attempts at living

to make a system out of delusions

Tag: Merleau-Ponty

Eye, Mind, and Interiority

This interiority no more precedes the material arrangement of the human body than it results from it. What if our eyes were made in such a way as to prevent our seeing any part of our body, or some diabolical contraption were to let us move our hands over things, while preventing us from touching our own body? Or what if, like certain animals, we had lateral eyes with no cross-blending of visual fields? Such a body would not reflect itself; it would be an almost adamantine body, not really flesh, not really the body of a human being. There would be no humanity.

In Merleau-Ponty, interiority, the space of selfhood, is minimal, relating only to the sense in which I am my body, with its prepersonal motor-intentions, motor-projects, and auto-affection. This interiority is not the interiority of subjectivity in the sense of selfhood, of an individual inside that is richly patterned, complex, irreducible; it is not, fundamentally, the self of liberal democracy and post-Fordist creative capitalism. Part of the nihilist moment is the destruction of these ideas, and capitalism has played its role in that destruction. To be clear; capitalism moves from the process of objectification to self-objectification to the production of selves/persons that are fully expressive, fully, in Nina Power’s terms, “on show”. Everything, even the ticks and aberrations, that make us distinct aren’t inside us, in some precious interiority that the outside world could never intrude upon or disturb. I to be found thoroughly on the outside. If I have an interiority that I am truly to be identified with then it is the interiority of this body that I- or rather, the multitude of spoken and speakable “I”s- am preceded by. My interiority is the interiority of skin, viscera, blood, mucus, glial cells, bone and bacteria. If my eyes were on further apart, if our species didn’t drift into this line of evolution instead of that, then what “I” would I lay claim to? Is this so sad? In a sense; but it means that the production of subjectivities is nothing to do with self, with me, me, me. Properly speaking, from within a philosophy that grounds itself on the transcorporealism of bodies, there is no self or other to speak of, although it is only by way of the distinction of self and other that we can grasp the fact. Merleau-Ponty speaks of the narcissism of being. There never was any interiority. 

Plurality of powers

In the essay The Subject and Power, Foucault talks about power in the following terms:

‘Let us come back to the definition of the exercise of power as a way in which certain actions may structure the held of other possible actions. What, therefore, would be proper to a relationship of power is that it be a mode of action upon actions. That is to say, power relations are rooted deep in the social nexus, not reconstituted “above” society as a supplementary structure whose radical effacement one could perhaps dream of. In any case, to live in society is to live in such a way that action upon other actions is possible —and in fact ongoing. A society without power relations can only be an abstraction’.

He doesn’t seek to define what power “is” but to define its exercise. This is in part owing to ontology but also to his neo-pragmatism; to answer the question of what a phenomena is one should ask about what it does. So for Foucault there is a sense in which power is ‘action upon actions’, and that this is how we should orient ourselves to it.

There is a danger that this kind of talk is itself too abstract and that we should return to the (unstable) ground a bit. So let’s use other words: it is the operation of conducting conduct. Power is simply the way in which behaviour/conduct/comportment is organised. Every constraint-restrain upon comportment limits the choreography of possible way of orienting ourselves to the world. As such, certain possibilities appear and others disappear. To think in terms of a party of the minority is to think in terms of permanent revolution. What is the meaning of such a process without end?

If one completely eliminates the concept of the end of history, then the concept of revolution is relativized; such is the meaning of “permanent revolution.” It means that there is no definitive regime, that revolution is the regime of creative imbalance, that there will always be other oppositions to sublate, that there must therefore always be an opposition within revolution.- Merleau-Ponty, Epilogue to Adventures of the Dialectic.

Isn’t Merleau-Ponty speaking the same language as Foucault? No definitive regime, creative imbalance. This is a thought faithful to the minorities, the dissensus, which is resolutely open, but that is unafraid of power. The dialectical image is dispensed with in Foucault but it is clear that Merleau-Ponty’s own philosophy jettisons the dialectic in favour of the transverse, the in-between, the “folding” of the flesh in the chiasmic “polymorphic matrix” of being. Under Merleau-Ponty’s vision-in-being-in-vision, there is power relations running not just through society but through the whole thing; power is utterly inhuman and can’t finally be relegated to the anthropological way of thinking. This is already the case in Foucault but Merleau-Ponty radicalises this immanantisation of power. No wonder Foucault thought the word would cause so much confusion! The question of power fragments into multiple questions of powers, of constraints, restraints, and enablements. Finally, returning to Foucault’s essay

At every moment the relationship of power may become a confrontation between two adversaries. Equally, the relationship between adversaries in society may, at every moment, give place to the putting into operation of mechanisms of power.

This is simply to say that the history of society is the history of a complexity that might, at any moment, appear as if it were the history of the emergence the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. This appearance can also disappear, as it did until recently in the global North, but it can also reappear under new names and new forms: plutocracy and precariat, geocapitalism and the earthbound.

Attention Bombardment: Is there a Lenin for the anxious age?

Terence Blake is currently translating the latest seminar with Bernard Stiegler. In scanning through it I am reminded of the reasons I became a psychiatric nurse (proletarianisation of the mentally ill; pathologisation of the proletariat) and of why I left London (living in a city of panic that was a bunker city was doing my panic disorder no good). Here is a series of quotes on attention and what Berardi calls the possibility of the psychobomb that explodes the (bio)psychosphere of subjectivation:

Do not forget that your brain functions in time, and needs time in order to give attention and understanding. But attention cannot be infinitely accelerated. Marx described a crisis of overproduction in industrial capitalism—when production surpasses demand, an excess workforce is fired, who in turn have less money to buy products, resulting in an overall effect of economic decline. In the sphere of semiocapital, however, overproduction is linked to the relation between the amount of semiotic goods being produced in relation to the amount of attentive time being disposed of. You can accelerate attention by taking amphetamines, for instance, or using other techniques or drugs that give you the possibility of being more attentive, more productive in the field of attention. But you know how it ends.- Franco “Bifo” Berardi.2011. Time, acceleration, and violence. Here.

These infinite demands for the finite neurocognitive resource of attention- which is a form of bodily comportment to the world- provide a ceaseless stream of attentional-demand on the brain that it can’t meet. Navigating the contemporary urban environment, and not necessarily even that of the megapolis, and even sitting in a cafe today presents one with hundred of flashing signs, adverts, audio-transmissions, moving images, and so on and so on, a cacophony of signs and a chaos of noise, accelerating, multiplying, a plethora upon a plethora overlaid and overlapping that are superimposed on the physical environment with its own denizens such that the nervous system had evolved to cope with. The pathogenetic potential of this rests on these moving images, bodies and roaring sounds that activate our hominid survival networks, drawn as they are to sudden movement, to rushes of sound and in full autonomic efficiency our bodies- which are ourselves- carry out how many assessments of threat a day, a week, a month, a lifetime? And the genius of pharmaco-capitalist production is that it produces its own consumers through the techniques of marketing.

The rise of neuromarketing is the latest modality of this particular version of techne and mobilises other features of the medical technologies typically put to work for neurological and psychiatric conditions. The Pepsi Challenge has been undertaken with test participants undergoing fMRI scans. Before continuing, we should remember that there are a number of problems with the neuroimaging processes and the fact that they say nothing outside of the hermeneutics humans perform on them (cf. Richard Bental. 2011. Why psychiatric treatments fail; neuroskeptic. Nonetheless, they provide valuable data; the point is more to recall that the neuroimage is not a the revalation of truth, but is itself a tool in an ever expanding arsenal of neurotechniques. The findings reported in the journal Neuron showed that the semiological relationship to the brand was the main indicator of verbally expressed preference and that knowledge of which drink was being drunk by altered the state of the participants brains. In particular, there were changes to hippocampal regions associated with affectivity and memory. In this study it appears to be the semiological relation to brand that determines preference of drink and therefore the activation of certain consumer behaviours (ie: buying Coke instead of Pepsi) because their is a semio-affectivity that implies an emotional relationship with a set of affective signifiers and images surrounding “Coke”. The authors of the study state that

Coke and Pepsi are special in that, while they have (Figure 3A) similar chemical composition, people maintain strong behavioral preferences for one over the other.

Recently, Levi Bryant has attempted to construct a model of criticism called Borromean Critical Theory that corresponds roughly with psychiatric theory’s repeated calls for a biopsychosocial model of psychpathology. In this Borromean Critial Theory there are three implicated and interoperative layers of reality to be targeted for any problem, with each being according its own unique weighting and expression in a map of a given situation. These layers are the phenomenal, the material, and the semiotic. This tripartite can also be expressed in terms of the epistemic and the corporeal. What is important to note is that in this study we find all three levels in operation: the activation of the gustatory system by the introduction of the cola drink to the mouth (material) and the simultaneous sensory experience- the qualia- of taste (phenomenal), and the relationship to those particular cognitive schematic associations with the consumer brands “Coke” and “Pepsi”. Despite the near total chemical symmetry of the two drinks and the continuousness of all human gustatory systems with one another- although continuity does imply variation, so we must be careful- the overdetermining factor in the relationship to the drink, and therefore to the subjectivations responsible for producing the consumer subject, activating the repertoire of semio-sensorimotor comportment that organises consumer behaviour, and finally couples the consumer to the economy in this particular way, through this particular commodity mediation. To put this otherwise, here is a situation in which the material and phenomenological are trumped by the semiotic; the epistemic obliterates the corporeal. This is why Franco Berardi is able to call contemporary capitalism semiocapitalism. Critics of neuromarketing express concerns over the destruction of informed consent that the abandonment of rational content to advertising and a focus on stimulating affective brain states implies; yet this is already to miss the point that capital always functions on and through the recomposition and reinvestment of attention and desire. This again is summarised by Franco Berardi when he states that ‘the attention economy has become an important subject during the first years of the new century’ [Precarious Rhapsody, p.82]. This reference to an attention economy is at one and the same time a reference to the way that advertising has always attempted to marshal finite organic hominid attentional resources for economic purposes, and to the economy of that finite resource.

Indeed, marketing operates/operated on a model called AIDA: Attention, Interest, Desire, Action [Here]. This was supposed to explain the design for advertising, what it was supposed to target and activate, and in what order, in order to stimulate the consumer to buy this particular product rather than any competitor product. Commodification always begins with the commodification of the nervous system: harnessing the attention activation networks of perception that were evolved as coping mechanisms that aided survival in a threatening world. Without attention there can be no perception; without the pivot of the waist, the turn of the head, the fixing of the gaze there could never be that particular organism-environment coupling that produces the perceptual experience of a world. The marketing industry is thus not simply the manipulator of desires, the educator of how one ought to desire as a subject of capital, it is also itself a particular version of the coupling relation; it is a semiotic coupling with the body mediated through material media (the poster, the billboard, the TV screen, the high street, the shopping mall, the radio, the various internet enabled screens, the ambient advertising of professionals and even those others we find ourselves sharing a space with- through their conversation or the branding on their clothes, phones, whatever). The advertising industry is primarily involved in physiological interventions .

The kind of physiological intervention that is carried out through the activation of attention primarily involves the production of a heightened physiological state; a state of arousal. The eye, the reptilian brain, the autonomic nervous system and the endocrine response produce all those bodily experiences we are all familiar with: the increased heart-rate, blood pressure, light headedness, and a general increase in sensory responsiveness to any and all stimuli- especially motion- and a readiness for action. Arousal of this kind of obviously important for a full range of creaturely behaviours such as seeking food, hunting for that food, and the obvious sense of “arousal” as sexual arousal. Arousal is the condition of metabolic self-differing, the movement of the organism from one state to another state. There is the experience of the rushing of the blood, the emptiness of the visceral, the aggressivity that doesn’t know if it is rage or lust, destructive or erotic. Of course there is also the matter of memory (and I’m sure Steigler will writes about this); that which presents itself to me as particularly emotionally salient will be remembered while that which is not emotionally salient to me will not be so keenly recalled, if it is recalled at all; we all remember having our heart broken, but who remembers what they had for breakfast today 10 years ago? This phenomena is known as selective attention and involves a selectivity of neural encoding that impacts on long-term memory retention. It is why Coca Cola adverts appeal to a sense of family, to a warm feeling, to a feeling of safety, or to a sense that it is youthful, vibrant, culturally hip and so on; in short, it is why neuroadvertising works so well. It is why semiocapitalist consumers don’t have to be convinced of the virtues of consumption but will happily consume the consumption of others in TV shows like Cribs, and it is why the English riots of 2011 had as a component the revenge of the desire of the excluded consumer (cf. Baumann’s analysis of the situation).

What I have described above is called the flight-or-fight response. It is the priming of the body for escape and/or violence and it is what has managed to life just that little step ahead death, at the level of the species and at the level of each organism. The idea that it is perfectly adaptive (even if adaptionism didn’t have its own problems) is misleading because it is also a generic mediation system for a number of psychopathologies; the bodily system of safety is also a bodily system of distress. When we talk about a constant state of physiological arousal the pathologies that immediately spring to mind are the anxiety disorders, especially generalised anxiety disorder. GAD is characterised by a low but persistent state of anxiety, while panic disorder is characterised by extreme, repetitive, transient states of anxiety. These two disorders are common among the psychiatric population, especially those treated in the community who never actually see a psychiatric worker but are prescribed betablockers,benzodiazapines, or so-called “selective” serotonin reuptake inhibitors or breathing exercises by GPs or family doctors. Although we typically think of it as a condition suffered by soldier or rape survivors, post-traumatic stress disorder is an anxiety disorder that is mediated by a traumatic event. I don’t wish to go into the complex debates around what constitutes “trauma” and what constitutes an “event” but for now I want to focus on the empirical record. This record shows that children who undergo bullying or women who live through consistent levels of domestic abuse can develop PTSD. This is important here because I think that it reveals to us that the post-traumatic is less a psychiatric or psychological condition than it is the name for a certain stabilisation of violent and violently pathogenic processes of subjectivation. In this sense we can have a tense agreement with Zizek when he states that there exists

a totally “mediatized” subject, fully immersed into virtual reality: while he “spontaneously” thinks that he is in direct contact with reality, his relation to reality is sustained by a complex digital machinery. Recall Neo,
the hero of The Matrix, who all of a sudden discovers that what he perceives as everyday reality is constructed and manipulated by a mega-computer – is his position not precisely that of the victim of the Cartesian malin génie?[Here]

and completely disagree with him that this mediatised subject is in any sense separable from the

post-traumatic subject – a “living proof” that subject cannot be identified (does not fully overlap) with “stories it is telling itself about itself,” with the narrative symbolic texture of its life…

It is not so much that the mediatised subject’s relation to reality is sustained by digital machinery- as if it wasn’t already relating to reality in relating to itself, but this isn’t the place for a critique of Zizek’s Cartesian exceptionalism (which is beyond me anyway)- it is that this digital machinery, along with the other technologies and techiques that seeks a direct affectation and activation of the organic economy of attention, exceeds what the brain is capable of. This is not the post-traumatism that Zizek and Malabou consider in the figure of the Alzheimer’s patient and the person with autism (one wonders if either of these people have ever actually encountered people with either condition in a clinical setting), but a post-traumatism that is born precisely out of the material-phenomenal demand that one be plugged-in to the Matrix at all times and in all places. The problem with the film The Matrix, that Zizek thinks illustrates our relation to the Cartesian cogito so well, is that it is based on a fundamental misreading of Baudrillard’s theory of simulation that treats it as if it were still of the order of a mere simulacrum. In other words, in a properly Baudrillardian world it would be impossible to disconnect from the Matrix! Luckily for us, we do not live in the world that Baudrillard’s theory-fictions describe but that such worlds are imaginable speaks of our proximity to them; whatever shows up as fictionally possible within a given epistemic order must be considered as part of our semiological horizon. Alzheimer’s does display the confabulations that rest beneath our stories about ourselves perfectly and it also shows that trauma can be considered a slow and agonisingly patient exposure to the pathogenic violence. To go beyond Malabou, who seems to contain the trauma of Alzheimer’s to the brain and thereby reveals an utter ignorance of the work of Tom Kitwood and others, the trauma of Alzheimer’s only makes sense when we consider it as a traumatised enaction of an increasingly cognitively (and later, sensorimotor) impoverished world. If the mediatised subject is like the PTSD child or abused woman, if it is like the Alzheimer’s patient then this is because it is subjected to pathogenic processes of subjectivation that operate epistemically and materially.

This post-traumatism can also result in “desubjectification”, a term that refers to the deprivation of interiority experienced as the emptying of value from one’s existence. This is also the condition that Kristeva refers to as an amputated subjectivity, and that manifests itself so frequently in depression. One shouldn’t understand “desubjectication” as the undoing of subjectivation but the production of impotent subjects that don’t experience themselves as such. It is what motivates Jodi Dean to ask the question

How is it that the subject remains reduced to the individual, as if there were an individual who is subjected rather than a collective, exercising the power of its own self-determination, that becomes fragmented and desubjectified, pacified as it is divided up into ever smaller portions?- Here.

Depression and anxiety often go together; there is a wealth of psych-disciplines literature that even suggest that prising them apart is a misrepresentation of reality. Berardi has suggested that today the word “alienation” is defunct, that instead we should consider the term “psychopathology”.

In 1983 Gray (here) proposed a neurobehavioural account of chronic anxiety. In his research chronic anxiety was linked to the overactivation of septohippocampal and Pepez circuits. Gray called this behavioural inhibition system (BIS). BIS interrupts ongoing behaviour to redirect attention to potential threats that show up in the sensorium. At the cognitive level the current sensory input (the landscape of threat) is compared against future predictions based on that stimuli. Where a mismatch occurs the BIS is activated. In the mismatch criteria is assumed to be too low and therefore constant mismatches are generated resulting in chronic BIS activity. This BIS is mediated by norepinephrine and serotonin and is coupled to sympathetic nervous system via the amygdale and hippothalamus. Thus, high levels of arousal are maintained outwith the suffers ability to easily consciously ameliorate them. While this doesn’t explain panic symptoms or post-traumatic disorder as such, it does provide a general way to think about the problem of the economy of attention. (Cf: review of literature connecting BIS to anxiety).

One can recall a time around the dot-com crash of 2000 when a number of books dealing with the topic of the attention economy appeared in bookstores. Economists suddenly became aware of the simple fact that in a semiocapitalist world, the main commodity becomes attention. The 1990s saw an era of increasing productivity, increasing enthusiasm for production, increasing happiness of intellectual workers, who became entrepreneurs and so forth in the dot-com mania. But the 1990s was also the Prozac decade. You cannot explain what Alan Greenspan called the “irrational exuberance” in the markets without recalling the simple fact that millions of cognitive workers were consuming tons of cocaine, amphetamines, and Prozac throughout the 1990s. Greenspan was not speaking of the economy, but the cocaine effect in the brains of millions of cognitive workers all over the world. And the dot-com crash was the sudden disappearance of this amphetamine from the brains of those workers.- Franco “Bifo” Berardi.2011. Time, acceleration, and violence. Here.

Whether or not this is quote provides a true story it does provide an approach to thinking the attention economy that highlights the corporeal aspect of capitalism in a time when the epistemic semio-aspect seeks to assert hegemony. Resistance to capitalism has to begin from bodies and their passions. Politics politics is not exclusively about contested meanings, and processes of subjectivation that occur in the epistemic sphere alone, resistance is not a discursive enterprise alone. I even have some misgivings about the verbal being raised above all other forms of expression (Habermas vs. Ranciere- there is agreement at least on speech, on the speaking subject). Politics is also, surely, about the arrangement of bodies in space, about what bodies can appear where and when, under or against whose watch and guard, in what combinations; there is a sense in which politics is thus about the question of the relation, about forming or deforming them, and why organisation is so central, so crucial to its operation. Part of this question of organisation is also the organisation of the materiality of the affectivity of bodies in their capacity to be affected. A simple withdrawal from the world of hyperstimulation or the advocacy of a “revolutionary public health” campaign to “consciousness raise” out of the depths of depression through pharmacology or mindfulness techniques alone can’t be all that we advocate- that would make us identical to the existing psychiatric system that is enmeshed in neoliberal governmentality and capital markets. To be even more cutting, it would be to identify with the problem itself.

We live in a ‘dark age of appetites‘ and passions. This “dark age of appetites” is a fantastic way of talking about the contemporary scene. While I am looking at the production of a new left political party, and thereby getting involved (for the first time) in “political politics”, I do so tactically, provisionally and entirely from within a perspective that recognises this dark age, this age in which democracy and the passions can’t communicate except in the sense of the distribution of bodies in (il)legitmate spaces. The passions can be made to speak, indeed the pathological conditions are often seen in those signs and symptoms that are themselves characterised by the sign-use (ie: alogia; pressured speech; disorganised speech of all varities- word-salad, loose associations and non-sense). What is interesting about the democracy of Ranciere and those who follow him (Todd May for instance) is its lack of form and its explosive core of refusal- the identification of a wrong, the contesting of meanings and of material-aesthetic partitions. Of course the riot of 2011 that haunt me- “us”?- were evidence and enaction of the “dark age of passions”…this is a much better formulation than the “sad passions”… yet the problem of Ranciere is his verbosity, his over appreciation- in line with much of the continental tradition, and indeed of the profession of philosophy itself, carried out as it is by paid and sometimes tenured wordsmiths. I am more interested in the demands that bodies in space can make prior to the political demands that they might formulate. In this respect the dark age of passions is an age of inarticulate demands, demands at the level of the body and therefore they are visceral demands, a visceral politics that refuses the level of representation and constitution. If this is the anarchic moment that must be celebrated, an immanent anarchism that can’t be done away with or forgotten, the question nonetheless remains that of organisation. Even dark passions must be organised, must be given form…in the stoic language; must be cultivated! Such a cultivation would be the job of a movement, an affinity group and- why not!- a party!

The minute the party turns on this anarchism, the moment that it establishes an arche or seeks to enshrine the theoretically advanced membership as anything more than an intellectual vanguard, that is when it must be obliterated. The calls within Occupy for democracy shouldn’t follow the mode of consensus-decision making that so large a movement can’t keep to if it wants to continue (and all the Bonana-insurrectionist talk of rejecting the “myth of mass” is itself caught up in a fetishisation of mass, scale and size rather than recognising its practical necessity for “revolution”- the emancipatory recomposition of society that goes beyond class society).

Maybe the point is not to follow Badiou’s pseudo-anarchism, but to ask how someone like Ranciere would go about constructing a party. If we are seeking to “repeat” the party, rather than simply “return” to it, there are questions to be asked. Indeed, should not “party” simply name the name of what results from the principle of the united front, such a front as the Italian left failed to achieve and so gave Mussolini all the space he needed to take the state for fascism.

Whatever else politics is doing, today it must also seek to defend not just those gains made by the working class that are now under threat from socioeconomic austerity, but is must also defend the body and it’s affectivity from its hyperactivite overactivation and/or nervous exhausted collapse that capitalism generates by bombarding the mediatised subject and demanding the double-bind “Pay attention! Don’t burn out!” Political organisation must not just be the organisation of principles, of activists, of demand, but also of the affects; it must be the organisation of rage.

The continual question of the negative passions. The undeniable potency of them, the undeniable force that erupts with anger and rage. I don’t question their value from a Neitzschean perspective but from an ancient one, from the perspective of Seneca. The oft remarked story of Plato who froze in his place for hours after raising his hand to strike a slave: “I am punishing an angry man”, he is said to have remarked to a passing student or friend (did Plato have friends? can a man with such a thought as his be so vulnerable as to be exposed in the production of a friendship?) Seneca says that anger does not attempt to influence the mind, as all the other passions do, but that it seeks to DESTROY it. Maybe such a destruction of the everyday consciousness- full as it is of its own impotence, its own solipisistic perspectival imprisonment (how we yearn to see through the eyes of the other), its own heavy sadnesses- is a goal worth attaining. But then what? Seneca reminds us that an enraged soldier can’t fight to win but only to inflict harm, he flails instead of striking at the weak spots, and he doesn’t notice when he is injured, outmanned, and about to be crushed. The same question returns to me again and again, and I still don’t really know what it means: how do we organise rage? This seems imperative! Crucial! If the negative passions are a weapon then how do we use them collectively and with skill and precision? Is there a way that we can claim the attention economy for ourselves? Such would be to produce a political therapeutics that would not be reducible to mere therapy. This therapeutics would itself be part of a politics, it would be part of our communist praxis, but it would not follow Franco Berardi’s own notion that we relax, slow down, get senile.

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.

https://www.google.co.uk/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=images&cd=&cad=rja&docid=FTgLnF2mRnkEeM&tbnid=1j1e71CJlzZObM:&ved=0CAUQjRw&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.avisamkaplan.com%2F2008%2F08%2Fwhy-i-talk-to-strangers-and-you-should-too&ei=fapLUcHUAaSA0AXdm4BA&bvm=bv.44158598,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.
http://www.healthtalkonline.org/myflv.swf?myFlv=vid_LWD38_LMP.flv

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.
http://donnapeach.com/2012/01/04/what-does-it-feel-like-to-have-cancer/

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.
http://innermonoblogofdrbif.blogspot.co.uk/2009_07_01_archive.html

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.

Notes on a visceral ethics: Merleau-Ponty’s corporeal compassion.

This post isn’t really a post. It’s more a set of notes. I’m only posting them in case anyone finds them useful or can point me directions that might flesh out the nascent thoughts expressed.

Yesterday I attended a fascinating and exciting research seminar at Dundee University. The talk was given by Dermot Moran, a renowned expert on phenomenology, and was on the topic of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of flesh and the idea of the chiasm. Specifically, Moran compellingly argued that the perceived “epistemic break”, if you will, between an early and a late Merleau-Ponty is not justifiable. In fact, close reading of the text shows that there is a profound continuity between the author of the Phenomenology of Perception and the author of The Visible and the Invisible. I admit, this is an idea I am very receptive to from the outset as my first exposure to Merleau-Ponty was with the essay ‘Eye and Mind’. At any rate, there are three outcomes from Moran’s talk and a brief conversation with him that followed it that are important to me:

1) Merleau-Ponty is enacting an unarticulated return to Hellenistic philosophy, and espeically the Stoics. This is important for my own “transcorporealism” because I ground an embodied realism in Stoic materialism. Moran was more than receptive to my suggestion that Merleau-Ponty is enacting such a return and even offered some pointers as to how he might search for evidence. For me, the evidence is already in the texts of the respective parties… notably in the commitment to existence being bodily, and to be a weaving. The essential up shot here is a continued sense of encouragement.

2) A sense that Merleau-Ponty is also giving us a ground for a thought of genericity. The pre-personal is a kind of generic, transindividuality that can ground collective efforts. [James Williams seemed to be suggesting MP isn’t revolutionary enough, but is this a serious problem in a historical situation where we don’t know what revolution would consist of?]

3) Against my suspicions, Levinas is probably not a very good line to think the ethics of ontological vulnerability. This comes to me from a quote Moran used on a slide that he left up throughout the Q&A session. I spent much of this session looking at that slide, gazing up at Merleau-Ponty’s suggestion that there is a

Fundamental polymorphism by reason of which I do not have to constitute the other in face of the Ego: he is already there and the Ego is conquered from him…There is the vertical or carnal universe..the I-other problem is a Western problem. (Merleau-Ponty, 1964. The Visible and the Invisible– Working notes. p. 221).

The full quote is dense (what does it mean to call the carnal vertical? that it stands up-right? that the carnal doesn’t constitute a “horizon” [Heidegger] but is the condition of “the horizontal”?). At any rate, these words seem chosen specifically as if to rebut Levinas. Against Levinasian ethical experience as infinite, as a hostage-taking, as a traumatic rending of the subject form itself, Merleau-Ponty’s “visceral ethics”, and here I’m purposely playing on the proximity and distance of viscera to virtue, is a way of being being sensibly responsive to being, a kind of empathy of flesh for flesh, a finite cosmopolitanism of finite bodies, that does not take on an exclusively passive receptivity (as it does for Levinas). Merleau-Ponty stands as a materialist Schopenhauer. In this sense, Schopenhauer states that when a suffering being suffers

I nevertheless feel it with him, feel it as my own, and not within me, but in another person… But this presupposes that to a certain extent I have identified myself with the other man, and in consequence the barrier between the ego and the non–ego is for the moment abolished…. (On the Basis of Morality, § 18). This linkage between Merleau-Ponty and Schopenhauer is probably worth exploring.

This also helps form a corrective to my own tendency to introject the voice of Epictetus. For Epictetus we may have empathy with the sufferer but it is our duty to stop short of being ensnared by her suffering. Here I think of couples where one of them is depressed. The non-depressed partner can come to feel the depression of the depressed partner to such a degree that they are no longer empathising but actually inside the same affective climate. The point isn’t to follow Epictetus all the way in his Socratic intellectualism, such is impossible (and I think this impossibility is actually the basis of Stoic ethics…essentially a coping-with-affect, with emotional and psychological vulnerabilities), but to agree with him that in empathy we must guard ourselves against collapse, or what nurses call “compassion fatigue”. The psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas, I think in his 1987 The Shadow of the Object, tells us he believes the analyst should be an object for the analysand, should enter his affective world, should be used by her. Bollas is quick to strongly urge that analysts don’t mistake this for making a complete identification with and being captured inside the gravity of the analysand’s emotional potency. For Merleau-Ponty all of this is a question of carnality, there might be a sense then that if we pay attention it all just happens. We might still require a dose of Epictetan intellectualism to keep us from fatigue. After all, the world is a world of suffering. If we empathised infinitely, we’d be back in the land of Levinas and the idealist Josiah Royce. We would be crushed by our obligations, unable to meet any of them. That isn’t the world we live in.

Edit to add: Epictetus on Socrates

How, then, shall I become affectionate [φιλόστοργος]?—As one who is noble, as one who is fortunate; for reason never accepts that one be wretched, or that one depend on something else, or even blame either god or human being. Thus be affectionate so as to maintain these things; if, however, by virtue of this natural affection [φιλοστοργίαν], whatever it is you call by that name, you are going to be a slave and miserable, it does not profit you to be affectionate. And what keeps you from loving [φιλει̃ν] someone as a mortal, as one who may leave you? Did not Socrates love [ε̉φίλει] his own children? Yes, but as a free man, as one who remembers that it is necessary first to be a friend to the gods. (Discourse 3. 24. 58-60)

As I say, I don’t think this state is achievable. Yet it is a kind of regulative idea (as it is for most Stoics, aside from Epictetus). There is a recognition of the exquisite and the imperilling nature of our affectivity. It is not that affect is good or bad, for the stoic it has to be morally indifferent until I take up an attitude towards it, until I wrestle with it, until I accept it and then learn to cope with it. There is a maturity to this concept of love that we rarely find in contemporary life, and a level of understanding of the emotions that is rarely attributed to the stoics who are, all too often and all too readily, presented as cold, detached cognitivists. This is fundamentally wrong.

Nihilist Optimism: on horse meat, onto-cartography, and case studies.

If we wish to summarize in a few words the meaning of a nihilistic hermeneutics—one that is, after all, an entirely open enterprise—what I myself see in it at this moment is a confirmation of Heidegger’s thesis on being as ‘event’, and not as a stable structure given once and for all (what Heidegger calls ‘metaphysics’). An event that is possible only on condition that being ‘is not’, or is no longer—on condition that God is dead and that the eternal structures of values have been unveiled as a lie. Only on condition of traversing the experience of nihilism understood in this way is it possible to plan a society where freedom will not be an empty term: truth is always ‘to be made’, and thus values are always to be invented anew. It is in nihilism thought in this way that equality finally establishes itself, and what Richard Rorty calls solidarity becomes possible—or better necessary—for life, the only possible basis for a truth that does not claim to evade the historical conditions in which existence is always ‘thrown’. (Gianni Vattimo, 2006. Nihilism as Empancipation).

Not only do the objective conditions change in the act of reproduction, e.g. the village becomes a town, the wilderness a cleared field etc., but the producers change, too, in that they bring out new qualities in themselves, develop themselves in production, transform themselves, develop new powers and ideas, new modes of intercourse, new needs and new language. (Karl Marx, Grundrisse).

In the comments to my post ‘Corporealism is a transcorporealism’, dmfant responded to my question as to whether something like an onto-cartography had or could be undertaken in relation to the horse meat scandal that dominated British news media for months. This is a story has been an emotional story, but this serves- in part- to occlude a view of the very materiality of our reality. In this post I’ll discuss that materiality a little, and respond to/make use of dmf’s objection to map making of such a situation. I want to elaborate on why between onto-cartography and a kind of onto-political atomism we can situate dmfant’s idea of the case study. In no uncertain terms, this post owes its existence to the conversation with dmfant. It also owes its existence to a trip to the museum that I’ll reconstruct a little below.

Flogging a dead horse.

I didn’t quite notice when the story broke that retail giant Tesco had been selling mass produced ready-meals that contained horsemeat. As the story unfurled it soon became apparent that Tesco were not the only big trading culprit. It also came to light that some meat products contained 100% horsemeat. While the story followed the usual massified emotional morality play structure of victim (the consumer) being lied to by the bad guys (food producers and sellers) with the good guys (the media and select politicians) crusading on our behalf, the real story was much more materially focussed. News media, new and old, print and broadcast, were filled with stories and images of the material production of ready-meals. The Guardian newspaper produced an online interactive map featuring the trade distribution routes of equidae (horse and horse-like meat) in Europe. This map also featured the question ‘what does this all mean? Can you tell us?’, vindicating Adam Curtis’s critique of the eclipse of expertise in the media whilst also showing us that we ourselves have become the subject supposed to know (hysterics yelling in a mirror, online newspaper comments sections; is there a massive difference here?). The Guardian also provides a handy timeline of how the story played out should you be interested.

I don’t have a TV but as I’ve commented before, it is nearly impossible to enter (what used to be called) a third space without being met by the unblinking, high definition glare of one or more giant plasma screens. These are invariably tuned to some 24 hours rolling news network, such as BBC24 or Al Jazeera. At some point I began to notice what was being delivered into the majority of British homes like a continuous intravenous feed: graphic images and videos of food production, documentary footage of farmers rearing animals for slaughter, talking heads with small-scale localist food-producers (also assigned the status of unquestioned “good guys”). Suddenly the global material network that had receded from the consumer’s view is made to stand in stark relief. Exposed, the multitude of bodies that form the intermatrices of the food-production network, itself a loose ensemble or assemblage, lay open before our eyes. It’s an almost Christ-ian moment of revelation, ‘he who has eyes let him see’: the farmers, the farms, the pig feed, the grass grown for cows to graze on, the fences delimiting the farmers field from the field surrounding them, the cow sheds, the milking machines, the tractors, the lorries that transport the animal to the abattoir, the abattoir itself, the men and women employed therein, the instruments of slaughter and clean-up, the machines, techniques, chemical processes and so forth needed to preserve the meat, the agencies involved (or failing to be involved) in assessing the standard of the quality of the meat, the lorries to distributors, the cross-border roads (and the implications of the European Union allowing freedom of movement and so on), the companies that are paying for this processing and packaging of the ready-meals, the supermarkets who sell them to the consumer (both the corporation “Tesco” and the brick-and-mortar Tesco down the road where I buy my bread and milk, and the “…”. This “…” is stolen from the underappreciated philosopher and psychotherapist Eugene Gendlin. In his work the ellipse conveys a quality of what he calls the ‘felt-sense’ that exceeds the capacities of language to capture. Here, I mean the ellipse to indicate the inexhaustibility of this network of particular bodies and particular ensembles of particular bodies. No list could list everything included in the food-production network that the horse meat scandal has delineated. The territory is too big to map; indeed, the map would need to be significantly larger than the territory it was supposed to be mapping.

Another upshot of the horse meat scandal and its media coverage has been its Baconism. Consider the reaction Bacon might have had to the idea of images such as the one below being exposed to people in every humble and stupid corner of their lives. Imagine the family sitting down to their TV dinner, the material assemblage that produced that meat disappeared from view for the time being, the awareness that this hamburger used to be a sentient cow capable of suffering and enacting a world safely pushed to the boundaries of consciousness. Imagine that same family, that same scenario, and then this image appears on the TV. Francis Bacon would delight.

meat


Capitalism, onto-cartography, and the case of the case study.

Things have been exposed. We have collectively had to pay attention. This is the experience of living in a country where there might be horse meat in your hamburgers. The banality of the phrase is as hilarious as it is telling: so obvious a revelation after all. And there has been a collective response of sorts, an emotional one in the first instance. People were angry. They felt lied to. They felt as though the people providing food for them had broken their trust. Personally, I’m not sure of this. I haven’t met any of these angry people, but then my friends are largely people who either don’t eat meat or wouldn’t care a less if they were told they’d just finished all the soylent green in town.

The people wanted lamb and instead they got horse. This speaks to the different places these animals have in our systems of signifi-cance as much as anything else. Beef and lamb are for eating, horses though…these were once loyal co-workers (they were vital to canal-building, among many things); they provide us with entertainment and means of showing how skilled we are (horse-racing, dressage, and show-jumping); they give us spectacular means to extend our capacity for mobility (they can carry us further than we can walk); they give us access to unparalleled vistas (the beauty of horse rides in the mountains); and they are bearers of great majesty, pride, beauty, and dignity. Sometimes it is as we considered horses to be ensouled in a way we don’t extend to any other animal. Yet of course, other nations eat horse meat and make no bones about it. Meat is meat, as long as it is nonhuman. So the emotions ran high. Tesco apologised in huge full page black text on white background sincerity. Angry debates were had, and continue to be had. In the background of all of this one senses the figures of Paul Virilio or Bernard Steigler, muttering about the synchronisation of emotions and the birth of ‘a communism of affects’.

Other responses have been registered as well. It is changing the buying habits of retailers. It is hard not to think that this will alter the material distribution of production and consumption in Europe, producing a redistribution in the material mechanisms of the assemblage of assemblages, system of systems, that has escaped accusation and exposure in this story: capitalism. Op-eds from experts predict the collapse of some of the attractors that capital flows toward- through-and-out of that we call companies or corporations. National and local news and trade outlets have featured a variety of articles (lifestyle, news, editorial, even style features) on why we should shun the global food production market and turn toward the local producers. Some sources say we ought to do so because it will bolster the national economy (a strong argument in Scotland given we are gearing up to a referendum on independence that will larger be determined economically), others because the local producer is more trustworthy, reliable, and “knows you”. These seem to be the two biggest demands then. 1) Reject globalised capitalism in order to revalorise a beleaguered nationalist capitalism, or 2) Reject globalised capitalism in favour of a nostalgic village capitalism. The debate surrounding potential versions of localist food production models that might run along socialist, autonomist, or anarchist lines seems not to have erupted. I might be wrong (and would be more than happy to be corrected) but it seems like the radical or revolutionary voice has ceded an issue on the material organisation of the present to an internal dialogue between representatives of variants of capitalism. I’m sure I must be wrong on this…yet if the debate is going on its doing so in the places it always does rather than out in public with a population that might be more receptive to broadly eco-anarchist ideas. This possibility is evinced by the very material effect of this news story: a sharp rise in the sales of vegetarian alternatives to meat products. Although, as the populist left Red Pepper magazine points out, vegetarianism isn’t any grand solution because the ‘global supply chain’ that this story has exposed also demonstrates to people, even as the BBC or SKY News aids in the occlusion of, operates transversally. That is, the model of a global supply chain applies to clothing, footwear, and electronics just as much as it does to food production.

This story has literally shown people the operation of capitalism, even as the mechanisms that do so in such a way as they attempt to contain that showing. To paraphrase Judith Butler [1], the media narratives take part in the active interpretation of capital compelled by capitalism and the state. In my own life, it has reinvigorated my own self-accusation regarding veganism. If I think a core ethical principle must be acting so as to reduce the suffering endured by suffering-beings then how can I justify my omnivorous diet? I’m not sure that I can…all I can do is fall back onto the rather pathetic excuse that veganism is “too hard” or pull some Zizekian bullshit about vegans being perverted that no one buys, not even Zizek. At any rate, I hope the importance of this story is coming into focus and that I haven’t overplayed or underplayed its significance to anyone interested in materialism, object-oriented philosophy, or socialist politis.

In his reply to my original post on the possibility of an onto-cartography of this story, dmfant said that he was

not sure how available such widespread phenomena would be to research, so many variables in motion with all of the people affected not to mention their environ

and I have to agree. That was certainly my feeling when I was first introduced to the idea of onto-cartography. A few months back I attended a talk at Dundee University at which Levi Bryant introduced the idea of onto-cartography and its attendant practices to his audience [2]. Bryant was more elaborative on what onto-cartography consists of in that talk but here I can only give a brief snapshot of what he means by this evocative term. For instance Bryant calls states that an ‘onto-cartography would thus be a map or diagram of things’ in a given world. Briefly, a world is ‘is not something other than the externally related entities and signs within it’. Onto-cartographic space is thus a kind of choreographic space, structurally related to and materially sculpted by the movements, positions, dispositions (both actual and virtual) of bodies. I prefer this idea of choreographic space because of its immediately embodied connotations, but also because one can understand it more easily: anyone who has ever danced, no matter how well or how badly, has understood that space is choreographic rather than a container or static. In Levi’s terms:

Onto-cartography is thus not a map of space or geography—though we can refer to a “space of things and signs” in a given situation or field and it does help to underline the profound relevance of geography to this project insofar as ontocartographies are always geographically situated –but is rather a map of things or what I call machines. In particular, an onto-cartography is a map of the spatio-temporal gravitational fields produced by things and signs and how these fields constrain and afford possibilities of movement and becoming.

Examples that Bryant gives in his paper of pre-existing elements of an onto-cartographic approach include Bruno Latour, Fernand Braudel, Marshall McLuhan, Manuel DeLanda, Stacey Alaimo (from whom I have stolen the term transcorporeality to better express my own ideas around corporealism as a body-oriented-ontology, with bodies being roughly exchangeable with “object” or “machine”, and audaciously Marx himself. For Bryant the theory of onto-cartography is only an aspect of its appeal, with its real value lying in its empirical expression. Bryant again:

The project of onto-cartography is massive and likely not to be the work of any one person because it is profoundly multi-disciplinary, requiring knowledge of the natures of the things that inhabit the situation, their specific properties, literature, mythology, semiotics, political theory, history, various sciences, technologies, etc

This is an expansive, ambitious, and supremely vertiginous undertaking, and as a sufferer of recent bouts of vertigo I say that with no irony. What is supremely attractive in Bryant’s formulation of onto-cartography is precisely that it requires a ‘multi-disciplinary’ approach. As a nurse, I work in multidisciplinary teams constantly, sometimes leaving the team I am attached to (ward or community staff depending on where I am working) to form another “temporary ongoing” group (such as a MAPPA or CPA group). There is a sense that this immediately makes sense to me. I work alongside psychiatrists, physicians, clinical psychologists, peer-support workers, voluntary befrienders, support workers, healthcare assistants, pharmacologists, porters, ambulance drivers, occupational, physical, speech and language, sexual health and a range of art therapists, and a host of organisations within the voluntary, governmental (including the police), and wider mental health sectors. There is a sense in which as a nurse I already feel like an onto-cartographer whenever I try to tell people what it is that a psychiatric nursing is. Really, I need to return to my misappropriation of Gendlin’s “…” in order to suggest what I want to suggest about the nature of my profession. All this is to say that the work of onto-cartography is too big. Where would we be happy to finish making our map? At what point would our diagram be exhaustive? We might want to suggest that this isn’t really Bryant’s point; really, he only means to orient us to the things that co-produce the space of a co-enacted world, not to trick ourselves into thinking we have an epistemic masterpiece or a political ideology that can explain a situation in advance of the situation itself (this feels like a Badiouian moment). Yet as I sat in that lecture hall that Bryant walked about in as he read (a more engaging style than people who prefer to just sit, I think), I had then and still have now the sense that this is a form of fieldwork of the present that is just too big, too much, too demanding.

This is precisely the reason why dmfant says that he is ‘trying to pitch the idea of case-studies as perspicuous re-presentations via Wittgenstein’. I have no desire to tread on dmf’s toes or to appropriate someone else’s obsessions. Likewise, I am not even sure I have understood what dmf means. I am not very familiar with Wittgenstein, having only read secondary sources and attended the odd lecture on ‘picture-thinking’. Nevertheless, the idea is one I want to work out, respond to or at least use as a way to push my own thinking. This is proper to the working of an intellectual conversation. With those heavy caveats out of the way, I’ll go on.

The reason the “case study” appeals to me is, once again, practical. I am a nurse. I occasionally write case studies and I certainly read them, especially those from nursing, psychiatry, social work and counselling. The case study presents its reader with a caricature of a situation that was once live to the worker-author. Usually, if the case study is to have any value, it will be illustrative of a complex or challenging clinical situation. The worker-author will explore that particular situation in as much detail as space and the pragmatic orientation of the case study allows. This will be done in order to analyse the actual particular decisions made and actions taken. This is not done (or not exclusively at least) to justify what the worker-author decided and did but also to scrutinise those outcomes from a variety of perspectives in order to come to an understanding of whether better alternatives could have been taken and why they were not selected at the time. In other words,

‘this pragmatic reasoning allows for clinical hospitality to presenting individual differences, rather than a theory based clinical stance which assumes to know better before the actual case is at hand’. [3]

The case study caricatures the material complexity of intermatrices in order to ‘test and re-test’ decision making and intentional action. The case study also wants to keep possibility alive, even in the instance where the particular set of possibilities has died along with the situation that they referred to. It is likely in health and social care that one will encounter similar, although never identical, situations that also presents with a similar, although never identical set of possibilities. The case study serves as a kind of critical reflection and heuristic. It also has the function that is more familiar to philosophical audiences through psychoanalysis, as dmfant points out: it is a means of constructing a working theory through an interrogation of one’s practical engagements.

Weaving Wittgenstein and Merleau-Ponty

dmfant suggests that the case study can be conceived of as a species of perspicuous representation [PR]. Wittgenstein tells us that
A perspicuous representation produces just that understanding which consists in ‘seeing connexions’.Hence the importance of finding and inventing intermediate cases. [4]

From this definition it follows that a PR is a specific kind of understanding. As far as I can tell, understanding in Wittgenstein’s philosophy is a kind of a tacit, spontaneous, and immediate agreement among those who share a practical community on the mutual immersion in that practice; it recognises a shared world of concern; a shared ethos; it is an intelligibility prior to intellection. In this sense it is not, as dmfant reminds me in the discussion that has sparked this post, ‘cognitive-behavioural’ and is ‘non-conceptual’. The kind of understanding that PR produces then is the kind of understanding that happens pre-cognitively, pre-conceptually but transindividually. The specificity of this understanding thus lies in its being part of our primordial embodied being. In particular, given that Wittgenstein’s understanding is linked in my view to a community, it must be of the order of embodiment that it is transcorporeal. In Merleau-Ponty’s terms it belongs to the flesh which is

A new type of being, a being by porosity, pregnancy, or generality, and he before whom the horizon opens is caught up, included within it. His body and the distances participate in one and the same corporeality or visibility in general, which reigns between them and it, and even beyond the horizon, beneath his skin unto the depths of being. [5]

There is a sense in which a being that lacked the kind of understanding that PR generates would be an autistic being. It might have cognitive, conceptual knowledge of such and such a situation, but it would lack a carnal knowledge, if you’d pardon the pun. This idea of a ‘being by porosity’ is also the mode in which I discuss the stoic’s concept of God. In that discussion, I went to pains to show that there God is immanent- like Spinoza’s- but in as a material ontomorphological principle-unlike Spinoza’s. I also showed how this stoic concept of bodies (which is at the heart of my own body-oriented realism) is a matter of weaving- the weave, or the enmeshing, is the mode of porosity. I highlight this here in order to promise to return at some point to the idea of the weave-mesh-flesh.

So we get the understanding Wittgenstein is alluding to, but he also tells us it consists in ‘making connexions’. This is ambiguous. To make connections might mean precisely to weave or mesh things together in the same way that we do if we braid our hair: it might also mean “seeing” connections. I would conjecture that it’s something between these two. I think this is the way you see it anyway, dmf? We not only make connections in the world through our structural relations but also in the realm of theory and how we see the world in our epistemic relations. There is thus a sense in which the horse meat scandal story has structurally produced a change in our epistemic frame; it has made new connections by showing us what connections are already here.
The production of new PRs is thus the production of new ways of seeing and enacting the world in an embodied sense. In previous posts I have casually used the term ‘disposition’ to describe this action-orientation of our epistemic maps. As dmf has said, it is also about approaching matters in ways that people can cope-with and be moved-by them ‘and in ways that allow us to do things differently’.

If this makes sense as a reading of PRs then I think it is because of an experience I had yesterday. A friend and I were walking around Dundee. We needed to kill some time before a lecture by Pierre Cassou-Nogues that we were going to attend started. We decided to drop in on the McManus Gallery, an art gallery and museum about and situated in the heart of Dundee. As we strolled around the exhibits in glass cases we played at a little ‘alien’s phenomenology’. A taxidermy fox with its front paws on a cornflakes box, clearly a scene demonstrating our wasteful society and the porosity of the urban-rural distinction, was looked at from an alien’s point of view. Suddenly the fox became a sacred animal, why else would these “humans” preserve it? And clearly its prey was this strangely coloured rectangular being, spilling its crispy flaked innards onto the display’s reconstructed floor. I became embarrassingly excited at the sight of a huge harpoon that had been mangled, the twisting of its iron shank the corporeal evidence of a probably long dead whale’s attempts to escape from its killing point. The experience that I want to relay, though, happened as my friend and I discussed Dundee’s industrial past.

red in tooth and corn

Dundee was once a thriving industrial city. It was strategically important to the expansion of British capitalist power. Home to the Jute industry (an industry that involved industrial processes of weaving), dock-yards, one of the biggest news publishers, and confectionary producers Dundee was a rich, powerful, booming town full of possibility. It is also true that Dundee had huge and hugely obvious class disparities with the bourgeoisie and the working class living at extreme ends of the spectrum of life. Yet even in this, Dundee has a worker’s movement to be proud of, and a remarkable history of suffragette actions. My point is that although I didn’t live in Dundee then, although I am not Dundonian or Scottish by birth, and although I don’t have much fondness for contemporary Dundee, I had an urgent affective relationship with that city in that moment as I looked down at the exhibits. One exhibit in particular pushed this feeling, almost a physical agitation, to its height: a model of the city centre as it was at its industrial zenith. I could feel the excitement of that city, and I could feel the disappointment at its loss. Dundee never became what it might have, but more than that it also lost the set of possibilities it had open to it then. I can’t remember where it is, but in one of his text’s Virilio sums this up perfectly: ‘the city is not itself’. I was also left with the question of the relation of a city to its own destruction, or partial destruction I suppose. Does a city have a sense of its possibilities? Can a city ‘die’? Can it be a being-towards-death? An open question. As Levi Bryant has it in ‘The Gravity of Things’: ‘a city is not merely an entity, a thing that sits there, but is rather a machine or organism that faces the problem of how to produce and maintain the elements that belong to it…’.

Here it is that I was thinking about what it would mean to ‘find or invent’, as Wittgenstein says, new PRs. It was in this museum artefact that I got the very kind of felt-sense of what a PR is that the idea of the PR pertains to express. Or at least I think I did. What I sensed was that the relation of the artefact to myself as the relation of the ‘perspicuous representation’ to myself. The artefact as PR is also the artefact as case-study. As if an archaeological find, from the artefact I could reconstruct or vicariously feel what was at stake in that city. In that case, the artefact, that little model of a set of possibilities closed down, was a model for that network of possibilities. It was a model but it was also a real, corporeal object. It captured something of the transcorporeal, something of the whole range of possibility, and something of the story of a city without attempting to be an exhaustive onto-cartographic survey.

Just as the case study isn’t simply an obsession with particularities of specific clinical situations for their own sake, and just as it is not an attempt to generate a universal or ideal state, the perspicuous representation is also a kind of production of genericity. Onto-cartography is extensive, too long, too distant, and possibly leads to the generation of a map that is bigger than its terrain. Meanwhile, a focus on particulars alone leaves us unable to join the dots; we can never see the horse meat scandal as anything but a particular case of a bad thing happening floating freely, uncoupled to any other structure and therefore never take advantage of it. Yet, if the horse meat scandal is a case study that manages to ‘make connexions’ without having to make all possible connections then we don’t have to exhaust it or leave it floating in an uncritical space. As Wittgenstein says, PRs involve ‘finding or inventing intermediates’. This would allow us to orient and re-orient ourselves to what is revealed. We wouldn’t be “autistic” to the world we live in, but would understand it in the same way that we do the look on the face of someone we love. A kind of instantaneousness that requires no language to be communicated but that serves as the basis for any possible language. It is the freedom to invent new forms in the knowledge that the old forms were prosthetic after all. We have moved from a world full of matters of fact, to one full of matters of concern [6]. What let’s us see better? What let’s us hold one another better? We could be, as in Francis Bacon’s aporetic phrase, ‘optimistic and totally without hope’.

[1] Judith Butler. 2007. Torture and the Ethics of Photography. In: Environment and Planning: Society and Space. Vol. 25, No. 6, pp. 951 – 966. Link.

[2] Levi Bryant. 2012. The Gravity of Things: An Introduction to Onto-Cartography. Link. All references to Levi Bryant in this post are to this paper.

[3] Dirk Felleman. 2005. Pragmatism and Clinical Practices. In: The Socialworker. Vol.2. Link.

[4] Ludwig Wittgenstein. 1973. Philosophical Investigations.

[5] Maurice Merleau-Ponty. 1968. The Intertwining- The Chiasm. Link.
From: The visible and the invisible.

[6]. Bruno Latour. 2013. War of the worlds: humans against earthbound. Fifth Gifford Lecture. 26.02.2013.

Neglected embodied realist

Researching for work on embodiment and psychiatry I came upon psychotherapist Eugene Gendlin. Here is an extract from his paper ‘The primacy of the body, not perception’, a reply and intensification of Merleau-Ponty.

An artist stands before an unfinished picture, pondering it, seeing, feeling, bodily sensing it, having a … . Suppose the artist’s … is one of some dissatisfaction. Is that an emotional reaction, simply a feeling-tone? No indeed. Implicit in the … is the artist’s training, experience with many designs, and much else. But more: the … is also the implying of the next line, which has not yet come. The artist ponders “what it needs.” It needs some line, some erasure, something moved over, something … . The artist tries this and that, and something else, and erases it again each time. The … is quite demanding. It recognizes the failure of each attempt. It seems to know precisely what it wants and it knows that those attempts are not it. Rather than accepting those, a good artist prefers to leave a design unfinished, sometimes for years.

In this example, the design is new; it has never existed before, and neither has the next move. A bodily … can very demandingly imply something that has never existed before. And, if it doesn’t come, it may never exist at all, except as implied by a … .
[Page 349]

Should we think of this as an unaccountable intuition? Or can we think of the living body in such a way that it could have or be such information and such demanding novelty?

The body urges and implies exhaling after we inhale. It implies feeding when hungry, and defecating when digestion is done. Living bodies imply their own next steps. This implying and shaping of next steps is usually attributed only to repetitious processes. But we see that the body also takes on the elaborations of quite novel situations, and then it also implies a next step, and may shape one.

The living body is an ongoing interaction with its environment; of course it therefore is environmental information. The bodily … can contain information that is not (or not yet) capable of being phrased. But can we conceive of the body so that we could understand how it can contain (or be) information? It is not the usual use of the word “body.”