Sunday, October 19, 2008

Like an Old Inscription that has been Scratched Away and Covered with Leaves: A Meditation on the Face


What we see in the face is not . . . its nothingness, but rather a certain mode of registering the world.
--Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit, from Forms of Being

WITT [Jim Caveziel]: Maybe all men got one big soul everybody's a part of; all faces are the same man.
--from The Thin Red Line

For a long while now, my friend Michael Moore and I have been having our arguments about humanism. You might say that, when trying to grapple with where we might stand now--here, in this troubled late century--with regard to humanism, in all its forms [early and late], and human [and other] rights, that it has become increasingly difficult to defend the status of the human as a kind of measure by which the adjudication of the joys and sufferings [and being-ness] of the world could ever be adequately attended to. I, myself, want to embrace Michael's more hopeful viewpoints, as he has expressed them in both of his essays, "Wolves, Outlaws, and Enemy Combatants" [in Cultural Studies of the Modern Middle Ages] and "Notes Toward a Miloszan Humanism" [Journal of Narrative Theory 37.2]--that friendship, with oneself and others, "might form the basis for a reawakening of the classical political demand for amity and justice," and further, that a "new humanism would be a valuable position, even a source of joy, because of its purposes: to provide resources for personal liberation and the confrontation of contemporary cultural and political reality with ancient alternatives" [and this new, even poetic humanism--following Milosz's project--"would prove beneficial because it would neither project an ideal humanity nor offer an historicist project for transforming humans into a new humanity"]. But then, I also hear Karl's insistent arguments, as he recently expressed them in his SEMA conference paper, that
If the human establishes itself as human by dominating animals, then, in another instance of the key insight of any number of postmodern philosophies, there is no essential human identity; there is only a fundamental conflict. The human is both a structural position and an ongoing event that seeks to produce both the human and the animal by elevating one and denigrating the other. It might be expected that this conflict could end once humans resurrected into an afterlife populated only by God, angels—or demons—and by other humans, where humans will have assumed their perfected bodies, freed from all flux. By passing through death, humans finally realize their distinction from nonhuman earthly life, and, in an afterlife lacking any lifeforms that can be dominated, they should be freed from the necessity of conflict. This peaceful end might be understood as the point when the human at long last comes into its own. But if the meat-eating by which the human struggles to be human contaminates the human body, if the pork we eat resurrects with us, then that struggle will be marked on the human body for eternity. Rather than finally arriving at an identity, the human will permanently display a corporeal reminder of its systemic antagonism; rather than transcending flux, flux would be fixed in the human forever. The truth of human nature—its contingency, its inessential relationality—will be irrepressible.
Is it possible, finally, to talk of human or any other rights without recourse to the idea of something like a stable [or readily identifiable] human being, and more troubling still, without recourse to a religious, or metaphysical, viewpoint? This was the problem Simone Weil wrestled with when writing her "Draft for a Statement of Human Obligations," where she wanted to conceptualize a way of translating "God" into language that would be meaningful to the religious, agnostic, and atheistic, and where she wrote,
There is a reality outside the world, that is to say, outside space and time, outside man's mental universe, outside any sphere whatsoever that is accessible to human faculties. Corresponding to this reality, at the center of the human heart, there is a longing for an absolute good, a longing which is always there and is never appeased by any object in this world. . . . Those minds whose attention and love are turned towards that reality are the sole intermediary through which good can descend from there and come among men. [Simone Weil: An Anthology, ed. Sian Miles, pp. 201, 202]
I am reminded here of Levinas's thinking on la petite bonte [the "little act of goodness"]--the idea that goodness cannot be accomplished all at once in the world when everyone is all of a sudden and unreservedly for-the-Other-before-themselves [this could never, will never happen], but rather, resides in those small singular moments when "the human interrupts the pure obstinacy of beings and its wars." This goodness, which is little and passes from one person to another, is ultimately "fragile before the power of evil," and yet is the only means available for ethical attention since goodness can never be "a regime, an organized system, a social institution" [Is It Righteous to Be? Interviews with Emmanuel Levinas, pp. 207, 218, 217]. But, what calls upon this goodness? What hails it, causes it to turn and address itself to a plea [or even, to turn in anticipation of a plea not yet expressed]? Is it the face, and if so, what kind of face, or faciality? For Levinas, of course it was [while we must also remember that the face, for Levinas, was both the human face and also an "expression" that overflowed all images that might seek to contain it--in this sense, it is not bound within the human form but also has a primary "residence" or "dwelling" there].

I recall a powerful scene in Terence Malick's film about the Pacific theater in World War II, The Thin Red Line, when, after a successful yet deadly battle to secure an enemy gun turret on a hilltop, the camera moves to a closeup of just the face of a dead Japanese soldier whose body [including most of his head] is submerged under the gravel and dirt and who, in voiceover, addresses American Private Witt [played by Jim Caveziel]: "Are you righteous, kind? . . . Are you loved by all? Know that I was too. Do you imagine your suffering will be less because you loved goodness, truth?" This is a scene of the human face as the locus of recognition of self-sameness, of companionability in suffering, and also in joy. Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit, in their book Forms of Being, devote one entire chapter to this film, and especially to Caveziel's character Witt, and to Malick's "nearly obsessive filming of Witt's face," whose look [incredibly open and ontologically passive throughout the film] "indiscriminately register's the world's appearances" and refuses to impose a moral or aesthetic identity upon that world [p. 163]. Further, the
precondition of his wholly receptive gaze is a subject divested of subjectivity. The astonishing unprotectedness of Witt's look designates a subject without claims on the world, who owns nothing (not even the life he so freely gives at the end). . . . The attentive way in which Witt's look simply lets the world be also replicates the world as an accretion to a consciousness, and a look, ceaselessly receptive to the world. The forms it absorbs constitute the identity of the absorbing consciousness. Lessness is the condition of allness. [p. 165]
Witt believes in "another world" that the men he fights with cannot see, and he also believes in souls--especially in his own soul and its capacity to, in Bersani's and Dutoit's formulation, welcome all appearances. Witt's look, then, "is not the sign of a decision about the world; it acknowledges an inescapable connectedness, the fact that I am only in the world. I move within my repeated, disseminated being," and "the surfaces of all things 'quiver' from the presence within them of all the other things to which they relate" [p. 169]. And perhaps putting an important spin on Weil's idea of "another reality" that is supposedly outside of human mentality and understanding, there is, "as Witt insists, another world, but it is in this world seen as a vast reservoir correspondences, of surfaces always ready to 'open' in order to acknowledge, to welcome, to receive that which is at once their outer and their immanent being" [p. 169]. There is another world, but it is in within this one and also within our [human] capacity to see and to hold.

