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Becoming-subject

In an older post, Dave Allen gives an account of ‘creatureliness‘ that I am willing to do business with. Responding to an interview with Simon Critchley, Dave agrees that our culture is unable to adequately face the fact of death but diverges with Critchley as per the solution to the ‘problem’ of our finitude. According to Critchley, though summarizing too quickly, we respond appropriately to our mortal condition by accepting and coming to terms with our own mortality and ‘learning how to die’. Although Dave considers this ‘active acceptance of finitude’ or ‘meditation on our mortality’ preferable to unreflective aversion to death, he envisions a kind of immortality viz. a ‘commitment to a universal cause’. Invoking such heavy hitters as Žižek and Badiou, Dave describes a figuration of the human being equivalent to a subject of truth–that is, an identification with an ‘eventual rupture’ and its subsequent consequences. Or to raise a parallel account of becoming-subject as per Deleuze, as Dave considers elsewhere, an agent may identify with any one line of flight constitutive of the windy chaos inhabiting all seemingly stable systems and follow it to its ruptural implications. The point is that the irruption of the uncommon qua human practice is always-already integral to the parameters of any given situation, albeit in too weak a degree for it to be detected. Both of these accounts requires us to insist that ‘we have a capacity to participate in something greater than ourselves, to engage in collective subjectivity and to find meaning not solely in the contours of our individual lives but in the unfolding of a process which transcends any individual and which outlives us’, or as Dave also refers to it, ‘a very real kind of immortality’.

This mode of becoming-subject is similarly expressed in Elizabeth King’s Pupil, a fascinating ‘one-half life-size’ sculptural configuration of a machinic stylized upper torso and an ‘astoundingly life-like’ head (Marsha Meskimmon, Women Making Art, p. 124). Drawing from a diverse set of materials, this multi-media installation piece represents an elaborate figuration analogous to the human subject. Accordingly, the sculptural gesture of King’s Pupil primarily suggests the co-existence or double bind of individuality and collectivity, thus refusing the binary either/or opposition between subject- and object-positions. The becoming-subject of this figure does not possess a fixed identity or meaning but is an embodied exchange of mutable parts. Given her complex figuration, Pupil is simultaneously animate or spirited (read: eyes and head) and inanimate or machinic (read: neck, arms, hands, and upper torso), thereby enabling a kind of ‘productive reconfiguration’ of her multiple affinities. This dynamic assemblage ‘epitomizes the logic of configuration’ insofar as corporeal agents exist as a ‘modulation between and within the individual and the collective’ (ibid.). Crediting Balibar with this particular account of interconnected subjectivity, the mobile and invested subject is described as ‘transindividual’–that is, he exists as a nomadic identity always in process. Otherwise stated, the tale of subjectivity is ‘utterly personal and social at once’ (p. 126). In fact, it is impossible to think of individual selfhood in isolation or in opposition to the collective. Subjective identity is always-already implicated and wrapped up in the collective. Such determination, however, is not a one-way street. As with King’s Pupil, the diverse and mutable character of the corporeal agent emphasizes ‘the experimental nature of the self, constantly negotiating its own parameters within the world’ (pp. 127-28). The self is, after all, an assemblage-like instrument capable of combining, producing or shuffling a diverse set of objects, images and concepts in the the service of negotiating concrete processes in actual situations.

