Dark Lens: Meltzer’s reflections on ruin/ation

In his 1977 review of Andre Glucksmann’s Les Maîtres penseurs in Le Nouvel Observateur, Michel Foucault succinctly sums up the shifting aims of philosophy from the ancient to the modern periods by stating:

“The first helped Man endure his own death, the last to accept the death of others.”

“Les premières aidaient l’homme à supporter sa propre mort, les dernières à accepter celle des autres.”

Foucault, “La grande colère des faits“, #204 in Dits et Écrits II: 1976-1988 (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2001), p. 278

I happened on this sentence on the same day I read the concluding pages of Françoise Meltzer’s excellent text, Dark Lens: Imaging Germany 1945 (Chicago UP, 2019) and I found Foucault’s hasty summation a rather perfect frame for the sets of questions Meltzer poses about war, suffering, victimization, and the questionable power of images to help us navigate the ethics of naming and responding to the pain of others.

Spurred initially by a box of photographs her (French) mother took of war-ruined Berlin in 1945, Meltzer asks what of ruin and ruination are viewers able actually to see and know. How does medium of representation, or proximity or distance to the events of suffering change what and how viewers see the direct and indirect evidence of that suffering?

Meltzer underscores her mother’s amateur and by-the-by photos of bombed-out Berlin. Her mother was in Berlin as a wife, married to Meltzer’s American father, who worked for the U.S. government. Because her mother was unable to work in Berlin, she took up photography as a way to busy herself, perhaps amuse herself. These happenstance photos form a peculiar portal to what she calls, after Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, a “transgenerational haunting,” an oblique and fuzzy explication for why ruins and ruination are persistently fascinating to her (p. 5). The photos also operate as a kind of experimental control for Meltzer, next to which she examines professional literature and paintings that treat the horrors of World War II. In other words, in light of elite and educated responses to war trauma and ruination by professional writers and artists, how do her mother’s photographs register–what do they register? As such, the book takes shape as an affect-saturated reflection (necessarily partial and impressionistic) on what different representational media contain and enable, and what they omit and constrain.

I am struck that Meltzer begins with what might be called memoir or autoethnography, seven pages in italic font that present the memoryscape of her childhood but also (and also) angle her memories toward the reasons why ruins and ruination haunt her. From this brief but poignant introduction, followed by a more formal introduction to the questions and scholarship of her project, Meltzer takes us through three chapters, the first on literary texts from first-hand witnesses of the war (“When Words Fail: Writing Disaster”), the second on paintings by Karl Hofer and Anselm Kiefer (“Ruination in Painting: Making the Unspeakable Visible”), and the third on her mother’s photographs (“Through a Lens, Darkly: Texts and Images”). These chapters are followed by a chapter that a reflects on the ethical and political judgments that arise in the wake of these media analyses and that asks the unanswerable question of the possibility of forgiveness (“Suffering and Victimization”).

We cannot resist the seductions of the romanticization of ruins, Meltzer suggests (p. 17), and this conclusion only intensifies the inconclusive engagements with the questions she brings to literature, painting, and photography. Below I share Meltzer’s own summary of the questions that “traverse” her book, because she engages them well but of course cannot attain closure on any of them.

Do photographs represent differently, or better, or at all? Is it in fact possible to represent mass civilian death from a distance–any distance–that the photograph provides, and thus manage to see the horror and its ethical implications (i.e., war crimes)? Is the sublime, in Burke’s sense and in Kant’s, such that viewing at a distance, or from a safe place, in fact the only way to gaze on representations of such disasters?

…Can we bear witness to the suffering of others? Can suffering be represented in such a way that the viewer recognizes the targeting of civilians as a war crime, and can respond, not only with a rejection of such tactics, on moral grounds, but also with the will to engage in resistance or activism, to reduce human suffering?

p. 182

I was profoundly moved by this book, affected in a manner that galvinizes me to be impatient with sentimentality, to redirect emotion back to the suffering of the world, far and near.

Giovanni’s Room: On the insistence of love and faith

James Baldwin Giovanni’s Room.

James Baldwin’s 1956 novel, Giovanni’s Room, grapples with the insistence of love that human assumptions and norms make improbable, if not impossible. The story centers on the intimate liaison between the blonde American, David, living aimlessly in Paris, and the beautiful Italian, Giovanni, who works at a Parisian gay bar. Other striking characters swirl around this couple, including David’s American fiancée, Hella (traveling in Spain for most of the novel); Giovanni’s greying, gay boss, Guillaume; and another older and wealthier gay man, Jacques.

