The other’s ebb

Capitalist society is organized to make it easy for us to avoid our neighbors, who are diminished in the rush of things to servants, salespeople, and strangers – figures with whom we can hardly be said to have “dialogue” in the daydream that is our daily life. They of course reciprocate by treating us as customers to be dealt with efficiently, potential offenders to be surveilled and policed, or again, one in an endless sea of insignificant strangers whose desires are incongruous with theirs. This lack of real interaction in the public sphere – which can also apply to co-workers one sees constantly, insofar as even that contact is adulterated by the “ulterior motive” of business – is in turn “balanced out” by the emphasis placed on private relations, which thus become the medium of escape, comfort, long-term meaning: the epicenter of our life’s desire. Suicide rates and the boredom of people -bored with themselves – in our culture would however indicate that this balance is only ever imperfectly achieved; it requires decent economic and job stability for one, but also that one adopt certain norms of behavior that make integration less bumpy and painful. (This adjustment of my desire to what is expected of me, however, is also labor: it extends to all the rules of etiquette, of self-advertising, gossip, rivalry, etc., in a word, whatever it is that pins us down as “individuals.”)

I would argue that this bifurcation between work and play, between productive labor and what we do in our “free time,” exacerbates the problem of “love” in the community, namely by foreclosing possibilities of Philia and Agape. Love becomes Eros – unity of two souls who ‘complete’ each other – when the space for love is only “big enough for the two of us.” This supports the illusion that individualistic or couple-centric happiness is the only one available and, moreover, the most preferable, most rewarding type (and TV sitcoms are there to convince us of it). Public is the place where you are to parade your private parts (selfies, family photos, status updates, etc.). “Public” is rendered a space of publication, publicity, and popularity – the private lives of notorious individuals, their curious desires and exploits come to dominate the private imaginations of average TV viewers. Our private life is increasingly being experienced as something to be put on show for all our friends. This is, to an extent, a positive development, even if it takes a distorted form in celebrity culture (but where else would we learn how to present ourselves? Van Gogh, Kafka, were also social media experts). Vilem Flusser calls it the “publishable private”: an emptiness that we share, exposing the truth of our finitude to other mortals. The negative side, however, is that the public sphere risks being stripped of being anything but an indifferent place where we share our private philosophical musings: a neutral sphere of commerce, transaction, anonymity, and distance. If we happen to connect with a stranger along our way to the grave, we’re lucky, and that’s beautiful; but ultimately we leave the organization of daily life up to capital. We do not challenge the work/play, productivity/leisure bifurcation, but accept it as the price we must pay (literally) to find true love and build a life with others.

I find it difficult not to see in this model of desire and of public privateness a perfect lubricant for the capitalist apparatus. To be clear, I do not mean to deny, or even doubt, the quality of love between people who make the most of having to live in such a barbaric situation. Nor do I wish to cast aspersions on the refined artistic creations that manifest in the soul’s retreat from it. But all this romanticism and pathos surrounding the solitary one – Negri calls it blackmail! – does make it very easy to forget the others struggling around you and to focus exclusively on the betterment of oneself. It lets one forget any notion of collective desire that would be free from the “spiritual” demands of the individual – and that would produce a group subjectivity that wasn’t limited to supporting its favorite authors and sports team.

Let me develop the last example for a moment. Again, I do not mean to knock on people who enjoy public sporting events, or to question the “authenticity” of the group experience they have there. But it is important to recognize that – however “loyal” one is to one’s team, or to one’s band, etc. – this experience is a fleeting one; it forms what Guattari would call a “dependent group,” meaning that it is largely inhibited from forming an utterance that would issue directly from it itself – a creative utterance that breaks through the cycle of stats, player profiles, mascots, and champions. Instead, the group remains dependent – on tour schedules, merchandising, trades, big money, executive power – all sorts of authority that, through one way or another, demand the repetition of the same structures, and thus ultimately bar time. To put it another way, the desire of this group remains unconscious, in an alienated state; it cannot actually develop its own perspectives, but is limited to adapting to other groups; it ossifies into a ‘mass’ and, very predictably, sticks to the rules of the game; it is inert because it constantly returns to the same problem, namely, that although it can be loud and make itself heard, in reality it has no idea why, or who cares to listen.

After the game, the fan is forced to head home to their computer and participate on forums or watch highlight reels on youtube. The relation between individuals who externally profess a certain shared desire actually never meet; or it is not a deep meeting, in the sense that this encounter transforms their respective existences and, more importantly, leads them to say things, talk about things, they never would have expected before the encounter. They continually perform a routine filled with meaningless, “unproductive” gestures that only reproduce a kind of vicious circle of winning and losing – and the exchange of money. In that sense, it is very productive: just the kind that keeps all the given structures in place; yet unproductive in that no change in subjectivity is ever activated: only an anger constantly frustrated for having missed its real social object. Let’s not be shy to state the stakes: these disconnects among the organized masses will repeat for centuries – unless something breaks and these dependent groups become subject groups. (Which is not unheard of: when LeBron James wears a T-shirt in support of Eric Garner reading, “I can’t breath,” the true power of the dependent group shines through into a subjectivity-producing machine that is immediately opened on to other groups and explodes with a freshly-molding desire; it is on this capacity that we must “capitalize.”)

To return to my main point: When “desire” is constrained to be the desire of an individual, that individual is doomed to be hung up in a structure that encloses it within a given totality and overdetermines what it wants (for example, there are many fish in the sea, true love is waiting for you, etc.). This view of things comes to define the entire field of one’s potentiality, the scope and limitations of one’s individual life. It closes up the “circuit of personal identity” and lets one “have” something, attach to some desired object, albeit a phantasy; but whether it be a person, a team, an experience, or even a book deal, everything ends up functioning according to what ‘they’ say. It is an odd structure: because one needs (or believes one has) a clear place of equilibrium in the order, the latter becomes all-encompassing and oppressive, making one do and desire a million things uncontrollably, unconsciously, according to scripts that get dreadfully stuck on repeat under the guise of just “being me” (or wanting to be). Soon, people who live on the same poor block of the neighborhood, with the same economic and political reasons to fight back against the systematic oppression of their potentialities, are shooting each other in a battle to be “the realest.” What we need to remind them and ourselves is that we are only the realest as other.

For the reverse, of course, is not to regain control through a purified conception of what should be desired (digging down into “what I really want”); nor is it to try, à la Buddhism, to strip oneself of all desires, tending to self-oblation (which remains caught in the same vicious circle). Rather, “The first item on the agenda [and it remains the first item] is to open up to the complete alterity of the situation,” without knowing at all in advance where it will lead (73). It is to expose oneself to the rupture with inertial structures through an act (of being, of potentiality, of the signifier, but let’s be careful here) whereby we are no longer at the command of signifying chains without depth, enslaved to “timeless” operations, but instead wield the signifier in explosive ways, producing utterances that can be shared by coming collective subjectivities. It is to let oneself be decentered outside oneself by desire – by the other that never lets itself be reduced to an object in a face-to-face, and yet is nonetheless material, real, resistant – to exceed the narrowly defined sphere of the individual’s (for the most part fabricated) “needs,” in constant recourse to this absolute alterity that is no stone statue or god, but is independent of you and of me, does not hand over its identity papers, and forever disallows its dissolution (203; 75). As Guattari writes: “The I for I was only a possible mirage in the intimacy of the other for me.” May we lose the security of even that position – indeed, of any body or work of reflection – and tease out, even as we are teased by, what can only come to be if we are we.

[Quotes – for my own record keeping, but where of course my own record keeping is already the other’s – from Félix Guattari, Psychoanalysis and Transversality: Texts and Interviews 1955-1971.]

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The Grill of Language

(A short note in response to Thanks to Aishwarya Iyer for giving this piece a title and proper epigraph.)

The Grill of Language

By the sense of light / you guess the soul
–Paul Celan

Poets are, by definition, exhilarated by the magic of words–not just what they can express or remember, but also what they can make possible as new modes of being and thinking. But these same words can also make a poet sick: the nausea that comes when it turns out the public is indifferent, and somehow not exhilarated by poetry or thinking. Why is this the case?

