Sunday, May 17, 2009

Some More Thoughts on Pleasure, Even More on Wonder, and Also, Some Regrets: Could Our Medieval Studies, the One We Want, Also Be a Pleasure Garden?

Figure 1. Chinese Garden in Winter [Missouri Botanical Gardens, Saint Louis]

[don't miss JJC on the Jumbotron]


Trees write their autobiographies in circles each year,
pausing briefly each spring to weep over what they have written. I guess that’s life.
—Spencer Reece, from “Ghazals for Spring”

Literature enables us not to live a circumscribed life.
—Jeffrey Cohen, commencement address, 2009 Columban College Celebration

So I’ve been thinking a lot about our recent conversation about pleasure, and especially in relation to Karl’s questions,
When we start talking about “the world,” I'm reminded of “facts,” of “the body,” or indeed of the “we”: what do we cut away in order to arrive at any of these collective words? What gets identified as “fundamentally” world, fact, we, body? Or, to put the question another way, what do we mean when we say “the world”? When we start talking about “sharing a world,” what gets occluded? On whose terms are the feelings, objects, stances, etc. that make up the world (dis)identified? And in what sense is this concept “world” useful? Or to what ends has it been put? Or, how is a stance of “wonder” and “love” a way of manufacturing a “good conscience”?
There will be no way for me to fully answer Karl’s questions here, but I want to at least brook an attempt, especially in relation to wonder [which is, in my mind, one of the highest forms of love: it forms a zone of suspension and ontological passivity that allows almost anything to happen, and to be], and how the cultivation of wonder, or of what the political theorist Jane Bennett has called “sites of enchantment,” might be essential in the cultivation of an ethical life, and even an ethical medieval studies [and here, let’s also make room for the question I hear Jeffrey possibly asking, “why an ethical life at all, or an ethical medieval studies? why ethical? why not another term like capacious, or generous, or uncircumscribed, or open, or full, or saturated, or beautiful?”]. This will be a personal post—the most personal I think I have ever written—and it will not be academic, per se, or even medieval, although my thoughts here today tarry after and long for what I hope could be my, or our, medieval studies.

So, I must share with you that the recent discussion on pleasure began to trouble me more and more when I realized how much I really have been working too much these past few years [especially for about two years now], and while my work pleases me and I do enjoy it [am even thrilled by it, love writing, conspiring with others both within and outside my/our field to cultivate new spaces for our work, and for our work-as-play, even], I reflected that I inhabit my study for much longer hours than I used to. When I first arrived in Saint Louis about six years ago, I recall that I always set aside Fridays, and sometimes more days, for excursions—sometimes to the zoo, sometimes the art museum, sometimes the botanical gardens, sometimes to the movie theater [the Tivoli in the Loop], sometimes to the parks [of which there are many in Saint Louis], and often to restaurants and bars and coffee shops where I could just be among the hurly burly of other peoples’ lives. But the main point of these days was to just go anywhere at all where I might enjoy getting out of my head, so to speak, for a little while, and they were also about cultivating sites for reverence of the aesthetic, as well as for the "making possible" the arrival of what-I-don’t-know-yet. I don’t do this much any more; I go out at night plenty [believe me; I am thoroughly nocturnal], but during the day, practically seven days a week, here I am in my study, reading and writing, typically for ten or more hours a day. What happens in the world during the daytime?!!? I fear I don’t know any more, except when I’m traveling [which I admit is often enough].

I started to chastise myself yesterday, especially, about my recent neglect of the Missouri Botanical Gardens, which are considered one of the best botanical gardens in the country, and are a mere few blocks from my house! What the hell is wrong with me, I thought? After all, I used to be a garden designer and even dropped out of graduate school for 3-1/2 years to work solely as a gardener and designer of gardens, and there is no greater bliss for me, and never has been, than when I am in those sorts of gardens that are highly cultivated and can even be called extravagantly baroque works of extravagant landscape art: Kew, Longwood, Wintherthur, Versailles, the Jardin des Plantes [Paris], Dumbarton Oaks [D.C.], Powerscourt Gardens [Ireland], Giverny, Ladew Topiary Gardens [Maryland], and the like—gardens to which I used to make regular pilgrimages every year. To spend time in these sites is, for me anyway, like walking into the world of enchanted fairy tale or the very interior structure of myth, much like Ofelia’s enchanted garden in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth [which is both frightening, actually, but also a golden world, a site of possibility and the sort of magic that redeems everyone, somehow, in the end]. There is such beauty in these gardens that when I am there, I sometimes feel as if I even have to shield my eyes from it—from being pierced too deeply, and even wounded, by so many forms, and even excesses, of beauty.

But what kind of beauty is this exactly, and why do I enjoy it so much, and why I have even made of it, almost a spiritual event? [And let’s face it, some people probably hate botanical and other large-scale gardens and find them boring as hell; our tastes are always peculiar to ourselves.] Museums are filled with beauty, some houses are beautiful, there are beautiful persons, and beautiful days, and beautiful things, and beautiful places [such as, for me, especially, the Appalachian mountains, or County Wicklow in Ireland or Taos, New Mexico], and all of these create spaces of light for me and make me happy beyond measure, but none have the power, as does Kew or Longwood, to make me feel as if I have gone into outer space. So why haven’t I made of the Missouri Botanical Gardens my church and why don’t I go, walk, there every day, if even for thirty minutes, so that I can have some beauty, and some intense enjoyment of beauty, which is also a type of wonder, each day, so that I can recall to myself, through this site of enchantment, the “geometries of attention revelatory of silences in the terrifying senses that elude official grammars” [Joan Retallack, The Poethical Wager]. In other words, so that I can become like a child again, if just for a little while, each day. Because that’s partly why I love these gardens so much, and why I loved designing and working in gardens, because they always offered to me the hope that what the favorite books of my childhood told me was true: that you could walk into a wardrobe and through to Narnia, or that a rabbit hole might lead to a wonderland, or that the gates of a secret garden, set in the tall yew hedge, might open into secret chambers where the crippled child can be healed or a selfish giant, who has lived in perpetual winter, can be made to love again because of a beautiful boy who, when he sits in the arms of a barren tree, the branches turn golden and cover themselves with white blossoms. And may I confess something to you? I still believe in these places, and these events: I know they are always happening, somewhere, in the secret gardens of the world, but I feel sometimes as if I’ve also lost my way from them, from their secret entrances and crooked paths and green archways.

