attempts at living

to make a system out of delusions

Tag: vulnerability

The visible and the temporal

I share Steven Hickman’s concerns with Paulo Virno and Franco “Bifo” Berardi’s politics of exodus/withdrawal. Its essentially the same tactic that Hakim Bey’s temporary autonomous zone articulated in the 1990s; an intoxicated vision that is still appealing and perhaps necessary as a defensive position/conservation policy but that only really acts as a poetry of the social center, the squat, and the occupation. Viewed differently, from another angle, is also the textbook language of the psychdisciplines diagnostic and symptomological speech; the absence of poetry in the descriptions of depression, post-traumatic disassociation, schizophrenic alienation from the sensus communis of participatory meaning production. There is nothing inherently emancipatory in these conditions, the language for which is now transposed onto the political; a perverse justification of Bifo’s analysis of contemporary alienation of psychopathology.

Describing the TAZ, Hakim Bey writes that

FOUCAULT, BAUDRILLARD, ET AL. have discussed various modes of “disappearance” at great length. Here I wish to suggest that the TAZ is in some sense a tactic of disappearance. When the Theorists speak of the disappearance of the Social they mean in part the impossibility of the “Social Revolution,” and in part the impossibility of “the State”– the abyss of power, the end of the discourse of power. The anarchist question in this case should then be: Why bother to confront a “power” which has lost all meaning and become sheer Simulation? Such confrontations will only result in dangerous and ugly spasms of violence by the emptyheaded shit-for-brains who’ve inherited the keys to all the armories and prisons. (Perhaps this is a crude american misunderstanding of sublime and subtle Franco-Germanic Theory. If so, fine; whoever said understanding was needed to make use of an idea?) [1]

This is the primary way in which we ought to understand the temporary autonomous zone. It is ‘a tactic of disappearance’ that allows the insurgent, who has abandoned hopes for a social revolution, to evade the state. The revolution and the state having both become simulacra- although the armories and prisons still seem to be in operation, and violence still remains very real- it is naturally pointless to attempt to reckon with them. If such a reckoning, with its invocation of violence, meant direct armed struggle against the state then I couldn’t agree more that we ought to abandon that way of thinking; armed struggle, as opposed to revolutionary self-defense, has a history of bloody failure in Europe and North America, and to contemplate violence against the state is to already loss sight of the fact that the state manifests itself in such violence through the corporeal human bodies of the very people who radicals ought to seek to get on board. Elsewhere, Hakim also speaks of spectacular violence, the mediatised image of violence that reifies particular instances of political conflict into eternal images of Terror or deliquency. Again, it would be foolish to step willingly into these stereotypes.

Regardless of the falsity of the assumption that the state is a simulcrum and that power is mere simulation, neoliberal capitalism actually requiring a strong security state and an austerity commanding an open and largely uncontested exercise of power, the fact is that the TAZ is predicated on disappearance. Just as the state and power have ceased to exist as anything other than images, so we have ceased to exist. Yet it is at this point that Hakim Bey also states that the tactic of disappearance has a positive moment. The example given is the withdrawal from state school system and the positive re-articulation of that withdrawal in forms such as home schooling. Here, it is not so much that disappearance implies a ceasing to exist but, instead, that there is a vanishing from view. The body of the child in the school is countable and counted, can be disciplined and set into motion in the circulation of the post-Fordist network of economised existence. When the child’s body no longer appears within an element of this network at the proper time and at the proper place then the entire circulation is threatened. While Hakim’s suggestion is one I like (my partner and I intend homeschooling her son- most of the time), homeschooling does not escape a regime of visibility.

Having disrupted a certain distribution of the sensible it has, just as all strategies of refusal risk doing, invoked a recuperative redistribution. Here in the UK, homeschooling has been integrated into the state system to the extent that parent’s are required to inform the local school and council of their intentions; the council might then make informal inquiries about the form of education your child is receiving and, if they have concerns, will issue a ‘school attendance order’. Further to this, to evidence that your child will receive a good standard of education and that you aren’t just a lazy good for nothing, the state requires that parent’s produce an education philosophy. This involves a whole lot of research into educational philosophies and pedagogy for parents who are often not academically inclined, working part-time, and maintaining a household whilst doing the work of having a child with them whenever they are not working. In other words, if feminists correctly identify that affective labour has always been a component of women’s domestic labour then homeschooling requires that an added dimension of cognitive labour be extracted. There is also the fact that homeschooling is expensive and is, in the main, the preserve of the relatively affluent. Homeschooling is clearly not an option that enacts a tactic of disappearance anymore, if it ever was, and it also seems to be an option that the majority of people simply couldn’t take.