Poetry makes different and strange. It suspends the normal relations of things, sometimes by tearing them apart, sometimes by rhyming them together. But its way of doing so is ephemeral, “flimsy,” less powerful than its closest neighbors, film (strings of images, bending temporalities) and music (melody and silence). It takes reality too seriously, it is too emotional; but then it laughs, too, insanely. It bears the mark, some might say, of psychological instability. It increases vulnerability and threatens with it.

Poetry, though it can be put to the service of political or social goals, is resistant to easy meaning, to popularity, commercialism, and consumption. Its meanings aren’t the meanings that are normally at issue when people talk about the meaning of words or the meaning of discourse. And it doesn’t do much by way of negotiation, but is idiomatic, “obscure,” difficult. It takes practice to understand, and anyone can fall out of practice. Moreover, every poet speaks to us differently, which confuses.

Poems don’t come right out and communicate a message; if they even have one, the reader must go through a kind of ritual to get it: they must give the poem its own space, must enter it, while also bringing their whole self to the poem in letting it speak. And one can always be deceived. One is always called by the poem to rereadings. For the meaning escapes (it’s meant to). Every poem falls silent at the end–which is part of the exhilaration, but can also feel futile, useless. Why not get on with the pertinent discussions of the day? Why waste our time in “fancy”?

Poetry, perhaps more than any other art, requires activity and passivity simultaneously: in the breath of reading, one must go with the line, follow its spacious or narrow tracts; but one must also articulate, reassemble, associate, and think. Poetry is both entirely on the surface, and entirely beyond it. It is secretive and reticent, however forthcoming. Thus one is never certain if one has really read the poem or not, which adds to its uncertainty and again raises the question why bother. Poetry has its moment, and then starts over, as it must. It is there entirely in its passing, like words themselves–and like us.

I’ve always thought that the ordeal of poetry was best and most simply put in Jack Spicer’s poem, “Thing Language”:

This ocean, humiliating in its disguises
Tougher than anything.
No one listens to poetry. The ocean
Does not mean to be listened to. A drop
Or crash of water. It means
Is bread and butter
Pepper and salt. The death
That young men hope for. Aimlessly
It pounds the shore. White and aimless signals. No
One listens to poetry.

The refrain–“No one listens to poetry”–is an experience that every poet has had, at least until they start to find other poets or communities of readers who respect the art and are willing to lend an ear. But I imagine that even the most successful poets in this respect remain haunted by poetry’s ghostly status. It is not recognized by society as vital in any way. It seems this is truer today than it has ever been; poetry is opposed to nothing so much as to soundbites and limited attention spans. But I imagine poets themselves are also haunted by their inadequacy. Who gives poetry the time it requires, the time it deserves? We poets barely give enough time to our own poems.

In the poem by Szymborska quoted in the article, she asks with a jibe, “O Muse, where are *our* teeming crowds?” The politicians have them, the musicians have them, the actors and athletes have them, even the hack journalists and bullshitting evangelists have them. But poets? Largely no. It takes a scandal, or the outrageous personality of the poet, for the public to take notice. Not only is there no dogma, there’s no “point.” I’m sure others have asked the question: is poetry even for the public? The question is impossible to answer, because poets do not write to suit their audience. They address us all, but only in that they address us each individually. It is also a very flimsy thing to say, but poets write for the heart: from their heart to the heart of the other. Which is to say they write for eternity, from beyond the grave, to someone that they know they cannot accompany.

By doing so, however, by writing in separation and with an awareness of our finitude (which implies an awareness of the fragility of words), poets teach us something about “being-in-language” in general. We can make ourselves heard best today when we scoot past the difficulties and go straight to the meaning or the message. One-liners are successful because they can catch fire and spread without difficulty. But ultimately no one’s existence is reducible to the opinions they have or the positions they take on this or that issue. There are things in us to say that we’ll only ever say to friends, relatives, loved ones–things that are sacred and unspeakable, things that show us at our most vulnerable, when our guard is down, when we’re ecstatic or weeping. These are the things we plead to be heard without any assurance that we’ll ever be understood. These, I believe, are the most irreducible elements of our existence, however rarely they strike us and however unaccustomed we are to voicing them. It is the courage of the poet to dwell in such a crisis and to hone the articulation of intimacy–to let us into a life that is irreducible, untranslatable, unrepeatable, and priceless; and to remind us that our life is just like theirs in that way.

Perhaps what poetry has to teach us–and why it is so repressed by the masses–is that such naked expression, like a deathbed confession, is the realest form of discourse imaginable for human beings, the one most engaged with our mortal situation and thus the one with the best chance of securing beauty. It will not be broadcast on your local television station, but it does exist: something better, something prescient, is there, openly available for whoever is patient enough to tune in. And it doesn’t matter how many do. You are alone, hearing them, trying to understand what can’t be. That is the exhilaration. And the reason.

I know it’s foolish to make such sweeping hypotheses about poetry and what poets do. I want to correct the impression, if I gave it, that poems are always the expression of the poet’s self. That’s not true, I’ve never believed it, and I’ve spent much of my time trying to deconstruct this idea. Rather, we’d have to open the question of what a ‘self’ could be anyway, how’s it constituted, where are its ‘true edges’ (just remember Whitman: I contain multitudes). Poems of course also record dates and facts, real and imaginary lives of others, myths, as well as the shocks, dreams, and disappointment of the collective. Sometimes they even speak for animals or inanimate things. Poems issue from intimacy, I think, but that intimacy is something shared. The word deep in the heart is, in a way, already the other’s word; it’s meant for them, and the poem sends it to them, to be received and, through the grill of language, sent again. That’s the “magic,” and the poem is the plane upon which vibrates the between.

But it’s best to let poetry speak again. Another favorite of mine, by Paul Celan:


Eye-orb between the bars.

Ciliary lid
rows upwards,
releases a gaze.

Iris, swimmer, dreamless and dim:
the sky, heart-gray, must be near.

Skew, in the iron socket,
the smoldering splinter.
By the sense of light
you guess the soul.

(Were I like you. Were you like me.
Did we not stand
under one tradewind?
We are strangers.)

The tiles. Upon them,
close together, the two
heart-gray pools:
mouthfuls of silence.

(trans. Joachim Neugroschel)


Augenrund zwischen den Stäben.

Flimmertier Lid
rudert nach oben,
gibt einen Blick frei.

Iris, Schwimmerin, traumlos und trüb:
der Himmel, herzgrau, muss nah sein.

Schräg, in der eisernen Tülle,
der blakende Span.
Am Lichtsinn
errätst du die Seele.

(Wär ich wie du. Wärst du wie ich.
Standen wir nicht
unter einem Passat?
Wir sind Fremde.)

Die Fliesen. Darauf,
dicht beieinander, die beiden
herzgrauen Lachen:
Mundvoll Schweigen.

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(An Interlude)

To think is to surpass myself. To think about things in a way that exceeds me, whatever I am, to strip myself of every intentional meaning, or to let them be stripped away, so as to pave the way for the “intentionless intention” of thought, by letting the tracks run as they will. To think is to be surpassed by thought itself, in oneself, not for the “self” in general, but for what exceeds each self in every “oneself” every instant, where this excess-over-oneself is put into play as thought. But thought becomes difficult here, where everything seems clear, misleadingly “final” or “true.” And as the adage suggests, what’s true must be tried: put on trial, put to the test. Thought tests itself by testing its “staying power” and tempting its fate, succumbing to infinite reconfiguration. It draws only one conclusion: thought has no staying power. That is, nothing stays still in the thought. It can only tremble on its own edges, disrupt its own timeline, bump up against its own shoulders, space itself out.

Thoughtscape: not a landscape we’d know, where intentions, projects, and ambitions were mobilized or sketched out, but one unknown, where we’re tensed and stretched, exposed in action and mobilized like this: in the different tracts that run and end. Thoughtscape affects us and we affect it, makes changes to us as we make changes to it, leads us back to it by leading us away from it, in thought. “It,” “us,” “thought”: unknowable landscape in/of language, putting all its knowns back into play, exposing everything given to what exceeds the gift in itself. Thought: exposure to an infinite “outside” right here, coming into tension right here, being subject to something (a scientific or political truth process, a work of art, a line of prose, a train of thought) right here. Thought: resubjected to thought’s escape.

