by EILEEN JOY
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
—W.B. Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium”
I have so much pleasure in putting together these thoughts from all of you, I am thinking a pleasure session/panel at SEMA [Southeastern Medieval Association] in the fall: where each person can more fully speak their mind. Also, I think, new theory begets new art . . . . My paper will be also a paper sculpture garden? Each member of the audience will receive a small paper to form into the shape of his/her thoughts.
—Anna Klosowska, email correspondence
I have had such a difficult time articulating my feelings and thoughts about this year’s Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo, I think, partly, because I was just overwhelmed [and in a good way] by all of the thought-provoking and even moving papers I heard, and also because of the roving pack of BABEL-ers who, no matter where I went, were always there to have fun and engaged conversation with me. The conference was festive, it was serious, and at times, even dark and sad [as Jeffrey has already blogged about]. The conference also had its unexpected sublime moments, such as when, apropos of almost nothing, at the dinner table on Saturday, Brantley Bryant recited by heart Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium,” or when, in the BABEL suite late one night, two angels arrived with bags filled with french fries that, no matter how many of them you ate, they never ran out, and the same evening, three beers were poured into 9 or so glasses and lasted until dawn, or when Cary Howie ended his presentation on BABEL’s pleasure panel on Friday with these lines from Miranda July’s story “The Shared Patio”:
Look at the sky: that is for you. Look at each person's face as you pass them on the street: those faces are for you. And the street itself, and the ground under the street, and the ball of fire underneath the ground: all these things are for you. They are as much for you as they are for other people. Remember this when you wake up in the morning and think you have nothing. Stand up and face the east. Now praise the sky and praise the light within each person under the sky. It's okay to be unsure. But praise, praise, praise.Having recently been dumped by Kate Moss, the Tiny Shriner was a little more quiet than usual, and when we offered [perhaps unwisely] to embrace him in a group hug and to “praise” him, he let us know in no uncertain terms that we should, um, “back off.” So we did. Hopefully, he’s back where he belongs on his shelf now in JJC’s office with his besotted antelope and bisexual boomerang, but Tiny, we miss you already, and could you please tell the boomerang to make up its mind?
For me the highlight of the conference were the two BABEL panels on seriousness and pleasure, which just raised so many questions [distressing *and* critical-productive] and offered so many arresting images [and even calls—properly understood as “shout outs” or “listen!” or “come forth in this” or “come forth out of *there*” or "look at yourself, looking at him/the object of your study, who is looking at you" or “remember to love, or to have hope”], that I am still trying to process all of them. But thanks to Julie Orlemanski, a PhD student at Harvard, who raised a very provocative question at the end of the pleasure panel having to do with the consideration of harm [are there any harms in pleasure?], I find myself mainly dwelling upon that panel, and since, initially unbeknownst to me, Julie instigated a very lively email correspondence with Karl, Anna Klosowska, and Nicola Masciandaro on this subject, I decided to bring that dialogue into this space where we can all share in it, and hopefully, move this subject of pleasure—raised so sensually, and also sentimentally, and with levitation, by the panelists at Kalamazoo—into new [pleasurable, yet perhaps more ethically acute] grounds. Our panelists—Carolyn Dinshaw, Peggy McCracken, Nicola Masciandaro, Cary Howie, and Anna Klosowska—raised for us so many issues related to pleasure: the risks of taking pleasure/enjoyment in antiquarianism, which might be deemed too sentimental or even un-scholarly and might even be queer [Dinshaw], pleasure “without concepts,” which might also be pleasure without taxonomies, pleasure without/against reason [McCracken], the pleasure of assuming the world might be for you, after all, and facing it, with pleasure, as a gift [Howie], foolish cathexis as a form of happiness and pleasure that also refuses the powers of terror [Klosowska], and the pleasurably float-y gravity of the medieval [Masciandaro]. And the questions were also raised for the panelists, but perhaps not fully answered [or should we say, exhausted]: when is pleasure serious? does it need to be ethical? etc. Although I also think "the ethical," however you might define that, was operative in all of the papers, but perhaps it's a question of making those lineaments more distinct. I don't know.