Moving on to another example, Hakim talks about the refusal of work. This is a tactic that I think is radical if we follow the reflections on it that the autonomists, the Metropolitan Indians, and, more recently, Kathi Weeks have taken. Hakim’s discussion of it amounts to the idea that

Refusal of Work can take the forms of absenteeism, on-job drunkenness, sabotage, and sheer inattention–but it can also give rise to new modes of rebellion: more self- employment, participation in the “black” economy and “lavoro nero,” welfare scams and other criminal options, pot farming, etc.–all more or less “invisible” activities compared to traditional leftist confrontational tactics such as the general strike. [2]

These are tactics that don’t seem particularly reflexive. Absenteeism, drunkenness, sheer inattention: these are behaviours that are likely to take any refusal of work into the realm of refusal of employment, opening one up to the prospect of poverty, malnutrition, and homelessness. Maybe this is a perfectly good tactic for young unencumbered people, it hardly seems like a they’d work out well as a mass tactic against capitalism. It also doesn’t take into account what kinds of jobs people are doing. Sure, if I work at a video game store or a call center I can partake of these options, but if I’m a nurse, or distribution driver, or some other socially necessary worker? Sabotage is a tactic that I would think would also land most people in the situation of joblessness, unless they were very good at not getting caught! (I used to work in a particularly scummy office and always had daydreams about performing some “human sabotage”: injecting the water cooler with strong laxatives. I never could get the nerve- or the callousness?- to do it; but the thought did help get me through the day). As to the other options, I don’t want or need to reiterate Marx’s position on the lumpen-proletariat. That said, I have always defended people who have scammed the benefit system but today that is simply not an option.

The point of going over these two social examples of Hakim’s ideas on the temporary autonomous zones is simply to point out that disappearance isn’t a very good strategy. There are other ways of thinking about the temporary autonomous zone (the Munich Republic is mentioned; as are raves, squats, and altered states of consciousness) but these are a couple of the examples of the TAZ being more than a personal adventure. It may sound like I am against the TAZ but on the contrary I find it a compelling account of one possible mode of reworking our relationships and challenging the dominant organisation of the temporalities and spatialisations of our lives. A TAZ can disconnect us from the temporality of production and can be enacted in places where our bodies are not supposed to congregate; they can be times and places of learning new ways to relate to each other; they offer us zones of deceleration and destimulation that might ameliorate some of the impacts of our accelerative culture and attentional economy and thereby enjoin politics with a non-depolitising therapeutics; and they can become points of coalescence around which debate and organisation can occur. They are not unimportant events.

TAZs are necessary elements of resistance but they don’t and can’t overcome capitalism. Indeed, the kind of hymns to invisibility that Tiqqun and the Invisible Committee make are precisely the upshot of this kind of thinking. In The Coming Insurrection, a text by the Invisible Committee that is intimately associated with Tiqqun, we are urged to ‘Stay invisible. Put anonymity on the offense'[3]. Invisibility and anonymity are watchwords of the kind of politics that The Invisible Committee thinks is necessary today:

To be visible is to be out in the open – that is, above all to be vulnerable. When the leftists of all nations continually make their cause more “visible” – whether that of the homeless, of women, or of immigrants – in the hope that it will get taken care of, they’re doing exactly the opposite of what they ought to. To not be visible, but rather to turn to our advantage the anonymity we’ve been relegated to, and with conspiracies, nocturnal and/or masked actions, to make it into an unassailable attack-position. [4]

Ironically, The Coming Insurrection is probably one of the most famous texts written by the radical left in some time, and the Tarnac 9 have likewise been given not a little limelight after one of their acts of sabotage. I am not suggesting that the Tarnac 9 were wrong to have sabotaged the train lines that were vital to the logistics of capital in France, just pointing out an amusing and unfortunate side-effect of violence is notoriety, not anonymity. More importantly than that, is the fact that this hymn to invisibility is predicated on two refusals: the refusal of vulnerability, and the refusal of visibility.
The issue of vulnerability is one that many other bloggers besides me have made a point of emphasis. It is an issue that requires a brief diversion but necessary diversion.

The turn to thinking about vulnerability is a way of rethinking politics altogether. It is a way of thinking about politics that follows from an ontological commitment to the primacy of the corporeal. Briefly, whatever exists, whatever is an affective being, exists as a body. I take this to be the fundamental contribution to philosophy made by the Stoics, and it is taken up again in modern philosophy by the phenomenologist of flesh Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Vulnerability names two aspects of bodies. First of all, it points to the condition of the openness, interwovenness, and interpenetration of bodies with one another. Under this condition we speak of corporealism as transcorporealism; bodies form intermatrices in conjunction, collaboration with, within, across, and despite other bodies. On the other hand, vulnerability also names the condition of being exposed to danger, disaster, injury, trauma, destruction and death. In this second instance we can think a range of specific vulnerabilities. I have touched on the idea of homelessness as a form of spatial vulnerability, and we can think of Marx’s analysis of capitalism as one of economic vulnerability, while psychiatry operates a lot of the time with a stress-vulnerability model of illness in which biological predispositions (vulnerabilities) to certain conditions may be triggered by social and existential conditions (stress). Ultimately, these vulnerabilities are carnal; they are vulnerabilities of the body that leave us exposed to that ultimate vulnerability: death.

