When a contradiction is impossible to resolve except by a lie, then we know that is really a door. —Simone Weil
In the spirit, not of meta-blogging, but of decentralized blogging, I thought I would highlight here some very interesting weblog posts and comments that have been unfolding, intra-textually and intra-otherwise, between two of my favorite new graduate student blogs: wraetlic and daniadean. I want to do this, partly because these two bloggers [Daniel Remein and Sarah, respectively] have engaged recently in a dialogue across each other’s weblogs that I find fascinating and stimulating, but also because some of what they are thinking and writing about converges nicely with an essay I have been knee-deep in now for about four weeks on the “state of the field” of Anglo-Saxon studies, “Goodbye to All That: The State of My Own Personal Field of Schizoid Anglo-Saxon Studies” [which will be appearing in The Heroic Age, Issue 11, forthcoming any day now], which is also to say: Dan and Sarah are helping me to close in on the completion of what has been for me a very painful essay to write. And without knowing it (I assume), Dan and Sarah have also been hitting on a subject that has been a central preoccupation of my friend and colleague Michael Moore in his work in medieval and later forms of humanism: the importance of personal freedom—a preoccupation that has crept into my own thinking and given me some pause when trying to consider what the chief end of the humanities should be.
I want to jump off from what are the two most recent blog posts at wraetlic and daniadean [and those who are interested can explore earlier posts on their own], “individuals, marx, and the loving hope of weblogs” and “on the redefinition of terms,” respectively. In “individuals, marx, and the loving hope of weblogs,” Dan highlights comments from a recent talk he heard at the University of Pittsburgh by Lindsay Waters [of Harvard University Press], who apparently lamented the fact that, by today’s standards, scholars such as Edward Said and Paul DeMan would have never survived, but thanks to their involvement in working groups they were able to produce important work early in their career. Waters apparently praised the virtues of work done communally, especially for “the general end of fostering truly innovative work in the name of a radical hope which is needed in the face of despair in this country,” but at the same time, he noted that, “it seems there is a shift to return to considering a ‘subject’ or an ‘individual’ in the face of the despair produced by the internal colonization of the American empire.” And this reminded Dan of a talk he heard given by Gayatri Spivak last year, where she talked about the turn to reading & aesthetics in her work, and told the graduate students, in Dan’s words, as best as he can paraphrase it from his notes and memory:
Suspend yourself in the text. You do not know how to read . . . . People do work, and it is good work or it is bad work, they impose a political reading on a text without reading it and what do you have, you have a wasted life as a kind of practice of reinforcing some semblance of individuality.
Ultimately, as Dan puts it, Waters concluded his talk by affirming that “the subject” is
still a viable concern of American poetry and why the “I” can be a dramatic and contested staging in a contemporary poem in an attempt to deal with life and take on power that can’t be taken on effectively [otherwise]. He acknowledges a sort of productive tension between the individual and the community as key to producing work that can foster a radical hope.In Dan’s mind, the private and public aspects of intellectual work might come to a sort of crisis, especially in terms of “property” and “means of production.” In some of his conversations with Sarah, he has been
prompted to ask why the workings of an individual mind in isolation is expected to produce the work of the intellectual, and if this is not symptomatic of a general sense of “private” property which holds back a kind of radical communalism of thought which might allow for a radically more productive kind of academic work. I ask this only with much anxiety, as, to be honest, while I benefit immensely from In The Middle, Babel, [etc.]—these places and people in fact make possible for me thinking and feeling as intellectual and ethical labor which I could never imagine in isolation—actually surrendering my work to an Other is frightening experience. . . . But, I cannot help but wonder seriously, very seriously, at the merits of rethinking how and why we value the work of the individual. We test individual students. Individual minds must on their own come up with the ideas that we take refuge in Affective Communities of readers and colleagues in order to accomplish. And, a Marxist critique of access to the means of academic production, and private ownership of academic material, may be one untimely way of thinking about this, however uncomfortable.
The most important part of Dan’s post, for me, comes at the end:
Can I be “for” the future or not—ethically, do I need to decide? What is a subject? Can we want one? Why? Radical hope seems to both need the individual AND a radical communalism. It seems that what might emerge as a possibility from all of this, not as an answer to the dilemma, but as a way of thinking though it—is to get out of thinking about economics, and instead think about Love. . . . While we cannot simply insist something is true for the hell of it, we do need to trust our feelings. A student in a seminar I am in recently accused Dinshaw of simply repeating a bunch of pop-culture sentimentality about the past—I think this person is wrong, but I do think that the risk of sentimentality is eminent and priceless. I think that to start negotiating this problem, we need to feel for each other. . . . affect may take us beyond economy in the problem of sharing ideas and work, in the problem of negotiating the individual and collective in thinking the future on utopian terms, in a radically secularized way.
