On the final pages of his book The Politics of Time, Peter Osborne says outright what he sees as the current cultural-political task: to “engage in the willed transformation of the social forms of subjectivity at their deepest structural levels,” to which he adds in parentheses, “Cultural politics is subject production.” Not accidentally, the production of social possibility is intimately linked to this production of subjectivities– and both of these are intimately linked to what he calls “the temporalization of historical time,” where “history is lived as the ongoing temporalization of existence.” I’d like to adequately portray the implications of this book, so I will quote here at length:
Radical politics depends upon the social production of possibility at the level of historical time. ‘Possibility’ is produced by and as the temporal structure of particular types of action; it is sustained by others, and eroded and undermined by others still. And it is produced in a variety of temporal forms.
How do the practices in which we engage structure and produce, enable or distort, different senses of time and possibility? What kinds of experience of history do they make possible or impede? Whose futures do they ensure? These are the questions to which a politics of time would attend, interrogating temporal structures about the possibilities they encode or foreclose, in specific temporal modes.
Focus and re-read those questions. This rather general-abstract question of, “What kind of experience of history do various practices allow or deny?” must confront us directly as an interrogation into the “temporal structures” of our own daily practices and their possibilities. As “abstract” as this text is at times, it has the power to focus us in on our own “particular types of action,” the kinds of potentials they expose to us and expose us to, and likewise that potential that they might be hiding from us. It is thus that the question of a “politics of time” returns us to our everyday experience before anything else. While every philosophical text, in my opinion, requires that we “inhabit it as our own” (that we refuse to take the so-called “critical distance” and instead experience the text in such a way that our own experience of ourselves is at stake), this text especially calls for a return to the “virtues of experience.”
Osborne draws on Benjamin, who writes that the “unity of experience” is not a “sum of experiences,” but rather that to which “the concept of knowledge as theory is immediately related in its continuous development.” In pairing this opposition (experience as summation vs. experience as theory-in-continuous-development) with the other opposition (forms of action that deny historical experience or those that allow it), we can begin to “critique” social forms of subjectivity and social forms of action. These “two” critiques are united insofar as they both ask questions about the historical possibilities afforded by forms of consciousness and life. Clearly, it is in transforming the one that one transforms the other, and vice versa; and likewise with interrogating. In my view, to transform social forms of subjectivity is at least to interrogate social forms of activity. Again, it is at the site of our own experience– right at ourselves– that this interrogation and transformation first takes place; and it takes place insofar as this interrogation and transformation is undertaken with an eye and an ear bent toward the question (politics) of time (the question of our experience of history itself, the implication of ourselves as historical beings).
Let me make a few remarks about my own social activities and my own experience in the production/transformation of subjectivities. While I have not had the vocabulary to think through these problems until reading this book, it is clear to me that the sense of myself as a historical being has been at stake for me for a long time. I can recall with a real vividness my experience as a college student torn between “social activity” and “my studies,” precisely because this ‘tearing’ has not yet fully reconciled itself (clearly, where studying doesn’t meet back up with immanent-historical social activity, one hasn’t yet begun to study…). I got into the habit of “going out” with friends until bar-close and then, instead of sleeping off my drunkenness, I would stay up and read, often until dawn, and many times staying up through the whole of the next day. Something heavy (history) was weighing on me; whether you want to construe it as guilt or a sense of indebtedness for surviving cancer, I can only say that countless nights, afternoons, and evenings were spent sweating the balance I had to draw between “friends” and my own “creative productivity,” between “fun” and “studying/writing”. Why was this latter always so much more fulfilling for me, why did I feel urged beyond myself to “stick to it,” even if it meant abandoning those I cared about? I think because it exposed me to my historical being (and later, I realized that leaving my friends to their own devices, perhaps, helped them do the same).
I remember specifically one Halloween evening when all of my friends were, of course, out-and-about drinking, immersed in the madness that is Iowa City in autumn. That evening, I stayed back to read sections of Kierkegaard’s “Training in Christianity” for the nth time and take notes on it. I read pieces of it out loud to myself and wrote an odd dialog with God that night (focused largely on the struggle between social pull and the inner pull). At about 2:15 a.m., just as the bars were closing, my roommate and various other friends showed up, somewhat to my surprise. I was astonished at the “change of pace” the moment they all arrived; but whether or not time ‘sped up’ or ‘slowed down’, it is hard to tell. Certainly, there was more ‘activity,’ more ‘talking.’ There was probably even more ‘passion’ and more ‘meaning.’ I sat cross-legged in the middle of the floor, ‘super-meditative,’ while the rest took up all the possible seats in my living room, laughing and carrying on. I was totally at peace with myself and the decision to stay home that night, which had caused me so much anxiety earlier. Everyone had returned to me, they hadn’t held it against me that I stayed inside that night. And yet it seemed like nothing had happened for them except a few altercations and some funny times (though here I didn’t feel guilty for what I’d chosen, and what I’d experienced in the meantime). I realized how odd it was that these various pirates and skeletons and ghost-garbed characters were looking on me with such perplexity, sitting Buddha-style as I was in the middle of my own packed apartment, doing little but breathing. It was as if I had donned the most ‘incognito’ of costume disguises: my historical being itself (drawn up by the inner pull, by the recitations, by the writing, by Kierkegaard, etc.). It dawned on me that no one in the room could see me– or that maybe, crucially, at that juncture, there was no one to look at.