In Precarious Life, Judith Butler asks, how is it that a collective can cope with the vulnerabilities that it is exposed to? She provides a pertinent answer for the current discussion when she suggests that

There is the possibility of appearing impermeable. Nothing about being socially constructed as women restrains us from simply becoming violent ourselves. And then there is the other age-old option, the possibility of wishing for death or becoming dead, as a vain effort to preempt or deflect the next blow. [5]

Butler will go on to discuss the commonality of bodily vulnerability, artificially limiting it to human bodies, but here she makes the argument that the desire for impermeability can take one of two forms: first, it can reproduce the violence done onto it, becoming the one who discloses and acts on the vulnerability of the other; or, secondly, it can emerge in the form of death or the dream of death. This tells us something about the invisibility recommended by The Invisible Committee. Like Hakim Bey, they want to disappear from the realm of spectacular violence. Unlike Hakim Bey, they want this to be the precondition of a denial of vulnerability. To be visible, they said, is to be vulnerable. Yet simply to exist is to be vulnerable. If The Invisible Committee were talking in terms of harm reduction, that is, of trying to reduce our exposure to vulnerability, then they might have a point. As it stands, I can’t help but read them as indulging in an idealism that thinks it can escape the condition of carnality through a tactic of disappearance (a move Hakim Bey would never have made). In discussing the events that followed 9/11 in the USA, especially in regards to its aggressive retributionist foreign policy, Butler goes on to note that this particular form of idealism has as its effect a kind of subjectivation that

seeks to produce itself as impermeable, to define itself as protected permanently against incursion and as radically invulnerable to attack. [6]

Butler rightly connects this to the logic of all nationalism and we could equally extend it to processes surrounding medical biotechnology, gated communities, and any kind of process of scapegoating. Indeed, in the work of Ernest Becker and the psychology of Terror Management Theory, it is the manipulation of one’s awareness of one’s ontological vulnerability that is often utilised in order to capture the state and/or win support for exclusionary and/or barbaric political parties and policies. Again, I see no reason not to extend this to almost all vulnerabilities. What was Hitler’s vision of a Reich that lasted a thousand years if not a dream of invulerability? Butler is right to suggest that

‘war seeks to deny the ongoing and irrefutable ways in which we are all subject to one another, vulnerable to destruction by the other…'[7]

and to identify this with Israel activities in Palestine and its security wall, effectively making it probably the world’s largest gated community.

I am not suggesting that The Invisible Committee is fascist or that it is in any way akin to Israel’s imperialist domination of it’s neighbor. That would be a hysterically overwrought. Instead, I am suggesting only that it is this delusion of invulnerability that The Invisible Committee is held enthralled to. In the case of The Invisible Committee rather than being a symptom of some latent fascism, this delusion is probably a kind of adolescent delusion. In fact, it might be a delusion that is particular to the adolescent male. I can remember being an adolescent and chain smoking happily, drinking stupidly, jumping off and into things, saying things sure to get my a kicking, taking substances I had no idea what they were, even throwing heavy objects into the air to see how much they’d hurt when they hit me on the head! I’m smiling thinking about it (that last one in particular), but we can see the logic at work. Death and serious injury don’t befall the young man; smoking doesn’t lead to cancer, and he could never become one of those alcoholics he derides; he won’t hurt himself, or if he does it’ll be a story; if he’s of a particularly nihilistic or depressive stripe (and I certainly was), he may even glory in his proximity to death and disease. In this ‘theory of a young man’ vulnerability is infinitely deferred as the condition of some other group, or else it is affirmed in a heroic disavowal of its reality.

I would suggest that The Invisible Committee and Tiqqun operate according to just such a “theory of the young man”. The young man withdraws into invisibility and thereby overcomes his vulnerability. His precariousness and precarity are superseded simply by disappearing from the gaze of the state and the diktats of capitalism. It is not the young man who is vulnerable, it is the homeless, the women, and the immigrants; groups who would do better to just keep out of the light, stay quite, and drop-out. I want to make an assumption that is probably unfair: for the young man the homeless should just think of themselves as partaking in the refusal of housing; immigrants should see themselves as refusing the national state; and women should think of themselves as…I’m not sure. On this point, we could remind The Invisible Committee that feminism and women’s struggle are fighting some pretty broad conditions from lower pay to a vast systematic and international trade in their flesh: the sexual market of rape. Drawing attention to this is making oneself too visible (a bad thing) and therefore too vulnerable (another bad thing). I think that it is less unfair to suggest that there is more than a hint of patriarchal attitudes underneath this formula. I am not the first to think that there might be some patriarchal assumptions at work in The Invisible Committee/Tiqqun’s work (cf. Nina Power’s review of Theory of a Young-Girl). And, as China Meiveille’s concept of unseeing brilliantly points out in The City and The City, many people are invisible because they are unseen, because people refuse to see them; including victims of state violence, when it chooses to look away.

In the adolescent delusion of the young man there is something about visibility provoking vulnerability itself. For the Invisible Committee, visibility is tied intimately with recognition. In the same passage as cited above, they continue to sing the praises of anonymity:

To be nothing socially is not a humiliating condition, the source of some tragic lack of recognition (to be recognized: but by who?), but on the contrary is the precondition for maximum freedom of action.[8]

I don’t want to seem like an uncool, unhip, ultra-theorist or anything, but could you imagine walking up to a trafficked sex worker, a homeless man having to degrade himself further to get into a shelter, or a psychiatric patient being refused basic dignities any other human being takes for granted, that they shouldn’t feel humiliated, that they are in fact free? I’m not suggesting that members of The Invisible Committee would actually do this, they don’t seem like stupid people. I can only put this down to being another symptom of the young man’s delusion. In fairness, they do state that to be “nothing socially” is the “precondition” of freedom rather than constitutive of freedom itself. Still, this is a bit like saying that being raped is the precondition for being sexually liberated. Of course, “to be nothing socially” is a reference to Marx’s early definition of the proletariat as

a class with radical chains, a class of civil society which is not a class of civil society, an estate which is the dissolution of all estates, a sphere which has a universal character by its universal suffering and claims no particular right because no particular wrong, but wrong generally, is perpetuated against it; which can invoke no historical, but only human, title; which does not stand in any one-sided antithesis to the consequences but in all-round antithesis to the premises of German statehood; a sphere, finally, which cannot emancipate itself without emancipating itself from all other spheres of society and thereby emancipating all other spheres of society, which, in a word, is the complete loss of man and hence can win itself only through the complete re-winning of man. This dissolution of society as a particular estate is the proletariat. [9]