Thoughtscape: the unknowable result, equal only to its own expanse, its own “substance,” everything in it misleading, held for deception, so as to be thought. Subtle tension between writing the line, drawing out the thought in mind, and (anonymously) the line being written: the being-drawn-out of the thought (mysteriously), such that script and scribe cannot be discerned and yet, together. Thought irreducible to the thinker, thinker irreducible to the thought: a move toward thinking in the desert. Thus thoughtwander: activity of thinking the “thinker” (who?) to the end, activity of the thinker thinking thoughts by holding true to the train they follow, the gathering-together of a thoughtscape, the “undone doing” of a thought in its spacing, allowing abandonment. A deranged landscape, a spot exploded, thought doing but one thing: sending itself further.

This sending or spacing – wandering and scaping – is lived. But the trajectory of this life in thought is blurry, obscure. Its train falls off track so as to come into existence genuinely. Thoughtwander: experience of the trembling of this line, the derailing of the track in motion. Thoughtwander: experience of a life. No one is the “first” to undertake it, everyone does; and yet “society,” the headless mass, remains ignorant of this thought, as if by definition: ignorant of thought as experience and life, unable to account for it without subtracting its thinking essence and thus doing it the worst evil. In the great works of its thinkers, “society” cannot detect a world, but merely a thesis, an argument, a concept, a “work.” But society gives way, for and in the thinker, to thoughtscape: where a power to think remains unbound and permeable to an act of excess. Where there once was a society (collection of elements), a world is createdA thoughtscape is a world among worlds, touching other worlds, other languages, other thoughts, other voices, referencing some and avoiding others. (Remember, no world is continuous with itself, for there are as many ruptures and lapses in it as there are moments of convergence.) Between thinkers, or even for the “same” thinker, no thought stays the same; for it is rooted in the world-creating being of thought that, in the act, does not wait.

The thoughtscape cuts thought off, runs it dry, leads it astray. It traces the limit of society by exceeding it, by refusing to cohere. It incites a transformation of its use by resisting all predicted effects. It establishes the outer boundaries of what’s possible, manifesting surreptitiously, in the process of its consumption, a thoughtscape, which indicates that something “more” is possible, that “thought” is the way toward this “more,” or simply is more. Thought traces the very limit of the world – whose “inside” limit is society (all its conventions in language, gesture, etc.) and whose “outside” limit is pure thought (nothing/pain) – by making an impossible thought possible in it. To make an impossible thought possible: to experience the impossible and follow its line.

The inside limit of a thought is its form, its outside limit its desire. Thought doesn’t want to be “a” thought, but a thoughtscape that estranges and loses, to the point of blending in with the abyss. Thought wants to take form as thoughtscape so as to give itself over to another thought, another thinker, another thoughtscape: criss-crossing of actual-virtual subterrains. Not to pierce the abyss, but to continue to stand out from it, however tenuously or submerged. It wants to remain swerving irrecusably on the margins of its form, in the trembling of these margins – in sight, felt, considered. In the same gesture that exceeds society or self, thought makes a world or an experience out of this exceeding. Thought makes for more. Drawing everything from the inside limit of the given “contents” of society, it experiences the inconsistency of these contents and, drawing back from them, draws them out, draws them to their “logical” conclusion, which is to explode and be undone. In this way, thought gives something back: a veritable world in the tracing of an experience of thought (not totally unlike “withdrawing” from society, but withdrawing so as to demark it, to foil).

The minute someone inquires into the gift, they cease to be enclosed in society and become an open world. For while thought gives a world in the “terms” that society knows (similar letters, similar punctuation, similar concepts, same tradition), it only does so by making these terms and everything “similar” tremble in dissimilarity, making its own inconsistency and fragility manifest. Inconsistency reaches its pitch of tension in the thoughtscape, precisely where “nothing can come to an end.” In this process, the “thinker” – who is really just a by-product of thinking, divided into thoughtscape and thoughtwander – feels isolated precisely because he or she has literally drawn the inconsistency of the whole world (including his or her own thoughtscape) to its breaking point: precisely, to the limit where it outdoes itself (society is a helpless illusion without the “proactive” transformation of its “stuff” into an artistic, thoughtful world). His or her thought (speech, art, song, revolution) quite literally “falls on deaf ears” because only an ear “deaf” to society can hear it, one that can hear a sentence beyond itself and anything given in it priorly. That is, an ear bent to the gift of the world/self/other complex, an ear that lends itself, so as to be affected by and resonate with the gift that each world is. Thoughtscape: an ontocartography of the gift.

Thoughtscape: the trembling of the thought-world in an ear. In it – although it’s composed of outsides alone – social life and the life of thought come into accord, appear to. Life is exiled into the space of participation (society) and life participates in exile (thinking and the creation of a world). Accord, harmony, rhythm, correspondence: between thoughtscape and thoughtwander, between society and a world, between life and its activity, between the form and want it wants. Pleasure of the thoughtscape: to find an infinite pulse, each time, outstripping or re-functioning the finite form.

Because the thoughtscape is distinguished from a mere thought in this: a thought can be pinned down (and obviously, word by word, it is), but a thoughtscape can only disconcert, flounder, sink and fall away. A thoughtscape is a space that, without “holding” or “containing” thoughts, arranges a movement of thought and, first and foremost, a desire to think. In a word, it’s pleasing to compose a thought, and it’s displeasing to survey its nonexistent totality in/as the thoughtscape. This impasse is generative and yet destines to defeat. The desire to think plays out between these two extremes, which pass seamlessly and unnoticeably into one another in the act of thinking. Dissatisfaction with the thought drives thought on; consequently, a world is created, a thoughtscape is engendered or formed. For the desire to think can take no form other than an act of thinking – sending, addressing, tending –, and the pleasure of thought found in the act precipitates from its own self-dissatisfaction.

The form of an act of thinking is thus thoughtscape: where the form will never settle because of its concomitant dissatisfaction with itself (which thought inscribes into the thoughtscape), due to its imperative to world. Thought is dissatisfied with itself because the only evidence of thought is in the thoughtscape, which always falls short of the world. But the pleasure of thought lies in thoughtwander, which wants and knows it wants more, such that “the thought” cannot be finished, no more than a “life,” a “world,” or a “want” can be finished. Thought therefore opens on to the infinity of thought and world, and expresses this. This expression is thoughtscape, infinitely reopened, reworked, rethought, expressly thoughtwander. Tension between the landscape of thought and its wandering, the given society and the gift of a world, the conventions and the convening of heart.

Interplay, intervention, intersection: interspersed locutions, interjections, mediations, relations, missions, interviews, interchanges, interruptions, interpretations. Interminable “interiority” made of intermittent interconnections, intersubjectivity intervoked, each of us interested and interlocked. Starts up an attention, turned and tuned in toward thought: the very question of inter-, the very question of tension, turning, toning up: what drives an “artist” to his “medium,” or more simply an “art” to its “art form,” a being into being-world, thoughtfully and attentively extending the tension along a line (of thought, self, work, love, world) as far as it will go. In each instant, thought exhausted, wasted, disposed of, lost, knowing that its “trace” (word, sound, line, file, color) cannot “contain” the tension, the thought “in itself,” knowing that the trace in itself is in exile and requires an “involvement” to recover it from senseless oblivion. Knowing that the trace in itself is perfectly common: perfectly societal until it becomes perfectly world, becoming perfectly social in standing out from every existing form of sociality, creating its own form of communication as its creation of itself.

The trembling of pure thought between a thoughtscape and a world. Thought creates itself as if it were in exile in its own thoughtscape, even though the thinker only has a thoughtscape – a world! – for its resource. Thinking resources the thought ex nihilo, reconstructs the world out of its own nothing, draws itself from the flat expanse of nothingness left behind. Thoughtscape, then: not a “receptacle” for thoughts, because in receiving them it displaces and disturbs them immediately; not the “interval” between thoughts, because there’s no pivot point but the very pointlessness of “points” made manifest; not a pure “space,” because something is there, something real (world, life, experience).