Bersani and Dutoit's ruminations upon Witt's face and its receptivity [through an open looking] provides, I think, an important ethical counter-narrative [or, companionable narrative?] to Levinas's thinking upon the face of the Other as that to which we are held hostage and in which there shines forth an "exteriority that is not reducible . . . to the interiority of memory" and which "breaks through the envelopings" of all material forms, calling into question the subject's "joyous possession of the world" [Totality and Infinity, pp. 51, 76]. But if the human, as Karl has argued so beautifully elsewhere, has no essential position, does it also possess no essential face, and without faces, without looking through faces and the receptivity of faces, how do we construct and enact our ethical projects of welcoming, of hospitality, of wonder and admiratio and finally, love? Do we labor under a tyranny of what Deleuze and Guattari called "faciality," in which, "[a]lthough the head, even the human head, is not necessarily a face, the face is produced in humanity. But it is produced by a necessity that does not apply to human beings ‘in general’; there is even something absolutely inhuman about the face" ["Year Zero: Faciality," A Thousand Plateaus, p. 189]? They write further,
Faces are not basically individual; they define zones of frequency or probability, delimit a field that neutralizes in advance any expressions or connections unamenable to the appropriate significations. Similarly, the form of subjectivity, whether consciousness or passion, would remain absolutely empty if faces did not form loci of resonance that select the sensed or mental reality and make it conform in advance to a dominant reality. The face itself is redundancy. [p. 186]
For Deleuze and Guttari, "if human beings have a destiny, it is . . . to escape the face, to dismantle the face and facializations, to become imperceptible, to become clandestine, not by returning to animality, nor even by returning to the head, but by quite spiritual and special becomings-animal, by strange true becomings" [p. 189]. Quite spiritual and strange? Here I see an almost perverse-yet-real knotting together of Weil, Levinas, Bersani and Dutoit, and Deleuze and Guattari regarding the [hopeful] possibilities of Karl's "human" as "ongoing project" and "structural position," and even, as a means of a type of transcendence of itself [an undoing only possible within the being that must undo itself while, perhaps, always recalling itself as something special, something human?] that could bring justice into more full being, although I really hesitate at the loss of faces, of faciality, of subjects and objects, and even, of myself. Is what Bersani and Dutoit describe as our, at once, "fascinating and crippling expressiveness" what we have to discard? I wonder if one possible way out of this impasse, if I want to be, not just Bersani and Dutoit's "light hidden behind psychic darkness," but also expressive and bodily-erotic human form, might be found in Thomas Carlson's new book, The Indiscrete Image: Infinitude and Creation of the Human [Chicago, 2008], in which the form of the human as creator [which is a type of love] keeps the human [and world] neither closed icon nor transcendent meaning, but infinitely open and always in play. I don't know, because I have only just ordered the book, so we shall see. But in the meantime, I wanted to share with everyone here the paper that Michael Moore presented at the SEMA conference, "Meditations on the Face in the Middle Ages," because it contributes to what I think is perhaps one of the most important ethical questions of our time ["what is a human face and what of goodness does it do in this world?"], and also because it spurred all of my reflections here today, and thank you to Michael for allowing us to post it here:

Meditations on the Face in the Middle Ages

Michael Edward Moore

The human face appears to us as fraught with significance, whether menacing or vulnerable, whether regarding us, or turned away from us [Emmanuel Levinas, Liberté et commandement. Paris, 1994, p.43]. We see every face as unique, each scar and wrinkle recording the history of a person. The twentieth-century philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, whose writings provide a starting point for this paper, observed the ethical and political significance of the human face, suggesting that the face is the ultimate location of human meaning. In the Middle Ages, the face was usually connected to the theme of humankind’s likeness to God, and this was true of Levinas as well. The twelfth-century reformer Gerhoh of Reichersberg (†1169), in a Psalm commentary, insisted that “the Lord impressed his Face like a royal seal on our faces, mirrored in our spirits, a true mirror when it is pure.”

What connection was made between the human face and the ethical or spiritual meaning of humanity? Walter Ullmann noted that with the rise of medieval humanism, painting and sculpture began to move from the “abstract typified image” to the “portrayal of a human personality in all its substantial individuality and realistic concreteness” [Walter Ullmann, A History of Political Thought: The Middle Ages. Harmondsworth, 1968, p.166].

The shift seems incontrovertible. In assessing the meaning of the human face in the Middle Ages, we must also examine the problem of humankind as the image of God: we can take as one landmark the Tympanum of Chartres Cathedral, where in the phrase of Chenu, humanity was “portrayed as Christ’s double.” I hope to explain, in what follows, the significance of this resemblance.

