Archive

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?
Advertisements

I am preparing for the 10th meeting of the undergraduate seminar I am teaching this fall term on “The Collective Afterlife of Things,” in which we will discuss “The Last Political Scene,” an interview with Sylvère Lotringer, conducted by Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin and published in their co-edited volume, Art in the Anthropocene.

At one point, Lotringer makes an argument that I find entirely relevant to our current situation, following the US Presidential election. A situation that includes the mass protests taking place in front of institutional architectures (Trump Towers, US embassies, etc.) and the reliance on Facebook (and all other social media platforms) to express discontent:

There is no civic mobilization possible because there are no civilians anymore; we have all been turned into warriors, part of a war because war and technology now mean the same thing. We are powerless because all the tools that we have—all the little trinkets given to us by the CIA and NASA, etc.—are there to turn us into the soldiers of the death of our civilization.

Earlier in the conversation, Lotringer makes the distinction between critique and collective action. Where critical counter-discourse is claimed to be that which “plays into the hands of the institution, of what it is supposed to criticize. Occupy Wall Street was an intimation of what could be done, but it didn’t go all the way. It stopped at the door of the institutions.” While in contrast, collective action experiments and creates unforeseen forms of being-with, together and in-common.

Yet as Lotringer goes on to argue, in the midst of anthropogenic species extinction, these forms of sociality must not lose sight of the fact that this very collectivity is living the last (political and critical) scene, and thus the collective task is to learn how to exit gracefully. Including in our relations with inorganic and inanimate things (as well as those organic lifeforms) that will survive us. In other words, today our ethical-ecological task concerns the afterlife of things, after “life.”

This calls for what Lotringer and I (and several others) see as an “art of disappearance:” of creatively engaging with and ethically exiting from this terminal scene. As Lotringer clarifies, this is something like non-art art. Meaning, art produced for reasons other than aesthetic (i.e. in terms of beauty, or perhaps even of the sublime). It is the art of the already-unmade and the anonymous. It is this kind of art, technique and praxis that we most need to partake in today; the kind that in its anonymity bears the signature of the common (of no one name), and as already-unmade affirms that existence is that which will forever remain un-finished. It is in this way that we might become something other than the soldiers of the death of our civilization.

 

The text below was written to accompany, “2016, 1996,” an online exhibition of 21 works by 17 artists included in the Artist Registry of Visual AIDS, and was also published in an issue of Drain magazine on “AIDS and Memory” (vol. 13:2, 2016). The essay responds to the journal’s theme, as I think back to an earlier historical moment in the history of AIDS, including the year 1996 when I curated “disappeared” (Randolph Street Gallery, Chicago). At the same time, the online exhibition was an opportunity to imagine how that earlier exhibition might be “doubled” today, twenty years later.

ramirez_godiva_4__5

Chuck Ramirez, Candy Tray Series: Godiva 4 & 5, 2002. Photograph pigment ink print, 24″ x 36″ Edition of 6 originally commissioned by Artpace San Antonio.

The Go-Go Boys were the first to go. After that, we were afraid that the rest of us would disappear too. We did. But then again, we didn’t. Not exactly. Or at least not then, or not yet.

The story of AIDS has been a lesson of the double.

Not of absence/presence, visibility/invisibility, or memory/forgetting, but the double of living on, of becoming-imperceptible, of forgetting that we forget. Not the unifying space of coupling, but the separated spacing of sharing in that which cannot be shared. Not the chronological time of history, but the a-temporal disjunct simultaneity [1] of time’s temporal dilation. Which is also to say: time’s irreparable disjuncture and thus its perfection. Time and the untimely timing of time. The encounter of proximity as the sense of the same time, just a little bit different. Too soon and too late, at once. Not the chronos of alterity but the kairos of the opportune moment—if not of opportunity or the opportunistic.

