Thursday, May 21, 2009

Kafka as Modernist Interlocutor for the Middle Ages: Some More Thoughts on Pleasure--no, Intensity--from Julie Orlemanski

Figure 1. Franz Kafka Museum in Prague


These comments are posted on behalf of JULIE ORLEMASNKI, for whom the comment function on another post just will not behave [nor even for me!]:

This is a response to Dan, and to his comments here in response to "Some More Thoughts on Pleasure" and to his blog post at wraetlic: “how the new middle ages will be a radiant modernism with a queer cowboy for its dean: kalamazoo 2009.” If we’re talking about matter, rather than human subjects, do we need to be talking about pleasure? Can intensity do the trick? What is the value-added of “pleasure”? Intensity, radiance, gravitational allure, pleasure--your terms move in a spectrum, from what is “proper” to matter to what is proper to a subject. The metaphoricity is (wonderfully) difficult to pin down—are you anthropomorphizing matter or materializing psychic states or . . . .? Pleasure raises the question of WHOSE pleasure, which again turns one (turns me) to the question of a subject, a self coincident with a body vulnerable to pleasure and pain, to ethics.

Of course, you are in good company with the (meaningful) slippage between material and psychological terms, and I am going to invoke one site where I’ve dwelled on that slippage. I am a wee bit obsessed with chapters 5 & 6 of Deleuze & Guattari’s Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature and the play of intensities, lines of flight, dismantlings, desire, and jouissance that constitute the life and decay and transformation of the bureaucratic machines therein. Kafka is of course another literary modernist we might think productively with and against and through an engagement with medievalism. Two quotes from D&G's Kafka stage, I think, the radical character of this desire and pleasure beyond consciousness:
“One would be quite wrong to understand desire here as desire for power; it is power itself that is desire. Not a desire-lack, but desire as a plenitude, exercise, and functioning, even in the most subaltern of workers. Being an assemblage, desire is precisely one with the gears and the components of the machine, one with the power of the machine. And the desire that someone has for power is only his fascination for these gears, his desire to make certain of these gears go into operation, to be himself one of these gears—or, for want of anything better, to be the materials treated by these gears, a material that is a gear in its own way.” [p. 56]

“And the cry of Franz, the warder punished for his thefts, the cry that K hears in a lumber room contiguous to the hallway of his office at the bank, seems to ‘come from some martyred instrument’ but is also a cry of pleasure, not in the masochistic sense but because the suffering machine is a component of the bureaucratic machine that never stops creating its own bliss (jouir de soi-même).” [p. 57]
D&G do achieve a way of talking about pleasures that is not founded on consciousness—but then conscious things become gears or material for gears, become suffering machines that rejoice in functioning (desire = energy = pleasure = function). The pleasures of function evoke the modernist topos of the man-machine, but we might also think of the Middle Ages’ own interest in an individual’s role/function/type (see estates satire; Theseus and his Boethian “faire cheyne”). Of course, what is wonderful about D&G is that there is no totality, we’re always left with n minus 1 and the machine dismantling itself and taking flight via its functioning . . . . But pleasure is so completely remade by D&G’s discourse that it blows my mind and makes me wonder how we can talk about our own pleasure. Where is it?

Is pleasure an inessential category, an epiphenomenon of consciousness in contact with intensity, with energy that might be registered sometimes as pleasure, sometimes as pain, sometimes as tedium—? Or are desire and pleasure the true names of intensity, and if so, why? “Whose pleasure?” I still want to ask. D&G’s discussion of cogs and gears is very different from the autodeictic and autoindexical movement you referred us to—but the autodiectic produces for me (in the cropping it effects, in its after-image or negative space) the machine or assemblage of which that moment is a part. My question is not so much about ethics, at this point, but about the utility of pleasure as a concept. (And also, tangentially, about Kafka as a modernist interlocutor for the Middle Ages . . . .)


anna klosowska said...

this may be silly -- I apologize -- but one of the reasons I love Deleuze is because he loves pleasure --
I literally snorted laughing, (virtually) hearing his voice in the lecture on pleasure.desire.jouissance (March 26, 1973-it's online), where he says beautiful things about impoverished conceptualizations of pleasure: for instance, after the..ehem.. jouissance, what happens?
"Finally people will have some rest, and then, alas! desire is reborn"
and a very sweet story showing how "feminine energy is unlimited but masculine--it's a pity, really--is limited"
I am thinking soft translucent white paper--a grade or two under printing paper weight--or rainbowy choices? (for the paper sculptures)
please vote, while you're here...