For Emmanuel Levinas, to encounter the face of the other is like stumbling upon an unexpected crevasse in the surface of the world. The face of the other person, in its vulnerability, implicates us and calls us to take responsibility, to “face up” to the other person and his demand for justice [Emmanuel Levinas, Time and the Other. Pittsburgh, 1987, pp. 106-107]. “That responsibility is…brought about by the face of the other person” as it breaks into the phenomenal world: it serves as “an order issued to me not to abandon the other (the Word of God)” [Emmanuel Levinas, Outside the Subject. Stanford, 1994, p.44]. This command is the “order par excellence,” as he suggested in Alterity and Transcendence. The face of the other leaves an imprint on us, an image. This is the “word of God,” according to Levinas, albeit the Word of an “un-known God who does not take on a body…” [Emmanuel Levinas, Alterity and Transcendence. New York, 1999, p.35]. As he said: “[God]… is not the model of which the face would be an image. To be in the image of God does not mean to be an icon of God, but to find oneself in his trace” [Emmanuel Levinas, Basic Philosophical Writings. Bloomington, 1996, p.64]. The face of the other is the trace of an absent God.

One ally discovered by Levinas was the Swiss visionary, Max Picard. Picard’s prophetic writings seemed to Levinas like messages conveying a sense of snow-covered mountains. Max Picard wrote a book on the human face which Levinas admired [Max Picard, The Human Face. New York, 1930]. As Levinas explains, Picard often referred to the biblical concept of man made in the image of God, suggesting that “the face of man is the proof of the existence of God.” In the human face “the trace of God is manifested, and the light of revelation inundates the universe” [Emmanuel Levinas, Proper Names. Stanford, 1996, p.95]. And here Levinas felt a kinship with the Swiss thinker.

The concept of humanity’s image and likeness to God is complex: God is distant from us. Despite the doctrine of our likeness to God, according to patristic and medieval theologies, we must approach, with a sense of awe, a God that is unknown. Jewish and Christian tradition accepted the doctrine that man was made in the “Image of God,” the theme of Genesis 1:26-27.
26 Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’
27 So God created humankind in his image,
In the image of God he created them;
Male and female he created them. [NRSV]
A kind of cloud surrounds these basic texts. As Lohfink remarks: “it is not easy to say what this means, for from ancient times there have been extended discussions of this subject among theologians” [Norbert Lohfink, Theology of the Pentateuch. Minneapolis, 1994, p.3]. Did it mean, first of all, that the physical human form resembled the form of God? This suggestion was generally rejected in Jewish and Christian tradition.

In a glossary of words having to do with the body, compiled by the Carolingian scholar Walahfrid Strabo, we have the following discussion of the face: Facies. “The face is so called from “in the likeness of,” or effigie: [the face] is where resides the whole figure (tota figura) of a man, and [our] recognition of every person.” This confident assertion of human likeness to God was indeed captured in certain works of Carolingian and Romanesque art.

Christian theologians normally took the image and likeness in a different direction. For Paul the concept of an “image of God” could only refer to Christ. The “image” to the extent that it resided in humanity, was only a shadow, a sign that one day we might become like Christ. The celestial man, or Christ, is the true image of God, while the terrestrial man is not. Gregory of Nyssa and the Cappadocian theologians followed in this vein. There was a divine impress, but it was obscured by the influence of sin: this caused “the defacing of that image … which had been formed in us when we were created.” [Gregory of Nyssa, Oratio Domini, Chapter V. Migne, Patrologia Graeca, 44:1181]. The image of God referred only to humanity as a whole. There is one human nature, created before Adam, and Christ is the archetype of this likeness.

This was the view of Theodore of Mopsuestia and the Antiochene theological tradition as well. “If some king, after having constructed a very great city…ordered…that his image…be set up…as proof of his founding of the city, the image of the king who built the city would necessarily be venerated…” [Trans. Frederick G. McLeod, The Image of God in the Antiochene Tradition. Washington, 1999, p.65]. By honoring humanity, you therefore honor God the Creator. Christ is the one who fulfills the role of image of God. Such a concept lies behind the many medieval sculptures and portraits of Christ in majesty.

Along this route, the theologians moved from the face to the interior in their search for the likeness of man to God. In the view of Tertullian, “the glory of God is on the face of Christ because this is the face of the invisible God turned toward the world. The face… is the… manifestation of an unknowable God.” Tertullian’s view is quite similar to that of Emmanuel Levinas.

How could the human face refer to the divine face, which after all is invisible, and expressly forbidden to us? This is emphasized in crucial texts from the Book of Exodus. When Moses was to receive the Law on the mountain, God first reminded him: “you cannot see my face, for no one shall see me and live” (Ex 33:20). To prevent Moses from seeing his face, God placed him in “a cleft of the rock” and covered him with his hand until he had gone by (Ex 33:22). When Moses saw the Burning Bush, he hid his face, afraid to look at God (Ex 3:6).

The sense of a distant, unknown God was shared by Christians. In the Psalms, a troubled people questioned God in these terms: “How long will you turn your face? (Ps 13:2). Thomas Aquinas, commenting on Psalm 27 said that the divine face had served as an exemplar for creating the soul as the image of God. The Psalm reads: “‘Your face, Lord, do I seek. Do not hide your face from me.” Thomas held that such expressions signaled the coming of the incarnate Word. Thus Christ appeared as an opening in which the formerly hidden God could in some sense be seen.

According to St. Augustine, the image of God was impressed on the mind, rather than on the face. The Carolingian theologian Alcuin took this direction as well. According to Alcuin, man is in the image of God, and this is a unique condition: Homo solus ad imaginem – only man was made according to the image. And this similitude is in interiore.

According to Emmanuel Levinas, the face of the Other is the location or the occasion of ethics, and is an image of God, but only in the form of a subtle trace. We could say it is like an old inscription that has been scratched away and covered with leaves. Nevertheless, to quote Gerhoh of Reichersberg once again: “the Lord impressed his Face like a royal seal on our faces.”

Despite the fact that the traces of God are weatherworn and faint, to the point of mystery, one lesson conveyed by the medieval tradition of the face was that the image of God must be honored in our fellow human beings.


dan remein said...

More later when I'm not wedded to wading through the old english whale and whatever else I need to do for tomorrow's meetings...but, I see you, again, always again Eileen, are stuck in my most favorite moments of Bersani.