In her post, “on the redefinition of terms,” Sarah makes some eloquent points regarding not being too hasty in giving up certain terms, “like faith” or “god,” that have not necessarily been exhausted of their radical potential just because, historically, they have been primarily grounded in religion [which in Dan’s mind is always suspect for the ways in which it disciplines bodies and minds and communities of such]. But responding more directly to Dan’s ideas regarding futurity, Sarah turns the discussion toward the practice of history, and writes,
i also think that the need to work at anchoring things historically, to continually look towards death, can become almost like a certain kind of faith. so, what i argue . . . is in some ways a call for certain modes of “time without time” or “history without history.” i think that allowing for this mental-metaphorical space in which two mutually exclusive things can exist in the same place at the same time is hugely important for creative thought, but forcing it to be unquestioningly temporal or eschatological isn't a limitation that seems productive to impose there. so i think that we should be able to remember, always, that history will end, and even that our lives will end, that other lives have ended. but we should also sometimes, temporarily, be able to simultaneously believe that time has stopped, or reversed, or become irrelevant, that history is entirely paratactic, that we will never die and that others have not died. this is, for me, a terrifically profound (and i think not irresponsible) mode of hoping. i want to add as well . . . that this all sounds terribly individual, but i don't think that's a limitation i want here either. on the contrary, it seems like this sort of “suspension of disbelief” allows for the formation of certain kinds of communities of thought that are temporarily less bogged down by the trappings of everyday or even (often) critical language. this is a poetic relationship . . . .
I read these comments and I marvel at their intelligence and their desire. I believe that Dan is on to something when he points to what might be called the “crisis” that inheres in the tug and pull between individualities and communities, especially as regards intellectual labors within the humanities, although I’ve always believed Zygmunt Bauman summed it up best when he wrote that society has “always stood in ambiguous relation to individual autonomy: it was, simultaneously its enemy and its sine qua non condition” [Liquid Modernity, p. 40]. While it is certainly true that the academy typically rewards the work of supposedly heroic individuals who forge their works in the “smithies” of their individual “souls” [to crib from James Joyce], obviously all intellectual work, published and otherwise, is rooted in “disciplinary” [in both senses of the term] intellectual communities, without which, nothing at all could be thought or would be allowed to emerge [and here we should remember Foucault’s words in “The Discourse on Language”: “A discipline is not the sum total of all the truths that may be uttered concerning something; it is not even the total of all that may be accepted, by virtue of some principle of coherence and systematization, concerning some given fact or proposition. . . . Within its own limits, every discipline recognizes true and false propositions, but it repulses a whole teratology of learning”].
Which is not to say that something is not “sick” at the heart of scholarly production within the humanities, as it stands and is assessed now, for these intellectual communities are often competitive and pit scholars against each other in various battles of wits and somebody’s “father” always awaits toppling. And then there is simply the issue of the kind of geographic, institutional, etc. isolation that, for some, becomes the ground of scholarly labors. But we have to also try to understand the important difference between competition and dissensus: the first is always negative [in my mind], and the second essential for (re)productive discourse and work, for opening the path toward Foucault’s teratologies of learning. This will, of necessity, pose a burden to certain individuals who must be willing to give birth to monstrous thought, but I also think this is where certain “working groups” [including BABEL, of course] can play a radical part as regards the often vexed relationship between creative individuals and communities that are founded on some sort of principle or belief structure. I think there can be a successful envisioning [and putting into practice] of what Joshua Glenn, writing for n+1, has called an “anti-utopian heterotopia where we’d have a project in common besides selling our commodified labor,” and where where misfit thinkers and dreamers could not just collaborate, but actually live and strive together in joyful and passionate disharmony/dissensus [“The Argonaut Folly”].
