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Collective Afterlife of Things

Emmet Gowin, Mariposas Nocturnas (book cover)

Below is a paper that I presented at a workshop on capitalism and photography held at the University of Toronto, September 15-16, 2017. I will be working on it for the next several months, in preparation for it being included in a collection of essays on Capitalism and the Camera that is being edited by Kevin Coleman, Daniel James, and Ariella Azoulay. Comments and suggestions are welcomed.

For the past 15 years, the American photographer Emmet Gowin has been photographing more than a thousand species of moths on visits to Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, French Guiana, and Panama. This month, Princeton University Press will publish a monograph of these images, titled, Mariposas Nocturnas: Moths of Central and South America, A Study in Beauty and Diversity. Since the book has yet to be released, and I did not have the opportunity to see the recent exhibition of these images at the Morgan Library, I am operating at the moment with a bit of a deficit. I was recently drawn to this photography project while exploring the figure of the moth in modern philosophy and criticism; a series of references that ranges from Part Two of Heidegger’s 1929-30 lecture course on The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics and his discussion of the animal as being “poor in world,” to Guy Debord’s last film (1978), the title of which, In girum imus note et consumimur igni, is the ancient phrase that, as a palindrome, reads both forward and back: “We turn in the night, consumed by fire.” Finally, to Giorgio Agamben who, in his book The Open: Man and Animal (2002), and more recently in The Use of Bodies (2014), considers Heidegger and Agamben’s uses of the figure of the moth as an emblem of captivation that is, respectively, either a non-revelatory instinctual drive or as being completely consumed by the bright light of spectacle.

Within the context of our discussion of capitalism and photography, and the specific attention that I want to direct to issues of the Anthropocene and Capitalocene theses, the moth is not only an emblematic figure for a desirous attraction that proves to be suicidal, but also of an emulation in which a body sets itself on fire in a sacrificial activist gesture of protest and refusal. As such, the moth functions as an “indicator species,” that, precisely in its beauty and diversity (taking terms from the subtitle of Gowin’s new book), not only signals the loss of those very two things (an aesthetics of bio-diversity?) due to epic and epochal species extinction, but also the auto-immune disorder of the anthropological-biological machine and its own death-drive. Gowin’s photo grids are clear reminders that this anthropological machine and its taxonomies is also an optical machine (that obviously includes photography in all of its various technological permutations and capacities).
At the same time, given that any taxonomy is always also a historiography, and given that every place on a map is also at the same time a moment in history, Gowin’s focus on the moths of Central and South America underlines the fact that the future time of extinction that humanity finds itself living today is unevenly distributed, and that the fatal affects on the global South and the global poor require a politics and ethics that absolutely resists capitalism’s general equivalence of catastrophes, as it also remains committed to a sense of equality derived from the fact of common inequivalence, our incommensurability one to another, which is say, as co-existing—geo-ontologically (to cite Beth Povinelli)—without any single, common measure.

 

In the phototropism of moths, that is, in their instinctual impulse to fly towards the light, we find an all-too-ready metaphor for that optical drive and its captivation that is photography. The convergence is made all the more material in Gowin’s interest in photographing the moths as living specimens. This involved him luring the insects at night by artificial light and capturing them as they landed on variously coloured surfaces that he had gathered, in many cases from reproductions of works of art by Degas and Matisse and others. It is here that the aporia of the “mariposa nocturna” (the nocturnal moth) is revealed, and thereby, in turn, the phototropic limits of photography itself.

 

Moths fly by night, hence they are nocturnal. Yet taxonomically classified as such, they are only rendered as epistemological objects in terms of their relation to the light. The light that attracts them and illuminates them. This is their phototropism and it is here that they might be viewed as species emblems or metaphors of photography. Photo-ontology of life, in which light = life. Light as dis-inhibitor ultimately proves to be a fatal inhibitor (it is the lure that kills). Gowin reproduces this photo-visual economy, one that, as a photographer he shares with the moths, what we might describe as the “photographic night:” illuminating and capable of capturing an image and producing a taxonomic image of the specimen including in its ornament, colour, pattern—beauty. The ground of the moth is no longer the night, but instead is an image (in many cases here: image reproductions of works of art, themselves being images made by Matisse, Degas and others. The ground of the image = [is always] an image—as this also requires us to re-conceptualize what is meant by “ground”). So without the nocturnal darkness of the night, and without the light of the flame that consumes, do we still have mariposas nocturnal? Or do we instead have the conservation, via photography, of the illuminated night—what I am calling the photographic night?

