attempts at living

to make a system out of delusions

Tag: death

Thatcher Death Parties

‘either despair at not going, or despair at going’– a friend on the Brixton Party.

This post is taken from an e-mail exchange with a friend who attended the Brixton party.

I’m afraid I’m of the camp that sees nothing but tastelessness in celebrating an old woman dying- or not tastelessness, that’s to bourgeois a category (taste)… but nothing but sad passions, resentiment and so on. The name and what it names lives on, acceleratived, relatively uncotested… as my partner’s brother put it “what died was the shell casing, the bullet is still lodged in the nation’s heart”.

I’m always a little sceptical about these spectacular attempts to counter spectacle and capitalist realist automatism; it just triggers an equally automatic and reactive appropriation of the event. So the media say its good, that she was good or at least “important” and “strong” and so on… yes, but we on the other hand just affirm the opposite. It is much like a child, now an adult, is told that an abusive parent has died. “Good!” they respond, and walk away, still sad and eaten up. what do you call a party that is not a party? a party that lacks joy? you call it a wake, or a funeral. it’s too much. it’s the opposite of the one auto-response, and one that people on the right will see as typical and will have expected. A defeated left wallows in its own misery…there is another name for this; decadence.

None of which is to deny the sad passions and their potential, but today I am more Stoic than sanguine. Seneca on anger, the chief of the sad passions, and in pink- the colour of the spleen:’

“Anger,” says Aristotle, “is necessary, and no battle can be won without it — unless it fills the mind and fires the soul; it must serve, however, not as a leader, but as the common soldier.” But this is not true. For if it listens to reason and follows where reason leads, it is no longer anger, of which the chief characteristic is wilfulness. If, however, it resists and is not submissive when ordered, but is carried away by its own caprice and fury, it will be an instrument of the mind as useless as is the soldier who disregards the signal for retreat.

these events are a work of mourning they are not events? but they are seen with images of celebration; banners, death-cake, arrests, violence… it is the same old spectacle given to the spectacle for spectacular consumption- for channelling the emotional mortality rags of newspapers who will and have already proclaimed the left to be sick, to be antisocial, to be stupid, and so on and so forth. the enemy (is that the real problem here, that our identifiable homegrown “arch-enemy”, is dead?) claims a victory again.

All said, if I was in London- or even in Glasgow- I can’t say I wouldn’t have gone, and then I might find myself wanting to defend the same non-events. I quote Seneca, turn to him more and more often, because I spend so much of my time angry…with the same impotent anger that is endemic to the conscious left as a whole (here I’m also referring to that unconscious sector- in the sense of comatose… these are those eternal optimists who don’t seem to understand the depths we’re in, rather than an eternal or latent left that lurks in everyone).

I’m also aware that I could sound like a right-winger here, condemning the left for going out and celebrating, condemning people who identify as leftist- or just plain anti-Thatcherite- for finding any reason at all to gather together. I certainly don’t begrudge the idea of people doing that, I have no problem with people gathering to wonder what next, how to go forward, what to do. As far as I read all the parties had a festive and convivial air to them…all to the good. Looking at photos of Brixton I feel the same sort of “fucking hell” sense of missing out on something that I did when my ex-girlfriend turned on the TV and I saw images of London on fire in 2011…it feels like Foucault missing May ’68, to go massively overboard with my grandiose sense of self-importance.

I suppose I genuinely don’t know how I feel about the whole thing.

anti-royal weddings, anti-Thatcher. all we have to celebrate is the inverse of capitalist realism; being is dialectical image, its ripe for reabsorbtion, recirculation. Indeed, the news stories of the “sick left” were probably prepared before the parties even took place, having spent weeks or months or even years sitting in some journalist’s computer’s folders for some time before now. Its also fed into the circuits of negative solidarity- people commenting on news articles thinking the party was full of idiot hipsters who weren’t even alive when Thatcher was in power. Although this completely misses the point, and it is of course all of a piece with the class war strategies of making the radical left seem pointless, wreckless, middle class and a brand of adventurism as a whole… but still, it hardly does anything to challenge that image.

It seems to me as a piece of therapy it was important, but as politics- or as a political moment- something was missed, something was lost… all that said, the idea that “we have nothing to celebrate, let’s celebrate” is one I like the sound of… it rather partakes of an optimism without hope such that I’ve been writing about. but why base it on this? Maybe it’s the Dionysian element, with its Appollonian sadness coming up in the form of the People’s Assembly, renewed calls for Left Unity and so on, that everyone seems to have decided will be a failure from the get go.

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.

Living suicides: part 1.

This post is about suicide. It is about the thought of suicide, and is inspired by the rise of long term conditions, especially dementia, that late capitalism has delivered to us. Today, our deaths are all the more collective and we each have the prospect of more than one death. Each death is multiple. This post forms the introduction to a concern with suicidality that at least one future post will focus on.

Unfortunately, modern medical science has put at our disposition pharmacological tools that oblige us to live much longer than our body and our brain can accept. Alzheimer epidemics is the ruthless punishment for a humanity which is holding onto life not because we love it (how can we love the horrid decomposition of memory, and of our ability to recognizing ourselves?) but because it is our property, and we have been taught never to abandon our belongings.- Franco Berardi. 2013. “Satanic exorcisms upon the surfacing of truth”. Here.

When the length of life doubles, it is no longer the same life, no longer the same person. This break touches more and more closely on everything connected with the duration of human life, its hazards, its brevity. For one who expects to live a century, all that has been constructed, thought out, codified to suit a short life is wrong. Everything — family, marriage, inheritance, saving, morality — needs to be shaken through a different long-life sieve. Commitment, fidelity, faith will never again have the meaning they had in societies where men were generals at 20 and eternity was waiting after another ten years: time enough to live fast and make a handsome corpse. A sort of frivolity about ourselves has gone. – Hervé Juvin 2010. The coming of the body.

Paul Virilio used to write about the “integral accident”. The term is meant to conjure an eschatological but not apocalyptic mood. The intergral accident explains the end-of-the-world obsession evident in late capitalist culture. The end that Virilio thinks we are undergoing in this accident, is the end of geography [1]. We should be careful when handling Virilio that we don’t get infected with his own siege mentality. I simply want to make the case that we are seeing a kind of end of a particular geography of the human body, and a particular end to the geography of death.

Late capitalism has changed what is is to be an embodied person. As Catherine Malabou [2] has it the Alzheimer’s patient is a stranger to herself, unable to flee her condition, she is produced as a new person to herself. Let me state it even more radically: the Alzheimer patient is often the very figure of the undecidability of personhood. They are accidental beings. Death, it is said, is an absolute interruption in the aesthetic project of the creation of a life. Alzheimer’s is an absolute interruption but it is not necessarily an end. It is in fact the beginning. Diagnosis inaugerates you into a new world of residential homes, care homes, nursing homes, hospitals, hospices, anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, neuropsychology, psychiatrists, nurses. A new world and a new- often rapidly diminishing- life; a world none of us, not even those who work in them, want to admit vulnerability to. The geography of the body is always the geography of its fault-lines and its frailties, its lurking accidents as well its capacities and sensualities.

Willard Mass. 1946. The geography of the body. Short film (that I can’t embed)

Malabou (p.71) opines that the Alzheimer’s patient doesn’t metamorphose, that they are as they were in our perception- save for a new gloss of indifference. She almost makes them sound like sages. Except that if you are providing care you’ve seen up close the changes and the extent of the metamorphosis. It may be true that in the Alzheimer’s patient we can’t see the stages of change, that it comes on suddenly…but vascular dementia, with its step-wise progression, has dramatic ischaemic events that result in the sudden and sharp emergence of cognitive deficits; and Korsakoff’s dementia produces dramatic personality change. One can even see the metamorphoses throughout the day. The patient sits quietly in the day room all day, with all the impassivity that Malabou identifies in her, but come a certain time she will spring into action, commanded by perceptual illusions, confabulations of the present made from fragments of the past, outright hallucinations provoking wordless screams in agonised terror. I remember working with a person who had once been a teacher. All day said person would be passive and acquiescent. Come a certain time, the day-room was suddenly the school room, patients and staff suddenly students to be marshalled out of their laziness. This person was advanced in years but possessed unexpected strength. People with Alzheimer’s are not immune to outbursts of violence, especially when minimal restraint is understandably interpreted as assault. This ex-teacher had broken many of his carer’s bones. We pass from the image of man as the rational animal to man as the broken neuronal system.

Each passing generation- if we bracket off the unpredictable- is going to be subject to dementia and other long-term conditions. The way of dying in late capitalism will be intensely regulated, managed, even self-managed (the lie of patient autonomy), and so the way of approaching death, conceiving it, will also be radically transformed. The sanctity of life that we cling to is going to bring us closer and closer to the risk of being parodies of ourselves. As we lose ourselves in these conditions, we also lose our world. The informational poverty that RS Bakker puts at the heart of his post-intentional philosophy is a accurate description of the world of the advanced dementia patient. Indeed, the neuropathic individuals of Bakker’s world are already with us, and are going to become more and more common.

In the up shot of all this, is there a case to made for our being-toward-death as no longer capable of orienting us and giving us an ethos. I’ve just finished reading Seneca’s On the shortness of life and I can’t help but think that his ideas around the engrossment. The person with dementia, as the disease progresses, becomes more and more engrossed in that disease’s empty mind, absent cognitions, and empty dreaming. This is not an engrossment that acquaintance with the stoic doctrine or any life of wisdom could disengage us from. The (incredibly rare) experience of “rementia”- a brief coming to lucidity of the person with advanced dementia- is subject to the haphazard weaving of fate. In this, and other long term conditions (although each demands its own treatment), we are abandoned even to our own ability to appropriate our death. Marcus Aurelius counselled that we think of senility, the daily degradation of our cognitive and imaginative powers, to provide an urgency to our philosophic practices. Yet the emperor wasn’t living in an age where bodies were kept alive against their will, and treatment continued even to the point where the disappearance of person-hood is all but certain. Marcus only needed to face up to one death. How many might we need to face up to today?

The future of our ageing societies are in question. Ageing bodies demand a total re-composition of social organisation. The global distribution of labour is going to shift and with it, in all likelihood, the direction of the circulation of capital. Importing young workers from the global South, capital will either haemorrhage from the North or else the distinction itself will disappear. Here, capitalism itself is leading us to a reconsideration of its own bio-political operations, and to our attachment to certain favourite delusions (ie; we are some kind of “first world”). It is part of our contemporary nihilism to keep bodies alive past the point of being a life. Perhaps it is time that we gave serious attention to the question of suicide, and of suicidality, both as practice and as philosophical concept. In place of being-towards-death, being-towards-suicide. I raise this in the light of discussions of vulnerability, fragility, and frailty. In this way I wonder if there isn’t a sense in which suicidality- the thought of suicide- can be reclaimed from ‘the dark side of the multitude’ [3] and put to work for a living inside and after nihilism. Bifo is quite correct that ‘suicide has become a political action everywhere’…why should it be left to those who would destroy.

Suicide must be re-appropriated from the exclusivity of the psychiatric establishment, from the suicide bomber, from the burning and forgotten monk (a figure of Baudrillardian hyper-passivity) and be reintegrated into the sensibility of creativity. I don’t mean that suicide is a strategy we ought to adopt or that people who are suicidal shouldn’t be assessed and helped. If I thought that I wouldn’t do the job I do, and I certainly wouldn’t have been involved in interventions for friends who have tried to kill themselves. Rather, it is the thought of suicide that needs to be reclaimed. As EM Cioran has it, the thought of suicide is enough to prevent one from needing to carry it out. In approaching suicide, perhaps we will find another way to approach autonomy, another way to ‘make friends with death’. What other deaths are there? What other suicides might be possible?

[1] Paul Virilio. 2005. The original accident. Cambridge: Polity Press.
[2] Catherine Malabou. 2012. Ontology of the accident: an essay on destructive plasticity. Cambridge: Polity Press.
[3] Franco Berardi. 2011. After the future. Edinburgh: AK Press.

This is also my second post on dementia on this blog. The first is here.

The Irrevocable

It isn’t that the melancholic has got a problem and then wants to express it, but that wanting to express is actually a part of the problem.

In mourning, we grieve the dead; in melancholia, we die with them.

Darian Leader. 2009. The New Black: Mourning, Melancholia, and Depression.

Mourning, or: The loss of the ability to say what is lost

To have a friend, to look at him, to follow him with your eyes, to admire him in friendship, is to know in a more intense way, already injured, always insistent, and more and more unforgettable, that one of the two of you will inevitably see the other die. One of us, each says to himself, the day will come when one of the two of us will see himself no longer seeing the other…. That is the … infinitely small tear, which the mourning of friends passes through and endures even before death….
-Jacques Derrida. 2001. The Work of Mourning. p.107.

This post is born of death. It is born of a particular death. All deaths are particular deaths. It is the death of someone I was once, and only very briefly, close to. For that person, I was probably too close. I’m not going to write about the person much in this post. Nor am I going to write a theoretician’s approach to death. This post is a work of mourning that fails to be a work of mourning. Death doesn’t always come to us as a surprise, and sometimes the person that has died had already made their exodus from the territory of our life. Yet there is always the place once occupied: the empty memories, the outline of receded possibilities, the ghost of relation. What is it to “lose” what was not possessed, what was already lost? To make absent an absence. There is a sense of finality. There is a sense of senselessness. The inoperative capacity for grief.

Of this death, I felt I had a foresight. I saw this coming as clearly as one sees the sun in the sky at noon. There were no clouds to occlude this death. I felt its radiation. I was tan with certainty. There is no vindication in the “precognition” of this death. There is no sense of having been right. For the most part there has been no great passion at all…moments maybe of weirdness…moments of being held close to the breast of the uncanny. Someone you knew is gone. More than that: Someone you knew is not. The passage into in-existence is a return and a liberation. Why should we mourn? But this sense of having tasted this death well in advance of its realisation. It is as if you can be a surrogate for someone else’s being towards death. It is as if the burden of responsibility fell to you. I catch myself asking the question: what should I have done? Its too late for that. Does the moment of responsibility always come too late? It is something we have to look backwards for, to negotiate after the fact…one of our most cherished delusions. We are in love with our delusions. We are in love with them even when we hate them. I mean this literally. Perhaps the highest respect we can pay our delusions is to demolition them. So I stand in that position, with a sense of impossible responsibility and a knowledge that no one is responsible for what is impossible.

I say I know this death but the official word is no body knows it. “Unexplained”. A body is vulnerable. This is the only explanation, everything besides is a matter of detail…of making sure there is a story to be told. I mourned once for the loss; there is nothing to be mourned in the death. Or is this exactly my way of mourning? Being unable to name a feeling, to sense a sense, to relate in a clear and distinct manner to this death. I am not interested in making generalisations about mourning. Every death is singular, every work of mourning the same. This is my work of mourning: being unable to grasp in thought or feeling exactly what it is that has finally been lost.

It is not as if an “I” exists independently over here and then simply loses a “you” over there, especially if the attachment to “you” is part of what composes who “I” am. If I lose you, under these conditions, then I not only mourn the loss, but I become inscrutable to myself. – Judith Butler. 2006. Precarious Life. p.23.

In the death of a dying, who exactly has died? What exactly has been lost? The ability to say what is lost is, itself, also what is lost.

A melancholy love

For the one for whom life is a supreme reality, without it being a piece of evidence, what question can torment him other than the one pertaining to this dilemma: can we or can we not love life? This uncertainty is unclear and delicious; but nonetheless it demands an answer. It is both charming and bitter not to know whether you love or don’t love life. You would like not to say either a yes or a no, if only for the pleasure of not clearing a pleasant uneasiness. A yes means a renunciation to imagining and feeling an other life; a no is fear of the illusion of other worlds.

I only love the one who goes beyond there is; the one who can feel his beginnings and the things that precede them; the one who remembers the times when he was not him, the one who jumps in anticipation of individuation. He who has not trembled realizing the deep meaning of individuation, has understood nothing of this world, because he will never have sensed the zones of his beginnings, nor will he able to foresee the moment of his own end. Individuation reveals our birth as an isolation and death as a return. The one who doesn’t cultivate this isolation doesn’t love life, nor does the one who doesn’t fear return, love life. The fact that almost no one loves return proves something else, namely that this is the path towards the world in which we have no name. Individuation gives life a name. We all have a name; the world which precedes individuation is the life without a name, it is the life without a shape. Only individuation gives life a shape. This is why the crashing of individuation in death is a disfiguring. Man doesn’t love his face, which is an accident, but its shape, which is a metaphysical sign.

EM Cioran from The Book of Delusions

What is philosophy?

But what is philosophy? Does it not mean making preparation to meet the things that come upon us?

Things that come upon us. Why limit this to those ‘externals’ such as poverty, illness, exile, and death? Things that come upon us are things that exist outside our control. They are things that press up against us. They surprise us and make demands of us. They give themselves to us asymmetrically in that we do not approach them as they do us. This is the thought of objects as undomesticated predators: tumours, toxic clouds, global warming, radiation. It might also be objects in their more exuberant complexion. Given the current state of philosophy and of the world, Epictetus’ definition of philosophy seems apt.

The stoic as pessimist

The Stoics held that thought was the cause of all suffering, while others like the Buddha, Schopenhauer, Zapffe, Cioran (the whole pessimist gamut) held otherwise. Life itself, existence in this form, this conscious modality, is the cause of all suffering. This is the veil of tears. This is the thesis that seduces many into a subjectivist nihilism, or a resignation. This is the first, the only, noble truth. And from whence does its nobility spring? Are we to think that because it fell from the Buddah’s lips that it is noble? No. It’s nobility is not that of the highborn or the superior, it is the nobile of ‘gnobilis’, the knowable. It is what we come to know. It is the irrevocable knowledge that precedes the writings of any and all traditions, that precedes the production of a system of notation to inscribe meanings on page, on rock, on skin. It is knowledge that precedes even the birth of meaning, and which survives it in death. It is noble because it is always and everywhere the first knowledge; it is what life necessarily comes to know. The neonate’s primitive scream; the President’s tears after gunshots in an elementary school, and the children who ran to hide; the battle fields, the urban squalor, the inherited evolutionary itch to fight, to flee, to erect dwelling and cower (in comfort admittedly) from the elements. Suffering is what life comes to know irrevocably.

Some would say the function of art, and all aesthetics maybe, is to deliver us from suffering- to provide a salvic operation on what we have discounted as our ‘soul’. Beauty is born to soothe us, to raise us above the murk and mess and mulch of darkness, pain, and the compacted rot of corpses we call our history, our present. And I won’t dispute that. What do I know that those greater minds didn’t?

But the Stoics. They refused to characterise existence as suffering. We suffer to the extent that we acquiesce to the events that we take as the external source of our suffering. Writ large: we suffer because we don’t know how to be indifferent to the fact of life, to living. It was this that allowed them, or at least some of their contemporary interpreters, to make the illegitimate move of thinking that life is, in the words of one such modern Stoic, ‘amazing, incredible, wonderful’.

But then, it’s undeniable that beauty is produced by suffering. This isn’t to say that all who suffer produce beauty (and nor is it to say that beauty transforms  suffering- the beautiful and the merely pretty don’t necessarily coincide). It is simply to say that suffering appears necessary for the beautiful to emerge in conscious life.

So what have we said? That life is suffering. That the living suffer. That suffering is the fertilizer of the production of beauty. That the beautiful might elevate us, however fleetingly, from our condition. So don’t we have sufficient ground to say with the contemporary Stoic, who is surely exceeding his ancient Masters, that life is amazing, incredible, wonderful. In short, beautiful. Beauty, after all, is not opposed to ugliness but to the bland.

The pessimist  can find in life, in death as idea and as materiality (as corpse), some beauty. Likewise the pessimist need not be viewed as the dour and miserable or the cold and distant. The pessimist is overwhelmed sometimes by the world, not just in its aspect as source of suffering but also as source of beauty- because that is the same.


Cioran, again

The Art of Avoiding Sainthood

Learn to consider:
delusions as virtues; sadness as elegance; fear as pretext; love as forgetfulness; detachment as luxury; man as memory; life as a swing; suffering as an exercise; death as plenitude, as a goal; existence as a “piece of cake.”

-from The Book of Delusions.

A kind of manifesto (stolen from someone else)

From the Ernst Becker Foundation</em>

Death Anxiety
By Daniel Liechty
Posted on November 18 2011

All living creatures have a strong, even overwhelming urge to continue living; yet our entire ecosystem would collapse without universal mortality (every living thing dies); thus, there is a basic paradox at the hear of the living cosmos.

Human beings are animals, first and foremost, sharing completely in the evolution of species on this earth, and large chunks of human emotions, social life and basic physical and nervous makeup reflect that shared animal heritage.

Human beings have the intelligence to think abstractly; this is in essence what sets human psychology and cognition apart from animal psychology and cognition (This is the most general statement of human uniqueness, but only humans have many ending propositions in literature, e.g., have a concept of zero, have language, do mathematics, understand negation, practice religion, etc. All of these and many more would be seen as cases in point of the ability to think abstractly).

Because it is rooted in the ability to think abstractly, human cognition is able to grasp the paradoxical Mortality Principle on which our ecosystem/cosmos is based at the deepest levels, and feel it intensely qua paradox.

The most important features of human psychology are born out of the clash between the overwhelming urge to continue living and the cognitive awareness of universal mortality; this recognition of the inevitability of the death (the paradoxical Mortality Principle) creates a reservoir of potentially immobilizing, debilitating anxiety.

There are defense mechanisms in individual psychology (e.g., denial, repression, projection, displacement, dissociation, rationalization, intellectualization, identification, reaction formation, sublimation, humor. There are more than 20 in the specialized literature). Each of these mechanisms manifests itself in creative and destructive forms.

Likewise, there are social defense mechanisms, habitual patterns of collective behavior aimed at defending established social formations (ritual, scapegoating, segregation, denigration, assimilation, annihilation, etc.). Each of these mechanisms manifests itself in creative and destructive forms.

The entire array of individual and social defense mechanisms are regularly employed to maintain individual and social equanimity in reaction to threats of death, and also in reaction to the symbolic threats of death contained in recognition of the cosmic Mortality Principle. Such defense mechanisms probably originated in, but certainly were strategically contoured in their contemporary form by, this need for anxiety control in the face of mortality awareness. In short, our highly developed intelligence caused the anxiety problem in the first place, and also comes forth with at least the provisional solution to the anxiety problem.

One very central and ubiquitous anxiety-compensatory movie is to transfer the urge for continued living from the physical realm to the symbolic realm; the organismic urge for continued living becomes channeled into the urge for immortality in the symbolic realm.

The urge for symbolic immortality is the source of very large chunks of human creativity and life-affirming energies; it is the underlying function of culture/religion to serve as venues through which people achieve and maintain a sense of participation in symbolic immortality (soul survival, larger-than-life projects, etc.).

All cultures/religions are on the one level fictional, since t hey all promise something (immortality) on which they cannot deliver; however, they are all also potentially true, in that each provides some functional viability for anxiety-compensation. Human individual and social life without such fictions would be unbearable and impossible.

There is power in numbers; the more you rub shoulders only with people who believe in the same cultural/religious fictions, the more plausible those fictions become (we all tell the same stories!).

People who do NOT share our cultural/religious assumptions (stories, fictions) are a big problem, since by their very existence the cast doubt n the absolute certainty of our truth (revealing its fiction nature to us) and thus expose us again to the repressed anxiety they function to allay in the first place.

Hence, culturally/religiously Dissimilar Others may be a creative source for helping us widen and enhance our own vision; or, they may be encountered in the most literal sense, as enemies.

Modern, post-Darwinian human beings are more likely in the first place to suspect the fictional character of their cultural/religious stories/truths than those of previous generations, and this is further aggravated because improvements in communications and travel technology force moderns to confront the reality of the culturally/religiously Dissimilar Other on a regular basis.

Future human well-being, and possibly even simple human survival, will depend on learning to substitute more creative manifestations of the individual and social defense mechanisms against the anxiety provoked by the religiously/culturally Dissimilar Other for the more destructive manifestations.