Sunday, September 05, 2010

Mattering, the Middle Voice, and Magnanimous Self-Donations: A Response to Jeffrey's "Queering the In/Organic"


I am for those who walk abreast with the whole earth,
Who inaugurate one to inaugurate all.
--Walt Whitman, "By Blue Ontario's Shore"

A few days ago, in his post "Queering the In/Organic," Jeffrey shared with us what he had preliminarily "worked out as entryway into why queer theory might not want to stop at the limit of biological life," which he will be speaking about when he makes a keynote address at a conference in Berlin later this month, "Queer Again? Power, Politics, and Ethics." I am keenly interested in Jeffrey's Berlin talk, and also in many of the discourses currently circulating in what some are referring to as the "new materialism," and which is also intimately related to older materialisms, philosophy/theory of science (Haraway, Latour, Serres, Elizabeth Grosz, Prigione, Stengers, etc.), network/system/assemblage theory (think: Latour, but also DeLanda, Deleuze and Guattari, Eugene Thacker, etc.), nomadic ethology (think: Deleuze and Guattari again, but also Rosi Braidotti, Iain Chambers), queer theory, the turn to affect, critical animal studies, object-oriented ontology, "thing" studies, studies in the anti- and post-human (especially those that take up cybernetics, distributed cognition, informatics, and the like, but I am thinking here also of Cary Wolfe's posthumanism), and in continental philosophy circles, speculative realism (i.e. Graham Harman's "guerrilla metaphysics").

**Just as a special side-note to all of this, I would like to also ask everyone to reflect on what is at stake--theoretically, politically, discipline-wise, etc.--when we refer to "new" -isms and "turns." How "new" is the "new materialism," anyway, and what is at stake in thinking of it as "new"? On this point in relation to how this has played out especially within feminist studies of gender, the body, etc., see Sara Ahmed, "Imaginary Prohibitions: Some Preliminary Remarks on the Founding Gestures of the 'New Materialism'," European Journal of Women's Studies 15.1 (2008): 23-39. For the ways in which premodern discourses on materialism have not figured enough in contemporary discourses on the "new materialism," see also Kellie Robertson, "Medieval Materialism: A Manifesto," Exemplaria 22.2 (2010): 99-118.

Because Jeffrey graciously invited me to be one of nine plenary speakers at GW-MEMSI's upcoming conference, "Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects in the Early Modern and Medieval Periods" [11-12 March 2011 @ George Washington Univ.], specifically to speak on ethics (along with Julian Yates), and at which conference the keynote talk will be given by political theorist Jane Bennett, whose recent book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Duke, 2010) Jeffrey also blogged about not too long ago (and which also figures in his recent post on the in/organic), I am very interested in Jeffrey's Berlin talk (especially because in the snippet he shared with us, Jeffrey gestured toward a "wonder-laden, ethical existence" that would partly hinge on a zōēpolitics that would "embrace the nonbiological, the inorganic"), and I am hoping that we can start a dialogue here relative to, as Karen Barad puts it, the "mattering" of matter. One of the real virtues in Jeffrey's notes thus far is his inquiry into what queer theory in particular can contribute to studies on the non/human and inorganic (and also into what considerations of the in/organic can do for queer theory). For one, it can help open avenues toward "unanticipated conjugations," although Jeffrey cautions that queer theory can also be, even when it is concerned with what has become abjectly sub-humanized and Othered, firmly anthropocentric; at the same time, per Jeffrey, maybe queer theory can also lay out a map of the ways in which the nonhuman is always lodged within the sexual. Following Noreen Giffney's and Myra Hird's essay collection Queering the Non/human (Ashgate, 2008), but also Sara Ahmed's Queer Phenomneology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Duke, 2006), Jeffrey further wonders, "what politics of disorientation (to invoke Sara Ahmed) might a non/human queer theory achieve?" If, as Bennett argues in her new book, according to Jeffrey, that matter "possesses aesthetic, affective and practical agencies: the world unfolds through our alliances with a lively materialism, where we are one actant among many within a turbulent identity network," then Jeffrey is also asking us to consider [I think] how an alliance between queer theory and theories of a "vibrant" material world might lead to a new ethics, a new [inter-actant identity] politics.