The concept of processual identity described above is again encountered in Ann Hamilton’s lineament or balls of wound text, also known as ‘bookballs’. As Hamilton displays, reading is a productive act. Although an obsession with the critique of written texts is growing out of favor, especially among those who have enthusiastically joined the speculative materialism movement, Hamilton’s ‘altered book works’ reinstates the performative space open to the interactive, generative process of texts. Her work is straightforward yet compelling. ‘In lineament, the reading gesture ‘unwound’ books and recomposed them as ‘bookballs’, or, as Hamilton began to think of them during the course of the installation, ‘bodies’. Books were carefully pre-sliced so that the lines on each page formed a continuous strand of physical text, a ‘narrative thread’ made material. In performance, Hamilton and attendants extracted each of these filaments from the books, unwinding their narratives, and re-winding them as a ball of printed thread’ (pg. 155). As Meskimmon goes on to say, here invoking the instrumental power of literary criticism as concerns Derrida and feminists, ‘women negotiate the ostensible universality of texts through their situated knowing, recovering the eccentric, marginal meanings inscribed in even the most canonical works. When lineament deconstructed the conventions of disembodied, gender-neutral reading, it re-made the very matter of the text’ (ibid.). The labor of knowledge as per reading, touching, un-making, and re-making texts joins the kind of becoming-subject agency previously considered in which individuality is a resultant process intertwined with a cumulative collection of diverse partial- or quasi-objects, an identity that can break with the parameters of a given situation and open onto a new mode of being, or as Dave named it, ‘a very real kind of immortality’.

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Thinking the uncommon

In one of the most interesting post I have encountered recently in the blogosphere–Object-Oriented Psychoanalysis and Derridean Deconstruction–Cengiz Erdem argues that the common things of everyday existence are produced out of the depressive position or abnormalities. As the author comments, psychic development is complemented by the death drive. Whereas this relationship is typically represented as a binary opposition in mainstream discourse, it is here presented as a reciprocally determined double-bind. Erdem’s claim, following Melanie Klein and Wilfred Bion, is that “for a healthy creative process to take place giving birth to new thought” an antecedent disintegration or fragmentation of common sense is required. In other words, the breakdown of one’s consciousness and knowledge is the necessary condition for the possibility of reintegrating novel ideas and producing creative new thought.

In psychoanalytic terms, this entails the negation or considered dissent of the predominant symbolic order in which one explicates the problems inherent to the structure of society. In this questioning process–given that individuals are necessarily complicit in socio-symbolic acculturation–the subject loses him- or herself, splintering one’s formerly stable and consistent identity. That is to say, since subjects are constituted by symbolic structuring, to interrogate this is to persecute one’s very self. As the author says later on, “The subject of the death drive shakes the foundations upon which is built its own mode of being”. But following the confrontation of the “banalities of symbolic societies” the subject tends towards the reparation, reconciliation, and reconstructing of the symbolic order, albeit in a structure otherwise than before.

This becoming self-consciousness doubtless entails pain and subjective intensity. In the case of Heidegger’s being-towards-death, this process involves hopelessness, despair, and angst. Or in Kierkegaardian terms, it is the anxiety or dizziness of freedom. But rather than focus on escape as the solution, as the existentialists understood Platonic rationalism and Western culture as a whole doing, this interior angst should be valorized as the creative agency constitutive of the subject. As Nietzsche put it, pain, suffering, and horror are prerequisites for the novel becomings of existence because the creation of new thoughts and uncommon individuation requires the destruction of old forms to clear space for the new.

Erdem identifies a similar theme in critical theory: “The critical theorist breaks down the meaning of the text and out of the pieces recreates a new meaning, which is to say that creativity bears within itself destructivity and inversely. It may not be necessary to destroy something intentionally to create something new, but to have destroyed something is usually a consequence of having created something new”. In Derridean terms, the peripheral meaning of a text internally contradicts the dominant meaning, causing the text to split and collapse on its own accord. In this sense, the creative drive of a text that brings it into being and the destructive drive that causes its ultimate dissolution “are within and without one another at the same time”. In the final analysis, Erdem concludes that Derrida and his deconstruction project are ineffective when it comes to the generative strategy of re-creating objects or texts out of disintegrated ruins, claiming that he “perpetually postpones” effective or affirmative action, a judgment I will let stand as is and let the reader decide on.