Thoughtscape, then: the exhaustion and transformation of every form of life and thought, every word, bent on recomposing the precarious, cherished world. Khôra giving way to boundary lines, bounding forward, unbounded and unbent. In an immanent way: shared. Wandering from place to place, thought to thought, experience to the world and back, on a trajectory immediately undone by the dual imperative: think the thoughtscape, create a world. Compose them both, in and from the very body’s place.

Thoughtscape: a body, this one here, this body of thought forever unfinished, but showing itself forth, coming forward as something, someone, exposed. A loose transformation in consciousness, practically deprived of a world…

December 2012

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Boredom and Terror

Who is comforted by it?
Pent in the packed compulsory ring
Round father’s frown each famus waits his
Day to dominate. Here a dean sits
Making bedroom eyes at a beef steak,
As wholly oral as the avid creatures
Of the celibate sea; there, sly and wise
Commuters mimic the Middle Way,
Trudging on time towards a tidy fortune.
(The senator said: ‘From swimming-hole
To board-meeting is a big distance.’)
Financiers on knolls, noses pointing
East towards oil fields, inhale the surplus
Their bowels boast of, while boys and girls, their
Hot hearts covered over with marriage
To tyrant functions, turn by degrees
To cold fish, though, precarious on the
Fringes of their feeling, a fuzzy hope
Persists somehow that some day all this
Will walk away, and a wish gestates
For explosive pain, a punishing
Demanded moment of mortal change,
The Night of the Knock when none shall sleep,
The Absolute Instant.

From W. H. Auden’s “The Age of Anxiety” (1948)

I draw emphasis to this verse because of its reference to a “wish for explosive pain” that gestates in the anxiety wrought by life in Western societies.

The poem covers an array of diseases that afflict us: the obsession with ‘fathers’ of all sorts (founding fathers, nation states, religious fathers, but also sports-team fathers, etc.: masculine patriarchy, tied up with debt, compulsion, enforcement, etc.) by sons who are just waiting for the opportunity to take over and rule (to kill the patriarch, only to establish more fraternities); the erotic sloth of exorbitant consumption; the boredom of passing the time for meager achievements; the uncritical function of religion when it only greases the wheel of the machine of mobilization and production; the greed of investors bent on exploiting resources for profit; the impotent loud-mouthing of a political class disconnected from the people; the youth brought too soon into normalized roles and the resulting indifference; etc. I’m not so interested in this list of ills, but in what is described as the culmination of this (basically middle-class or affluent) ennui/depression: a “hope” that it will all go away, for an “explosive pain,” a necessary moment of punishment, the imposition of some change to wake us from our moral laxity and courage deficit, the Absolute Instant when attention must be paid, and so on. What sort of fantasy is this? And why does it appear here in affluence, where culture has largely achieved its goals (cleanliness, orderliness, taming of the instincts, adjustment to “reality,” etc.)?

I’m trying to root out certain continuities between what is registered in such a poem as part of the “affluent imaginary” and what might be called the “terroristic drive.” There is in the latter also a certain craving for an “Absolute Instant” in which all dissatisfaction and tension can be released in one devastating blow. As the poem makes explicit, this is a retributive moment, a time of payback against the past. This dream of obliteration has always been the stuff of apocalyptic thinking, but here we find it utterly secularized, without any horizon of salvation, Phoenix reduced to a kind of zero point of pyromania and arson. Here, the wish that, in this instant, everyone on earth be kept awake, is ambiguous: on the one hand, it could suggest the need for a certain existential awakening, and could perhaps represent heeding the call of justice (Levinas’ “insomnia”); but on the other hand, this sleepless vigil could be the mournful aftermath of the death and destruction spread in the “punishing moment” (which we should note in passing is the bad alternative to forgiveness).

We often try to trace a terrorists’ motives, for good reason, back to ideological causes, fantasies of fame or reward in heaven, social alienation, and economic situation, geopolitical entanglements (including access to weaponry). But I wonder sometimes if the dynamics of these decisions don’t have as much to do with something much less coherent, something essentially anti-cultural and anti-sensical: the aggression or death drive tacked on to all the other factors, feeding on them and aggravating them, and finally reducing them to rubble. I wonder how this death drive links up with the fantasy of the Absolute Instant (as much the answer to the anxiety of boredom as to the anxiety of oppression). Freud tells us this destruction drive is always dressed in the colors of Eros; I cannot help but recall the promise to martyrs that they will be welcomed by virgins after death, but in a sense any promise of reconciliation will work to justify the use of violent force. (There is an erotics to militarism which should be discussed, and in two directions: in the quest to found the One (founding and conserving violence) but also in the desire to have itself torn apart by the Other it can only feign to exclude from itself. According to the paradoxes of auto-immunity, the violent state wants contact with the very thing it says it wants to guard itself from contacting. The inevitable contact is devastating: the conflict goes on as if it wasn’t happening, as if without casualties or damage. But the drive for purity always ends up in contamination.)

Auden’s poem lacks a promise of reconciliation. It shows the abyss of the terror motive in the more general longing for the unprecedented (in truth, a longing for time). This section of the poem ends:

It [the Absolute Instant] is here, now.
For the huge wild beast of the Unexpected
Leaps on the lax recollecting back;
Unknown to him, binoculars follow
The leaping lad; lightening at noonday
Swiftly stooping to summer-house
Engraves its disgust on engrossed flesh,
And at tea-times through tall french windows
Hurtle anonymous hostile stones.
No soul is safe…
We are mocked by unmeaning; among us fall
Aimless arrows, hurting at random
As we plan to pain.

The nonchalance of the imagery should not blind us to the implication here. My suggestion is that, read in a certain way, this describes a terrorist attack, the fruit of an aggression drive attacking, but also delivered over the abyss of affluence and futility. In the broader arc of the poem, all the characters end up tired and without patience and join the “jaw-dropped / Mildewed mob.”

Two other anecdotes come to mind in connection with our problem: Baudelaire’s causing trouble for the fun of it, a punk-beat anticism which almost sounds proto-terroristic: “These nervous practical jokes are not without peril, and they may often cost one dearly. But what does an eternity of damnation matter to he who has found in a second an infinity of enjoyment?” (The Bad Glazier); and Breton’s comment that, “The purest surrealist act is walking into a crowd with a loaded gun and firing into it randomly. Anyone who has never felt the desire to deal thus with the current wretched principle of humiliation and stultification clearly belongs in this crowd himself with his belly at bullet height.” Puerility and belligerence are perhaps never too far apart. (And we will probably not escape the impression that these ennui-terror narratives chronicle a particularly male type of masculinity: virility, control, potency, pride, protection.)

In broad strokes, the question is about the relation between our boredom with modern life (a problem that technology and relative affluence make possible but that, in my opinion, cannot be answered by them, especially when it is so organized to fill the void and never let it appear to us) and the increasing level of “explosions” now punctuating our lives with terrorism and its threat (the void manifesting in frustrations and murders). Not only do the authorities consider us all potential terrorists, but we ourselves are confronted with these possibilities, it is being advertised to us, flaunted even, as an answer to “nihilisitic” culture and its dreariness. It would be fruitful to ask how we are “terroristic” in our own messages and behaviors. To what extent do we demand “punishing moments” and hurtle “hostile stones”? How is this possible when we lack a goal for it?

To plan to pain is to let the mockery of unmeaning reign. Wherever this takes place, however, the arrows fly aimlessly. The “enemy” cannot be located, and to target one is to target civilians. And, we should add, it is to always hit the wrong target–or to hit it as haphazardly as the gunman. Perhaps we know this, but we keep shooting. The reason, I would argue, is an inability to confront the tedium and tyranny of our own world, to address it from the void that both boredom and terror reveal to us in concealed forms, and their apparent reversibility and mutual energetic.