 

In taking up the example of the moth, Heidegger defines its distinction as light-seeking in terms of its attraction not to the intensity of the light but to its magnitude. In other words, not the light source itself, but the surface that it illuminates. It is in this way, explains Heidegger, that the moth is attracted not to the brightness of the moon but to the large surfaces that the moonlight illuminates—the shine and shimmer of its surface effects. According to Heidegger, moths fly into the flame because the candlelight does not illuminate a large surface (the attractor or dis-inhibitor for the moth), and so moths fall victim to the source of light itself, as though bereft of a surface attraction and a place to land.

 

But is there a way to think existence otherwise than in terms of this relational economy and its violent metaphysics of presence—of enclosure and disclosure, concealing and dis-concealing? Perhaps somewhat curiously, given commonly held assumptions, Heidegger enables us to think otherwise in this regard, and in part largely against himself and the distinctions that he argued exist between the animal and the human. It requires another way of thinking about (visual, corporeal) captivation in terms of a non-revaltory openness and intimate rapport with the outside, a conceptualization that might be located (at least partially) in Heidegger’s take on animal captivation. For Heidegger, the animal, in its driven directed-ness to- and toward, is neither ontologically tied to itself nor to its environment, but is said to be suspended. This suspension of the animal means that the animal is neither closed off from its environment, (note: Heidegger will not bestow upon the animal the sense of a world), nor disclosed as a presence in the world, but is instead “an openness for…” (Metaphysics, 248) and a being taken by…

 

As Agamben notes, “The difficulty arises here from the fact that the mode of being that must be grasped is neither disclosed nor closed off, so that being in relation with it cannot properly be defined as a true relationship, as a having to do with” (Open, 54). The animal is open in or to a non-disconcealment, it is exposed to the outside in a non-revelatory (i.e. non-metaphysical) way, yet that nonetheless forcefully disrupts the creature in its every fibre.

 

In following Heidegger when he writes that, “not-having-to-do-with…presupposes a being open…on the basis of this possession it [the animal] can do without, be poor, be determined in its being by poverty. But because this having is a being-open…the possession of being open is a not-having” we might discern not only that “the animal’s poverty in world…is nonetheless a kind of wealth” as Heidegger notes (Metaphysics, 255), but also how animal captivation can equip us to think about a non-appropriating rapport with the world, in which not having per se (“highest poverty” of the Franciscan order, for instance), is (again) the way to think otherwise about our “having to do with” the world, including perhaps to the question, “what is to be done?”

 

In a text with that title, originally given as a lecture in 2012, Jean-Luc Nancy points out that, “by making ‘having to do’ (devoir faire) into a question, [our history] freed it from a given order of ends [praxis without telos, production; hence beyond Kant and Marx]; by coming up with ends prescribed by an entire humanity [e.g. Anthropocene thesis], it designated the horizon of an ultimate production [eco-modernist human-techno sustainability].” However as Nancy immediately goes on to say, “that horizon has changed with the perspectives of destruction and auto-destruction: we are no longer facing a sole end with another side that brings damage, or disasters, and at times the indefinite proliferation of new ends.” In other words, at a time when human history and its modern capitalist manifestation is recognized as indelibly inscribed into the very geologic matter of the Earth, living the future time of extinction means to be bereft of one’s dis-inhibitors and inhibitors. “Completions exceed themselves; entelechies resemble entropies” as Nancy concludes (Diacritics, 2014, 42.2: 112).

 

Beyond Heidegger, poverty in the world is a direct result of a humanity that is poor in world (ecological, but more broadly as living in a world in which it is difficult to make sense). In his very final course on “The Beast and the Sovereign,” Derrida claimed that there is no world, only islands. But as we have known all-too-well for some time now (and well before Hurricane Irma tore through the Caribbean), there are no more islands either. Their shores have been inundated, the rising ocean levels having tempestuously reclaimed them or as we have recently seen, their shores have been extended as the hurricane takes the water out of the ocean.

 

Perhaps in light of this, we can better understand what Nancy means, when, in arguing that we must think doing apart from project, intention, principle or goal and author, he quotes Celan who called for “doing without a shoreline.” Nancy interprets this as “an adventurous and risk-taking boundless doing” and derives an image from the poem itself, the last lien of which calls that doing “a shimmer from the ground” (Schimmer aus dem Grund) (Nancy, 113). A shimmer that, as Nancy says, “arises from a depth that remains endless” (Nancy, 114).

 

It is this shimmer that I want to think further about, in terms of photography and the night. A shimmer that is to be understood less as an image or even as the surface effects of a cast light, than according to the very precise terms provided by the poem. That is: as a “shimmer from the ground.” Meaning, I want to suggest, as humus (“soil, earth, dirt,” from which the word “human” is derived). The depth of this ground from which this shimmer comes to shine, is neither the shine of solar nor lunar illumination, but what might be described as a nocturnal depth. Not the night that is opposite the day and its light, but the geological and therefore posthumous night of the humus or ground. It is Blanchot’s “other night” and Benjamin’s “saved night.” As concerns the latter, Agamben writes that, “The salvation that is at issue here does not concern something that has been lost and must be found again…it concerns, rather, the lost and the forgotten as such—that is, something unsavable” (Open, 82)—e.g. neither the moth nor the light, but the nocturnal.