The idea would never be to collectively agree on anything, but to actually passionately disagree on all sorts of things, while also being committed to “being-together,” where, pace, Bill Readings, “thinking is a shared process without identity or unity. Thought beside itself perhaps” (The University in Ruins, p. 192). This “being-together”—affectively, joyously, passionately—would be the only possible route, in my mind, toward the kind of schizoid desiring-revolution that Deleuze and Guttari argued for so passionately in their collaborative work, where desire itself, when it lights out for the territories elsewhere other than the more Oedpalized regions of Family, Institution, Nation, etc., unleashes, in the words of one of their translators, “schizzes-flows—forces that escape coding, scramble the codes, and flee in all directions: orphans (no daddy-mommy-me), atheists (no beliefs), and nomads (no habits, no territories)” [Mark Seem, “Introduction,” Anti-Oedipus, p. xxi]. Further, Seem writes [of Deleuze and Guattari’s schizoanalysis]:
Once we forget about our egos a non-neurotic form of politics becomes possible, where singularity and collectivity are no longer at odds with each other, and where collective expressions of desire are possible. Such a politics does not seek to regiment individuals according to a totalitarian systems of norms, but to de-normalize and de-individualize through a multiplicity of new, collective arrangements against power. Its goal is the transformation of human relationships in a struggle against power. And it urges militant groups, as well as lone individuals, to analyze and fight against the effects of power that subjugate them. [“Introduction,” Anti-Oedipus, p. xxi]
Desire, which at its most basic level, is a kind of connection-machine, is deeply striated by the future: to say that it is about the present [the now], or about some kind of current satisfaction, altogether misses the point of desire’s affective propulsion: it is a process of becoming-something-else [even Edelman’s sinthomosexual has to want something; even the act of throwing someone off a cliff makes a demand on a future]. But if Sarah is right, and history can be seen as tending toward ends and deaths while simultaneously being grasped [artistically, I imagine] as having “stopped, or reversed, or become irrelevant,” as “entirely paratactic,” such that “we will never die and that others have not [yet] died,” then perhaps futurity could function, in this scenario, as both negative critique [everything is dead already, all is oblivion] and utopia [nothing has happened yet, all is potential]. What is the productive fiction that could be created between these two poles [one, perhaps, objective-historical, the other subjective-artistic]?
To Dan’s point that “affect may take us beyond economy in the problem of sharing ideas and work, in the problem of negotiating the individual and collective in thinking the future on utopian terms, in a radically secularized way,” I would only say here that this also accords well with Deleuze and Guttari’s idea of libidinal economies, which, in Foucault’s words, “[p]refer what is positive and multiple, difference over uniformity, flows over unities, mobile arrangements over systems,” and which require “de-individualization” [“Preface,” Anti-Oedipus, p. xiii-xiv]. There will always be the problem, though, of individual freedom, which, I must say, I worry about a lot, mainly in the terms set forth by the political theorist George Kateb in his essay “The Idea of Individual Infinitude,” where he writes that, “One’s understanding is indispensable to the completeness of the world; one’s words are necessary. One’s life is transitory, but one’s mind deserves immortality. It has touched reality and become real” [The Hedgehog Review 7.2 (Summer 2005): 49], and also by Edith Wyschogrod who, in her essay, “Memory, History, Revelation,” writes that, “the dead other cannot be incorporated into my interpretive framework, or into any system of signs—but rather as an excess that opens the dimension of the more, of an unincorporable infinite” [Memory and History in Christianity and Judaism, ed. Michael A. Signer (Notre Dame, 2001), p. 32]. So, while I am mindful of Foucault’s cautions, “the individual is the product of power” and “do not be enamored of power,” I can’t help but also feel that Deleuze and Guattari’s desiring-revolution is one in which, albeit it deconstructs the molar subject in favor of molecular flows, nevertheless permits, in the words of Ivan Illich, “the evolution of a life-style and of a political system which give priority to the protection, the maximum use, and the enjoyment of the one resource that is almost equally distributed among all people: personal energy under personal control” [Tools for Conviviality, pp. 12-13].
For me, the contemporary [and by backward extension, the historical] University-proper ceases to be such a site, at least in its form of brick and stone buildings and manicured green spaces and conventional classrooms rooted to particular geographies. I think we will need to imagine many working groups into being as new “floating sites” for a post-historical “floating University” that would privilege affective community over any one line of thought or disciplinary dogma and where everything would be in continual, joyous, desiring “shift,” where the line between art and everything else would be difficult to draw, and where friendship and amity would be our politics. And if this means risking the charge of sentimentalism, I can only say, have you got something better I should want to live for instead of love?