attempts at living

to make a system out of delusions

Tag: ontology

Agent SWARM picks at the bones

Terence Blake has a dense, purposeful, and atomic critique of Graham Harman’s version of object-oriented ontology up on his blog. It begins with a discussion of Alex Galloway and the recent controversy there, but Blake goes on to outline his own position as well. I only draw attention to it because some of it resonates with what I’ve been writing about Timothy Morton. Although, this is a critique much more scathing one could almost call it a denunciation or a purge. A little taste that I felt resonated with things I’ve been writing of late:

Despite its promises, Harman’s OOO does not bring us closer to the richness and complexity of the real world but in fact replaces the multiplicitous and variegated world with a set of bloodless and lifeless abstractions – his unknowable and untouchable, “ghostly”, objects.

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regarding junk

The only ontology left to us is an ontology of objects and processes that knows that all objects and processes originate from the Catastrophic. As such the only ontology that remains is an ontology of what remains; a debris ontology.

Thesis on radical denial

A capsule form of the radical denial, a proposition:

Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to destroy it. This is the road to an (ir)realism that confronts us with the malignant indifference of cosmos.

Child-eating sharks galore!!! Ethics, objects, death and Darwinism

Thus, when people obtain the right to life, the fact is that they are no longer able to live. – Jean Baudrillard [1] 

 There have been all sorts of things posted about flat ethics recently. My previous post was on the same topic but I’m peripheral to the whole thing, just an interested observer. I particularly like this point though, made by Alex Reid:

In [a] soccer match, those ethical relations are mediated by a grass field, white lines, goal posts, nets, flags, a soccer ball, uniforms, shin guards, cleats, a whistle, a timing device, etc. They are also mediated by language,which is also nonhuman. In fact, one could (and often does) say that one must compete not only against the other team but field conditions, weather, ref calls, and so on. So in imagining ethics, a flat ontology requires us to see that there is no such thing as “human” ethics. All ethics are nonhuman in the sense that “human” refers to a particular modern, ideological context. As such perhaps it is better to say nonmodern ethics than nonhuman ethics.

I also like Jeremy Trombley’s point:

I don’t have a clear answer to this dilemma except that I would consider the ecology of relationships that are involved – the relationships between myself, the child, and the shark, as well as those that extend beyond this specific spacio-temporal interaction.  What would the child’s parent’s think if they knew I could have saved it, but chose not to?  What would the court system think?  Is the shark an endangered species?

(emphasis added)

 All ethics are nonhuman ecologies in which humans may appear.

 

Yet I think it is crucial to remember that in the first quote the key word is that the ethical relationships between players of a football (soccer) game are mediated by nonhuman operatives. Likewise, a trip to the zoo is mediated by the animal feed producers, train operators, railway lines, animal handlers, money, the machinery used to produce a ticket handed over at the gates… but would we say that a trip to the zoo consists of these things? Or rather, would we say that the ethics of a trip to the zoo consisted of these things?

 

I think we would. If the ticket-machine were produced by a corporation who exploited workers in order to  produce that machine, or some other of its product line. We might feel the same way if the animal feed being given to animal X were made out of intensively farmed animals of the same species as animal X. Yet while we might say they are agents within an ethical ecology, that they are composite operatives within an ethical system, I doubt that we would ever suggest that  either the ticket-machine or the animal feed are ethical agents in that ecology. To risk a paraphrase of poor taste, they really are ‘only following orders’; the banality of evil become the banality of the object. It doesn’t seem to make much sense to say that it is wrong for the animal feed to allow itself to be fed to animal X.

 

I suppose the thing I’m getting at is that an ethical relationship is much like the love relationship that I believe (I think I remember) Levi Bryant theorised a while ago on his blog; a third, independent object. There is me. There is my partner. We do not fuse into a singular object (two does not become one) but both of us remain autonomous, nested within the third object called the relationship. While we are busy talking about ethical relationships we’re forgetting that each particular ethical ecology is singular (which is the point in Trombley’s quote). the point here is that the ethical ecology is an ontological ecology and not an ecology of ethical actants. In the original shark-child relationship nobody thinks to include the ocean, the sand on the sea floor, the moon and it’s capacity to effect the tides, sea-going vessels.

 

It appears absurd to me to include these things in an ecology of ethical operatives even though they are ontological units involved in the original ethical ecology, playing a part in determining the shark’s behaviour. Likewise, we might consider why the child is near the shark. Is this a holiday bought by its parents? Should we then include the travel agent that sold the holiday in the ethical ecology, or at least as an operative that aided in the sculpting of process of causality that arrived at that juncture? I suspect we wouldn’t.