The entire plot is narrated by David. It takes place over the course of one agonizing night that will end with Giovanni’s guillotined death at sunrise. After Hella has closed the door on a taxi and on a future life with him, David pauses on his reflection in a window and begins to reflect backwards on all that has led him to this horrible moment. The plot’s tension is structured like film noir: readers are told the end at the beginning, this brute revelation produces the plot’s anxieties, a voice-over guides us through what happens, and the entire spectacle is presented in chiaroscuro.

One single plot element motivates me to post on this novel and that is Giovanni’s backstory of his stillborn son and fury at God, a plot-point I wish to consider in relation both to the novel’s title and to David’s repeated invectives about his “stinking,” “dirty,” “filthy” room.” I feel certain that scholars have addressed all of this, but my limited search through databases and blogs failed to turn up anything substantial. [The exception is Prof. Raymond-Jean Frontain’s essay, “James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and the Biblical Myth of David,” CEA Critic, WINTER 1995, Vol. 57, No. 2, pp. 41-58. Frontain discusses Giovanni’s backstory in one paragraph on page 43 of this essay.]

Giovanni’s words to David are delivered near the end of the novel, in Chapter 4, as David is literally inching his way out of Giovanni’s room for the last time. In one long paragraph, which I cite below, Giovanni tells David that he came from a village in Italy where he had a “girl” who gave birth to a stillborn son:

“I left my village one wild, sweet day. I will never forget that day. It was the day of my death–I wish it had been the day of my death. I remember the sun was hot and scratchy on the back of my neck as I walked the road away from my village and the road went upward and I walked bent over. I remember everything, the brown dust at my feet, and the little pebbles which rushed before me, and the short trees along the road and all the flat houses and all their colors under the sun. I remember I was weeping, but not as I am weeping now, much worse, more terrible–since I am with you, I cannot even cry as I cried then. That was the first time in my life that I wanted to die. I had just buried my baby in the churchyard where my father and my father’s fathers were and I had left my girl screaming in my mother’s house. Yes, I had made a baby but it was born dead. It was all grey and twisted when I saw it and it made no sound—and we spanked it on the buttocks and we sprinkled it with holy water and we prayed but it never made a sound, it was dead. It was a little boy, it would have been a wonderful, strong man, perhaps even the kind of man you and Jacques and Guillaume and all your disgusting band of fairies spend all your days and nights looking for, and dreaming of—but it was dead, it was my baby and we had made it, my girl and I, and it was dead. When I knew that it was dead, I took our crucifix off the wall and I spat on it and I threw it on the floor and my mother and my girl screamed and I went out. We buried it right away, the next day, and then I left my village and I came to this city where surely God has punished me for all my sins and for spitting on His holy Son, and where I will surely die. I do not think that I will ever see my village again.”**

Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room,Vintage International Ebook Edition (New York, 2013), p. 139. Bold added.

This is the entirety of Giovanni’s story, delivered with syntax that flows, cracks, and fizzles around eleven mentions of death, dying, and burial. Giovanni is interned in and by his grief. His “room” is the affective space of mourning for his dead son and of losing the uncomplicated life of marriage, family, and faith he had in the village. His “room” is also the theological space of guilt for having acted out his anger so materially against God, and, finally, his “room” includes the physical spaces of entrapment—the “maid’s room” he shares with David, the upper room where Guillaume tries and finally succeeds in seducing him, and the prison cell.

Framing the story around Giovanni’s grief and around his love for and anger at God, re-frames David’s dismissive use of burial in the previous chapter:

“I’m talking about that room, that hideous room. Why have you buried yourself there so long?” (117, bold added)

as well as David’s anxious thoughts about Giovanni’s prison cell:

“I wonder about the size of Giovanni’s cell. I wonder if it is bigger than his room…” (112).

Giovanni does not lose faith in God, but he does lose the innocent assumption that the promises of God’s love guarantee life, health, and safety for self and kin. He remains buried in Paris not because his God is dead but because he feels his God has punished him for his anger and for his naivety that a life of faith could not include a stillborn son. David is for Giovanni the possibility of resurrection. The love he once had for God and girl might be redirected to David. Just before delivering the story of his dead son, Giovanni cries out to David that he “worked, to make this room for you” (137). It is only in giving himself over to his love for David, a love that insists on blossoming, that Giovanni begins to work on the room, to tear off the wallpaper, to push through the bricks in order to build a recessed bookcase. In telling David about weeping for his son, Giovanni interjects, “since I am with you, I cannot even cry as I cried then.” 

But David, too, is interned; or, David is too interned. He repeatedly kicks Giovanni back into his rooms, into grief, internment, entrapment, even as the reader gets the sense that David’s kick is really aimed at himself. He is haunted by nightmares of his mother’s buried, rotting corpse. He is closeted by his disgust at his desire for men. He buries his memory of his first love, Joey. He constantly disparages Giovanni and his “filthy little room” (142).

