale, but also of a specific declension of that scale: an anthropocentric instance.
      Just look at what LNT seeks to “erase” (how one is to behave so that an other-like-you cannot know of your past presence) from one’s trekking through the “wilderness:” camp and travel on durable surfaces (don’t leave new footprints), leave what you find, including edible plants (to “allow others a sense of discovery” – of non-human life), minimize use of fire (“True Leave No Trace fires show no evidence of having ever been constructed”), and, my favorite, dispose of waste properly (hide your shit). While these behaviors (mobility, shelter, food, food’s apotheosis, and warmth) can have detrimental impacts on wildlife, what LNT’s principles stress are traces that are intelligible to humans. And I am not saying that the signs we leave are not visible and, in some fashion, intelligible to wilderness animals (they certainly are); the point here is that such signs in their intelligibility to animals would not be, properly, “traces.” Those signs which LNT outlines (those “traces” we must not leave in behind) and those signs which to animals are intelligible are not necessarily the same. Again, the signs I wish to highlight are only those that LNT has singled out as “traces,” not those that are intelligible to animals yet have been marginalized by LNT’s scope. Seriously, do bears give a damn about your abject waste?
     The historical contingency LNT responds to (a population increase promulgating a 1:1 scale of intelligibility) and LNT’s response to that contingency reveals something like a “state of exception” grafted onto the “society of the spectacle:” a plane of pure visibility upon which all residue of living presence is made potentially intelligible to such an extreme that even in the “wilderness” (that realm once characterized as being absolutely removed from us) we experience anxiety over being-seen-and-known. (Sorry for the sloppiness of these terms, but I wish to hint at a crucial aspect of the contemporary condition rendered visible through LNT: that we all live in a “Camp” [state of exception] that is in large part characterized by the primacy of images and visibility [society of the spectacle])

Leave No Trace Apparatus: How Our Bodies Are Captured in the Wild
     And what we are anxious about being exposed (or, more precisely, what LNT encodes as being fit for anxiety) gets to the heart of LNT’s curious intersection of the discursive and the corporate: the biological necessities of shelter and food. Keeping in mind LNT’s bivalent status as discursive and corporate, LNT is, properly, a biocultural nexus (bio: private bodily needs; cultural: prescriptions for making bodily acts fit for publicity). That is, LNT can be halved according to a biological/private and cultural/public bifurcation wherein “bio”= biological self-care (how you dispose of your crap) and “cultural” = how those biological acts of self-care are taught to be carried out. Literally, the very gesture of a living being’s taking a shit is prescribed by a cultural discourse – LNT itself, a didactic apparatus using language to teach “proper” biological actions (Leave No Trace, Inc “was incorporated to develop and expand Leave No Trace training and educational resources”). LNT is, accordingly an apparatus: a “thing 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” (Agamben, “What is an Apparatus?” 15).

     Now, hopefully, a working definition of what LNT actually is can emerge. LNT’s discursive existence (as a slogan and proper noun) meshes violently with its corporate manifestation (as an incorporation seeking the control over biological acts) to form something like a “paradigm-apparatus” – an entity whose function is to respond to a historical contingency (population increase) through discursive (slogan encoding proper anxiety over one’s visibility) and biological (self-care) means. Not only is LNT located at the intersection of bio/cultural (as an apparatus), it is also located at the intersection of the paradigmatic and the apparatic. LNT both models thought (how one thinks about one’s being visible and intelligible to others-like-you) and captures gestures (how one effects biological self-care) such that these activities interpenetrate each other, rendering LNT a paradigm with apparatic power and an apparatus with paradigmatic force. With LNT the paradigmatic ensures the apparatus’s infinite deployment (the expansion of its force-of-capture to all levels of being) while the apparatus simultaneously constitutes the paradigm’s naturalness (the appearance of a model of thought as a simple matter of common course).