Given my own interest in Deleuze, the psychoanalytic notion that creative thought emerges out of meaningless chaos strikes me as very close to Deleuze’s objects of encounter as considered in Difference and Repetition. What engenders thought or what forces us to think, as Deleuze tell us, is an object of encounter, something that is not immediately recognizable to the dogmatic image. That is to say, it is discordant from the vantage point of recognition and identity. It “perplexes” thought and “forces it to pose a problem” (p. 140). In this way the violent encounter of something unthinkable unhinges common sense from its streamline functioning, creating a discord in the faculties of recognition, and compels thought to grasp that which is not immediately intelligible. In a memorial passage Deleuze states the experience of an uncommon object in this way: “It is not a sensible being but the being of the sensible. It is not the given but that by which the given is given. It is therefore in a certain sense the imperceptible” (p. 140).

So while the object of an encounter indeed stumps thought, it can only be said of intensive objects that thought truly begins. In this sense, familiar thoughts and opinions are only ever the product of events in which thought is disturbingly faced with what it does not directly identify as something previously observed. Or to express it in a simple sentence, thought is engendered by introducing aberration into thought. All of this suggests that objects of encounter are the necessary condition for possible new and stable thoughts to emerge. This is, for Deleuze, what it means to think an original, novel or uncommon thought: neglect the common values and sensible concerns of how things stand in society at large. Knowledge is only conditioned by the unidentifiable condition of the uncanny, the imperceptible.

Derrida’s passion for the impossible

Derrida was an atheist with Jewish roots who spoke about God in his own way. In Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida John Caputo makes a controversial encounter with Derrida’s relationship to religion, arguing that deconstruction is a passion for the transcendent. Moreover, Caputo claims that we have not understood deconstruction properly, that is, we have read it less and less well, if we fail to see it as an aspiration for the religious or prophetic. More specifically, deconstruction is interested in making room for the tout autre, the “wholly other”. In other words, it is a “passion for the impossible”, the excess or plenitude of existence, an act that surely sets in motion a transgressive vector: it is “a passion for trespassing the horizons of possibility”.

Deconstruction is primarily a strategy of calling forth, provoking or uncovering the unrepresentable. As such, it is impregnated with the impossible or the transcendent. It is prompted or haunted by the “spirit/specter of something unimaginable and unforeseeable” (p. xix). Caputo notes that religion is precisely a covenant with the impossible, unrepresentable or unforeseeable. It is a pack or promise made between the wholly other and its people. But for Derrida, deconstruction is religiousness without concrete, historical religion. That is, Derrida is beholden by the dogmatics of no particular faith. For him, it is more a certain experience of or tormented relationship with the impossible as such. Stated otherwise, Derrida prays and weeps to God but does not know to whom he is praying and weeping.

Although this all may seem rather uninteresting, it is significant that Caputo applies this profound specter of religion to all states of affairs; for instance, anthropology, justice and politics. The bent of deconstruction, its posture of expectancy, runs deep. It can never be satisfied because the impossible can never be present, it is always that which is coming. As such, we must open ourselves and our present to something new, that which is uncommon, strange, impossible. Or, as Caputo puts it, “Were the horizon of possibility to close over, it would erase the trace of justice, for justice is the trace of what is to come beyond the possible” (p. xxiv). In this case, Derrida’s religion or notion of transcendence is not otherworldly, even if it is “spiritual” or “out-of-this-world” in some respects. Moreover, rather than a list of dogmatic propositions or historical/narrative accounts of God’s dealings with humankind, what we are usually familiar with in religions, Derrida’s religion is prophetic, messianic and eschatological, an opening towards the future of what is to come.