This is no small question, no small provocation to thought, and also recalls me to Aranye Fradenburg's plenary lecture, "Living Chaucer," at the meeting of the New Chaucer Society in Siena this past July, where she asked us to consider the power of "territorial assemblage" in Chaucer's poetry as a site where so many actants, real and fictional, gather [and shape each other, cognitively, affectively] over time, and therefore gives rise to the question, "where does the self end and alterity begin?" We share with Chaucer, who is a sort of inter-subjective self-object (as we are also), an "affective companionship" and a "shared attention" to the dynamism of living processes through which all change, and therefore, radical hope, and maybe democracy, happens. Because I often play the "humanist" in these exchanges [because, for better or worse, I still think we need humanism, but of less anthropocentric and more self-critical varieties], I'm led to wonder about the critical importance of the human in all of this as, to cadge from David Gary Shaw, "a highly localized site of awareness," and I'm wondering then, also, about the possible benefits, but also dangers, of the human as the primary "filter" through which these "new materialisms" and "zōēpolitics" might come into being.

Also at the forefront of my mind while thinking about Jeffrey's post is a talk Jane Bennett gave at the Birbeck Institute of the Humanities in London this past May on "Walt Whitman's Solar Judgment" (audio-file available HERE), in which she performs a provocative riff on this passage from Whitman's poem, "By Blue Ontario's Shore":
. . . the poet is the equable man,
Not in him, but off from him, things are grotesque, eccentric, fail of their full returns,
Nothing out of its place is good, nothing in its place is bad,
He bestows on every object or quality its fit proportion, neither more nor less,
He is the arbiter of the diverse, he is the key,
He is the equalizer of his age and land,
He supplies what wants supplying—he checks what wants checking,
In peace, out of him speaks the spirit of peace, large, rich, thrifty, building populous towns,
encouraging agriculture, arts, commerce, lighting the study of man, the Soul, health, immortality, government;
In war, he is the best backer of the war -- he fetches artillery as good as the engineer’s -- he can make every word he speaks draw blood;
The years straying toward infidelity, he withholds by his steady faith,
He is no arguer, he is judgment -- (Nature accepts him absolutely;)
He judges not as the judge judges, but as the sun falling round a helpless thing;
As he sees the farthest, he has the most faith,
His thoughts are the hymns of the praise of things,
In the dispute on God and eternity he is silent,
He sees eternity less like a play with a prologue and denouement,
He sees eternity in men and women -- he does not see men and women as dreams or dots.
In short, Bennett makes the following arguments (and I'm summarizing wildly so as to not make an already-long post too much longer, but, um, who am I kidding?):
1. To be alive is to be continually discriminating between things and making judgments, and following Henri Bergson, perception itself is a kind of judgment, a focusing on some things at the expense of other things.

2. Judgment is therefore the bio-cultural act of discriminatory selection and moral judgment, historically, has been a subtraction accompanied by two particular images: a) the image of the cosmos as a more or less fixed order, and b) the image of the human as a responsible and sovereign subject.

3. Moral judgments, in particular, can actually be inethical when they are predicated on the idea of a sovereign human subject who is self-righteous and sees the world in black-and-white terms [and who also enjoys punishing others for supposedly violating the rigid and hierarchical "order" of the world].

4. But what if we turn to Whitman's idea of the poet's "solar judgment" ["He judges not as the judge judges, but as the sun falling around a helpless thing"]? How might this help us to mitigate judgment's historically inethical character? For one thing, in Whitman's conception, the poet receives without prejudice all sorts of bodies [animate and inanimate, men, women, animals, the sea, carriages, doors, cobblestones, chimneys, the grass, etc.], and he does so with a magnanimous, self-donating stance.

5. Objects/things actually speak to the poet: they are vocal actants that produce a "living, buried speech" [Whitman's phrase], and pace Bruno Latour, they are actants that contribute to the world in ways that exceed their roles as objects of perception. They possess, further, a vitality that is elided by the category descriptor "object."

6. In Whitman's conception, all things of the world [human and non-human, organic and inorganic] are non-hierarchized [horizontally arranged] co-participants in a world that vibrates with precious and vital potentialities [we might add here, also, that for Whitman, each person & object's "singularity" is precious and matters a great deal].