What an idea to wrestle with. I might go father and even put us as phenomena of the world registering the world in a certain ecstatic density--to underscore what Heidegger would call the equiprimoridal nature of mitda-Sein with Dasein, along with the appearance of a World itself.

Beyond this, I cannot wonder if Bersani wasn't reading Deleuze on the transition from the new realism in "Cinema 2: the time image." A good deal of the book's premise is the change that occurs from the neorealism to the new wave, starting from "a character [who] has become a kind of viewer. he shifts, runs and becomes animated in vain, the situation he is in outstrips his motor capacities on all sides, and makes him see and hear what is no longer subject to the rules of a response or an action. He records rather than reacts." (3).

Can't wait to actually get to Michael's paper and past the intro material here. Back soon.

Eileen Joy said...

Dan: I assume Bersani and Dutoit had Deleuze in mind; they specifically reference his "Cinema 1: The Movement-Image" [Minnesota, 1986] in their first chapter on Godard's "Contempt," and in their chapter on "The Thin Red Line," the reference him again with regard to the nature of the filmic close-up which Deleuze described as capturing the "nihilism of the face." Further, in relation to Bergman's "Persona," Deleuze wrote, "The close-up has . . . pushed the face into regions no longer ruled by individuation." But Bersani and Dutoit see something completely different at work in Malick's film: "Malick's camera uses the close-up as a way of giving a face to the particularities of its own point of view," and further, faces in Malick's film, in close-up, "are strongly individuated, but not on the basis of personality; rather, they individuate the worlds we see them registering."

Now, I like very much your notion, following Bersani and Dutoit [I assume] of *us* as "phenomena of the world registering the world in a certain ecstatic density"--and I think we should pause upon density, don't you [as well as the ecstatic]? I find that, when I am trying to consider the human, or any other entity [living or more inert], that it is precisely this density that excites/interests me. I do not want to see it entirely surpassed/transcended by something else. And yes, I keep returning to this text, "Forms of Being," because I find such hope in it, while I am also wary of an "allness" in which all densities melt away into points of light. If that makes any sense. I don't know.

dan remein said...

Exactly. The citation is meant to draw attention to this interesting genealogy which we don't seem to talk about when we mention these Bersani/Dutoit readings of films. The point, I think, if how they get to this idea at all of a film in which an 'actor' registers or 'reacts' rather than 'acts.'

The distinctiveness of the face in Bersani, however, is no less of a 'blank' generative image than that of the faces of Godard characters which must either be silent, or talk endlessly, a la Deleuze. They provoke, having no 'interior' as such. Like the face in contempt--the fact that is totally opaque, but not because there is some complex reason under it, rather because there is none.

I see a difference then in the chapter on contempt, and the chapter on thin red line. One is a recombinatory face, "Film is the aesthetic medium that allows us to see the openness, the always-taking place..."(65). So we have literature that can "circulate--unfinished, always being made--within the open time of film" (65). This marks the place he needs Deleuze most badly--where he coincides with him, on this notion of a process of circulation (the movement, the becomings-like unfinishedness)and a process that is allowed because of the time of the image and function of image and light itself in time. This is a Berani/Dutoit that is like the cruising gay man in Homos, but with hope. But here we still have a subject. It is just constituted by an openness and circulatability (although that is terribly economic in terms, don't you think?).

Later on, the one big soul of the last chapter takes on a rather different 'tone' or 'mood.' The "imprint of the act of looking on the subject if that looking" (145) still is rooted in a kind of meaningless 'subject' from Cinema 2, one which gets emptied or whatever so it can provoke. Hence, the lessness is allness, he makes him self less so his being can multiply. The biggest trouble perhaps in these moments is that he's thinking not of individuals who get superseded, but that he thinks of the individual starting form the point of the individual subject, rather than the world that subject registers. It we start with the sameness of the world, we might get to individuals which are densities of world registering that world without them being superseded by anything. They would be the overflow of world. This is part of the hope for me in this text. It does come from Deleuze I think, who is willing to posit film as a language. This is how B&D can understand world and subject in terms of film itself, to see the World as film, as Godard saw us as each our own historian, each making, (though in the most cliched and now misappropriated terms) the movies that are our lives.

And here is the point at which I am not sure I am a humanist any longer--and maybe this is directed more at Michael and his notion, however elegant and productive, of God, in his paper above. I am usually willing to see the World as a language which is in no way human, but in no way made or meaningful. A language which speaks us, but which we also are in an are as also 'just a part of the world'--even in our 'density' or individuality. That makes me feel very frighteningly ambivealent in what I see as the recklessness and irresponsibility of Witt's face registering death, death faces, etc. One way for me to regard this type of individual is a kind of love which is an openness to the self itself as the World which we are. But if I admit God into the equation, I am always concerned the World will disappear.

Eileen Joy said...

Dan--I completely understand your resistance to admitting God into this scenario [you know, of course, what a secularist, I am, but then I make a kind of spirituality out of humanism, and also history], but if we allow for any kind of metaphysics [if even through the route of the idea of the multiplicity or dissemination of being], doesn't it amount, somehow, to the same thing? I, too, feel ambivalence over Witt's, as you put it, recklessly *passive* acceptance/welcoming of others' and his own death in the film [in point of fact, he commits suicide, but in order to buy others a little more time, a better chance at getting out alive], and I also worry over the "allness" that Bersani and Dutoit celebrate in their reading of the film: isn't this just a kind of God-substitute and doesn't it also participate in a fairly old system whereby the individual always has to sacrifice himself for something "greater," something supposedly "larger" than himself? Is there a way to embrace the idea of the relationality of everything without necessarily sacrificing the very contours of one's own self/body that allows the possibility of that embrace [or, rather, allows for the recognition of what is "all" versus what is "one"]? And if the world is a language that is not at all human, what about the parts of the world that are no language at all [or is that even possible--I mean, can we comprehend/feel that]? And is it really possible to say that at all--if we are here in this world speaking, or being spoken by, human language, then isn't the world partly "sprung" into being through human language?