The novel ends with potential redemption, in the fully Christian sense of the word, but only as torn fragments:

“I move at last from the mirror and begin to cover that nakedness which I must hold sacred, though it be never so vile, which must be scoured perpetually with the salt of my life. I must believe, I must believe, that the heavy grace of God, which has brought me to this place, is all that can carry me out of it” (168).

Here love’s insistence and love’s impossibility are sutured to a sacredness that is not trite or metaphorical. The double injunction (“must…must”) to believe in a release from his situation through “the heavy grace of God” is neither an obvious liberation into sexual freedom nor an attainment of clear conscience. But it does create an anchor in something like raw vulnerability, a tether that is not without pain, but is a way onward.

Circulation vs Production (Ahmed after Tomba): Affect and Value


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Before COVID-19 changed everything, I read Massimiliano Tomba’s 2013 publication, Marx’s Temporalities (Haymarket Books). Tomba’s compelling discussions of how Marx theorizes multiple levels of time and being brought clarity to a question I have long had about Sara Ahmed’s oft-cited (and wonderful) essay, “Affective Economies” (Social Text 79, Vol. 22, No. 2, Summer 2004).

Tomba’s second chapter, “A New Phenotype” discusses the type of human produced by capital. In doing so, it demonstrates how Marx’s well known delineation of C-M-C and M-C-M in Part II of Capital is a feint. The familiar, street-level, brightly-illuminated exchange and circulation of products is not the real argument, and neither is its inversion from the pre-capitalist, use-oriented economy, C-M-C. Rather, Marx uses the formulaic shift of C-M-C to M-C-M (an inversion drawn from Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics and familiar to Ricardo and Smith) to show how “Value becomes the aim” for capital (84), and also to reveal the explanatory power of circulation as mere appearance, a delusion wrought by the torque of power. As we know, Marx goes on to argue that surplus-value is not extracted through market circulation, but requires occluded exploitation. The real force of capital lies not in exchange but in the blood and sweat of laborers and the surplus labor expropriated from their bodies. Marx’s long chapter on “The Working Day” steers readers away from “free” market exchange and shows us the vampiric conditions of labor extraction. For Marx, then, surplus-value is both in circulation and not in circulation. It is in circulation because it can only be realized as profit through the exchange of commodities, but surplus value is also not in circulation because it is a structural condition of capitalist production. He summarizes in a note toward the end of the chapter:

“It is for this reason that it is logically impossible to represent the capital-labour relationship in terms of equality. That which is formally correct and falls within the rights of the sphere of circulation, the buying and selling of labour-power, becomes an injustice when placed within the production-process, where the labour-power to be provided during the process of labour necessarily entails the wearing out and ruining of the body. Wages pay for the use of labour-power, but cannot pay for the wearing out of the body.” (Tomba 91)

Ahmed’s “Affective Economies” draws on Marx’s discussion of value-creation and makes an analogy to the ordered social circulation of emotions.  The essay doesn’t parse the doubled (or dialectical) layering of Marx’s argument, however; it refers only to Part II of Capital, before Marx takes the reader’s hand and leads us (with Mr. Moneybags) down to the factory floor. Ahmed’s powerful analogy between capital and affect draws from Marx’s sly presentation of the premises of bourgeois economists and not from his subsequent undoing of those premises. She writes,

“That is, emotions work as a form of capital: affect does not reside positively in the sign or commodity, but is produced only as an effect of its circulation….In Capital, Marx discusses how the movement of commodities and money, in the formula M-C-M (money to commodity to money), creates surplus value. That is, through circulation and exchange M acquires more value. Or as he puts it, ‘The value originally advanced, therefore, not only remains intact while in circulation, but increases its magnitude, adds to itself a surplus-value or is valorised. And this movement converts it into capital.’ I am identifying a similar logic: the movement between signs converts into affect.” (120)    

As I’ve said, this account of the formation of capital is slyly partial. It’s true that capital doesn’t reside in a commodity, but it also is not only produced as an effect of circulation. The ruthless effectiveness of capitalism also requires the hidden extraction of surplus value from workers. It takes both the above-ground circulations and the obscured forces and relations of production to generate capital. Likewise, it takes not only the between-bodies circulation but also the obscured, differential gradients of valuation to generate affective economies.

Ahmed is not theorizing Marx, of course, but using Marx to theorize affect. She cites Marx’s theories of capitalist circulation to dislodge contemporary, liberal presumptions that affect is individual and interior. Like Marx’s claims that “value” (as socially necessary labor time) is objective even though it is immaterial, Ahmed shows us that affect is also immaterial and objective. We can’t touch it or hold it like an object, but we can feel affect through its embodied and social dynamics–we can toss it around, dump it on the unwary, disavow it, unpack it, etc. Ahmed attends to these embodied and social dynamics in their public circulation.