7. Solar judging cultivates the inorganic powers resident within all things [human and otherwise] in order to forge sympathetic links with the myriad bodies upon which one's gaze might/will fall. One might want to call this sympathy "love," but it is more impersonal and distancing than that term will allow [in Bennett's view--I actually disagree, but more on that later in a different post].

8. How would one actually enact Whitman's "solar judgment" [which is also, for Whitman anyway, an aesthetic practice as well as a life practice]? There are three possible ways: a) through poetry, the sound and sense of words, that would, in one mode at least, give the world back to itself in a non-heirarchized manner, where all things would vibrate together as co-actants, aesthetically "expressed," so to speak; b) through the poet's use of the "middle voice," in which he responds to a force outside of himself, but this responsiveness is neither passive receptivity nor willful embrace--it is somewhere in the middle and aims to capture the messy reciprocal coalescences of heterogeneous forces (think Andy Clark's distributed cognition); c) through the cultivation of an impersonal regard, that we would not call love, exactly, but which could be compared to Jesus's injunction in Luke 6:27-31 to "love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you," etc.
So, as one way of thinking through all of this in relation to Jeffrey's call for an enchanted zōēpolitics, one where thinking on the relation between the queer and the non/human would also aid us in seeing how the non/human is always already lodged deeply within the sexual (which is also to say, within bios), I thought I would also share with everyone here what I think were the most provocative questions posed to Jane Bennett from members of the audience at Birbeck [and I'll add some of my own elaborations upon those question as well and also add my own questions and worries]:

1. What is the importance of the "helpless" in the "helpless things" that Whitman's sun falls upon in a non-morally-judgmental way? What role might the term "helpless" play in Jeffrey's call for a zōēpolitics as well? If everything in the world, per Whitman and Bennett, is accorded a co-participatory, non-hierarchized, horizontal status, who and what is "helpless," who and what "helps," and in which situations? Does the human [especially as a magnanimous self-donater] have a privileged role in this situation between helpless and helper--I think likely it does, but what then, are its necessary limits, its important constraints? [And even if the human is always part-non/human, both in terms of its physiological "interior" but also in terms of its placement as an actant in various hybrid and distributed networks, it still maintains a privileged, if not sovereign, role in the world, and with this comes some responsibilities, I think, for the "helpless," but once you start categorizing what is and isn't "helpless," we can get into all sorts of problems, of course--what might some of those problem be, actually?].

2. Could Whitman's "solar judgment" and also the thinking Bennett crafts from Whitman's poetics run the risk of lapsing into a sort of religious philosophy? This brings me as well to some provocative questions Amy Hollywood raised in Siena at the meeting of the New Chaucer Society this past July, relative to the sessions organized around the thread on animals: is the supposedly incalcuable and irreducible non-human "call" (whether "animal" or something else) refusable [?], and if it is not, are we just re-instituting sacramental spaces (re-enchanting the woods, so to speak, re-installing gods)? As medievalists, can we ever really talk about secular ethics in relation to medieval texts and medieval history? How close does something like a vital, vibrant materialism come to a form, or forms, of mysticism? [For her part, Bennett thinks it is important, in our ethical calculations and politics, to take into account the incalculable nature of everything, which used to be God, but doesn't have to be; for Whitman, of course, although the poet declines to argue about God, he does of course believe in souls.]

3. What is the importance of the human as the experiencing/sensing/recording agent in all of this? How important is the vibrancy of the non/human world if there is not a human which is somehow experiencing that [receiving its "call" and also giving "voice" to it]? Sure, the world could [and will] go on without us and all sorts of things would experience/sense all sorts of other things without us being around to sense and record that, but more importantly, for me, is asking us to consider that when WE talk of formulating an ethics or politics that would try to absorb/record/take account of the vast networks of actants, human and non/human, organic and in/organic, in which we are enmeshed [and which are enmeshed in us], that we reflect that WE are the ones formulating and calculating, so somehow, humans have what I might call a special or unique role to play here. How do we best account for that role, and also set appropriate limits on it?

