Wildness: Halberstam, Tokarczuk, Foucault

Jack Halberstam’s new book, Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire (Duke 2020) opens with a delightful reading of Maurice Sendak’s 1963 children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are and ends with a (too-brief) survey of Kate Bush’s 1985 album, Hounds of Love. These are weird cultural productions that have been loved into celebrated domestication precisely because of their seductive wildness. In between discussing them, Halberstam romps through a number of masculinist modernist texts (T. S. Eliot, Stravinsky, Wilde, T. H. White) in a manner that quickens and condenses a similar process of cultural domestication: he lassoes whatever wildness they contain and ropes and ties it for academic consumption. Indeed, to switch metaphors, Halberstam seems to read these texts primarily for the jazzy-queer new terms he can cut from them, and thereby set the conceptual hemlines for this year’s academic ‘season.’*

I will leave the details of that critique to others. The part of Halberstam’s romp through the “bewilderment of wildness” that truly caught me up short, however, is when he posits the analogy between pet owning and slavery (123). It is a strange argument, powerful in its shock effect but impotent in pointing readers to the pay-off of this shock because it evokes more questions than Halberstam addresses, much less answers, and because, to me, the upshot is something like a suspicion that Halberstam writes against pets and pet-owning from something like ressentiment rather than trans-species care.

I read Halberstam over the same week that I listened to the audiobook of Olga Tokarczuk’s fabulous novel, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (2009; translated from Polish to English in 2018). The novel is a gorgeous tapestry of murder mystery, rural life, witticism, and insights on human language and human behavior, all spooled around a kooky older woman, Janina, a vegetarian astrologist in the remote Kotlina Kłodzka area of Southeastern Poland, very near the border with Czechoslovakia. Janina hates her name and tends to be equally deprecatory about the given names of others. Resonant with her astrological attempts to find a fated truth about an individual’s life in constellations and planetary movements that supersede an individual’s choice or control, Janina prefers to refer to the people in her world by nicknames that emerge directly from her observations of them and their lives. Her only year-round neighbors in her tiny hamlet, most of the homes of which are summer homes for otherwise distant city-dwellers, are men she calls Oddball and Big Foot, for instance; and without explanation, she calls her good friend and former student, a man who shares Janina’s obsession with William Blake, “Dizzy”. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, she muses (and I paraphrase here), if we each had as many names as the people in our lives? Wouldn’t it be wonderful—or wild, we might say—if our very identities were not singularized and categorized by our names, from state identity papers to one’s intimate friends and lovers?

Janina’s curt impatience with the inadequacy and unfeelingness of human culture contrasts sharply with her lush descriptions of the non-human world, especially animals, but also grasses, ice and mud, mushrooms, insects, and trees. Slowly, the reader comes to realize how deep, open, vulnerable, and genuine are Janina’s feelings for and relationship to animals and how much she honors their non-human ways of being and perduring in their worlds that always only partially intersect with human worlds. Already in the book’s opening two pages, she asks in concern about Big Foot’s dog and then stops in stunned amazement at the deer outside Big Foot’s home:

“‘Look, Deer,’ I said in a raised whisper, grabbing him by the coat sleeve. ‘They’ve come so close to the house. Aren’t they afraid?”
The Deer were standing in the snow almost up to their bellies. They gazed at us calmly, as if we had caught them in the middle of performing a ritual whose meaning we couldn’t fathom. It was dark, so I couldn’t tell if they were the same Young Ladies who had come here from the Czech Republic in the autumn, or some new ones. And in fact why only two? That time there had been at least four of them.
‘Go home,’ I said to the Deer, and started waving my arms. They twitched but didn’t move. They calmly stared after us, all the way to the front door. A shiver ran through me.” (1-2)

So much of what drives the novel is already here, right on the surface of these opening pages, as clear as deer tracks in the snow. But as Janina notes later in the book, “The psyche is our defense system – it makes sure we’ll never understand what’s going on around us. Its main task is to filter information, even though the capabilities of our brains are enormous. For it would be impossible to carry the weight of this knowledge. Because every tiny particle of the world is made of suffering” (225). In this passage, Tokarczuk–pulling on Blake ventriloquized through a kooky female astrologist whom no one heeds–sidles up closer to wildness and to the stakes of attending to it than anything in Halberstam’s book.

As Foucault argued so long ago in History of Madness, the “reason” that motors the human sciences emerges not from madness (which is just another of reason’s categories), but from unreason, déraison, those murky muttering swirling utterances and gestures that elude capture in the rational categories of the human sciences (please read Lynne Huffer on the importance of déraison). Our psyche is a defense system against this pervasive and polyvalent all-ness that falls away from human understanding faster than we reach out to coax it toward us. For Foucault, the task of the intellectual, the task of anyone who would refuse to give the final word to the suffering that constitutes “every tiny particle of the world” is a careful and laborious attentiveness to the limits of discourse. The task is to sense the frisson of unthoughts that cannot be domesticated, of the elsewise and otherwhere that are the leverage for subjective and social change, even while they lose that leverage when we actually pick them up as critical weapons.

Wildness is not there to be used or understood or neologized. Wildness is not there for us. Wildness undoes us, we who yet must remain domesticated and socialized. Wildness is sensed in the pulse of “rituals whose meaning we couldn’t fathom”, a pulse that is crucial not because we need to come to fathom it but precisely so that we can remember how much we will never fathom and, in opening ourselves to this ‘bewilderment’, live differently as animals. Part of opening ourselves to the shimmering frisson of a wildness indifferent to us is that we human animals might come to love and be loved by non-human animals, co-dwellers who only can be reduced to the name Pet, or to ownership, if one has never been remade by a relationship with a being one cannot fathom.

For Cricket, 2008-2020.

*I am indebted to the discussion of Halberstam’s book on January 16, 2021, with Dr.s Jill Ehnenn, Lauren Guilmette, Randall Johnson, Kristen Tapson, Gail Weiss, and soon to be Ph.D.’s Bo Eberle and Sierra Lawson. Thank you all—your wordprints are in this piece.

Baucom: the grammar of figuration



Ian Baucom’s new book, History 4º Celsius: Search for a Method in the Age of the Anthropocene (Duke UP, 2020) draws pithily and adroitly on decolonial theory, black critical thought, aesthetics, and environmental critique. The book urgently exhorts Humanist scholars toward a method that will address and engage not only what he terms the “forces” of history, politics, and society that, as Marx noted in “The 18th Brumaire”, make history and humans what we are (e.g., capitalism, imperialism, the Atlantic slave trade and its legacies, colonialism), but also what he refers to as the cosmological, theological, and geological “forcings” that entangle human life in scales and situations that subtend and supersede us (e.g., carbon monoxide emissions, solar flares, messianic promises) (cf. p. 8). He notes the obvious but methodologically difficult fact that, “the play of historical forces and climate forcings are not autonomous from one another but exacerbate and intensify one another” (p. 14). Even so, most Humanist scholars still write to the side of this dialectical exacerbation and intensity.

The core of Baucom’s argument lies in a friendly debate with Dipesh Chakrabarty, whose decade-long appeal for postcolonial theory to take seriously our age of climate emergency has clearly struck Baucom deeply.  Baucom signs on to Chakrabarty’s division of human activity into “History 1” and “History 2”, the first indexing an Enlightenment notion of progressive history, with its “attendant politics of rights-based citizenship and democracy” (45) and its concomitant investments in the Atlantic Slave trade and imperial-colonial extractions of labor and resources; and the second indexing theories and events that “interrupt” History 1 with their non-progressive temporalities, political resistances, multiple ontologies and post-secular insistence that humans dwell among or alongside gods and spirits. (44-46). Baucom’s methodological question (which is also a political question) lies in how to research, teach and write toward a model of social transformation, a model of what Baucom continues to call “freedom” that pulls History 1 and History 2 into immanent engagement with “History 3”, the so-called “forcings” wrought by theology, cosmology, and geology—something he argues Chakrabarty considers impossible.