Anonymous said...

I love the turn to intensity, instead of "pleasure" as a baseline. You are right, pleasure invokes the necessary question "whose pleasure?" It calls to mind the Process Theology non-moral theory of evil:

The pursuit of "the maximal harmonious intensity" seems to be a good place to begin. This does not mean that questions of pleasure are avoided, but rather that they can continually be re-contextualized under auspices of intensity, the way in which pleasures can be tracked ACROSS subjects.

Eileen Joy said...

kvond: I am traveling so cannot comment at great length until I get to where I'm going, but I wonder if BABEL might not entice you to a conference to dialogue with us on pleasure/intensity? We'll be doing quite a few sessions along these lines over the next 2 years in various places [Nashville, Kalamazoo, Austin, TX, etc.]. Your website is lovely by the way.

Anonymous said...


This sounds delightful (and generous), but unfortunately I don't know what/who BABEL is, as I have only found this small oasis through the bloggist backdoor, suitably tracking through the footnote-like comments of Nicola's blogspace.

(I have to say that reading through footnotes is one of my favorite ways of reading.)

Perhaps you can direct me to the best webbed explanation of BABEL.

Also, I am not sure what I can contribute on the instensity/pleasure divide, as my thoughts here seemingly come nearly at random. I have thought in the past on this issue though, how a certain maximalization of intensity, perhaps modeled upon an Aristotle aesthetic, might prove an ethical aim, perhaps aligned to Spinoza's claim that anything that increases the number of ways a body can affect or be affected, is "the good". Perhaps rationality and imagination can be geared in this direction.

As for pleasure, if I may drift, I think a great deal of moral response comes from weighing the pleasured investment, the enjoyments of others. Always it seems that when we object to the actions of others, we are objecting to the pleasures they are experiencing, via these actions (even if they be unconscious, or jouissancian). Is this a screen, or subjective matrix for a way of organizing and metering intensities? I suspect something of this. To be added to any such equation I would think is the way in which we, as observers (and moralists) are forced to affectively imagine the possible states of others who we are attempting to reasonably assess. When others act/pleasure themselves, our very acts of interpretation require a certain "investment" of those pleasures in our bodies.

I don't know if any of that line of reasoning would sound appealing, but perhaps there is a future in it.

(Coincidentally, just at the moment I am listening to an mp3 of one of your conferences and enjoying it quite a bit.)

anna klosowska said...

I really like your commentary, Kvond, on the not-moral definition of evil (intensity, discord, triviality)--it's taking us some place nice, connected to speculative realism, and useful when we think of our writing/living practice as a way to increase "intensity" of the texts we write or comment.

Eileen Joy said...


as regards BABEL, scroll down on this weblog's front page, and you will see, near the bottom, a link to our website.

Anonymous said...

AK: "useful when we think of our writing/living practice as a way to increase "intensity" of the texts we write or comment."

Kvond: I never really thought of it as a writing process aim, but I think you are right, that actually this is very much how one does write.

I think as well, as a commentator, one is ever working toward making the source text more intense. More imbued, with more traverses and possibilities.

It seems that this is something we all do, making more intense events (including texts) of the past.

medievalkarl said...

Thanks for this, EJ, and Dan, and Julie: much to think about, weeks after the fact. And thanks especially for this:
“And the cry of Franz, the warder punished for his thefts, the cry that K hears in a lumber room contiguous to the hallway of his office at the bank, seems to ‘come from some martyred instrument’ but is also a cry of pleasure, not in the masochistic sense but because the suffering machine is a component of the bureaucratic machine that never stops creating its own bliss (jouir de soi-même).” [p. 57]

I feel something, I'm not sure what, is the "seems" and the "some" of "seems 'to come from some'" and the uncertainty, or, if you like, holding-open, that these 2 words register. They also can be thought to be register an uncertainty about the relationship--abyssal [which is to say no relationship at all, or a relationship understood as NOT a relationship] or, more terrifyingly, coordinated or even reciprocal--between the suffering subject and the subject-in-the-pleasured-system. Above all, though, I'm grateful for the complication of pleasure and its costs this passage gives us. Will think more I hope.