The scandal that Caputo is proposing is to say that deconstruction is circumcision: a cutting into the Same to open up the possibility or the event of the Other, the tout autre. Anticipating the discussion to follow, Caputo is worth quoting at length here:

The circumcision of deconstruction cuts it off from the absolute, cuts off its word form the final word, from the totalizing truth or logos that engulfs the other. Deconstruction proceeds not by knowledge but by faith and by passion, by the passion of faith, impassioned by the unbelievable, by the secret that there is no secret. It is called forth by a promise, by an aboriginal being-promised over to language and the future, to wander destiner-rant, like Abraham, underway to who knows where. Deconstruction proceeds in the dark, like a blind man feeling his way with a stick, devoid of sight and savvy, of vision and verity,…where it is necessary to believe, where the passion of faith,…is all you have to go on (p. xxvi)

The messianic logic of Derrida can and has been applied to all aspects of existence. For instance, democracy is a democracy to come, a democracy otherwise than its current state, a democracy beyond its current limitations and deadlocks. This is not a democracy that can be totalized, classified or closed any more than we can define God. More profoundly still, as Bernauer acknowledges in Foucault’s Force of Flight, “Foucault says of human begins what Eckhart says of the divine being: whatever you say God is, that is what God is not; you cannot say what human begins are but only what they are not” (p. 56). The point is as follows: we cannot say a thing concerning humanity or the God or politics to come. We are blind to the future and no positive ideal holds. Indeed, the remark Bernauer makes of Foucault is the same one made by posthumanist studies: once we have defined humanity within strict boundaries of demarcation and mastery, we have already failed to grasp the human as such.

Of Grammatology

For any unfamiliar with Derrida, Of Grammatology is one of his more accessible and popular works that is simultaneously thought-provoking in the piercing sense. The premise we begin with is that a certain view of the world has been accepted as the correct one for the majority of people in a given culture, but upon further examination of “the minute particulars” a different picture of reality comes into focus. Derrida stresses that what is familiar to us happens to be such merely because it is commonly agreed upon and repeated on authority as the correct and only interpretation. But simply by slowly reexamining the situation it could be argued that we would arrive at a different view each time. Thus, all conclusions should be considered provisional and inconclusive. So says Derrida.

The motive behind humanity’s denial of this plural-scape without stable identity or origin is our common desire “for a stable center, and for the assurance of mastery.” The primary way this is achieved is through the familiarity of one’s own language, culture and discourse. Hence, the predicament anyone faces who would wish to pursue a strategy of resisting the status quo would have to use familiar resources to overturn the very categories they are utilizing. To use a proverbial saying, you have to use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. Derrida’s tactic of “sous rapture” which translates from the French to “under erasure” defines this process more thoroughly.  “This is to write a word, cross it out, and then print both word and deletion. (Since the word is inaccurate, it is crossed out. Since it is necessary, it remains legible)” (p. xiv). In other words, we must twist and contort available resources (such as language) in order to do reach a different perspective. “We must learn to use and erase our language at the same time” (p. xviii).

A good example that Derrida refers to so as to make this point is Levi-Strauss’s bricoleur. The bricoleur is a handy-man (or woman) who “makes do with things that were meant perhaps for other ends” (xix). By doing so, when applied to “writing” or “grammatology”, the bricoleur uses conservative concepts for the purpose of simultaneously exposing their limits. The bricoleur does so because nothing else can be done to change certain habits of the mind. We must make do with “the old language, the language we already possess, and which possesses us” (xv). Nietzsche found a similar way to cope with this problem. His pervasive strategy was to intersubstitute unitary opposites.

If one is always bound by one’s perspective, one can at least deliberately reverse perspectives as often as possible, in the process undoing opposed perspectives, showing that the two terms of an opposition are merely accomplices of each other (xxviii)

To sum up, Derrida (Heidegger and Nietzsche with him, the philosophers of erasure) believes that we can break out of the enclosure of monoculture by using a certain “plural style.” We must confound opposites, switch perspectives and use many registers of discourse. But unlike modern cynicism which is cold and harsh we should be prepared to “rejoice in uncertainty” and proceed in a spirit of carnivalesque play. As Spivak notes in the preface, “responsibility itself must cohabit with frivolity, this need not be cause for gloom” (xiii). Risk-taking, after all, should be characterized by “affirmative joy” or “joyful wisdom”—what Nietzsche calls the gay science.