But what would be the correlate in Ahmed’s affective economy to the production of surplus-value in exploitation of labor? [Here I happily give a shout-out to Andrew Ridgeway, a graduate student in my spring 2020 Marx/Foucault seminar whose response to Ahmed spurred me to this line of thinking.]

Ahmed seems to answer in terms of shared histories and shared cultural contexts. She cites Freud, for instance, writing that, “the sideways movement between objects, which works to stick objects together as signs of threat, is shaped by multiple histories. The movement between signs does not have its origin in the psyche, but is a trace of how histories remain alive in the present” (126). The same paragraph cites Fanon, shivering in response to a barrage of icy, racist narratives thrown at him by a small white boy. Later Ahmed discusses the post 9/11 assault against Muslim “bodies, psyches and rights” as an economy of hate that requires “stereotypes already in place” even as it cements a new figure of social fear (“the Muslim terrorist”) in the present (131).

But what are the conditions that fuel and sustain the formation of these histories, cultural contexts and already-existing stereotypes? Like the conditions of the factory floor that produce surplus-value through exploitation but are unseen in the public realm of exchange, I suggest that our affective responses may be seen in social circulation but are triggered and sustained by unseen histories of trauma or/and privilege.

Ahmed’s notes at the beginning of her essay:

“I argue that emotions play a crucial role in the “surfacing” of individual and collective bodies through the way in which emotions circulate between bodies and signs” (117)

This is a powerful thesis and crucial insight. And to really flesh it out, I think Ahmed needs something like Silvan Tompkins’ script theory, something that can theorize how emotion works hinge-like between individual and society (cf. Adam J. Frank and Elizabeth A. Wilson’s chapter on “Scenes and Scripts” in A Silvan Tomkins Handbook, Minnesota UP, 2020). For Tompkins, emotion does crystallize in “a” psyche but the psyche is itself embodied and directly networked with others in textured proximities of interest and value (material proximity and digital proximity, say). In this famous essay, Ahmed seems to write about this hinging work from an outside, as if she is observing the “surfacing” of an individual body as “white nationalist” through its reception and deployment of certain signs, affects, and emotions. I’d suggest that this individual body also sediments as white nationalist in the concretion and sustaining of the habits (affective scenes and scripts) formed and maintained by these same circuits of reception and deployment.

Take this specific assertion about one affect:

“Importantly, then, hate does not reside in a given subject or object. Hate is economic; it circulates between signifiers in relationships of difference and displacement.” (119)

For hate to register this way, as an affect worthy (i.e., valuated) to be received and redeployed, doesn’t it have to have other social and embodied anchors? I would posit yes, and suggest that we know this to be true, because we know that very young children do not hate. A young child can be angry, even violent, but they don’t have a narrative thickness of experience that assembles, over time, one scene of negative affect with other, contextualized and associated scenes of negative and positive affect in the child’s life, in loved-ones’ lives, in literature, television, film and social media… such that that first scene–as it repeats and resonates through the psychic and bodily sedimentation of future experiences–can come to be valuated as repulsive, purely negative, and “to be avoided” (or eradicated), that is, as hate.

I am still working through this question, still seeking a firmer sense of the relation between affect and valuation.


Bernard Harcourt, Critique & Praxis (Part IV)


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Bernard Harcourt is a Chaired Professor of Law at Columbia University, a long-time agitator against the death penalty and litigator on behalf of death-row prisoners, and also a well known editor of Foucault’s work and translations into English. In the final section of Harcourt’s massive new publication, Critique and Praxis (Columbia, 2020), Harcourt ably conveys the dire states of our shared world (politically, environmentally) and the urgency he feels to do something. The reader feels strongly–I think every reader will sense strongly–Harcourt’s struggle with the very terms of his feeling of urgency. Even so, he rejects Lenin’s highly situated charge, “What is to be Done?,” and shifts his injunction to the more limited and more humble question, “What more am I to do?”

This blog post cannot do critical justice to Critique and Praxis, not even to the hundred pages of Part IV that I read for a gathering of faculty and graduate students. Instead, I want to sit with the shift of Hartcourt’s shifting pronoun, and use it to think a bit about the genealogy of the “I” and the politics of agency and representation that are leveraged by its use or non-use.

By Harcourt’s account, one motivation for shifting from “What is to be done?” to “What more can I do?” was pushback from law students concerned about the casualness and consequences of speaking for others. Perhaps this is a valid caution, something like an anxious, furious insistence on the one contradiction that will, I assume, frame and constitute their entire professional lives. At the same time, however, I am skeptical about the pervasive, dense, and commoditized iterations of “self” that are seen and mandated in neoliberal U.S. society. Isn’t the refusal of a collectively-charged question (“What is to be done?”) simply a redeployment of neoliberal subjectivation? Isn’t it a refusal of the appropriation of the other in the name of protecting the mandate to self-entrepreneurialize?

I don’t want to feel this skepticism and resistance, and yet I do. Perhaps it’s because, first of all, it seems rather commonplace to avow that any “I” is always both more and less than itself. Do we not learn this from Foucault himself (and other post-structuralists)? Do we not learn this from Audre Lorde and other Black feminists and womanists? To me, one of the many stunning lessons of Lorde’s Sister, Outsider is precisely how her claiming and speaking an “I” is not the same as any white feminist “I”, that her “I” is collective, inter-relational and saturated with (haunted by) historical collectivities. Differently, and yet harmonically, when Foucault writes about his work with the GIP–as least what we can read of that activism until June 2021 brings us Perry Zurn’s edited collection, Intolerable: Writings from Michel Foucault and the Prisons Information Group (1970–1980)–he doesn’t use “je” but “nous” and “on”.

The very language of social urgency is collective. The very grammar of social transformation is plural and inter- or trans-subjective.

Second of all, I have just finished teaching a large chunk of Denise Ferreira da Silva’s Toward a Global Idea of Race to my graduate students. Silva’s book is hard. It musters and manoeuvers a new vocabulary for her “analytics of raciality” in order to show up and dislodge what she calls the “transparency thesis” of hegemonic subjectivity. Her premise is that raciality is persistently produced through the logics of a specific European epistemology and ontology. Because critics of modernity (postmodern philosophers, critical race theorists, sociologists of race, postcolonial critics) continue to use the grammar of this “ontoepistemology,” they continue to replicate the very thing they critique: raciality. Thus, racial others continue to be held on “the horizon of death,” forever killed without ever being completely eliminated. While Silva never quite denominates the “transparent I” as European-white-maleness, she does stipulate that the Other to the transparent I is “affectability” or those bodies rendered by and reduced to affectability. The transparent I she depicts is the Enlightenment’s and post-Enlightenmnet’s rational, self-determined, free consciousness that uses reason and science as tools for keeping the affectable other at bay, or extracting its matter and knowledge for the transparent I’s own use and benefit.

Silva’s argument was in my head and in my pedagogy when I turned to Harcourt’s Part IV and to the gathering in which we discussed it. Maybe this is why I found it distressing to sense no irony or self-distancing from the white, male, stupendously privileged “I” that Harcourt uses in the name of modesty. Although I do understand and really appreciate his desire to avoid appropriation of the other, what I don’t quite grasp–what I would have asked had there been the egalitarian space to do so–is how a Foucaultian (how a white, male, famous Columbia University professor central to bringing Foucault’s œuvre to the U.S.) could use “I” and not see that it, too, is profoundly appropriative, profoundly immodest.

We float on affects in affects that are historically dense and formative. We navigate functions in functions that torque the flows of power in ways each of us can only partially grasp, articulate, or resist. Whoever “I” am, it includes a massive cauldron of privilege and vulnerability that I did not “choose” and also cannot not choose, cannot un-choose. Whatever is to be done, is to be done on the commons that, as Ariella Azoulay puts it, we already share, but share violently–the fact of dispossessions that forms the contours of our marching orders (Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism, Verso). Whatever is to be done might well require a nagging, unending renegotiation of the “I” asserted by and in this work, as my “I” responds to the claims and critiques of those with whom I link arms. But we do link arms, we act as a plurality, a collectivity. We have to. The dying of the world is too urgent not to.

Laura Levitt, The Objects that Remain

Laura Levitt’s newest book, The Objects that Remain is not confessional. I recently participated in a discussion of the book with Dr. Levitt present, and I absorbed a wonderful, far-reaching discussion of its arguments and orientations. One facet that kept returning was how to denominate the narrative of Levitt’s past trauma. We held up words like confessional, personal, intimate, and companionship. Like the objects Levitt writes about–the objects that remain in the wake of trauma, in museums, in personal cabinets, in criminal evidence rooms–these words also channel certain practices and make available certain resonances between non-homologous things. To me, the book is not a confession because the vectoral force of a confession is a circle that leaves the speaking subject only to return to her and to return her self to herself more solidly. Liturgically, confession is a relational speaking, a speaking-with, the point of which is not the relationship itself but the subjectivity and salvation of the one speaking.