And because it's late and every now and then we need a poem that is apropos to the moment, here is an excerpt from one of my favorite poems by Stephen Dunn, "Something Like Happiness" [Buster is a dog, btw]:

I remembered how tired I'd grown of mountaintops
and their thin, unheavenly air,
had grown tired, really, of how I spoke of them,
the exaggerated glamor, the false equation between
ascent and importance. I looked at the vase
and its one red flower, then the table
which Zennists would say existed
in its *thisness*, and realized how wrong it was
to reject appearances. How much more difficult
to accept them! I repudiated myself, citing my name.
The phone rang. It was my overly serious friend
from Syracuse saying Foucault, Foucault,
like some lost prayer of the tenured.
Advocates of revolution, I agreed with him, poor,
screwed for years, angry--who can begrudge them
weapons and victory? But people like us,
Joan Sutherland on our tapes and enough fine time
to enjoy her, I said, let's be careful
how we link thought and action,
careful about deaths we won't experience.
I repudiated him and Foucault, told him
that if Descartes were still alive and wildly in love
he himself would repudiate his famous dictum.
I felt something like happiness when he hung up,
and Buster put his head on my lap,
and without admiration stared at me.
I would not repudiate Buster, not even his fleas.
How could I? Once a day, the flea travels
to the eye of the dog for a sip of water.
Imagine! The journey, the delicacy of the arrival.

dan remein said...

As long as we're quoting poems, I will clutter the comments with a couple more lines that do something for me re: the problem of god and humanness--can these terms coincide in the same face and let me feel ok about it....

Look at the sky. Are no two stars called "rider"?
For this is printed strangely on us here:
this pride of earth. And look, the second figure
who drives and halts it: whom it has to bear.

Aren't we, in our sinewy quintessence,
controlled like this, now raced and now reined in?
Path and turning point. Just a touch possesses.
New expanses. And the two are one.

Or _are_ they really? Don't both signify
the past they ride together now? But table
and pasture keep them separate, utterly.

Even the starry union is a fraud.
Yet gladly let us trust the valid symbol
for a moment. It is all we need.

(Rilke, sonnet to orpheus 1:11, trans. Mitchell)

anna klosowska said...

I love the poems, you guys!

Eileen Joy said...

Dan, Rilke [as you may know already] is one of my favorite poets, perhaps my absolute favorite poet, and "Sonnets to Orpheus," especially Mitchell's translation, has a privileged place on my bookshelf. I would linger, if possible, on Rilke's lines, "Yet gladly let us trust the valid symbol for a moment. / It is all we need," and also, "Just a touch possesses." These are, in a sense, completely opposite sentiments, and yet both, absolutely necessary.

I've been thinking a lot about friendship in relation to all of this, especially even, the friendship between Michael and I as a kind of catalyst to so much of what I have been trying to say and do these past three to four years. I do not know if we can ever get beyond this "talk," or if we should want to. Perhaps there is only this, only this talking, only this talking human-ness.

Anonymous said...

I think that attempting to get beyond the face, to dismiss or expunge the face, may be coasting in dark waters. Even if all we can say is, like Wittgenstein, that "the face is the soul of the body."

Eileen, your comments also reminded me of this quotation from Paul Ricoeur (which I quoted at SEMA after your paper):

“We are overwhelmed by a flood of words, by polemics, by the assault of the virtual, which today create a kind of opaque zone. But goodness is deeper than the deepest evil (…) The question of sin has been displaced from the centre by a question that is perhaps more serious—the question of meaning and meaninglessness, of the absurd. (…) We are heirs to a civilization that has in fact killed God, in other words that has caused absurdity and meaninglessness to prevail over meaning, and this gives rise to a deep protest….That relates to [the] question of goodness because goodness is not only the response to evil, but it is also the response to meaninglessness.”
– Paul Ricoeur, “Libérer le fond de bonté” (a talk at Taizé).


Cary said...

Thanks for the Stephen Dunn poem, Eileen, which I love especially for its recognition of the difficulty of accepting appearances and its repudiation of Foucault but not Buster. I am a sucker for dog poems more generally, and I've found myself thinking lately, again, about those two poets of Provincetown, Mary Oliver and Mark Doty, and their dogs, Percy and Beau and Arden, who become figures for the acceptance of appearances even as--and this, I think, is crucial--the apparent world is never, for them, *merely* apparent. In the final lines of "Percy (Nine)", from last year's collection _Red Bird_, Oliver asks, "How // would it be to be Percy, I wonder, not / thinking, not weighing anything, just running forward." That sense of directedness toward the world--of what some folks might even call orientation, but orientation in motion--is what resonates, for me, with this thread about faces and the distinction between humans and animals. The question of what it would be "to be Percy" remains a question--literally, in fact, a "wonder"--and it does seem to mean, like the unadmiring look of Buster, that there's an uncrossable line between the poet and the dog (although I think Oliver's dogs, like Doty's, would be entirely capable of admiration). But that uncrossable line doesn't keep the poet, here and elsewhere, from wondering about crossing it; just as the all too crossable line between those of us who are alive and those who are dead doesn't keep us from wondering about that passage and, in fact, that line. I guess this is just a way of saying that I think that it is still, in this poem as in the quote from Karl's paper, a question of resurrection--which is a question about bodies and belief--and that the "delicacy of the arrival," in Dunn's words, is never only about fleas.

Eileen Joy said...