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Bartleby's Formula Against Exposure

      My previous post’s closing remarks offered a quick, sideways glance at Bartleby: “With shame at her exposed subjectivity, her exposed secreting, Lady Alroy can only pile on the shrouds of a conventional domestic “mystery” and, when those have been rent, merely, in the spirit of her blithe comrade Bartleby, confess, “I have told the truth.”
     This brief transatlantic exchange between indifferences underscores, possibly, the validity of a particular paradigm of intelligibility – of how one can think about one’s being visible and knowable to others. If Lady Alroy appears as a visage of a subject’s having-been-constituted through the secret, and Bartleby, in some fashion, is her comrade in impotent arms, then something in Bartleby’s formula, “I would prefer not to,” might offer an antidote to living being’s capture by intelligibility. Or, more simply: “I would prefer not to” expresses and localizes a “secreting” technique resistant to a specific, modern, and therefore visible, intelligibility.
     When confronted by his employer’s petitions to perform his contractual duties (to copy legal documents with other clerks simultaneously), Bartleby tosses up his formula, to which the employer cannot do, or say, anything. Surely, from a certain vulgar perspective, Bartleby gets his wish; he gets what he, in the end, actually prefers to do: remain hidden behind his screen. What Bartleby prefers not to do in order that he may “do” what he wishes to do (remain invisible) is to enter into a specific form of visibility. In accepting his employer’s petition to work by leaving the concealment of his screen and copying a legal document for the set purpose of examination, Bartleby would open himself up to a visibility not in the general medium of sight (his person being seen by others in the office as soon as he leaves his screen), but instead in the medium of a clerk’s handwriting. That is, Bartleby’s living presence will become visible (and to that discerning critic, his employer, intelligible) through the betrayal of his handwriting alone.
     Yet Bartleby attempts to control this opening into visibility and an inevitable intelligibility through complete indifference. Rather than simply not expose himself within handwriting (which he has already done, prodigiously, numerous times before), Bartleby blanches at a seemingly all-penetrating gaze belonging to his judge and master: his employer. And his blanching, his attempt to conceal himself before the gaze of his employer, takes the form of a curious formula that covers over a secret with indifference, such that what is made a secret (both Bartleby’s motivation to remain invisible and unknown and his most intimate being, his whatever being) hides behind a discourse completely indifferent to signification.
     After all, the syntagma “I would prefer not to” means, for Bartleby and his employer, nothing at all – although it has attained literary, cultural, and theoretical meanings as walled behind double quotation marks (“‘. . . ’”). In uttering his phrase, Bartleby does not, in actuality, tell his boss anything because the phrase itself has given up recourse to signification. Neither mere voiced-sound nor overwrought, metaphoric language, “I would prefer not to” attains a special linguistic status, similar to Levi-Strauss’s “floating signifier” (a signifier of “zero symbolic value, that is to say, a sign marking the necessity of a symbolic content supplementary to that with which the signified is already loaded, but which can take on any value required” [qtd in Derrida’s “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourses of the Human Sciences”). But rather than function as a near-empty linguistic mark that, in facing a non-linguistic void or lack, ensures and actualizes the infinite repetition of finite signs (to make discourses “play” themselves out in intelligibility), Bartleby’s formula serves a shockingly opposite function. Confronting a real threat of his living being’s presence-in-language (how his clerk’s handwriting will be make his intimate being intelligible to his employer), Bartleby’s formula collapses any possibility for an actualized infinite playing out of finite signs, thereby foreclosing both language and exposure. While Strauss’s floating signifier serves as an engine actualizing discourse, Bartleby’s formula serves the exact opposite function: to ensure the potentiality of language. Bartleby’s utterance, in its indifference, is potential (it is able to not be) – a stark contrast to impotential language actualized through the floating signifier (which is not able to not be). Bartleby’s formula is accordingly more “primary” than Strauss’s floating signifier, if we understand “primary” as not chronologically before an event, but as being structurally “prior.” Bartleby’s reticence before his employer’s petition for exposure serves as the locus of a complete rehearsal of language’s potentiality – its being as such in the world without exhausting itself in actualization and impotentiality. By giving over to language any pretense of denominative force, the formula suspends itself in its own authority (power of words and narration) at the edge of language’s complete ineffability not in order that finite signs can play out infinitely, but that the very communicativity of language – its potentiality – can brilliantly emerge in the crystalline gesture of Bartleby’s utterance. Something is, for all its seeming opaqueness, communicated in Bartleby’s formula: communicativity, the potentiality of communication inherent in every particular communication.

(Note: Bartleby perhaps enacts here a constitutive gesture of a language of pure communicativity: “All living beings are in the open: they manifest themselves and shine in their appearance. But only human beings want to take possession of this opening, to seize hold of their own appearance and of their own being-manifest. Language is this appropriation, which transforms nature into face” [Agamben, “The Face” 91].)