Levitt’s careful attention to the scenes of her own trauma do not reveal her ‘self’ to us, her readers, however. Instead, her words initiate a harmonic resonance between the objects in (and of) her traumatic memory and the objects in (and of) other traumas, other experiences, and other wounded sites of memory and loss. In writing toward these resonances, Levitt herself is both in the story and on the banks of its flow, both the object (subject) of reflection–as in a confession–but also able to step outside the flow of the story by showing up the process of thinking and writing. Levitt doesn’t reveal herself for the sake of herself (as would a confession) but reveals the hesitancies, conflicting desires, and writerly frustrations intrinsic to reflecting on and trying to write about trauma. To me Levitt’s formal locutions, which double-over their narrative content without duplicating them, tangibly convey the phenomenology of trauma. Far from enacting a confession, then, Levitt’s book is personal in the way consciousness-raising groups of the 1970s were personal: it teases out how trauma and memory are carried by objects in ways that call into question normative assumptions about subjectivity and justice, for the sake of establishing new forms of self-expression and also new expressions of social justice. [On this point, see J. Oksala’s discussion of C. Heyes in Feminist Experiences, p. 46-50.]

Levitt talked to us about the hard and lengthy task of learning to let go of certainty, and also to let go–or at least loosen–her desire for her day in court, for that specific kind of justice. In writing through this letting-go, in writing against the pervasive tendency to grasp control of the trauma by self-blame or by the fantasy of closure granted by a court trial, Levitt writes into objects and into resonant archives of trauma, memory and loss. In doing so, she writes into companionship. Instead of a confession that requires relation for the sake of building up the selfhood of the one confessing, Laura writes out of herself toward sticky connections with other persons and events that have endured trauma. Perhaps in a manner not unlike Haraway’s writing away from the human with her figuration of “companion species,” we might see Levitt writing away from the trauma victim through her method of what I think of as companion-scholarship.

One example might be Levitt’s torqued use of “justice.” Readers follow her desire for justice as it takes shape in many, changing forms and sites. In the United States, the word “justice” calls to mind the specific site of the courtroom, a place where prosecutors face off with defenders before a judge who is literally seated above them. It is a familiar scene from literature, film, and television and most of us have participated in the catharsis that comes from “winning in court.” But Levitt’s text points to at least two outsides to this fantasized victory: the court’s surrounding carceral system that is riddled with the compacted injustices of anti-black racism, and the countless cases of injustice–like her own–that are closed only moments before they were opened. For reasons that are too complex to engage here, these two “outsides” to the court of law make that kind of justice impossible. Levitt sidesteps them and sets out to “do justice work through the imagination” by a critical engagement with objects that carry the trauma: that is, with relics. Levitt transcribes the sacrality of relics, from bits of matter that refer clearly to some person or thing of transcendent value to cherished objects (or part-objects) whose power is “generative. It proliferates.”

In forming companion-matrices between objects, archives, events, institutions, and persons, Levitt stitches together vulnerability, precarity, and fierce honesty to write justice as a project of the imagination, a project that never leaves the gritty, weedy mess of cultivating an afterlife to the endless reverberations of trauma.

Critique in our year of Zoom



Two nights ago (Feb. 10, 2021), I attended Dr. Larisa Reznik’s lecture on “Critique, what is it (still) good for,” the Religious Studies Stauffacher lecture hosted by Pomona College. Reznik elegantly mapped what I can only call an affecognitive genealogy of critique, examining “the mess of critique-talk” (Reznik) not only concerning what is critique is, the limits of critique, the relation of critique to secular/ity, and even when is critique, but also theorizing the felt orientations of critique–its attitudes and styles, and its attending affects of resistance, seduction, and maybe something like hope.

It was my sixth or seventh zoom of the day, and it was early evening for me on the East coast, so my notes are jagged marks attempting to capture what slid away from me in my exhaustion and digital distance (sigh). But it was such a rich occasion for thought!

As happens regularly on Zoom when I’m trying to meet with my Chair or Dean, Dr. Reznik’s Zoom interface would occasionally break up and freeze. Of course, all of us in the “audience” anthropomorphized the interface, haltingly calling out to Larisa that she was breaking up, that she had frozen. The catechresis is instructive, I think, especially in these COVID days when (really) there is too often too little material difference between our engaging with persons and engaging interfaces. Nearly a full year into this pandemic isolation, and with a weariness frustrated by the just-over-the horizon release promised by the vaccines, we professors are used to collapsing the interface into the person. Even though the simulation is never not dissatisfying, it has pressed itself into normalcy. We hold office hours and seminars. We get done the work of departments. We hold colloquia and host lectures.

But while face-to-face interactions are open to innumerable complications, we do not usually experience a person’s speech–out of sync with their image–as breaking up, stopping, or running fast. We do not usually experience a person who freezes in mid-sentence. With Zoom, we do. And when this happens, the Zoom interfaces will often tell us, as Dr. Reznik told us, “your internet connection is unstable.”