Baucom construes an answer to this question by, first, posing the question aesthetically, through an image. Nyani Quarmyne’s picture (Panos Pictures) of the young Collins Kusietey, titled “We Were Once Three Miles from the Sea” depicts a single, vulnerable child standing somewhat forlornly on a hill of sand that his encroaching up the walls of what used to be his home, with the ocean shimmering visibly through a window frame behind him. From his analysis of this picture, Baucom then proceeds to demonstrate how the question of method, that is, the question of how to address and engage the intercalation of “force” and “forcings”, requires reworking scholarly presumptions and hopes for ‘the Human’, for ‘History’, and for ‘freedom.’

He channels these reworkings through the theoretical and political differences between the humanism and post- or more-than-humanism, seen first, in Paul Gilroy, Achille Mbembe, and Franz Fanon; and then Sartre and Levi-Strauss, sprinking his text with support from Bill McKibbon, Christiana Sharpe, Donna Haraway, and laboratory-based climate scientists. Baucom finally takes up the “little discussed” eighteenth thesis of Walter Benjamin’s “Philosophy of History,” which rockets out from the plane of human life to the scale of planetary and astrological history, and uses its lessons to return to the picture of Quarmyne’s picture. Joining the figure of this Ghanian boy with the literary figure, Sonmi~451 from David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Baucom argues that the “grammar” of figuration affords us access to a means of “comprehending and decoding these images” (57), “emblembatiz[ing] the new ‘type’ of the type of the Anthropocene World…an order of personhood bringing together (and simultaneously embedded in) multiple scales of Anthropocene time: scales of the biographical, the nomological, the biological, the zoological, the geological, and the cosmo/theological” (91).

Nothing in this slim book is overly drawn out, and yet I find myself completely drawn in by Baucom’s grammar of figuration, by his intermittent and not quite gathered up argument about freedom, and especially by the way he casually floats the need for a re-engagement with theology, or at least with a post-secular, post-cynical acknowledgement that humans act, enact, and commune with others in light of God, gods, or spirits that surround them. To me, a Religion scholar sick of Enlightenment-laden dismissals of religion that rapidly reduce it to ideology, neurosis, violence, or worse, I find the inclusion of the gods refreshing. Baucom’s capacious orientation toward theologies and divinities–undefined and un-delimited–performs the “‘type’ of type” that I think is necessary for his proposed method for the Humanities, an approach to existence that is open to uncertainty and to obscured knowing, to the rhythms and relations of quarks, to what we can do with our brains (Malabou), to global sensoria that supersede any one person’s cognitive grasp (Jameson), and yes of gods, spirits, and demons of all stripes and colors. To refuse to foreclose or predetermine the wildness and rites of spirit seems to me central to the success of Baucom’s book and to his plea for a new Humanist method.

Reconsidering Freedom

What would it be to re-sculpt the projects of human life and social government without “freedom” or “liberty”? The terms are decidedly overdetermined, rising (unsurprisingly) during the configurations of the nation state and in the wake of the French Revolution (see accompanying Ngrams). The assumptions and calls for freedom after the 1790s remain caught in the gooey conundrums of those 17th and 18th century white Europeans seeking an end to their “enslavement” to the tyranny of monarchy and wealth. “Freedom” shaped the totems of political existence and social desire and became the obvious rallying cry for 19th century abolitionists and anti-imperialists and 20th century postcolonialists and oppressed identities (feminists, civil rights activists, gay liberation activists).

I think of Foucault’s famous line at the end of “What is Enlightenment?” when he gives readers permission to dissociate critical work from “faith” (la foi)in Enlightenment, and yet firmly maintains the telos of Enlightenment critique as freedom or liberty (liberté). True, Foucault transvalues freedom from a state or achievement to a practice. The critical task, he writes, “requires work on our limits, that is, a patient labor giving form to our impatience for liberty.”*

As another example, Saidiya Hartman’s recent, gorgeous book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (Norton Press) also attends to freedom. In her speculative historiography, or critical fabulation of the archive, Hartman deploys freedom as a practical bid that is lived and performed in abeyance; it is the reach for a live of access and entitlement that post-slavery America both promises and will not allow.  Hartman peers into the urban metropolises of America’s Northeast to track the ache for freedom: “This collective endeavor to live free unfolds in the confines of the carceral landscape. They can see the wall being erected around the dark ghetto, but they still want to be ready for the good life, still want to get ready for freedom” (24). Freedom is embraced by the Black men and women Hartman tracks, even in its impossibility; it is enacted and claimed, even under the duress and violence of the carceral archipelago that forms our society of norms.

Freedom signals earthly salvation, a kind of heaven-on-earth. It is a word that makes a cut as deep as the Grand Canyon into American sensibilities, shaping political activism and religious redemption.  Freedom is a word that frames and shelters the hopes of everyone who feels and has felt the pinch of power and longed, even for a moment, to be released from its pain.

Even so—peering at those Ngrams again—it also is a word anchored in European whiteness and the entitlements of the very Ideal Type of white individualism that many of us teach and write against.

I am not suggesting a censorship of the word so much a shift in the affective circuits that surround it and, perhaps, an experiment of trying to think and work without it. In his recent book, History 4º Celsius (Duke University Press), Ian Baucom argues that critical humanists need to work out of the double urgency of what he calls “historical forces” and “planetary forcings.” He writes, “our understanding of the force of human politics, history, and culture [including the Atlantic slave trade, imperialism, and settler colonialism] must be held in interpretive tension and dialectical exchange with what we are discovering of the forcings of climate change as we address the fully planetary condition of the Anthropocene” (8)**

In these days when the earth, our very material matrix, suffers from our “freedom” over it, what if Baucom’s double urgency galvanized us to foreground other terms?***  What if we were to transvalue other words? What if we were to try to mold our political and everyday desires–our visions and our casual experiences of a shared planet–around terms like “obligation,” “imbrication,” and “restraint”? What if these were the words we etched into our political activism and legal codes? What if we were to try to replace the sacralized dominance of “freedom” with a valuation of specific ligatures: the demands of love, the obligations of self- and communal exploration, the labor of provision for lives that have been denied flourishing, the respect for the dead, the efforts of protection for those who cannot (yet) speak or defend themselves, the tasks of vigilance against unworthy and unnecessary pain…****

What if we determined ourselves to say specifically what we mean when we express our ache for freedom?

*“Je ne sais s’il faut dire aujourd’hui que le travail critique implique encore la foi dans les Lumières ; il nécessite, je pense, toujours le travail sur nos limites, c’est-à-dire un labeur patient qui donne forme à l’impatience de la liberté.” http://1libertaire.free.fr/Foucault17.html.

**See also Baucom’s note 14 on p. 120: “Most broadly, by force I am referring to the powers of social, cultural, and political organization (and disruption) proper to the legal, economic, bureaucratic, and other institutions of ‘human’ history; by forcing I have in mind the radiative pressures (from carbon dioxide emissions, sulfur, solar flaring, etc.) effecting changes in the mean surface temperature of the earth.”

***I posit this possibility even knowing that Baucom, too, arranged his argument around the question of how his “forces” and “forcings” “reopen or renovate the question of freedom” (30).

****Lynne Huffer writes beautifully about vigilance (veiller, watchkeeping) in her recent, gorgeous book, Foucault’s Strange Eros (Columbia University Press).

Laval, Paltrinieri, Taylan, Marx et Foucault: Lectures, usages, Confrontations. Part III. “Reading Marx after Foucault”

It’s now been the better part of a year since I finished this book. Our pandemic world makes it extraordinarily difficult for me to accomplish the mundane academic task of producing summary statements of what I’ve read. I offer this belated set of notes on the third part of Laval, Paltrinieri and Taylan’s text because these essays are rich and important. I hope these partial reflections (long though they are for a ‘blog post’) might inspire some of you to tackle the French original.

