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Futurity

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 immolation 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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Intimacy, Loss, Anonymity

Toward a Theory of Queer Neutrality

 22 June 2017

 

Introduction by Peter Rehberg

For the past 20 years, after having curated the Chicago exhibition ‘Disappeared’ on AIDS and an aesthetics of disappearance, John Paul Ricco has theorized erotic and aesthetic relations to loss and withdrawal tied to specific junctures of late-20th-century gay male culture and contemporary art and film. He has shown anonymity to be an irreducible relational form of the ethical – in particular in terms of social and sexual intimacy.

The workshop discussed Ricco’s paper ‘Mourning, Melancholia, Moonlight’, a work-in-progress on ‘neutral affect’ that is part of his ongoing conceptualization of queer neutrality. The essay draws on Roland Barthes’s conception of neutral mourning and relates it to Barry Jenkins’s film Moonlight (2016) and its presentation of an affective relation to loss that is distinct in its temporality from Freud’s ‘Mourning and Melancholia’.

By attending to the empirical contingency of the extemporaneous and erotic/aesthetic moment as the scene of feeling queer, Ricco is interested in thinking a time of affects that disrupts neo-liberal scripts of self-becoming and what is commonly referred to as an ‘event’. In addition, Ricco attends to the nuanced images of black masculinity that – he argues – are not adequately rendered by prevailing gender performative readings of the film.

Apart from ‘Mourning, Melancholia, Moonlight’, two additional essays of Ricco were circulated in advance: ‘Intimacy: Inseparable from Separation’ (Open Set, May 2017) and ‘The Commerce of Anonymity’ (Qui Parle, June 2017).

Click here to go to the ICI-Berlin event page to access the videos: Intimacy, Loss, Anonymity: Toward a Theory of Queer Neutrality

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?”

essays-on-extinction-claire-colebrook-553x372

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.

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.

Abstract of a Paper in-progress

The first half of my paper is a reading of texts by French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy on religion, the divine and the sacred, art and aesthetics, and specifically on the attention that he has given to questions of place within philosophical and theological discourses. For as early as 1985 in his essay “Of Divine Places,” Nancy has argued that the question of God is not (or no longer) a question of being, essence, and presence (what is God?) nor of temporality, messianicity, and the infinite (when is God?), but a question of place and distinct location (where is God?), and what Nancy has more recently named “dis-enclosure.”

                  Given that in the philosophical and religious history of the West, the gods and God have always been departing, a divine place is not a taking place but a place of withdrawing and retreating (in absconditum). According to Nancy, if there is a divine place, it is at/from the step, less a footprint than a footfall or tread, where the latter is understood to be nothing other than the separated touching of sole and ground. As Nancy writes toward the end of “Divine Wink” (2003): “The step is the divine place, the only one, the place in which the power of the passing manifests and transcends itself” (119).  In addition to finding one of its homologies in “wink,” (based upon a reading of Heidegger on “the last god”), the step is, as Nancy explicates via a recourse to etymology, a vestige (vestigium) and as such is the remains of a step, not as image or perhaps even as indexical sign, but in terms of the touch of the step, its operation and its place. The latter used here by Nancy “in the strong sense of the word is always the vestige of a step” (“Vestige of Art,” 98), and hence a divine place.

                  In the second half of the paper, I turn to the recently opened National 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan, in order to ask whether its deep recesses—exactly coinciding topographically with the two so-called “footprints” of the World Trade Center towers, might not be understood as a monumental securitization of the site, a hollowing out of the ground to its purported zero degree and that, less as profanation than divinization, renders it as hallowed and perhaps sacred ground, distinct from Nancy’s conception of divine place.

                  Finally, by drawing together Nancy’s recent writing on the empty tomb as distinct from the temple/cave, and the question that Derrida posed at the end of his 1968 lecture “The Ends of Man:” “Is there an economy of the eve?” I speculate towards a sense of spacing, aesthetics and archi-ethics as the withdrawal and retreat of architectural limits or the eves of the temple and the oikos (perhaps neither to nor from the temple but at and on its eve, that is to say, its threshold, opening, offering and infinitely finite access). And of temporality less in its coming than its passing by, like the step of the Gods, the departed, and perhaps even the ones who, in stepping from the heights of the towers on that September morning, caused so many of us witnesses to exclaim “my god!”

                  Following Nancy, I contend that this is the utterance of freedom as freedom unto nothing—nothing but the withdrawal and retreat from absolute destination or resurrectional return. This is at once the freedom of those who stepped out from the precipitous edge of the towers, and the utterance of those looking up at the sky and at the instant of witnessing each body falling. This is what I take it to mean when Nancy writes of “an utterance, and as ‘my’ utterance to the precise degree that it comes to me from the other who, in passing, gives me a sign, and whose Wink I respond to with ‘my god!’—without my having actually to say this word, whose ‘sense’ is to name or rather to mark, to remark, and to exclaim the passing itself and the passing not as a state but as a passerby whom I call to address, having perceived his step and the signal of that step” (“Divine Wink,” 116, original emphasis).