Indeed. I left the lecture for dinner and bed, but not before leaving a comment that this Zoom message might stand as a metaphor for critique that only this year of Zoom could teach us. Maybe critique is something like one’s social network becoming repeatedly unstable. Maybe critique is the courageous practice of pausing when the interface crackles, if only to give sufficient time for noticing it. Our network is unstable, again and again, and we learn to consider unexpected possibilities that might happen during the interruption of the expected.

I’m still pondering Deborah Cook’s book, Adorno, Foucault and the Critique of the West. In it, Cook notes Foucault’s investment in the word autonomy. It’s not an investment I’d really like to dwell on, but the words and experience of Reznik’s lecture gave me an oblique angle into considering it newly, from the interstices of a frozen interface. Autonomy in Foucault is not a separation from one’s context or a mastery over it, but a kind of self-reflexivity or self-(un)folding. It’s a practice on the self that wends its way against or other than the expected practices of our society of norms. It is a modality of being, an attitude, that trains a subject in practices of freedom. Critique orients a subject to the repeated instabilities of her social network for the sake of the live wires of possibility, the lived practices of autonomy.

R.A. Judy, valuation, and the sins of the flesh



R.A. Judy’s Sentient Flesh: thinking in disorder, poiēsis in black (Duke University, 2020) is a massive book in word-count, in density of thought, and in range of citation. I cannot comment here on Judy’s book in any thoroughgoing way and certainly will not attempt to capture its argument in categorical terms, much less provide a critical review. Resolutely writing against substantive thought and hence against ontology, Judy’s book performs an argument in flight. Its conceptual, syntactical flight is successful in that, when I turn my mind to it, when I want to say something about it in honor of its profound working on me (in a feat of sheer virtuosity, as Wendy Truran puts it), the very form of the text slips through my fingers. This book resists simple commentary, short catchphrases, and digestible take-aways.

Still, I find Sentient Flesh incredibly important for my continued reflection on social value and social valuation. The text writes me into a felt sense of how dispositions toward normed valuation are, for non-white bodies, constituted only through excruciating distortions.

I engaged this book with a few cherished interlocutors, and I came to refer to Judy’s semiological argument by the inadequate shorthand, ‘thinking the slash.’ What I mean by this is a kind of condensation of Judy’s imbricated disjunction– the “African/enslaved captive body” (p. 5)–and his reiterative discussion of its dimensions and consequences. Through this locution (together-apart), Judy signals how the vanishing person of the African semiological system is “liquidated” but also “coheres” in the slave-as-property. Put differently, the meaningfulness of the African semiological system—its ability to register and support bodies as persons—persists as “inoperative,” as “distorted but not eradicated” by the interdictions of the Atlantic slave trade and the resulting life of the enslaved captive, who is desirable only as property value and value-making property. The ineradicable slash between person and property indicates, distorts, and sets in flight semiological systems that cannot be synthesized but only lived or practiced “in disorder,” that is, in or through a kind of flight from each other, even as they asymptotically approach or continue to index or haunt one another. Such a dance around the slash is how I try to grasp Judy’s para-semiosis (“the dynamic differentiation operating in multiple multiplicities of semiosis that converge without synthesis”, xvii).

This dance around the slash mutates and supplements my understanding of Foucault’s account of the formation of the society of norms under industrial capitalism. By Foucault’s account, individuals are not character types so much as disposition types, caught up in the sticky webs of life that orient and attempt to dictate a person’s labor force and social relations.  But in non-white bodies, the socio-political bell curve of normalization forms and assesses value systems that are incommensurable and mutually enfleshed, and that surge forth in the wake of histories that are past but not over (person/property).

Normalization generates an enacted range of social approbation and disapprobation; but for non-white bodies, for flesh-as-slash, the distributions of approbation and disapprobation are multiplicitous and unresolvable. Because of the distortions of slavery, for instance, the hard and competent labor of the non-white worker still registers as slothful (if not criminal); the acts of self-care still register as greed. It is crucial to ask not only what it might take for laziness to be transvalued to leisure, but also what “archives of entrapment” (Mbembe) condemn some bodies to the perduring distortions of the slash, and thereby condemn even virtue to be vice, even when this double condemnation does not deny all possibility of (an improper) joy, freedom and love.

Heyes, Sloth, and the Society of Norms

How do we come to value the values we value? The question immediately suggests other questions: who is this ‘we’ that drops so easily from our mouths? What is this ‘coming to’ that signals lived temporal progression? What can ‘to value values’ mean other than to be magnetized by what magnetizes us (thus an affective orientation and economy), even if in refusal or ambivalence? And what are these ‘values’ that we all seem to acknowledge are hanging out there in the social field like ripe fruit for the picking?