 

That there is a flat ontology does not necessarily imply that all the things that build or generate a particular situation should be considered being ethical agents. I suspect that because things exert an influence on each other, that is because they have powers or capacities to act and act in concert with each other to generate the situations in which ethical problems arise, it is easy to be led to think that they too are subject to ethics. To labour the point let’s return to Alex Reid’s example. There is a football game. A problem of ethics arises in the playing of this game. This ethical problem is mediated by nonhuman things, including language. Here was the ethical problem:

 

Last week, we found ourselves winning 6-0 about 15 minutes into a 70-minute game. I pulled our strongest players, but we were still up 9-0 at half. In this league, goal differential is a potential tie-breaker for determining the champion, so I suppose there is potential motive for running up the score. But that’s just not something you do with 11 year-old boys. At half-time a instructed the boys that only those who had not yet scored that season should really try to score and that otherwise their job was to make good passes. Again, I kept my best players mostly on the bench, and the final score was 11-3. It probably could have been 22-0. And I’ve seen scorelines like that in my time as a coach, though our team has never been on either end of one.

 

The question is over the ethics of competition and whether it would have been unethical to give the opposing team a thrashing. Reid suggests that in part this is done out of respect for the game of football. To have won the game by 22 clear goals would be to play football ‘out of the spirit’ of the game, to disrespect football as ‘an emergent object’. Yet why would football care? It can’t care. Here Reid alludes to a kind of spirit and to respect. A sense of fair play and tradition then? I don’t understand why one would need a flat ethics to highlight two pretty standard reasons for playing the game without taking the piss. (A far more compelling reason might be that if you keep playing games where your team- Reid is the coach of child’s football team- constantly embarrassed other teams- composed of kids- you may risk losing having anyone to play with).

 

Reid is the coach of this football team and he writes about what he can do to have an impact on the emergent object of the game in order to highlight how we can have an ethical relationship the thing called ecosystem:

 

 As a player or coach, I can’t affect the game directly. As a coach I can put players in different positions, suggest tactics, and prepare players in practices. As a player, I can make decisions about how I play. Those decisions participate with others to create the game experience. I can modify my decisions in response, but there isn’t a direct relationship with the game only with other actors in the game. The extent to which I realize that whatever decisions I make to win require that the overall game continues

 

Neither Reid, nor myself or any body else, can have a direct relationship with the ecosystem wherein they can directly affect that ecosystem. Instead, Reid might be able to affect petrochemical companies through lobbying against them by joining a lobbying group with other people. You might organise a coalition of environmental or ecological activists to carry out direct actions ranging from tree-hugging, to consciousness-raising, or from occupying an airport to committing acts of ‘ecoterrorism’. I might simply be the kind of person who refuses to recycle and thereby assists in the mass anonymous effort of building the giant debris filled landscapes of landfills (which, I must admit I do find aesthetically pleasing and intriguing). None of these decisions and actions will make direct contact with the thing called ecosystem (things are withdrawn), nor could it ever do so in a unilaterally determinative manner (just as the coach is within the football game, so I am within the ecosystem), and finally because the ecosystem as a thing is emergent from all those other things that we have made contact with (other people, lobbying organisations, parliaments, airports, just as much as trees, oceans, clouds, frogs, catfish and children and sharks).

 

In Reid’s example we ought to act in a way that allows the game to continue, so by extension we should also act in ways that allows the ecosystem to continue in order to consider ourselves as being ethical in relation to the ecosystem. For Reid these considerations mean that  ‘I am engaged in an ethical relationship’.

 

A couple of brief problems before returning to the ethical. First, I’m not sure if we can say that winning a game of football 22-0 would mean we were no longer playing a game of football. Playing by the rules and regulations, associated objects (a football etc), the people required (players, coaches, referees and linesmen) are all that are minimally required for us to consider ourselves playing a game of football. In the absence of any of these elements we are not playing football; these are the things in the assemblage that minimally form a game. If we play outside of the spirit of the game, if we do not respect it as an emergent object, we are still playing football but we are playing badly. The second point is whether Reid is talking about a specific game or the game of football itself (is there a ‘the game of football’ that exists in any other form than metaphor? Surely that would be a kind of ideal game or ur-game?)

 

This reveals the actual problem of the ethical here. Each ecosystem, including that planetary ecosystem as a whole, must be considered in it’s singularity. Isn’t that the point of object-oriented strains of philosophy? If we treat all ecosystems the same, and if we treat ecosystems the same as games of football/the game of football then aren’t we performing a kind of reduction of the singularity of each to the abstraction of all? The pragmatic deployment of Reid’s metaphor might have a material impact on how we conceive of the ethical relationship we have to the ecosystem in a way that draws attention to the complexity and partiality of that relationship but I still don’t see that this is something new to an object-oriented approach or that is inaugurated by a flat ethics.