Of course, the ‘triumph’ of this night was matched, if not outweighed, by the many other nights where I was one of the namelessly costumed, out for the fun of PBR and darts (sometimes paired with philosophical discussions, although this always struck me as disingenuous). This struggle is well ‘summarized’ in this small excerpt from a few years after the Halloween episode:
How difficult it is to break off from them, into the no-one, where we reside… How difficult to ride the endless pulse of effects anonymity has prerecorded! How difficult to forsake one’s family, one’s friends, even one’s respectability, for the sake of an unknown and aimless enmity, who thrives in the woes of the double, the dummy— interiorized companionship and its campaign. How difficult it is to ignore the enigmatic “relationship” we pertain to this dummy, being nothing but it ourselves (chances of a potential null).
A great majority of my writing is devoted to this “breaking off” and to this “no-one” (which is both an effort-form to transform subjectivity and a kind of “residence” in itself, perhaps). Now, I get the sense that this “no-one” with whom I have for so long tried to “identify” myself (as a way to understand identity “as such” and to understand myself) is co-terminal with my “historical being.” I can see that, so far at least, much of my life has played out between these poles, where the only real “enjoyment” I’ve ever experienced is linked to the studying and writing that puts me in contact with history and with myself as a historical being. That this has all along been so tied to a “dissatisfaction” with the “everyday enjoyments” is no surprise. Osborne’s text suggests to me that the only real satisfaction is in the midst of this dissatisfaction. Those moments that I lamented, partying or whatever, were lamentable not only because they did not connect me to myself as historical or because they participated in a “consumerized,” “homogenous” time (where every instant is as interchangable with the next as PBR is with Grain Belt…); they were more lamentable insofar as I, again and again, forgot that it was up to me to “make something of it all,” to fill those ’empty instants’ with the fullness of a historical ‘now-time.’ (It’s to this “filling up” that I would implore you… and not only for your sake…)
Without trying to exhaust the list, there are many “empty” social activities that I yearn(ed) to “break away from,” then and now: watching television (most often MSNBC infotainment or sitcoms), smoking pot and/or drinking needlessly, masturbating to internet porn, spending inordinate amounts of time “wasting time” with friends, browsing the social network sites, and sleeping. It’s clear to me that the only criteria for critiquing these activities, in terms of Osborne’s analysis, is the degree to which they prevent or promote my exposure to my “historicality,” the degree to which they fill or leave empty empty time. Yes, these activities keep me from studying and writing; but it isn’t clear to me that their mere exclusion from my everyday would result in a promotion of said exposure to “history,” nor that they prevent it outright. And furthermore, the more pertinent interrogation might actually be into the different forms of writing and reading that I have practiced in the past, and whether or not they have really engaged me with my “historical being.” Mightn’t one find evasions amidst their cherished activities as much as amidst their despised ones?
For this engagement with history is itself, “a conflicted social process of identification, interrogation and disavowal– recognition and misrecognition– of extraordinary complexity, which requires the constant production of new pasts to maintain its rhythm of temporal negation and projection, as urgently as new images of the future.” Crucial here is the leveling between the production of “new pasts” and “new images of the future” (there is a kind of acceptance or self-forgiveness that seems to be necessarily at work). It’s possible that the majority of what I have written so far has been a diversion from my ‘true’ historical being; but those pieces are not set-in-stone. There is always the chance to re(con)figure them: to tear them from the merely past and into the “new past” (as an image of the future even). Insofar as “everyday activities” figure into the “dehistoricization” of our lives (i.e., the way that indulging ingrained inertias, or old temptations and habits, give us the sense that nothing is happening and that “nothing will ever change”), these everyday activities are also “potential… site[s] for the rehistoricization of experience.” It is thus less a matter of the elimination of activities per se as it is the urgency of their “refiguring” (which very well may lead to their elimination). I say this with a pretty clear consciousness of the fact that the listed activities really do prevent my “access” to my historical being, and thus the need to interrogate them. Because what “accessing historical being” comes down to, what “refiguring the everyday” comes down to, is this: “the transformation of the empty chronology of the ‘instant’ into the fullness of the historical ‘now.'”