  1. Tony Negri, “Subjectivity rediscovered: A Marxist Experience of Foucault.” Negri’s essay focuses on modes of subjectivation, modes of class struggle, and biopower, and the struggle to produce the commons. Negri lists four points that frame Marx’s project:  radical historicization of the critique of political economy; recognition of class struggle as motor of capitalist development; subjectivation of the workforce of living work in struggle; and the adequation of productive bodies to the mutation of relations of production. In relation to this frame, Negri reads Foucault in terms of (1) the grammars of archaeology and genealogy (each of which enacts its own radical historicization); (2) the restaging of class struggle through modes of subjectivation; (3) the machinic transformations of corporeities and subjectivities (Simondon) as the transformation of modes of life into modes of production; and (4) the resistance to relations of production through the struggle for justice, the feeling out of a political spirituality, and the production of the commons. Negri rightly notes three horizons of difference between Marx and Foucault that really are non-resolvable: that Marx theorizes command through sovereignty, while Foucault theorizes it as diffuse and circulating horizontally through society; that for Marx, capital is the political dominant, while for Foucault biopower socializes the political; and for Marx, the proletariat is the center and focus of liberation while for Foucault aims at diffuse and singular subjectivation.  At the close of his essay Negri turns to the ethico-political lines of thought in Foucault and asks how these might be situated in the wake of Marx. Foucault’s early Collège de France lectures on parresia can be seen to posit not only the injunction to speak the truth to power but that doing this requires a speaker to stand on or speak through a terrain of truth. A study of history enables us to see the terrain of truth that is both an expression of the ontology of ourselves and what enables practices of making the commons. We are not individuals, Negri argues, but as subjects, we are constructed intersections of being and doing that can and will be organized. The task is to organize ourselves as and in a commons. For Negri, this task does not produce an end to humanism but produces a humanism “after the death of Man.”
  2. Pierre Dardot’s essay, “From praxis to practices,” looks closely at the term praxis which simply means ‘practice’, though it has come to imply a specific relationship of theory to practice. For both Marx and Foucault, the relation of theory to practice is generated by behavior or comportment. Dardot is quick to note that Foucault’s early works in archaeology seem to avoid practice by arranging his arguments as a relation of savoir (structure of knowledge) to connaissance (the range of knowledges and practices structured by savoir). By connecting non-discursive practices to savoir and by theorizing only discursive practices, Foucault seems able to put double distance between himself and practice. But Dardot then qualifies this reading. First of all, archaeology inverts the commonsense relation of consciousness and discourse—just as Marx inverts the commonsense relation of consciousness and life. Second, practices do occur within “regimes of rationality”, but these regimes are themselves affected by material conditions, including human practice. Finally (third), it may seem that subjectivation is determined by scientific categorization (the power of the human sciences to name) and by so-called “dividing practices” (the power of the human sciences to normalize) but practices of the self can work on and against these categorizations and divisions and thus produce what Foucault calls “practices of liberty.” Dardot ends his essay by reconsidering Foucault’s accounts of practice in light of Marx’s theories of class struggle. Different forms of class struggle can be seen as different practices by which to arrange life. As Foucault says in Remarks on Marx (Semiotext(e)), Marx was concerned with how “man produces man” and this concern evidences how practices on the self and society’s practices of subjectivation can be linked to economic production. Like Negri, Dardot sees immediately that viewing practice this way has ethical and political consequences. As in Marx’s third thesis on Feuerbach, humans change, but humans are also the condition of change. The crucial question is how change happens and how to recognize and embrace the conflictual nature of change. Dardot instists that we not relegate all rationality to the distasteful aspects of normalization. Some rationality is involved in practices of liberty—as we witness on the social plane of class struggle.
  3. Emmanuel Renault, “Power or domination? Power or exploitation? Two false alternatives”. Renault takes up the question of how Marx’s focus on domination and exploitation differs from Foucault’s theorizations of power. Foucault didn’t set out to develop a theory of power, Renault argues, but became frustrated with Marx’s monolithic use of “domination.” Renault reads Foucault as articulating domination to four kinds of relation: (a) the process of stabilization and convergence of power relations; (b) a specific form of this process of stabilization; (c) a dimension of governmentality; and (d) as a limit case for power. Renault charts these four relations through the chronological development of Foucault’s œuvre. First, Foucault looks at how the circulating of power develops into theorientation and effect of a strategy (“a” in the list above), and his particular studies provide ethical, religious and social examples of this stabilization (“b”). Foucault next turns to questions of governmentality that shift his theoretical focus to the relation between domination and technologies of self (“c”), and this leads him to posit domination as a limit case, that is, as something that can be navigated and negotiated but not overcome (“d”). Through this schematization of Foucault’s theories of power and domination, Renault tracks Foucault’s attention to whether political struggle only really counts if it is a resistance that resists domination (204). Attuned as he is to the heterogeneity of power relations, Foucault’s shifting but persistent answer is no. Starting in Punitive Society and Discipline and Punish, Foucault expands Marx’s theorization of class struggle to a general sense of society as ongoing civil war (“a” and “b” above). He then turns to strategies of governance and notes that the problem is not how to resist government but rather “how not to be governed like that” (“c” above). Finally, Foucault posits that resistance to power is not resistance to domination but practices of liberty (205-206). Renault claims that Foucault learns from Marx that capitalists and capitalism use diverse mechanisms to work on the worker and to reduce the time of life to the time of production, and that history is full of worker resistance to power. The two thinkers, Renault concludes, are not opposed in their theories of power and domination.
  4. Laurent Jeanpierre, “Capitalism and Government of Circulations”. The core of Jeanpierre’s essay is how “human mobility is at the heart of capitalism” (222). Goods clearly cross borders more easily than do people, but Jeanpierre claims that to really understand the pulsing heart of capitalist circulation, we need to look more closely at how both Marx and Foucault draw on Trosne’s 1764 discussion of vagabonds (Mémoire sur les vagabonds et sur les mendicants). Trosne’s text explains the severe clamping down on mendicants and vagabondage in the late 18th century as a social and political attempt to restrict bodily movement, with the goal of producing a worker-subject that is subdued by and reconciled to capitalist production. In this way, Foucault notes, the very ability to move across borders came to be inherently attached to the meaning of liberty. To be free is to be able to cross borders, to have untrammeled mobility across the earth. Foucault follows Trosne in tracking the ‘thinning out’ of social vagabonds and adds his analysis of the rise of the 1830 Penal Code, which cracked down on a number of longstanding illegalisms. Jeanpierre interprets these illegalisms as smaller and more local kinds of mobilities and notes their shift to a different register under the new conditions of factory production and the Penal Code. The body moves away from production when it can, through tactics such as taking breaks, daydreaming, napping, taking days off, and slowing down work. Foucault correlates the crackdown on illegalisms with the rise of the “workbook” a record of a worker’s performance that capitalists soon required for granting workers living quarters, access to bank accounts or loans, and relocating to another city. This workbook, then, came to function as another kind of border control, another material means of restricting the movement of workers while easing the movement of commodities. Jeanpierre summarizes three point on which Marx and Foucault reinforce each other: capital can control work only by relying on larger social practices of control; state government is a constituting component for determining technologies of circulation; and the aim of governing circulation is to obtain an optimum of mobility for a given configuration of production. He ends with the hopeful note that every border or checkpoint for circulation can also always become a site for resistance.
  5. Guillaume Sibertin-Blanc, “Race, population class: historico-political and biopolitical discourses of capital from Foucault to Marx”. In this important and complex essay, Sibertin-Blanc (1) raises the possible contradiction between Marx’s historico-political understanding of class struggle and Foucault’s theory of biopolitics as tactics for managing a population, (2) posits Malthus as the middle figure between them, and (3) comes to resolve this apparent contradiction while also holding Foucault to account for not adequately theorizing race and colonization.  Sibertin-Blanc names Malthus as the hinge between Marx and Foucault in that Marx rejected Malthus’s bio-economic theories for their lack of attention to class struggle, while Foucault critiques Marx for avoiding Malthusian-like factors of bio-politics. Marx critiques Malthus’s law of population for omitting the sharp power differentials sustained by exploitation and surplus labor. Foucault takes up this critique but wraps it in a functionalist circle that oscillates between the development of capitalist forces and relations of production and the development of what Foucault terms “new rationalities of the new techniques of power” (233). Even so—from a Marxist perspective—Foucault remains opaque in his discussion of how population and biopower relate to or work upon each other. Foucault uses metaphors to explain the connection, asserting, e.g., that biopower “shores up” the population, or suggesting a relation of “reciprocal adaptation” or “adjustment.” Sibertin-Blanc asks how a closer examination of twentieth-century capitalism (i.e., post-Marx) might clarify this relation between biopower and capitalist development. The first factor—what Sibertin-Blanc calls the Marxism forgotten by Foucault—is the intensified super-exploitation of the worker that effects a generalized destruction of humanity. The body of the worker itself becomes a biopolitical reality. The second factor—what the author terms the Foucauldism anticipated by Marx—is the fact that the increasing need for the state the assist capitalism in managing the workforce leads to the socialization of the State. Sibertin-Blanc then orients this super-exploitation of the worker and hyper-activity of the state to the ever-present factor of race, a factor neglected to the point of near exclusion in both Foucault and Marx. But necropolitics is clearly the continuation of biopolitics by other means: the biopower of empire requires the death of the colonies and immigrant bodies. Sibertin-Blanc names the logic of western capitalism as dispossession. He ends his essay with a section called “declassed populations, racialized classes”. Racism, he writes, overdetermines biopolitics. The difference between historico-political accounts of the development of class and biopolitical accounts of state management is, in the end, merely apparent. All class struggle, he writes, should be seen as a struggle for the deracialization of the popular, the worker, the colonized, and the poor. In this struggle, race functions at once as a floating signifier and a rigid designation.
  6. Diogo Sardinha, “The Nominalism of relation as anti-metaphysical principle.” Sardinha’s compelling essay asks why Marx and Foucault insisted they were not philosophers; he draws on Balibar’s commentary to ask what it means to think of Marx and Foucault as nominalists. Sardinha argues that the flight from philosophy in Marx and Foucault is a flight from “essences.” Drawing on Balibar’s essay, “The stakes of nominalism,” Sardinha discusses how Foucault refused traditional philosophical questions and sought, instead, new areas of questioning around subjectivity, truth, and power. Perhaps counter-intuitive to readers of Foucault, Balibar suggests that Marx has a less substantialist sense of “body” than does Foucault since “body,” for Marx, is always an array of shifting relationships. Balibar then extends this supposition by examining Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach” as a set of reflections on the constitution of subjectivity by historicized relationships (Philosophy of Marx). Sardinha asserts the need to reconceptualize human “essence” as an ensemble of relations. He writes, “Human essence ‘exists’ insofar as it is produced, practically and theoretically, as function of a situation of social complexity” (248). Human essence has no existence but does have effects: It is not (ce n’est pas), but it is there (il y a) (249). If the task of philosophy is to replace an abstraction with a concrete concept, then we can see both thinkers moving from philosophy to some other terrain of thought and practice, a terrain that refuses both abstraction and static concretion. Sardinha calls this new terrain nominalism. It is nominalism in the sense that it deploys terms not as essences but as placeholders for processes and strategies. Names and concepts are bundles or networks of relations. Drawing again from Balibar, Sardinha claims that Marx too is a nominalist in this sense, that is, not in prioritizing the individual over the general but in theorizing both particularity and generality as historically shifting networks of relations. This focus on theorization as a means of foregrounding relationality and material practices is termed Dieseitigkeit in Marx, a term Gramsci translates as terrestréité. These terms refuse metaphysics and thus refuse the traditional tasks of philosophy, even while carrying forward the crucial task of thought.