4. What is the periodicity/historicity of this "new materialism"? My initial thought in reaction to this question, which Bennett struggled a bit to answer, would be to refer everyone to Manuel De Landa's A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History [Zone Books, 2000] and Daniel Smail's On Deep History and the Brain [California, 2008]. But since we're "medievalists" around "these parts," this question is worth ruminating further, isn't it? What might be the possible future directions of our studies based upon what might be for some a desire for a new zōēpolitics and the ways in which we undertake our historiographical labors, which are a form of being responsive to, listening, recording, and "judging" what Julian Yates has recently referred to as the "call" of the post/human--to whit [from his contribution to the inaugural issue of postmedieval]:
The arrival, dissemination, and now normalization of the words ‘post-human’ or ‘post-humanism’ in literary, historical and cultural studies marks the addition of a new ‘actor’ or ‘actant’ to the assemblage of persons, machines, and the various parading of animal and plant remains employed to disseminate stories about the textual traces named ‘past.’ But what order of proposition or tropic operation is this ‘post-’ or ‘post-ing’ of the ‘human,’ this figural turning of the ‘human’ after or outside of itself? What is the nature of its call? What does the term activate?
5. What does it mean to call for "sympathetic" or "feeling" paths or linkages or connections between the human and the non/human? Emotions can, of course, produce material effects upon others [human and non/human, organic and in/organic], and what if the pathways or connections or "open lines" we want to construct between ourselves and other objects or self-objects are not beneficial to those other objects and self-objects, and may even be harmful to them? Bennett answered by asking: what kind of world do you want to live in--one in which humans would be better attuned to these lines of sympathy, or less attuned? She also averred that suffering, and instrumental use, is still going to happen, and some things will always be "living," as it were, at the expense of others [plus, we'll never get rid of evil]. This was a bit evasive on Bennett's part, but I don't think purposefully so--she was just struggling with the question. The questioner asked if perhaps we should admit, or allow, a gap that will always give the perceived object a space for non-interference that would also allow for the ultimate incalculability of the lines of communication [this reminds me a bit actually of the importance of the factor of undecidability in Derrida's thinking on justice, while at the same time justice always insists on a decision one way or another; otherwise nothing is ever decided, for good or ill]. For me, this was really the biggest and most important question of all that Bennett received: how shall we begin to adjudicate this question? At what point(s) do we recognize the places + spaces where our attention to what Bennett calls the vibrant matter of the world creates asymmetries of power, or in fact sallies forth from those asymmetries? In short, can the sovereign nature and status of the human really be dislodged in all this or are we just kidding ourselves on that count? Is ontological passivity [which I also have called "wonder" in the past] really possible, and if so, at what cost--to ourselves? to others?

Thank you for reading this far [if you did!]. My thanks also to Sara Ahmed who prompted, in private conversation, some of my thinking here. I look forward to any feedback, as I will be wrestling with these questions mightily between now and March [and beyond].


Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Thanks Eileen for comments so rich and thoughtful that I'll never be able to respond to them AND finish my Berlin paper. I deeply appreciate, though, the conversation you've opened up..

One point intimate to my larger point. You write, near your conclusion,
Is ontological passivity [which I also have called "wonder" in the past] really possible, and if so, at what cost--to ourselves? to others?
I would want to emphasize that for me wonder can't really be passive, because it is inherently haptic and transformational. Dan commented on this subject a while back in a formulation that I found myself reflecting upon as I thought about my in/organic argument, and although he asked "To actively wonder might be a kind of passivity?", what really mattered to me there was the statement "one is affective by wonder which is wonder of something" -- ie, wonder is a genitive affective state, a "possession by", and although it might be chosen it isn't passive in the sense of immobile or inert. Being open to wonder is an [affective] activity that can take one's entire life to relearn.

Wonder of/openness to isn't what makes us human. Actually, I don't know what makes us human, and for that reason tend not to worry too much about what is at stake for humanism in all this, what the role of the human is or will be. I'm content to say that humans are one group of mediators among many, sometimes the most powerful, often not. The same with helplessness: surely that is a category that anything can fall into or emerge from, and isn't given in advance.

Here is the shortest answer I can make to your query about what's at stake for the human vis a vis the in/organic. First, commonality. It matters that the human and the nonhuman (including the inorganic) both possess art, both possess a vitality that escapes category and constraint, both possess what I am willing to call a life. I would not want to underplay the importance of that which is shared.