 

Here we are confronted with that which is neither human nor animal, existing outside of bios and hence perhaps also the bio-political. It is what Eugene Thacker has recently come to refer to as “dark life,” as that which is not only beyond the two dichotomies of human/machine and human/animal, but that occupies a zone of indistinction between the living and the nonliving. It is for example, Desulfotomaculum, the bacterium that, as Thacker explains, “thrives in the darkness of radioactive rocks” existing without the benefit or need of photosynthesis. Such extremophiles (organisms that can survive extreme conditions of heat, cold, acidity, pressure, radioactivity, and darkness—meaning: at the outer reaches of what is needed to sustain life) put into question the equation between light and life, and by “feeding off of the absence of light—are an anomaly for biological science.” In other words, they exist at the limits of the optical anthro-bio-photo-machine by which life is identified and known. Inhabiting the soil, water, geothermal run-off and insect intestines, desulfotomaculum use things like dead moths to anaerobically metabolize energy, and thereby generated a posthumous shimmer from the humus.

 

Now, since our bodies are at least 50% bacterial matter, and since it is clear that the ability of such matter to subsist in the dark and thrive on non-living matter—including the half-lives of the radioactive fluorocarbons that organic/biological life has produced—it is equally clear that it is such anomalous forms of existence will survive the current sixth great extinction. Therefore the Desulfotomaculum, meaning the utter absence of light, suggest the need to think in terms of a desulfotography, which is not necessarily the absence of photography (indeed, these bacteria have themselves been photographed). Instead, it effects a re-thinking of life in terms of that which in-appropriable and in fact unsavable. It thus might be a way for us to question the photographic and its ontological need for light, and how that defines photography’s relation to the living and the nonliving. What might be photography’s place in the field of critical life studies, for which the concept of life is itself anomalous and in its material existence is understood to have been always already posthumous? Simply put: might photography have a relation to the unsavable, the unimaginable and thus perhaps exist or survive without image?
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I want to pick up on a question that I posed at the end of my last post, in which I asked, “How might the humanities, precisely in terms of some of its principal objects (art, poetry, literature, film), equip us with the means to contend, not only with the limits of humanism, but also with the end of the human?”

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This summer I have been reading and gaining a tremendous amount from Claire Colebrook’s two volumes of essays on extinction: Death of the PostHuman, and Sex After Life. At the same time, I have been crafting the course syllabi for the two seminars that I am teaching this fall term (2016).

Upon first glance, it may appear that the two seminars, “Queer Ethics & Aesthetics of Existence,” and “The Collective Afterlife of Things,” are at odds with each other. With their respective focus on questions of existence and extinction, it might seem as though the first course seeks to affirm the value of a certain form of human life, while the other seeks to consider the post-human and that which is not defined in terms of “life.” However they are in fact two major parts of a single ongoing theoretical endeavour to think what a thought and ethical-aesthetic praxis might be, in the absence or extinction of the human, life and, the living on or long-term survival of a collective “we.” Colebrook’s work has proven to be an indispensable companion as I think about these two courses in relation to each other.

Rooted as it is in the Foucault of finitude and the image of the erasure of the image of the human, “like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea,” the queer theory seminar takes Foucault’s aesthetics of existence to be not an ethics of being or becoming, but of unbecoming. An unbecoming ethics is the partaking-together in the inoperative/workless praxis of sustaining the spacing of separation—irreducible to no-thing or substance (i.e. nothing, res/rien)—that exists (exposed) just between us. An “us” that only exists from out of this shared-exposure to the outside, or what Foucault referred to as “madness, the absence of work.” Therefore, this queer aesthetics of existence is an art not of the finished work (oeuvre) but of the un-finished as that which is not given or even readymade, but already-unmade (désoeuvrement).

Further to the point, “whereas [as Claire Colebrook explains] Husserl and Bergson thought that the task that would save thought and philosophy would be the annihilation or acceleration of the natural world, and the destruction of man as a natural body within the world, today it is the possible extinction of the man of ethics and philosophy [and aesthetics] that may allow us to consider the survival of the cosmos” (Sex After Life, 148).