So, this is all partly my way of saying that yesterday, I stopped all that I was doing [and it is a lot and it is all screaming at me from my desk things like, “you are 3 months behind deadline on this!” and “you are 1 week behind deadline on this!” and “you have 100 emails to answer!” and etc.], and I went to the botanical gardens and I decided to wind my way very slowly through all the different “rooms”: the Victorian rose garden, the camellia house, the Japanese friendship garden, the trial gardens, the conifer garden, the boxwood garden, etc., but always knowing where I wanted to end up and just sit for a very long while: the Chinese garden, which is the largest of all the “chambers.” As much as I love the blowsy busyness of the cottage garden [which I actually specialized in as a garden designer, along with antique roses and Mediterranean gardens], the Chinese garden is always [no matter where it is] the point of highest sublimity [again: for me]. When most people think of gardens, they think of flowers, and things blooming, and lots of color, etc., but what is so fantastic about the Chinese garden is that the whole thing is designed for contemplation, from a certain vantage point, of a particular architectural frame of trees, shrubs, water, and other landscape objects, like rocks, or small temples, or a bridge that, essentially, is going nowhere. A Chinese garden will have most of its color in late winter or early spring because that is when all of the ornamental fruit trees [cherry, apply, plum, etc.], which are essential in a Chinese garden, will be blooming, and that is lovely, but I prefer what happens afterward, when the whole point—the whole show, as it were—is about the interplay of the structure of different forms set against a horizon. Thus, the Chinese garden is best seen throughout all of the seasons. It is as beautiful in winter, perhaps even more so, as it is in spring.

Such gardens are follies in the grandest sense of the term: they involve an extraordinary amount of labor, time, and money with only one aim in mind: to inspire delight and to give pleasure. You have no idea, unless you’ve already thought of it, how much deferral also plays into this, because as the designer, you have to be able to imagine [and indeed, you plan everything based on this; Frederick Law Olmstead was sheer genius in this regard, as was Beatrix Farrand, niece of Edith Wharton, who designed the gardens at Dumbarton Oaks] what the things you plant and the landscape you are sculpting [because this is sculpture] are going to look like ten, fifteen, maybe fifty or more years down the road. What we see in Central Park today is the beautiful fruition of Olmstead’s ability to see, and to know, really, that it would one day turn out this way. And consider that, in the 1860s, he dreamed the Park we walk through today and that he could see that—so well, in fact—most people walking through Central Park today do not realize how thoroughly designed most of it is, it appears so “natural.” Talk about deferral. Can you imagine: spending one’s entire life devoted to the creation of sites of enchantment that you won’t even be around to walk through and wonder at? There are shorter-term payoffs with many gardens, but still. Let’s raise a glass to Olmstead who bequeathed to us this gift.

A good Chinese garden is so thoroughly designed and anticipated in advance that you can choose almost any spot in it and you will see something marvelous, in terms of structure and form, foreground and background, which is to say: this is an affair designed with a 360-degree angle in mind, perfectly suited for what Joan Retallack calls “the bliss of wide-angled attentiveness.” There is a great sense of peace to be gained in the commitment to choose one place to sit, and to watch, and to empty one’s mind of anything but the view. Imagine: someone expended a great deal of labor, a great deal of digging in the earth, a great deal of pruning and trimming and shaping, so that my view of the world, at a particular moment on a particular day, could be enchanted and so that I could reflect that, even in what Jack Gilbert has called “the ruthless furnace of the world,” there can be beauty, and that is something we can work at, too. And here comes the most embarrassing part of this post [so look away quickly if you like and skip to the next paragraph]: while I was sitting in the Chinese garden yesterday, leaning against an elm, having chosen my one vantage point, I began to weep. I was overcome with weeping, and I think—no, I know—that these were tears of regret, because for 3-1/2 years, I spent all my working hours on behalf of, and in, these gardens. By which I mean, for 3-1/2 years, I worked, literally, on the wide and endless outside, and on behalf of beauty, and of enchantment, and there was never a day I doubted the value of this folly [as I sometimes doubt whether or not what I am doing now is valuable], although it could be awfully punishing work, physically hard [and sometimes psychically hard, such as when a client didn’t share my vision or wanted me to do something absurd, like find a dwarf Japanese maple tree whose leaves would match the wallpaper in her dining room or pansies that would match her dinnerware: true stories]. But I had a job once, a job I left my PhD program for, when I labored to make worlds, as it were, beautiful worlds, worlds someone—those I knew and those I had not and would never meet—could enter into and be, hopefully, enchanted, where they might pause, and reflect: anything is possible in an enchanted garden, something [perhaps the world] gets bigger here, and to cadge from Jeffrey’s citing of the passage from Edward P. Jones’s heartbreaking novel The Known World in his last post, something squeezes through the bars of our heart and kisses us here. For reasons I cannot fully go into here, I left this world and returned to academia and to my dissertation, and I think what happened to me yesterday, is that I all of a sudden I realized what a loss this represents in my life, and how, perhaps, it might even be my biggest regret. The repressed trauma of it just overwhelmed me, and without warning.