Unquestionably, Bartleby’s formula works its magic; it quite successfully cuts off the threat of visibility and its concomitant intelligibility. And it must be remembered that Bartleby directs his formula at a petition for openness – a petition for Bartleby to expose himself to a particular intelligibility in a particular medium (to copy and thereby to show his trace in written forms [not language itself, but a gestic manipulation of language: clerk’s handwriting]). Bartleby, like Lady Alroy after him, seeks, through his formula, to erase his being from the intelligibility of those who are comported towards seeing and knowing him. That is, by allowing himself to be exposed only through his curious formula, Bartleby seeks to resist a penetrating gaze. However, Bartleby’s allowance is of a special, doubled form; he seeks to control his opening into visibility both in virtuality (language as such, language in its potentiality) and in actuality (gestic language, clerk’s handwriting). The formula, because of its indifference towards signification, takes on both forms of allowance simultaneously such that the formula and its utterance constitute the site of Bartleby’s violent struggle to control his own opening into visibility through a radical indifference.
     Confronted with an all-penetrating gaze, Bartleby seems to utilize his formula as a means of hiding himself behind a screen that will actually, in the very gesture of hiding, fully expose him. But nothing like that happens. In its indifference, Bartleby’s formula collapses a seemingly infinite series of withdrawing/exposing into complete invisibility and casts the scrivener into absolute unintelligibility. And it is perhaps for this reason that it can be said that Bartleby is knowable for the narrator and the reader only through his formula.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Secreting "Sphinx without a Secret"

     In his brief short story, “The Sphinx without a Secret,” Oscar Wilde lays bare modernity’s process of subjectification. The plot seems disturbingly commonplace: a man falls in love with a seemingly conventional femme fatale; the beloved shrouds herself in mystery, asking for discreet rendezvous and subterranean letters; the lover sees his beloved enter a back-alley abode, and reading all the conventional markings of a secret tryst, demands a confession of infidelity; the disgraced beloved meekly professes innocence; the lover, convinced of deceit, frantically denounces her.

     Yet, nothing is, seemingly, as it seems. Hearing of his beloved’s death, the protagonist, Lord Murchison, returns to the back-alley abode only to discover – the woman’s innocence, her tryst being nothing more than a few solitary hours spent reading novels and sipping tea. A stunning turn of events! and Murchison finds himself “anxious and puzzled.” Seeking the aid of an old college friend, the narrator, Murchison lays bare his case – actually the beloved’s – to which the narrator, confronting the thrice removed lived reality of a tertiary case (from the back-alley landlady to Murchison to the narrator), exclaims, in the most haltingly conventional terms, “Lady Alroy was simply a woman with a mania for mystery . . . She had a passion for secrecy, but she herself was a merely a Sphinx without a secret.”
     Yet a lingering mystery appears to hang over both Murchison and the text itself. We, along with Murchison, close Wilde’s brief story with the tepid question, “‘I wonder?’”
     Wonder what? That the narrator’s case is illegitimate is, I argue, too clear to be startling. Instead, what disturbs Murchison and reader is a remnant of mystery left undeciphered by the brazen narrator. The wonder is not whether or not Lady Alroy “had a passion” for mystery. Rather, the wonder is whether or not such a passion is not, in actuality, a mystery, but instead something base and mundane, something belonging to one who is reduced to the phrase, “simply a woman with a mania for mystery.”
     As astute readers of Wilde’s text, we must be keen to the cocksure pronouncement of the narrator’s case, deconstructing his words in order to reveal the deep anxiety behind his calm, confident tone. For the narrator really is responding to an urgency, to an abnormality his conventional forms of thought and language cannot properly contain. Not that of a woman who loves simply to shroud herself in an empty mystery (which is, logically, a mystery that “took-in” Murchison), but the shock of a constitutive lack of mystery within the “mystery” itself. Behind the lurid-seeming details of the case rests a woman quietly ensconced in commonplace novel reading and tea sipping. Her mystery: nothing more (or less) than an utter lack of mystery, a lack the narrator’s case-making apparatus cannot properly account for. Hence the terrifyingly conventional pronouncement.
     And what that pronouncement cannot confront and must leave as a remnant to knowledge is how mystery, which once served to render the subjectivity of others intelligible by opening up alterity to case-machinery, no longer functions as it once did. Now a new force serves to render subjectivity intelligible, independent of alterity. The lack of one’s mystery is, the story leads us to reflect, one’s self-constitutive secret – a secret completely intelligible, completely open through the very gesture that attempts to hide what is at all times fully exposed. And, crucially, in that withdrawing gesture, one makes fully intelligible that which before was merely visible.
     The site of this secretive gesture is “face” – that surface upon which one’s absolute visibility and one’s potential intelligibility play out through the process of secreting, a withdrawal-that-opens.
     This is a paradigm for intelligibility. Exposed to an infinite and ceaseless gaze, all living beings have lost their mystery – that is, mystery has been exposed in its illegitimacy to be nothing more than the ruse of a bankrupt process of subjectification. The subject no longer has recourse to its mystery as its constitutive form. Instead, the open secret constitutes one’s subjectivity; one’s lack of mystery, one’s constitutive lack of a central emptiness (mystery) provides the impetuous for a (shameful and embarrassed) withdrawal from visibility. Yet that very gesture of secreting opens one to intelligibility, and the dual process (of simultaneously receding from and expanding into intelligibility) itself constitutes the modern, gaze-plagued subject.
     Lady Alroy, perpetually growing pale under a perpetually interrogating gaze, secrets herself thus. With shame at her exposed subjectivity, her exposed secreting, she can only pile on the shrouds of a conventional domestic “mystery” and, when those screens have been rent, merely, in the spirit of her blithe comrade Bartleby, confess, “I have told the truth.”