If we take “the man of ethics and philosophy [and aesthetics]” to be the “man of the humanities,” then in a certain very real sense, it is this equation of the end of the humanities with the afterlife of the cosmos that both seminars are dedicated to thinking. Ethics after community, collectivity and life is an ethics of the “collective afterlife of things,” in which, following Colebrook, it is not assumed that there is a “we” (“collective”) worthy of living on (“afterlife”). Which is to begin to think an ethics of inorganic and un-livable existence. In other words, a (queer) ethics and aesthetics of extinction.

Through these seminars and in our reading of Foucault, Colebrook, but also Haver, Genet, Benderson, and Bersani, we come to the realization—without any sense of mitigating irony—that perhaps only the end of the humanities can save the cosmos now.

I recently got around to reading the conversation between Tim Dean and Robyn Wiegman on the question of “critique.” It was published in a special issue of English Language Notes (51.2, Fall/Winter 2013) under the title, “What Does Critique Want? A Critical Exchange.”
Based upon their dialogue, and in light of a few other things that I have read this summer, I’ve put together the following notes on theory, queer theory, subjects/objects, reading, Foucault, aesthetics/ethics, and extinction.


In giving up on “critique,” one must also give up on all forms of the “subject” (beyond merely in terms of the critical mastery of the sovereign subject) and “objects” (including the notion that as thinkers/theorists, we have “objects” and hence that our thinking is always predicated upon, as the saying goes, “one’s relations to one’s objects”—which may or may not be distinct from “object-relations” [psychoanalysis] or “object lessons” [Wiegman]). Which would also mean re-thinking the political, outside the categories of subject and object, all the while retaining a commitment to thinking the relational (Foucault, Nancy) as the spacing of the political—irreducible to—and that which exceeds the domains of—subjects or objects, identities or things (and the “identity knowledges” that they produce). Hence the relational as always already non-relational. This entails radical re-definitions and conceptualizations of the “political” (spacing) as well as of the “ethical” (relational), in which neither would operate in the mode of being “critical.” In other words: can there be political and ethical thinking that is not, at the same time, critical—yet without being naive or without rigour?

In this regard, paranoid or reparative readings are not the only options or reading strategies available. There is also, for instance: deconstructive (inoperative, un-made) readings (which are not necessarily to be aligned with paranoid reading), and those aesthetic, literary or poetic modes of reading in which affect and sense (along with pleasure, desire, erotics) are central. Yet in ways that remain impersonal and transitive, rather than deriving from, or returning to, the individual subject who feels and becomes—the nexus of the critical and the personal (Sedgwick, et.al.) that is its own form of “performative narcissism.”

It is this strand that makes so much queer theory today not only reparative but therapeutic in its form and implicit intent. Queer Theory today has all too often become a project of coping (with life, affects, feelings, others, etc.), which is its own compensatory move vis-a-vis resentiment. In fact, what is the relation between the latter and critique—especially in terms of the ways in which critique is deployed in the humanities today (and in particular in queer theory) in the name of the political? Examples of this resentment (and its implicitly accompanying misogyny) cited in this dialogue include: why doesn’t she love us (asked by feminists about Sedgwick); critical theory and its lack of commitment to women (Gender Trouble); academic feminism using theory in order to feel smart and sexy; the aggressivity of Women’s Studies.

So also then, there is (once again) a fundamental rethinking of gender and sexual differences, and the difference these make to thinking, doing, making, and being-together outside the dialectic of subject-object—which might also be outside of gender and sexuality. The fact of the matter is that what Irving Goh has done for dominant critical theory in his recent and brilliant book, The Reject, needs to be done for hegemonic queer theory. Namely: to elucidate the extent to which it remains utterly beholden to the concept of the subject, and the ways in which Butler most especially, but also Sedgwick and a whole second generation are responsible for this unrelenting hold that the concept of the “subject” has had on the field.

This also points to the extent to which Queer Theory has betrayed the work of Foucault, which not only was a genealogy of the modern subject, but also an attempt to think “who comes after the subject” (in various forms of an ethical self in relation with others). Indeed, Nancy’s question from the late-1980s—asked after Foucault would have had a chance personally to respond—equally could have been written: “who comes after Foucault?” This is where Tim Dean’s quotation of Paul Veyne on Foucault is so incredibly important and useful. Veyne writes: “Foucault’s philosophy is not a philosophy of ‘discourse’ but a philosophy of relation…Instead of a world made up of subjects, or objects, or the dialectic between them, a world in which consciousness knows its objects in advance, targets them, or is itself what the objects make of it, we have a world in which relation is primary.” Of course this is also where the work of Leo Bersani comes in, and its commitment to thinking about ethical-aesthetic relationality in neither paranoid (aggressive) nor reparative (redemptive) ways. Further: we need to imagine the inorganic as beyond the human, and to think art and aesthetics in the absence of, and after life and the human. So not the traditional notion of art and its relation to immortality and the future, but art in relation to extinction and the posthumous. What I have been calling “the collective afterlife of things.”