A Rose by Any Other Name: A note on two non-films

Denise Ferreira da Silva finds in Kant the grammar of European whiteness.
In her essay, “Reading the Dead: A Black Feminist Poethical Reading of Global Capital,” Silva holds up the “onto-epistemological categories, namely, separability, determinacy, and sequentiality” (49) that scaffold and ballast the assumptions of global colonialism and capitalism.* These categories of pure reason divvy up the world into persons, non-persons, and frames of analysis that render it impossible to hear “organized protest against land expropriation” as anything other than “cultural difference” (39)

Silva powerfully combines Leibniz’s plenum and Glissant’s Relation with Hortense Spillers’ “articulation of the flesh as the ethical ground from which to critically consider conquest and slavery” (43) to rethink the categories and concepts of self and world. Zapatistas turn to the Dead and hear them cry out “For everyone, everything!” Silva sees the power of the plenum, an image of “difference without separability,” as an analytic tool against the dispossessions of global capitalism, colonialism, and enslavement.

I find a resonant refusal of categorization enacting a similar kind of political work in two films that diegetically refuse the category of film.

The first is Jafar Panahi’s 2015 release, Tehran Taxi, which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Posing as a shared-taxi driver, the director captures a dizzying array of high-stake conversations and exchanges through his digital cameras (mounted on dashboard and ceiling). It is not an accident that the fragmented debates begin and end with dead. Two strangers, a man ardently in favor of the death penalty and a women ardently against it, begin our rollercoaster ride through Tehran. Following them, the discussions and situations include precarity of wives whose husbands die without leaving a verbal will, what do to if you are robbed and beaten, the incarceration of women who attempted to attend a male soccer game, and, finally, the horrible and unjust conditions of the prisons that led one of those prisoners (Ghoncheh Ghavami) to hunger strike.

The topics sound agonizing, and they are, but they also are treated with a casualness and lightness that births an affective space of reception and reflection. The urgency of resistance is there, but at one remove, not only because of the civility with which they are discussed, but also because of the filmed mediation of the taxi itself, a double-boxing of the camera’s frame (as I’ve written about a number of Kiarostami’s films) that mediates the mediation of spectatorship. A further mediating lens is offered through the director’s niece, Hana, who plays a schoolgirl tasked with making her own “distributable” film, namely, one that clears all the censorship criteria of the Iranian Film Council. Hana’s digital footage sometimes overlaps with Panahi’s and sometimes travels off in its own direction, but either way it can’t help but act as a commentary on what Panahi is doing, which is clearly to film without “making a film,” precisely because what he is filming does not conform to the IFC’s code and so is not distributable. Again, the light touch, the horror at one remove, when we watch the niece open her “happy kitty” school notebook and reel off the censorship rules one by one, in a voice that mimics her teacher’s authority and seriousness. As she recites the criteria for making a “distributable film,” her uncle drives and smiles, smiles and drives. At the end, when the director-driver has stepped out of his taxi to return a purse to an elderly passenger from earlier in the day, viewers watch policemen enter the taxi and try to find the “memory stick” for the cameras. As police do, the officers bash and throw things around in practiced disregard.

Then, viewers see a written statement explaining that here is the time and place for film credits, but since this is not a film, so there are no credits (but thanks to all who helped him).

Tehran Taxi is about the dispossession of a certain lived unrestriction (I’ll not say freedom) in a society of restriction, and the playful desire to skirt the edges of the rules.

The second non-film is Tru’o’ng Minh Quy’s 2019 release, The Treehouse. The conceit of this footage is that the narrator and arranger of images is an astronaut on Mars in 2045. The images come from footage shot on Earth, seemingly documentary interviews, but also historical images, and negative prints, perhaps signaling memory as much as history:

The images do not hold together as coherent sequences or stories, though viewers hear references to three of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities, the Ruc, Kor and Hmong, and hear and see evidence of their forced relocation out of the forests and into housing blocks, out of their small living arrangements and into obligations of public school. At the very end of the film, which breaks off suddenly, viewers see only a black screen and hear a voice (subtitled for those of us who can’t understand Vietnamese):

“He decided not to complete the film.”
“Here on Mars nobody wanted to watch film anymore.”
“Cinema had become the joy of the past.”

The Treehouse is a recherché on earth’s saturated history of dispossession, a saturation that can only be escaped with a 56.4 million-kilometer journey to Mars.

