I have written letters that are failures, but I have written few, I think, that are lies. Trying to reach a person means asking the same question over and over again: Is this the truth, or not? I begin this letter to you, then, in the western tradition. If I understand it, the western tradition is: put your cards on the table.—Amy Hempel, “Tumble Home”
We are neither present in the world nor absent from it.—Leo Bersani, “Psychoanalysis and the Aesthetic Subject”
I am recently back from New York City and the Medieval Club of New York’s panel, “Subjects of Friendship, Medieval and Medievalist,” and the experience—of the talks and commentary at the panel itself but also of hanging out in NYC with assorted [and lovely] persons I have known or am getting to know—has left me with more questions than I know how to answer as regards friendship, ethics, eros [broadly defined, for me, as a life-force, of which sexuality is only one powerful symptom], love, humanism, and the practices of our profession [the humanities, most broadly], all subjects that have been obsessing me of late, especially in relation to their inter- or disconnectedness with each other [and the cognitive dissonances that often result when they don’t “hook up,” and that we have to navigate every day in our traffic within the university, and elsewhere]. I have spent a long-ish amount of time reading the philosophy and theory of ethics, love, friendship, and sexuality [of course, my bibliography could never be complete], and I am feeling, finally, somewhat dissatisfied with the ideas, expressed variously by different thinkers, that my relationship to the Other [whether as someone for whom I am responsible or as someone I want to approach in love or friendship or desire] can only be accomplished through various acts of world- and self-cancellation and through leave-takings of the forms of embodiment with which I am most familiar [and for which my longing longs]. In some way [I have no idea how, really, so help me, please] I want to contest Leo Bersani’s notion that intersubjecvtivity, “as we have come to prize it in western culture . . . is a reining in, a sequestering, of our energies” [Homos, p. 124]. Or, as he also puts it, “Our complex views of intersubjectivity, nourished by an intricate consciousness of desire, have the effect of channeling our imagination of human relations into the narrow domain of the private” [p. 123]. And what is proposed, as an antidote to all this [and also to avoid a definition of “all relations as property relations”], is that
we move irresponsibly among other bodies, somewhat indifferent to them, demanding nothing more than that they be as available to contact as we are, and that, no longer owned by others, they also renounce self-ownership and agree to the loss of boundaries which will allow them to be, with us, shifting points of rest in a universal and mobile communication of being. [p, 128]It is as if a certain de-familiarization is seen as prerequisite to truly seeing or experiencing the Other, friendship, love, sexuality, freedom, etc., and the will to de-familiarize could even be said to constitute the most insubordinate and revelatory act, one that allows everything, even history (especially history), to “come undone” and to also “come unstuck” from the “difference” that we write [often violently] upon all the forms that cross our field of vision, as forms, or figures. And the truest “community” could only be one “in which the other, no longer respected or violated as a person, would merely be cruised as another opportunity, at once insignificant and precious” [Homos, p. 129].
Yes, yes, yes, I know that everything—especially identities—as Bersani has written, “spill over” and that we “exist, in both time and space, in a vast network of near-sameness” [Homos, p. 146], and therefore, we should work very hard on new relational modes that would be, in a sense, beyond identity [with Bersani and other theorists’ “cruising” or Howie’s “think what it means to reach out in the dark” standing in as the best modes of “contact”—yet since I came of age, as it were, in the decadent gay bars and Act Up protests of Capitol Hill in the mid-1980s, I sometimes want more than the queer politics or queer ethics that always draws, for its metaphors, or inspiration, upon the material circumstances of the death-haunted and often mindless and drug-enhanced escapades of my youth—and yes, I said “mindless,” intentionally, because now, now I want the mind involved and saying that the best sexuality somehow has to involve the divestiture of the self is also like saying, how can I leave my mind behind? And why is it, whether we’re talking Plato or queer theory or theology, that escaping or shedding the self, which is also the mind which is also the body, is always seen as the best thing, the higher thing?]. And yet, I don’t want to let go of some kind of notion of identity that would be, hopefully, non-oppressive and open to its relational “allness” [as Bersani and Dutoit might say, pace Forms of Being], but which would also mark, in both time and space, the instance [or moment] of an always beautifully different singularity [or shining “oneness”—is this Bersani’s “point of rest”? I truly don’t know yet, but it could be and thereby I’d suture myself, again and again, to his thought].