It is in this respect that we are also dealing with questions of discourse and knowledge, which is to say, the  limits of knowing, and that is the primary task of theory—properly speaking—to trace. Including  in terms of that which exceeds gender and sexual categories and identities, and that as an experience of non-knowledge exceeds the epistemological (including epistemological mastery and the production of knowledge).

Theory is one of our principle relations to not-knowing, to epistemological erasure, and to extinction (ontological erasure). It is committed to thinking praxis as always inoperative (post-Marx and Arendt) and is a valence onto that which is unbecoming, un-livable and unimaginable. Such that the aesthetics of existence is the art of becoming-imperceptible and disappearing—but never enough. And where ethics wholly entails attesting to the fact that we—together-apart—are already living the time of extinction.

My research and writing this year has been primarily focused on completing a draft manuscript of my book, The Outside Not Beyond. This work has been aided tremendously by a 12-month research and study leave, of which I was at the midway point at the beginning of the year, and by a 12-month faculty research fellowship at the Jackman Humanities Institute (University of Toronto) that began this past July. The project also received very generous support beginning this year from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC, the national granting agency in Canada), which will provide funding over the next four years for research, assistants, travel, symposia, etc.

So over the past year I have had the time, solitude and resources to read and write and make significant progress on my projects. I have found my office at the JHI to be a particularly conducive place to work, and I really value the time I have had over the past 18 months, un-interrupted from teaching and university service duties, to focus on my own work and to remain with questions for extended periods of time.

Having submitted a book proposal to the University of Chicago Press in December of last year, by June of this year I finally received two Readers’ Reports, both of which very much endorsed the project and provided valuable feedback. I then turned my official response to these reports into an occasion to write what amounted to a second proposal: 11-pages that further expanded on the first, and represented the project in its current state of development. I found this to be an extremely productive task, one that really enabled me to flesh out both the major and minor scales and dimensions of the project. I walked away from the experience even more an advocate of “the second project outline.”

Topics and themes that have been pursuing in my research this past year include: the relation between poetry and prayer; anonymity and the neutral; edging and drawing; collective afterlives; ethics, politics and aesthetics of the common; drive, pleasure, and slippage; and measure and measurelessness.

The course of my research and reading this year, began with Georges Bataille’s major writings and publications, and then moved to Foucault’s lectures on governmentality and biopolitics; Dardot and Laval’s extension and elaboration of Foucault’s project, in their indispensable book, The New World Order: On Neoliberal Society; Derrida’s final seminar on the beast and the sovereign and his reading of Robinson Crusoe alongside Heidegger’s seminar The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics; and Michael Naas’s beautiful reading of Derrida’s seminar in his book,  The End of the World and Other Teachable Moments. I’ve also returned to the political writings of Maurice Blanchot, as well as some of his late-work, in particular The Step Not Beyond, along with Christopher Fynsk’s fantastic book, Last Steps: Maurice Blanchot’s Exilic Writing.

Other books that came out this year that I very much enjoyed, and that have remained with me, include: David Graeber’s book on bureaucracy, The Utopia of Rules; Kristin Ross’s Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune; Elizabeth Kolbert’s, The Sixth Extinction; and McFadden and Al-Khalili’s Life on the Edge: The Coming Age of Quantum Biology. This last title is its own frontline education on one of the most exciting new fields of scientific research.

While writing, “The Art of the Consummate Cruise and the Essential Risk of the Common,” a paper for a panel on sexual risk and barebacking for the American Studies Association conference (Toronto, October 2015), I also returned to the work of William Haver—which remains the most inexhaustible source of inspiration and insight—as well that of Leo Bersani, Tim Dean. I have been in conversation with editors of an online journal, and hope that this paper will be published very soon.

I also continue to try to make fiction and poetry a regular part of my reading list. Books that particularly stood out this year are: Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life; Nell Zink’s Mislaid; Michel Houellebecq’s Submission; and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen.

Publications this year included: “The Separated Gesture: Partaking in the Inoperative Praxis of the Already-Unmade,” in the collection Nancy and the Political (Edinburgh University Press); my conversation with Jean-Luc Nancy, “The Existence of the World is Always Unexpected,” in Art and the Anthropocene (Open Humanities Press); my essay, “Drool: liquid fore-speech of the fore-scene,” in the online journal World Picture; and my essay, “Parasol, Setas, Parasite, Peasant,” in, Could, Should, Would, a monograph on architect J. Mayer H. (Hatje Cantz).

The first review of my book, The Decision Between Us, appeared in the January issue of Art in America (by Christa Noel Robbins); and that has since been followed by equally sympathetic, insightful and enthusiastic reviews in Critical Inquiry (by Tom McDonough), New Formations (by Jacques Khalip), and in Parallax (by Matthew Ellison and Tom Hastings).