True, we humans possess something the inorganic does not, at least not to the same degree: language, and therefore linguistic narrative. (Yes I am sure there is a way that the nonhuman holds language -- genetic coding for example IS language -- but I am also willing to go out on a limb and say that humans have an intensity of language that is special, perhaps even unprecedented and unparalleled.)

But the inorganic -- rocks for example -- possess something that cannot be ours: a temporality to which we are alien, something we can glimpse if we extend our imaginations and our narratives and our creativity to the limit, but something we also cannot inhabit, can't make our own. It's not that stones are, as Heidegger said, worldless (weltlos) or incapable of world-forming (Weltbildung); they are rich in worlds not ours, we are poor in the worlds they possess, and we have therefore a terrible time communicating with each other. Surely, though, there opens some enchanted middle space where these worlds (human and nonhuman, organic and inorganic) queerly touch.

Julie Orlemanski said...

Jeffrey and Eileen, thanks for opening up this conversation. Also, Eileen, thanks so much for the reference to Sara Ahmed’s terrific EJWS essay. Jeffrey, one of the reasons that I’m excited about your project of “queering the in/organic” and about the upcoming GWMEMSI discussions of “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral” and “Objects, Networks, Materiality” is that all promise to provoke consideration of how the objects/subjects of ethics, ethical events, and ethical situations appear to us and to put pressure on the ways in which they do usually appear.

Something I’ve been struck by (in your two posts, in the NCS “Animals” thread, in the discussions that have unfolded on ITM in the past couple of years) is the coupling of “ethics” and “politics” and the elision of differences between them – with “ethics” seeming to be the discursively and imaginatively stronger of the two right now, the term to conjure with. Discussions centered on “ethics” tend to assume the perceptual immediacy of ethical situations and objects (in my anecdotal observation and also as I understand the philosophical trajectories of the two). I'd say that this desired and expected perceptual immediacy, this phenomenality of ethics, produces the faciality (to take up a term from Deleuze and Guattari), or facialization of the object of ethical regard (of which Levinas is just a conveniently literal exponent). Because the object of ethics needs to be experience-able, it is limited in terms of scale (human-scaled things are most available for ethical attention) and most frequently appears as a perceptual whole (perceptual entelechies make for ethical entelechies). The object of my ethical regard appears before me; I encounter it face-to-face. (My cat looks at me: While critical animal studies has proven a powerful means of challenging humanism/anthropocentrism, I think the discourse is strongest when it’s self-critical with respect to its own convenience for ethics, the way in which its ethical object, the animal, often seems to be already obvious, immediately given and recognizable….) What cannot be perceived by me falls outside my ethical attention. Thus, in PR-speak, one needs to “put a face” on one’s abstraction/issue/network to make it ethically vibrant– the face of unemployment today; face of the oil spill’s ecological fall-out; face of family values; face of the Church (a movement here, a slippage, between allegorization and exemplification, prosopopoeia and synecdoche). Networks, which don’t appear immediately as reified wholes (one of the conditions of our being embedded in them), fall outside of ethical regard. (What does it mean to turn ethical attention on a network? Is this one of the questions of ecology? During Carolyn Dinshaw’s presentation at NCS, on the potential importance of [queer] ecology for animal studies, I was struck by her choice of illustrations -- images of medieval Green Men, those Gothic sculptures of faces made of leaves. In contrast to Dinshaw’s emphasis on the “incompleteness of beings,” the sculptures showed the flux of physis being facialized, anthropomorphized, subjected to prosopopoeia. I don’t think this is necessarily bad. But, vis-à-vis [so to speak] the incompleteness of beings, what does the face of the Green Man mean? Is it ok to have an anthropomorphizing or facializing ethics if there is another moment of critique?)

I wonder if politics might be productively distinguished from ethics in some of these conversations, as a second moment, a critical counterpart to ethics. Politics tends to involve supra-individual structures, institutions, categories, networks. Political consciousness involves recognizing the conditions of possibility (historical, economic, institutional, geographic) for one’s affective responses, sensibility, ethical regard and who/what this regard happens to fall upon and respond to….

Ok, more to say… soon!