So this brings me to the point, which also brings me back to Karl’s questions, which are difficult questions, but maybe also the most important ones, about what gets “occluded,” cut away, neglected, passed over, when we say “the world,” and whether or not the cultivation, through human agency, of “worlds” and/as sites of wonder could have anything to do with manufacturing “good conscience.” Because you see, a lot of occlusion and violence is involved in making beautiful gardens: a lot of pulling out, weeding, clearing, uprooting, cutting, pruning, bending, and even breaking. I recall that my proudest accomplishment as a gardener was when a client actually allowed me to build an allée-tunnel of apple trees, the cost of which was going to be close to $20,000. Essentially, this involved planting two rows of about ten trees each facing each other, with enough space to walk between, and my job, once these trees were planted, was going to involve several years of grafting the top branches of these trees together in order to make a tunnel out of them. This involved a lot of notching of branches [with a small knife], as well as binding branches together with twine, cutting away extraneous branches, and essentially contorting the remaining branches of the tree in directions they otherwise would not have grown, left to their own devices. And all of this labor and violent cutting and bending was expended so that, for about one week each Spring, you could stand at the entrance of this allée, and looking down through its tunnel of branches, covered in pink blossoms, you might imagine [and even believe] that, by walking through it, you would enter Narnia, or the many-chambered residence of your own heart. Could anything be more useless, and yet, more essential?

It is my belief that, yes, wonder, and the deliberate work to create sites of wonder, can have something vital to do with creating “good conscience,” as Karl says, especially if we believe, following Jane Bennett, that an ethical life entails affective attachments to the world. In Bennett’s view, ethical aspirations require “bodily movements in space, mobilizations of heat and energy,” and “a distinctive assemblage of affective propulsions.” Further, ethical rules, by themselves, are not sufficient to the task of nurturing “the spirit of generosity that must suffuse ethical codes if they are to be responsive to the surprises that regularly punctuate life.” It is Bennett’s argument that the contemporary world does, indeed, “retain the power to enchant humans and that humans can cultivate themselves so as to experience more of that effect.” Further, her “wager” is that, “to some small but irreducible extent, one must be enamored with existence and occasionally even enchanted in the face of it in order to be capable of donating some of one’s scarce mortal resources to the service of others” [The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics]. I think I could devote myself, with passion and pleasure, to a life, a career, whether in gardens or the university-as-garden, that would tilt itself toward the cultivation of “affective propulsions”—propulsions, moreover, that would move in as many directions as possible, enlarging the world as they go, and even hurrying to un-occlude the occluded, to make space for natality
as I said in our previous discussion, for things to be born.

And yet, at the same time, look at how I bent and broke the trees to my scheme of things. Here, I give an extreme example of the violence we might do when we say we want to dreams worlds, or the world, into a more full and capacious existence, and here we can also recall Julie Orlemanski asking us to also consider the possible harms of pleasure and how pleasure can sometimes be “missed, misrecognized, lost, harmed, attained at an unacceptable cost.” But there is almost no labor we can undertake—whether in our so-called research and criticism, or in our daily lives, our gathering and bearing and going and getting, as it were—that will not entail some choices of one thing over another, some uprooting and trimming, some cutting and clearing, some discarding and burying, although I would like to think we could undertake this work with as much care as possible to always undertake these actions with some notion of pressing as lightly as possible upon the world [and upon each other], and of always working to make room for everything we haven’t yet considered or didn’t even know we wanted, or could love [or, following Karl, should maybe leave alone]. I don’t know, I just—honestly, and stubbornly—believe we can do this.

Julie also recalled us to the fact, that in all of the papers presented on BABEL’s Kalamazoo “pleasure” panel, there seemed to be a sort of resistance to ideological critique, to the critical “gotcha!” game in which pleasure always has to be contained, to be referred to its “complicity and inextricability from structures of domination and oppression – structures of harm.” And I think Julie’s right, and the real question then might be something like, is this yet another something we should be worried about, or is there an opportunity here? Is there, perhaps an opportunity here to work toward a new form of criticism, or commentary-as-criticism that would also be a form of care [a giving and not a taking], and that would not leave any of its sharp and incisively cutting methodological tools behind, but which would be aimed at a non-paranoid scholarship as a kind of pleasure garden, a folly, a site of enchantment that, if we are very lucky, and paraphrasing Eve Sedgwick, might assemble and confer plenitude on the world that will then have resources to offer an inchoate self? This would be a scholarship that would seek to unfold the endless dimensions of texts and the world [as opposed to wanting to pierce through texts and world, looking for “meaning,” always for “meaning” as something the net of our epistemologies can supposedly “catch” and “hold”], and, following the thought of the queer theorist and poet Michael Snediker, this scholarship would create “epistemologies not of pain, but of pleasure; aestheticize not the abdication of personhood, but its sustenance” [from his book Queer Optimism, and thank you Anna Klosowska for introducing me to Snediker’s work]. And to paraphrase Badiou [again: thanks, Anna!], this scholarship would want "a theater of capacity, not incapacity."

We can take all of the insights ideological critique bequeaths [the world is violent, I am the subject of oppressive regimes of power, the human is predicated on the murder of animals, language only refers to other language, romantic love is the insidious lure of a certain symbolic order, etc.] and then we can ask, what else is there? In addition to the terrible surprises—of texts, as well as of our lives—what are the good surprises, the kisses that, after so many terrible hurts and deaths, manage to break through the cages of our hearts and lick us into new, beautiful being, and even, to the re-memoration of, again paraphrasing Sedgwick, all the ways the past could have happened differently than it did? We would have to loosen so many of the strictures that currently bind us: historicism, “straight” chronologies, tradition, authority, intellectual skepticism, and the like, but I really believe that what awaits us if we do loosen these bindings, will be something like the bliss of that wide-angled attentiveness Joan Retallack writes about. On the grounds that our work should be hard, and that every path to our scholarship should be thorny and steep, and that the results of our research should reflect the most pared-down bones of the most minimal things we can say are true, bliss, or happiness, is not supposed to have anything to do with what we do. But I will continue to hope otherwise.


Karl Steel said...

Thanks so much for this! A quick explanation: my line about the "good conscience" has to do with Derrida's impatience for it (hilariously? a search on google books for "Derrida" under author and "good conscience" under the general word search gets a lot of hits: he loved to talk about it). My point, too compactly stated to be of much sense to anyone but me, had to do with points--also made I believe by Julie--concerning the "good feeling" that wonder can give us, a good feeling, I'm still convinced, that comes only by forgetting so much of what made that particular world available to us in its wondrous moment. Forgetting all the things the 'bad guest' or 'ancient mariner' (if you like) reminds us of: the unequal distribution of parks and beauty, the resources that allow an individual (!) to spent tens of thousands of dollars on shaping trees when the money could save so many lives, the history of this place of the world in a city enriched by slavery and before that, not to mince words, by genocide. This isn't quite what Derrida is getting at, I see now that I've actually followed my memory to its referent: but there's still, I think, this sense of sufficiency and satisfaction (albeit one that is a "sufficiency" characterized by an overflowing plenitude and an overwhelming recall of our "being there") that perhaps can come about only by forgetting so much.

I don't want to stop there. So, again, making a promise, I want to honor your post by coming back for more.

Eileen Joy said...

What you are talking about here, Karl, is precisely what I was trying to get at with with apple allee-tunnel story: that a lot of labor and even violence, and I suppose, valuable monetary resources were expended in order to create a site of temporary, ephemeral *enjoyment*, but at the same time, with the poet Jack Gilbert, I will continue to maintain that, in spite of all the suffering in the world, we have an ethical obligation to "risk delight," and further, "To make injustice the only / measure of our attention is to praise the Devil." Also, we can't be everywhere at once; we can't correct and cure all sufferings, and I think we ought to at least start with the profession to which we have devoted our lives as regards thinking about different sorts of relationalities that might increase the chances of the well-being of those who work alongside us in this field of medieval studies [which includes our students]. Also, against Adorno, who didn't think poetry was possible after Auschwitz, I would say nothing is more necessary.

Eileen Joy said...

I want to comment here, too, that I keep coming back to Dinshaw's paper on BABEL's "pleasure" panel and that moment when she is watching the person in the bathrobe playing the recorder during the "Renaissance" fair, or whatever it was, and how she--I really believe this--conferred a sort of plenitude upon this queer *figure* [which is also this *real* person] whom she then also imagined looking at her [the object of study looking back at the inchoate scholarly subject, as it were, and re-conferring another sort of plenitude]. This is a very generous sort of scholarship, one that holds the world in the kind of suspense that makes an opening of the scholarly self to the world possible.

anna klosowska said...

for radiance and allure:

hic hic hic!!!!!!!!

as for Anna K., I must now dream--but do not miss

hic hic hic!!!!!!

Eileen Joy said...

Another question to Karl: if every moment of enjoyment/wonder entails forgetting something horrible that's happening to someone, how can we live, or sleep?

dan remein said...

Beautiful thoughts Eileen.

I want to hone in on this point of responsibility and pleasure as you/Karl have been outlining, and the futile attempts to produce good conscience surrounding moments or events of pleasure--possible moments of misrecognitioin of pleasure, or the 'human cost' of pleasure (although to use this phrase is to 'buy' into the whole economy of human 'capital' etc.).

Rather than attempt to think these unacceptable costs of pleasure (to ourselves, to bodies and lives we never meet, to the past itself) in terms of the pleasure that is 'proper' to one's own self or subject, can we think (and this is part of a whole effort to hold onto phenomenology even for those that would jettison subject before line 1, ahem, Liza Blake...) about sites of or events of pleasure as events happening to by in and with matter? I do not mean to say to think about these things 'objectively' or 'universally,' but to think of them as they are however singular or iterable--as tiny cracks in the wide sheets of cosmos that face us as finite and doomed creatures. What is the event of pleasure as an event, with all its costs? Not as MY event or yours or his or hers, but an event that re-shuffles what-is in a certain way, or better, an event that effects or procures a mixing amidst what is in a certain way (so as to oppose pleasure more fully to the metaphysics of the subject, or personhood etc., which Irigaray and others--Kierkegaard, Caputo--show is a way of putting things in place and keeping them there, of asserting the Proper....). How can we think about pleasure like that? What does it _do_ to the order of things? Then we can assess all these questions of being good citizens (and I am NOT convinced that we have ever been better off for that...) or even of working generally 'in favor' of something like civilization instead of against it (a la Bersani, Beckett, et. al.).

For Silvan Tompkins, on a graph of the the density of neural firing of innate activators over time, interest and joy form mirror images--interest as a sharp increase in the density of neural firings over time and joy as a symmetrical line showing a sharp reduction of the same. This to me is telling, because it is a kind of thinking about pleasure as the results of the mixing properties between things encountered and the mind's already at work systems of operation. And it further suggests something about the phenomenal workings of a pleasure--paradoxical. Interest (as the basic scholarly motivator, and the opposite of SHAME) moves in an opposite direction from joy and yet both would seem to need to happen for a certain kind of the most radiant of pleasures in which one is not bored, but neither is one so focused and attuned that there is no elation.

What would such a moment be? Perhaps the sort in a scheme of freedom FROM interpretation, that is, to link back up to Karl's thoughts on World, freedom from World. World, after all, is a thing we use to screen things out and put things in place for the sake of being able to interpret. So what if there is no more world? What kind of worldless phenomena of pleasure?

Here is Beckett singing what he call's an "Alba" in front of this sheet which is before the logos and the poetic tradition and the sun itself, blocking out and leaving us with our deaths, alone, and yet experienced as song, as pleasure. The sheet is, I would guess, flat and preventing the possibility of depth or of world as it stretches out in all directions perhaps forever, but at least without horizon. The only pleasure possible is for the song to be a part of the effort for the singer to be part of what is, even if that is bulk dead:

before morning you shall be here
and Dante and the Logos and all strata and mysteries
and the branded moon
beyond the white plane of music
that you shall establish here before morning

grave suave singing silk
stoop to the back firmament of areca
rain on the bamboos flower of smoke alley of willows

who thought you stoop with fingers of compassion
to endorse the dust
shall not add to your bounty
whose beauty shall be a sheet before me
a statement of itself drawn across the tempest of emblems
so that there is no sun and no unveiling
and no host
only I and then the sheet
and bulk dead

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Anna already points this way, but Dan makes the small point I was making in the first post so much more articulately than I did: follow this link, and see what a language of intensity and radiance does for pleasure. When not placed in a zero-sum economy (and why do we have to inhabit a zero sum economy? That doesn't describe the universe I know), pleasure is susceptible to boundless intensification without necessary theft of resource. Yes, I would not take that possibility away, and yes I would move very carefully from the aesthetic to pleasure, and yes I would also always be mindful of social context and of history, and yes I know that every document of civilization is at the same time a document of barbarism ... but these are caveats that give pleasure its complexity. They don't eradicate it, unless they mandate an ascetism which was inimical to pleasure in the first place.

Croman said...

An ethic of pleasure makes me think of the environmental movement; it asks us to be responsible for ourselves, our choices about what we consume. However, consumption in many of its forms is pleasure (did you really need that new edition of that book, could you not find it used or on-line? do you really need that bottom of wine..couldn't you find the organic local kind? or better yet have a glass of water...[well, no]. This goes back to Eileen's and Karl's post about and the Derridean "good conscience"--if we have such a problem making those "correct" environmental choices {and I just witnessed one of my family members burning a plastic bag in the fire pit) we end up always living with a kind of guilt...not only of the choices we make, but about the choices others make. I think this goes back to charging environmentalists with being "humorless" or "joyless"--the stakes are so high. How can we find pleasure...and I am have been wondering about the solipsistic nature of pleasure that we are discussing here...pleasure for the work we do...pleasure in the work we do we balance responsibility and pleasure. It leaves me wondering if we can have a responsible pleasure? That is a pleasure that emanates out to do good...

Eileen Joy said...

First, with Anna and Jeffrey: ditto to following the link to Dan R.'s musings over at "wraetlic," where he picks up threads from other Kalamazoo sesssions we haven't had a chance to blog about here, and *also* picks up a ceramic pot that says "here I am" and out of all this weaves a beautiful meditation on allure, radiance, and perhaps, a new phenomenology for medieval studies.

Croman: interestingly enough, one of the scholars we asked to be a Respondent for the inaugural issue of "postmedieval," Kate Soper, who is a philosopher and cultural theorist at London Metropolitan University, has been working on the intersection between hedonism and environmental/consumerist responsibility & pleasure for a while now. She edited, with Martin Ryle, a collection of essays titled "The Politics and Pleasures of Consuming Differently," which just came out [Palgrave, 2009] and which offers "alternative hedonisms" to the usual model of "frugality" in the wake of everyone wanting to be "better" about the environment [and this is an "alternative hedonism" that avoids "moralising" about "real needs"]. Soper has also written the book "Troubled Pleasures: Writings on Politics, Gender, and Hedonism" [Verso, 1990] and, with Martin Ryle as co-author, "To Relish the Sublime: Culture and Self-Realization in Postmodern Times" [Verso, 2001]. A lot of Soper's work also focuses on the aesthetic as a realm that is critically important to pleasure, self-realization, etc. [much in the same vein, albeit not from the route of psychoanalysis, as Leo Bersani's thinking on the aesthetic].

Jeffrey: as I've been saying to Karl, and also just wanting to believe, I really agree with you that "pleasure is susceptible to boundless intensification without necessary theft of resource," and while we may be well aware of certain "horrors" in the world, certain deprivations and disenfranchisements, they never eradicate pleasure, but, again following Jack Gilbert [because the poets always seem to know everything best and say it best], to seek out and experience and cultivate pleasure/delight is actually the *best* thing we can do, the most ethical, even, in a sense. And as expensive and time-consuming and tortuous as it was to build that allee, I would do it again for the experience of seeing it, several years later, in bloom. I would do it again because everyone who walked through it, and is still walking through it, might get pleasure from it, maybe even be momentarily buzzed into happiness by it. And I guess I was also asking if this sort of thing [this "buzzed-outness" and the cultivation/curating/notice of what Dan so beautifully calls here "the tiny cracks in the wide sheets of the cosmos"] might not be a "proper" object of our scholarship as well, and I think it can be, and should be, and already is, thanks to everyone already participating in these conversations and based on what I am starting to see more and more of at conferences and in books and essays [such as, for example, the essay Jeffrey has contributed to BABEL's "Fragments for a History of a Vanishing Humanism," and damn, practically all of the pieces in that book, actually, which is also to say to Dan and Anna: I can't wait to read your essay!!!].

But Dan, I also have a question for you. I am trying to reconcile, or put together, or *whatever*, your challenge here to ask, what if there is no world and what kind of worldless phenomena might we encounter then [?], with the beautiful paper you delivered at the "Glossing" conference in NYC where you argued for commentary as a form of shelter that gives the world back to itself. How does all of this go together, or does it even matter? I mean, can we have both: no world and worldless phenomena [and the *enjoyment*/pleasure of that phenomena] while also giving the world back to itself? Perhaps, after all, these are perfectly congruent operations, but I would love to hear more about that from you [especially since your paper in NYC has really inspired me so much to rethink what I think criticism should be, which, more and more and following Cary Howie here, too, I think we should just jettison altogether, or at least temporarily set it away somewhere, so we can consider other possibilities for how we want to write/talk about medieval texts and about each others' work, and this links up, too, I think, with your "scheme of freedom FROM interpretation" here].

Also, Dan, as to your thought that we have not necessarily been "better off" for all of our thinking [and perhaps hand-wringing] over the question of what it means to be a "better citizen," I agree with you [while wanting, as Jeffrey says here, to proceed with some caution and lightness of step/touch with regard to others, historical and social contexts, etc.], and I would also say, let's just be "better" [whatever that might mean] to each other and in our work which might be *for* each other [as Anna's paper on the "pleasure" panel beautifully illustrated], and let's dare, too, as Prufrock could not dare, to disturb the universe. It's not, really, that there is no world, or that it gets in the way, or that we have a hard time using it as anything but a screen [and sometimes, pace Bersani, as an enemy to our self], but rather, that we just mis-recognize that all is world, including us . . . and then some. And that is where pleasure comes in: intensification, saturation, of worlds within world, mine, yours, the cricket's, anyone's, any time, and "as you like it."

Anonymous said...

Kant: "Or, how is a stance of “wonder” and “love” a way of manufacturing a “good conscience”?"

Kvond: It is interesting that Spinoza in his pursuit of an ethics which embraces all things, it is specifically AWAY from wonder that he goes (perhaps because he has no interest in manufacturing good conscience)?:

Spinoza: "IV. Admiratio [Wonder] is an imagination of a thing in which the Mind remains fixed because this singular imagination has no connection with the others. (See p52 and p52s.)"

This is contrary perhaps to your thought,

"it forms a zone of suspension and ontological passivity that allows almost anything to happen, and to be], and how the cultivation of wonder, or of what the political theorist Jane Bennett has called “sites of enchantment,” might be essential in the cultivation of an ethical life"because Spinoza sees "wonder" to stem from the very isolation, the "zone" as you say. Because the ethical flows from the very connectivity between things, how is it that zones work to connect? Are not sites of enchantment also source sites for our greatest violence against others?

Cannot only sacred zones be desecrated and then avenged?

dan remein said...

Eileen: I have more to say on this, but real quickly, I want to say thank you for bringing up my other paper--because that line of thought is important to me, about giving the world back to itself. Yet here, Karl's comments have swayed me some to think about why I want to invoke world as I always do. To be honest, I came up with this little formulation of worldlessness without any thought to thinking about how much I try to love World as I try to do in that paper...but that doesn't mean the thought's can't work together even if they have nothing to do with each other.

So, an intitial off the cuff stab at it might be to ask if world may just be something that happens, is integral and generative of our experience as Beings-in-Time, etc, with Care as this fundamental sheltering activity of DaSein. But, that would not mean that we as scholars need to go around proclaiming worlds and construction worlds, when world means a kind of opening between horizons--the positing of an (arbitrary?) limit for the sake of _interpretation_. The problem with world is not just that it excludes, in fact, even before and perhaps as the cause of that problem is that the world is so often invoked for the sole purpose of determining the field of the interpretable, invoked for the sole purpose of interpretation--this is not giving the world back to itself at all, does not allow it to set itself up first just to set itself up, but is already determined by our need to interpret rather than feel the vertiginous moment of a flat sheet of cosmos, of actual thrown-ness. Heidegger concept of world get's in the way of the Worlds that Dasein might actually care for? Does a world have a world, or can a world be worldless (insert the little Derrida on my shoulder here to hold up the international sign for différance?)? In giving the world back to itself, is what we are really doing letting it rather stand as a kind of All-ness amidst a worldless cosmos that abolishes that previous notion of world?

dan remein said...

kvond: are not sites of enchant also the point at which the greatest justice is given to others? I am thinking here that what some of us are trying to touch on is the necessary RISK in this 'medieval studies we want': I always o this point come back to Derrida's sense of the what-is-coming (from Specters of Marx) in which radical hospitality (something i think akin to wonder--because it opens one while being _fixed_ on it to whatever it is as what it is) risks either justice or, radical evil. The point at which writing and philosophy really begin to do their work is at this point which is pleasurable and ethical--but to get to that place one must constantly pass through a site of radical pluridirectionality--so the path to the medieval studies we want is also the path to the one we would fear the most--and we then decide whether or not we take the risk, the wager.

Eileen Joy said...

Dan, your response to "kvond" is like . . . wow. Can we get that on a t-shirt, maybe? [haha] Also, yes, I will take that risk. Can you now explain how we can make this even *more* risky and I can really start to have some fun? Because for me, the pleasure is partly *in* the taking of the risk, kind of like downhill skiing or jumping out of a plane [neither of which you could pay me to do, actually; i.e. the "risks" I am always wanting to take, are, I guess, more of the cerebral and inter-personal/inter-subjective sensual "between us" variety and less of the MTV show "Jackass" variety].

But more to a "serious" point here, I agree with Dan [who actually helped me a while back, via Bersani as well, to embrace this idea of ontological passivity] that a state of wonder/enchantment is precisely a point, or plane, or site, at and through which something else passes through, over, by, etc. *us* and is allowed to *be* in its most waxing fullness, and yes, this is a form of justice in the sense that something other than ourselves is allowed, by our holding *still* yet with eyes and all pores wide open [our openings *open*] its space in the world, is even allowed to *be* world for a moment, to breathe, to live, to exercise its freedom, to be let alone [cadging from Karl again], to be beautiful or terrifying, sacred, or profane, etc.

More in a bit on your questions, Dan [which currently boggles my mind a bit, but in a good way],

"Does a world have a world, or can a world be worldless (insert the little Derrida on my shoulder here to hold up the international sign for différance?)? In giving the world back to itself, is what we are really doing letting it rather stand as a kind of All-ness amidst a worldless cosmos that abolishes that previous notion of world?"

Nicola Masciandaro said...

anywhere at all where I might enjoy getting out of my headHe who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity's sun rise (Blake)

"For me—how could there be something outside me? There is no outside! But we forget this with all sounds; how lovely it is that we forget!" (Nietzsche)

The central question for me in this conversation is the question of forgetfulness, its essential relation to pleasure, the issue of its ethics (its being selfish/unselfish, part of virtuous/vicious habit etc), its relations to knowledge and practices and politics of remembering, its relation to conscience, consciousness, and ignorance.

Between Eileen's description of the pleasure of forgetfulness and self-forgetfulness as absolutely necessary and Karl's concern that cultivating gardens of forgetfulness may be irresponsible and/or ethically risky, I think we have to insert the distinction between forgetfulness and unconsciousness. Forgetfulness as I think of it is something very different from heedlessless (in the sense of unthinking or blind or unaware absorption) but is rather a good kind of headlessness, a letting go of one's head that might relate to what I called at Kalamazoo "the place of pleasure where the burdens of understanding the past and planning the future become an unpredictable baroque frame for remembering the present." Here we can think of forgetfulness not as erasure but as the relaxation and drawing back of memory into the present, not a loss of all the shoulds and musts, but a letting them be that not only does not interfere with doing something about them but precisely permits one to actually do something about them. Forgetfulness of this kind is not only necessary on just about every level of existence but is also a responsibility, no? Everything happens through forgetfulness and especially the more creative forms of individual and collective creative action and labor. Work requires that we forget about life and even become as Dan knows "worldless." Both absorbed attention and spontaneous inspiration happen through forgetfulness. Real care involves ceasing the independent activity of concern (Cf. Anna's comments on auto-spectrality post); being aware of something does not require worrying about it, i.e. anxiously remembering it, an activity that too often passes (subjectively, socially, culturally) for ethical action and is thus the perfect mask of hypocrisy/dishonesty/piety (see how concerned I am? see how responsible?). Forgiveness is pointless without forgetfulness, hence the ethical odiousness of the identitarian "never forget" mentality whatever it is is applied to. "Whether men soar to outer space or dive to the bottom of the deepest ocean they will find themselves as they are, unchanged, because they will not have forgotten themselves nor remembered to exercise the charity of forgiveness." And on and on . . .

Kvond's/Spinoza's point about wonder is important, and backs up Karl's (wonder as elision of the other, erasure of labor, etc.), especially insofar as wonder can be like weak or reified or selfish forgetfulness. Or better, lustful as opposed to loving forgetfulness, forgetfulness that fatally depends upon a specific kind of sense object, appropriative wonder that would bind its joy to itself as object. Institutions of wonder, as medievalists are prone to know, are central apparatuses of state and church power; they sell and display wonder as a property of peculiar wondrous objects to which knight and priest are entitled to appropriation (you need me, this church, this cabinet, this disneyworld, to experience wonder). But the wonderful person, the one full of wonder (as Augustine explains) is fully capable of entertaining herself (think Francis singing French love songs to God with two sticks for fiddle, or two medievalists blissing out writing a commentary on a Dante sonetto). Here the psychic dependence of persons on wonder as consumption, enslavement to entertainment industries, does seem a terrible impoverishment. Yet another reason why I am attracted, in the context of scholarly work, to production as consumption (cf. Bataille's depense), rather than working as for a disciplinary manorial field, cultural capital, etc., not to mention writing as learning to forget, history as exorcising the past as burden, and so on.

Hic, hic, hic, the severed ramekins says . . . or as I just found by randomly opening Vaneigem's free spirit heresy book (the sortes procedure never ceases testifying to the unnecessariness of remembering everything): "There is no eternity save that which lives at the heart of the present moment, in the unfettered enjoyment of the self . . . I know of nothing more odious than the commonly accepted formula that calls for everyone to renounce his life in order to save it; yet I am delighted that, because of the increasing difficulty of subsidizing survival, a new awareness is slowly emerging. . . . Paradoxically, the Middle Ages seem closer to us, in their demand for immediacy, than the period that extended from the Renaissance to the 1960s, when every generation seemed to delude itself about its future history."

Anonymous said...

[I respond to each poster, without reading the next yet, so as to do conceptual justice]

Dan: "I always o this point come back to Derrida's sense of the what-is-coming (from Specters of Marx) in which radical hospitality (something i think akin to wonder--because it opens one while being _fixed_ on it to whatever it is as what it is) risks either justice or, radical evil.

Kvond: Well, this is the difficulty with Kant, as Lacan and others exposed. THAT kind of radical justice is indeed structurally unseverable from radical evil. This simply is not what I imagine justice to be. One does not risk the Holocaust in order to be more just. And people/theoreticians who propose such risk usually are not those who actually have experienced its darker side. We like to say such things as "radical evil" because they are conceptually acute, but radical evil is not a triffle. But it is more than this, I do not believe that radical evil and radical justices are linked at all, that is, Kant got the form of the Good all wrong.

Further, it is not at all clear that zones of enchantment, that is zones of intense libidnal investment, sacred deliniation, are examples of "radical hospitality". If anything, one select ones are invited so such places, ones that have been purified or vetted by rites of passage. To take the most common of these zone, genitalia are certainly not zones of "radical hospitality" (and for those that are, these are often considered the lowest of society, or the worse off).

Dan: The point at which writing and philosophy really begin to do their work is at this point which is pleasurable and ethical--but to get to that place one must constantly pass through a site of radical pluridirectionality--

Kvond: Yes, but "radical pluridirectionality" does not seem consonant with "zones of enchantment" if we are to accept Spinoza's notion that such zones of wonderment are defined by their very disconnection from all else. It is precisely that Spinoza reads "wonder" (which for him is some kind of blind astonishment) as disconnecting, retarding the "polydirectionality" that he finds wonder less than optimum. In every way Spinoza seeks to increase the number of ways the body can be affected or can affect others (as Deleuze was fond of emphasizing). The question is, Do zones of enchanment increase or descrease this capacity.

I have often struggled with this aspect of Spinoza, (and Deleuze's appropriation of it as well). Here have been some past thoughts on it, if any are interested:

Anonymous said...

Nicola: "Institutions of wonder, as medievalists are prone to know, are central apparatuses of state and church power; they sell and display wonder as a property of peculiar wondrous objects to which knight and priest are entitled to appropriation (you need me, this church, this cabinet, this disneyworld, to experience wonder). But the wonderful person, the one full of wonder (as Augustine explains) is fully capable of entertaining herself (think Francis singing French love songs to God with two sticks for fiddle, or two medievalists blissing out writing a commentary on a Dante sonetto).

Kvond: I think you hit upon a vital point. The former is what Spinoza has in mind, the way in which "wonder" is institutionally used to both transform, but also limit a population. Just as places are "zoned" people become zoned through their wonder. The latter though is a different kind of wonder, that which brims over our more staid boundaries, allowing communications we cannot anticipate. At the interpersonal level, especially when we are dealing with more than two (two lovers, an author and her/his audience, a soul and her/his God), it is hard to see where the latter suddenly becomes the former (but it does). The ocean of it becames conduited when we seek to teach/organize that wonder for others, and then they for others as well. It becomes an instruction of a new kind of affective body that has specific new capacities, but also deeply shadowed blind spots and tremendous capacity for thoughtless habituation.