Because the border between the two is not as wide as we might think. A few months ago, in Dubuque, Iowa, a young man accosted, raped, and murdered an elderly woman. His reason? He was bored. I neither mean to discount the other factors involved in that attack, nor do I mean to suggest that Islamist terrorism is at all traceable to boredom. I’m trying to tease out the more complex chain, as it seems to emerge in affluent-media culture, from boredom to restlessness to desensitization… to the rage for consequences, destruction, and conquest. What does it tell us about our emptiness within, our refusal of it? What does boredom share with oppression tout court, if they can both lead to such outbursts, to hellfire visions of revolution where they meet on the horizon with innocent vandalism? (Should we speak of a sublimation of the death drive in art? Is that why philosophy is so “boring”? This is, after all, an age of struck canvases.)

What exactly is this lust for the Absolute Instant? We could never recall all the ways religion and philosophy are looped around such a concept. Nor could we count all the atrocities committed underhandedly in its name. The fight for the Unique, the Absolute, the Ultimate–this is a fight for mockery and unmeaning, its result a sorry string of futile appropriations (patriations, patriarchializations, etc.) on the way to terror and, in their failure, boredom. At any rate, this is a psychic space that is very poorly understood, which I think can be seen in our collective inability to critically address either of these problems. In lieu of this confrontation, I fear we risk slipping even further into a world that is increasingly terrifying, boring, and anxious.

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Joy and Justice

Poetry and philosophy could be described as two modes of intervention in language that seek to reinvent what human discourse means or can do, and so to reinvent what it means to speak and be.

The one, poetry, would speak a beyond of language in language for the sake of contacting things: to make language “itself” a thing, to give it the weight of a body; or to bring “things” directly into language, to give bodies the power and flow of a voice. The other, philosophy, would speak a beyond of the concept through concepts for the sake of altering language, where language is understood as our basic “medium” of thought: to give body to concepts and to weigh that body; or to think what remains unthought in the concepts that guide our normal ways of thinking, our relationship to reality, world, and others. Poetry would affirm an outside of language in language, in the name of joy, that elevates language into a unique sphere of expressive life, while philosophy would affirm a strike on language, in the name of justice, that integrates language into thought’s struggle for the future and for peace.

One might account for the sparkle of poetry and the alarm of philosophy in this way. Poems would be like lightning strikes, philosophy the laborious thunder coming after, the one surrendering to the speed of ungraspable realities, from love to anger to grief, affirming sensation and the singularity of experience, the very mystery of earth and birth, while the other submits itself to a sedulous investigation of that speed, endeavoring to bring the lightness of sense into thought’s clarity, tragically aware that ultimately it cannot be grasped. Both would undo the “naive evidence” of the world as it is given, normalized, and prescribed by prevailing uncreative modes of discourse, yet in opposite directions: poetry amplifying that naivety, celebrating innocence and its fervor, such that the world appears afresh in its ever-renewed inaugural emergence; philosophy engaging that naivety as both its enemy and its resource, drawing from it without stalling content with it, sustaining it alive in a way that contends with the passage of time and the ordeal of history.

They would seem almost incompatible: what remains intolerable for poetry (explication, labor, analysis, mediation) would be philosophy’s wellspring; and what remains intolerable for philosophy (plays on words, unbridled inspiration, spontaneity, intimation) would be poetry’s. And yet both would be urgent interventions, the one reinvigorating language as tangible and tactile vehicle for emotional life, tending toward singular and irreplaceable experiences; the other reinvigorating thought as a material operation capable of remaking history, tending toward universalization and peace. But both would be destined to redesign our bodies and recalibrate our minds. And they would need each other–not to be each other’s answer, but to communicate the full range of experience, the syncopated rhythm of life and thought. To communicate what it means to communicate as such: to reinvent it.

I have retained the conditional tense here (“would be…”) because of course I do not believe in a simple bifurcation between poetry and philosophy. Although I can’t deny that these names represent different things, two “genres” with different modes of expression, it would be foolish, especially today, to believe in any natural division of labor between the two. I’m playing on it here to illuminate some features, but also to emphasize the need to imbue the one with the other: not so much poetry with philosophy and vice versa, but spontaneity with mediation, inspiration with thought, and so on. Thinkers and poets both “divine and anticipate,” they both use language to question the automatic course of things and to ready us for unprecedented events, encounters, pivots, and perils. In so doing, they re-destine humanity beyond its merely instrumental purpose, and first of all by treating language as something more than a tool. That is the common aspiration of their intervention: to rework language such that we may teach ourselves how to “pay a different kind of attention,” which amounts to relearning what it means to be and share a world, remembering always that what counts for beauty counts for politics and vice versa.

What we “need,” then, is an agile poetry coextensive with daily speech, a careful philosophy coextensive with daily thought. But while the task must reach into the most minute aspects of daily life, we still have to learn what we’re called to do from those who came before us. What do they tell us? What do they ask us to receive? What do they ask us to give? The answers here are not univocal, and we shouldn’t expect them to be. Their difference is the gift of plural tendency, a diversity of ambition in which they invite us to share. Because although each teaches us something unique, I believe it is their desire to reach that unites them. That desire is a quasi-universal, and they invite us in unison to cultivate it.

For before and beyond everything they say, they speak to us. They address us as irreplaceable and call us to discover it. That could be the irreplaceability of a feeling or a moment, as in poetry, or the irreplaceability of a thought or a trajectory, as in philosophy. But they never ask us to emulate them. They call us to make it our own, and so to re-direct it into our own rarity. Re-direct me, take me with you, abandon me, it matters little, they seem to say, so long as you reach, believe, and live outside your caricature. At stake is always a reinvention: of language, of things, of life in common, of the future. And so of them, of the very beings from whom we learn to live, who call us. And so of us, who are still learning to live, who are still learning to receive and to call.

This could be an awakening to the truth of what is already there, or it could be a refusal of what is with an eye to its total transformation. Poetry or philosophy, it’s always a question of being-reaching, of letting oneself be reached, for it is our landscape and light to rediscover, it is our responsibility to love. The weight of time and the exposure to the other is ours. The re-destination of humanity is for us–to express and to think, to breathe and to sing. Joy and justice, the rhythm of your rhythm in ours.

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Due to the Other

(The following is the transcript of a short talk I gave to my GCAS class on Deconstruction. I want to thank Giovanni Tusa, the course instructor, and the other students for giving me this opportunity, for listening in, and for opening such a good conversation afterwards (which unfortunately is not reproduced here). I imagine this text as part of a series titled, “duties of deconstruction.” One final note: this text is ‘punctuated’ with direct quotes from Derrida’s book The Post Card to get what is at stake to speak to you.)


To render what is due to the other. How could I?

As I tried to prepare these comments, I was overwhelmed by an inadequacy to which I felt rather doomed. To measure up to Derrida’s work, especially on the other, to measure up to the other, could only mean letting myself be put in question, and it felt necessary to acknowledge this and begin from there: from where an other, Derrida, and from where others, all of you, put me in question, where I feel obligated to let my response remain haunted by an inadequacy, and more importantly, by an indebtedness to Derrida and to you that I feel: a debt to the other that no response, no discourse, no act, could ever fulfill. [Punctuation 1: “), how we would have loved it. The wound can have (should only have) just one proper name. I recognize that I love—you—by this: that you leave in me a wound I do not want to replace.”[1]]

A debt, therefore, announces itself. I must have felt it when I proposed this presentation, too, with the idea of sensitizing us to a certain priority of the other in Derrida’s work. A debt to the other, to render what is due to it in that work. Perhaps I also felt a debt to indebt others to the other, by calling attention to it, by calling attention to the other that calls us first to think. That will be my topic today. What is due to the other? How to render it?

This sentence, my opening sentence, can be read in at least two ways. First, to render what is due to the other means: to give it what is owed to it, to pay the debt, to give it its due. The offering or payment could be many things: a sacrifice, an act, a word, or just gratitude and appreciation. But whatever it may be, this reading already confronts us with something immeasurable: how to know, calculate, or even guess what I owe? And how to know when? According to what timescale does the debt come due? Such a question is abyssal, and I want to emphasize it, because it should already lead us to question any economy of restitution: I will never be able to give what I owe, because I could never guess its true extent. I can never know what’s expected of me in full, and perhaps the other also does not know. And so I must always start over from the start. I must calculate words and deeds, negotiating with an incalculable debt that only increases the more I try to pay it back, to the point of near-paralysis. I would have to give to the other more than I could give, more than they asked for, more than was due. I would even owe it what I did not have to give. To render what can’t be rendered, to an other or to others whose call is not always so clear, and is multiple and conflicting: that would be what is “due,” and what I must do, in excess of what I have to give, what I can say, in excess of my very capacity to act. It’s due to happen, it can’t wait. But there’s no guarantee that it will, or that it can.