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Julie, I think you are on to something here, and your comment perhaps gets at why Jane Bennett subtitled her book "A Political Ecology of Things," NOT "An Ethical Ecology of Things." Actor Network Theory lends itself well to the political, likely because its practitioners are so fond of metaphors drawn from politics: assemblies, republics, democracies ("object-oriented democracy"), constitutions, rights. Bruno Latour for example often invokes a "parliament of things" -- and has even mentioned the Icelandic Althing.

But in actual practice politics becomes ethics swiftly (eg, in Bennett's book, ethics and ethical relations are often spoken about) and that makes me wonder: is there really an elision of differences going on as the two terms are invoked, or that a differentiation between them is ultimately unsustainable?

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

PS Eileen, I keep thinking about your word choice in your title, especially "magnanimous." Latin magnus (great) plus animus (soul, spirit). Surely that has got to be the best multivalent adjective for what zōēpolitics or zōēethics can be. Albertus Magnus declared that, contrary to what others had argued, rocks do not possess souls. I think he was wrong.

Eileen Joy said...

Jeffrey and Julie: thank you for such rich prods toward further thinking on all of this. I have a bunch of scattered thoughts in relation to much of what you've written here and will just attempt a few, fairly chaotic [at present] responses:

1. as regards me invoking "humanism," as I am wont to do, I am not trying to prop up the human or re-introduce it by some back door as a *principal* agent in the cosmos. Indeed, the "middle ground" that Jeffrey gestures toward, where the human and everything else might "communicate" and "queerly touch," is very much the ground that I would also like to ruminate, travel, experience, and maybe also mine as a fertile space for a new ethics, politics, life-practices, art, etc. It may be that Jeffrey is not too worried about "the stake of humanism" or the role of the human in all of this, and I'm not worried about the "stake," or stakes, either, if by "stake" we mean something like, what is the humanist [or human] *purchase* on all of this, or, what prescriptions can we now write vis-a-vis the role(s) of humanism and humans in sketching out/navigating/utilizing/listening to/experiencing/living beside & within, etc. this "middle ground." For me, in its simplest definition, humanism is, as I've written before:

"the historical and always haptic and nomadic project of *living with* the past in the vocation of a life dedicated to the idea that the study of letters and writing bears some weight in how some things *might* turn out"

And to quote Nicolás Gómez Dávila, “there is no humanism that does not carry with it a critique of humanism” ["Notas: Unzeitgemässe Gendanken"]. So my concern with humanism is not with worrying over the eventual or "right" place/priority/agency of the human so much as it is concerned with the practices of our scholarship/thinking/reading/writing vis-a-vis living, contemporary challenges and opening new perspectives onto those challenges. Humanism is also just one name among many for a certain route of reading and writing that has done much over time to shape the world and our thinking on the world [sometimes for ill, sometimes for good], as with work that these days seeks what some are calling new materialisms, what other might call a zōēpolitics, and so on and so forth.

What I'm really asking, by invoking humanism and asking us to consider its role, is: what is the *special* role, which is human, of reading, thinking, and writing in all of this? How do our so-called special facilities in language and creative expression [and frankly, in tool-making, building, harnessing all sorts of different energy sources, manipulating genes and other chemical agents, etc.] come into play here when considering our relation to everything that is not-whatever-it-is-we-are. This is still to allow for all the ways in which "we" are never fully discrete and bounded within solitary bodies/housings--we have no distinct "edges," and yet at the same time, the vast amount of power(s) we are able to wield--cognitively, physically, creatively, and otherwise--place upon us some special ethical burdens, I think, ones we should not treat too lightly. That is why I mentioned the benefits, as well as the dangers, when wondering what the special role of the human might be in this "turbulent identity network."

[to be continued]

Eileen Joy said...