Traversing and yet other than—or irreducible to—bodies, the human, friendship, community, and life. Instead, it is the “absolute luminescence” [2] of the empty readymade; of “the sex appeal of the inorganic” [3], but also of a certain “disenchanted fetishism” [4] that is as much attracted as it is repulsed by the essentially “entropic solitude of things” [5]. A colour, a line, a knot, a last address, a hieroglyphic abstraction, glitter, rubber, a frayed edge, the impasse and its slender opening—all of these and other lures.

AIDS Doubles

1981 Bio-Political Oblivion – 1987 ACT UP Fight Back Fight AIDS – 1988 Pictures of People with AIDS – 1996 The End of AIDS – 1996 Disappeared – 2002 SARS – 2009 H1N1 – 2014 PREP – 2016 Undetectable –

“AIDS and Memory”—that double—is the provocation to return to “disappeared,” the art exhibition that I curated twenty years ago, in 1996, that was about the refusal to represent and the persistence of appearance in the midst of incalculable loss and death. 1996: when someone audaciously declared the  “end of AIDS,” and the time just before I read Haver’s The Body of This Death (1997) for the first time, and realized that I would forever remain beholden to—yet would never come close to doubling—the singular and uncompromising rigor of his thinking on the inconsolable perversity of existence. Meaning: what remains unimaginable and unknowable, unforgettable and un-rememberable. What queer theory remains largely unable to comprehend, and what dominant AIDS discourse will never allow.

This is about absolute memory. Absolute memory is the memory of the outside: beyond the archive, the clinic, the march, the oeuvre, the grave. We might say that absolute memory is at one with forgetting. For as Deleuze said, “Only forgetting recovers what is folded in memory” [6]. Which also means that the forgetting of forgetting is at once the source and sense of memory, and the impossible memory (i.e. the forgetting that cannot be remembered).

“2016-1996” is the double of “disappeared,” and thus its own preservation of the infinity of the aesthetic task. As Ann Smock once wrote: “To see something disappear: again, this is an experience which cannot actually start. Nor, therefore, can it ever come to an end” [7]. In their tracing of time and its erasure, the images and scenes assembled here belong neither to memory nor to forgetting per se, but to the disappearance of the present.

“It’s not over” is what the double tells us.

bcarpenter004

Brian Carpenter, [reenactment, infection 1], 2012. Archival inkjet print, 24″ x 36″

 References

[1] Haver, William. “The Art of Dirty Old Men: Rembrandt, Giacometti, Genet,” Parallax, volume 11:2, 2005, 25-35.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Perniola, Mario. The Sex Appeal of the Inorganic, translated by Massimo Verrdicchio, (New York: Continuum, 2004).

[4] Haver, William.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Deleuze, Gilles. Foucault, translated by Seán Hand (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1988).

[7] Smock, Ann. ‘Translator’s Introduction’,” in Blanchot, Maurice, The Space of Literature (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1982).

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.

With this quotation from Georges Bataille’s text “Torture” (from his book Inner Experience, 1943), Jean-Luc Nancy opened his keynote address (via Skype) to the international colloquium on “Aisthesis and the Common: Reconfiguring the Public Sphere,” organized by Media@McGill and held at the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal, on March 18-19, 2016.

More than one

As one of the defining principles of Nancy’s philosophy, meaning (or sense) means “more than one.” More than one person, thing, body (i.e singularity) that, each in their multiplicity, is always in rapport with other singularities: sending out and sending back differential gestures, voices, perceptions and (hence) senses. In turn, the notion that there exists something (or someone) that is absolutely unique, is—accordingly so—meaningless. This even applies to that purportedly unique and one-of-a-kind entity named “God.” There is no such thing as “only one being,” and if there were such a thing, it would be, as Nancy put it, “dissolved in its singleness.” So, for there to be some thing, there must be more than one thing, given that being means rapport and thus being is always and only ever being-with. The question is not why is there something rather than nothing, but more precisely, why are there somethings (in the plural), such that there is no one thing.