Michael and Cary: thanks so much for your further prods to thought here. As to whether or not giving up faces, Michael, means coasting through certain dark waters, I generally agree, although I wonder if we shouldn't make too much of them [while also agreeing we would never discard them altogether as either useless or redundant or terrifying masks for something inhuman that lies always underneath]. There is, apparently, a new book that has just been published in Minnesota's new Posthumanities series [edited by Cary Wolfe] by David Wills, "Dorsality," that apparently attempts thinking through how we might approach certain matters, not through faces, but *from behind*, through "backs." Here is part of the blurb for that book, which certainly looks interesting and touches upon many of our interests here:

"With subtle and insightful readings, Wills pursues this sense of what lies behind our idea of the human by rescuing Heidegger’s thinking from a reductionist dismissal of technology, examining different angles on Lévinas’s face-to-face relation, and tracing a politics of friendship and sexuality in Derrida and Sade. He also analyzes versions of exile in Joyce’s rewriting of Homer and Broch’s rewriting of Virgil and discusses how Freud and Rimbaud exemplify the rhetoric of soil and blood that underlies every attempt to draw lines between nations and discriminate between peoples. In closing, Wills demonstrates the political force of rhetoric in a sophisticated analysis of Nietzsche’s oft-quoted declaration that 'God is dead.'

Forward motion, Wills ultimately reveals, is an ideology through which we have favored the front—what can be seen—over the aspects of the human and technology that lie behind the back and in the spine—what can be sensed otherwise—and shows that this preference has had profound environmental, political, sexual, and ethical consequences."

But in general, I think much of our work [especially with the supposedly "dead" literary and historical texts over which we expend so many labors] is directed to this question of meaninglessness all the time [at least I hope it is, and on behalf of this "goodness" Ricoeur refers to], which connects, I really believe, to this uncrossable line that Cary refers, between human and animal, and between the living and the dead. I love dog poems, too [one of my all-time favorites in that vein in Neruda's "A Dog Has Died"] but I always try to stop myself from ever wondering what my dog is thinking and I wonder why it is sometimes we really need our animals [our pets, or just any animal we might encounter in a certain situation] to represent for us a certain non-thinking, exuberant motion. I think my dog [well, I have three, but only one when I am in Saint Louis] is thinking all the time, even in motion, but I don't dare to wonder . . . most of the time. And yet . . . .

Cary helps us to stay within this rich vein of what poets can tell us that we are struggling to say ourselves here [or elsewhere] about being human, being animal-becoming, etc. and to this I would add, what *poetics* can help us to do, even as medievalists, who may also be secret [or more self-avowedly] poets. For we must *wonder* at those lines that we technically cannot cross and we must even dare to cross them [this beautifully useless endeavor might be what is most human about us], but how else except through poetry, through certain staged/imagined encounters [and I have talked elsewhere about certain states of wonder and enchantment being crucial for ethics]? This brings us back to questions, too, doesn't it, and to Nicola's and Dan's rich conversations at SEMA about ontology-as-question [and on this point, see also Dan's post at his blog "wraetlic" on "Caught with your pants down--naming, being, fetishes," which also serves as a kind of preamble to a crazy paper that Dan, Anna K., Nicola M., and I will be attempting to write together]? Is there anything but the question, the question of everything? Isn't there something about existing in a [sweet] state of continual suspension with regard to the question of everything [being, world, and whatever lies beyond being + world or is coiled up inside of it, hidden] that leaves open, not only ourselves, but everything that "ourselves" might be able to touch, to cross over, and to hold [while also being held--and here Cary's work is so meaningful]. This is why I believe, as I've written elsewhere, in arrested development, and in the madness and visionary beauty of the art of poetry.

I mentioned talk before, and I did not mean to do so lightly. I think all of this talking is also what makes us human. I had a conversation with a colleague yesterday, who was a protege of Lee Edelman and Joe Litvak at Tufts and she was telling me how disappointed she was in Judith Butler's recent book, "Giving An Account of Oneself," partly because Butler has, in my colleague's mind, "gone soft" and all "humanist," and where's the edge [?], and what a disappointment , etc. I realized with a kind of shock that it might be possible that *I*, conversely, love this book so much because I, too, have "gone soft," and am therefore also a humanist, and that's a bad thing, right [haha]? But my colleague wasn't necessarily saying that. Indeed, her favorite theorist is Bersani, whom she claims is a deeply humanist writer--I wouldn't disagree. Then we had a conversation about, who's an anti-humanist? Who's a humanist [modern theorists, etc.]? You know what? This conversation is freaking ridiculous [I thought when I got home]! Are you a reader and writer? Do you love books? Do you love thought? Do you believe a life devoted to letters [intellectual, poetic, what-have-you] has some power in the matter of "how things [might] turn out"? Is the idea of a life devoted to reading, writing, and reflections upon writing [and other art, more generally] appealing to you? Do you love old things rescued from human antiquity? Do you love the dead and wish to pass among them as an interlocutor from the future? We are, all of us, humanists, even when we are decrying the human, dismantling it, deconstructing it, considering the animal and animality and even Buster's fleas. The "delicacy of that arrival," as Cary notes, has something to do with our work in medieval studies as an extended series of resurrections. But just as we can't really step outside of time [except in our imaginations, our writings], we can no more step out of ourselves. Call me what you will, and even approach me from behind--as long as I have this so-called human body, it is all I can "see" you with, and it is all I can talk to you with. I could talk to you all night like this.

Anonymous said...

From M. Moore
My first thought is that it is important to want to have a body, thereby resting philosophically in our condition, rather than to fall into various forms of despair (eating disorders, suicide). Like Pinocchio, we should want to have a human body.
Equally we should recognize and admit the bodies of other people, even when they interfere with us, even when they are wicked, rather than agree to the death penalty, for example.
Then there arises the possibility of spirituality, which could only take shape in connection with reading, writing and friendship.
But spirituality is also connected, for me, with the question of our relation to the animals. There is no other way to approach wild animals than through cautious, quiet periods in the woods, especially while backpacking. That is a kind of spiritual exercise - quiet stalking, or sitting still, waiting for the animals to arrive. Then they arrive as a kind of sudden splendor, often inspiring a sense of wonder mixed with surprise or fear.

Karl Steel said...

So much to respond to here, so I'll just touch on pieces of it.