 

The original question was whether or not the shark should eat the child. This question is the question of the shark’s ethical relationship to the child, of whether it can be considered an ethical operative. Is a shark the same as a football or a football player? A shark is no more the same as these things as it is the same as a ticket-machine or a batch of animal-feed. The point I’m making at some length is that it makes no more sense to say that the shark should or should not eat the child than it does to say that the goalpost should or should not be an obstacle to scoring. And there is a very good reason for this that Alex Reid hits on: the ethical relationship is one burdened with decision. A shark cannot be said to count within it’s capacities that of making an ethical decision. This is not to say that no animals can make ethical decisions, it is probable that many of them can. This is also not to say that no nonhuman nonanimal things can (or could) make ethical decisions. If we listen to the technoevangelists and transhumanists it might soon be possible for AI to make such decisions, or to simulate them so perfectly as to baffle these considerations even further.

 

 

I believe that the entire issue of whether we should let the shark eat the child is centered on this mistake. A shark cannot be held responsible. It can only be held accountable. We can say ‘the shark is going to eat the child’ or ‘the shark ate the child’ but the should has no place in anything. (The question of whether we should kill the shark for what it has done is a separate issue).

 

A further point emerges from Trombley’s quote- and from others- regarding evolution. Levi Bryant has written in the past about how we have failed to take Darwinism and the lessons we have learned about evolution seriously. Nature, all of nature (and there is nothing that is not nature) is utterly pointless. That is, it is without ultimate purpose. Nature, life, existence, is useless. I think that Levi Bryant hasn’t taken this lesson in fully either. I don’t think any of us can really. We are nature…the pointlessness of the cosmos and of the subatomic particle is the pointlessness of arranjames who is sitting here typing. All ethical problems arise in this context, to those species that have an evolved moral sense…a moral sense that is, in impossible last instance, useless. Yet because the final cause of ethical decision making is pointless does not mean that the affective life of the one making the ethical decisions are pointless; they are immediate and do not require much of a point beyond themselves.

 

Should the shark eat the child? From the ontological position there is absolutely no reason why the shark shouldn’t eat the child. It would upset me, that is all. Human ethics boil down to ‘this is good, this is bad’.

 

So it is that I agree with Bryant’s assertion that there is no nonanthropocentric ethics. It is always humans judging what it is that they consider ethical, making their ethical decisions. Other animals might also make such decisions and so might other beings in the future- thus it might not be a human ethics that remains human for all time. The separate question of whether we should kill the shark is really asking whether we should hold that which cannot be held responsible responsible. Why would we do this? I think because, in some sense, our ethical attitude to other things arises from the blind, stupid, pointlessness of the evolutionary processes that compel us to fear death and reproduce. The question of whether we should kill the shark is really asking whether we should pretend to ourselves that their is a meaningful, ordered universe. The clash between the stupidity of nature and our desire for a meaningful (or just) nature is what produces the question of the shark. The shark eats the child because it is a shark; we kill the shark because we are terrified of a cosmos in which children can be eaten.

 

Like Levi Bryant I don’t think the shark has a right to live. At the same time I don’t think that the child has a right to live either. Bryant’s concern is with the way neoliberalism has deployed rights-discourse, and one could also point to Deleuze’s concerns over rights-discourse being a (non)political sleight of hand where the rabbit is pulled out of the hat only to disappear in a puff of cigarette smoke [2]. I am not concerned here with rights discourse as such but specifically with the idea of a right to life. Life is something that simply happens. As Thomas Ligotti [3] has cogently argued, it is also a phenomena that doesn’t always get off the ground (abortions, miscarriages, still-births, mother and neonate dying during labour). It is imaginable that some process in the Big Bang could have failed or that the Earth did not exhibit the conditions required for the emergence of life. That a conscious operative, capable of making ethical decisions, were somehow to survive a possible Earth swallowing blackhole created by the CERN particle accelerator, could we really imagine that being bemoaning the right to life of all that died and was destroyed? I don’t think so, but I’m sure it’d be extremely upset. There is nothing new in claiming that the right to life is little else than a hangover from a society still enthralled to Divinity; the shark and the child’s right to life are equally fictions pertaining to the sacredness of life that is directly contradicted by the science of evolution; the right to life is a Sacred Left-over. And here, in the divine, lives are considered something inaugurated for a purpose, given a purposeful function, guided and developed…in short Created by a Creator. An ethical Creationism.

 

It is possible that the ethics we set up, as we necessarily will and do, are rooted in our fear of death, our evolutionary heritage, and our emotions. In the mixture of all these elements. It is a question of finding ourselves with questions about our conduct, questions that are often immediate and in no sense hypothetical (I’d take this juncture to remind people that I’m a nurse), where we don’t know what to do but know we must do something. As such ethics remains a human problem…for now. It is a human problem that is intricately bound-up with (often radically) nonhuman beings.  It is even possible, I am spontaneously inclined to the thought- the feeling,  the sense- that our ethics are a kind of therapeutic aesthetic; a production in the Ballardian sense of a real that finds its reality as a stage-set that may be pulled away. The therapeutics of ethics in this sense would be that ethics are that production that codifies our monstrous awareness of suffering, of ontological vulnerability, of the Inevitable; the disavowed denial of the metaphysical truth of Darwin. None of which prevents there being better or worse ethics, and none of which prevents the production of ethical truths being real or any more or less worth holding on to. It is just the case that in this instance we realise ‘a definitive recognition of nature as waste’ [4], and there is nothing that isn’t nature. To borrow from an earlier post by Alex Reid not concerned with all these sharks and children, it is possible that ethics are a therapeutics that we deploy in order to fix the glitches of reality.

 

 

All ethics are human problems embedded in fragile nonhuman ecologies. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A disclaimer: if I misrepresent anyone’s positions, any ideas or arguments I take fully responsibility for that.

 

 

 

References:

 

[1] Baudrillard. 2007. Darwin’s Artificial Ancestors and the Terroristic Dream of the Transparency of the Good. Read here.

[2] Deleuze. 1996. On Human Rights. Read here.

[3] Thomas Ligotti. The Conspiracy against the human race.

[4] Baudrillard. Ibid.

Misanthropology: vulnerable children, vulnerable sharks.

Misanthropology is a new blog focussed on the prospect of ‘doing sociology with minimal references to humans’ operated by Craig McFarlane. This is an interesting project and accords with the current realisation of the relative unimportance of humans in any way other than to themselves. I also love the strap line of the blog, a quote from Hume that I constantly keep in mind when discussing suicide with colleagues in mental health:

There is one post on misanthropology at the moment. It is a response to Levi Bryant on flat ethics, a discussion in which Bryant tells us that a flat ontology (that the substance of all beings exists in equality, even if those beings exist to differing degrees qua capacity to operate on other beings) does not involve a flat ethics in which it is not an ethical problem if a shark eats a child. On this matter, McFarlane has this to say

I find myself in a strange position arguing against both. Against the critic I want to affirm the accusation–yes, of course, sharks should be allowed to eat children and there is no good reason why qua shark that we should prevent it; there might be good reasons qua fat, juicy, corn syrup fed child why “we” wouldn’t “let” the shark eat the human fatling, but this has nothing to do with the shark. Against Levi I want to argue that his position brings in anthropocentrism through the backdoor: humans are transformed into the un-eatable by mere virtue of being human.

This seems undeniably reasonable to me. In a cosmos where all that is contained within it stands with its own degree of autonomy as any other I can see no ethical objection to why the shark shouldn’t eat the child. In fact, if we broaden out to a more cosmological scale then the problem even seems ludicrous. Rephrased in another way: should  the inevitable expansion of the sun swallow the earth? This might seem silly but it is easy to see that the shark, the child, the sun and the earth are all parts of the cosmos, are all systems contained with and giving shape to that cosmos; they are all equal operatives, the life of the earth is of no greater importance to the universe than that of the child.
In the comments to Bryant’s original post he responds to McFarlane by drawing on the idea of conatus. When pressed to give a reason why one should a priori privilege the conatus of a human over that of a shark (or more generally a human over any given nonhuman), Bryants only response is to say that self-preservation is ‘a primitive fact’ and that he would not allow a shark to eat his child (Bryant is father to a daughter) ‘because I love her’. Perhaps this seems like terrible philosophy. Interestingly, here the issue isn’t his daugter’s conatus which contains her self-preservation instinct but something going on in and between the operatives marked as Levi Bryant and his daughter.
Yet it also seems intuitively like the only honest answer, and heralds the point at which philosophy and temperament coincide. Bryant loves his daughter. That is understandable. What parent would let their child be eaten? And I want to quickly depart from discussing a real little girl being eaten by a shark for much the same reason. Because there is a primitive fact going on. There is a bias that it may not be possible to argue for or against, in much the same way that it wouldn’t make much sense to argue against the existence of the sun or the earth or little girls or oysters. I think it is too much for Bryant to generalise this to humanity as such, in the sense that a parent’s desire to protect their offspring could justify anthropocentrism as such. Sometimes things are unjustifiable. Sometimes we, humans, do things because not to do them is not in our constitution, unless something has gone wrong in some sense.
The danger of this is that it seems like I’m risking saying that a nonhuman ethics is an ethics of evil, of monstrosity. Yet I’m really only saying that evil or monstrosity are integral to the human being. I can’t speak for sharks.
Should the shark eat the child? There is no reason why it shouldn’t, except that I don’t want it to. The answer might resolve around desire, or it’s absence, and the mechanisms evolved to rationalise those desires. The disagreement here is of a Wittgensteinian order, the order of two irreconcilable pictures being forced into the same frame; the antagonism is the result of the conflation of ethics and emotions. That might not be satisfactory but the cosmos doesn’t care if we are satisfied and, as I have discussed in relation to Stoicism, we couldn’t endure the condition of satisfaction- or at least not for long.
Or, in another direction, the reason the shark shouldn’t eat the child might be born precisely because of this fraught conflict between preservations and desires, a conflict of the indifference of each to the other other. The precariousness of existence might be the reason we ought to insist on the possibility of a nonhuman ethics beyond primitive facts of conatus or irrevocable evolutionary instincts and fears. In the comments to Bryant’s post someone makes mention of the fact the consequentialist ethics of suffering of a Singer (whatever suffers falls into the domain of ethical concern) excludes mountains, planets, ecosystems and so forth. Precariousness doesn’t entail such an exclusion.
By drawing on precariousness I am thinking of Judith Butler’s work in Precarious Life and Frames of War; humans are born to precarious lives, lives exposed to specific dangers that threaten our material existence and confront us with the thought, and experiences of proximity to, our own death. All humans share in this precariousness in that my continuance depends on the operations performed by other human beings. Going beyond Butler we must also say that we are dependent upon the operations of other operatives; of the sun, the earth, sharks, little girls, fathers, philosophers, oysters, ecosystems, the internet, and so on and so on, all the way up and down the cosmos. All of existence and all lives are precarious.
 
If there is a possible nonhuman ethics it might well be based on the thought of precariousness or, in more traditional terms, vulnerability. Any and all operatives- a term I’m here using as a catch-all term for whatever exists and is evinced by its power to operate on other things that exist- are vulnerable. This is also what I mean by ‘catastrophic thought’, using catastrophe in a double sense: 1) the Aristotelian dramatic connotation involving the displaying and working through of traumas and wounds and 2) the more Cioranesque sense of all operatives being headed towards their own death, disappearance or dissolution. Within an ethics of vulnerability these two senses overlap.
(As an unrelated aside, the term misanthropology reminds me of the concept ‘anthropathology’).
The thought has to remain underdeveloped for now. My partner is calling me to help as her kid is trying to destroy our internet connection. Is there any reason the child shouldn’t eat the internet?

An indifferent and arrogant reply to Christian Thorne

Henceforth, the term ‘political ontology’ will be met only with derision. This is the decree of every object, and I embrace my own object-existence. Politics might not have a leg to stand on…but isn’t that what makes it political? We used to fret about the aesthetisation of poltics…maybe we ought to realise that all our Visions and declarations are a matter of aesthetics. Why else would people still call up the meaningless name of Revolution? There is no reason, except for the nostalgia of a Form that has been surpassed.

While we argue the basis of our politics, the stars still burn out, the oceans still rise. Let us acknowledge the simplicity of things: we want to feel good and we do not want to die…the rest is aesthetics and a question of who and what we include in this ‘we’, a pronoun which is impertinent whoever speaks it.

The names for things are like the stars…they flash into existence and burn brighter or dimmer before they are of their own accord finally extinguished. Ontography, onticology, object-oriented philosophy, vital materialism, eliminative materialism, nihilist naturalism……………whatever, whatever… let the system builders have their names.

I echo that old anarchist, Renzo Novatore…. my priniple is Life and my end is Death.

What else can I legitimately say of myself and of anything that may come forth from me, embedded in multiple systems that are themselves living and on their way towards death.

Everything is catastrophic. So let’s give birth to a new nomenclature: pessimistic potentialism; ontocatastrophism; moribund materialism; exhaustionism; indifferential ontocartography; autopsy vitalism. These names are as serious and as ridiculous as those given to any other philosophical movement. They are, in a stolen phrase, my own nonsensical philosomemes.

If melting icecaps aren’t to be affirmed, perhaps its because they hasten death, they hasten an Inevitability. We can of course choose the Inevitable…and in many ways that is precisely what we should do.

If this isn’t much of a reply it is perhaps because I’m not defending the position that Thorne has attacked… I’m not defending anything at all. What is left that is worth defending?