Osborne never links this transformation to specific forms of social life or even to specific forms of subjectivity, and I think he would object to the outright exclusion of any specific form, for this transformation-interrogation occurs at the level of everyday life “only” and primarily as a production of the possible. There is nothing to say that such a production cannot happen over a beer or whilst jerking off. But innately, we feel suspicious of that possibility– of the possibility that possibility itself could be produced where all that is “occuring” is the raw consumption of an already-produced enjoyment. As Adorno writes somewhere, what we need is not to consume our happiness, but to produce-imagine it– to the point where we are so close to it we can hardly tell it’s there.
Osborne never specifically links this production of possibility and subjective forms to “writing” itself, surely because he needn’t for his analysis to enact this production. And yet, his writing of the book and his referencing authors (and also exhaustively referencing us to them: this book has an amazingly thorough footnote and bibliography section) seems to imply writing in this production-transformation. It is into this implication of writing itself that I would like to inquire. While I sense the need to interrogate and disarm those “banal” activities listed above, I don’t think that this is for the sake of writing, but for the sake of the “we” with which writing and studying puts us in contact. It is this “putting us in touch with ourselves” that excellent philosophy and poetry seems to enable par excellence. And it enables it insofar as it requires the “production of social possibility” right at the level of reading and writing. In the abstractness or obscurity so often pinned to these excellent texts, what they really demand of us is to produce their sense right alongside them, right at the text-world itself. Poetry has said this demand so well, in my eyes, from Mallarme to Paul Celan to Jack Spicer (who pled: “Pray for those bastards who are too crowded to listen”), for it necessitates that the reader enter into “poetry itself” to even “really read the poem.” In other words, “really reading the poem” is a possibility that must be produced in the very reading of the poem…
That “no-one” was for a very long time the cipher of my reaching toward my historicality (you?) is probably not coincidental (as a trope, it probably will not cease). Empty time fought itself through it’s own recourse: negativity, empty subjectivity, “no-one myself.” Many of my texts stake their hope on this kind of affect (the chance of a potential null). But it strikes me now that this “potential nullity “is linked to the possibility of new social forms (i.e., what will happen once I muster the courage to “break off”?) and the possibility of new experience-forms of subjectivity (“interiorized companionship and its campaign”). Whether we want to understand these as the “potentiation of (my) null self” or the “potentiation of (my) historical being” is underwritten by the experience itself (which, it should be added, is never exempt from the dialog/dialectic between recognition and misrecognition). The way I articulate it– as null-self or historical-self or both– has everything to do with my experience at any given time of this potentiation (despair mixing with delight, etc.). Time links the articulation as a social activity to the sociality of the “myself”– where language runs into voice. In other words, to formulate the production of a fuller or more fulfilling present as a “becoming-null” or a “becoming-historical” is not necessarily a matter of “choice”; but that these two formulations are linked (for me at least) has everything to do with the historical formulation/formulating that I am.
What gives it value beyond “my own” movement is the sense in which it links up to “our own” (temporal) movement toward “our own” historical being, or simply our movement towards/in history (the incompletable historicization of the ‘instant’ as full ‘now-time’). It is in linking up with this “our own” that I have found it necessary to pass through “no-one” (and I am not alone, I don’t think, in sensing this necessity). In truth, there is no value to this “my own” without there being a similar value for the “our own”: there is no “my own” without a prior “our own.” But this “our” is not pre-given, nor is it to be understood as something lost to a mythic past that we must recover, nor as a collective that would subsume us particulars as part of a General Will. Osborne’s critique of Heidegger rides on this: his philosophy creates the myth of a lost “German Dasein” to which he ask his readers to return; the thinking of Being is then ultimately tied to a vision of history as the ‘destiny of a (the German) people (Volk)’; and thus ‘resoluteness’ or the ‘decision to exist’ becomes a basic acquiescence to the ‘leader,’ such that ‘Being’ becomes a place holder empty enough to hold Hitler’s name, etc. Quite apart from these nostalgic notions, Osborne’s book is oriented toward the production of the “we” as such. It’s in this way that, paradoxically, we are called again and again to produce our own origin in the “with.”
As I see it, this production-transformation situates itself in the very ambiguity of the term ‘we’. The production of the socially possible seeks to produce possibilities for “all of us” in the social. The production of new forms of subjectivity seeks to produce possibilities for the “just us”– each of us social(ized) beings. Again, only where the two ‘intersect’ are we. Only where the “for all of us” and the “for just us” meet, in freedom, is there the experience of ourselves as historical beings (or more simply: the experience of us as being in history, necessarily turned toward it). Again, the important critique of Heidegger is that this “we” is not something given, not something lost (Nancy has taken up this critique in more depth than Osborne in his “Being Singular Plural”): the “we” is not some German or American people to whom our transformation of the social is consecrated. “We” must be created, and “we” must take it upon ourselves to create our own possibilities.
