attempts at living

to make a system out of delusions

Tag: coping

Friendship as a creative practice of vulnerability

In forming a friendship, settling a marriage, or composing a manuscript, our hope is to establish something durable that does not constantly fray or break down. – Graham Harman, Prince of network: Bruno Latour and metaphysics

Kiki Smith sculpture. Currently exhibiting in Edinburgh’s Museum of Modern Art.

I have been thinking about certain conversations I’ve been having about friendship, its meaning but also its character. The sense that friendship can be authentic or inauthentic, rich or poor, complex or simple…however we carve it, we’ve been talking as if there are two orders of being-together that both fall under the nomination “friendship”. It’s actually an old tradition, this way of thinking. It’s in the Stoics, for whom “friend” meant something particular. Epictetus has this to say on the image of playful animals (kittens with balls of wool, dogs with chew toys, whatever), “To see what friendship is, throw a piece of meat among them and you will learn”.

The point isn’t that friendship is ruthless, a deception both parties enter into with full awareness that it can be tossed aside when it looses its use-value (Max Stirner thinks of it this way). The point is that friendships in which “externalities” can destroy the bond reveals that the bond was never there. This is communist, up to a point. Property- or rather the reverence thereof and attachment there to- is inimical to friendship; we can’t genuinely call ourselves friends if claims to possession can tear us apart. For Epictetus, the question of friendship turns on the question of whether or not the one who calls herself my friend is turned towards externals or internals. In the end, this is simply to ask whether she is a subject of ownership or a subject of will. Epictetus goes on:

‘But if you hear that these men in very truth believe the good to lie only in the region of the will and in dealing rightly with impressions, you need trouble yourself no more as to whether a man is son or father, whether they are brothers, or have been familiar companions for years; I say, if you grasp this one fact and no more, you may pronounce with confidence that they are friends, as you may that they are faithful and just. For where else is friendship but where faith and honour are, where men give and take what is good, and nothing else?’

It may be declared that this is a rationalist’s view of friendship. It lacks the sensibility of friendship. It lacks the practice of the share; sharing in pleasure, in practices, in nonsense, in walking, in drinking, in consolation, and provocation. Is that fair though? After all, what is it that Epictetus is really saying here? He is saying that we can be friends with those with whom we share a common commitment to certain principles, namely to the value of living in accord with nature/reason; to live the examined life, and to spurn attachments to things that distract from such examination. We could phrase it differently from Epictetus’ often overly “cognitive” way of talking (and let us not forget that his concept of cognitive inspired the CBT sense and is not derivative of it), that in order to be a friend to anyone else one must first be a friend to oneself. An authentic friendship can only be a relation between two authentic beings. This is also Seneca’s definition, and it seems to me it is part of de Montaigne’s notion of solitude. Epictetus again, this time from the discourse “On Freedom”:

If he does that, then first he will never revile himself or be in conflict with himself, he will be free from change of mind, and self-torture; secondly he will be friendly to his neighbour, always and absolutely, if he be like himself, and if he be unlike, he will bear with him, be gentle and tender with him, considerate to him as one who is ignorant and in error about the highest matters; not hard upon any man

The person who frets about what is outside of his will, outside of his control and sphere of responsibility, is a masochist too steeped in a kind of martyr’s jouissance and confusion that he can’t really be any one else’s friend. His mind- indistinguishable to his “soul” or his ownmost being, for Epictetus- is not under his own possession, but is pulled hither and thither by the chaos of the world, is therefore only an eddy in that chaos. It has not become regularised, it produces no “refrain”. Actually, this apparent rationalism is simply the effect of the idea that friendship is an ‘intrinsic presence to thought” (D&G 1999, p.9). Plenty of people know one another, but a friendship is something that is a part of thinking. It is a part of thinking that is inseparable from that thinking. It is an inseparability that is present-in-thought.

Friendship, in other words, is immanent to thought. I am not willing to say that in encountering you I only ever encounter the idea of you- I find this ontologically intolerable- but epistemically, in what I know of our encounter, yes, perhaps, all I can have are is this set of impressions, these ideas, these sensations, and this concept-of-you that is not exactly live, but neither is it static; so what? That is how I encounter you in friendship, as a thought? And it is how you encounter me? Or is it more the thought that we codetermine, and the world that we co-enact? Friendship is a practice, it is something friends do, and what I’m saying here is that what we do is create a world that we both inhabit. We can call this “thought” if we like, but it is not thought. It is, however, immanent to thought. The friendship here is thus a kind of work of producing a world together. We may not occupy it perfectly- indeed, we mustn’t, if we do then we’re not friends but mimics of each other, a split-personality- and those he can’t enter into, is not “at work” with us in practically enacting that world, bear with him, be gentle and tender with him. Especially as there is no reason to presuppose exclusivity to friendship. Anyone might possibly enter a friendship. In the friendship, we don’t quite become anonymous (what kind of friendship would it be between strangers?) but we do give up something of the usual pretense of sovereignty. Let’s not think friendship only happens as thought, it is affective too; but then what kind of account of thought do we have if thinking is not already bound up with, a modification of and modified by, affect?

We’re getting towards something in this. I am thinking about the nature of our friendship, the way it might differ from this one or that. I would say that we are friends who can’t be defined in terms of consumption. Neither of us, I think, sees our friendship as a resource to make use of, to be bought or traded, to be “enjoyed” in the way that a diner enjoys a McBurger. Nor is it as strong as Epictetus or Aristotle- who defines friendship as between the already virtuous- but as a friendship of those on the way to virtue. Let me turn to Todd May, who has recently written a book on friendship as a form of political resistance to the neoliberal imposition of market reason to every aspect of our lives. Todd May says that

Friendships worthy of the name are different. Their rhythm lies not in what they bring to us, but rather in what we immerse ourselves in. To be a friend is to step into the stream of another’s life. It is, while not neglecting my own life, to take pleasure in another’s pleasure, and to share their pain as partly my own. The borders of my life, while not entirely erased, become less clear than they might be.

[emphasis added]

This sounds a lot like how I think about empathy and “visceral ethics“, but friendship’s are special places, they are relationship that not just anyone can enter into; although anyone could be doing friendship, those outside a friendship can’t enter into it with ease. This is probably quite banal, but it bears emphasizing. In the friendship there are refrains- perhaps linguistic ticks shared by the friends, verbal quirks, gestural postures adopted through mirroring, historical in-jokes, a style of thinking and laughing, all these things- and when someone from outside the friendship tries to decode the meaning of the friendship, attempts to step into it’s world, they find themselves jarring the friends, they show up as not-friend, or not this kind of friend, they “stick out like a sore thumb” as the element of a friendship that defines its territorial boundaries. Although friendships are absolutely about equality, they are also in this minor way about exclusivity. Without malicious intent, friends can cause pain in the other. Yet friendships also open us to intimacy and proximity with the other who is friend. It is to our friends that we confess without confessing, to our friends that we most readily or most accidentally display our wounds. To go back to Todd May,

They render us vulnerable, and in doing so they add dimensions of significance to our lives that can only arise from being, in each case, friends with this or that particular individual, a party to this or that particular life.

There is something here, right? Friendships do render us vulnerable because it is in friendships, authentic ones (ones not exclusively based on jibes, one-up-man-ship, and other concealed forms of contempt) that we let take our character armor off, let our shields down, and say to the other in confidence ‘I know I said it was this, but I can tell you and no other that really…’ and so the hurts, the fears, the hatreds flow. In friendship we share not only our pleasures, but also our horrors; we reveal our weaknesses to each other, our non-heroic frailty. I say that in friendship we confess without confessing, but really I should not say “confess” at all; we show our wounds to one another. For Foucault, ‘Western man has become a confessing animal’. Confession is at the heart of so many of our contemporary police operations; I don’t just mean that we confess our crimes to the police, we also confess our psyche-sickness to the psychotherapist, our sexual identity to the world at large, our criminality, we confess and await judgement and absolution (assessment, diagnosis, treatment).

what a friendly face!

For Foucault, confession is a technology of truth, it produces truths. Some have claimed this is a relativistic idea, but I would disagree…it’s an eminently pragmatic idea. In the pragmatism of William James, for example, ‘truth is something that happens to an idea’. So to with Foucault, you self-reflect, you are guided to self-reflect, to discover the inner essence, the inner core, your ownmost being. Foucault was man who liked to fuck men, but was he a homosexual? The form of his enjoyment was particular, could only be satisfied in particular ways, and would influence his friendships (sexual relationships are friendships too, if they are not conducted under the logic of consumption). The homosexual, in The history of sexuality, is one of Foucault’s examples of the production of truths. Look inward, identify your desire, name it as the truth of your being, your affliction. In Foucault’s words, ‘The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species’. There was a time when “gays” didn’t exist; but now they do. Regimes of truth make particular truths, and just because these truths are made doesn’t mean they aren’t real; it is just that there reality is not necessary, their truth not eternal. What is the contemporary spectacle of culture if not confessional? If homosexuality were not a (produced) truth, Foucault would not have felt the need to respond to it. Under Foucault’s analysis, the problem isn’t that we lack Truth, its that we are drowning in truths.

The point of this digression is to say that if authentic friendships aren’t consumptive but enriching and productive, to say that the kind of confession that is undergone in friendship differs from this police confession. Foucault himself notes that the Stoic conception of ethics is a self-relation prior to being an other-relation, and in two senses. First, the Stoics lived by the Socratic creed to “Know Thyself” through letter writing to friends (Seneca epitomizes this), and by examining oneself, reviewing one’s actions and making preparations for the future actions (Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations). The point of these techniques was not that they would reveal the inner essence of the person, but that they were a practice of self-mastery, of gaining the autonomy that Epictetus talked about above. The truths produced in the Stoic concept of self-reflection, a “know thyself” that is also a “care of the self”- a taking care of the self, of finding how to live the good life, to attain virtue- are not fixed truths rendered up to some big Other for judgement. If I commit some crime, I do not examine that in order to produce myself as a Criminal, but as this man who has committed this crime and most endeavor not to do so again; crime reveals my distance from virtue, from autonomy. The confession shares in the mystical structure that I have previously written about as “the secret”. In Stoicism, and in friendships, we do not confess if we mean by that that we cry out that we’re guilty, always already guilty, in order to “be ourselves” but, and in opposition to this, in order to become other than the person we are “supposed” to be. In a sense, friendship is a way to practice other ways of being yourself. Isn’t this the meaning of authenticity? In a friendship, even between we two, there is a multiplicity; each of us, our own double, and the affectional concepts we have of each other.

There is another reason to talk about homosexuality. In an interview now titled ‘Friendship as a way of life’, Foucault links homosexuality to a practice of friendship. I want to stress one of the reasons for this; for Foucault, homosexuality presented a problem of how it was possible for men to be together “naked”, as he puts it, outside of institutional apparatus. One doesn’t need to be homosexual or to have sex with men or to even be curious about it to see the problem. Homosexuality, as much as it has become a truth, a lifestyle, and a cultural pose or gesture, is also a suspicion and an accusation. Two men together, in an intense relationship, run the risk of being called gay. Two women together out in a bar may be thought of as lesbians (indeed, sometimes this is even a play to be indulged in, confounding “the male” gaze). Foucault conceived of homosexual culture as an experimental culture that sought new ways of relating. The possibilities of how to practice friendship were suddenly up for grabs in the interstitial-liminal spaces in which homosexuality was being played with in the 70s and 80s. On this front, it is worth remembering that Foucault wasn’t talking from the ivory tower in these matters, but was embedded in an S/M culture; he was himself doing this field work. Foucault:

Between a man and a younger woman, the marriage institution makes it easier: she accepts it and makes it work. But two men of noticeably different ages – what code would allow them to communicate? They face each other without terms or convenient words, with nothing to assure them about the meaning of the movement that carries them toward each other. They have to invent, from A to Z, a relationship that is still formless.

There is no readymade world and no environment with pre-established cues for the practice of relating to one another; of course, homosexual culture may have had its own codes at the time Foucault was writing but they would not have been so saturated as heteronormative culture that it was at the peripheries of. Not to digress too far, but there is a certain disappointment in the idea of gay marriage- and I think Foucault would agree with this- that is essentially an admission that the experimental quality of homosexuality has now firmly been capitulated in favour of a social conservatism that announces equality not in terms of the equality of all to anyone, but the equality of all through the Same. Foucault resists this reduction when he says that homosexuality is not a form of desire and that sexual relations are banal; the important thing about homosexuality is its affective and relational aspects. It is a formless relationship that must form itself; the creation of the homosexual world is then the co-enactment of a particular world. Here, we can see some of why Todd May thinks friendship is a form of resistance: friendship is exactly this collaboration in the production of a specific world that does not rely on, may depart from, may even disrupt the existing normative regulation of human-human relations. (Is it necessary to restrict ourselves? Can humans be friends with non-humans? Children can even have non-existent imaginary friends, after all). Friendships can thus even be instances of politics. A white person and black person being friends in America’s slave and segregation history? That would constitute a political act. This concept is also linked to the production of temporary/permanent autonomous zones (communes yes, but also afternoons).

In another interview, Foucault asks

Why shouldn’t I adopt a friend who’s ten years younger than I am? And even if he’s ten years older? Rather than arguing that rights are fundamental and natural to the individual, we should try to imagine and create a new relational right that permits all possible types of relations to exist and not be prevented, blocked, or annulled by impoverished relational institutions.

Here the idea of adoption is legal, linked to a juridical concept of transfering guardianship or the power of loco parentis to some non-biologically related other; I take responsibility for the adopted as the parent for the child. Here, Foucault’s question seems to me much more like a provocation: isn’t this, despite its nonrecognition by juridical power, by the state, precisely what I do when I make a friend? Foucault seems to be asserting, not just that I could assert such a right and thereby bring it into being (and denature rights discourse, denature the subject “man” on which they rest and take for a sovereign), but that in friendship I do adopt the friend. Adoption is an “action noun”, it is a name of something that can’t be conceived outside of its being done (belief, likewise…what is a belief in the abstract?). When I adopt, I select, I choose for myself, I desire. And, for a friendship to be a friendship, so to does the friend. We choose ourselves for the other and the other for ourselves; or, perhaps, we choose ourselves in the other, and the other in ourselves. In either case, to take the friend up as my own is never to assert myself over her but always to choose to be implicated in, enmeshed with, intimately engaged with her.

Friendship is a sharing. It is a sharing one another and in the making of a world. I don’t really have any friends, I make them; and in the practice of making friends, so to I fashion myself. This point can be made in a banal way by suggesting that without friends we wouldn’t have the interests that we do. Indeed, at some point in Reconsidering Difference, I’m sure Todd May makes exactly this point. Our interests and enjoyments, pleasures and desires, our ways of relating are, in no small part, determined by our friendships. It is because of the nature of friendship as this kind of practice of sharing oneself, that authentic friendships can’t be conceived of on consumer or confessional terms. When I show you my wounds, I don’t confess them to you, I share them with you.

Seneca remarks that ‘when one is busy and absorbed in one’s work [of making friends], the very absorption affords great delight’ (Philosophy and Friendship, in Letters of Seneca Kindle Location 737). How distant this sounds to the characterization of Stoics as cold and aloof, but also, and more importantly, it makes the point that friendship is ongoing. I could know you for years and still be making friends with you. Indeed, the term itself “to make friends” implies this labour that we are joined in, that we are making something other from the materials to hand, which is ourselves and our current practices of relating. Seneca is clear (Kindle Location 748) that I don’t make friends to gain something, or to win something, but

in order to have someone to die for, whom I may follow into exile, against whose death I may stake my own life, pay the pledge too…[the Sage] seeks [friendship] precisely as he seeks an object of great beauty, not attracted to it for by design for gain, nor frightened by the instability of Fortune…

A friendship has this quality, a true friendship. One does not fight and die for casual acquaintances, for those with whom one does not share a world. Its interesting that Derrida thinks of this as a transfer from oneself to the other, as Seneca didn’t think one could be one’s own friend. Yet a friendship is not a burden, not a hostage-taking situation. A friendship is something of great beauty. If it is a work, it is thus an aesthetic work. Returning to Todd May once again,

By that I mean that in liking a whole person, one cannot give an exhaustive account of what it is one likes in liking a friend. Telfer tells us that, “Liking is a difficult phenomenon to analyse … It seems rather to be a quasi-aesthetic attitude, roughly specifiable as ‘finding a person to one’s taste,’ and depends partly on such things as his physical appearance, mannerisms, voice and speech and style of life; partly on his traits of character, moral and other.” Telfer insists that liking a friend does not mean one takes an inventory of these things. Instead, they somehow meld into a person whom we are drawn.

Friendship is non-cognitive as much as it is anything else, it is embodied in profound ways. This is perhaps why we are (mistakenly, I think) immediately suspicious of online friendships, an online friendship may lack the qualities of an embodied face-to-face encounter but it can maintain the aesthetic dimension. Online, our friendships are like co-written novels, certainly they resemble dialogues. Yet the voice, the seductive voice or the passionate voice, does reach us in a very direct and visceral way, making contact with us, permeating us in a way that epistemic communication alone can’t, whilst at the same time, in the elusiveness of being able to sum up the person, to be located at its origin, reminding us of the withdrawn aspect of this particular object I call friend. We must also recall that while the voice is integral to our affection for the friend, it is the voice as such to which we respond- the voice prior to the sonic signifiers it articulates.

A friendship is a kind of relation, most importantly, that is not expressible in terms of mastery or submission, sovereignty or subjection. Authentic friendship can’t be what Derrida feared friendship would be, as one part of the binary that also identifies an enemy. The identification of friends and enemies in the political philosophy of Carl Schmitt is a matter of rear guard defense, of being tied to and protecting a pre-existent eidos, rather than being the entanglement of mutuality in an ethos such that I’ve been discussing. If Carl Schmitt uses the names friend and enemy, we don’t have to tremble and decide that friendship is contaminated or at risk of such contamination. It is not a work of semantics or a play of definitions to state that the identification of friends from without, either by the state or the media nominating my friends for me and telling me that I am in a friendship with these people and united in common cause against this enemy, is already to have conceded that I am not the friend of the friend. That Schmitt rejects from his account of friendship everything that we typically mean by friendship (the “psycho-individual” aspects of “emotion” I think he says), tells us that he is willfully misappropriating the name.

A thought of post-nihilist pragmatics, what I have also been calling catastrophia and/or “catastrophic thought“, is a thought that is about what work after nihilism. This is not just about what works after nihilism, what is efficacious but that takes the question of practices as fundamental. If meaning collapses, if it is always going to collapse, if it is tied to our finitude, then how do we have practices of significance? How do we have such practices in a manner that doesn’t revert to the kind of heroism that fascism founds itself on? The reason I speak of the catastrophic and of a love of the catastrophic is not out of morbidity or because I want to declare that the emperor has no clothes. I take the term catastrophe from Aristotle claim from the Poetics, that it is ‘an action bringing ruin and pain on stage, where corpses are seen and wounds and other similar sufferings are performed’ but also from the Beckett play of the same name. The catastrophe is the part of the play when things are revealed for what they are; the hopelessness of the situation is made visible, the wounds are shown. Vulnerability once meant having the capacity to be wounded and to wound. Vulnus meant the literal wounds of the body, the body that we are thrown back on as our after nihilism, that we rediscover we always already are. Our sense-making capacity is founded on our openness to the having a world, and to having a world together. When I was in Edinburgh last week, I went to an exhibition on embodiment title “From death to death and other small tales”. At this exhibition, I saw the Joseph Beuyers work, that insists that you Show Your Wound. In the work of friendship, a work of vulnerability, we show one another our wounds, we are amidst the catastrophe, we don’t turn away from it…we might even celebrate it. The new practices that we need to forge to move across nihilism will be practices undertaken in friendship.

When Carl Scmitt talks about the identification of friends, he is not talking about the identification of those with whom we are moved, from whose thought we can’t disentangle our own, those with whom we generate new worlds, experiment with new ways of relating, and approach, together, the good way of living: he does not, finally, mean that we these are people to whom we show our wounds, those to whom we share, fundamentally, our vulnerabilities with. Schmitt is talking about the people with whom we might share our desire for stable meaning achieved through the renunciation of vulnerability, through fidelity to some exception or through identification with an absolute sovereignty. Friendship, as I see it, is fundamentally anarchic, fundamentally about the affirmation of fragile openings, about improvisation, about embracing of the ongoing, always unfinished work of experimenting with the friend relation. There is no “friendship”, only this friendship that we (you and I) are making. In that making, who is to say where I end and you begin? My thought isn’t mine…this post is based on a conversation and is, in fact, a letter written to a friend intended to carry on that conversation with him, and now also with you. If Aristotle can sigh ‘Oh my friends, there are no friends’, this is only because they must constantly be created. Friendships are not without risk, they are about risk. The practice of friendship is like that of trapeze; one flings oneself from the rope and hopes to be caught, each time choosing to be truly vulnerable.


In the history of Marxism, a friend would be named “comrade”; in anarchism, friendship as an organisational principle is called “affinity”; in feminism, it is conceivably the case that there could be no “sisterhood” without a concept of friendship. Today, authentic friendship is hard to achieve but it is not impossible. Today, I find none of these names happy identifications. Strategically, I call myself anarchic but not anarchist. I call the approach I am hopefully helping to shape, post-nihilist pragmatics. The experience of nihilism is the experience of the collapse of all identifications, all transcendental structures, all sense-making that relies on a capital ‘N’ Name. Over the years I have read Simon Critchley- Very Little Almost Nothing is undoubtedly a book I loved reading, Infinitely Demanding less so- but it is not until today that I have agreed with him so powerfully. What is required, our task, the work that comes after nihilism is

the production of a fiction that we know to be a fiction and yet which we believe in nonetheless.

(Faith of the faithless, p.93).

That fiction must start from the nonfictional that nihilism reveals as conditioning our stark exposure: our being bodies. Friendship seems to me to be one line of pursuit of such a fiction. To start anywhere else than with our bodies and with each other is already to avoid the chance to live after nihilism, is instead to turn away and pretend nihilism never happened.

Becoming a corpse; sensibility, vulnerability, subjectivation.

The hand extended to the dying one communicates no information and brings no relief and knows no hope, is there only to accompany the other in his or her dying, to suffer and to die with him or her.
-Alphonso Lingis, Sensation: Intelligibility in sensibility. p.10.

Contact with Levinas.

A friend and I were talking recently about death. We were discussing Heidegger’s version of death and the lack of sensibility to it. Being-towards-death is loaded with sense and sense-making, or meaning-production in my own awkward parlance, but it fundamentally lacks sensibility. As we sat on my sofa, building ourselves into a field of anxiety, we were both gripped by the inevitability of our bodily dying. In morbid exhilaration, I discussed what it feels like to have a panic attack and could feel myself inducing one from plunging headlong into the memory. His eyes flashed with agitation and his tongue rolled out a description of pulling intra-osseous needles from the leg of a corpse.
Here, sensibility should be understood as the sensible transversal relating to what is not self, a communion in the sensible world that sentience relinquishes itself to in no fuller a degree than in the death that is a dying. Sensibility is the body’s own dispositional enactment of the reality of the transcorporeal. This relation is an enactment because each instance is unique; there can be no re-enactment that is not itself an enacting. It is dispositional because it is the body’s nature, as a particular materiality, and its specific enactment of and as a particular being-towards that bestows an atmospheric affectivity and a giving-over.

In the experience of sensibility, our bodies realise themselves, pre-conceptually, as oscillating between touched and touching, and we are exposed to the sensation of being the site of a crossing-over. In giving-over, the body’s disposition is one of a fuller carnal communion than we may otherwise experience. Examples of sensibility in this sense abound: we actively seek it out in the tenderness and violence of eroticism; the experience of illness can make our condition as habitat for foreign bodies obvious (often with either fascination or disgust); the “punctum” of the experience of the artwork that can viscerally wrench us, reducing us to tears or raptures of joy; and in pregnancy, an experience that remains forever unknown to men, that some women revere as almost mystical, while others’ preferred metaphor is that of parasitism. It is this sensibility that is missing from Heidegger’s sense of death.
To clarify sensibility, consider “contact improvisation” in contemporary dance. In contact work, there must be at least two dancers, although you could have as many as is physically possible. In contact work each dancer uses the body of the other as a living experimental architecture to explore, through action, the realm of possible movement. What movements are available in possibility are given only in the bodies of the dancers, and shifts with each movement and each resulting transformation of the field of physical articulation. In this way, contact work displays the circulation that all dance fundamentally implies; the circulation between touching and being touched. Each body is both architecture and psychogeographer in contact. This is both an enacting and an exemplar of sensibility.

In partaking in, or watching a contact improvisation we are drawn to a language of beings that does not rely on the battery of signifiers, that already shows up to us a kind of material differance that does not come before these beings but can only be implied by their relations. We are brought to witness the purposeless movement, the directing, seducing, demanding, refusing, leading and surrendering of bodies to bodies, of corporeality to itself. Contact is the about contact, and therefore it is a dancing of openness, of vulnerability, it requires trust in one’s own body and the body of another. As a historical phenomenon, contact was born in the radicalism of the 1960s in its refusal of individualism and for us it continues to intoxicate because it denies the sovereign autonomy of objects in space from one another. Contact is about contact, not signification. In contact improvisation the body is not a material-semiotic device for narrative and it is not disciplined through rigidity, stiffness, and the closing down of possible movement in choreographic space; the phase space of contact is expansive, rather than subtractive. It is without hierarchy. This body may lead now but it must pass into supportive capacity for this body to take the lead; it is a dance where leadership dissolves itself in giddy exchange, and while it may be used to explore possible choreographic vocabulary as improvisation it posits no directing force from outside the dance. There are even accounts of dancers leaping into the audience at theatrical performances. By now it should be clear how it can be that contact improvisation does not necessarily even demand that the bodies of the dancers make contact.

What I’m getting at here is the core of transcoporeality: bodies impact upon, influence, pass into and out of one another. In sensibility there is a sense in which the corporeal ‘calls’ me, makes an address to me to which I respond. It is a call I can only recognise and respond to as a body. Space is nothing more than the choreographic field in which contact is improvised. (A future post could explore how corporeal determinism corresponds to this notion of improvisation).

In a more banal example, consider a woman in a bathtub. She is naked and wants to shave her legs. She examines them and notices a spider-bite that has been an irritation all day. This little bite has been a low level annoyance, distracting from full immersion in her fascinated activities. She has been scratching at it all day, perhaps even drawing a little blood. The spider bite is a minor annoyance but even in the bite we have an example of a sensibility: the material trace of the spider, its absence-as-presence, speaks of the intermatrices of dermis, poison, fangs, glands dedicated to the production of venom, to the spider itself. Sensibility is the very materiality of our being fascinated and practically engaged being in the world, the carnal appropriation of carnality, the giving-over of the body to its own transcorporeal being in the world. The bite calls to her flesh and her flesh responds, her mind acquiescing to the call and response in the cognitive-affective experience of irritation, and the judgement not to scratch, to apply a little crème.

Sensibility can also be seen as implicating a field of responses to certain felt bodily vulnerabilities. What kind of responsiveness does it entail? One way of thinking about sensibility as a responsivity to materiality is through Levinas. In turning to consider Levinas, I am trying to work out the distance and proximity that my own thinking of sensibility has to his. For him as for me, sensibility is bound up with vulnerability and exposedness to others.

In Levinas , sensibility has the mode of being petrified into a pure receptivity. Sensibility is a being captivated by ‘the unilateral direction of an approach, caught in a being ordered, an obedience’ [1]. First of all, sensibility is “unilaterally” affected so that it has no relation to its relationality or to the thing that is relating to it. Levinas describes this with metaphors of movement and it has a military flavour to it. A “unilateral direction of approach” conjures up images of an invading army crossing a national border, or a zombie horde that slowly and inexorably nears to the rackety house you’ve been held up in, no supplies and losing your mind. This immobile petrification has the force of “being ordered” by that thing that approaches, that closes the distance separating self from not-self. There is an obvious dualism in this “being ordered”. First, in military mode once more, there is the sense in which one is bound to carry out a command from one’s commanding office. In this sense, there is a call which is a demand that is placed upon me by the approaching not-self. Whereas soldiers might have the ability to go AWOL or to refuse to carry out orders, thereby facing court marshal and possibly the firing squad (how many conscientious objectors in Levinas’s war faced that fate?), there is no suggestion of escape for us.

There is no escape because the second sense of “being ordered” has strong connotations of nature and theology. In the “natural order”, deer have been ordered so as to be the prey of wolves, which in turn have been ordered to be predators of deer. We could bemoan this situation, despairing at nature’s violence and horror, or we could watch the wolf bring down the deer in David Attenborough narrated slow motion, enjoying the thrill and majesty of the nature’s wonder. In either case, we are responding to the way that the deer and the wolf have been ordered. Biblically, human history is the history of toil, suffering, and original sin that are our inheritance from the transgressions of Adam and Even in the Garden of Paradise. In punishment, God ordered them to leave, exiling them to the harsh world that is drenched in blood, tears, pain, despair, and death. In this theological sense, “being ordered” has the potency of a creature being ordered by its Creator. Not only have we been put in place, but we have been put in place by a divine authority that there is no possibility of resisting or demanding redress. We can get a sense here that Levinasian sensibility performs that favourite post-structuralist phrase, being a relation without a relation.

Levinas describes sensibility through the difference between the saying and the said:

Saying is this passivity of passivity and this dedication to the
other, this sincerity. Not the communication of a said, which
would immediately cover over and extinguish or absorb the
said, but saying holding open its openness, without excuses,
evasions or alibis, delivering itself without saying anything
said. [2]. [emphasis added].

A ‘passivity of passivity’? Even the idea of being passive is too active for Levinas, being too close to identification with being; being passive is a way that we can choose to be. The point is that we don’t choose this state; this is an absolute passivity, a kind of dis-ability or un-abling. We encounter the other and, confronted with their inassimilable alterity, we open our mouths and speak. This is a fearful speech. So much could go wrong. In our innocence, our original naivety, we give ourselves in a totally fraught gesture of sincerity. The saying is the saying of oneself in response to the other’s body in proximity; it is an offering that is taken, and therefore a risking of failure, of rejection, of impossibility of recognition. In this picture we can’t but respond to the other, the risk is undertaken by means that are ‘quite the contrary of intentionality’ [3].

We can all relate to the experience of standing somewhere with a stranger and feeling the ambiguous urge to speak. We are in a life together, or queuing, or we are witnesses to some accident; we look to one another, we turn away, we fidget, we wonder about making a joke, commenting on the weather, the time of day, we want to speak but we hold back at the same time. Speaking opens us to the other, to the possibilities of failure, but they also open us to the horror of conversation. Now we’re speaking, we must go on or we are responsible for this hideous, clammy silence that clings like cold sweat after unsatisfying sex. Yet these latter considerations are in part to do with the speech content, with the rules of speech, with the rules of silence, with the rules governing what is appropriate and what is not (a quotidian distribution of the sensible). In the moment of articulation, it is in the act that I am giving myself, not in the content of my speech. The joke about the British talking always about the weather misses the point, because the point is not the weather.,d.d2k&psig=AFQjCNExwCKwcRoyzYSY9xODWey56Vg1MA&ust=1363999733824875

Levinasian “saying” is prior to language. The content and the linguistic encoding of speech are both equally unimportant in this case. What is important is the pure animal opening of one to the other. In animal saying, saying as it is and was beneath and before words, there is a presentation of oneself to the other, a kind of exhibiting of interiority across the threshold of one’s flesh and out into the world where the other can pick it up or let it fall as if it were silence. It is the evidence that “I am like you… I experience a world…I recognise you and offer my witnessing to be witnessed by yours”. I produce the evidence of myself to the other only as a response to the sensual demand of the other’s body that I engage it. It is the other that orders me and it is this demand of the other that I am obedient to. This is the sense in what is traditionally thought of as an active relation becomes, in Levinas, a passive vulnerability. In saying I am dedicated to the other, which is just to say that I give myself over to the other. In this connection, I am tempted to think of myself as a gift given to the other that I do not give, and recall the idea that every gift can also become a burden. I am also tempted to follow a line of thinking that would place this self-givenness that is not a self-giving as a kind of self-as-sacrifice, or an immanentisation of the sacred to the ethical relation. Instead, I’ll restrict myself to keeping this discussion at least somewhat focussed on the issue of sensibility.

This conception of sensibility as passive vulnerability in the exposure to the other is precisely what lies at the core of Levinas’s ethical philosophy, and is what Simon Critchley has termed ‘my pre-reflexive sentient disposition towards the other’s suffering…’[4]. In Diane Perpich’s reading one can either attribute Levinas’s ethics to theology or to noncognitivism, but either way there is a proximity to divinity, insanity, or nature that renders it outside the realm of rational discursivity [5]. Is this the complaint of someone concerned about ethics, or the complaint of someone whose work is entirely discursive? The point is not a stupid accusation but a reminder that the world does not begin and end with the language-games and regimes of truth that constitute and are partially constituted by philosophy. Sensibility, as a pre-discursive relationship to transcoporeality might be a perfect grounding for ethics and there is no reason to think otherwise simply because it can’t be made amenable to the ‘supremacy of the epistemic’, the sovereignty of sovereign thought [6].

The “hetero-affectivity” described above as the self-as-sacrifice is experienced as a pre-epistemic affective disposition towards the other. In other words, sensibility implies ethics. Yet, as if well known, Levinasian ethics are nothing if not traumatic. In Simon Critchley’s words

‘my relationship to the other is not some benign benevolence, compassionate care or respect for the other’s autonomy, but is the obsessive experience of a responsibility that persecutes me with its sheer weight. I am the other’s hostage…the Levinaisan ethical subject is a traumatic neurotic.’ [7].

Levinasian sensibility leads us to the position of a victimised psychopathology where the existential sense of self is ripped apart. This description reminds me of borderline personality disorder. If this is where Levinasian sensibility leads in human affairs then it is does not seem to be a description of reality, except in extreme circumstances, and would actually lead to anti-ethical behaviour.

I have no desire here to retrace the arguments around Critchley’s affirmation of this ethics or to ponder infinitely on the virtues of Levinas as an ethicist (however, I would say that I reject both Levinasian passivity and Alberto Toscano’s heroic “prometheanism” that is his reponse). Instead, I want to suggest that in this scant survey of one conceptualisation of sensibility we have found precisely what must be rejected in any account of it. First of all, we must reject the passivity, the sense of fixed order, the anthropocentrism of this ethical accounting, and the notion of interpenetration as torturous, and the commitment to sensibility passing through some animal language.

What is to be retained from the Levinasian account is the fundamental commitment to our being exposed, being penetrated, and to our ontological vulnerability. These are vital ontological components of Levinas’s suffering ethics, but there is nothing to dictate that we follow him. If we recall the above discussions of dance and the spider bite it should be clear that sensibility does not necessarily imply a situation of total passivity as receptive surrender. The account of sensibility that strikes me as correct is the one that can let passivity and activity share in one another a kind of reversibility. Any explanation of sensibility must be able to explain contact improvisation and spider bites, as much as it can explain insomnia and nausea.

‘Activity Is equally passivity’…

…claims Merleau-Ponty in The Visible and the Invisible. For Merleau-Ponty, the body is an ‘enigma’ of the reversibility of the relation of interior-exterior because

‘It sees itself seeing; it touches itself touching; it is visible and sensitive for itself. It is a self…that is caught up in things, having a front and a back, a past and future’ [8].

For Merleau-Ponty corporeal existence means that we do not simply encounter other objects out there, but that we also encounter ourselves in here. To be a body is to be a living paradox. It is to be both object and subject and so to obliterate the distinction between them. For Merleau-Ponty ‘Things are an annex or prolongation’ of a visible, mobile body, becoming ‘encrusted in its flesh’ so as to reveal to it ‘the undividedness of the sensing and the sensed’ [9]. These are strong claims that can’t adequately be captured by the name “phenomenology”. First of all, this familiar reversibility: we all know that for Merleau-Ponty the body is both sensed and sensing, a thing of the world and a thing that apprehends the world as if at a distance.

In these selected quotes, we can already see the depth of Merleau-Ponty’s attempt to remove dualism from his account of being. Things out there, organic and inorganic bodies, are typically conceived of as autonomous from me. I must bring them into my perception somehow and re-present them to myself, all the while leaving me vulnerable to evil demons and the threat of perceptual hallucination. Bodies in their sovereignty would resist me, or else would merely be objects of my perception to be picked up and deployed as banner-men or significations; this is the position of Baudrillard for whom the object is always a sign put in circulation by and for a human mind, even if he thinks that it can later escape from human regulation. It is the position that Michael@Archive Fire has already spoken of as an exclusively epistemic grasp of the object, and that corresponds to what John Lasch called the supremacy of the epistemic. This is the position that Merleau-Ponty identifies with ‘the Cartesian’ throughout “Eye and Mind”, the one who distances herself from the object, introducing an unbridgeable explanatory gap by her very desire for certainty. The problem, in the end, is that taken to its extreme such accounts of the world arrive at idealism as their logical temptation: if I can’t attest to the reality of the world beyond my epistemological picture of it, then all that exists is my epistemological picture and the world is a phantasmal projection of the human mind. Intentional philosophy seems destined to be idealist.

For Merleau-Ponty we have real direct, sensuous, embodied, contact with things in the world. In a picture that I argue is a reactivation of Stoic physics, Merleau-Ponty’s world is a world in which to exist is to be a body in contact with other bodies. In place of Cartesian intentionality that ‘ceases living in things’, Merleau-Ponty introduces us to the concept of ‘motor intentionality’ that appears as ‘an anticipation of, or arrival at, the objective [of movement] and is ensured by the body itself’ [10]. Motor intentionality is what grants a kind of pre-conscious perceptual-motor unity to my actions in the world. In an example, Merleau-Ponty states that if I see a friend at a distance and wave to him, then my desire to see my friend, my calling him, the distance between us, the possibility of his acquiescence or refusal are all woven together in the very act of waving. If my friend refuses to come across to me, then I alter the movement (Merleau-Ponty doesn’t say as much but perhaps I’m now flipping my friend the off). The point is that cognition doesn’t play much of a role in the process. It is not the case that I evaluate the likelihood of my wanting to see my friend, decide upon it, cognise what appropriate action to take, select “wave” from a set of various possible means after a cost-benefit calculation, then deploy my arm and hand into a sculpted wave, wait for a response, analyse that response and then activate a separate sequence of thought and actions in response. This is a ludicrous image and this kind of possessed body- as in “demonic possession”- is the subject of Tom McCarthy’s wonderful novel Remainder.

In Remainder, the protagonist has had an accident. He can’t talk about the accident. He can’t remember it, but he is also under a legal injunction not to talk about it. At any rate, something falls from the sky and hit him in the head. It is probably a plane part, and this would sink up nicely with another scene later in the novel, but for the parable element of the novel it may just as well have been Icarus. After waking from a long coma, the nameless protagonist- an obsessive that possibly inspired the depiction of the theatre director in Synecdoche New York- he must relearn all his basic motor functions. Relearning is a step too far. He realises that he is, in fact, learning them for the first time:

Everything, each movement: I had to learn them all. I had to understand how they work first, break them down into each constituent part, then execute them.

For the protagonist, this leads to a vertiginous discovery of the radical inauthenticity of his being-in-the-world, as he discovers movement after movement is copied, recopied, feigned, and frustrated. This is not how the child learns motor skills. The child learns through a practice of trial-and-error inspired by basic desire: I want the cookie, how will I get the cookie? The seamless blend of desire and attempted action that children so readily display is, in concert with their amazing neuronal plasticity, why they learn such incredible things (walking, talking- in more than one language-, feeding themselves) so rapidly and apparent ease. As children we don’t first see the cookie and make the calculation that we want it, and then learn the laws and details of paediatric anatomy and physiology in order to determine how to get up on our feet and extend our hands towards it. A shocking number of nurses still don’t have particularly good grasp of physiology and are still perfectly capable of performing routine jobs that might intimidate others. The child can’t even be called a “primitive scientist”. Such a metaphor conjures up the image of the infant engaged in thinking up hypotheses and means of testing them. No, it all just happens in one go: it all comes together.

Whatever else it is, Tom McCarthy’s debut novel was an ode to the materiality of bodies. It has also provided a way of talking about the Cartesian view of things that Merleau-Ponty is set against, and a way of disclosing what he means by motor intentionality. As Shaun Gallagher points out, motor intentionality is a ‘non-representational dynamic process’ that is

‘dynamically linked with the environment in a way that reflects a specific temporal structure at the subpersonal level’ [11] [emphasis added].

Motor intentionality describes the term under which the visible, sensible world and the seeing, sensing body are disclosed as conjoined, coupled, or otherwise woven together. Centred on the body, with its ambiguous porous surfaces and porous inside-outside demarcations, the reversibility of the touching and the touched, the see-er and the seen is my most intimate experience of the ‘undividedness of the sensing and the sensed’. This is how things can be an annex of my body, how they can be prolongations. Our bodies are plastic, prosthetic. Things are encrusted in our flesh because in being hooked up together we are of one interwoven flesh. I am thirsty, so I pick up my coffee cup and drink coffee. This body, its thirst, my desire, the motor intentionality, this cup, this coffee: we are woven together, open to each other, intercorporeal, touched and touching. It all accords at the subpersonal, or anonymous level. Before ‘I’- as mind- see, the sensible- ‘Eye’- sees. When the sensible sees all it can see is itself; and, because I am part of that sensible order, when I see I see myself seeing:

There is vision, touch, when a certain visible, a certain tangible, turns back upon the whole of the visible, the whole of the tangible, of which it is a part, or when suddenly it finds itself surrounded by them, or when between it and them, and through their commerce, is formed a Visibility, a Tangible in itself, which belong properly neither to the body qua fact nor to the world qua fact – as upon two mirrors facing one another where two indefinite series of images set in one another arise which belong really to neither of the two surfaces, since each is only the rejoinder of the other, and which therefore form a couple, a couple more real than either of them. Thus since the seer is caught up in what he sees, it is still himself he sees: there is a fundamental narcissism of all vision. And thus, for the same reason, the vision he exercises, he also undergoes from the things, such that, as many painters have said, I feel myself looked at by the things, my activity is equally passivity – which is the second and more profound sense of the narcissism: not to see in the outside, as the others see it, the contour of a body one inhabits, but especially to be seen by the outside, to exist within it, to emigrate into it, to be seduced, captivated, alienated by the phantom, so that the seer and the visible reciprocate one another and we no longer know which sees and which is seen. It is this Visibility, this generality of the Sensible in itself, this anonymity innate to Myself that we have previously called flesh, and one knows there is no name in traditional philosophy to designate it. The flesh is not matter, in the sense of corpuscles of being which would add up or continue on one another to form beings. [12]

This is a dense passage. In essence, Merleau-Ponty is attempting to describe the condition in which there are individual things that all belong or are woven together as the same body. Flesh is the name for the immanence of separate beings. The separate beings are individuals that nonetheless cross over and into one another; both autonomous and interdependent, all bodies are enmeshed or, in Marcus Aurelius’ potent metaphor, woven. Where ever I see an object let me remember that it is an annex of me, a prolongation of me, an incrustation on the flesh; wherever objects are so must I be. As such, a couple that is more real than its separate units because those units are already sutured and chiasmic with one another. I pass over into you, you into me. There is not necessary traumatisation in this picture.

Contact improvisation becomes the perfect metaphor: there is a duet and this duet is the very interweaving, ‘extraordinary overlapping’, that constitutes the flesh the world. If the dancing bodies stop dancing, if one of them decides to leave the stage, we are left with one body dancing and there is no more interweaving, no more contact. Merleau-Ponty’s ontology of the flesh is an ontology in which the autonomy and sovereignty of bodies disappears into the interdependent, vulnerability, and openness to one another.

It becomes apparent then that against Levinas, sensibility is not petrified into an utter passivity, and it is not constituted simply as receptivity. Merleau-Ponty can claim that passivity and activity are not separable because they belong to the same body. Rather than oppositional terms, ‘activity and passivity are, like mind and body, two “sides” of the same flesh’ [13]. When I touch, I am the sensible touching the sensible. I am active in the world, and the world itself is mobilised in my activity. When I am touching I am also touched. As such, I am the passive portion of the sensible that is being touched by some other active portion of the sensible.

At some point I wish to elaborate on how this is a return to, and differing from, the Stoic conception of the cosmos as an ordered system of interwoven, interpenetrative, transcorporeal being that are also marked as bodies split between passive (formless matter) and an active (materially existing God) aspects that can never be considered in separation from one another. If I had the time and money, this might even form the backbone of a graduate thesis. As it is, I simply want to draw the parallel to Marcus Aurelius’ assertion that

The Earth loves! She loves the rain! And the venerable Ether? It loves too! The World too, loves to produce that which must occur. And I say to the world: I, too, love– along with you. Don’t we say “such-and-such loves to happen”? (Meditations)

The love here is not animistic, nor is it the love of the cosmos for itself, but it is, instead, the love of all parts of the cosmos for each other. Love might sound to us a little over board. I can’t stand this use of the word love. Certainly, we can’t agree that the Earth and the Ether and the World and so on and so on have an experience of love such as we have, with the concomitant neurophysiological, biological, semiotic, and felt-sense of loving. Instead, I would suggest that Marcus’ point is that there is a kind of sensibility that all things partake of, and that love is the affective state that he thinks most closely resembles it. For more on the idea of the cosmos loving itself, I recommend Pierre Hadot’s work on Marcus [14].

There is also much more to say on Merleau-Ponty’s treatment of passivity in connection to institutions, sleep, and dreams, but for now it suffices that we have staked out another concept of sensibility than that presented by Levinas. Fundamentally, sensibility is a kind of crossing over, a way in which the body grasps itself non-cognitively as this body immersed in a world it has co-enacted, actively giving itself over and passively being taken by human and nonhuman others, that may be present in their absence. All this in order to talk about the itch of a spider bite! But spider bite’s aren’t the only thing that our bodies are vulnerable to; we are always open to the threat of death.

Becoming a corpse

In discussing a kind of sensibility-towards-death, my friend and I weren’t trying to claim anything new, nor were we rejecting Heidegger’s existential account. Instead, we were concerned with introducing a complication to it; the body as leib. What is the body as lived body when the living of that body is its own dying? Here, we weren’t talking about dying in the abstract, as the ontologically ownmost possibility that haunts my existence at every moment, that occupies the same space I occupy, that urges me to appropriate my own horizon of meaning. This was dying in the concrete. This isn’t a stalking death, it is death that has pounced and caught its prey in its jaws. Creaturely death as experienced by people undergoing palliative care, or by those who (despite the better angels of our nature) die violent and traumatic deaths. Philosophy has expunged certain embodied experiences from its pages, and certainly Heidegger never talked about the feelings of dying:

The feeling of a tumour growing inside of you. The feeling of it pressing against the organs; cramming itself against the bladder; feeling as if you’re going to piss yourself at every minute; the feeling of your body becoming a literal body without organs; each organ system shutting down slowly; packing in abruptly; the feeling of the knife cutting through the stomach, slicing it open; the feeling of being sliced open; the feeling of the blood to rushing from the open wound, slowing to a trickle, before becoming a thick molasses; the feeling of being this molasses; The feeling of the blood to pooling in the veins; the feeling of being this pooling or of the no longer being what has pooled; skin getting cold and clammy. Epicurus was certain we wouldn’t experience death, but how certainly did he feel his last breath escape his broken body? The term we though up for describing this process was becoming a corpse. Becoming a corpse is the sensibility of being-towards-death.

First of all, it is important to recognise that our being in world is always a coping with being in the world. All of our ways of being are always ways of coping-with-“…”, where the ellipse stands for the place that specificities and situations have to occupy. Most fundamentally though we are carnal being that are attempting to cope with being alive. For us, mortals possessed of an awareness of mortality, being alive is ‘not alright’ [15]. Being alive is at every turn being exposed. Among the wonderful things that we are sensuously and intellectually exposed to, there are always those darker things, those things that seem to lurk inside us, emerging only to carry out sabotage missions, to disrupt the smooth systems of coping-with that we try to develop and redevelop. Heartache, injury, trauma, disease, debilitation, death; being bodies we are subject to breaking down. We are also subject to excess; Freud’s pleasure principle was a device for limiting our exposure to dangerous, even deadly jouissance, Epictetus’s and Epicurus’s philosophies were equally concerned with limiting the dangers of the negative passions and the relentless pursuit of pleasure. As people engaged in asking too much, in posing questions we can’t possibly answer- that is, in asking philosophical questions- we are caught up in some strange obsession. The core of each philosophical question is the inability to articulate our obsessions properly, and every architectonic is the attempt to give clarity to the shape of some obsession or another. As Tom Sparrow puts it,

The lived body is not merely a diagrammatic entity; embodied perception is not reducible to a unified grip on the world, as though embodiment could guarantee that the world will always be encountered as an intelligible whole as long as it maintains its familiar spatiotemporal coordinates. [16]

Indeed, this insight is part of my current research into schizophrenia as a disorder of embodiment. The essence of that work is the suggestion that schizophrenia begins as a disturbance of the basic sense of being a body and that this leads to a traumatic interruption of the experience of being a self. This all occurs early on in the prodromal stage of psychotic experience, possibly even earlier than the “prodrome” is currently recognised. At any rate, in this research the guiding insight is that the experiences that get called “schizophrenia” are modes of coping with the disruption of an embodied self. In Merleau-Pontian terms, there is a break down in the ‘motor project’ and the suturing of bodies- oneself in and as the sensible; the flesh- is experienced as torn asunder. The sense in which psychosis is losing touch with reality is the sense in which it is a losing touch with the reversibility of touch. This isn’t identical with the Levinasian situation, but it does seem to be continuous with it from the description endorsed by Simon Critchley. The point is that being a body among bodies always leaves us ontologically vulnerable; open to the fragility of being and the frailty of being a body, ‘consciousness of life, radically taken, is consciousness of death’ [16]. Yet, it is not consciousness of death that I’m interested in but rather its appropriation in sensibility; or, being-towards-death as a certain sensibility-of-dying.

At this point, in order to investigate more fully, I will be drawing on phenomenographic reports of what it is like to die, and I will be including video footage of death and dying. These accounts are taken from the internet and most of them are accompanied by video of the text that I reproduce here. If you can tolerate it, I’d urge you to watch the text for the full import of these reports.

The situation for me at this present moment is that there is no treatment for multiple sclerosis but there is a lot of treatment for its effects. Like the heart. Saying that… the heart… they treat me very well, I take drugs for my heart.

The excruciating pain I hadn’t mentioned that before, but I am now at this moment in my life. I get excruciating pain. I can’t really explain. It’s as if all my muscles are being electrocuted, that’s the best way to explain it, and sometimes when I’m in bed I lay down and I burn as if I’m burning from inside out and yet the feel of my body is cold. Other times I can be perspiring and my lower half of my body is burning.

So, now I’ve been transferred to the care of the Palliative Care Team here who are looking after me with great sympathy and skill. And so the problem at the moment is to take enough pain killers since this pain business has gradually increased and increased and balance that with laxatives, because the good painkillers are related to or derived from opium, which as everybody knows, is constipating.

When metastasis occurred in the bone in my spine, pain was the first and overwhelming sign that something was going on. The pain was excruciating and debilitating. Until my diagnosis, agonizing pain was the only new sensation that I could identify. I don’t know that I could have even felt pain or anything else in any other part of my body because the pain was so intense. By the time of my diagnosis on January 28, 2009, and immediate admission to the hospital for surgery, I hardly realized that my toes were numb. The pain after surgery was like nothing compared to what I had been dealing with before the surgery. Then came the radiation to my back. They administered the beams from four positions that circled front to back in an effort to reduce the tumor further. I definitely felt the effects of the radiation as it went through my stomach; nausea started after about ten treatments. The skin on my back burned, of course, and this was complicated by the back brace I wore all the time. To help the skin heal, I had to lie down without the brace as much as possible. I was still working at that time, and it was a bit of a challenge trying to deal with all of it. I remember that even after the radiation treatments ended, the back burn continued to worsen for about a week before it started to heal…

Most important, I avoid thinking about this alien inside me trying to overcome my body’s best defenses. Doing what I love and staying busy, no matter what kind of energy I have at that moment, is the best remedy for distracting me. Despite the pain or discomfort, I always have something to keep me occupied. That is a blessing.

Obviously it is different for everyone. For me it is a slow ebb of my health. Those moments free of discomfort become fewer and fewer. I’m having a pretty good day today. In fact, compared to some I am quite healthy and energetic. In the last few months however, I feel as though the fabric of my well being has been jabbed with a pencil point in several places. I am rarely without some kind of gastrointestinal issue. From the radiation I am bloated or cramping or having diarrhea or reflux. I have paroxysms in my rectum as the stored up mucus tinged with blood, smelling just like old mucus with blood in it would smell, decides it must exit my body whether I can make it to a bathroom or not. This occurs several times a day. I urinate constantly. I have not been dry for over 60 seconds in months. I urinate, take a shower, urinate again and get dressed. As I lean forward to pull on my pants I feel about a teaspoon full leak out. Where the hell is it coming from? I have learned never, ever to be without a pad. I carry them everywhere, in my purse, my knitting bag, in my desk, in my car. I have lost all modesty and care not one little bit who sees them.

These accounts speak for themselves. I won’t drag them over the coals. These are descriptions of that get us closest to the feeling of dying without actually dying, or without sitting by the bedside of a loved one. In the video that follows, we have footage of a man dying and of his death. What is striking is that earlier in the episode of the documentary it is taken from he seems serene and at peace with death, but then, with improved medications and palliative care, it is as if he missed the moment for “a good death” and, having over shot it, become filled with anxiety and fear once again. I’m not showing this video for no reason. This is documentary footage of a death. In watching it we are affectively aware of what it means for someone to die. Of course, there is absolutely no need to watch it for the rest of this post to make sense.

As far as my own experiences go, I have felt like I was dying on a number of occasions. Not these long drawn out deaths, but the sudden death of cardiac arrest. I have a history of frequent panic attacks and I’m certain that, at one time, I would have ticked off the diagnostic checklist to have been considered a sufferer of panic disorder. The experience of the panic attack is one that closely resembles a heart attack; borrow almost all of its symptoms, it feels like my heart will explode at any second, that my skin has become alien to itself, that I am hot and cold simultaneously, and that my visceral insides have turned against me with no good reason. I will die for no reason. I am dying for no reason. There is no way to convey the certainty of knowing oneself to be dying inside a full blown panic attack. In my own experience, the smell of burning accompanied every single paroxysm as if to confirm some biological combustion was about to take place. Is this a sensible experience that opens is definitely an opening up to death, a toward-death, and it is definitely sensate and sensual. Yet does it have sensibility? The cardio-pulmonary system is autonomised in the logic of panic, and the focus of attention is entirely inward. This is an experience of sensibility because it highlights the interdependence and separation of the cardiopulmonary system from my experience of ‘me’; it is a part that is independent, even if interwoven with other parts in order to produce me.

I am not seeking to displace the Seneca-Heidegger conception of death. Merely, I wish to recall that in the actual ‘catastrophic time’, as Lingis calls it, is an embodied time. We are not only dealing with temporality, meaning, and the horizon of possibilities. We are dealing with a dying body, a body that is in no uncertain terms viscerally grasping the sensibility of vulnerability, the carnality of coming apart, in short, the embodied experience of suffering. Beyond the phenomenology of death and the materiality of death, we must grasp the corporeality of the suffering dying body. We are all in a position to begin to understand such a corporeality, if not immediately from the inside then in our own brushes with suffering:

Suffering is the inner experience of debilitation, the growing inability to launch initiatives, to turn oneself from oneself to the environment; one finds oneself unable to leave oneself or to back up one’s throbbing body, one finds oneself mired in oneself. Suffering is an experience of identity, individuality, and solitude. Suffering contains a premonition of death in the guise of the last limit of prostration, becoming a corpse. The sense of our becoming a corpse gives us our mortality in becoming passive, prostrate, inert- death as materialization. And becoming a locus of decomposition, pollution, a passive locus of violence that spreads, contaminates. [17]

By looking to the corpse rather than to death alone, we are returned to the body as the sole locus of meaning. From the perspective of a post-nihilist pragmatism, after the death of meaning all that remains is the body. Whatever sense there is, it is derived from bodies. For some this is indeed a nihilist conclusion; no longer can we entrust our fates to some cause, some transcendent signifier, we are left all alone, small and creaturely, finite and dying. One day, we won’t just be dying but our bodies will grasp themselves as dying; the toucher will touch the metastatic matter of death, and the touched will be both the toucher and the toucher’s death. The feeling of death as an alien inside is a feeling of the separation between one’s body and the biological process that eats it away, but this is a cognitive distinction that comes after the corporeal self-relation of a body to its own death; to its ownmost becoming a corpse. Lingis understands the power and threat of corpses, the fascination and the filth of them. Epictetus is supposed to have said that we are little souls carrying around a corpse. Is it possible to dwell in that thought? It is a spur. I am my body, and you are your body, little corpses that don’t feel themselves as such just yet, and for a brief time we are intertwined with one another, part of one another’s projects. We are off the same flesh, interpenetrating one another. This opens a path to a visceral ethics based on empathy; when I see you suffer, I see myself suffer in such a way that does not appropriate your suffering as mine, but which nevertheless makes contact with your suffering. In our coping with “…”, the ellipse doesn’t necessarily name some form of suffering, some scarcity, or some way that we alter our environment to better suit our desires; the ellipse also refers to all the others alongside whom we cope with being, to the community of vulnerability. It also points us towards a politics that takes account of the uneven distribution of exposure to vulnerability. My suffering individuates me, my death individuates me, but simultaneously my becoming a corpse takes me out of myself, back into the ambiguity of an anonymous web of beings that I am inextricably woven with and bound to. It calls us to regard the power of corpses, and to ask whether there is a way to approach becoming corpse and, perhaps, it leads us a little further away from the supremacy of the epistemic. Corpses are about corpses, not signification. We are the community that has nothing in common; a subjectivation that must be traced across the emergence and recession of individuation, in the dance in and across each other.


[1] Emmanuel Levinas. 1991. Otherwise than being. Here. p.xviii.
[2] Ibid. p. 143.
[3] Ibid. p.53.
[4] Simon Critchley. 1999. Ethics-Politics-Subjectivity: Essays on Derrida, Levinas, and Contemporary French Thought. New York: Verso. p..98.
[5] Diane Pepich. 2008. The ethics of Emmanuel Levinas. Stanford: Stanford University Press.p.
[6] John Lasch. 1995. The relevance of philosophy to life. Vanderbilt University Press. p.48.
[7] Simon Critchley. 2007. Infinitely demanding: ethics of commitment, politics of resistance. pp.60-61.
[8] Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Eye and Mind. Here. p.3.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Maurice Merleau-Ponty. 1962. Phenomenology of perception. London: Gallimard. pp.127-128.
[11] Shaun Gallagher. 2008. Are minimal representations still representations? p.11. Here.
[12] Maurice Merleau-Ponty. 1968. The intertwining- the chiasm. From: The visible and the invisible. Here.
[13] William S. Hamrick. 2011. Nature and logos: a Whiteheadian key to Merleau-Ponty’s fundamental thought. New York: State University of New York Press. p.100.
[14] Pierre Hadot. 1998. The inner citadel: the meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Harvard: Harvard University Press. p.143.
[15] Thomas Ligotti. 2011. Conspiracy against the human race. London: Hippocampus Press.
[16] Tom Sparrow. 2007. Bodies in transit: the plastic subject of Alphonso Lingis. Here.
[17] Alphonso Lingis. 2010. Sacrilege. In Touched: Liverpool biennial.

Joanna Moncrieff and the new symptom

How is it possible that society has reached a situation in which ‘compulsive buying disorder’ does not seem an absurdity and academic papers can discuss its biochemical basis (Bullock & Koran, 2003)? The answer may lie in the convergence of the efforts of the pharmaceutical industry with wider political interests.

Neoliberal policies, which date from the late 1970s, are designed to facilitate the expansion of activities of private corporations through deregulation and privatisation. Deregulation refers to reduced state restrictions on trade, capital flows and business practices. A massive transfer of wealth from the public sector to the private sector has occurred worldwide since the 1980s and with it there has been a ‘historic transfer of political authority from the state to the private market’ (Hamilton, 2003: p. 17). In addition, the principles of the market have been imported into the remaining public enterprises, such as the National Health Service, to foster competition and shape them in readiness for sale to private providers (Price et al, 1999).

Increased commercial activity demands increased consumer spending and deregulation allows industry to increase the levels of exploitation of its workforce. If people are to cooperate with this situation, they must be persuaded that the system is morally good, or at least that it is morally neutral. To this end neoliberalist thought portrays ‘market forces’ as natural, inevitable and unrestrainable, and as exempt from normal consideration with regard to the exploitation of people or the environment. Therefore the guilt that would normally arise from excessive consumption or profiteering is suppressed (Richards, 1989). In this context the values of individualism, competition and consumerism can be praised and policies justified by appealing to ‘efficiency’ and ‘consumer choice’.

The deregulation of business and the decline in state welfare provision have led to growing inequality throughout the world, both within and between countries. This polarisation between rich and poor has occurred rapidly and very visibly, thanks to the increasing spread of different forms of media. For example, in the USA in the 1980s the top 10% of the population increased their income by 16%, and the top 1% increased their income by 50%. In contrast, the bottom 10% lost 15% of their income (Phillips, 1990). Alongside this growing polarisation of wealth most people are working more intensely for longer hours, and have poorer working conditions and little job security. Unemployment and low wages are endemic, and health inequalities are growing.

Neoliberal economic policies have been accompanied by increasingly authoritarian social policies. Rates of imprisonment have increased steadily in many Western countries. In the USA, 1.3% of the male population and almost 5% of the Black male population are now in prison (Bureau of Justice, 2005). In the UK, legislation in recent years has introduced child curfews, parenting orders and the Anti-Social Behaviour Order (ASBO), and looks set to increase the use of compulsion in the community for psychiatric patients. These measures can be seen as attempts to police the consequences of economic policies by controlling and excluding the minority of Western populations that are the victims of the dismantling of the welfare state and the low-wage economy.

The propagation of the chemical imbalance theory provides a more subtle means of social control, and supports the neoliberal values of competitiveness and consumerism. Hamilton (2003) has pointed out that the system works by encouraging people always to be dissatisfied and to want more. He describes modern consumers as being in a ‘permanent state of unfulfilled desire’ (Hamilton, 2003: p. 87). The chemical imbalance theory implies that there is a normal or ideal neurochemical state against which everyone can be measured. As the boundaries of disease are pushed out, a large proportion of the population are encouraged to be dissatisfied with themselves and to ‘rectify’ the state of their brain chemistry. People are encouraged to aspire to be something different from themselves, in their emotional lives as well as in their material lives. Individual consumption – in this case of pharmaceuticals – is presented as the means of achieving this.

Joanna Moncrieff. 2006. Psychiatric drug promotion and the politics of neoliberalism. Here.

Moncrieff is a practicing psychiatrist and the author of numerous texts critical of psychiatry and pharmaceutical companies. She is among the closest to the spirit ‘anti-psychiatry’ working and writing from within the field today. Her book is also well worth reading. I have been (re)reading everything she has produced voraciously for a paper on schizophrenia that may be published in the near future.


After reading Michael’s last post, which I don’t feel I’ve responded to properly (more using it as a jump off to explore aspects of stoicism), I couldn’t help but reflect on the title: Being and Coping.


There is a wonderfully Heideggarian flavour to that. Just as for Heidegger the Being of Dasein is time, for us it has to be translated as coping. Apparently the German for coping is Bewältigung- but Bewältigung-Sein doesn’t have a great ring to it. Man is a coping-being. 


But when you think about it, what exactly is it that man is coping with? To cope is always to be confronted with difficulty, to keep going, to fail and fail better, to take responsibility for…. but it lacks the connotation of heroism. Dasein didn’t cope-with going to the shops at rush hour, didn’t cope with office parties or embarrassing attempts at seduction. 


My point is that as a coping-being we are essentially something quite banal. Though we are coping with our being itself, coping with knowledge, with access to reality, coping with the prospect of our “ownmost” death, there is something quotidian about it all. It is, I suggest, this “with”. We are pragmatically engaged in our world, we are doing things with things to thing, to other, for others, with others and so on and so forth…


The kernal of coping-being in its pragmatic lived aspect is always a coping-with. 


There’s got to be something in that for an existential analysis all of its own. 


To shake people up, to wake them from their sleep, while knowing you are committing a crime and that it would be a thousand times better to leave them alone, since when they wake, too, you have nothing to offer them. . . .

-EM Cioran, The trouble with being born

I look about at the world around me, letting the effort of meaning-production drop and turning away from the distractions that keep my mind abuzz and away from the horror; I look about at It and wonder what justification there can be for psychiatry. A hierarchy of sufferings; technologies of anaesthetic; the kingdoms of coping and not coping, deterritorialised. I have chosen a uniform, now I await the revolt that will destroy me. In the meantime I am cast on rough waves of swelling electronic music, films, television shows about the future, the bad infinite of the internet… hyper-aroused in the electronic age I wire myself in to a permanent dose of ECT. The current is passed. I convulse. We all convulse.

sunday lunch

its inevitable;
the regurgitating horde
telling stories
about the lives they wish
people might lead,
as if the terror of boredom
might smother them
as they walk upstairs
or down the hall
towards a blank class room
or endless supermarket aisles
that taunt them with the produce
that will sit in the fridge
and wither.

“i worry about you”, she says
wanting something to come
from late night laughter
and offers of sharing a bed.
i’m a monster, i should tell her.
i’m using you to let the absence
be erased and not felt quite so keen.

we sit in D’s and eat.
a long languorous day in good company
and spirits. but underneath it
the sense of death perfected
come to life inside me.
i can’t even smoke
because of these fucking renunciations;
another attempt to keep living,
to keep living so as to forget
i have no reason to keep living at all.

and then we ate cake and listened to
our favourite songs, gathered up
our belongings and left while
D went to work on throwing out the
carcass and cleaning things away.

and i love these people so much,
these friends who won’t let me disappear
who keep me tethered to the world
a day at a time.

who am i
in this
to you?
to decipher
these fragmenting
if this
is the pause
two acts
or the drawing
of the final

i’m in executioner
the axe to my
own head
and i’ve
been reading
all about
role procedures
and how
to sit and watch
without naming
monsters monsterous
or angels angelic

i keep a reel
of live sex
all spliced and cut
as by the
hours wandering
a lost pair
of shoes
sleeping silently
out into the

and confessions
make me sick
as i sit
concerned face
posed a rictus now
and forgetful
of the commonplace
in front of
amidst the company
of others
in their own
leaking little vessels
and stare
until i can’t see
or hear
or think.

who am i now
despite my flaws
and mistake
your perfect imperfection
you’re indelible
in heart and mind
a welcomed
invading army


we walk out of the office
spent all day caring
for the ones with the devil inside them
or a darkness eating everything
they are
who can’t think or act
in the manner pre-programmed
and tacitly agreed

we’re talking
he’s going to leave her
even if it makes her worse
and i’m thinking
i’m going t stay
not knowing whether i’m wanted
beside her any more
whether this distance is a symptom
or a coping with it’s cause

and he knows he’s going to destroy her
and i know she is suffering
and as we get further away
from the clinics and the hospitals
caring for those we don’t care about
unable to help the ones
we love

impotent young men
marking their pointless anger on themselves
impossible to distinguish
nurse from patient

everything is temporary

some temporary things:

cars, trees, sand dunes, ideas, galaxies, migraines, you,
me, this separation, all unity and all your pain.

turning darker…


“Ordinary people like us” all experience something extraordinary at one
time or another. Some, in fact, do not survive. Did I say some?

– Brian Massumi, ‘Everywhere you want to be’

to remain alive and living 

these thoughts are drunks behind the wheel
and there were never any break lines

before this car is overturned
and we all burn to the ground
i’ve been listening to the moon every night
whispering like soap opera wisdom
as she flickers a black and white tv

and we are trying

i can’t promise anything because being human
i know that i’m an inveterate and self-deluding liar

ideas live somewhere else and come and go
as they please
never waiting for invitations they
just kick in doors and windowpanes
like an invasion in the olden days
vikings burning my old wood and straw
to the ground
to the spit and blood smeared ground

and we keep on trying

and the marks on my skin of that agony
i never want a single one
to fade
no i’d wear them proudly as a sign
that we’ve survived
that we might