2. Speaking of ethical burdens, I think I agree with Jeffrey that the distinctions we sometimes try to make between "ethics" and "politics" can be awfully difficult to sustain. I am also sometimes mystified when philosophers try to make distinctions between "ethics" and "morality," as Avashai Margali works very hard to do in his little, and beautiful, book "The Ethics of Memory" [Harvard, 2004], and he's not the only one, of course. I don't think there is any such thing as a "politics" that is not also an "ethics." Even anarchism has ethical principles and Simon Critchley's recent book "Infinitely Demanding" is eloquent on this point -- he also talks about active and passive forms of nihilism, which are both also political in their own ways, although passive nihilism strives *not* to care at all. I see "politics" as ethics which are more directly aimed at practical interventions into a "commonweal." I am often bemused at how often politics, within the academy, is taken as a kind of dirty term--something that, in the humanities, anyway, we are supposedly removed from. With Critchley I would define politics as a *space*, a "factical, ontic, or empirical terrain, on which politics is conceived as an activity of questioning, critique, judgment, and decision; in short, as the creation of antagonism, contestation, and struggle -- what one might call the battle over doxa” ("The Ethics of Deconstruction," p. 236). Interestingly, in a weblog post that links to this one, "A Post of Links" from the weblog Critical Animal, I followed a link to a short post by Bennett on the weblog The Immanent Frame, where a commenter reminds us of how Deleuze, in "Empiricism and Subjectivity," defined ethics as "a matter of the distribution of affect -- that is, of sympathy and antipathy, along with their various nuances."

Bennett herself, in her lecture on Whitman's "solar judgment," wants very much to separate "moral judgment" [which she does not like], which is self-righteous and assumes a fixed cosmic order with rules and hierarchies and a sovereign human deciding-for-everyone subject, from "ethical judgment," which is supposedly more magnanimous, generous, non-critical, and self-donating, and also sees everything in the cosmos as horizontally arranged [i.e. 100% "equal," although some things are more "helpless" than others and require care, curating, etc.]. Moral judgment is *too* personal [one might say, too human], while Whitman's "solar" judgment is based upon an impersonal "regard" or attention, which we might also call a universal love, a recognition of something Simone Weil once wrote about in her "Draft of a Statement of Human Obligations," that everything that existed in the universe was created by one force [God, though she actually hesitated to use that name/term] and therefore everything that existed possessed something in common [what Whitman would term "soul," what Jeffrey might call "alive"] that was worthy of attention and regard. In one of her notebooks she wrote something that I think resonates with Whitman's project in "Leaves of Grass":

"The poet produces the beautiful by fixing his attention on something real. It is the same with an act of love. To know that this man who is hungry and thirsty really exists as much as I do that is enough, the rest follows of itself. The authentic and pure values -- truth, beauty and goodness -- in the activity of a human being are the result of one and the same act, a certain application of the full attention to the object."

Weil also once wrote that prayer was "unmixed attention." This also got me thinking about what Jeffrey said about rocks possessing souls. What do we mean when we say or invoke or believe in "soul"?

[to be continued]

Eileen Joy said...


3. So this brings me also to a book I read about 2 weeks ago, recommended to me by Holly Crocker after my talk in Siena on "The Clerk's Tale" -- Iris Murdoch's "The Sovereignty of the Good" [Routledge, 1970], a small book of 3 essays that were originally lectures delivered from 1962 to 1967. Thinking again of Sara Ahmed's essay on the founding gestures of some of the "new materialists" within feminist and gender studies, whereby some of them make certain ground-clearing moves that are predicated upon false assumptions about earlier feminist work on the body, science, the material world, etc., I was struck when reading these lectures of Murdoch's how many statements she makes that we sometimes assume are products of post-1970s post-structuralist and/or post-humanist thought. To whit:

". . . human life has no external point or telos . . . . The psyche is a historically determined individual relentlessly looking after itself. In some ways it resembles a machine . . . . The area of its vaunted freedom of choice is not usually very great. . . . Its consciousness is not normally a transparent glass through which it views the world, but a cloud of more or less fantastic reverie designed to protect the psyche from pain. It constantly seeks consolation, either through imagined inflation of self or through fictions of a theological nature. Even its loving is more often than not an assertion of self" [pp. 76-77].

Shortly after this, I read a passage that instantly made me think of Bennett's thinking in "On Vibrant Matter" [and also of Hayles's thinking in "How We Became Post/human," only for Murdoch's "beauty," substitute Bennett's "vitality" or "lively matter" and Hayles's and others' "complexity"]:

". . . perhaps the most obvious thing in our surroundings which is an occasion for 'unselfing' . . . is properly called beauty [and I should note here that Murdoch is at pains to distinguish the *noticing* of this beauty from the death-laden and narcissistic aesthetics and enjoyment of suffering of the Romantics]. . . . Beauty is the convenient and traditional name of something which art and nature share . . . . A self-directed enjoyment of nature seems to me to be something forced. . . . more properly, we take a self-forgetful pleasure in the sheer alien pointless independent existence of animals, birds, stones, and trees. 'Not how the world is, but *that* it is'" [pp. 82-83].

