To do justice to things and each other

I recently led a discussion amongst all of the Fellows at the Jackman Humanities Institute (University of Toronto) of William Haver’s essay, “The Art of Dirty Old Men: Rembrandt, Giacometti, Genet,” published in Parallax, in a special issue that I edited on “unbecoming,” (vol. 11, no. 2, 2005). Here are my introductory remarks.

One of the principal assertions in the study of Visual Culture, including what WJT Mitchell, one of the founders of the field has elaborated as “picture theory,” entails the philosophical reclamation of “picture thinking”—the kind of thinking that Hegel had attempted to thoroughly denigrate. At the same time, such methods that for awhile comprised what was referred to as the “visual turn,” entails an embrace of Kant’s notion of the schema, precisely in order to think in non-symbolic and non-representational ways not only whatever the word “culture,” designates in “visual culture,”  but also “visuality,” of which “images” are just one of the many “things” in question. But as these names imply, “picture thinking” or “picture theory” are also ways to engage in thinking and the practice of thought, and not only through pictures (as though images were merely forms of mediation between the mind and the world), but more deeply and perhaps more philosophically, about thought “itself:” its source, its practice, its durations and its interruptions. In the wake of our reading of Deleuze, we can speak of “the image of thought,” in which that image might be a thing in addition to possibly being a conceptual personae or an affective perception or intuition. This is of serious consequence, since there is an inextricable relation between thought and things (to quote the title of Leo Bersani’s most recent book), and needless to say, it this relation that resides at the heart of our theme at the Jackman Humanities Institute this year, and our common theme of “things that matter.”

As we begin to parse the relation between thought and things, we might turn to Jean-Luc Nancy, who states—in one of his books on Hegel, in fact—that “thought sinks into things only to the extent that it sinks into itself—which is its own act of thought” (Restlessness, 15). Thus the ways in which thought sinks or penetrates into things, or simply acts in the vicinity of things, is the way in which thought thinks. This image of thought is the intuition of sense—its literality and visuality—in which the Kantian schema proves to be nothing other than an image. As Fredric Jameson has recently pointed out, this is what Einstein’s thought experiments consisted of, and, we might add, how quantum theory thinks about things. Namely: through non-representational yet still referential pictures, including diagrams. As Jameson explains, in all of these instances, it is the signifier that determines the signified, and the effect determines the cause. These are formulas that we are utterly familiar with, in our various engagements with post-structuralism and deconstruction.

This is also the inverse temporality that I am interested in, and that motivates the research project that I am pursuing here at the JHI on the collective afterlife of things. It is a temporality that does not only track the effects of the present on the past, but of the future on the present. This temporality is rendered literary and is visualized in the science fiction sub-genre of the time-travel narrative; and in fact it is in a recent review of a new theoretical study of this genre, where Jameson, in the very last sentence of his article, draws the stunning conclusion that “temporality is then nothing but a time-travel narrative.” (“In Hyperspace,” review of Time Travel: The Popular Philosophy of Narrative, by David Wittenberg, Fordham; London Review of Books, 10 September 2015).

This is where I think William Haver’s essay on “The Art of Dirty Old Men,” enters the discussion, and its provocation not about the history but about the historicity of thought, which is to say, thought’s sinking into things/into itself, which in turn is to speak of thought’s image. For whereas in these sci-fi  time-travel narratives there is, as Jameson explains, “the transcendental necessity of superspace in any narrative rendering of time,” Haver argues that due to the force of finitude, meaning “non-transcedence,” such narrative renderings of time are interrupted (including in the disciplinary discourses of “history” or “art history” and their own aspirations toward a transcendental perspective in the form of explanation, interpretation and understanding). Further, it is not so much that time-travel becomes impossible, but more precisely that it now must be thought as generating not temporality, but what Haver describes as “a-temporal disjunct simultaneity,” or more simply: the sense of finitude—finitude’s historicity. Yet to all of this we must ask: why is this case?

Haver’s answer is that it is because of the material impasse of existence, the fact that existence, or what he describes as the “identity and equality of sentient being” is abject in its non-transcendence. Meaning, the finitude of bodies, thoughts and things, in their incommensurable singularity and sheer exteriority: things that is, other than in terms of the instrumental, meaning or significance, the calculable or the numerable. In other words: the dirty old man whose look butted against Genet’s own non-contemplative and impersonal seeing. “Material impasse” describes the impasse or essential insufficiency of thought to its objects (in a word: materiality) and that which in its materiality is irreducible to a thing.

In “On the Solitude of Things,” a chapter of an unpublished book on Genet and the political, Haver at one point makes clear that “it is not…simply a matter of resigning or refusing one’s transcendence, of abandoning the distance of perspective. Rather it is a matter of sustaining the syncopations every historicization elides, of inhabiting the infinite yet absolutely proximate distance between evidence and experience, between interpretation and evidence, between transcendence and finitude” (Solitude, 10).

Genet speaks to this interruption of the time-travel narrative and thus of temporality, in a way that underlines how this experience—which Haver will go on to theorize as not only the conviction of the aesthetic, but also the experience of the ethical and the political—when he (Genet) writes (first block quote on page 29) about the sensuous pleasure of his hand in a boy’s hair, and how even though he (Genet) “shall die, nothing else will.”

 A little while ago I wrote that though I shall die, nothing else will. And I must make my meaning clear. Wonder at the sight of a cornflower, at a rock, at the touch of a rough hand –all the millions of emotions of which I’m made –they won’t disappear even though I shall. Other men will experience them, and they’ll still be there because of them. More and more I believe I exist in order to be the terrain and proof which show other men that life consists in the uninterrupted emotions flowing through all creation. The happiness my hand knows in a boy’s hair will be known by another hand, is already known. And although I shall die, this happiness will live on. ‘I’ may die, but what made that ‘I’ possible, what made possible the joy of being, will make the joy of being live on without me.

(Genet, The Prisoner of Love, NYRB, 2003 translated by Barbara Bray, 361)

This is not a transcendental time-travel narrative, in which one travels back to (or from) the future, but is instead what I wish to theorize as the collective afterlife of things, in which the abject non-transcendence of our finitude is what we share between us (the fact and condition of “social ontology”), and not in some future end of times, but here, now when we see a clothespin left behind on a line, or look at a Rembrandt, a Giacometti, or in our encounters with any number of other things. As Haver argues, the “thing” of painting or of seeing provokes an accidental intuition of the identity and equality of sentient being as that which is predicated upon nothing (no sufficient principle or reason) and thus is absolutely unjustifiable. To give ourselves over to this unjustifiable existence, would be to begin to do justice to things and each other.

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