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,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?):
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.
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.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]:
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.
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].