In a sense then The Invisible Committee/Tiqqun are repeating Marx. Except that Marx doesn’t go so far as to see proletarianised existence as not being one that involves humiliation just because it is also the precondition for freedom. As Marx writes in his “Comments on James Mill”, under the credit system

Mutual dissimulation, hypocrisy and sanctimoniousness are carried to extreme lengths, so that on the man without credit is pronounced not only the simple judgment that he is poor, but in addition a pejorative moral judgment that he possesses no trust, no recognition, and therefore is a social pariah, a bad man, and in addition to his privation, the poor man undergoes this humiliation and the humiliating necessity of having to ask the rich man for credit.

Marx recognises that proletarianised existence is a humiliation and that it is humiliating. Even given this, the problem with visibility stands because to be visible is to demand recognition. In “Bloom Theory”, Tiqqun stake out a vision of a society of nihilism and detachment that many of us, in our darker moments, would share. It is also a world in which we are forced to cover-up the nothingness of ourselves through the wearing of masks. These ‘masked nothings’ are the identities each of us assumes; identities such as worker, student, father, citizen and so on. For Tiqqun

Being nothing, remaining outside all recognition, or presenting oneself as a pure, non-political individuality, is enough to make any man at all a being whose disappearance is uninscribable. However inexhaustible the obituary eulogies may be — eternal regrets, etc. — such a death is trivial, indifferent, and only concerns he who disappears; meaning, that is — in keeping with good logic — nobody. Analogous to his entirely private life, Bloom’s death is such a non-event that anybody can eliminate him. That’s why the expostulations of those who, sobs in their voices, lament the fact that Kip Kinkel’s victims “didn’t deserve to die” are inadmissible, because they didn’t deserve to live, either; they were outside the sphere of deservingness. To they extent that they found themselves in the hands of Biopower, they were already the living dead, at the mercy of any sovereign decision-making, whether that of the State or of a murderer.[10]

Here Tiqqun reiterates its agreement with Agameben’s frankly confused reading of the world as a concentration camp and of each one of us as an exemplar of homo sacer, the sacred man who may be sacrificed but who can’t be killed. Sacred Man, also referred to as bare or naked life, is the life that has been fully brought inside of the biopolitical order that constitutes itself as a zone of indistinguishability; always already somewhere between life and death. In such a situation recognition can only ever be the recognition of the sovereign. Thus, preferring to escape such a total subsumption of the corporeal under the sovereign’s power, Tiqqun and The Invisible Committee advocate simply not appearing. All that is left is to withdraw and, as Butler suggests, to play dead.

Visibility, appearing to power, seems to thus be fundamentally about the production of identities that the Blooms of this world must wear; masks that give us the appearance of a stabilised, substantial being but which elide the facts. It is for this reason that earlier in The Bloom Theory, Tiqqun state that all recognition is ‘recognition in and therefore of the spectacle’. Not only are we fully captured by the biopolitical regime but we are also fully immersed within the totally integrated spectacle. To be visible, to appear, is always to be visible within and therefore as the forces of domination, as one fraction of it set against another fraction of it, but fundamentally knowable, containable, and disarmed ahead of time.

This does not accord with the experience of activists or with the confused coverage of recent events. Since Tiqqun wrote these texts, there has been a student movement, a series of riots, the emergence (and yes, waning) of Occupy, a series of occupations, and public parties in the street. No one is suggesting these projects have become a coherent mass revolutionary movement, but they have challenged the picture of a totally invulnerable capitalist order. Instead, we have seen a certain distribution of the sensible challenged. Indeed, if the recent beginnings of a rewakening of the left have been anything then they have been a way of contesting temporalities, spatialities, and therefore also of visibilities. Tiqqun and The Invisible Committee tackle visibility as a unilateral and binary phenomena: either you appear or you disappear; either you enjoy spectacular visibility or you engage in invisibility. We might ask invisibility to whom, and to what? Invisibility at what time? This is to think tactically, and to recognise that any politics is going to involve a certain coordination of visibilities, or the carnal overlapping and interfolding of the visible and the invisible. It seems as though there is a kind of conflation going on between different kinds of visibility and the liberal quest for the recognition of identities. Yet, even among ourselves, those of us who read Tiqqun and might participate in temporary autonomous zones, must recognise one another. If not, then Tiqqun’s is going to be a lonely undertaking.