These are films that refuse separability, determinacy, sequentiality. They return to flesh, the flesh of the Dead that feeds the composting soil of the plenum. “Everything, for everyone.” For then, for now, for always.

*Essay in Tiffany Lethabo King, Jenell Navarro, and Andrea Smith, editors, Otherwise Worlds: Against Settler Colonialism and Anti-Blackness (Duke, 2020).

What is religion?

Remarks to the faculty forum October 6, 2020:

Recently I’ve been theorizing religion as an affective technology of valuation.  I take “technology” here from Foucault who points to four types of technologies, each, he says is “a matrix of practical reason.” This rich phrase—technology as a matrix of practical reason—requires a bit of ink to unpack, which explains why I tend to shift to the language of structure when I’m talking about my research as opposed to writing about it. Religion is an affective structure of valuation, in the sense of structure resonant with what sociologists and cultural critics will use when they refer to structures of patriarchy or structural racism. I’m not so interested in trying to find religion ‘out there’ in the world as an affective structure of valuation as I’m concerned to theorize what denominates itself as religion and consider how or if this rubric of ‘affective structure of valuation’ is apt. From my studies, what seems to carry the term ‘religion’ are interpersonal and institutional structures that name, codify, form, train, and ritualize the values that bind members together over and over again, thereby generating and sustaining an affective structure of valuation.

The binding of structures of valuation becomes the material grist for attempts to change, or transvalue, those structures, and this possible change happens, I think, precisely through affect. The structure of religion is (a matrix of the) discursive, embodied, practical, and institutional. Affect limns discourse, bodily practice, and institutional spaces in ways that are both articulable and inarticulable (i.e., affect is always affecognitive, but the affective part is not reducible to cognition). The power of affect (or the affecognitive) is such that it can tilt a word one way, or another, it can orient a person or a reading or a group toward this, or toward that. Right now, I am most interested in the way affect hovers in the matrices of our relationships and pricks us at the edges of our daily lives—the way affect is implicated in what we say and do (and self-reflexively in what we say and do about what we say and do) and yet also subtends or exceeds or shies away from conscious articulation and control. I have written about this subtending or exceeding as the transparency of normativity and the mutability of normativity: how we are rarely aware of the norms that deeply configure us because we take for granted (or were never presented the opportunity to question) how these norms orient us affectively, how they quietly construe and protect the valuations we live by. But it also is possible that a word said differently, or a certain kind of encounter can show up the contingency of our norms, nudge us affectively in a slightly different way, and open the possibility of shifting the structure of valuation by which we live. It takes time but it can happen.

Here’s an example that will at first sound out of place because it’s not obviously about religion. I was a sophomore in college when I was first exposed—in an English class, I believe—to feminist arguments about language. I had grown up with some of the battles around Equal Rights, but feminism as something more than the press to obtain the same employment and pay as men was unknown to me. I remember feeling empowered by that class session. And I remember trying to translate that feeling to my friends who attended a different university. One guy asked me if I was now going to “be a feminist” and I said “yes! but that I wasn’t going to stop using man and he for the general categories of human being. That,” I said, “was ridiculous.” What this memory suggests is how language embedded structure in my life and sharing the way affect, the affect generated by a certain encounter, can pulse out of phase with that structure. Is this an affective structure of valuation? My adherence to Man probably was part of my Southern Presbyterianism—a part that was so deep as to be inaccessible to me. Now, nearly forty years later, whenever a student uses ‘man’ or ‘he’ I twitch a bit. The words and the affects have re-aligned, though I could point to other concepts that are now out of phase with my affects.

How does change happen? Not through rational arguments alone but through affective shifts in how words are meant and felt, and through practical shifts in how words and feelings are lived in the world. Because it is an affective structure of valuation, religion is deeply resistant to change and also a powerful tool for change.

Laval, Paltrinieri, and Taylan: Marx et Foucault: Lectures, usages, confrontations

 The first part of this edited collection reflected on Foucault as a reader of Marx.  In the book’s second part, five essays respond to the various Marxisms of the 19th-20th centuries and how Foucault situated his own research in relation to them. The first essay maps Foucault’s writings alongside developments in Marxian theory. The second to fourth essays juxtapose Foucault to the specific claims of Sartre, Althusser and Burckhardt, respectively, and the last (my personal favorite) examines the double chiasm of history and subjectivity in Foucault’s writings and pushes back—successfully in my view—on the ludicrous claim that Foucault ‘became’ a liberal individualist in his last years.

It has to be said that writing of any kind is difficult and strange right now, as protests raging against the police murder of George Floyd are crowding streets and highways and pressing up against the edges of the White House lawn, and as sister protests have erupted all over the world against US police-supported racism and police violence. One way to understand Foucault’s shifting citations and orientations toward Marx and Marxism is precisely through his question of what is ‘the political’ and what might enable social change.

Jean-François Bert’s essay, “Cartographier les marxismes avec Foucault: les années 1950 et 1960” scans Foucault’s interviews during the 1950s for what he says about Marx and the communist party. Foucault’s short membership in the French Communist Party ended over the Lyssenko affair and in general over the USSR’s undue influence on French intellectual thought (p. 106). Bert notes that Foucault’s peripatetic teaching positions in Sweden and Warsaw exposed him to forms of Marxism that were less academic and more directly political (p. 107-109), and he sees Foucault thinking through different theoretical possibilities in these years, combining Marxism with phenomenology, for example, or Marxism with structuralism (p. 100). After his establishment in the Collège de France in the late 1960s, Foucault actively criticizes academic (“soft”) Marxism, humanist Marxism, and “summary” Marxists, the latter including thinkers who don’t engage Marx’s writings but leverage a vulgar image of Marx and Marxism for their own purposes. In these years Foucault also clearly separates his use of Marx from Althusser’s. Bert’s pithy summary is that reading Foucault on Marxism from 1950-1980 not only gives us a clear picture of the developments of Marxism in France over that period, but also demonstrates that Marx cannot be collapsed into Marxism and that, in fact, “Marx doesn’t exist,” because an author is a function and not a coherent entity.

Bert doesn’t discuss the matter this way, but to me his “Cartography” of Foucault and Marxisms demonstrate Foucault’s intense interest in the writings and legacies of Marx, but with a persistent refusal to be pulled into any particular “school” of thought. Instead of signing up for one reading of Marx versus another, Foucault kept side-stepping the pressures to normalize Marx by picking up threads of his work (concepts, events, questions) and directing them into unexpected fabrics (problematics).

Sartre stands as a gap in my expertise, so Hervé Oulc’hen’s essay, “L’intelligibilité des luttes. Foucault et Sartre lecteurs des enquêtes historiques de Marx” was not as accessible to me. As Oulc’hen’s title notes, both Foucault and Sartre turn to Marx’s writings on specific historical events, such as the 18th Brumaire and the civil war in France as a way to consider what Marx is saying about the strategies of power, the torque of power on particular bodies, and the possibilities of directing power toward social transformation (p. 114-117). Oulc’hen sees Marx’s writings on historical events as functioning differently from his writings on the development of factory capitalism by exposing the fluidity of possibilities that surge amid the erupting of events on the street, and how these events catch up bodies and constellate them toward different political strategies. I think Oulc’hen sees Foucault’s concern with the reification of production (and the subject-producer) in Marx as answered by Sartre’s theory of the subject as a dialectical project burdened by authenticity (p. 122). He ends by suggesting that Sartre’s foregrounding of knowledge and Foucault’s Nietzschean foregrounding of the will are both theoretical attempts to account for struggle (p. 127), and he suggests that Sartre really does answer Foucault’s complaint that struggle remains in the shadows of human activity and untheorized by philosophers with his notion of dialectical reason (p. 128).