George Oppen's Ecological Vision, Part 1: "The Simplest Words"

       Having worked fruitlessly on a ceaselessly proliferating post about George Oppen’s “ecological vision,” I must now resign myself to breaking up the entire attempt into fragments digestible to both readers and myself. And while the original, unitary plan was to begin with a sketch of “ecological vision” – primarily drawing from Tim Morton’s recent The Ecological Thought as well as my go-to theory trinity (Agamben, Benjamin, and Deleuze) – I will instead allow a working definition of my particular sense of “ecological” to unfold through the coming series. For now, however, I will only offer a provisional definition of ecological vision: a vision of interconnectivity( Morton: “ecological thought is the thinking of interconnectedness” [7]), or, more grandly and precisely, an immanent metaphysics.

    Being who I am (an English scholar), I could easily begin my inquiry into Oppen’s possible ecological vision by offer a close reading of what his poetry says. Such a reading would be, I fear, too reductive. After all the title of the poem I will focus on, “Of Being Numerous,” screams, “interconnectivity!” And the main sections I would call forth to Fractal Paradigm’s witness stand are all, I also fear, too evident in their “ecological-ness” to require a thorough critical gaze (for example, the opening lines: “There are things/ We live among ‘and to see them/ Is to know ourselves’” [163]) – such passages being too ecological to hold up to the singular, “case-making” coercion of a close reading, their fragile tension collapsing under a too-taut gaze while their immanent expansiveness would perpetually fly from any discursive attempt at capture. Instead, I will suspend the “ends” of Oppen’s language to arrest it in its systolic-diastolic withdrawal-flight from my critical gaze; that is, I will consider Oppen’s poetry independent of its “meaning” and “content,” focusing instead on the gestic elements crystallizing Oppen’s immanent, ecological vision.
     When first confronting “Of Being Numerous,” one is struck with its terse and sparse language – a common feature of most of Oppen’s work (no surprise, Oppen was one of the founders of the objectivist movement in the 1930’s – a movement which treated the poem as an object and viewed the world as clearly as possible). Take the poem’s opening nine lines: “There are things/ We live among ‘and to see them/ Is to know ourselves’./ Occurrence, a part/ Of an infinite series,/ The sad marvels;/Of this was told/ A tale of our wickedness./ It is not our wickedness.” Thirty-seven words, only two of which contain more than two syllables (occurrence and wickedness, used twice). Yet Oppen does something even more curious in these lines than simply polish his diction into terse one and two syllable words. In a recurring gesture, Oppen shifts all activity away from both the narrator and “us” – those seemingly privileged subject positions – and onto third parties left startlingly ambiguous. In the opening stanza, “we” do nothing except “live,” the real action, “to see,” is merely implied, buried within inverted commas (this phrase coming from Robert Brumbaugh’s Plato for the Modern Age). Similarly, “occurrence,” which is, by definition, an act, is striped of all activity, suspended in a fragment while its active force is appropriated by an unstated “they” violently construing it as wickedness. Finally, and most obviously, the only verbs in these opening lines are “be” and passive verbs; and precisely because of such weak verbs, all action occurs off the page and beyond the agency of the narrator, objects, or us.