More interestingly, Paulo Virno discusses withdrawal as an exodus. When asked if he means a simply flight from the city or the factory or whatever location you’re in, he replies

No, I am not referring necessarily to a territorial exodus, but rather to desertion in one’s own place: the collective defection from the state bond, from certain forms of waged work, from consumerism. Some authors, like Albert Hirschman, affirm that sometimes in protests, the voices don’t manage to reach a change and are then only able to leave the game, run away. For that it is not only necessary to destroy certain things but also to construct, to have a positive proposal, so that exodus will no remain a solitary act.[11]

A desertion in one’s own place. In another interview Virno states that

By exodus was understood as a radical politics that does not want to construct a new state. In the end, it is only that and, then, is far from the model of the revolutions that want to take power, to construct a new state, a new monopoly of political decision; to the contrary, it is – in every case – to defend power, not to take power and, also the things that you said yesterday when you were speaking on the university – of the richness of relations – this positivity of experience as something that later deserves to be defended but that, in the meantime, should be [seen as] something already constructed in terms of sociability, productive relations, knowledges, networks of our part. [12]

So this desertion in one’s own place is a political desertion; a desertion of the political politics of those revolutionaries that seek to capture the state apparatus but, in its notable absence, this also implies that it is not the anti-politics of those who would seek to smash the state. There is also a sense in which, as it refers not to a taking leave of a space, a particular form of nomadism in which one does not have a place to take leave of except one’s own; and one’s own space is always the spatiality of the body.

Franco Berardi also speaks in this language when he states that he wants

To call forth a big wave of withdrawal, of massive dissociation, of desertion from the scene of the economy, of nonparticipation in the fake show of politics.[13]

Steven Hickman notes that these positions are all idealist. Yet it isn’t just that they are idealist it is also that it is a language a language of retreat. Even if we agree that the state isn’t what we want to win, is our imagination so impoverished that the state is the only way that we could think about taking power? Even the idea of living in the cracks isn’t as easy it was when Hakim Bey wrote the first treatment of disappearing. As Simon Critchley has discussed we need to produce the interstices that we can then occupy:

politics is the praxis of taking up distance with regard to the state…an internal distance that must be opened from the inside…[because] there is no distance within the state. [14]

I think that this is a worthwhile strategy if they it isn’t meant to be a withdrawals but an opening, a very visible opening, that tend to the creation of new publics. This is essentially what Occupy was, for a time, in its contesting of the distribution of the sensible and the coming together of bodies; they were also, temporary and partial no doubt, cleavages in the temporality of production- a kind of political economic strike. That thought, the thought of a combined political economic moment, is leading me to look at the traditions of council communism and anarchosyndicalism in more depth. These are traditions that emerge within and against the state as openings in the place where one already is: at work. Of course today, work time is all time, so the question would be whether or not something like councils and revolutionary unions could be established in places, until post-Fordist recomposition, were not considered workplaces. If all time is work time, and all places are work places then why not a mother’s union? why not a service worker’s council? why not a homeless union? As long as these unions are taken up as spaces within and against the state. The strength of these two neglected traditions is that they are a kind of desertion in one’s own place; they both support strikes (as either general or mass strikes) and neither of them involve a throwing off of the vast material ‘worldwide distribution systems of goods and services networks’. Instead they call for the self-management of these material networks in order to re-craft our relationship to production and to one another in a way that acknowledge the necessity of forms of visibility and seeks to find strength in the affirmation of our vulnerability.

[1] Hakim Bey. The temporary autonomous zone: the will to power as disappearance. Here.
[2] Ibid.
[3] The Invisible Committee. The Coming Insurrection. Here. p.49.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Judith Butler. Precarious Life: the powers of mourning and violence. p.42.
[6] Judith Butler. Frames of War. p.47.
[7] Ibid. p.43.
[8] Op. cit. The Invisible Committee.
[9]. Karl Marx. 1844. Comments on James Mill: Éléments D’économie Politique. Here.
[10] Tiqqun. Bloom Theory. Homo Sacer/Sacred Man. Here.
[11] Paulo Virno. Between disobedience and exodus. Here.
[13] Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi. Political therapy. Here.
[14]. Simon Critchley. Infinitely demanding: ethics of commitment, politics of resistance. [hardback] p.113.


A comment on urban struggle and recomposition

‘The first mass influx will begin over the next few months as an estimated 40,000 families affected by the Benefit Cap will be forced to seek housing outside the capital. This is only likely to be the beginning however as soaring rents and shrinking benefits could mean soon almost all private sector tenants on benefits will be priced out of the capital. Hundreds of thousands of claimants could soon be making a move to Surrey, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Berkshire and Kent over the next few years’. (Jonny Void. Here.

Not only does this exo-urban migratory flow seem to be entirely in keeping with the inner city’s gentrification, although these two operations are probably not coupled by intentional design, a strategic operation emerges on the part of capital and the neoliberal state that seeks to recompose it. This neoliberal recomposition of capital is being met with a recomposition of urban space by an attack on the working class. This is to say, echoing Murray Bookchinm, David Harvey and Paul Virilio, that the city is a sight of class struggle (whether that struggle articulates itself in those terms or not). The ‘right to the city’ is the right to space, to this space, and it is a demand that provides a kind of linking-up (I’m thinking about workers, unemployed, disabled claimants, but also about the homeless who, in cities like Edinburgh, are under attack simply of existing in the wrong space). On the issue of homelessness, is there any kind of homeless union? At the same time, again in agreement with David Harvey, this shows a poverty of thought in relation to those strands of anticapitalism that make calls for dropping out of the city (cf. Tiqqun, in a certain sense Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi as well- the city doesn’t ‘slow down’, although it might have “decelerative zones”) play directly into the hands of the plutocratic-oligarchic class. The material contestation of space might involve an intensification of the Occupy movement’s strategy. If you are threatened with eviction, that is if your spatial vulnerability is exposed and attacked, then what do you have to lose exactly? The Occupy movement might become another form of squat movement:

What squatters seek, and have always sought, is security of tenure, and indeed personal security. However, there has been a marked deterioration in the public mood which enabled local authorities in the 1940s and again in the 1960s and 1970s to make creative deals with squatters, but in the 1990s led central government, relying for support on what it saw as the self-protective instincts of a property-owning democracy, to adopt policies which have had the effect of criminalising them’.

(Colin Ward, 2004. The hidden history of housing. Here.).

Ward says that squatting can be ideological and/or pragmatic. Clearly in the Occupy movement as a Squatting movement is would be both simultaneously, and it would exceed the demand for security of tenancy but would also call for the security of the ability to occupy certain spaces as such. A city like London is built on the historical labour of workers, in terms of wealth and in the sense that so much of it’s materiality is the dead labour of workers, and (“the city is not itself”- Virilio) continues to be exist in a phase space produced by the ongoing labour of construction workers and cognitive workers (architects and so on). A city like London, my home city, a city that I hate and miss in often equal measure, could be the perfect place for a wave of squat actions. Now that we are revealed as the precarious class (“the 99%”) I would think that the public would be less inclined to see squatters as parasites and crusties.

A step too far to consider at the moment, but why not: the exodus of claimants and the homeless (who are really one figure, right? one is just latent while the other is manifest), have another member of their chain that naturally calls out to them. I am writing about the travelers who are still, even in the current episode of the crisis, scapegoated and seen as a illegitimate, a menace, an mobile ecological disaster (and yet urban planning has produced the primary agent of mobility not as bodies, not public transportation networks, but the car; indeed, cities still thrive on the road networks that connect them together as material-logistical veins of the flow of material goods, so perhaps even more than the car or the 4×4 it is the articulated lorry that is the principle object of the inter-urban infrastructure).

In pointing to the traveler community I am not pointing to an ally, and ally who at the moment still appears as an enemy to the sedentary populace. To be clear, I am not wanting to suggest a tactic of urban nomadism, which would only be a way of living open to a small number of people without jobs or dependents and thus might amount to little more than adventurism. In the end, the tactic of urban nomadism is atactical because it all too often appears as a lifestyle choice or out of necessity; it is either an experiment in living that is not open to all latent homeless people or it is a reactive coping mechanism that capital impels people to take up. We can list the modalities that urban nomadism takes: car living, couch surfing, temporary homes, sleeping rough, and, in a city like London, the kind of accomodation supplied by the towering Center Point. Couch surfing is an intriguing phenomena because it is a sort of dual-urbanism of the megapolis, the urbanism of the multi-nodal network of cities connected by road, flight paths and airports, sealines, ferries, tankers, and ports: a whole material-logistical ontocartography of a city beyond any particular territorialisation (a city more of movement and speed than stasis and sedation). Of course, the accusation of adventurism shouldn’t be extended to travelers.

Indeed, this points even further to those who are involved in the urban regime of spatiality, those cognitive workers who are active in the production of urban space. Take for example the Spatial Agency project that speak in:

Bruno Latour’s terms, critical attention is shifted from architecture as a matter of fact to architecture as a matter of concern. As matters of fact, buildings can be subjected to rules and methods, and they can be treated as objects on their own terms. As matters of concern, they enter into socially embedded networks, in which the consequences of architecture are of much more significance than the objects of architecture.

and which wants to move

away from the figure of the architect as individual hero, and replaces it with a much more collaborative approach in which agents act with, and on behalf of, others.

So here there is another potential ally. The Spatial Agency project is a fantastic resource, one that more people should know about and which we could benefit from some time reading.

Perhaps this sounds like a call for an insurrectional movement in the sense that Saul Newman, taking the word from Max Stirner, gives it:

What was striking in Occupy was the absence of the usual modes of communication and representation. There were no demands, no programs, and no revolutionary blueprints, just the coming together of singularities without anything in common apart from a desire to create new relations and subjectivities. The mode of communication, on the contrary, was completely innovative, decentralized, and gestural. Lastly, there was no party, no centralized leadership, no form of representatives, no Lenin waiting in the wings to take over state power. Those times are over. The vanguard has fallen from its privileged place in revolutionary politics. It’s completely defunct. This is the time not of revolution, but of insurrection, the creation of autonomous spaces and relations and new collective intensities. Occupy gives a glimpse of the possibilities of the insurrection today. Here.

Yet this is collection of singularities is precisely a liberal formation of pre-existent individuals that have come together as a in Stirner’s union of egoists. It is a collectivity rather than a community. This is to say that it is the mirror of the capitalism that it seeks to resist (did it dare think it could overcome it?). Regardless of this philosophical point, there is the practical one that- and against Newman’s later comment from the same text about the lack of a ‘Lenin waiting in the wings to take over state power’, there was reportedly no real organisation either. The self-organised form of the Occupy movement would have proved inadequate to the task of building anything out of the wreckage of the crisis of capitalism. Let’s be clear on this if on nothing else: the focus on urbanism implies that we do require some kind of Lenin, if not Leninism, because this is a huge undertaking. We can’t think about organising in the style of bolo’bolo, the totally impractical idea of radical localism. It isn’t enough that singularities ‘with nothing in common’, which is itself a piece of neoliberal propaganda (indeed, it is how the logic of scapegoating travelers works), is the kind of thinking we need to do away with. Newman calls Occupy a “post-identity politics” and then seeks to lump class warfare into “identity politics”, when the point of the proletariat is precisely its radical dissolution of identitarian and substantialist models of political thinking. Why is he making this argument now, as class division begins to emerge once again as the all too obvious structural partition of the distribution of the sensible? In part because his career as a postanarchist means that he is committed to an abandonment of the desire for (rather than tabooing of the term) of revolution and to the kind of radical individualism that Max Stirner inaugurates as an idealist form of freedom. Actual freedom is defined by Stirner in precisely liberal terms, and he is looks upon it with indifference and even disdain. Not even the Stoics, with their emphasis on equanimity, jettisoned the political in the same way that Stirner did. It is this thought that there is nothing in common- and why not, following Lingis, ask if this isn’t exactly what we have in common- that has prevented us from developing beyond spectacular protest. This is precisely what is shifting. There are calls for the inaugeration of a new party of socialism, a reinvigorated anarcho-syndicalist movement, and the return to openly talking in terms of communism and anarchism. The prefix of “post-” is precisely what needs to be abandoned. As Chris Cutrone puts it in his Platypus article, ‘The relevance of Lenin today’

the people—the demos—seem resigned to their political powerlessness. Indeed, forming a political party aiming at radical democracy, let alone socialism—a “Jacobin” party—would itself be a revolutionary act.

Saul Newman represents what has variously been post-anarchism, neoanarchism, ‘the new anarchists’, and the anarchist ethics of infinite responsibility. Slavoj Zizek has called it hypertical protest, and others (more and more myself included) are coming to see it as a form of liberalism that has to be exceeded within the problematic of communist organisation. The idea that insurrection is opposed to revolution, or that we are living in an age beyond revolution is already to buy into a very specific discourse on what revolution means, and who carries it out. In fact, it is to speak in the language of what would once have been called counter-revolutionary terms. Similarly, Simon Critchley has stated that

Politics is perhaps no longer, as it was in the so-called anti-globalization movement, a struggle for and with visibility. Resistance is about the cultivation of invisibility, opacity, anonymity, and resonance.

The struggle for visibility remains vitally important to the homeless of cities like Edinburgh, as it does for a great many people. Occupy itself is about cultivating a form of urban visibility and about the visibility of the nature of space and the identification of real live people and institutions in space-time-matter. That much is obvious from the fact that Occupy is not simply the occupation of anywhere but of named places; Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Sussex, and so on. In the conditions today we are forced to accept a tactical openness, I believe the conditions we find ourselves in demand such a stance, but it does demand a stance nonetheless. Pure mobility and absolute withdrawal are, in actuality, the image of recession to the private sphere that liberalism has long been held to; we will gather publicly, but we are isolated and private individuals. Against this, Occupy involved the production of publics that, could they cohere and become ‘a city within the city’ (in Richard Seymour’s formula), would have also formed municipalities:

There is every reason to believe that the word anarchism, with its historic commitment to the confederation of municipalities — the famous “Commune of communes” — is in [the hyterical liberals] eyes completely “utopian” and that she merely hijacks the word to add color and pedigree to her simplistic [protest movement] — a world that, by her own admission to me, she personally knows little about. (Murray Bookchin, A meditation on the ethics of anarchism. Here.

What was Occupy and what are the continued occupations (Sussex University) if they aren’t a conflict of regimes of time-space-matter? Bodies organised in space, tied to it, holding it, producing it as a public and political space, and thereby returning an embodied gaze on the disembodied gaze of the financial infosphere. The demand of the international citizenry is that those responsible take responsibility. This means locating them in space and thereby contesting spatiality. To use the internet, the mobile phone, the screen in order to do so is merely to weaponise the technologies of the illuminationism attempts to abolish publicity and politics. The tactic of occupation remains open and might well be accelerated. Could there even be cross-occupations? Mass occupations? This is crucial, it is the crucial move, but it is also the beginning that be radicalised. To risk dialectical language, it must be sublated in a movement of aufheben. The urban struggle, the struggle in, with, and for the city is an ancient one. It is what was at stake in the demos of Greece, and it is what is at stake again in a renewal of class struggle and communism. Quite against a certain thought, a thought that the militarisation of urban space is anything new, we should recall that the city has its history in military thought. That is to say, we have always been, in a shifting manner and under different contexts and for different reasons, been sunk in a military space. Class war is not simply rhetoric. Today it is more visible than it has been for a long time. It demands that we stop singing hymns to the power of powerlessness, to parody, to irony, to hysteria, that we rediscover the potency of the organisation of bodies and the articulation of demands.

Do you suffer?

My other page. Catastrophic Edge, is now being used as a kind of library of things I find interesting and/or informative around the issue of work.Work (or specifically anti-work) was the root of my politicisation, and while vuknerability is a key political concept around these parts the issue of work is one that is still keenly felt.