First, I need to offer another reading of Genesis 1:26-27. De Trinitate and its emphasis on internal likeness is one reading, but there's also the Augustine of the Literal Commentary on Genesis, who writes "At this point we must also note that God, after saying “Our image,” immediately added, “And let him have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air” and the other irrational animals. From this we are to understand that man was made to the image of God in that part of his nature wherein he surpasses the brute beasts. This is, of course, his reason or mind or intelligence, or whatever we wish to call it." This is not an internal resemblance, but rather a resemblance in terms of power (Augustine has more to say about this in Eighty-Three Different Questions and On Free Choice of the Will).

On the face, I also think of the human face in the classical and medieval tradition as the upright face, which is always opposed to the animal face, which is always "in luto," in the mud. The standard reference for this is Ovid Metamorphosis, where Prometheus makes humans “into a shape not unlike that of the god. / But one way or another, man arose—erect, / Standing tall as the other beasts do not, with our faces / set not to gaze down at the dirt beneath our feet / but upward toward the sky” (I.79-83).

This does not mean that I want to abandon the face or meaningfulness. I want to argue--at least for now--on behalf of The Face, of the mystery of the world before us (which is NOT, contra Weil, a mystery secured by a beyond, except in the beyond of our incapacity to fix the world absolutely and completely in our mind). But I refuse to limit that face to humans. Eileen writes Is there a way to embrace the idea of the relationality of everything without necessarily sacrificing the very contours of one's own self/body that allows the possibility of that embrace I hope so. I want that 'own self/body' to be a human, as a species AMONG OTHERS, and therefore not HUMAN, in the sense of the thing that uniquely has a face. I want to be life with the privileges accorded to life [which means we now need a critical appreciation of life itself, which I suppose is the next step, working with what I understand biologists to say: that what counts as 'life' is impossible to define clearly]) In this, I'm with, no doubt among others, Matthew Calarco (Zoographies) and David Morris ("Faces and the Invisible of the Visible: Toward an Animal Ontology" Phaenex 2.2 (2007), 124-169).

Paul Ricoueur, in MM's quote, argues that "goodness is not only the response to evil, but it is also the response to meaninglessness," and to that I say--secularly--AMEN. I want MORE meaning. However I think the Human and Humanism are deadends, artifacts of a pre-Darwinian episteme [that was always more complicated, anyway, than I make it when I sneer as it with this label].I think of a story I read yesterday, in which the crusader Golfier de Lastours rescues a lion from a serpent (sound familiar?), and the lion in gratitude serves Golfier. When Golfier decides to go home, "nautis ipsum in navi recipere nolentibus, utpote animal crudele, secutus est dominum natando, donec labore quievit" [my quick and bad trans: the sailors refuse to let it into the boat, since it was a bloodthirsty animal. It followed, swimming, after its master until it died [lit.: 'fell asleep' or 'became peaceful'] with its labor]. Surely the sailors believe the lion lacks a face, but how could we believe this lion is faceless, given its desperate desire to give back, given its certainty that no generosity could ever be sufficient, given its demonstration of the infinite and of the impossibility of ever sufficiently demonstrating the infinite? Why should an attempt to think through or model this scene, or this DENSITY, be called 'humanism'? Can't we do better than that?

I have much more to say, including a big chunk on Levinas and animals from Chapter 1 of the book-in-progress (incidentally, radically revised from how it appeared in Exemplaria), but I'll leave it out for now.

I just want to quote this:

But that uncrossable line doesn't keep the poet, here and elsewhere, from wondering about crossing it; just as the all too crossable line between those of us who are alive and those who are dead doesn't keep us from wondering about that passage and, in fact, that line. I guess this is just a way of saying that I think that it is still, in this poem as in the quote from Karl's paper, a question of resurrection--which is a question about bodies and belief--and that the "delicacy of the arrival," in Dunn's words, is never only about fleas.

Lovely sentiment, Cary. I want to hesitate to talk about 'crossing,' and instead talk--no doubt inspired by your work--about encounters, welcomings, where we can experience with while knowing that we can never "cross over" any of the multitude of lines that separate us utterly from others--or indeed from ourselves (since I imagine that our desire to cross over and experience the other is in fact a response to our inability to plumb the mystery of ourselves: in some sense, which can of course be exaggerated for various philosophical effects, the dog's mind in its mystery is an image of the mystery of our own mind]

And here, then, I can end with MM's comment on meeting animals in the wild? Why not apply that same watchfulness to ourselves, whatever that 'our' might be?

Anonymous said...

Karl: I think I'm going to strenuously disagree that humanism is a dead end, from both an historical and a philosophical [and even, practical] perspective. Whether I am standing with the biologists who admit the difficulty, maybe even the impossibility, of "what counts" as "a life" and/or "living," or with Deleuze and Guattari who would not even admit of a "one thing" that could or could not cross over into another "one thing"--because, ultimately, the body, any body, is both the "sum total of the material elements belonging to it under given relations of movement and rest, speed and lsowness (longitude)" and the "sum total of the intensive affects it is capable of at a given power or degree of potential (latitude)"--we still have need of this human art of being able to philosophize/*talk* about any of this. Historically [and, not being stupid, I know there are many, many different histories of humanism, so I'm going to go with the most basic, simplistic definition here, yet it is still historical], humanism can be viewed as a set of discourses and practices of reading and writing aimed at what Aristotle called "the good life" ["eudiamonia": flourishing, doing well], and also at enlarging our philosophical understanding of, granted, ourselves, but also ourselves-in-the-world. No one would ever deny all the ways in which certain humanistic philosophies [*especially* those which raise up the human above as well as *against* everything that is supposedly non-human] have produced widespread oppression, misery, suffering, and even murder and the destruction of the earth, but this is not evidence, or "proof," that humanism has failed and/or is a dead end, and neither is the human, for that matter [although, in point of fact, at some point there *will* be an end to the human, and maybe sooner rather than later, but what to do in the meantime (?) is the critical question].