Implicitly drawing from Maurice Blanchot, Nancy pointed out that even the notions of being alone and of solitude precisely entail being without someone else; and that it is this being-with as being-with-out, that comes to define the singularity of each existing thing. When one feels oneself to be alone, one senses that solitude as distinct from others (and thus in rapport with others), and thus also in rapport with one’s own singularity defined as always in rapport with. God is not alone, and he created the world because of his insufficiency that exceeded himself.

Meaning or sense is always in rapport or relation to itself, because sense itself is always self-separated (i.e. divided and hence never a single whole entity or substance). It is from out of this separation that sense makes sense 0r meaning, when sense—now in terms of feeling or sensation— feels or senses itself. A feeling or sense that is possible, precisely because separation is the condition in which such a rapport between can happen. Yet this feeling of sense feeling itself, is not an infinite and closed relation to itself, but in its separation, remains open and exposed to the outside. It is in this way, that Nancy speaks of a certain auto-affection and auto-mimesis of sense. Yet that is, nonetheless, never the fact or production of a sameness of meaning, simply because sense is always divided and shared, amongst and between multiple singularities.

Here is where Nancy’s deconstruction of the autonomous self or subject, as that which is always self-affected in its exposure with the other—with the outside—lines up with my own argument regarding auto-eroticism as its own pleasurable and desirous rapport with the outside and with others. Relation with the outside, as the relation that defines existence as always being-with (and with-out) is the relation to self that comes to define that self as not even a self (in the sense of a coherent, stable entity) but as a singularity.

As Nancy then went on to say, “singularity is the unity of a separation.” It is a unity that derives its sense (meaning) of self from its self-separation and division. Here he turned to the example of unicellular reproduction or scissiparity, in which it is out of originary separation that a “self” is born.

Common Sense

When it comes to the notion and the expression common sense, Nancy argued that this has been, in part, a matter of philosophy’s pushback against what it has deemed and denigrated as ordinary and banal and hence not worthy of philosophical reflection. In this way, common sense has been a negative for philosophy. At the same time, that which does not simply reproduce common sense, in the forms that have caused philosophy so much anxiety and fear, is art and aesthetics. Meaning that art is the re-directing of the ordinary, the banal, or the given. It is the praxis of finding that which is distinct in the common and ordinary—at the outer edge, and along its opening to the outside.

Nancy then turned to Aristotle, for whom common sense was not a vague sensibility but consisted of common sensibles: movement, rest, figure, size, number, and unity. These are those sensible qualities that are common to each and every thing, in its singularity as that thing there (i.e. in the specificity of its presence). Along with the common sensibles, there are the five senses of perception, that are non-continuous and always fleeting, as they incessantly move to- and towards things. Opposite this, as Nancy emphasized, a constant continuous sensation is the very definition of torture.

If what is common are the common sensibles of things, then we access the commons and have a sense (aisthesis) of the common through our sensible access and relations to the common sensibilities of things. This sense of the common is shared with, at, and in proximity to things, the latter of which come to function as rendezvous or meeting points. In order to articulate the connections between these (often readymade) things, aisthesis and aesthetics, Nancy drew upon the example of Duchamp’s readymade, and the latter’s own designation of such things as more encounters and points of rendezvous, than as autonomous works of art.

Impressions on the Edges

Like the Duchampian readymade, art is the possibility of distinction that is drawn out from out of a continuum, and this is precisely what is meant by art’s ex-pression. Literally taken to mean: the outside (ex) pressing on and up against or alongside. Art’s expression is the impression of the outside that it temporarily impresses upon us and other things in the world, in the form of sense and meaning.

It is this that is common to us in our shared exposure to the outside; and it is art that offers us a sense of this rapport, sense and meaning as that which is without definitive end, completion, resolution, or satisfaction. Meaning that art offers us the pleasure of being-with and in rapport, that does not demand or seek or establish an end, but instead affirms that right on the immeasurable edge of things, is the opening to the outside, not beyond. It is along these edges, that, I argue, a sense of the common happens.

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.

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).

%d bloggers like this: