Wednesday, March 30, 2005

precisely why I find Agamben problematic

Courtesy of n+1:
Agamben hints at a reversed version of the contemporary reading of the Hegelian-Kojèvean "End of History" - now familiar to us in America as the neoconservatives' favorite bedtime story, since it moved from Hegel via Kojève to Leo Strauss and Allen Bloom, then to Francis Fukuyama. (Paul Berman traced this history in A Tale of Two Utopias.) Rather than liberal democracy being the end state of political history for Agamben, the biopolitical project of the regulation of health and life will teach people to manifest their own bare life voluntarily and thereby prove indigestible (somehow) to all states and sovereignty - bringing us into the post-national utopia.

Update: I've copied out more of this review to give the above some context, and because there seems to be genuine interest. Please consider a subscription to help support Mark Greif sometime.
Another inheritance is the notion of a face-to-face interaction in which human beings diclose their full humanity, the more so when they lack all institutinos, positive law, and governmental forms. The idea is present in Arendt as well as Benjamin, not only in The Human Condition (where Arendt has been extensively criticized for her idealized picture of Athenian democracy) but in the description of the French Resistance that opens her Between Past and Future - where real politics vanished in 1945 as soon as the underground dissolved and a French state returned.

But the most important and basic tradition that seems to lie behind Agamben's politics is the deep hostility to human rights, derived from Marx, that has always divided certain kinds of European thought from most of the American left. The classical text of Marx for opposition to human rights (as the Rights of Man) was his early "Reflections on the Jewish Question." It contains the famous passage, after Marx's analysis of the various rights awarded to citizens by the French and American Revolutions, on true human emancipation:

'Human emancipation will only be complete when the real, individual man has absorbed into himself the abstract citizen; when as an individual man, in his everyday life, in his work, and in his relationships, he has become a species-being [i.e. recognizes human community]; and when he has recognized and organized his own powers as social powers so that he no longer separates this social power from himself as political power.'

You feel here the mood of Agamben's politics of the revived human being overcoming the spurious, rights-based "citizen"–but also many genuinely political particulars that have no correspondence in Agamben. Marx anticipated Arendt's historical work, critiquing human rights that pretended to apply to "humans" or "men" but only applied to citizens who derived rights from the state. (This was Joseph de Maistre's conservative critique, too: "I have met Italians, Russians, Spaniards, Englishmen, Frenchmen, but I do not know Man.") More characteristically, Marx argued that when a bill of rights prohibits the state from certain powers over parts of individual life (property, speech), it only relocateds coercive power to the level of civil society and its bourgeois masters, so that men can be exploited while calling themselves free. But his solutions, therefore, moved toward the concrete level of production (as he moved forward toward Capital, and the "organization" of "social power" as recognizable political power. When the language of rights must be invoked, a longstanding Marxist argument opts for a conception of substantive positive rights (to employment, to food and shelter, to livelihood) against the purely negative rights of freedom from state repression. (A history of this critique, and its analogues on the Right, is traced in Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut's Political Philosophy 3: From the Rights of Man to the Republican Idea–a work in service of the human-rights-based, republican turn of French thought in the early 1980s, but no less accurate for that.)

"Bare life," as a remedy as well as a problem, is inimical to political rights. Means Without End, Agamben's clearest and simplest political book, clarified the motivations of Homo Sacer in a series of short essays. The title is an allusion to Agamben's central political idea: that when people can come to manifest pure means, without asking for anything substantive as an end, they will demystify power and slip the yoke of all of its imprisoning forms. "Politics is the sphere of pure means, that is, of the absolute and complete gesturality of human beings," he suggests (italics in original). A coming community of true political actors will manifest pure "impotence" or powerlessness, becoming like the concentration-camp inmate so removed from daily actuality he could no longer be touched by Nazi power; or like Melville's Bartleby, who would neither do nor not do, but only "prefer no to." The new actors will manifest their bare life, discovering therby their true humanity, a humanity restored because it surrenders any hope of finding its inner divisions or human nature.

Agamben's idea, rather than holding that revolutionaries' demands should be directed differently, as in Marx, is that they should necessarily be nonspecific and, indeed, unfulfillable in any way that ordinary politics would recognize. As he writes in Means Without End:

'[T]o risk advancing a prophecy here–the coming politics will no longer be a struggle to conquer or control the state on the part of either new or old social subjects, but rather a struggle between the state and the nonstate (humanity)....This is the lesson that could have been learned from Tiananmen, if real attention had been paid to the facts of that event. What was most striking about the demonstrations of the Chinese May, in fact, was the relative absence of specific contents in their demands. (The notions of democracy and freedom are too generic to constitute a real goal of struggle, and the only concrete demand, the rehabilitation of Hu Yaobang, was promptly granted.)'

For Americans, this can lead to a kind of sticking point (and maybe for some Chinese protestors of Tiananmen Square, too, if you asked them). Are "democracy" along with "freedom"–which I presume in the context of the Chinese protests means civil liberties, such as freedom of speech, of assembly, of the press, etc.–"too generic to constitute a real goal of struggle"? Unless you are prepared to launch into true non-state politics–unless, that is, you are messianically ready for a coming apocalypse, in which things must get far worse before they get better–you might have to say no.

That's from an extensive review of State of Exception written by Mark Greif in their wonderfully rich and responsible second issue.

Now surely you say, the conception of "human rights" must be subjected to a deconstructive reading in pursuing a justice beyond law or a 'perpetual peace', or a cosmopolitanism or hospitality beyond the trappings of nationalism...but Agamben's apocalypsism, however subtle, or subtly adapted, remains troubling. Does his wager take unnecessary risks? Is his unique politicization of Blanchot's desoeuvrement still offering some kind of hope for a purely 'potential', 'weak' or 'unworking' power? Is it faithful to Blanchot?

NB: Some related follow-ups and thoughts are here and here.

that old trick

But justice, however unpresentable it may be, doesn't wait. It is that
which must not wait. To be direct, simple, and brief, let us say this: a just
decision is always required *immediately*, "right away." It cannot furnish
itself with infinite information and the unlimited knowledge of conditions,
rules or hypothetical imperatives that could justify it. And even if it did
have all of that at its disposal, even if it did give itself the time, all the
time and the necessary facts about the matter, the moment of *decision,* *as
such,* always remains a finite moment of urgency and precipitation, since it
must not be the consequence or effect of this theoretical or historical
knowledge, of this reflection or deliberation, since it always marks the
interruption of the juridico- or ethico- or politico-cognitive deliberation that
precedes it, that *must* precede it. The instant of decision is a madness, says
Kierkegaard. This is particularly true of the instant of the just decision that
must rend time and defy dialectics. It is a madness.


Politicization, for example, is interminable even if it cannot and
should not ever be total. To keep this from being a truism or a triviality, we
must recognize in it the following consequence: each advance in politicization
obliges one to reconsider, and so to reinterpret, the very foundations of law
such as they had been previously calculated or delimited. This was true for
example in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, in the abolition of slavery, in
all the emancipatory battles that remain and will have to remain in progress,
everywhere in the world, for men and for women. Nothing to me seems more
outdated than the classical emancipatory ideal. We cannot attempt to disqualify
it today, whether crudely or with sophistication, at least not without treating
it too lightly and forming the worst complicities. But beyond these identified
territories of juridico-politicization on the grand geo-political scale, beyond
all self-serving interpretations, beyond all determined and particular
reappropriations of international law, other areas must constantly open up that
at first can only seem like secondary or marginal areas. This marginality also
signifies that a violence, indeed a terrorism and a hostage-taking are at work
(the examples closest to us would be found in the are of laws on the teaching
and practise of languages, the legitimization of canons, the military use of
scientific research, abortion, euthanasia, problems of organ transplant,
extra-uterine conception, bio-engineering, medical experimentation, the social
treatment of AIDS, the macro- or micro-politics of drugs, the homeless, and so
on, without forgetting, of course, the treatment of what we call animal life,


Monday, March 28, 2005

Act! Zizek! Par Excellence!

Consistently the title disappoints. Zizek's books sometimes strike me as works composed entirely of titles. But this is a post about the Act (the authentic, revolutionary, radical, strong sense Act). You know, the one (singular!) that rearranges the coordinates without being able to predict or foresee exactly how, affirming jouissance and nihilism and inevitable self-destruction and something about Lenin and Lacan and most definitely not endorsing liberal democracy. It has been suggested that Zizek's heroic Actor may be seen passing the whatever! multitude going the other way. Some even go so far as to call Zizek a conservative par excellence:
For Zizek, objections to official ideologies which stop short of an Act are 'the very form of ideology', and the gap between complaint' and Acts is 'insurmountable'. So protest politics 'fits the existing power relations' and carnivals are 'a false transgression which stabilizes the power edifice'. This position misreads past revolutionary movements - including the decades-long revolutionary process in Russia - and offers nothing to the development of a left strategy to challenge the existing system...Zizek's politics are not merely impossible, but potentially despotic (between support for a master, acceptance of pain and alienation, militarism and the restoration of order) tendentially conservative. They serve only to discredit the left and further alienate those it seeks to mobilise. Instead, a transformatice politics should be a process of transformation, an alinear, rhizomatic, multiform plurality of resistances, initiatives, and, indeed, act, which are sometimes spectacular and carnivalesque, sometimes prefigurative, sometimes subterranean, sometimes rooted in institutional change and reform, sometimes directly revolutionary. Zizek's model of the pledged group, bound together by the One who Acts, is entirely irrelevant to the contemporary world and would be a step backwards from the decentred character of current left-radical politics. Nor need this decentring be seen as a weakness as Zizek insists. It can be a strength, protecting radical politics from self-appointed elites, transformism, infiltration, defeat through the 'neutralisation' of leaders, and the threat of a repeat of the Stalinist betrayal. In contrast with Zizek's stress on subordination, exclusivity, hierarchy and violence, the tendency of anti-capitalists and others to adopt anti-authoritarian, heterogeneous, inclusive and multiform types of activity offer a better chance of effectively overcoming the homogenising logic of capitalism and of winning support among wider circles of those dissatistied with it. Similarly, the emphasis on direct action - which can include ludic, carnivalesque and non-violent actions as well as more overtly confrontational ones - generates the possibility of empowerment through involvement in and support for the myriad causes which make up the anti-capitalist resistance. This resistance stands in stark contrast to the desert of 'heroic' isolation advocated by Zizek, which, as Laclau puts it, is 'a prescription for political quietism and sterility'.

Now is this just pure straw-man beat-up here? I'm not convinced. Surely it indulges in rhetorical exaggerations and accusations one could diligently refute, but the general thrust of the argument seems common enough when considering Zizek's own words. But perhaps we are not supposed to take him directly at his word? Or is such facile criticism merely the predictable liberal response par excellence?

Anyway, I intended only to raise a simple question. The article above seems to assume that Zizek only calls an 'Act' that which errs on the side of the worst. If this is true, then his dogmatic equivalencies, rhetorical or not, cannot responsibly be digested without either active refutation or constructing some kind of defense for polemical excess. But isn't the Act (in the strong sense) rather that which has merely taken into serious consideration both poles of possibility (killing one's own family, say - pulling 'Stagger Lee', let's call it - as opposed to negotiating with terrorists)? Having so considered, is the authentic Actor one who sees and, most responsibly, seeks to proceed in the face of a fundamentally unresolveable, radical aporia while at all costs still refusing 'the worst'? Would that be like pulling a 'Good Cowboy' then? (I am thinking of the film "Big Country" - but these epic Anglo analogies have their limits.) Maybe Zizek finally agrees with this conception of Act as negotiation, in which case he would merely be sloganizing Derrida through a bullhorn as usual (negotiation, like responsibility, being two of Derrida's less than most sexiest ever favorite terms). In any case, one may well worry about the danger of a theorist becoming hirself an example. Zizek may be on the verge of repeating not 'Lenin but 'Sartre, and Christ knows we don't need that.

Now that I have just snarked, or attempted to snark, let me say that this proposal sounds splendid.

Friday, March 25, 2005

nyum, nyum

chewing gum
when friedman chews 1,500 pieces of bubblegum to build a
perfect sphere (untitled, 1990) that ends up wedged into a corner
of the room as if it were, precisely, a piece of chewing gum,
it is the knowledge of his quasi medieval investment of time that
gives the piece its power.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

aging well.

How much queasier can you get than watching Jimmy Stewart engage in ersatz necrophilia? Hitchcock has aged well, in a way. Thomas Friedman, on the other hand, has not. Nope, not really. Update: I must admit that this made me laugh, a little bit.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005


The Infinite

This solitary hill has always been dear to me,
And this hedgerow, which closes in the view
So well that one need hardly look upon the west.
But sitting and reflecting, from out of the endless
Expanse of night sky, and the supernatural
Silences and so profound stillnesses,
It comes to me here how I beguile myself;
For a moment, then, the heart no longer fears.
And, like the wind I hear whisper among these leaves,
I hear within that infinite silence a voice:
It overwhelms me with the eternal,
And the seasons passed away, and that present
And living, and with its own sound. Thus within
This immensity my thoughts are drowned...
And it is sweet to be shipwrecked in this sea.

-Giacomo Leopardi
translation by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

essential things

A sunny afternoon spent devouring the Number Two Spring Issue of n+1, which arrived today. Or maybe this weekend, as I was away in New York visiting an old friend (a tradition of shared birthday celebrations, helium balloon competition - it hardly seems to matter she is three times my senior. A nonagenarian, she has finally stopped driving, so I bring her some vintage matchbox cars. She hands me an old phonograph and several hundred LPs, mostly Vivaldi, Handel, Mozart, Schubert, Gilbert and Sullivan, Scottish Folksongs and pre-WWII German University Songs...)

N+1 is a truly exquisite publication. For philosophical verve, unsentimental, memoir-esque fresh fiction, cultural criticism, intelligent reviews and original, unmelodramatic writing - in short, for absolute modernity without the vodka ads - one couldn't really do much better. It is also quite funny, in a deliberately non-Eggersardian manner. Responsible to the deeper questions of literature without forsaking politics. Important blog people even think so. If you only subscribe to one magazine, and remain otherwise content with the substantial online offerings of litblogs, Postmodern Culture and Contretemps then well, you are in good company. You may subscribe for the price of a decent steak here.

I hope Marco doesn't mind me reproducing some excerpts from The Intellectual Situation: A Diary (which does seem to function almost as a manifesto, of sorts):
But it looks today like the happiness doctors have won. Totalitarian states enforced happiness through love of force, worship of terror, submergence in the mass. Liberal democracy was more easygoing about it, and that proved wiser. Pills keep us cheerful; sex is healthy exercise; violent light entertainment passes the time. Aldous Huxley wrote a letter to George Orwell right after 1984 appeared, in which he praised the Big Brother vision but had to say he thought his own prediction of the future would be a lot closer to the truth. Not a boot stomping on your face for all eternity, but a society in which preferring unhappiness - because you didn't want happiness by ersatz means - would be the totally unintelligible thing. We are told the terrorists hate our freedoms - but who was freer than those guys, riding around Afghanistan in pick-up trucks with Kalashnikovs? It's not our freedoms we're going to bring the peoples of the world. No, we're going to bring them our happiness...


They weren't wrong, the positivists - you didn't have to get very far into academic Idealism to see it was so much soft-boiled egg. The tragedy of analytic philosophy was the fact that it won so decisively in US philosophy departments - annihilating its traditionalist competition - at just the wrong time. It triumphed in the Sixties, when the actual convulsions of US society called for a renewed treatment of love, freedom, the other, politics, and history - "pseudo-problems" turned intensely real. It was nice to have John Searle so understanding of SDS at Berkeley, and Hilary Putnam chanting Maoist slogans at Harvard; but the kids in Paris had Foucault.

In fiction, nothing is so clear-cut...By the 1940s and 1950s, when newly professional critics ruled both the small literary journals and the universities, American greatness became a closed system. Because the critics had just solidified two different canons at the same time - an Old Testament of the American Renaissance (Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman), and a New Testament of American modernism (James, Elito, Hemingway, Faulkner) - they didn't need to step outside it. It was type and antitype, the 1920s speaking to the 1850s and vice versa, accomplishing all things, and contemporary postwar writers were left out in the cold. The demands on new novelists, for a "Great American Novel" in the vein of these Gospels, became too great. The astonishing thing was that artists still occasionally delivered, as Ellison and Bellow each did once - but they were an end and not a beginning.
By the mid-'60s something crippling was happening to fiction, still quite hard to explain: articulate writers blamed the sheer craziness of American life (Roth) or the "exhaustion" of forms (Barth). There was the pressure of criticism, which could lead even a dyed-in-the-wool critic like Sontag to declare herself "Against Interpretation"; others pointed to academic writing programs and the group therapy of the workshop. In short order, 1968 arrived, and the chaotic Seventies, an era which received - in place of Germinal or Sentimental Education or The Posessed, or even The Grapes of Wrath! - Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow and William Gaddis's JR...But in retrospect these books appear marginal...heroic sighs of depletion instead of inaugural hymns.


The big mistake right now would be to fail to keep faith with what theory once meant to us. You hear a great collective sigh of relief from people who don't have to read "that stuff" anymore - the ones who never read it in the first place. But who will insult these people now, expose their life as self-deception, their media as obstacles to truth, their conventional wisdom as ideology? It will be unbearable to live with such people if they aren't regularly insulted.

And all of us who spent our formative years on a critique of the sign can't only have gone into advertising. So theory will return in unexpected ways...


The author photo: Few books fail to include a headshot now; it makes it that much harder to read anything. Even book reviews run photos of the author, in a triumph of crassness that took a decade to worm its way up from local newspapers to the New York Times. The local papers had no other way to fill the columns, lacking staff reporters. What is the Times' excuse?
There ought to be nothing more irrelevant than an author's face...


The novel's anxiety to have a ready-made public makes it less and less deserving of one. The novel needs to get over the 19th century. For about a hundred years it was the dominant art form of bourgeouis civilization. Since then, as if unwilling to resign its old position, it's tried to contend with movies and TV, not to mention long nonfiction articles in the New Yorker. Now it tries to rival the stand-up routine and, in novel-memoir, the daytime talk show...Someone should tell the novel that is not and never was dying; those death-throes were just the feeling of a monopoly ending, the shortness of breath that comes with loss of market share. Let the comedians, the lip-gloss models, the movie directors, the journalists and historians be. Their work may be inferior to the novelist's, but they do it better than he does....A novelist who isn't truly alone when he writes will never provide a reader worthwhile company.

Well, I get carried away. It's tempting to quote the whole damn thing. Also contained in these 248 pages: a piece on Isaac Babel, on "Last Cigarettes" (recalling for me Josipovici), fair but devastating reviews of Roth, Agamben and Art Spiegelman, and some excellent poetry. Well you may peruse the contents for yourself.

whose protests? whose U.N.? Shy-vo, ei-o, ei-o

Yoshie puts two and two together. Well, it's high time something backfired. Update: Or maybe the political costs are already being washed away as the corporate networks drown us in necrophilia dignified. They knew they could count on a good show, in any case. And with promises that 'Terri' (not Mrs., that would imply a certain sovereignty, difficult to reconcile with the victim script) may continue to live/die for a full two weeks... well anti-war protests are so boring anyway. An auto-immune race to the bottom, this television. Repetition compulsion, poshlost' run amock. Denial of the work of mourning. No wonder suicide seems a tempting sort of affirmation these days, and especially among soldiers (an affirmation that remains nevertheless shallow and reactive, a false exist, no solution to the problem of living with the im-possibility of death). Let's not drown yet, turn off the set (apologies to Wittgenstein).

“How fading and insipid,” Swift wrote, “do all Objects accost us that are not convey’d in the Vehicle of Delusion?”

Also from Harper's:
It is not physician-assisted suicide that poses the greatest threat to the poor and the disabled but physician-assisted eternal life: the desire of the old and the rich to avoid death at any cost, especially if the cost can be passed on to another generation or another continent. The worldwide trade in organs—nine farmers in the Indian village of Rentachintala selling their kidneys to pay off debts to the pawnbrokers who lend them money to buy seed—is but one of the more egregious examples. The trade in ultra-desirable “fresh” human ova is likely to emerge as another. We already know the countries and the classes from which they’re going to be harvested.

Is anything more indicative of the vast chasm that exists between rich and poor, between a minority in surfeit and a majority in woe, than the fact that a few should lobby for deliverance from high-tech medical care while millions clamor for the basics of a first aid kit? It is a well-known statistic that with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, Americans consume a quarter of the world’s nonrenewable energy. It is considerably less well-known that within that all-consuming sliver, per capita federal spending on the elderly exceeds the amount spent on children by a ratio of 11 to 1. When I was younger and more romantic I could imagine serving the poor by dying in a revolution. Now it seems as though the most truly revolutionary thing I could do is simply to die.

On another note, there will be two more films about the Rwanda genocide. One thing that did vaguely irk me about "Hotel Rwanda" in addition to the somewhat pat, therapeutic, and rather Biblical ending, was the lack of long-term historical context given. It looks like "Sometimes in April", also based primarily on survivors' testimony and documentary footage, may delve a little bit deeper yet, if still without risking too much offense. The one thing that remains consistent is the mirror of shame pointing back at the French and United States govenments who failed to act soon enough. But it risks having all the effect of a familiar, tired trope if these films do no engage further and risk real dialogue over remaining controversial questions. One reason why one wishes, increasingly, that there was a competitive critical West Wing series - one where all efforts were not always made to redeem Clinton at every turn. In fact, wouldn't it be nice if Clinton received some blame for the thoroughly monopolied, income-gap state of affairs threatening democracy today like never before? Maybe just one episode, where Martin Sheen slaps down labor, endorses corporate mergers and is exposed as using multi-purpose, smart-sounding rhetoric in vastly opposite scenarios? In any case, it would still be nice to have him as the head of the U.N. right now (as was expected if Kerry had won). So long as there were never any more genocides in Africa...The simple point being, anyway, that deification and demonization, worship and scandal, are merely two sides of the same obsolete coin.

Matthew Yglesias writes:
What we need are more and better institutions that can, over time, make military power as unimportant as it is across the U.S.-Canadian border, or the Franco-Spanish one. America's dominance is only valuable insofar as such a world does not yet exist; insofar as it fades because we have created one, we come out ahead. At its best, American power is used -- as it was during the Gulf War -- to strengthen and enforce a rule-based, global security regime.

(Both of these articles courtesy of Political Theory Daily Review.)

Monday, March 21, 2005

aging well

Our condition has become one in which our natural mode of perception is to view, feeling unseen. We do not so much look at the world as look out at it, from behind the self. It is our fantasies, now all but completely thwarted and out of hand, which are unseen and must be kept unseen. As if we could no longer hope that anyone might share them - at just the moment that they are pouring into the streets, less private than ever. So we are less than ever in a position to marry them to the world. Viewing a movie makes this condition automatic, takes the responsibility for it out of our hands. Hence movies seem more natural than reality. Not because they are escapes into fantasy, but because they are reliefes from private fantasy and its responsibilities; from the fact that the world is already drawn by fantasy.

- Stanley Cavell, found in Gabriel Josipovici's Touch, 43.

There would seem to be only two possible responses to Godard's films today. Some immediately claim that they are antiquated, hopelessly antiquated, if not obsolete - in short, they have not aged well. Others may suggest that such responses betray a certain ideological stance as well as an inability to see Godard's jokes. Personally, I am all for abrupt endings, for film experiences that are less than perfectly smooth, that seem to reference in advance their own antiquation even. Josipovici writes of addiction, and of a "great age of movies" that "was also the age of adolescence:"

(That our adolescence coincided with the great unselfconscious era of the Hollywood movie is of course pure chance, but it does suggest that we and all those born between 1920 and 1945 will always have a different sense of film from those born before or after.) Cavell, at any rate, spends a good deal of time wondering why the films he recalls with such pleasure are the middle-brow films produced with such confidence and in such quantities by the Hollywood machine, and why, now that movies seem to have caught up with the other arts, so to speak, and are dividing more and more clearly into high and middle-brow, there may be great films produced but it is impossible to view them with precisely the kind of delight with which we viewed them as teenagers...


Addiction, then, in the full sense of the word, is an adult condition, though its seeds are sown in childhood. And so it may well be that it is far too solemn, far too censorious, to describe film as having all the ingredients of addiction, as I did earlier; it may simply be that film is a form that a moment in our life when we are struggling to make the transition from child to adult, and that high-flown theories of the nature of film and the greatness of individual examples quite miss the point. (Touch, 44-45)

Anyway, I think what I admire most about Godard is his precision, even and especially - as he happens to say about Hitchcock - with regard to "the smallest" and "most subtle of truths." Contrived, clunky, quaint? But isn't this part of Godard's point? Is a sensitivity to Benjamin's 'aura' made possible by Godard's film's? Or maybe we should just be content to get our kicks from the renowned existentialist, Jim Carrey?

Thursday, March 17, 2005


A humbling little dose of reality for uppity English-degreed dish-washers. Juan Cole advises you to lighten up about "discovered" Networks and related matters with: Discover Your Momma's Network. I've been enjoying the Bob Dylan mp3s dating from 1962, available here.
Update: Bérubé has responded to Horrorwits yet again, of course. Tom Waits lists his top ten favorite albums. And to continue, unfortunately, the Dead Beat Watch:

Foucault's Heir, again

An interesting new translation of something Agamben has recently uttered (apparently he and "Toni" are the most disagreeing of palls) (via Mark Woods):

These are my questions :

Do we have to keep using the concept of movement ? If it signals a threshold of politicisation of the unpolitical, can there be a movement that is different from civil war ? or

In what direction can we rethink the concept of movement and its relation to biopolitics ?

Here I won’t give you any answers, it is a long term research project, but I have some indications :

The concept of movement is central to Aristotle, as kinesis, in the relaiton between potenza and act. Aristotle defines movement as the act of a potenza as potenza, rather than the passage to act. Secondly he says that movement is ateles, imperfect act, without an end. Here I would suggest a modification to his view, and maybe Toni might agree with me for once on this : that movement is the constitution of a potenza as potenza. But if this is true then we cannot think of movement as external or autonomous in relation to the multitude. It can never be subject of a decision, organisation, direction of the poeple, or element of politicisation of the multitude or the people.

Another interesting aspect in Aristotle is that movement is an unfinished act, without telos, which means that movement keeps an essential relation with a privation, an absence of telos. The movemetn is always constitutively the relation with its lack, its absence of end, or ergon, or telos and opera. What I always disagree with Toni about is this emphasis placed on productivity. Here we must reclaim the absence of opera as central. This expresses the impossibility of a telos and ergon for politics. Movement is the indefiniteness and imperfection of every politics. It always leaves a residue.

In this perspective the motto I cited as a rule for myself might be reformulated ontologically as this : the movement is that which if it is, is as if it wasn’t, it lacks itself (manca a se stesso), and if it isn’t, is as if it was, it exceeds itself. It is the threshold of indeterminacy between an excess and a deficiency which marks the limit of every politics in its constitutive imperfection.

Transcribed and translated by Arianna Bove from audio files available here.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Wittgenstein's Mistress

I'm sorry for not posting much of late, fighting a familiar case of the late winter, pre-birthday blues. Sorry of course not because of guilt over failing to be a good hyper-cyberactive, but because the 'community' 'here' is one I value greatly. A different, beautifully demanding relationship, no car, and three barely rewarding jobs being the easiest-to-identify bullshit excuses. While wondering what could possibly be said about David Markson that hasn't been said already (there is actually a good deal, I think, given his grossly underappreciated status, and maybe I am trying too hard to calibrate in advance an exact emotional or theoretical response), I've been re-reading some essays on Heidegger. For instance, this letter:

Monday, December 30, 1929 (at Schlick's)

I can readily think what Heidegger means by Being and Dread. Man has the impulse to run up against the limits of language. Think, for example, of the astonishment that anything exists. This astonishment cannot be expressed in the form of a question, and there is also no answer to it. Everything which we feel like saying can, a priori, only be nonsense. Nevertheless, we do run up against the limits of language. This running-up against Kierkegaard also recognized and even designated it in a quite similar way (as running-up against Paradox). This running-up against the limits of language is Ethics. I hold that it is truly important that one put an end to all the idle talk about Ethics--whether there be knowledge, whether there be values, whether the Good can be defined, etc. In Ethics one is always making the attempt to say something that does not concern the essence of the matter and never can concern it. It is a priori certain that whatever one might offer as a definition of the Good, it is always simply a misunderstanding to think that it corresponds in expression to the authentic matter one actually means (Moore). Yet the tendency represented by the running-up against points to something. St. Augustine already knew this when he said: What, you wretch, so you want to avoid talking nonsense? Talk some nonsense, it makes no difference!

-Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Heidegger on Being and Dread, in Heidegger and Modern Philosophy, Ed. Michael Murray, 1978

As much as I enjoyed reading it (even laughing out loud, and getting tight-throated at moments), to say that Wittgenstein's Mistress represents a running up against death would be saying too much, I think. That being said, all options are still on the table. There is running up, to be sure. A perpetual running up, seductive, charming, suggestive and genuinely moving running up. Talk about intertextuality! His prose style is absolutely contagious. But against death? Or is it more a running in place, maybe?

For something of real substance on David Markson I'd recommend this interview and this article. MadInkBeard also has a nice introduction.

Markson's scenario of a solitary, "philosophical garbage lady" may be especially potent for a very specific, structural reason, detached cultural echoes of iconoclasm or genre. Namely: he did in fact already write the initial traumatic period of her history, back when she discovers herself the last woman on earth. In a brillaint move, these 125 pages from the beginning of the novel were subsequently dropped. Why brilliant? I don't know, maybe because it's charming to know that the earlier events Kate refers to actually did take place in Kate's world? (The reader's identification with her, or sympathy for her at least, seems crucial somehow). Or because it's daring and allows for new unforeseen possibilities (like a Borges story) and layers of ambiguity? Or maybe it's just comforting to know the novel was actually work, although Markson admits to writing quickly, without revising until the very end? (It reads so damn effortlessly, but without the repetitions of phrase becoming trite or tiresome). Actually maybe they do become a little tiresome. Doubtless this is part of the point, you will say.
The part pertaining to philosophies of language, no doubt.
Or maybe I am just rather tired now, and unable to be dishonest about that.
This may be irresponsible in some important sense, I will effortlessly admit.
It did get 54 rejection notices, Markson's book, after all.
People thought it wouldn't sell.
Why on earth wouldn't a book composed of no paragraphs longer than two sentences sell these days?
Well not exactly these days, but in 1988.
This is a brutal way to touch a book, risking cheap parody. I will probably regret it in the morning. Does it matter? Why would one write a book in which nothing seemed to matter?

Well, because it works indirectly. In talking around the thing itself, the thing appears, or begins to appear, in its proper light. The novel works subtly, cumulatively, and leaves us with frozen...skirts. A dream of fame. We are not fools. We know some real person is behind this book. We are left to infer, and the soil cleared for inference, with regard to pain, and with regard to what it means to speak, to write, is rich indeed. Perhaps I did not put that very well.

The cynic returns. Well Joseph Tabbi would prefer to read Wittgenstein's Mistress as more suggestive for cognitive science than for deconstruction...I don't know, maybe he is on to something.

As wonderful as much contemporary hypertext can be--and I enjoy a great deal of it, particularly for its probing, often daring sense of chance and whimsy, for risking to make 'literature' itself tremble anew--there is also a tendency toward surface-level fixation or facile deferral that remains in some important sense--if not even categorically--opposed to the kind of sustained meditative thinking that leads to a sincere 'perhaps', to genuine fragments (that doesn't have to sound impossibly pretentious, I don't think). There are certainly identifiable motives--whether conscious or not--for such tendencies. But in any case I find much hypertext somewhat uniformly, predictably disappointing in its seeming compulsion toward tendencies that encourage us to stop thinking.

No, there's really no polite way to put it. Markson is not Wittgenstein. And neither is Kate.

After all, Wittgenstein lived in a world full of other people. Perhaps history does end when there is no 'other.' Perhaps the drawing of distinctions is more valuable, in the now, than the endless drawing of connections, where the same risks being taken for the same. "The same is not the same as the same," says Blanchot. Can a world with only one inhabitant still be a world at all? "The world is what we share with others," says Heidegger. How can a solitary being be said to die?

Kate menstruates in the novel, and often updates us about her stainings. This is brave and liberating, for a novel, especially since Markson is not a woman, and has never menstruated. There is a kind of cuteness that is quite touching, maybe. Disappointing and touching. They do go together, after all. Returning to the text, and quoting at length here is perhaps the only possibility...

Before I came back to the typewriter I went upstairs and took the framed snapshot out of the drawer in the table beside my bed, for just a moment.
I did not put it back on the table itself, however.
There was no book by Marco Antonio Montes de Oca in the carton either, if I happen to have given that impression.
On the other hand there were no less than seven books by Martin Heidegger.
I have no way of indicating the titles of any of these, of course, short of returning to the basement and copying out the German, which it would certainly seem pointless to trouble myself with.
When I say it would seem pointless, naturally what I meant is that I would still not understand one word of the German in any event.
A word that certainly did catch my attention was the word Dasein, however, since it seemed to appear on practically every page I opened to.
Martin Heidegger himself remaining somebody I know no more about than I know about Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, on the other hand.
Except for now knowing that he was certainly partial to the word Dasein, obviously.
Then again as I believe I have said one is frequently apt to come upon a name such as Martin Heidegger's in one's reading, even if one is scarcely apt to be reading any books by Martin Heidegger himself.
At least this would presumably remain the case if one happened to ever do any reading, which as I have also said I have stopped doing.
In fact I cannot remember the last book I read, even if it may on occasion have appeared to have been a life of Brahms.
All things considered I still do not believe it has ever been verified that I did read a life of Brahms, however.
As a matter of fact it has only at this moment struck me that every solitary thing I know about Brahms could have been learned by reading the backs of the jackets on phonograph records.
Possibly I have not mentioned reading the backs of the jackets on phonograph records before.
It is a thing one does, however.
Well, or did, in any event, since it can now also be fairly definitively stated that I have not read the back of the jacket on a phonograph record for basically as many years as I have not read a book.
In fact there are no phonograph records in this house.
Well, there is no phonograph either, when one comes down to that.
Actually, this may have surprised me when I first came to the house, although it is not something to which I have given any thought since I perhaps first gave it some thought.
Well, as I have furthermore said, I have not played any music since having gotten rid of my baggage in any case, said baggage having naturally included such things as generators for operating such things as phonographs.
None of this is counting whatever music I hear in my head, conversely.
Well, or even in certain vehicles when I have turned on the ignition and it has happened that the tape deck has been set to the on position.
Hearing Kathleen Ferrier singing Vincenzo Bellini under either of those circumstances being hardly the same thing as making a deliberate decision to hear Kathleen Ferrier singing Vincenzo Bellini, obviously.
Although what I am now suddenly forced to wonder is if certain things I do know about Brahms would have appeared on the backs of the jackets on phonograph records after all.
Such as about his affairs with Jane Avril or with Katherine Hepburn, for instance.
Or for that matter how do I know that Beethoven would sometimes write music all over the walls of his house when he could not get his hands on any staff paper quickly enough?
Or that George Frederick Handel once threatened to throw a soprano out of a window because she refused to sing an aria the way he had written it?
Or that the first time Tchaikovsky ever conducted an orchestra he was positive that his head was going to fall off, and held on to his head with one hand through the entire performance?
Well, or on another level altogether, would anybody writing the information for any of such jackets have actually troubled to put down that Brahms was known for carrying candy in his pocket to give to children when he visited people who had children?
Certainly nobody writing such information would have put that one of the children to whom Brahms now and again gave some candy might very well have been Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Perhaps I have not mentioned that one of the children to whom Brahms now and again gave some of that candy might very well have been Ludwig Wittgenstein.
On my honor, however, Brahms frequently visited the home of the Wittgenstein family, in Vienna, when Ludwig Wittgenstein was a child.
So if it is a fact that Brahms was known for carrying candy in his pocket to give to children when he visited people who had children, then surely it is likely that Ludwig Wittgenstein was one of the children he gave candy to.
Very possibly this was what was in Wittgenstein's own mind all of those years later, in fact, when he said that you do not need a lot of money to give a nice present, but you do need a lot of time.
By which I mean that if the person Wittgenstein had wished to give a present to had been a child, he could have naturally taken care of the problem exactly the way Brahms generally did.
Doubtless one does not stroll about Cambridge carrying candy in one's pocket to give to Bertrand Russell or to Alfred North Whitehead, however.
Although what one might now wish one's self is that Wittgenstein had been in the basement with me yesterday, so as to have given me some help with that Dasein.
Well, or perhaps even with that other word, bricolage, that I woke up with in my head, that morning.
Or likewise with the whole sentence that I also must have said to myself a hundred times, a little later on, about the world being everything that is the case.
Surely if Wittgenstein was as intelligent as one was generally led to believe he ought to have been able to tell me if that had meant anything, either.
Then again, something else I once read about Wittgenstein was that he used to think so hard that you could actually see him doing it.
And certainly I would have had no desire to put the man to that sort of trouble.
Although what this for some reason now reminds me of is that I do know one thing about Martin Heidegger after all.
I have no idea how I know it, to tell the truth, although doubtless it is from another one of those footnotes. What I know is that Martin Heidegger once owned a pair of boots that had actually belonged to Vincent Van Gogh, and used to put them on when he went for walks in the woods.
I have no doubt that this is a fact either, incidentally. Especially since it may have been Martin Heidegger who made the very statement I mentioned a long while ago, about anxiety being the fundamental mood of existence.
So that what he surely would have admired about Van Gogh to begin with would have been the way Van Gogh could make even a pair of boots seem to have anxiety in them.
Even if there was only the smallest likelihood that a pair of boots Van Gogh used to wear were the same pair he also once painted a painting of, obviously.
Unless of course he had painted with only his socks on, that day.

- David Markson, Wittgenstein's Mistress, 167-171

A morning thought: All games and instruments aside, what might it mean to read Markson's novel as itself a reading of the Tractatus as burdened precisely with a knowledge of the later Wittgenstein (he who more directly abandoned the proposition that logical structure must also be the essence of the world, refusing to make the leap from the nature of language to the nature of the world)? A reading of a novel, then, already haunted in advance not only by what came before (Kate's trauma) but by what came after (everything has happened already). Hence the inadequacy of Kate's descriptions to reflect anything but her own experience. That she expresses ambivalence toward Heidegger and Dasein is therefore important. Significantly perhaps, Kate's mood never veers into the experience of Angst, shame (homo sacer?), or radical boredom; she remains on the plane of the everyday. In short, Markson does not grant her any ontical confirmation of Heidegger's ontology. Perhaps Wittgenstein's Mistress, unlike Sein und Zeit, remains hesitating on a certain threshold before saying, "we."

Monday, March 07, 2005

an unhealthy closet liberal?

John Holbo nimbly puts Zizek down (granted, without a whisper of Lacan or much of Hegel). When Zizek takes as his point of departure the assumption that Fukuyama--with his "liberal democracy, perfect as it is, having finally and rightly inherited the earth for now and always"--is essentially full of shit, I don't really mind, to tell the truth. But the deeper question of responsibility remains, and Zizek, for one, would often seem to fancy his writing unanswerable. I will quickly admit that in today's climate the question of what may constitute a "healthy liberal" befuddles me a bit. In any event, the conversation continues elsewhere.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005


Hotel Rwanda last night, is (rightly) a difficult film experience to shake. The building itself has since been repaired, re-sanitized, and purged of memory. Made safe again, from conscious fools and cockroaches (rooster-fish)..

By pure chance, I was actually in neighboring Uganda with my mother just a few months before the uprising took place (I was about 13). The woman we had been staying with later defied U.N. orders (coming from the U.S.) and entered Rwanda to help with the orphan crisis.

Ryan also looks to be quite good (watch the clip).
Paolo does not kiss her, he kisses her mouth, just as in the story of Lancelot and Guinevere which they are reading it is not the queen who is kissed but the 'desired smile'. In addiction, as in the mirror, the self is fragmented and bits of the body float free of any unifying responsible self. That is why fetishism and addiction go together.

-Gabriel Josipovici, Touch