     What is so ecological about such a gesture? What makes a seeming rehearsal of the violent fitting multiplicity (an infinite series of occurrences) into tales of wickedness (or, as Oppen writes a few sections later, the choosing of “the meaning of being numerous”) and singularity ecological? Well, everything. The manner in which Oppen seemingly expropriates authority (the power of words and narration) to coercive, non-immanent forces (those calling our immanent life wicked) strips those very forces of the authority they seem to have received so easily. That is, those forces of proclamation are given an “authority” that is fully emptied of all power – a desiccated language muttering impotent judgments on a ceaselessly re-occurring “world.”
    Oppen’s language, which he both offers those coercive forces and retains for himself, is at ease. That is, Oppen’s language is one that has exceeded (or simply ignored) its “theological” task – the job, enacted between the poles of lament (nature’s being betrayed by meaning) and praise (the name perfectly saying nature), of referring to the thing. Simply, “Of Being Numerous”’s language has “declined any pretense of denomination” and instead both comports itself towards “a nature that has exhausted its destiny among created beings” (Agamben, The Coming Community 59) and reveals it as existing without recourse to transcendence and pure in its immanence. Oppen’s ecological vision, encoded in his gesture, takes as its task the opening towards such a “nature” (not, as Tim Morton would be quick to point out, “Nature” with a capital N, but is instead simply living reality), which, while forming a “mesh” (Morton’s term), has exhausted and outlived itself teleological ends.
     Such a mesh (a plane of immanence) forms the very ground of “Of being Numerous” in time and space, both coming about through the “shipwreck of the singular,” a bankruptcy of the ideologies of individualism (a middle-class, Protestant ideology emergent during the 18th century, which gave rise to, among other things, my beloved “Novel,” evoked brilliantly by Oppen in the running allusions to Robinson Crusoe) and its philosophical compatriot, the individual-universal binary (which claims that the singular opens to knowledge of the universal, and vise-versa). Instead, a new singularity arises out of this shipwreck: “The absolute singular” (167). Crucially, such a singularity correlates with Agamben’s “whatever being:” in whatever being, “[s]ingularity is thus freed from the false dilemma that obliges knowledge to choose between the ineffability of the individual and the intelligibility of the universal” (Coming Community 1). Singularity is, with whatever being, “such as it is” (Agamben’s emphasis”).
     Things in “Of Being Numerous” acquire whatever singularity. Days have “only the force/ Of days/ Most simple/ Most difficult” (167); Rain falls with indifference to the “world” (169); occurrences “occur[] ‘neither for self/ Nor for truth’” (187). And art must comport itself towards whatever singularity as its proper gesture: the artist “must somehow see the one thing/ This is the level of art/ There are other levels/ But there is no other level of art” (180).
     As poetry, “Of Being Numerous” can only confront the indifference of the absolute singular with language. And Oppen’s language is, as previously noted, one at ease, indifferent and “modest” in regards to its referent (the thing as it is). Oppen’s referent “is no longer nature betrayed by meaning . . . but is what is held – unuttered – in the pseudonym or in the ease between the name and the nickname” (Coming Community 60). And it is the “ease between” the name (denominative) and nickname (the “being-in-language-of-the-non-linguistic”) that gives rise, in language, to the figure of the absolute singular. Oppen’s poetry, in its diction’s very indifference to its traditional task of signification, is a language of ease, and through this ease the shipwreck of the singular opens up the gap out of which “the discovery of fact/ Bursts” upon us “[i]n a paroxysm of emotion” (166). As Oppen elsewhere writes, his language is of the “simplest words,” which “say the grass blade” as it is (“The Occurrences” 1-2).