As part of a conference seminar on Bataille that I co-organized with Etienne Turpin for the American Comparative Literature Association conference (Seattle), I presented a new paper titled, “A solvent for ‘poetry’s sticky temptation.'” It was a first attempt to consider the relation between poetry and prayer as it can be fashioned through a reading of Bataille’s A-Theological Summa. A keynote lecture at a conference on aesthetics and ethics at The Royal College of Art in London, gave me an opportunity to return to and to expand upon my paper, “The Commerce of Anonymity” which is on the art of mourning, and artist Shaan Syed’s “The Andrew Project.” An invitation to present some of the my current research at the Comparative Literature Emerging Research Lecture Series, here at the U of T this past fall, was yet another opportunity to further expand and develop the “Anonymity” paper into what I now feel is pretty much a completed chapter for the new book. Finally, last spring at Poetic Research Bureau in L.A. I read from and discussed my book, The Decision Between Us, along with readings by Etienne Turpin and Nadrin Hemada from collections that they have recently edited on the library and the prison, respectively.

Currently, I am preparing two keynote lectures in March 2016, one for the annual Comparative Literature conference, here at the University of Toronto, and the other for “Aisthesis & The Common: Reconfiguring the Public Sphere,” at McGill University. Also in March, I have been invited to speak at the Society for Philosophy and Culture at McMaster University.

Research travel this year included time in NYC in February in order to visit the National 9-11 Memorial and Museum at Ground Zero; and to Sicily in late-August to attend a week-long seminar on “sex and philosophy” taught by Jean-Luc Nancy.

This was also the year when I revived my performance art practice. It had been close to 7 years since I last presented my work and I have been wanting to return to performance for some time now. Since the late-summer I have been in conversation with Johannes Zits, and along with him and three other artists we have been developing a new work together. Many details will be posted here in the months to come, but for now I can say that at the end of January 2016 I will be part of a five-person, 6-hour durational performance at Katzman Contemporary, here in Toronto; and in February, I will be participating in a five-day workshop with artist Doris Uhlich, on dance, sound, and the naked body. All of this work is deeply connected to my thinking and writing on the peri-performative; naked image and naked sharing; exposure, risk, touch and trust. I am really excited to be able to translate this work into various forms of performance.

I will end this post by saying how grateful I am for those of you who have subscribed to this blog, and who take the time to be its readers. Happy New Year 2016!

 

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Throughout my childhood growing up in Utica, NY, I was very close with my paternal grandmother and we spent a tremendous amount of time together. One of our regular afternoon rituals was to go to any one of her three preferred grocery stores: Grand Union, A&P and Chanatry’s. While the first two were part of a national chain, the last was a smaller, locally-owned store. Chanatry’s may have had more than one location, but back then my grandmother preferred the one on Culver Avenue in East Utica, next to the castle-like turreted Armoury, and across the street from the WPA-era Buckingham (public) Pool. In many respects I think it was my grandmother’s favourite of the three, and without question, it was mine.

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Armoury, Utica, NY

 

Municipal Swimming Pool, Culver Avenue Utica

Municipal Swimming Pool, Culver Avenue Utica, NY

Back then, in the late-1960s and early-’70s, years before UPC scanners were introduced, grocery store cashiers manually entered into the cash register each price that was written on or, in the form of a small sticker, affixed to each item. Of course, due to simple human error, every once in awhile a cashier, in the process of punching those only somewhat forgiving raised buttons on the register, would “ring up” the wrong price.

Out of this developed a sense that certain cashiers were more careful and accurate than others. Or at least this was my grandmother’s view of things. So at some point early on in her patronage of Chanatry’s, she evidently identified one of the cashiers as the most reliable, and would actually schedule her shopping trips to coincide with this woman’s shift (in those days, pretty much every cashier was a woman, and in Utica, usually middle-aged and white).

Terry. That was her name; the cashier whom my grandmother nearly swore by, and into whose “line” she would always go, regardless of how long that line was. But Terry was not only my grandmother’s preferred or favourite cashier, she was for me the only cashier in the world. There’s no doubt that my grandmother was largely responsible, at least initially, for the affection that I felt for Terry, but I also think that something else was at play, and that is what I want to write about here.

Besides the oil-cured black olives stored in big plastic bins at the deli counter in the back of the store—which I would beg my grandmother to buy for me—the other big attraction, the one thing that I eagerly anticipated more than anything, was to see Terry. After winding our way through the few narrow aisles of the store, finally we would be ready to approach her cashier’s station. “Her’s” in the sense that, if I remember correctly, she was always working at the same number/line.