And just because we have been talking here [and so has Bennett in other places] about the possible connections between new and "queer" materialisms and ethics, I will also share this tidbit from Murdoch, which I love:

"The acceptance of death is an acceptance of our own nothingness which is an automatic spur to our concern with what is not ourselves. The good man is humble; he is very unlike the big neo-Kantian Lucifer. He is much more like Kierkegaard's tax collector. . . . Only rarely does one meet somebody in whom . . . one apprehends with amazement the absence of the anxious avaricious tentacles of the self" [pp. 100-101]

[to be continued]

Eileen Joy said...


So this got me thinking about selfishness, too--how much it drives so much of what lives and is "vital," including humans [perhaps humans are even uniquely adept at being and developing selfishness] and how it has to be reckoned with. Is stepping outside of our historic [and very destructive] anthropo- and also our phallo- and logo-centrism in order to, let's say, look again at the world and its vibrant alive-ness, in which we see, not discrete, bounded "species" available for our use, but inter-beings, actants enmeshed together horizontally within networks, spiralling and entwined dependencies, and the like--is this unselfish, or yet another form of selfishness, yet another desire to *matter* in all this matter mattering?

4. On Julie's points and questions regarding faces and faciality, these have certainly guided moral reasoning in so many contexts, past and present, in all the ways Julie explains [and it is striking how she points out Dinshaw's use of human-like *faces* in a talk that was gesturing beyond the human!], but I also would just remind Julie, and I think she knows this already anyway, that when Levinas talks about the "face" he is really after something that is not really a human face, per se, and he is at pains to explain that he does not mean the physical visage of a human face, although this does represent an important sign-post of the particular "somewhere" of a particular dwelling. More important though, is Levinas's statement that the "face" ultimately overflows *all* images--it's a sort of immanence [some would say "soul" but we could also say, I think, "aliveness"] that always puts into question "my freedom, my spontaneity as a living being, my emprise over things." Sure, we could make the argument that by choosing "face" as his chief image/trope, Levinas lapses into a too-humanist archive of images, but I also think by choosing "face" and then immediately telling us that he does not really mean physical [even, human] visage, that he is actually challenging us to move beyond the markers/sign-posts through which we usually navigate our ethics toward an exteriority that could never be reducible to any human form(s) we could assign to it.

So, in a sense, per Julie's provocative points, Levinas was actually asking us to get beyond "putting a face on it," even while invoking faces. We still have the problem of Levinas's ethics being theologically-inflected, and this gets right back to soul. Again, to anyone willing to answer, what do we mean when we say "soul"?

Julie Orlemanski said...

Thanks for your response Jeffrey, and for your rich post, Eileen. First of all, I agree that Levinas doesn’t intend the “face” literally to be a physical human face: he makes this point explicitly time and again. The face is a figure for this other thing - soul or aliveness? - that nonetheless needs to appear to us for it to be ethically perceptible, for ethics to be possible. However, despite its (merely?) figural status, the face is the central structuring element of Levinas’s ethics (or one of the central ones); it helps to determine how we imagine his ethics working, becoming ethical practice. “The face” (as a phenomeno-ethical structure) allows what is ethically relevant to appear - in Levinas’s philosophical discourse and in our ethical perception influenced by it - as well as naively, in everyday interpersonal interactions, the experience of media images, etc. While I always find the relationship between phenomenology and metaphysics in Levinas difficult to grasp or evaluate, I do feel comfortable identifying two mutually inhering scales to his ethics: the scale, the situation, the tableau of the face-to-face; and the asymptotic, impossible-to-figure scale of the infinite. Perhaps the question I posed earlier has to do with the importance of distinguishing another scale or perspective that tends to fall away quietly in discussions determined by the keyword “ethics” (although few, I think, would explicitly claim this other scale is irrelevant) – the perspective that I was calling “political” although there could be other names for it – “scientific” (Althusser), “objectivist” (Bourdieu), “historical materialist,” or something like that.