Works Cited:
Agamben, Giorgio. The Coming Community. Trans. Michael Hardt. Minneapolis:
      University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
Morton, Timothy. The Ecological Thought. Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 2010.
Oppen, George. "Of Being Numerous." New Collected Poems. New York: New
      Directions, 2008.
---. "The Occurances." New Collected Poems. New York: New Directions,

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Vacation from Vacation: Operating Inoperativity

      Vacationing on lake Bomoseen once more leads me to revisit the seemingly false yet nonetheless exigent binary of work and idleness, that bugaboo of Protestant theology. Since beginning to take seriously my work as a “scholar,” I have met with a varying degree of skeptical ambivalence those wise words warning of the devil and his lust for hands. What I “do,” after all, amounts to so much idle-kindling for the devil’s fires: I sit around all day and read.
      Which is mostly what I do when I am on vacation, too. An external observer of my life and activities would be tempted to find this summer’s vacation a proper, all-American, middle-class holiday: I leave an observably active job (landscaping) and sit around “doing” a lot of nothing. Now, this “nothing” is what I am deeply concerned with – not only when I am sitting around visibly doing nothing, but here and now, as I write (which is, visibly, not nothing). What constitutes this “nothing” with which I will fill my coming days?
    The easiest answer is the one I typically use: I am reading and as an academic reading is my proper habit. Yet this answer answers is not so; it fails to answer “nothing.” Because reading is what I “do,” my vacation is, therefore, not so – my two weeks reading on the lake will amount to two weeks work done in a new, more scenic locality.
    Yet my vacation is, nonetheless, a vacation; therefore, “reading” cannot be that which composes my “nothing.” A second tack could be to argue the puerile point that “nothing” is inscrutable and I am better off fishing. But “nothing” always is something – something within the limits of language, i.e. within the scope of my current “activity.” Plus, I don’t have a fishing license and I can’t read/work all the time.
    So what the heck is the nothing I am supposed to be doing if I am to be the all-American, middle-class vacationer daringly courting the devil’s favor?
    Now, upon reading this post, one might be tempted to think of “nothing” as a relative term. Surely, while my “nothing” cannot be reading someone else’s “nothing” could be reading, as long as one’s vocation is suspended while on vacation. Yet vocation’s suspension is not, according to this logic, what is requisite for a vacation to be a vacation. Instead, the ends of an activity belonging to a specific vocation must be suspended. Hence, for my vacation to be a vacation, it is not necessary to simply stop reading. In fact, I can both read and vacation. Only I must read without an end – I must read Wilkie Collins for the “simple” “pleasure” of experiencing plot, suspense, shock, etc without recourse to any critical exegesis.
    Yet such a relativity of “nothing” fails to truly explain anything. It has simply set up parameters for the guise of a new logic, one that seems to lead benevolently beyond that old, Protestant work ethic always painting the edges of one’s vacation with guilt. But more than that. The logic of such relativity of idleness does literally nothing to interrogate the construction of vacation’s specific nothingness; the binary of work and idleness (and its coeval God/Devil dyad) remains in utter force, although the obscurism of a relativity approach has rendered its force invisible.
    The nothing of idleness is, in fact, something, even according to the void-tending logic of the Protestant work ethic (of which modern, hypercapitalist ideology is the direct progeny). Idleness’s nothing engenders the Devil’s power. Yet, and this may seem like tautology, but even the Devil himself is a part of the very machine that produces his power. He is, accordingly, only in force because he has been set over and against God and his works. So, here we have a closed set of correlating binaries, the paradigmatic force of which has permeated the West to the degree which thought, our most crucial “activity,” falls under their spell: {God/Work::Devil/Idleness}
    I have placed these binaries in brackets (and separated them with double colons to represent their central hiatus) to emphasize their constitutive unity: they are all form a singular machine, a “work-machine.” Now, the nothing I have been seeking can be in one of two places within the dynamic of this machine. First, we can equate it with idleness – the approach I have taken thus far. Such an approach solves the consistency of nothing without reducing it to a void by placing it at one pole of a process defining work/activity. But there is, I hope, another place where “nothing” arises: the machine’s very core, that no-man’s land between activity and idleness, between God and the Devil.
    If what we normally call idleness is the opposite of work such that work can be define through that very opposition, then idleness is, in fact, very busy. It has the herculean task of constituting work without appearing to do so (if it were to be seen as working to constitute work, then we would no longer call it idleness). Yet, what about that other nothing located between work and idleness? If both work and idleness are in fact active, what is going on between them?
    Inoperativity, an action which is neither work nor idleness because it has no stake in the work-machine. Such an action has been excepted from the work/idleness binary, excepted from the entire means/ends thrust of Protestant (by now one should read: hypercapitalist) ideology.
    Such is the “nothing” that I “do” while I am “doing nothing.” In reading Collins to answer critical questions while on the lakefront, I have excepted myself from the work-machine and leapt into an operating inoperativity – a vacation from the vacation.