It is thus that there is a curious collapse between “the one and the many,” and it seems to me that it is in this collapse that writing (the production of space?) becomes effectual. I take as my initial premise that every kind of reading is a kind of writing. When I read a text, I re-construct it and de-construct it in the same movement. A similar thing happens whenever we are trying to think or to write. Just as an unexpectedly clear sentence will suddenly clarify the whole thing, so too when writing do sentences “arrive” that bring the whole endeavor into perspective. There is thus this first sense in which, whether we are reading or writing, we are “with” language, embedded in sociality and the strangeness of speaking itself. The second sense is the social aspect of reading and writing itself. Whenever I sit down and read a text, not only am I no longer who I was before I started, but the text is no longer what it was before I started. It speaks to me and I to it. I “deterritorialize” it, ripping it from its “original context” (if we even dare speak of a thing) and “transposing” it or “reterritorializing” it onto my own context; but in this movement, the “territory” that I am is itself changed, and I am not at all left the same. Where this confrontation with language and this confrontation with another’s voice reaches its highest pitch of intensity, we come into our own (voice).
In writing a text, one “I” goes towards its strangeness and transforms itself; and in reading a text, another “I” goes towards the strangeness of the text and thus of itself, and trans-forms itself. It is thus less a “collapse” of the one and the many, than the touch between the two. Boundaries between the two are neither blurred or broken. Each moment that we return to text (context too), we touch us, and I think that this “touch” is what Osborne calls the “historicization” of time itself. We touch upon what we are in a way that suspends what we understand “us” to be, in a way that interrupts production by producing things in a novel way.
This suspension of the determined context is I think precisely what is behind Osborne’s insistence on the validity of Benjamin’s “messianic” view(ing) of history. Something of the “we” not only erupts, but is produced where it wasn’t before. This “we” is produced as an interruption of the prevailing modes of production (time is produced just as much as anything). This production is linked to the break with homogeneous time qua the interruption of Messianic vision (Benjamin), or qua the reintroduction of cyclical time into linear time (Lefebvre). This interruption or disruption of “what we know time to be” is aligned with the production of social possibility and the transformation of forms of subjectivity, where the experience of time is precisely what is (politically) at stake.
Although reading and writing, as the medium in which ideas and histories “communicate,” is not a privileged site of transformation, it does seem clear that the most critical, even if the most incognito, transformations in the experience of time occur there, or at least vis-a-vis the text (encounter of language and voice). And as with the interruption on that Halloween night, reading and writing always happens in situ, as part of a daily rhythm interrupted or pursued. But just as on that Halloween night I touched upon something of myself, steered myself in (perhaps) an utterly new and novel direction, even the slightest text (or gesture, practically anything) can lead us to steer ourselves anew.
When we consider a text as a collection of sentences and words, it is first and foremost a “community”; but to enter into the community of the text is not to just enter into a collection of sentences and words. It is not that we access the “past” of some author’s text-idea. We see the text for what it is now, in the fullness of this now as part of the movement in/of history. The production of social possibility, the transformation of forms of subjectivity– what could be better words for the confused movements of writing? It is through the creation of texts that we are able to acutely affect this production-transformation on the “deepest structural levels.” As with the greatest poets, we have the chance to leave behind a “record,” not of poetic diction and “mere images,” but much more importantly, a piece of our very own bodies, a “record” of our time(s) on earth as being a part of all the various human and non-human communities (and times, and histories) (“radically individuated”). Vis-a-vis this record, we are called forth not only into this “we” of texts and past identities, but also to the very production of us.
We touch upon this demand to reach toward the ‘impossible,’ toward the ‘other,’ through (to the) ‘no-one’. It is this impossible that we must produce as the social possible. As Osborne says in the final paragraph of his book, this amounts to producing in experience the possibility that things don’t need to be the same today as they were yesterday. While I notice that this imperative is not too unlike the burden placed on a thinker to constantly “think beyond themselves,” or on a writer to constantly uncover the as-yet-unseen sentences, it seems important to stress that this production of the “it could be otherwise” occurs most pertinently right at (historical) everyday existence. What proves to be “impossible” is that “things might proceed otherwise”; but this alone offers the essential u-topian light that guides us empirically. This alone is what must be produced in experience as being actually possible, so as to transform the sphere of the subjective in the very gesture that the social-impossible is made socially possible. In a word: where we’re set free, together.
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