I remain neutral on Oulc’hen’s conclusions but I do think Foucault remained fascinated by events that show up the gauzy fragility of civil society. As we have seen in recent weeks of BLM protests and rallys, rupturing events decisively arise from the somewhere of history but also demonstrate what Ashon Crawley might term the otherwise possibilities of our shared history and our just-over-the-horizon tomorrows (see his The Lonely Letters, Duke UP 2020). The political, for Foucault, is found both in the slow social susurrus of crafting discursive, bodily (practical) and institutional normativity and also in the rapid transversal wounding of that normativity by words and actions that seek and speak refusal.

Julien Pallotta offers a compelling essay, “L’effet Althusser sur Foucault: de la société punitive à la théorie de la reproduction.” Althusser’s essay on ideological state apparatuses which was published in June 1970, became the clear backdrop to Foucault’s The Punitive Society, the Collège lectures that were preparatory to Discipline and Punish. After summarizing Althusser’s article—the primary focus of which is the reproduction of the conditions of production, including the reproduction of the worker, or the subjectivated body ready to slide into capitalist labor—Pallotta turns to Foucault’s response in PS (p. 129-132). Foucault notes that power doesn’t reproduce relations of production, but “constitutes” them. To this end, the distinction Althusser (through Marx) draws between productive forces and relations of production is not real (p. 132). More, focusing merely on the worker’s subjectivation is insufficient; we need also to examine disciplinary habits and incentives that accommodate workers to the capitalist system. Foucault’s example is the rise of practices and surveillance surrounding worker savings books and savings accounts. Pallotta sees this attention to the moralization of the laboring classes as an incipient theory of biopower, here still at the level of the body and not of the population (p. 133-136). Finally, instead of focusing on ideological state apparatuses, Foucault attends to habits and expectations that enact and mandate a temporal and spatial sequestration of the worker’s body and attention away from “the time of life.”. Foucault was influenced here, Pallotta notes, by a 1967 article by E. P. Thompson, titled “Time, work-discipline, and industrial capitalism” and also by the writings of the Methodist theologian, John Wesley (136-137). Both Althusser and Foucault are circling the question of social transformation, but where Althusser sees worker struggle as aiming toward social overhaul, Foucault attends to the ongoing civil war of daily life and the local and partial changes possible within it. But the point of view matters. As Balibar notes (on Althusser’s behalf), the worker wants to abolish work altogether while the capitalist wants to maintain it with as little effort as possible.

Manlio Iofrida’s essay, “Michel Foucault entre Marx et Burckhardt: esthétique, jeu et travail,” posits that an aspect of late 19th century intellectual history is repeated by Foucault in the late 20th century. Noting the German influence on French culture after France’s 1870 loss to Prussian forces, Iofrida reminds us that the French were the first non-German culture to take up Nietzsche, and it was in light of this philosophical reception that the Germanist Charles Andler, who published six volumes on Nietzsche, produced a critical translation of Marx’s Communist Manifesto (144). Influenced also by Proudhon, Andler bent his translation of Marx toward a peculiarly liberal and individualist reading by arguing that a new, socialist society requires a new worker, and this new worker-subjectivity necessitates self-renovation or Bildung (144-145). Through Andler, Iofrida links Nietzsche and Proudhon with the cultural historian, Jacob Burkhardt. Iofrida links the young Foucault with this individualist reading of the socialist legacy in two ways. First, he points to Foucault’s early theoretical investments in transgression and excess, found especially in Foucault’s enthusiastic readings of Bataille (145-146). Second, he holds up Proudhon’s “autogovernmnet of producers” and Burkhardt’s aesthetics of existence (Bildung) as instrumental to Foucault’s late notion of “the care of the self” (150-151). Andler and Burkhardt’s aesthetic and individualizing reception of German socialist thought in the late 19th century, he posits, is repeated in Foucault’s aestheticizing response to Marx in his last works (153).

Judith Revel’s “Michel Foucault, marxiste hérétique? Histoire, subjectivation et liberté” is by far my favorite essay of this section (and the book). It merits its own blog post, really, or (better) a translation. Writing in direct opposition to the kind of liberal and individualizing interpretations of Foucault exemplified by Iofrida, Revel begins with Foucault’s 1984 assertion that “There can be truth only in the form of the other world and of the other life (de la vie autre)” (154). She hooks this foregrounding of otherness to Foucault’s late notion of critique, a kind of Kant-beyond-Kant critique that deploys Marx’s sensitivity to power not only to recognize our limits (as in Kant) but also to discern ways to not abide them (not-abiding limits is not the same as a futile attempt to push beyond limits) (155). Foucault’s work can be read for its heresy, then, along the lines of Yirmiyahu Yovel’s “heretical Spinoza”—attending not so much to what counts as heretical with respect to the religious institutions of his day (thought that too) but to the dominant thought (norms, power-knowledge) of his time. Yovel says of Spinoza that his apostasy contains a “spiritual hatching” that doesn’t align with his historical precedents. To be heretical is thus “to be of this time and of another time” (156). This insistence in Foucault of theorizing discourse (e.g., historiography) and its unthought or its ruptures led to his impatience and rejection of Marxists committed to continuous, dialectical and teleological history. He refused the problem of either the subject makes history or history makes the subject: both so-called choices belong to the same system of thought (156-157). Revel here turns to Lukács to explicate Foucault. Just as Lukács sought “totality” as the product of all the preceding forces of history but rejected a mythical “all” as the teleologically determined and ultimate state of affairs, so Foucault accepts historical materialism but rejects “totality” (in Lukács’s sense of “all”) as the telos of humanity. Revel stresses that both Lukács and Foucault embrace history as a source of possible change and difference, not determination or telos (159-161). Merleau-Ponty takes up Lukács in his notion of the open dialectic or “hyperdialectic,” a move that Revel sees Foucault also embracing in a sense of history that is “chiasmatic,” always “both determined and determining, stratified and inaugural, sedimented and suspended” (163-164).

I’m skipping and condensing much elegant theorization here, but one arc I see is something like this:

Revel gives the example of Foucault’s account in Discipline and Punish of the birth of the liberal and sociological “individual” in the 19th century (165). This determination by historical process—that is, the way in which bodies are captured as docile, useful bodies that can be trained, marked, studied, and normalized as individuals—is supplemented by Foucault’s “critical attitude” that seeks moments when bodies forced into the vices of individuality open to historical creativity, to a politics of the “invention of the self” (168-170). This resistance to individuality is no more “individual” than is the production of individuals. Revel ends her essay with a quotation from Foucault’s interviews with Trombadori (translated by a semiotext(e) volume titled Remarks on Marx), where Foucault turns to Marx’s poignant phrase, “man produces man” (l’homme produit l’homme). As Revel notes, this assertion doesn’t only mean the production of values, wealth, and economic practice, but also the production of what has never been, of a totally ‘other’ thing, of a complete invention (170).

We see this today, in our youth, standing up against the machinations of historical process and demanding an “other” world.

Viral Thoughts (reprise): Introverts also need the World, or, the Affects of staying-in-place

Professors tend to be introverts; at least, we are formed to be something like hermits for long stretches of time. Lately, though, I’ve been hearing from my academic friends that they are going a bit mad these days, and many add this phrase: even though I am an introvert.

It’s true. Even the introverts are losing it. My regular attitude toward leaving the house is toddler-like resistance. I once (way back in March) regularly and vocally begrudged my obligation to leave the house for campus. I did not want to close the door on my beloved cat, I did not want to leave my warm study, I did not want to leave all my books. Even now, as I approach the eighth week of voluntary house arrest, I am still mostly content. After all, my proclivities are basically feline: the sun arcs from rise to set, and my cat and I move from chair to chair to chair. She sleeps and stretches and eats and grooms; I read and write and eat and clean the house. Truly, I prefer not to be disturbed.

And yet.

My head is foggy and my memory slow. I find my concentration hard to sustain and, sometimes, I find myself wandering around the rooms and peering out of the windows. I am prone to crankiness and feel a creeping ooze of meaninglessness. (Ok, more than usual.) The reasons for the things I do are no longer self-evident. My reading, research, and writing agenda, which is typically de facto and self-contained, now seems questionable and untethered, like a balloon that some loud noise startled out of my hands, and which I watch floating away from me with a curiosity both abstract and painful.