                  The economy, archi-ethics and aesthetics of the eve that I wish to think and present here, is an attempt to understand how the National 9/11 memorial, rather than staging the “zero mystery” (“Divine Places,” 140) and zero plan at ground zero, is a securitizing of the footprint, which is also to say—with a view of the water that endlessly flows into the memorial’s seemingly bottomless depths: “the baptizing [of] our abysses” (“Divine Places,” 113). Not a temple per se, but like every temple, the memorial is an attempt to guard against the departing, desertion and destitution of this kenosis from being an absolute abandonment in the form of a bare and empty place. For the “temple,” whether Greek, Jewish, Christian or Muslim, monumentalizes destitution and desertion, and provides shelter and protection not from these forces, but for them, in the finite form of architectural enclosure and spatial detention. Indeed it is remarkable to realize that the memorial at Ground Zero can be understood as a condensation of the four figures of the temple, as outlined by Nancy in his essay “The Indestructible:” Greek (contemplation of ruinous destruction and artistic metamorphosis); Jewish (twice destroyed and source of diasporic meaning, the latter in this case perverted for the purposes of waging a global war on terror); Christian (infinite construction, dome and spire, technology contemplating itself); Islamic (heart as black rock, reserved space, impenetrable and indestructible thing).  Indeed, as Nancy states, this remains the current four-fold of the world, and with no small sense of regret we might agree with Martin Filler who, in his rave review of the memorial, bestows on Michael Arad, its designer, the status of “one of the signal placemakers of our time” (“A Masterpiece at Ground Zero,” New York Review of Books, October 27, 2011).

                  Throughout the paper, I will attend to many of the structuring tensions that Nancy’s work has focused on, including what he retains and refuses in notions of the sacred and divine (and how more recently he has thought this difference in terms of the image and the distinct); the difference in earlier work between bare place and bare thing (the latter of which will be theorized as “vestige”); tomb/grotto as opposed to temple/cave; resurrection versus the raising of the body; the ob-scene and the fore-scene; and the empty and what I have come to call the already un-made.

 

This is about the way in which bullying (not “teasing,” which inevitably sounds—that carries the sense of being—all too playful and almost endearing for what I am trying to talk about here), is increasingly part of a deliberate and systematic effort to exterminate the lives, not just of single individuals who are typically its direct target, but an entire generation of contemporary queer youth. This post is about the very real brutality that drives what I propose to think of as a two-fold genocidal image of queer futurity.

Forcibly and relentlessly imposed upon the psychic imagination of queer youth, the genocidal futurity that drives bullying takes the image-form of  a future that is never free of ridicule, denigration, debasement, humiliation, abandonment. It is a matter of ceaselessly creating the sense of absolute isolation that comes from being constantly ignored and incessantly scrutinized, of being rendered invisible and made to appear as the only thing visible, of being made to feel as though neither the shelter of the private nor the solidarity of the public can provide anything but the most false of assurances. In the end, of being made to feel that there is no way out, no one to turn to, in a word: no future. On the other side, in which genocidal futurity is forcibly and relentlessly imposed by the psychic imagination of societal homophobia, it takes the image-form of a future that is, once and for all, free of the difference, anti-normative, affirmative, courageous, and determined psychic-sexual-social power that has been the source of queer life for decades. It is the phobic imagination of a future with no queers.

It is precisely in this two-fold and double sense of the extermination  of futurity: of queer youth and of a future without queers, that the current and deeply pervasive campaign (and it is a concerted, endorsed, and insidiously coordinated effort) must be understood as the genocide of queer futurity.

When a society such as ours, today, manages to find ways to make its victims kill themselves, it has achieved a degree of genocidal evil that simply has not been known up until now. We can no longer say—or not simply and solely—when a queer kid takes his or her own life, that he/she has committed suicide. For while the life that has ended was singularly theirs, the death of self was not one for which they are solely responsible.* Just as much as we can speak in terms of “suicide-by-proxy,” in order to categorize the murderously warped psyche of the self-hating serial killer, I propose that we speak in terms of “genocide-by-proxy,” in order to identify a societal hatred and genocidal extermination that has become so internalized that the subject of vilification kills him/herself, not simply because of the harm that has been endured in the past, but also and perhaps even more so, because he/she is forced to envision the endless perpetuation of this brutality as the kind of life that they will endlessly endure in the future. Which is to say that the agonizing temporal relation of these deaths cannot be understood as wholly of the past, tied to prior suffering (its incidents as well as the false “lull” between attacks, and irregardless of regularity/irregularity). No. For in confronting the reality of these deaths, I think we face something much more troubling about them. Which is the way in which they can be understood as responses to suffering that has not yet happened, that is still to-come, and that in its guarantee, delivers a blow that is felt as strongly as the bludgeon that was the latest and yet in no way is felt to be the last.

Of course death, by definition, is always the preemptive appropriation of the future, and when that already violent appropriation is brutally imposed by others onto others it becomes murder, and when that murder takes the form of exterminating an entire people, in this case of a generation, it is genocide. Therefore, when the target of the genocide is young queer people, as it is here, it must be understood as the genocide of queer futurity. And when the only image that young queers are made to envision is one of past brutality extending infinitely into the future, this too must be understood as the genocide of queer futurity. So I’ll end with something that I stated above: When a society such as ours, today, manages to find ways to make the victims of its violence kill themselves, it has achieved a degree of genocidal evil that is simply unprecedented in its effective obfuscation of actual responsibility and its triggering of an auto-immune response. It cannot get any worse than that. Or can it? And is this not the reason to remain committed to the sense that it gets better, precisely as a future without guarantee?

*For a discussion of the ways in which this argument corresponds with some of the most recent psychological theories of the motivational factors of suicide (including the work of Roy Baumeister) see Jesse Bering’s blog “Bering in Mind,”on the Scientific American web site: http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/bering-in-mind-blog/. Specifically when he writes: “Psychodynamic theorists often postulate that suicidal guilt seeks punishment, and thus suicide is a sort of self-execution. But Baumeister’s theory largely rejects this interpretation; rather, in his model, the appeal of suicide is loss of consciousness, and thus the end of psychological pain being experienced. And since cognitive therapy isn’t easily available—or seen as achievable—by most suicidal people, that leaves only three ways to escape this painful self-awareness: drugs, sleep and death. And of these, only death, nature’s great anesthesia, offers a permanent fix.”

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