On vulnerability, Corey Robin has a good article at the Jacobin on the political distribution of vulnerability- something I intend to write on in the near future. Here is an extract from Robin’s essay, that echoes Foucault’s contention that ‘society must be defended’:

Returning to the language of fear, we can say that in the state of nature, the fear of death or bodily destruction entitles us to do anything we think might protect us from real or sincerely perceived dangers (as the defenders of George Zimmerman, who killed Trayvon Martin, essentially claim). Under the sovereign, however, that fear does not so entitle us — unless, again, we, as individuals, are immediately and incontrovertibly threatened. Once we agree to submit to the sovereign, he becomes the decider of our fears: he determines whether or not we have reason to be afraid, and he determines what must be done to protect us from the objects of our fear.

Hobbes’s argument has three implications that are relevant to contemporary politics. The first is that it is not necessarily a widespread fear of foreign or domestic threats — real or imagined — that compels the state to abridge civil liberties. When the government takes measures for the sake of security, it is not simply translating the people’s fear of danger into a repressive act of state. Instead, the government makes a choice: to focus on some threats and not others, and to take certain actions (but not others) to counter those threats. Merely think of the attention — and money, staff, countermeasures, and air time — the US government has lavished upon terrorism as opposed to automobile accidents or climate change, even in the wake of Katrina, Sandy, and a host of other life-threatening weather events.

Even though this power to define the objects of public fear suggests that danger or harm is whatever the state says it is, Hobbes did believe that there were real dangers that threatened a people. The sovereign had every reason to make the proper determination of what truly threatened the people and to act only upon those determinations. The sovereign’s interest in his own security dovetailed with the people’s interest in theirs. So long as the people were, or at least felt, secure, they would obey the sovereign; so long as they obeyed the sovereign, he would be secure.

Friendship as a creative practice of vulnerability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[emphasis added]

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

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

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

what a friendly face!

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

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

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

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

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

In another interview, Foucault asks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

(Faith of the faithless, p.93).

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

Becoming a corpse; sensibility, vulnerability, subjectivation.

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

Contact with Levinas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Activity Is equally passivity’…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Becoming a corpse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Living suicides: part 1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The political economy of vulnerability

In Judith Butler’s work, a consideration of the economic concept of precarity opens directly onto considerations of ontological vulnerability. Paige Sarlin has followed this route, and back again, to trace a concept of “vulnerable accumulation”. Here I reproduce a few sections of a definition of vulnerable accumulation:

The concept[1] of vulnerable accumulation accounts for and incorporates both economic and affective registers in its description of the processes and activity involved in forms of sociality that arise between people experimenting with social forms outside or in opposition to market forces (and without financial remuneration).

Like capital itself, vulnerable accumulation and vulnerability are un-equally distributed across the globe. Various populations and formations are more susceptible to violence, enclosure, appropriation, monetization, dispossession, and destruction than others.

The vulnerability of being-in-common is both a weakness and a strength (see 5).
a. The fact of the accumulation of vulnerability exposes the assumption that forms of togetherness (and particularly, forms of togetherness that respect difference) are easy or simply emancipatory things. It seeks to name some of the paradoxes and difficulties of being-in-common.

Read in full here.


Michael has two posts over on Archive Fire that feature videos of Brené Brown discussing vulnerability. I can’t express how much I have enjoyed these videos, and how they help to confirm that a thinking through of vulnerability is absolutely necessary. This is just a quick post to point people to those videos but also to leave a quick thought: there is a tradition of the thinking of ontological vulnerability and its relation to ethics. Included in that tradition are the Hellenistic schools of philosophy, pessimists like Schopenhauer and Cioran, Heidegger and the post-Heideggarianisms of Levinas and Merleau-Ponty, and today Judith Butler, and much of feminism. In the videos by Brené Brown there is a lot of talk of numbing- of the pervasiveness of today’s opiates of the people- and this can be seen in the prevalence of “the new symptoms”. I hope to continue working on the question of vulnerability.

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.






[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.

Death and the Parochial

The following is a repost of something I wrote on an old blog last June. I’m reposting it here because it fits with the general themes here and, more importantly, because of the resonance with Terror Management Theory and the idea of thanatophobia. It appears here in a slightly edited form.

If it is true that people increasingly tend to feel life as suffering, first and foremost as their own suffering, then this explains why so many chauvinists are ready to take ownership of the suffering of those they seem to share so much with. Our boys on the front-line, our old people, our kids.

There is a paradox at work in chauvinism. In a world where nationalisms still hold influence we claim ownership of groups in order to elevate them as abject only so that we might bring our suffering closer into focus. Yet it is not our suffering but the suffering of proximate (in one sense and another) others. Simultaneously this allows us to increase our quotient of suffering: we indulge in a safe form of pain and are able to express outrage about that pain, so as, precisely, not to face up to our own. A double evasion though: we do not have to face up to those sufferings that exist on an altogether more monstrous, undomesticated scale. The suffering of distant others, of swathes of humanity, those sufferings of which we ourselves are the cause and finally those sufferings that rear up in obscene dimensions. At the extreme, it is the ecological and cosmological dimensions of suffering that are being disavowed.

Parochial concern is the attempt to both experience and negate intimate and cosmic suffering and, at the same time, to indulge in a certain masochism without really being hurt. Parochialism is, in all its forms, little more than an exchange with death. In order to admit precariousness, existential vulnerability, sometimes it isn’t enough to pretend invincibility or to defer thinking about it…sometimes we have to stage it for ourselves.