I miss the buzz and swirl of the world.   I do not miss people, especially (I miss some specific persons), but I definitely miss the world. What can this possibly mean?

What immediately comes to mind in light of this question is the work of  Lisa Guenther, a critical phenomenologist who writes with astuteness and care about the wrongness of solitary confinement. In her essay, “Subjects without a World: A Husserlian Analysis of Solitary Confinement” (Human Studies 34:3, 2011), Guenther gathers up a list of disturbing comments from prisoners about their experiences in solitary confinement, and concludes: “Deprived of everyday encounters with other people, and confined to a space with radically diminished sensory stimulus, many inmates come unhinged from reality.”

A little bit mad. Losing it. Unhinged from reality.

It must be said quickly that those of us observing “shelter-in-place” orders are not in solitary confinement–far from it. I am not attempting to make an equation here, or even an analogy between the two situations. Still, I am intrigued by the affective resonance I feel with Guenther’s words right now and I am inspired by her to turn to phenomenology to attempt to grasp what I’m experiencing in those fragile thought-holds we call words.

It seems to me that Guenther’s sentence contains three important elements. The first is “encounters with other people.” An encounter, as Marilyn Strathern might say, is a relation but not a relationship (Relations: An Anthropological Account); it occurs but may not have the pattern of recurring. Etymologically the term suggests conflict, it stems from a word that means coming up against one’s adversary. Encounter has lost this friction, I think, but it has retained movement. To encounter is “to come up against” or “to come across.” It is  “to run into.” This is what I mean when I say  I miss the buzz and swirl of the world. I mean that I am deprived right now of this coming across and running into. I am deprived of encounter–not just this encounter (my neighbors head out for a walk and wave to me as I sit in my rocking chair, reading) or that encounter (the mail carrier rings my doorbell and waves from afar when I open the door), but the entire social nexus of encounter and encountering, the entire nexus of sociality itself, that mass and flow of persons moving hither and yon, with my own gridded movements joining in the unplanned choreography, is lost to me.

Second, Guenther’s sentence qualifies “encounters with other people” by adding “everyday.” As we learn from Durkheim or Tarde or Goffman, “society” is a useful category for analysis not just because it holds together a number of social relationships that describe how people live among one another, but because these relationships and this heuristic “whole” of society form the ground, atmosphere, and backdrop to daily life. It’s always there. Except now it’s not. Not only are we deprived of the nexus of encounter, we are deprived of living out and into our sedimented habits of loving, hating, navigating, and negotiating our encounters with other people. When we lose the ability to act on a habit, we are lost. We feel anxious and unsettled. This is because a habit is not in us and not in the world but is, as Merleau-Ponty might put it, “geared in” to the world through our bodies. If the world changes, or if I change my world, the gears break, the habituated structure fails, even if the motor is still spinning and churning, primed to engage. That’s what it feels like to be deprived of the everyday encounters with other people.

Finally, Guenther juxtaposes confinement with “radically diminished sensory stimulus.” In this elegant and disturbing phrase, Guenther implies all the other relations of encounter that don’t necessarily include “other persons.” Sociologists may traditionally have focused on the sociality of human relationality but we know that these relations are embedded in and sustained by earth itself (to put it succinctly), by all things bright and beautiful (and dull and ugly), by all beings great and small. My neighborhood is walkable and pleasant, but I no longer feel the ability or right either to leave it or to relax into it, to linger and wallow, to wander and explore. If I dare to go for a drive, neon red signs encounter me (like an adversary!) with the dire commandment to stay home and flatten the curve. WHAT ARE YOU DOING OUT HERE? GO HOME. STAY.(stop, reduce, diminish).

You have no world.

I want to give Lisa Guenther more words here, the last words of her article and nearly the last of this post:

“If the world is the gift of the other, then the practice of solitary confinement amounts to withholding the gift of the world, withholding the gift of meaning, withholding the very conditions under which a full sense of concrete personhood emerges in relation to others in the context of a shared world.”

A full sense of who I am emerges in relation to others in the context of a shared world.  This full sense of myself is a sense of meaning, a sense that is a gift given by the world and the encounters (human and non-human) that occur in it. This is not an anthropological gift that is part of a gift economy but the ontological gift of the “there is,” the “es gibt,” or what Marx, in a similar context, writes about as vorfinden–as that kind of finding that is a happening upon. A finding that is an encounter.

Marx, Foucault, & COVID-19: PRODUCTIVITY

In these days of quarantine against COVID-19, I frequently see essays on social media aimed against normal mandates of worker productivity. These reports are aimed at the privileged, that is, those who still have jobs and are working from home. As such, these anxious stabs against the perceived persistent expectation of professional productivity–resistance expressed in light of the anxiety of the world and about the virus itself–succinctly caption the neoliberal subject as self-entrepreneur. We neoliberal professionals are so deeply formed by the need to prove ourselves productive–increasingly productive and productive in increasingly new ways–that when psycho-social conditions render this mandate impossible, we turn our productivity to producing accounts of why we can’t be productive.

  Productivity and unproductivity appear in our news feeds about the virus in another, quite different way: the cough symptomatic of COVID-19 is what they call “unproductive.” If you have a productive cough, you probably just have a seasonal cold: maybe it’s a rhinovirus, maybe it’s a kind of corona virus but it’s not this sneaky, stealthy corona 2019 virus that is hamstringing the entire human population right now. An unproductive cough is also called a “dry” cough–it is a breathy, sharp reaction to an irritation in the bronchial tubes or lungs, but it doesn’t lead to anything except its own repetition. In novels, it’d be called a “hacking cough.” A productive cough, on the other hand, is wet. It is a breathy, sharp reaction to mucous. Mucous is moist, drippy matter that is out of place. Human breathing is organ-ized around air, not water, so when wet stuff seeps into our air-organs, our body reacts violently, trying to push the wet stuff out. The cough in this case is productive, it leads to something: specifically, it leads to the body pushing out wet stuff and it is effective in pushing out wet stuff.

Speaking of productivity, I finally finished Laval, Paltrinieri, and Taylan, ed.’s, Marx et Foucault: Lectures, usages, confrontations and I plan to summarize each of its three parts in a separate post.

In reviewing my notes to Part 1, “Foucault, Reader of Marx,” it strikes me how much the discussion turns on production. How does Foucault read, animate, and re-situate Marx’s discussions (primarily in Capital) of

  • the forces and relations of capitalist production
  • the production of the working class
  • the time of capitalist production
  • the cooperation and vitality of capitalist production
  • and the production of worker resistance (“struggle” and “civil war”)?

If we add to these questions Foucault’s more peculiar language about power as productive, the production of social forms such as the prison, and his theorizations of the forces of subjectivation (what produces subjects within a normed or governed society), then one gets the distinct sense that this word production (“leading forth from” or “bringing forth”) is something we should attend more to.

The following provides a few sentences about each of the six essays in Part I of Marx et Foucault. These summaries are insufficient by the standards of a review; I mean them only as a catalyst for thinking about production.

For Marx as for Foucault, production is not just the making of things, but the historically-emergent matrix that structures how things are made, by which persons, and to whose economic and political benefit. According to Ferhat Taylan, (“Une histoire ‘plus profonde’ du capitalisme“), Foucault “deepens” Marx’s analysis of capitalist production (24). What he means is that Foucault’s writings drill down into and specify the disciplinary techniques that subordinate life to time of production, and also that they focus on socio-political procedures—or what he calls “strategies without subjects” (in “Le pouvoir, une bête magnifique,” 1977)—that generate institutional and practical matrices for establishing truth, justice, and penality. Taylan notes, importantly, that Foucault, like Marx, does not position humans as ontologically productive. Humans are active, but sometimes our activity is unproductive or non-productive. The conceptual reduction of activity to labor can thus be seen as part of the political economy of capitalism that forces a subjection of the time of life to the time of capital.