Anonymous said...

Eileen: "I agree with Dan [who actually helped me a while back, via Bersani as well, to embrace this idea of ontological passivity] that a state of wonder/enchantment is precisely a point, or plane, or site, at and through which something else passes through, over, by, etc. *us* and is allowed to *be* in its most waxing fullness, and yes, this is a form of justice in the sense that something other than ourselves is allowed, by our holding *still* yet with eyes and all pores wide open [our openings *open*] its space in the world.

Kvond: I think that this is a worthy pursuit, personally, and a powerful method of transformation. But it is not at all clear that societies can be organized along such sites, such planes. Or, to put it another way, such planes are only brought into being and process often with great cruelty and regimentation of spirit. It is one thing to play a (serious) sadomasochistic game, another to experience systematic political torture (let us say, the way in which a populace then becomes the BwO of totalitarian effort to homogenize behaviors and possibly beliefs). Inquisitional Catholic priests very well might of thought that they were bringing heretics into a...

"site, at and through which something else passes through, over, by, etc. *us* and is allowed to *be* in its most waxing fullness"A fullness that no doubt registered itself on the faces and bodies of their victims.

[Sorry if this is a duplicate post, but having a hard time negotiating the comments section]

Eileen Joy said...

kvond: thanks so much for all of your engaged ad thoughtful comments here. I will just attempt a response to your last one, where you raise the troubling issue of whether or not sites of enchantment/wonder [and also the ontological passivity that, I guess, I am arguing might be a prerequisite for bringing such a state into being] might entail "great cruelty and regimentation of spirit." Well, it certainly could [and your example of s/m as a "game" and political torture is an apt one], but I would enevr argue, nor am I arguing here, for a stance of ontological passivity at all times and in all situations. Youve got to cultivate your sites of enchantment carefully and with some ethical caution and lightness of touch/affect, of course. My thinking on this matter of ontological passivity is greatly influenced by Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit's book "Forms of Being: Cinema, Aesthetics, Subjectivity," and especially the last chapter "One Big Soul" which is about Terence Malick's 1998 film "The Thin Red Line," which, since it is set in the Pacific theater in WWII is actually very apropos to your concerns here. How could one, for instance, maintain a stance of ontological passivity and even wonder at the world in such a milieu? And yet, if you know the film, that is exactly what the character of Private Witt [played by Jim Caviezel] manages to do, and I don't 100% agree with Bersani and Dutoit that we should aspire to a kind of passivity within which we "let the world be" [p. 164]. More specifically, they focus on Witt's passivity and the ways in which the film focuses on his *looking* at everything that happens around him with *no claims* on what is happening:

"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). Witt approaches the limit of a subject without selfhood, ideally an anonymous subject. . . . his unforgettable presence is the result of his ontological passivity--not the passivity of someone who submits to the will of others, but the active passivity of someone who, acknowledging that he *is* the world in which he lives, make his self superfluous in order to multiply his being. The attentive way in which Witt's look simply lets the world be also replicates the world as an accretion to consciousness, and a look, ceaselessly receptive to the world. The forms is absorbs constitute the identity of the absorbing consciousness. Lessness is the condition of allness." [p. 165]

If you've seen the movie, this will make more sense, of course [and I can't recommend the movie highly enough, actually], and again, I don't know if I completely like/love this analysis of Witt in Malick's film, although I wonder, too, what happens when we are caught up in maelstroms that are so violent and apocalytpic [world wars, slavery, genocide, regimes of terror, etc.] that the idea that one person can make a difference really is just . . . beside the point, maybe even sublimely absurd, but what's the alternative [?]: to just let the horrors wash over you while in a state of *active* passivity?

I guess, for my own purposes, and again, I would not advocate for ontological passivity [active or not] as a continual "state of mind" and inaction, as it were, but I will continue to believe that, as far as ethics are concerned, and even more so, justice, that wonder--as a state of amazed suspension--might be necessary in order to let some thing/persons/events/etc. be completely free and unto themselves. Not everything, certainly not torture or the torturers. I do not think rationality has served us at all well in the matter of what we call "enlightenment." I'm ready for something else.

Anonymous said...

I am at a loss for how to respond as I have not seen the film you suggest, nor the book cited, but I should likely hunt them down if I can. But back to the kernel of the issue I was trying to push forth, how to you rectify your thoughts on the "cultivation" of sites, which invokes something of Deleuze and Guattari's thoughts in constructing a BwO...

Eileen: " Youve got to cultivate your sites of enchantment carefully and with some ethical caution and lightness of touch/affect, of course."

and Dan's suggestion that one had to risk "radical evil":

Dan: " I always o this point come back to Derrida's sense of the what-is-coming (from Specters of Marx) in which radical hospitality (something i think akin to wonder--because it opens one while being _fixed_ on it to whatever it is as what it is) risks either justice or, radical evil."

...a notion of "risk" you seem to whole-hearted embrace.

I mean, radical evil is after all radical. And my ears prick up with such a phrase is used conceptually. It is no light thing at all. How is it that you view that we should/could delicately, and ethically cultivate the risk of radical evil?

It is one thing to cultivate a pleasure garden, one that opens up affective conduits and affect transfers far beyond the conditioned orbits of our habitation of thoughts. It is perhaps another thing to "risk radical evil," especially in the sense that someone like Badiou might mean, one in which we engage an affective process of change under the eventual auspices of categorical totalization.

Perhaps though you and dan mean something else by "radical evil" (and its risk). I had in mind something of the invertive use of Kant's Imperative, Sade's ontology of destruction, Badiou's revolutionary universal revolution. If you have some other sense, I would be very interested in it.

p.s. thanks for your kind words.