And this is why, as Karl “outed” me in a recent comment to his post on “The Phoenix and the Turtle,” I do not believe that anyone or anything is “homo” [the same], and I hate the term homosexual [although, ostensibly, I am one]—could any term, similar to heterosexual, be so stupid and limiting as regards desire? To be truly “homo,” I would have to be in love [or in desire] with my clone, and let’s face it—that’s one step beyond incest; it would be the ultimate creepy encounter with the uncanny [yes, yes, I know I’m being too literal, but sometimes you have to be—let me do it sometimes, just sometimes]. The engine of desire is built on difference, or to put it another way, in the words of Elizabeth Grosz, “The ongoing production of individual differences is the internal motor, the ‘vitalist impetus’ of all of life” [The Nick of Time, p. 40]. Variation, my friends, variation, variation, variation, and this is why, as I stated at Kalamazoo last May, “we have never been homo, but we have always been hetero-queer.” [Now I suppose we could make the argument, though, that to limit one’s “mating” within a species group is a homo-ness of a type, but let’s save that discussion for another day.]
So, by way of a digression, after departing, mid-day, from Karl and Alison’s apartment in Brooklyn just this past Saturday, I ended up getting stranded at JFK airport overnight [due to the severe winter storms that had hit Ohio and Kentucky and other parts northeast]. In all of my traveling—and I have done a lot of that since I took my first overseas trip at 15 months—I have never had to stay overnight in a terminal. Of course, after seeing that my flight was cancelled [which did not become apparent until well into the evening after delays and more delays], my first instinct was to run to the nearest hotel, but since there was an outside chance I could get on a 6:00 am flight on Sunday morning, leaving the airport was not the best idea. I won’t lie: I ran through that gamut of clichéd and self-absorbed emotions that say, in one form or another: can my life get any worse than this? I want to kill myself. Why me? Why now? How will I ever survive these torments? Etc. Etc. That was for about ten minutes, maybe fifteen. Nothing is more absurd than this type of hyperbolic and misplaced self-pity. In short, it is not attractive. Then I called my friend Betsy and she reminded me that airport terminals are the perfect liminal spaces, and I should really indulge that, so I did. I proceeded to pick a vantage point from which I could watch everyone and also order martinis [the hangover the next day, my friends, the hangover], and basically . . . watch, and wonder. Yes, I like to watch, and to imagine. I imagined everyone’s private lives, the circumstances that might have brought them to this airport, and where they might be going, where they’ve been, what they’ve lost or gained, whether this is the day in which they, also stranded, reflect upon their recent losses and disappointments or upon their happinesses and pleasures, or maybe don’t think at all, like blank yet somehow humming pages, and how, ultimately, I could mean anything to any of these persons, or what they could mean to me. What if I knew them, knew them better? What are the possibilities?
And all of this immediately reminded me of how Franco Masciandaro had concluded his beautiful talk Friday evening, “Notes on Dante’s Poetics of Friendship,” with the invocation of the line, from Dante’s Paradiso: ecco chi crescerà li nostri amori [“Here now is one who will increase our loves”], which is addressed to Dante, “the anonymous pilgrim, by the equally anonymous souls concealed in light, who, appearing in the Sphere of Mercury, ‘were far more than a thousand splendors’” [F. Masciandaro]. Franco asked us to note the “plural” of their loves which “increase the moment anyone appears.” This is a moment that shares in both the infinity of a divine and “higher” [and perhaps, abstract] love but that also shows love as going out to the singular person in his uniqueness [even if anonymous, at first] at the exact moment of his arrival, which is always anticipated, and always welcome [and therefore, the divine perfection of paradise is not enough: we must have other persons, other arrivants, as it were, and they are never just anyone—how could they be? Or, am I saying that, for me, they must always be someone, someone in particular whose particularity I could relish?]. The singular person is always beautiful [and desirable] in her moment of arrival, walking, it cannot be stressed enough, in her [and only her] body. You do not know her but you will come to know her—this is the hope of love, of desire, and yet, already, even as someone anonymous, she approaches as a someone. And I can’t, or don’t want to, submit this beautiful image from Dante to Bersani’s idea, again in Homos, that the “psychology of desire” is an “essentially doomed and generally anguished interrogation of the other’s desires,” and therefore, all potentially revolutionary acts of love and desire “return over and over again, to relations of ownership and dominance” [pp. 123, 128].