Once we got up to the front of the line, both Terry and my grandmother would make a big deal out of the fact that I was there. My grandmother saying something like: “Look who I brought with me today!” and Terry responding with: “It’s my little boyfriend John.” One year, for I think Valentine’s Day or perhaps it was for Terry’s birthday, I wanted to give her a gift. It was either my mother or my grandmother who found a small box of embroidered handkerchiefs for me to present to Terry the next time we went to the store. That pretty much solidified our relationship, and many many years later, after I had moved away from home to attend university in New York City, my mom or grandmother would tell me that Terry would continue to ask about me and remind them of the handkerchiefs that I gave her.

The point that I want to make by telling this story, is that separate and apart from fulfilling the job description or being (my grandmother’s) personal ideal type of “grocery store cashier,” Terry, that actual person, was for me in those early years of my childhood, one of my first experiences of what in my current work I am theorizing as “the commerce of anonymity.”

“Commerce” obviously based upon the commercial context of the situation, but also in terms of a certain reciprocal exchange between us that stood to the side of the mercantile, and yet did not either rely upon life-biographical details nor was directed toward the goal of developing into some sort of personal friendship beyond the context of the store. It is in the absence of the latter two aspects that this everyday rapport between Terry and I can be understood as anonymous.

Anonymous in the sense of “pre-predicative,” to the precise extent that I did not relate to Terry based upon her job description (how strange that would have been for a 5-year old to do), nor based upon her being a personal ideal type of cashier, as she was for my grandmother. Instead, the picture that I have of her, and that I would argue was the picture that I had of her back then as a little boy, is/was not a portrait of identity, but of anonymity. Which is to say: neither the genre of the type, nor the generic genre of the general, but an anonymity that was named Terry, and that for me—precisely in its anonymity—was an early source and sense of the social.

 

 

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.

Published in: Art in the Anthropocene, edited by Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin (Open Humanities Press, 2015). The entire interview (included all references and notes), along with the rest of the 400+ page book, can be read and downloaded here: Art in the Anthropocene

In a recent article in The New York Times titled “Learning How to Die in the
Anthropocene,” Roy Scranton argues that the current geological, technological,
and climatic global situation has shifted the classic philosophical problem
from how to die as individuals to how to die as a civilization. Scranton
served in the United States Army from 2002 to 2006 and was stationed
in Iraq following the US invasion in 2003. A couple of years later, when
Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Scranton realized that he was witnessing
“the same chaos and urban collapse I’d seen in Baghdad, the same failure of
planning and the same tide of anarchy.” It is precisely this inextricable interdependence—
and therefore the always potentially catastrophic destructive
effects—of the natural and technological that Jean-Luc Nancy refers to as
“eco-technology.” For, as Nancy is keen to remind us, “nature always contains
and offers the prime matter for technology, whereas technology alters, transforms,
and converts natural resources towards its own ends.” With “this
eco-technology that our ecologies and economies have already become,”
we are confronted with the geopolitical logic of globalization today. What is
new about the eco-technical logic currently operating is that the reciprocal
relations between the economic and ecological wed technology and nihilism
at an unprecedented worldwide scale, one that may prove to encompass the
human species. But proof for whom in that case?

As Nancy goes on to argue, “whereas until now one used to describe ends
(values, ideals, and senses) as being destitute, today ends are multiplying
indefinitely at the same time as they are showing themselves more and more
to be substitutable and of equal value.” It is based upon this understanding
of the equivalency of ends constructed by the eco-technical, that Nancy has
provided ways in which to think about the connections between the Iraq invasion
and Hurricane Katrina as at once military, geopolitical, technological,
natural catastrophes, and environmental disasters. Which is not to cast them
as equivalent catastrophes, but rather to understand them as events entirely
caught up in the catastrophic logic of general equivalence in which every
moment has become economized, as every single thing has been monetized.
In response to this, Nancy has put forth the notion of the “condition of an
ever-renewed present,” which he goes on to define as “not an immobile present
but a present within historical mobility, a living sense of each moment,
each life, each hic et nunc [here and now]. A sense that is characterized by
exposure to its own infinity, to its incompleteness”—and thus, we might add,
to its in-equivalence to every other moment and thing.

So perhaps it is not only a matter, as Roy Scranton argues, of learning to see
each day as the death of what came before, but in doing so, of seeing that
day as the birth of the present in and as its own—ever-renewed—finitude.