But first, an aside: I was thinking today about my own relationship to pleasure and whether or not I ever have any. The thing is, I work all the time [maybe too much], but I also love my work, find pleasure in it [I think], and can’t live without it. My work is my one great love affair, and that’s okay, but I don’t always pause, either, I don’t think, to consider what other pleasures might be out there. Yes, I’m a bit of a hedonist, too, as some know, and I do build time into my schedule to “get lost”—these are usually several- or more-day affairs in which everything is unplugged, so to speak, but when you have to set aside time to engage in hedonism, what kind of hedonism is this, anyway? Is it pleasurable [of the melting variety], or is it a frenetic sort of grasping or running after pleasure [always knowing the boat that takes you back to work is slowly pulling into the harbor from somewhere]? And of course, if you put me in a crowd of almost anyone, I will have my fun, because I love company, especially riotous company, and take pleasure in it. I wonder, though, in opposition to this pleasure-as-vacation/getaway or pleasure-as-party, of what happens when pleasures are very, very small and quiet and apart from the madding crowd, such as that moment Jeffrey illustrates in his “Kalamazoo 2009” post when, in the midst of a party at the Kalamazoo B&B, he “was sitting on the grand front porch alone for a few moments, enjoying a glass of wine and the warm stillness of the evening.”
I do not often take such moments, but I was thinking of them today when I was walking my dog Sparky as I always do down the city blocks. I live downtown, and while there are many parks around, most days Sparky and I just walk around the neighborhood and there is one house in particular at which I always like to stop in order to do something that I can only think I do because it is pleasurable, and also because time stands still, every time, in the moment of doing it, and because I also think it has become, for me, the cultivation of a small pleasure that is also a moment of seriousness. There is a very old dog, a Chow mix, who lives about two blocks away and who is always kind of cowering in his backyard, hiding behind a piece of plywood leaning against the house, when we pass by. This dog has a face I cannot even begin to describe: it is as if a very wise and old soul lives inside this dog, which is to say, this dog is a very wise and old soul. He is afraid and almost shakes if you come too near the fence, and I would guess he has been, or is, beaten. At the same time, you can tell he wants you to stay and converse with him—this is all hard to explain, in any case. But he will only approach you if you somehow get lower to the ground than he is and also if you position yourself in such a manner that you are looking another way. So I just sit down on the sidewalk with my back to his yard and against the wire fence, and Sparky, being Sparky, just sits down, too, and while we are looking across the street at other matters, this dog slowly approaches and puts his nose through the fence onto my shoulder. And we just sit there, not moving, nose to shoulder, until we [I and Sparky] do move, get up, start heading home, and telling the Chow, see you tomorrow. The moment at which the Chow’s nose touches my shoulder is a moment of exquisite pleasure, as is telling him so long [but who am I talking to?], and one that I always want to repeat. Is this a selfish pleasure? Could it cause harm, or does it, if even temporarily, undo harm? I honestly don’t know, but here is what Julie Orlemanski, in an email to Anna and Karl, wrote shortly after the Congress, and the responses to her that have arrived thus far, and here’s hoping for more [!], and maybe even for Travis Neel to tell Karl he has got Aelred's Spiritual Friendship all wrong [!]:
Anna, your talk suggested terror as a possible other of pleasure – and boredom, shame, and “the concept” were also candidates. The panel often sounded so positive – yes, yes, yes – praise, embrace, kiss, affirm – that it made me want to ask about what might not be pleasure, how pleasure could be missed, misrecognized, lost, harmed, attained at an unacceptable cost. At points, the praxis that the panel sketched seemed to me to veer toward what Karl calls “dissolution into wholeness or panpsychism (mysticism).” It may not be necessary to think in binaries, but with regard to ethics, doesn’t it seem necessary to consider the question of harm, of protection from? I was not yet convinced of an articulation of the nexus between pleasure and ethics, or between affect and relation.Karl Steel>
Part of this question has to do with my own dialectical habits of mind, via Hegel and Adorno, in which the moment of negation is so important. In dialectical thought, at least as I understand it, the other’s quality of being-for-itself, which Karl mentions, fundamentally transforms my original desire, revealing ways it was inadequate, ways it failed both the other and me in its first form . . . I am transformed in time by my ongoing relation to the object . . . . I find subject/object relations in Adorno to be quietly, almost paralyzingly ethical . . . . So, is the medieval habit of discretio, the attention to a taxonomy of affects, totally unnecessary? Are there no dangers of pleasure? Particularly, everyone on the panel seemed to affirm the sociality and relationality of pleasure – but is there not a solipsistic risk or tendency or errancy of pleasure? Is it enough to assert that pleasure is social? Peggy McCracken’s paper struck a chord with me, regarding my own recent work on lepers. The kissing of lepers is a practice of affective piety that often seems a very intimate, affective, tactile misrecognition. While McCracken’s paper emphasized that the saint wanted her relics to be returned to their loving home (the mutuality of desire), to what extent can we treat this as a truly social relation? To what extent is there solipsism or projection or wishful thinking in this account of the lover of bones? Does it matter when it is not bones being kissed, but lepers, living subjects whose bodies have marked them out as involuntary subjects both of abomination and veneration?