To return to my original feelings of dissatisfaction, and by way of further explanation, I’ll just offer here some bits and pieces from the papers and comments delivered Friday evening [including my own], and also from some recent reading of my own, all of which have led me to start questioning, more and more, the abstractions [for lack of a better word], and also the modes of messianic delay and distancing and self-undoing and dis-attachment, even death, upon which so many of our discourses on ethics, friendship, love, and eros seems to be built, and from which I suddenly want to tear myself. There is no order in any of this; think of it as just a random, free-associative catalog even. So . . . .
In Derrida, we have the idea that it “is thanks to death that friendship can be declared. Never before, never otherwise. And never if not in recalling (while thanks to death, the friend recalls that there are no friends). And when friendships is declared during the lifetime of friends, it avows, fundamentally, the same thing: it avows the death thanks to which the chance to declare itself comes at last, never failing to come” [The Politics of Friendship, p. 302]. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, we have Nietzsche’s idea that amity or friendship is a “continuation of love in which possessive craving of two people for each other gives way to a new desire and lust for . . . a shared higher thirst for an ideal above them,” and we are also exhorted, not to love of the neighbor, but rather to “flight from your neighbor and to love of the most distant.” For Maurice Blanchot, friendship is an “incommensurable relation of one to the other” in which “the other is the outside drawing near in its separateness and inaccessibility” [The Writing of Disaster, p. 50]. In Giorgio Agamben’s conception, friendship is a “de-subjectivization at the very heart of the most intimate perception of self” [“Friendship,” Contretemps 5 (2004): p. 6]. In Levinas’s conception of the face, “the face of the other is verticality and uprightness; it spells a relation or rectitude. The face is not in front of me but above me. . . . The ethical rapport with the face is asymmetrical in that it subordinates my existence to the other” [Dialogues with Contemporary Continental Thinkers, pp. 59-60]. From Aquinas, we hear that in “the love of concupiscence, we draw to us what is extraneous for us, for we love other things . . . in so far as they are useful or delectable to us. But in the love of friendship . . . similitude is the cause of love, for we do not love someone in this way unless we are one with him, and similitude is a kind of unity.” With Deleuze and Guattari, we should praise molecular flows over molar unities as well as “interbeing”: a “transversal movement that sweeps one and the other away, a stream without beginning or end that undermines its own banks and picks up speed in the middle” [A Thousand Plateaus, p. 25], leading Foucault to wonder if what we need now is to “de-individualize by means of multiplication and displacement” [“Preface,” Deleueze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, p. xiv]. Count on as many fingers as you like [Freud, Lacan, Laplanche, etc.] all the psychoanalytic thinkers who view love and desire as lack or even as an aggressively destructive narcissism, or further, a death-drive. And following that, with Edelman, we could embrace that death-drive and insist that “the fate of the queer is to figure the fate that cuts the thread of futurity” and to define ourselves by that “mortality” which is “the negation of everything that would define itself, moralistically, as pro-life” [No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, pp. 30, 31]. And from Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit, in a striking passage from Forms of Being, we are asked to consider how we might emit a kind of light,
a light hidden behind psychic darkness, blocked by our expressive being. To lose our fascinating and crippling expressiveness might be the precondition for our moving within nature, moving as appearances registering, and responding to the call of, other appearances. No longer darkened by the demand for love, we might be ready to receive something like the splendor, the ‘dazzling radiance,’ that Homer’s ‘blazing-eyed Athena’ casts on the humans she protects. [p. 70]Perhaps, in the end, I do somehow align with Bersani, when he writes that the “human subject does of course exist and act discretely, separately; but its being exceeds its bounded subjectivity” [“Psychoanalysis and the Aesthetic Subject,” Critical Inquiry 32 (2006): p. 170], although I do not think our being can exceed our bounded bodies [without which our selves lack certain, I think, important vehicles of expressivity and feeling], regardless of Deleuze and Guttari’s [and others’ wild hopes to the contrary]. And this brings me back to the first philosopher who may be partly to blame [at least, in the western tradition] for insisting we view love [and even ideation] as something beyond or exterior to the body, beyond ourselves: Plato, who, in the Symposium, traces a route of a “higher” love from a love of bodies to a love of souls to a love of laws and then on to a love of wisdom. Further, in Socrates’ words, the “beautiful will not appear . . . in the guise of a face or hands or anything else that belongs to the body. It will not appear . . . as one idea or one kind of knowledge. It is not anywhere in another thing, as in an animal, or in earth, or in heaven, or in anything else, but itself by itself with itself” [Plato, Symposium]. This idea of somehow “breaking through” the self and even the world to a more divine or “higher” perspective [and perhaps, in Bersani, to a more enworlded “allness”], continues to haunt all of our critical discourses—on ethics, on friendship, on love, and even on sexuality—and asks us, I really believe, to become angels, or other sorts of floating disembodiments, and not human beings.
According to Jonathan Lear, in his beautiful essay “Eros and Unknowing,” the really critical moment of the Symposium is the sudden and drunken disruption of Alcibiades, who expresses frustration over Socrates’ refusal to sleep with him and who is also locked in what he thinks is a struggle with Socrates over the sexual possession of Agathon. For Lear, the privileging of a conception of the divine, or “higher,” love signifies what he believes is the tragedy of the Symposium, where to follow Socrates’ account of love is to “become disdainful of one's own mortal nature, treating it as not part of one’s true self,” and this is what also “accounts for Socrates’ indifference” to Alcibiades “erotic suffering”:
Socrates has made the journey, he has become as divine as humanly possible, and though he remains in the human realm, he is no longer part of it. He looks on the humanity of the human world with the indifference of the gods. Alcibiades is, of course, as human as they come. He is trapped in the human erotic . . . . insofar as Alcibiades is trapped in the human-erotic, he can, from Socrates’ perspective, go fuck himself. It does not matter to Socrates what the consequences are. From the vantage of Athenian culture, this encounter between Alcibiades and Socrates must be judged a failure of inestimable cost. Nothing less is at stake than the future of one of [the] world's great civilizations. And yet, from a divine point of view, human politics is by and large a distraction. It just does not matter which particular form the distraction takes. [Open-Minded: Working Out the Logic of the Soul, p. 164]But it matters a great deal, actually, to Lear, and also to myself, “which particular form the distraction takes,” and our aim should be “not to leave the human realm behind, but to get deeper into it—its smells, feels, textures, and the imaginary meanings we give to them,” for “it is this particular [embodied] subjectivity with which we are pregnant: and it is from this that we give birth to beauty” [p. 166].
Lear’s thinking here, heavily indebted to Freud's idea that the individual “cannot be understood other than as a response to certain forces that permeate the social world,” accords well with the insight of cognitive science that, in the words of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, reason “is not disembodied, as the [Western] tradition has largely held, but arises from the nature of our brains, bodies, and bodily experience,” and further, “reason is not, in any way, a transcendent feature of the universe or of disembodied mind. Instead, it is shaped crucially by the peculiarities of our human bodies, by the remarkable details of the neural structure of our brains, and by the specifics of our everyday functioning in the world” [Philosophy in the Flesh, p. 4]. The peculiarity of the human body is exactly what Alcibiades cannot get around in his struggle with Socrates by whom he feels “completely possessed,” and while Alcibiades is clearly locked in a repetitive and neurotic “acting out” against Socrates, which does not allow him to grow or expand as a person, Socrates’ indifference to him further impedes his ability to individuate. In Freudian terms, Socrates essentially refuses to confront Alcibiades’ transference, which, in Lear’s words, is “in essence a form of political engagement” [p. 152].
As is well known, what I would call Alcibiades’ bad education had disastrous consequences: he vandalized the statues of the temple of Hermes by breaking off their genitals, profaned the Eleusinian mysteries, and ultimately decamped to Sparta where he betrayed Athens’ military secrets. The undoing of Alcibiades through Socrates’ indifference becomes the undoing of Athens itself, and the fault is not in Alcibiades’ inability to ascend to a higher plane of awareness—to get beyond the particular body of Socrates to an idea of a higher virtue, for that, after all, is only human—but in Socrates’ unwillingness to descend to Alcibiades, in other words, to love him, not necessarily sexually, but as person in need of a certain affectionate regard, a regard, moreover, grounded in an attachment to the human world and its well-being. And maybe this is why I was so swept away recently by Cary Howie’s book Claustrophilia, in which he writes in two sentences everything I am trying to say here: “to say I am enclosed in your mouth and I am enclosed in your hand is to inscribe a difference at the heart of you” and “being inside you is always simultaneously being beside you, irreducibly.” For me, the beautiful only really appears “in the guise of a face or hands or anything else that belongs to the body”—and this is where I am placing my bets, and pinning my hopes. If I have any sort of radical politics, it is only to say that I will never stop waiting for those who might still arrive and increase my loves, here, and now, while we can still experience and reckon all the accounts of our affections. Perhaps what I really want is a neo-Epicureanism.