Meaning: no longer the projection of a future or as part of the project of
future ends. Instead, as Nancy has recently argued, “what would be decisive,
then, would be to think in the present and to think the present.” That is,
of the present not as absolute and final presence, but as appearing near,
proximate, close to, and in rapport with. As he goes on to explain, if one
wants to speak of “end” it is necessary to say that the present has its end in
itself, in both senses of goal and cessation. The finitude of each singularity
is thus incommensurable to every other, and therein exists the equality of
all singularities—their in-equivalence. It is in this way that Nancy calls for
an adoration of—or esteem for—the inestimable singularity of living beings
and things, and the equality that lies in their in-equivalence to any general
schema, measure, principle, or horizon. This is a matter of attending to the
inestimable worth of things as opposed to the appropriation of each and
every priceless experience. Therefore Nancy closes his recent book After
Fukushima: The Equivalence of Catastrophes, with the following claim: “To
demand equality for tomorrow is first of all to assert it today, and by the
same gesture to reject the catastrophic equivalence. It is to assert common
equality, common incommensurability: a communism of nonequivalence.”
For Nancy, the proliferation of so many common ordinary things today is
not only the obvious evidence of capitalist production and accumulation,
but also the fact that (as quoted above) “ends are multiplying indefinitely,”
and precisely for this reason offer “more and more motives and reasons to
discern what is incomparable and nonequivalent among ‘us.’”

Therefore, as Maurice Blanchot contended in 1959, when philosophy lays
claim to its end “it is to a measureless end,” such that “measurelessness is the
measure of all philosophical wisdom,” so too in our reading and engagement
with the work of Jean-Luc Nancy today do we come to realize that when
philosophy (or more modestly, thought) confronts the prospect of the end
of humanity, that the incommensurable remains the measure of eco-technical
wisdom. Furthermore, given the ways in which Nancy has enabled us to
understand art as “the privileged domain for an interrogation of finality,”
aesthetic praxis is one of the principle means by which we confront the
problematic of ends. It is in this way that his comments below will prove
indispensible to ongoing considerations of the interconnections between
art, aesthetics, politics, and environments in what has come to be called the
Anthropocene.

In 2015-16 I will be a Faculty Research Fellow at the Jackman Humanities Institute, University of Toronto. Released from all teaching and administrative duties, I will have the opportunity to devote the year to further research for one of my two current research projects on “the collective afterlife of things.” Here’s a brief description of the project.

Based upon the conjecture of the “collective afterlife” recently put forth by the philosopher Samuel Scheffler (Death and the Afterlife), in which he argues that our ability to lead value-laden lives is more dependent upon our confidence in the long-term survival or afterlife of humanity, than our concern with our own survival of death or that of our friends and loved ones, my project asks: what do things tell us about societies and the social dimension of valuing things as mattering, not only based upon their histories, but upon their futures? In other words, their collective afterlives. Based upon this “futurity thesis” of ethical decision, action and responsibility, my project is further motivated by the following question: in what ways are aesthetic forms and experiences, including art as a thing that matters, both in terms of artistic practice and as artistic object/work/thing dependent upon a shared confidence in the future survival of humanity? I explore these questions, by extending and developing upon work that I have recently published in my book The Decision Between Us, on forms of inoperative aesthetic praxis that consist in collectively partaking in the decision to participate in the withdrawal, retreat, and disappearance of the work of art, including in the work’s material manifestation and configuration of things. Out of this I have developed the notion of the already-unmade, as the deconstruction of Duchamp’s readymade work of art. With this current project, I want to identify and examine a number of artistic, literary, and filmic examples, beyond those that I focused on in my recently published work.

Transmission Annual (2013)

LABOUR, WORK, ACTION
Edited by Michael Corris, Jaspar Joseph-Lester, Sharon Kivland
With guest editors Maureen Connor and Elizabeth Legge

Taking up Hannah Arendt’s reflections on three important human activities – labour, work, action – this book addresses the role that might be played by artist or work of art, and how this makes for agents and agency.

Contributors: Ivana Bago, Jordan Bear, Pascal Beausse, Bernard Brunon, Pavel Büchler, Armin Chodzinski, Annie Coll, Michael Corris, Janeil Engelstad, Francesco Finizio, Charlie Gere, Jerome Harrington, David Hopkins, Shannon Jackson, Vincent Victor Jouffe, the Pedagogy Group, Elizabeth Legge, Dale MacFarlane, Roberto Martinez, Mary-Lou Lobsinger, Hester Reeve, Oliver Ressler, John Paul Ricco, Abigail Satinsky, Juliet Steyn.

Transmission is a project that has encompassed an annual journal, a series of related publications, a lecture series, symposia and other events. Transmission Annual is a yearly publication, now in four volumes, edited by Jaspar Joseph-Lester (Royal College of Art, London), Sharon Kivland (Sheffield Hallam University), Michael Corris (The Meadows School of the Arts, SMU, Dallas, Texas), who were joined for 2012 by Noah Simblist (The Meadows School of the Arts, SMU, Dallas, Texas).

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