And yet there is a second way to read the sentence. Without nullifying what I’ve just said, we could read this “due” to mean: because of, by reason of, from the other. To render what is due to the other would take on a paradoxical form: to render back to it what it caused, to give to you what the other in me instigated or sparked up. As if the other had first given me what I will have given. As if you gave it to me, so I could give it to you. As if the other had given me to give, to render what was due to you by giving me to give, before I even knew who I was. Something like: giving the gift of giving itself. [Punctuation 2: “But this is impossible, in any case it can only await your grace, if you are willing to give me what I write to you, you my immense, you my unique destiny.”[2]]

However we choose to hear the phrase, “to render what is due to the other,” it puts us in question right where we are called to be responsible. The other indebts me, obligates me beyond my capacity to know and to give; but it also interrupts me, destabilizes me and breaks the economy of the same in which I could still identify myself as myself, as one. And this interruption only magnifies the obligation. For while it is due to the other that I can say “Here I am” and respond, it is also due to the other that I can’t be so certain. The “here I am” is itself put into question from the moment I must ask, “Yes, here I am, but where? Due to what or to whom?” Due to the other, yes, but who or what is that?

I’ve promised to talk about it, the other, about what is due to the other in Derrida’s work, with a suggestion that this work “revolves” around it, around a respect for the other and its chance. (The best I can do, perhaps, is give it a chance myself.) If there is a “revolution” in his work, or in deconstruction, I believe it finds its center of gravity there, around the other and the chain of thoughts associated with it. But if I say “center,” it’s important to stress (and I’m sure you could have guessed) that this center is not a center, but rather the “centrality” of a displacement, the force of an alteration or alterity that comes before any center. Not a decentering that would come secondary, but something at the center’s very core, a core which it perhaps does not have.

We are all probably familiar with the initial iterations of this displacement, this thought of alterity, in Derrida’s work: the concepts or non-concepts of différance, the supplement, and the trace. He began this work with an interrogation of purity, of the purity of being, of presence, of the same, of identity, of the logos, of full speech in the voice, and more generally, of the idea of purity itself, of indivisibility, incorruptibility, and sovereignty in all its forms. He highlighted an alterity that came before the same, a supplement that came before the origin, an archi-originary contamination of the same by the other, in an attempt to account for an initial or pre-initial play of differences without which no center, no system, no effect of presence whatsoever could even arise. These early deconstructions sought to mark a non-coincidence of the same with itself, even where it appears to have won a center; an irreducible hiatus in the circle of self-representation or self-identity; a division or non-contemporaneity of the present with itself; in sum, a non-closure, openness, or incompleteness without which there could be no interpretation and, furthermore, no future.

I don’t want to dwell on these points, only to reference two moments in his early work to help orient us. The first comes from an article entitled Différance, where he speaks about its “point of greatest obscurity,” of the very enigma of différance. He asks:

How can we, on the one hand, conceive of différance as the “systematic detour,” within the element of the same, that always aims at regaining the presence or pleasure that is in one way or another deferred, and, at the same time, to conceive of différance as “the relation to an impossible presence, as an expenditure without reserve, as an irreparable loss of presence, an irreversible wearing-down of energy, or indeed as a death instinct and a relation to the absolutely other that apparently breaks up any economy”?

He goes on to add that the system and the nonsystem, the same and the absolutely other cannot be conceived together[3]At the risk of overstating it, I would say that Derrida never abandoned this enigma, which I would reformulate in the following experimental ways (and these are questions, restatements): How to negotiate between the calculations that must be made by a subject, whose “sameness” or “system” is in a sense inescapable, and the incalculable other that one must respect, lest that system close in on itself and lose its future? How to negotiate the drive to presence or pleasure with this “impossible presence” or “irreparable loss” that marks a certain never-there, that exposes that drive to presence or pleasure to a death that cannot be reduced and in fact insinuates itself at the heart of life? How to negotiate between the necessary assimilation of the other, however failed, and the relation to the absolutely other that lets it be other and leaves it its chance? How to negotiate discourse, action, and economy, while at the same time exposing oneself to a call that carries discourse beyond itself, beyond every norm and toward a sort of aneconomic “expenditure without reserve”? What I can only suggest here is that, while Derrida never gave up meditating on the aporia of such questions, and never simply resolved them, at the same time he never ceased to inflect his work in the direction of the inappropriable, the risk of incineration and death, the beyond-economy, the wound, the incalculable. In other words, he never stopped striving to render what was due to the other. [Punctuation 3: “You will follow me everywhere. And I will never know if I am suffering in you or in me. This is my suffering.”[4]]

The second moment from his early work that I wanted to share comes from 1971 in Positions, where Derrida summarizes in a correspondence with the interviewer, “No more than it is a form of presence, other is not a being (a determined being, existence, essence, etc.)” and he asks, “If the alterity of the other is posed, that is, only posed, does it not amount to the same…? From this point of view, I would even say that the alterity of the other inscribes in this relationship [to the same] that which in no case can be ‘posed.’”[5] Here Derrida contests the conception of the other in Hegelian dialectics, in which the self poses itself as other, with the aim of reappropriating the other into itself, “in the infinite richness” of its own determination (I’ll return to this a bit later). As he will say twenty years later in Aporias, “Each time the decision concerns the choice between the relation to an other who is its other (that is, an other that can be opposed in a couple) and the relation to a wholly, non-opposable, other, that is, an other that is no longer its other.”[6] (That may be a bit confusing, but I think his relation to Hegel is somewhat summarized in the inability to presume that the other could be posed in any way.) We could see here an echo of the enigma of différance we spoke about above: the choice is between an other caught up in my own schema of representation, reappropriation, and presence, and an other that is not my other, that is wholly other and remains so, that cannot be incorporated into me, and that, on the contrary, exposes and expropriates me beyond any self-return. An other that even calls the self to its own interruption, from the innermost interior of its self. In other words, to a deconstruction. [Punctuation 4: “But you, you know that I wrote you something entirely other, you are this itself (for me this is your only good determination): the one who knows that I am not there, that I have written you something entirely other.”[7]]

I would now like to jump, no doubt too quickly, to a provisional outline of “the other” as Derrida tries to think it. Although it never becomes a “theme,” precisely because it resists all thematization, I think some characteristics can be outlined. This outline is truly just a sketch. Here are three brief points:

  • The other is not a present being, it is not a determined being or presence, and in this sense, it “is” The other is not and is never present to me. It does not present itself. As Levinas would say, it is beyond being; ontology and phenomenology do not reach it. Derrida often returns to Husserl’s discovery that the alter ego can never be originarily presented to my consciousness. The other is never intuited, I apprehend it only through what Husserl calls appresentation or analogy. Put a bit more strongly, the coming of the other is what the subject never sees coming. It is defined in this way. It is the absolute surprise. But what is interesting here is that, for Derrida, this appellation of “other” applies to any and every other, to any living thing, if not to any thing, animate or inanimate. One of his favored formulas is, in the French, tout autre est tout autre, every other is wholly other, every other is every bit as other. This forumla signifies that, “every other is singular, that ‘every’ is a singularity, which also means that every is each one.”[8] In other words, the alterity of each other makes each other an exception. It makes the exceptionality and unconditionality of the Absolute Other universal. As he writes in The Gift of Death, each other as other is, “absolutely singular, inaccessible, solitary, transcendent, nonmanifest.”[9] [Punctuation 5: “Sometimes I wish that everything remain illegible for them—and also for you. To become absolutely unknowable for them. For me the absolute mystery is you.”[10]]
  • As mentioned in the quote from Positions, the other cannot be posed, positioned, or situated, topologically or temporally. The other and its call are atemporal, an-archic or, as Levinas again would say, ana-chronic. Just as the other is not a present being, it doesn’t belong to a past present or a future present either. It is linked to an immemorial past that is indistinguishable from what comes. Such is why it deconstructs the very opposition between life and death, obeying what Derrida calls a spectral logic that exceeds ontology: its first arrival may always seem like a return, and its return may always seem like a first arrival. We can’t be certain. But one can also never be sure that the other has arrived, just as the other may never arrive. That the other may never arrive is not, however, a limitation, but its chance, its freedom as other. Without the possibility of leaving, of changing the destination, of interrupting the trajectory, the other would lose its otherness and would become part of a program determined in advance. It can always arrive elsewhere, or not arrive at all. And it can always abandon. All of this renders any mapping of the present, of history, or of a context in general, not impossible, but interrupted by the other’s surprise event. However, to put it the other way around, we could also say that this uninsurable relation to the other, the possibility of its coming and going in excess of any teleological process, is what opens history. Without the open and unknown destination, the possibility of divagation or what Derrida calls destinerrance, nothing would come. [Punctuation 6: “And now, because I love you better still, I leave you: more undetermined than ever.”[11]]
  • Third, the other is not the possible. It is here that all we have said regarding the other links up with a chain of thoughts closely associated to it, namely: the event, the gift, hospitality, forgiveness, invention, bearing witness, the promise, and death (of course I say this just to orient readings, in some manner). All of these retain something of the other, of an inconceivable relationship to that which overwhelms and exceeds the self. They all contend with the aporetic structure he tried to formalize in which the “condition of possibility” for something is simultaneously its “condition of impossibility.” Such is why deconstruction was often defined as an experience of the impossible, as it applies to all the thoughts I mentioned. This is an impossible that is not negative, but which says, for example: the other is only possible as impossible. Or again, to quote from Psyche, “invention invents nothing, when in invention the other does not come, and when nothing comes to the other or from the other,” meaning that the only possible invention would be the invention of that which did not appear to be possible, since otherwise it would just be the product of a program in the economy of the same.

It is here—on this logic of the possible and impossible, and its relation to the subject—it is here Derrida most forcefully contests the traditional models of decision, performativity, and freedom (and I can of course only touch on these today). He speaks of a decision that “only returns to the other,” a passive decision that affects me by an other in me who precedes me and to whom I have no access, a decision that would always be “of” the other. He speaks of a freedom that would not be the possession of a subject but would break the subject open, disrupting the fabric of the possible, disrupting the very texture of its context, in an unexpected, unforeseeable, and uncontrollable way. And he speaks of a meta-performativity without power, exposed to the arrival of an event that outstrips the capacity of any “I can” and touches its “exposed vulnerability.” He says in fact that “ethics begins in this performative powerlessness” in which the other overloads responsibility exorbitantly, forcing us to invent something not only beyond the norms and rules, but something beyond the possible; to suspend the horizon of knowledge out of an urgency to respond, without waiting; and to refuse all the ruses of good conscience, in other words, never to overlook the debt. The other instigates, then, a responsibility that I cannot assume, and that demands that in the end only the other come back. I can only know this responsibility as an infinite debt that overwhelms my finite powers of assuming it, in other words, a responsibility that I can only assume in an impossible assumption, forever haunted by indecision and inconclusiveness: have I really assumed it? Have I even begun to respond? Have I ever, could I ever, render what is due to the other?

Let me close by giving Jacques the last word, on thought and what thought is due to. It comes from the end of his book on Nancy—and speaks to you:

In spite of thought: thought thinks only in spite of itself, or, I would say, à son corps défendant [i.e., reluctantly, unwillingly, notwithstanding itself]; [thought] thinks only there where the counterweight of the other weighs enough so that it begins to think, that is, in spite of itself, when it touches or lets itself be touched against its will. That is why it will never think, it will never have begun to think by itself. That is what it is necessary to think of thought, to ponder and weigh of weight. [Punctuation 7: “Promise me that one day there will be a world. And a body.”[12]]

[1] The Post Card, pg  25
[2] The Post Card, p 80.
[3] Différance, pg 293
[4] The Post Card, pg. 227
[5] Positions, p 94-95
[6] Aporias, pg 18
[7] The Post Card, pg. 229
[8] The Gift of Death, pg. 87
[9] The Gift of Death, pg. 78
[10] The Post Card, pg 205
[11] The Post Card, pg. 186
[12] The Post Card, pg. 122

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“Eating Well”

(The following is a reading of an interview between Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Nancy titled Eating Well; or the Calculation of the Subject. It was initially prepared for a discussion forum as part of a course on Deconstruction run by Giovanni Tusa through GCAS. I post it here as the first in a series of essays attempting to deal with the “duties of deconstruction.”)

Although Derrida insists that there is not one homogenous problematic of the subject, that it is discussed differently by philosophers and theorists (Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger, Lacan, etc.), warning against any generalized usage of the term and that we must take account of all these differences, he does suggest what they all, roughly, have in common: They all find their point of departure in a “structure of relation to self ‘as such’ and of reappropriation” (267). Let me begin by unpacking this structure.

The relation of the self to itself ‘as such’ is what makes the “self-same” subject–what we think of as “ourselves”–possible: the subject as that which remains the same through difference, which incorporates difference as a moment of itself. “Reappropriation” says that we appropriate for ourselves the differences we encounter; we represent them to ourselves and make them our own; and that, through this owning, something like the same returns, or can return. We refer difference and change over time back to one underlying substance, substratum, hypokeimenon. From here, it is a quick leap to other predicates we associate with “ourselves” as self-same, as a present-being, present to itself: “identity to self, positionality, property, personality, ego, consciousness, will, intentionality, freedom, humanity, etc.,” but also, “stance, stability, permanence, sustained relation,” and so on. All these predicates are predicated upon a conception of the subject as center: center of its possibilities and powers, center of its activity and its relations, center of its representations and its world. A center that supposedly creates its own reality, expresses ‘itself’, and, as Derrida later notes, dominates and masters nature, the animal, and the other (in a mode that is, if not exclusively virile/male, then at least ‘human’). Again, all of this begins from this structure of ‘relating to self as such’, of reappropriating differences as part of the ‘same’ self, and of returning to oneself and of returning as oneself as such.

To make it a bit less abstract, we could say that reappropriation involves everything we maintain about ourselves when we answer the question, “Who are you?” In answering this question, we bring ourselves back as the same. It is this conception of the subject (as a present being who speaks in the present and persists over time in presence) that shapes not only our relationship to law, economy, and politics, but also to everyday life. It is our basic and quasi-intuitive way of relating to ourselves: present, as ourselves, as such. The big questions in deconstruction begin here: what exactly is this relation that I have to myself? Can I really relate to myself ‘as such’? Is there a myself ‘as such’ to which or to whom I would relate? And if not, who then asks this question? Who or what says ‘I’? Let’s leave these questions aside for now and say something briefly about how this structure of relation-to-self and of reappropriation gets displaced by various thinkers before Derrida, since their work paved the way for deconstruction.

In the course of his phenomenological reduction, Husserl analyzes consciousness, the ego, and intentionality as minutely as possible, and he makes a curious discovery: rather than leading back to a self-same point, constitutive of the whole world, it leads to pre-subjective and non-egological zones. At the heart of the living present, the subject, “conjoins with the nonsubject.” The ego is “marked” by the non-ego or alter ego, and the ego can never have an originary experience of this alter ego. Meaning: it is never present. The paradox is that, although we are conjoined with this other in some fashion, it never appears for us, it is never there ‘as such’. But if, at the heart of its constitution, the subject is linked or marked by something that is never there ‘as such’, how could it ever relate to ‘itself‘ as such? Not only does this displace the conception of the subject as the center (since it introduces otherness at the heart of the same); not only does it lead us to say the subject is constituted rather than constitutive, but we also have to ask: how could the subject ever be constituted in a full, self-present way, if this ‘constitution’ always remains haunted by an other that could never be its ‘own’? Such is what the analysis of time and the other in relation to the constitution of the transcendental subject reveals: a horizon of questioning that is not exclusively egological or subjectively determined. It is already here that a ‘deconstruction’ is underway: a self interrupting itself due to the transcendence of another.