I think part of what I am trying to say here is that you can't have anti-humanism without humanism: critical discourses, grounded in humanistic disciplines that have evolved over centuries, give rise, in some places to anti-humanisms [emphasis on the plural]. There can be no anti-humanism without the space of the humanities and humanistic practices of writing and reading and reflection that could lead to such insights as,

"This does not mean that I want to abandon the face or meaningfulness. I want to argue--at least for now--on behalf of The Face, of the mystery of the world before us (which is NOT, contra Weil, a mystery secured by a beyond, except in the beyond of our incapacity to fix the world absolutely and completely in our mind). But I refuse to limit that face to humans."

The "refusal to limit that face to humans" is an insight borne of what might be called a critical humanism, but a humanism nevertheless. Am I splitting hairs here, playing at semantics, not willing to give up this supposedly woefully inadequate and oppressive *term*, human/humanism? I hope not. Again, I am with Deleuze and Guattari when they say,

"Climate, wind, season, hour are not of another nature than the things, animals, or people that populate them, follow them, sleep and awaken within them. . . . Spatiotemporal relations, determinations, are not predicates of the thing but dimensions of multiplicities. The street is as much a part of the omnibus-horse assemblage as the Hans assemblage the becoming-horse of which it initiates. We are all five o'clock in the evening, or another hour, or rather two hours simultaneuously, the optimal and the pessimal, noon-midnight, but distributed in variable fashion" ["A Thousand Plateaus," p. 263].

This is much on my mind this evening because I spent most of it with the students in my senior seminar course [on post/human literatures] discussing human-animal becomings and haeccities in Grimm's fairy tales ["Hans the Hedgehog," "The Juniper Tree," "Bearskin," "The Pink," "The Frog Prince"] and I decided our mantra for the evening, what we would spend all three hours trying to unravel, would be "we are all five o'clock in the evening." I'm not so sure it went so well, but I gave it a shot. But this is just to explain why this quotation is particularly apropos to my own moment of thinking here, cutting through Karl's thinking, and trying to say, maybe even forcefully, that I do not believe any of us can really say that humanism is a dead-end, when we rely on it every day to do our work, to even try to grapple with D&G's thinking, for example, on multuplicities, how we can all be "five o'clock in the evening." Now, if we want to call ourselves into question, to call "our" and "selves" into question, to reformulate being as becoming, and to reject all of the facets and aspects of "the human" and "humanism" that have led us [and others] in horrible wrong directions, by all means, let's do that, but why should this require throwing out all of humanism [all, let's say, humanistic discourse]? Obviously, to say that one is a "humanist" carries with it a certain taint, but that is not the fault of the term itself, but rather of certain of its practitioners and false lien-holders. Think of how Adorno said that poetry was no long possible after Auschwitz ["to still write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric"]--rather, I would say, nothing could be more necessary. Humanism, perhaps, only begins to sense its true path *after* Auschwitz, after wholesale animal slaughter, after slavery, after genocide, etc. There are certain humanist arts [rhetoric, philosophy, oratory, ethics, poetics, etc.], without which none of our conversations here, nor our written scholarship, would be possible. Maybe what I'm trying to say is too simplistic: you think and write, and in a certain style and within certain conventions, and with the hope of improving one's life; therefore you are a humanist. To me, a really radical humanism would be one that would follow Karl all the way to the brink and beyond of dismantling and smashing all of the idols of traditional humanism, and yet, would still call itself humanist.

At the end of my SEMA paper, I said that I thought the task of literary criticism today might be to

"trace the inexhaustible dimensions of that which is always still unfolding and becoming in these texts, what swings between the system and the outer reaches of the world in which each thing that withdraws from us also shines forth in its changes."

Such might also be the task of a new, more critical humanism.

Karl Steel said...

Hey EJ, thanks for the long response. My next 8 hours are going to be 9 kinds of busy, so right now all I can say is: why does this project you describe have to be called "humanism"? I know I'm not up on the history/cluster of meanings involved in this word: e.g., during job market interview practice, someone asked "what effect do you think your project will have on the humanities," and my response was pretty piss-poor, iirc, but if I had to do it over, I might have just asked why we had to call this thing we do humanities?

So what looks like a faux naive question is, probably, an actual naive question...

Eileen Joy said...

Hey KS--I'm swamped, too, in so much crap, I mean stuff, it isn't even funny, but I'll just say here for now two things:

1) this argument is about more tha semantics,


2) I consider this disagreement between us to be one of the most important matters of my own thought and work; I would just die if you ever actually agreed with me [or let's say, came all the way over to my side, whatever that "side" may be--I don't actually believe in side]; indeed, I am counting on you to keep disagreeing with me so that I am forced to hone, over and over again, what I think I mean when I say "human" and when I say "humanism." I won't likely give up the terms [or the "belief," let's say, in humanism], but I need to be challenged so that I can see if what I say I mean is really . . . what I say I mean.


3) [and no I never said there were 3 things, but . . .], this is not about semantics, about one term being better than another. I am sticking to "humanism," as term, and as philosophy, for now. It's partly about being honest--look at where we work and the texts to which we return, again and again, and the methodologies which we employ. Are these not humanist spaces/techniques?

Anonymous said...


I think that humanism (admiration and defense of the human) is not tapped out, but has considerable explorations to make. This would naturally include admiration and defense of the animal: organic and humane farming methods, preservation of farmland and forests. But equally significant would be preservation of human cultures.

I would go farther, to say that even classicism and the ideal of returning "ad fontes" are themes that have not "run dry". The classical has yet to be discovered.

I love ruins. So, I guess there is no argument here, but an orientation, toward the "restoration of antiquity" - which I think is the only way to the new. Franz Rosenzweig said - "the only way to the distant is through the near at hand."

And always the search for kindred spirits.

urbanadomacica said...

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Greetz from Serbia