I'm writing in part to say I'm not sure that I CAN answer your question. My interest in phenomenology has not been systematic; it's been more a matter of picking it up, since it seems to be much in the air lately. I found myself enraptured by Cary Howie's Claustrophilia, which will be most helpful to you if you acquaint yourself first with the Heideggarian notion of 'unconcealment.' I have found some considerations of care and the body in animal studies also particularly helpful, work like Leonard Lawlor's This is Not Sufficient and Ralpha Acampora's Corporal Compassion. My very limited reading in classical phenomenology--say, Hussurl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty--suggests to me that none of them are especially ethical thinkers. Levinas, if we can think of him as thinking in a phenomological mode, is of course the ethical thinker par excellence: but my experience is that I've done much better reading introductions to Levinas than in reading Levinas himself (The Cambridge Companion is quite good). In terms of bad affect, the resistant feeling, the notion of the sky's indifference, well, I could probably recommend something a lot less valuable than Aelred of Rievaulx's On Friendship, which, much to its credit, always figures friendship as a choice that excludes others. There's no love there without a 'theft of resources' from others who may need them just as much.Anna Klosowska>
As to the others and unothers: I now understand the stakes, but just as I am post-Heidegger, I am also fashionably post-dialectic, preferring instead multiplicities. Below are some thoughts that reflect that, which could be entitled “Four Ethical Figures of Pleasure”:Dan Remein>
-- taking an afternoon siesta in the same back yard. Something about being safe sleeping in the vicinity. That figure combines abandon and distance as a model for thinking through what pleasure and respect are;
-- it is a cruel custom to keep a distance from other people in speech and body, but a mouse saying “I love to touch everyone” is different from an old teacher saying “I love to touch everyone”: to theorize specific positionality;
-- I enjoy—love—restraint and reserve, which for me is a form of touching, like in tango where both partners compromise their balance to find a balance of two that moves dangerously and elegantly through space and time, on the very edge of despair. If you take one out at any moment, the other falls on his/her face! THAT I like;
-- respect for innocence: I really don’t feel there is a grey zone here where the differential is great—when it’s small there is a possibility. For instance, there is absolutely no way to confuse caress and child abuse, to take more than is given. I don’t have a theory of this, though. And I know people in different positions (models and painters—or similar positionality) who confuse the two, but I think that is an act of desperation on their part; something’s broken inside. This is not a theorized zone for me, but in practice, I feel no doubt & see no “continuum,” rather sets of discrete categories.
. . . optimism is a small weak thing which disrupts the events of the closed economies--empties them so they can be emptied again and again: this is the movement of plenitude--not the being there but the constantly passing through!Nicola Masciandaro>
1) The question. What are the reasons we are drawn into thinking about the other of pleasure (which as I understand it here means both the 'opposite' of pleasure and its L'Autrui)? The question and possibility of harm is always there of course, the practical-ethical question, am I harming? am I being a selfish idiot? etc. But there is something else going on here, which seems like trying to get pleasure RIGHT, trying to be right about it, not make a mistake, a desire to discriminate before discrimination, to ensure a path for our discrimations. This is inevitable and necessary, and I went about it through the lust/love:heavy/light correlation as a measure for pleasure's quality. But I also want to keep this question as close to the ground as possible as a practical question, in Marx's sense of truth as a practical question (theses on Feuerbach) and in the Heideggerian sense of being=doing (cf. ethos, habitus, second nature). As I understand it pleasure is all mistakes, errancy, our wandering towards something we know not what, hence something that can be rectified only through a *better* error. I.e. only attending to our real experience of pleasure, by looking pleasure in the face and in the face of its other, can we start to see, be more awake to our deepest/highest pleasure-giving desires. For some reason I always think of discrimination in relation to the nose, as a knowledge faculty that can simultaneously catch the scent of something missing, distinguish each moment between it and everything else, and also enjoy the very presence of what it seeks . . . . Hence also my emphasis on the body (aka 'the seat of happiness') as the space of pleasure. This kind of finding one's way *through* pleasure is less about finding a rule or map or path for it from the outside than following it from within, keeping as close as possible to the interior of desire, staying within the honesty of its desire for itself so it can take you through your own taking of pleasure. This is totally in tune with what Eileen is saying about the ethics of commentary in her response to JJC's dark side, and reminds me of part of my becoming spice commentary paper: "Such open movement (which I here want to follow, without following) is at once instrumental and intrinsic. It is instrumental in that it takes you where you would not otherwise go. It is intrinsic in that it is orients you only to your own going. This means a movement that is neither teleological nor auto-teleological, neither labor nor play, and both."