The second displacement is Heidegger’s: to replace the classical subject with Dasein. His existential analysis in Being and Time emphasizes that our being is not vorhanden (ready to hand, available, present, existing) but something more like an event stretching out through time (be-ing as a verb, not as an entity or substantive). Heidegger also talks about the ‘call of friendship’, a friend “within” us who calls us and provokes in us a responsibility that precedes any subjective determination. But although along these and other lines of thought Heidegger represents an “immense displacement,” Derrida is of the opinion that he does not go far enough. Heidegger marginalizes the idea of Geworfenheit (a being-thrown more primordial than subjectivity) and, more consequently, tries to rescue the subject through the idea of Eigentlichkeit–a word that is often translated as ‘authenticity’, but which contains the word ‘eigen‘: once again a thought of the “own” and “proper”. In other words, Dasein retains the possibility of relating to itself ‘as such’ (namely, by relating to death ‘as such’ (cf. Aporias)). Even if it is differentiated from any merely present being, Dasein is still defined as a being that asks questions about its own being. But why its own? Here, Derrida is extremely cautious: even the seemingly innocent question “Who?” risks reverting to the structure of the ‘as such’ and reappropriation. This caution will lead him to an affirmative thought that comes even before the “who” question, before any dilemma of the subject and certainly before any quest for identity.

Derrida thus seeks a trajectory of thought that does not return to self, to the ego, to an “atomic indivisibility,” or to any propriety, property, or appropriateness, but instead tries to think division and dispersal at the heart of any ‘same’, at the heart of an affirmative and responsive ‘yes’. Let’s try now to follow this trajectory, following Derrida’s comments.

I mentioned above how, in Husserl, the other is linked to or marks the subject at the level of its most basic constitution, so much so that it thwarts or prevents any constitution of the subject as itself, as self-present. It insinuates difference and errancy at the heart of the self ‘itself’. But does it then make sense to speak of the self ‘itself’, of the self ‘as such’? Hardly. Presence-to-self is already marked by difference, by a delay, an absence, or a loss–by the insistence of the other and time that disrupts or interrupts all reappropriative measures. Reappropriation, whereby the traditional subject feigned to come back to itself and take possession of itself, “necessarily produces the opposite of what it apparently aims for” (269): rather than producing self-sameness, it produces just more difference (alterity, traces without return to self, without proper origin, outside the duality of present-absent). Here, any ‘same’ that would be deviated from is ‘itself’ simply an effect of differential traits. It is from here that Derrida tries to rethink the relation to self as différance and alterity without reappropriation, or where reappropriation is determined as ex-appropriation.

It can’t be emphasized enough: ex-appropriation “implies the irreducibility of the relation to the other” (270). It is never closed off, it never totalizes itself, and never ends. And it never began, for it began before any beginning. At the most basic level, exappropriation signifies that the other is never just a moment in the subject’s self-development and reappropriation process (it is a not dialectical passage to the outside for the sake of returning, strengthened, to the center). But more striking here is how, in some sense, exappropriation signifies that the other is always already ‘over there’ undermining every attempt at reappropriation (but what kind of ‘over there’? not a presence, but a coming and going… which can always mean a non-arrival). Our exposure “from the inside out” to the other (non-locatable, non-identifiable, non-subjectivizable, not-present) always makes for a dehiscence and effraction from within, an ‘intrinsic dislocation’ in the subject. This relation (without relation) to the other can not be controlled, predicted, or programmed. It can only be undergone and experienced. This experience of ex-appropriation, exposed to the other without ever stabilizing it, without ever pretending to relate to it ‘as such’ or to exhaust this relation, is “deconstruction” in its most vivid, pertinent, and responsible form.

The duty of deconstruction, then, is to keep vigil: to protect the other’s otherness. This injunction comes without prescriptions and requires inventions. At the same time, it takes place, if it takes place, outside the ‘autonomy’ of any subject, beyond a subject’s powers, possibilities, and performances. Derrida summarizes, “Beyond even the force of critique, it situates a responsibility as irreducible to and rebellious toward the traditional category of ‘subject’” (274)–rebellious because it resists the reappropriation of the other into the same, irreducible because it never stabilizes the other. Rigorously speaking, the other is what the subject never sees coming. “Vigilance” begins in an unwavering respect for the not-even-recognizable other, a vigilance that lets the other remain inappropriable, non-subjectivizable, non-identifiable, thus letting it remain a sheer call to responsibility–a responsibility that carries within it “an essential excessiveness” and that, as Levinas wrote, only increases to the extent that we respond.

Perhaps we could measure the deconstructive displacement by returning to the question, “Who?” This question no longer has much pertinence if it is understood in the normal mode of self-inquiry that asks after the self (“Who am I?”), because then it remains caught in the logic of reappropriation and of relating to the self ‘as such’. It has to become a more reaching question of the type, “Who is it that says I?”: no longer a self-reflexive question, meant to discover “who one is,” but instead a question that asks after the other coming to the same and “obsessing” it; the other who puts the same in question before it is the same. (As Derrida kids in a footnote elsewhere, he always dreamed of writing a self-centered text, but always “fell upon the others.”) Perhaps there is an experience of ex-appropriation that comes to us even before these questions, an experience that affirms the other before even asking, and without needing to ask, who it is. Perhaps there is an experience of falling upon the other that renders the “who” question irrelevant.

At any rate, if there is a thought of singularity here (which would not involve the same questions as identity), it is articulated along the lines of a responsibility before an other that transcends: “It is a singularity that dislocates or divides itself in gathering itself together to answer to the other, whose call somehow precedes its own identification with itself” (261). To think dislocation and division simultaneously with a gathering together devoted to answering (to) the other–perhaps even answering in order to leave the other other, to give the other (and so us) a chance–such is our task: to turn the “shattering of the subject” in the direction of another type of ethics, politics, and responsibility.

One last comment. Why is the interview titled, “‘Eating Well’, or the Calculation of the Subject”? ‘Eating’ is obviously not restricted to the mere ingestion of food. It serves, rather, as a metonymy for everything that happens at the edge, at the orifices, at all our senses, at all our points of contact with and absorption of the other, living and non-living. For it is not a question of refusing to eat the other; that, Derrida suggests, is not how best to protect the other’s otherness. At any rate, we cannot not eat. Already in reading these words, you are eating. When we stare into our computers and watch the screen-apparitions of each other, we are eating. To “eat well” is to make sure that “the meal” is nourishing not only for me (that would be to eat badly), but also for the other. “One must eat well” means: “learning and giving to eat, learning-to-give-the-other-to-eat” (282). The “ethical frontier” lies between the many different modes of conceiving-appropriating-assimilating the other, where it is a matter of, “determining the best, most respectful, most grateful, and also most giving way of relating to the other and of relating the other to the self.”

Indeed, there is something of the impossible here: To eat well is to respect the other–to protect the other’s otherness–at the very moment when I am called upon to identify with it, to assimilate, interiorize, and understand it. Such is why “eating well” refers not only to all our sensual and intellectual relations to the other, but also to the very concept of experience–since, as we have seen, any reappropriation of the subject is already a relation to an inappropriable other (that is, an ex-appropriation). The calculation of the subject, then, the subject as a principle of calculability: How to calculate with the incalculable? How to give the encounter a chance? How to be hospitable? How to eat well? How to give the other to eat?

Thank you for your patience. I hope this writing has not wasted too much of your time. I am sorry that I had to leave out any discussion of sacrifice and animality; footnotes should have punctuated every sentence with reference to them. I also apologize if my writing here causes more confusion than clarity–though perhaps that is part of the experience at stake in deconstruction and the thought of ex-appropriation. Perhaps there is something to risk in the night of nonknowledge that goes beyond the attempt to make things clear. At any rate, please feel free to question, comment, respond, and correct at will. We are, at least in some sense, though not ever the same, at the same table, still learning how to eat, read, and live.

“I fell in well with you, so I remain.”–Derrida, The Post Card

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