Autopsy vitalism. Isn’t that poetic?

Abject audiences; who are you?

True contact between beings is established only by mute presence, by apparent non-communication, by that mysterious and wordless exchange which resembles inward prayer. – E. M. Cioran, The Trouble With Being Born

If I give form to a life through narrative it can only be one which is given to an audience. When I narrate, when anyone narrates, it is always in relation to someone. In general, we narrate ourselves to friends, to lovers, to policemen, judges, employers, colleagues, teachers and students, to parents. A striking lack of the plural in this; I never narrate myself to a mass or collective. I always narrate to someone in particular. Except here; on the internet I address myself to no one. Much could be made of the narcissism of this except that the writer always imagines his audience, even if his actual audience is not many people at all. The no one in particular is any one at all, an equality of responding to an unheard call. Yet who is it I imagine reading this? You could say I imagine a multitude but I can never imagine that (what would it mean to imagine a faceless plurality?)

No; I imagine you are reading this, and I know that you are reading this. I don’t have the actual details and what I imagine of you may be widely off the mark; but it is a you which I think of reading this. ‘You’ lack concreteness but remain a ‘you’.

What is curious is that I can write about an unheard call. You haven’t asked me to narrate, to try and give form to a life; you haven’t accused me of a crime or prompted me with curious questions. So why narrate in this way? In part, I suspect, it is in order to assemble the you to which I respond. That is, it is in order to pre-empt the demand that I give myself a structure to an other, to crystallise and reduce the complexity of this psychic system into the stereotypic image of a person, an individual human being.

In assembling the you to which I respond, in order to assemble the ‘I’ which I am now elaborating, enacting, performing through writing, I reveal to myself something fundamental: the demand to narrate is autonomous of the narrating agent and the audience.

The story I tell you and the one who tells it never coincide; the one who is addressed and the one I imagine I am addressing never coincide, for all I can have access to is a story about you assembled from the concrete interactions I might have in the visceral domain and the imagined ones in this virtual domain.

The I and the you, behind the various permutations of narrative construction that you and I both design of our other (the process occurring in you as much as in me), never come finally in to contact. I remain withdrawn somewhere, if I exist at all, behind my story of myself and you behind my story of yours, a visa versa. What we have in common is this simultaneous withdrawal and exposure. I can’t help but think once more of the metaxu; that which connects as it separates (Simone Weil gives the example of a prison cell wall that although separating two prisoners from one another nonetheless allows them to communicate in Morse code by tapping on its surface).

What is more, although there is certainly some ontological system that remains in place, the narrative ‘I’ obliterates its previous incarnations again and again but in doing so it also obliterates the previous relation, the previous way of accessing the withdrawing exposure, between itself and ‘you’. Each self-narrative is a mixture of fact and fabulation, a marginally to absolutely imperfect representation, that cannot help but contain within itself the representation of the ‘you’ which it addresses, even where that ‘I’ knows very well the ontological autonomy of the system it is representing.

This is especially visible in the case of disruptions in, I suppose, the I-Thou relationship, such as in relationship phase transitions. The friend becomes the lover and so the I and Thou must be reformulated in light of this new fact, while a new independent system is produced in which the actual subsystems of the ‘I’ and the ‘you’ (as lovers) are nested. I have to tell a new story about myself and about you; the story of two friends becomes the story of coming into being of the newly produced system. ‘There was always a chemistry between us’; ‘you always looked at me in a certain way’; new and mystical knowledge may even appear in the form of the ‘I always knew…’.

A constant flux of revisions then. A ceaseless epistemology of becoming layered thick upon our ontological being. The neurophilosophy of Thomas Metzinger [1] has a language for this: the self, which does not exist, is transparent to itself. Transparency here fundamentally means that it cannot appear to itself so that what it is is necessarily mistaken. It is this transparency that always haunts the ‘I’ and the ‘you’, and so which haunts their relation, that produces the possibility of ethics.

For Judith Butler [2] this ethics arises from the failure to know oneself and the failure to know the other; ethics arising from a failure in the ethical relation. In a minimal sense, although Butler goes on to say much more, one of her contentions is simply that this failure in knowledge in regards to the self and other is what sustains ethical engagement. After all, every time we address one another in a manner approaching ethics, every time I judge you for instance, there is a gap in what I am judging, what you actually are and how I understand these things as well as a gap in and from myself; there is a splitting, the opening up of something aporetic.

Although she does not say it, I suspect that Butler is talking about something akin to the undecidable- that condition of the decision that confronts the decision with its own impossibility [3]. How can I judge you when I know you only partially, and via that same mixture of fact and fabulation? A judgement can only be one that is aware of it’s own partiality and the relationship between judged and judge must be one that knows the arbitrary and inauthentic nature of this division. Similarly, it has to take account of what lies in common with ‘us’; that we both are simply making ourselves up, within the bounds of the limits set upon narration (biology, history, social relations, neurology, the laws of phsyics and all the rest of what constitutes our facticity).

Of particular interest to me is the implication these reflections might have in therapeutic contexts such as counselling and psychotherapy. In Butler’s text she responds to the common idea that the goal of psychoanalytic interventions is to provide the analysand with the opportunity to produce for themselves a coherent story of who they are and how they came to be here (even acknowledging the necessary exclusion of facticity which, having occurred prior to the emergence of the subject in question, can never be accounted for in narrative). Butler refutes this by drawing attention to the relational dyad of analyst and analysand where the analyst, via transference, is a kind of holding place of the analysand; where his ego should be we find the other. As such the other, the analysand’s ‘you’, interrupts his ‘narrative reconstruction’ or the attempt to construct a coherent form of a life. The life and the narrating of the life become contingent upon this interruption. Interestingly this places the idea of ‘biographical interruption’ at the very heart of biographisation rather than leaving it as an intruding and traumatic effect of some break in the story (such as is affected by major phase transitions such as the death of a lover). All this is a long-winded way of reaffirming the ‘cut-up’ nature of the stories we tell ourselves which can only be assembled from the fragmented, directionless day-to-day of living (now we turn on the TV, now I am on the phone, now I have several internet browser tabs open which I skip between, now music plays, now I am eating).

Butler tells us that the narrating ‘I’ does not, first of all, narrate but prior to this has to be brought into and assent to the norms of narrativisation; to learn to speak in this way rather than that. Butler goes on to construct a developmental history that begins with my being brought into the fold of language by the other through mimesis (the infant learns to speak by copying the parent’s speech) and thereby being brought into the scene of the address. I can be addressed and I can address others (and myself?) only by and through language. This all happens because I am addressed by another and as such my being brought into the fold of language is always done in response to that address, in an attempted response to an address made to me in a language that is the language of that other. For Butler this address also occurs in nonlinguistic forms: injury and trauma demand that we respond to them.

Via a meditation on the psychoanalytic concept of the unconscious (which it now occurs to me might be reformulated simply as ‘that which cannot be narrated/that which grammar has no access to’) Butler locates the analysand’s speech as an attempt to bring possess what it can never posses. For Butler the unconscious is formed as a kind of faulty protective mechanism that is required ‘as a way of managing- and failing to manage- that excess [of the other]’ (p.54). As such the role transference plays is the reconstruction of the original excessiveness of the other; to activate what cannot be narrated because it is not mine, the unconscious.

Drawing on other psychoanalytic thinkers Butler formulates this in a manner that explicitly formulates the analyst as being ‘recruited’ by the analysand who, although she cannot own her unconscious, can nonetheless incorporate the analyst into her schema- she can use the analyst, who must let herself be used, in order to have them stand-in for the primordial excessive other. It is worth noting that in this Butler’s concept of psychoanalysis takes on the inauthentic air of the simulation, the distorted repetition of some original event. Particularly drawing on an analytic theorist called Bollas, Butler cites the role of the analyst as having to allow herself to become ‘situationally ill’ and ‘to become lost in the patient’s world’. The analyst then is to become an object of abjection-for the analysand.

In my understanding of this, the analyst’s role is to enact an abjection-for the analysand. In one example provided Bollas reveals how a patient of his who had been abandoned by his father and left feeling deeply alone had recreated this feeling in Bollas himself by becoming wilfully silent during analytic sessions. I get the sense that this expressive idea of therapeutic work, which demands a willingness to self-dispossession on the therapists side of things, is more dramatological and simulation based than Butler suggests. I could easily see in this a model to understand the notoriously difficult to treat patient who has a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, a diagnosis that more or less names this resistance to be treated. Therapists, nurses and counsellors who work in close contact with those who have BPD frequently suffer burn-out and disillusionment, becoming depressed, frustrated, angry and sensing that the other just doesn’t care, is a lying, manipulative attention seeker. Disregarding the attention-seeker accusation (who in therapy isn’t therapeutic seeking attention?) the Butler-Bollas notion of psychoanalytic work is one that might understand the BDP client as attempting to re-enact in the mental health worker his own experience of the world, or at least some primal, formative experience. The BPD client is manipulative in the sense that he is attempting to , the sense in which all of us manipulate others, reproduce in us his own condition. When the worker turns from compassion to loathing of someone with an illness like BPD might it not be because we are experiencing the excess of that other that they cannot otherwise express? (An obvious limit to this would be the case of the psychoses).

Butler states that Bollas calls this kind of working one that aims at ‘articulation’, and she reminds us that not all articulations are narrative or even linguistic. Butler’s intentions exceed my own and it is here that I part with her. At root I must agree with what she has been saying which amounts to this:

within the narrative there is always something resistant to narrativisation.

the narrating ‘I’ can never speak about its facticity in anything like an authoritative manner; it is always groundless.

there always remain those things that might be articulated but cannot be spoken.

For Butler, and I am powerless to disagree, this means that a self-narrative, the narrativised form of a life, is always from the outset, maybe even at the moment of that initial mimesis of the infant, a failure. The narrative ‘I’ obliterates not only its forerunners, those ‘I’s I once was, but also itself at the moment it leaves my mouth. The narrative ‘I’ is itself a necessary breakdown. As such, such procedures as narrative therapy, whilst useful and successful with some clients (let’s not forget the Dodo effect), meets its immanent limit. The narrative does not necessarily give a form to a life but it is always a dramatically failed attempt at doing so, no matter how ‘thick’ or ‘thin’ those narrative might be. It is also congruent with the seductive provocation written by Nikolas Luhrmann that ‘Humans cannot communicate; not even their brains can communicate; not even their conscious minds can communicate. Only communication can communicate’ [4].

In the end the ‘I’ speaks and nothing much is said but this shouldn’t tempt us into abandoning narrative, merely a recognition of its necessary limits. Likewise this doesn’t imply that other forms of ‘articulation’ are more authentic.

What does this means for my ‘you’ in these narrations, these attempts at living? In effect it doesn’t much matter who my imagined audience is and what your actual singularity is or is not. In reading you are an abjection-for me. I make you into this abject just as the client makes the therapist abject. I suppose a consequence of this is also that any listener can also made into an abjection-for, perhaps hence why it is that in everyday conversation we so rarely truly listen. Therapeutic work, and let’s not pretend that writing is usually a kind of therapeutic practice, is thus not simply the co-production of a narrative between, by and for, the one who addresses and the one who is addressed, which are constantly shifting positions in the back and forth of visceral conversation but become hypostatised in writing, is a system in which a simulated abjection might remain as the fundamental side-effect. I am thinking of the side-effect not as merely an undesired consequence like the drowsiness that comes with antidepressants or the risk of agranulocytosis that comes with the antipsychotic drug clozapine.

Instead this side-effect is closer to a Virilian ‘accident’ [5]; it is the accident that is produced coextensively with the product- the possibility of a car crash that comes into being the moment the first car was assembled. Even stronger though is the sense in which abjection-for is the disavowed goal of both therapeutic work, writing and, to go too far, an ethics built on the neurobiology of empathy. In producing a broken performance of selfhood I also inflict that broken performance of selfhood on ‘you’. Maybe this is also the reason why I have previous spoken of how we inflict ourselves on others, in a reversal of Sartre’s ‘hell is other people’ slogan; and likewise, perhaps this explains why it is that today, in a society of exponentially intimate connections that lack all intimacy, brought about by the abolition of privacy through everyone’s ability to be telepresent to anyone, we withdraw from one another more and more. No one wants to talk intimately any longer because no one wants to risk following into this state of abjection; no one wants to carry the burden of the excess that the other cannot quite cope with or express.

If life today makes us all into addicts, if it is only though the metaphors of addiction and resilience that I can conceive of having a reason to live at all in this world now, then this labour of abjection is not so surprising. What is surprising is that it is still possible to make affective attachments at all; to develop mutually enriching friendships and love relationships. There again this is only surprising from within the overriding affirmationist ethos wherein any negativity, any pessimism, any abjection cannot be admitted to occur, let alone be desirable. First, ‘I’ reduce myself. Then ‘I’ reduce you so ‘I’ may produce myself in my address to you. Finally, as I come undone before you, I have brought you into my interiority as witness and as tool while you remain forever outside me. I have lost the ability to tell you who I am, what this life is, which previously I had been so sure of. In our interaction neither of us is who we are. We are ourselves undecidable, aporetic, abject together, equal to one another in our dissolution as soon as we open our mouths to speak. This explains why I chose to use Cioran’s quote at the opening of this post; if there is something like genuinely authentic relating between us they are only those of silence…and anyone who has been with others in silence for any period of time will know just how unbearable that is.

Thank you for letting me fall apart, I hope you fell apart too. Of course, there is always the temptation, the invitation, and the expectation of reply. You are on the internet; comment, cross-blog, link, ‘follow’, ‘like’, and so on: accuse me of something, accelerate decomposition.