And I would emphasize the BOTH here, pleasure is work, and work is always for others, absenst and present. Which also reminds me of the service and honesty comments that have come back to haunt me (lovingly) from Eileen at the “Getting the Medieval Studies We Want” panel. Honest pleasure, how pleasures become honest, is I think a wonderful issue to think through in response to the ethics of pleasure question, as we are surrounded by and complicit in all kinds of dishonest, fake pleasures (gratifications), and can even be led (by the nose!) into believing all kinds of bullshit about what we want, miseducations of pleasure. Honesty is a beautiful bottomless vertiginous thing. A tiny bit goes a LONG way (cf. unknowing). And if we are talking about what anchors pleasure's authenticity (its goodness and being on the way beyond "goodness"), I think honesty is pretty damn near to it. About the other other of pleasure, pleasure's opposite, I would also add worry to the list as a kind of sister to boredom, a non-ecstatic being elsewhere. Pleasure is an exercise, an movement, an energy. Our being 'up' for pleasure, capable of it, is robbed by worry as a draining, dissipating activity. As Dante understood, pleasure belongs to agency: "For in all action what is principally intended by the agent, whether he acts by natural necessity or voluntarily, is the disclosure or manifestation of his own image. Whence it happens that every agent, insofar as he is such, takes delight. For, because everything that is desires its own being and in acting the being of an agent is in a certain way amplified, delight necessarily follows, since delight always attaches to something desired." Apparently Karl disagrees, and loves to worry . . . . Try not to worry, it is difficult, but not impossible! See what that DOES. This is not some subjective solipsistic mumbo-jumbo, not the affect of a cogito, or the dropping out kind of western buddism that Zizek loves to ridicule. Saying no to worry, dialectically negating it, is an historical act that fundamentally alters one's relation to the world and shifts one's own and others' position within the massive economies of worry that swirl around us. Not worrying is a political act and I can think of nothing more beautiful, powerful, alive, sexy than someone who does not worry. Translate this to the context of scholarship. How much of it is deeply about worry, about ethical policing, anxieties, guilt, pointing to the problem, trying desperately to be right, or important, without daring to even come close to the possession and enjoyment of the good it seeks?
2) "Dissolution into wholeness or panpsychism (mysticism)": I do not understand what is at stake here, nor the equation of these terms, though being a firm 'believer' in the infinite mystery of individuation (even god cannot explain that! hence for the scholastics it belongs to "concreatio," something exceeding and out of the control of the creator) I feel the silliness of "wholeness" and would prefer "unity" as a reality binding, but with such a light touch!, difference. That is unity as a primordial fact, the fact that there is a world and by golly we are all in it, the unity of life. Anna and I will write next month something on *dislocation*, so maybe that will define a kind of dissolution that we might want, a dissolution within unity, that keeps within the oneness of being someone. Here Mo's [Pareles] queer swarm gives an interesting model. The unity of life, of what teems, is like the unity of swarm, but a swarm is not a solution or liquid of lost identities though it still knows how to flow. Panpsychism is hardly mysticsm (or vice-versa) though they may certainly meet within pantheism. See Panpsychism in the West by Skrbina and the new volume Mind That Abides with contribution by Graham Harman et al. But of course I have now 'come out' as a panpsychist and maybe even a mystic (whatever that is). A cosmocentric subject? A person who exerperiences the ecstasy of the inexplicable presence of her own event, who desires "to be everything" (vide Bataille)? A being-in-the-world that has to fling itself mothlike on the flame of love? An insistence that the questioner, like the musk-deer, really contains the answer? One possibility is that Karl is concerned with irrationality, with mysticism as mystification. Mysticism as I think about it is a departure from *system* and *project* (cf. Gershom Scholem's "Not system but commentary is the legitmate form through which truth is approached"), is auto-commentarial (cf. Julian) rather than institutionally instrumental, but it departs for a HERE, for the surface dimensions of experience that are strangely (typically in the interests of someone's arbitray power) swept under the rug of flags and values and ideologies. So the question is what would/does mysticism dissolve? What/who would want to preserve itself against mysticism's dissolving power? The "state"? "Culture"? The "self"? All of these I would group under the heading Religion. So yes I do desire mysticism that dissolves religion in all these senses, or at least perforates them pleasurably, what Reza Negarestani would call "positive disintegration." I think human beings are very good at creating and preserving, but are not so good at destroying (Bataille's nonproductinve expenditure or depense) and hence are driven to resort to self-destructive forms of destruction (war, despoilation, etc). So mysticism as positive disintegration, that sounds very sane. Or as Eileen's Guthlac paper put it, without putting it: Fuck religion, love God. I.e. keeping the queer sex in religion is such a positive disintegration. Cf. the situationist Raoul Vaneigem's work on the free spirit heretics and Simon Critichley's work in progress on the same.