Christian Laval’s essay, “La productivité du pouvoir“, directly takes up Foucault’s claim that power is not oppressive, not ‘held’ by some over others, but rather power is productive, it generates positive effects in bodies and societies. Picking up on Marx’s assertion that the factory is the “anatomy” of the modern body (33), Laval underscores (as did Taylan) the capitalist effort of “extracting the maximum time out of the life of individuals and transforming the body itself of individuals into an ensemble of dispositions and aptitudes that yield surplus power” (37, note 29). Since the body of the worker is the condition of capital, Foucault looks to practices prior to industrialization to make sense of the rise of capital. Seeing Foucault as moving beyond Marx, Laval points to where Foucault cites Marx’s throw-away words on the army and on cooperation but goes on to emphasize how these social forms led to the historical emergence of the disciplined, productive body, though Marx himself doesn’t stress this (40). In other words, Laval sees Foucault expanding Marx’s account of production to the production of bodies that will enable and justify the structures of capitalism. Laval ends with two further notes on production: First, Foucault demonstrates how classes do not precede struggle but are produced from struggle, and second, economic production is necessarily supplemented by the production of ‘man,’ the invention of one’s self. In all cases, then, to understand or to give an account requires demonstrating the temporal and power-laden emergence into productive subsistence.

In “Foucault, Marx: le corps, le pouvoir, la guerre,” Sandro Chignola focuses on the difference in Marx between two words for body, Leib, which refers to the body as a living thing and Körper, which relegates the body as an object of anatomy. By Marx’s account the worker brings his “living corporeity” (corporéité vivante, or Lebendliche Leiblichkeit) to sell to the capitalist. The use of Leiblichkeit, corporeity, indicates a fluid life potential for production of goods and also for the production of the self that Foucault will focus on (51). But unlike Marx, who dwells on the vampiric forces of capital to savage human life forces for the sake of capitalist production (things, profits, class comfort) (52),  Foucault also considers how the general faculty of production that belongs to human nature can lie idle or can be turned to desires and pursuits that are non-productive or unproductive (56).

Rudy Leonelli’s essay provides a really helpful rubric for understanding Foucault’s reworking of Marx (“Foucault lecteur du Capital”). Noting that Foucault himself admits to “citing Marx without saying so” (59, from “Entretien sur la prison. Le livre et sa méthode), Leonelli points to the way Foucault “scales up” Marx by taking his insights to a broader social plane. Leonelli correlates this scaling up with generalization, where generalization does not indicate greater abstraction but rather a kind of translation or transliteration across social forms (67-68). The forces and relations of production, then, are diffused in a capillary manner throughout the spaces and niches and strata of society.

The last two essays of Part I are both excellent but look less specifically at production. Roberto Nigro’s “Communiste nietzschéean. L’expérience Marx de Foucault” explicates beautifully Foucault’s well known exclamation that he’s something like a “Nietzschean communist” by looking not only at the ways in which power and perspective saturate Foucault’s theoretical concepts and his method of genealogical emergence, but also how they are always positioned vis-à-vis a sense of the limit or of that which exceeds them, as Foucault learned from the likes of Bataille and Blanchot. Finally, Étienne Balibar’s essay counters the intentions of this edited collection by insisting on an ethical and political disjunction between Marx and Foucault. I appreciated the “three cycles” Balibar charts of Foucault’s direct citing and working over of Marx, but I disagree with his conclusions. That said, I did find a copy of Balibar’s Philosophy of Marx and I will check my initial resistance against a closer consideration.

To return from Marx and Foucault back to our COVID-19 days of isolation, let me conclude in all seriousness by emphasizing that the Marxist and Foucaultian attention to production is always an attention to when, where, how, and to whose benefit the status quo is produced and sustained. We live at a time when it’s very difficult to fully grasp just how intuitively and nearly completely we subordinate our time of life to the time of capital (production). Indeed, many of us are familiar with the quip that we are impotent (unproductive) in our attempts to imagine any beyond to capitalism!

But the virus has changed that, right? Now we actually can smell and taste and feel the core contingency of what used to be the status quo (40 days ago!). Workers name and accuse this grotesque, vampiric and zombie-producing system when they go on strike, act as whistle-blowers seeking bodily protection, slouch into corners to sob in affective overwhelm at the number of dead. We professionals–some of us–throw up our hands from our word processors and declare that we simply cannot be productive when thirty thousand co-citizens and over 146,000 co-earthlings have died from this thing. And doesn’t the symptom of the unproductive cough–rising up like the shadow of death–perfectly match capitalism’s unrelenting brutality on those who would dare to be unproductive of the status quo? All of which is to say, obviously, that Foucaultian and Marxist critics should be focusing on the productivity of unproductivity in bringing a different world into our grasp, a world of care and provision, instead of production and profit.

Three Viral Thoughts

ONE.*  THE GEARBOX OF AFFECT JUST THREW THE ENORMOUS FLYWHEEL OF HABIT INTO REVERSE.  William James famously exclaimed that habit is “the enormous flywheel of society. A flywheel is a round device in a car, the spinning of which is ignited by the starter engine. When the car’s wheels start to turn, the flywheel absorbs the wheel’s energies and, using angular momentum, keeps the car moving smoothly, even thought the input from the wheels is sometimes jerky. Said phenomenologically: Human experience ignites our social proclivity to form habits and these habits, using the neural pathways laid out and reiterated by experience, keep society moving smoothly (or at least predictably) through life, even though life is not always smooth (or predictable). With the corona virus, however, the gearbox that throws the car into reverse before the car is ready for it. In the face of the direct, invisible, and rapidly spreading bioinsecurity of COVID-19, affect kicked into gear. Or rather, our collective affect threw our bodies into reverse, breaking our social habits virtually overnight and leaving jagged edges of anxiety, fear and desperation.

James thought it was conscious volition that could imminently redirect habit, but no: it’s affect, specifically the primal emotions that galvanize bodily protection.

TWO. THE WORLD IS MADE FOR TOUCHING HANDS. As I’ve turned this week to gestures and practices of minimizing my engagements with the world, I’ve come to experience in my body what disability theorists have taught me intellectually. The human world is made for hands. No matter where I’ve gone, I’ve wanted to pass through without using my hands and no matter where I’ve gone, things have popped out at me for my hands. In her recent book, What’s the Use?, Sara Ahmed cites design theorist Donald Norman on affordance: “An affordance is a relationship between the properties of an object and the capabilities of the agent that determine just how the object could possibly be used.” The objects of the world (doors, cars, grocery stores) afford the use of hands. Ahmed also cites disability theorist Aimi Hamraie, “Examine any doorway, window, toilet, chair, or desk…and you will find the outline of the body meant to use it.” Examining the objects of my life, I find the outline of fingers and hands.

THREE. WHEN HELP IS LETHAL: THE ETHICS OF SOCIAL DISTANCING. I am an introvert but I enjoy the small and anonymous encounters of daily life, like holding a door open for someone, or stepping in front of a toddler rushing headlong toward traffic, or helping someone at the store get their things onto the cashier’s conveyor belt or into their car. But now, with our mandated self-distancing I find myself watching in grieving abeyance as the elderly and disabled around me struggle with doors, drop things, and try to lift things (see TWO above). The propulsion to help is matched by the repulsion not to harm. This is the ethics of social distancing. It elicits the creativity of other responses: a cheery word, speaking the desire to help, distracting from the struggle of the moment to the situation we share together. In her new book, The Force of Non-violence, Judith Butler argues that non-violence is a revolutionary practice, not a state of being or a singular response to an event. We can practice this practice now, in the abeyance of social distancing that, in making touch taboo, challenges us to connect, to love and assist, to demonstrate honor and respect, in ways that are direct but not physical.


*Now is a rare moment when I wish I had a gorgeous platform for this blog that would allow me to create three text-boxes, each outlined in a different color and positioned at angles such that they make a triangle, the base of which aligns with the left side of the blog “page”. In times of utter social chaos, I seek refuge in aesthetic control, I guess.  I trust anyone reading this to make the requisite effort to imagine this.