I have been thinking these questions, lately, in relation to what are called the seven deadly sins. Inspired by the discussion of drug-time and non-productive time in Cressida Heyes’s new book, Anesthetics of Experience: essays on experience at the edge (Duke UP, 2020), I have begun to reconsider sloth.  Listening to Lydia Millet’s apocalyptic novel, The Children’s Bible (Norton, 2020), a story that impales the self-absorption and ineptitude of my generation for its climate crisis consequences, I have found a better angle for reconsidering Marx’s attention to capitalist greed.

In one of those realizations that really ought to have happened decades ago, I realized that the opposites of sloth and greed are not productivity and generosity. I began to wonder why not. (Arguably, temperance opposes greed, but the vector of action is different. Greed hoards, generosity distributes, but temperance prevaricates. It gives out and also pulls in, seeking the Aristotelian mean.)  Why is the opposite of sloth—or its modern iteration, laziness—not productivity?

This question took me back to Foucault and his account of the development of our society of norms

Reading Foucault alongside Merleau-Ponty, it is clear how much the student learned from the teacher. For Merleau-Ponty, the subject and world co-emerge through perception and action, from a field that is prior to or beneath perception and action, as he repeatedly notes in The Phenomenology of Perception (Landes translation, usually of en deçà de). The subject and world are, he writes, “geared into one another.”

From one perspective, we could say that Foucault acknowledges the phenomenological field that is prior to and in excess of perception but refocuses it as more overtly the weight of history and force of power (pouvoir/puissance). Foucault’s theoretical tools of genealogy and discourse extend Merleau-Ponty’s analyses to index a subject that is not so much ‘geared in’ to the world as fabricated and assembled by it. As Cressida Heyes notes, citing Joan Scott channeling Foucault, subjective agency (and resistance) are not so much “qualities of individuals” as “historical fields” (Anesthetic Experience, 33).

Heyes writes brilliantly from the precepts of critical phenomenology, a wrinkle in phenomenological discourse that aims to pull it into the same theoretical highway with Foucauldian genealogy, even while these approaches continue to occupy different lanes. Heyes takes her cue from Foucault’s attention to “edge experiences,” that is, lived moments that show up—as if in bas-relief—the constructed limits of the self and, therefore push toward a felt grasp of how the self might be constructed differently. Heyes asks whether we have agency during sleep or unconsciousness, and she wonders what feminists lose when we deprive agency and ‘experience’ from women who have been raped while drunk, drugged, or unconscious. Heyes also offer analysis of bourgeois women who are targeted by winemakers in ad campaigns for “Mommy Juice” (Anaesthetic Experience, 111), of women who adore plastic surgery precisely because they are unconscious when their “makeover” occurs, and even, bravely and beautifully, an account of the pain and process of giving birth to her son.

Heyes’ chapters assume Foucault’s accounts of the development of the so-called “society of norms.” In the early nineteenth century, this society of norms arose from intense socio-political efforts to constitute the capitalist worker. This worker was a new thing, a specific kind of subjectivity in a specific social order that was built not only from “orthopedic” practices on specific bodies (disciplinary power) but also from the gradual development of a social matrix of normalization. The society of norms is a complex social field orchestrated personally, spatially, institutionally, and discursively (particularly through the human sciences) around possible actions that fall out on a statistical range from normal to abnormal, with the circuits of power incentivizing the normal range of actions (biopower). Unsurprisingly, this statistical range of behavior is itself parsed quite carefully according to a society’s forces and relations of production. We know this because we know that while sloth or laziness is bad, leisure is, somehow good. That while some subjects sow wild oats, others are criminals. That greed is always ugly, except [ahem] when it’s just good business.

Heyes attends to modes of resistance against the capitalist subject formation, the pressures of which orient us to time and productivity in increasingly intense and brutal modalities. Heyes wants us to slow down. Her chapters theorize both prevailing norms about who and what can slow down, and why it is so hard to do so. She writes, “Agency is not just something exercised in a series of moments that happen in an open field of choice. My agency is also sustained or foreclosed by what other people say and do” (Anaesthetics of Experience, 74). Indeed. We are all caught up and geared in to an pluri-relational society of norms.

As I continue, in the wake of Heyes’s book, to think about how we come to value the values we value, it seems crucial to position the subjects who bear the virtues and vices of late capitalism, not as character types but as disposition types, as particular, crafted modalities for channeling certain practices toward certain ends.  What would it take to transvalue laziness to leisure? More than a self-help book. More than yoga or mental-health days or even collective resistance to neoliberal policies. It might take nothing short of the demolition of exchange relations altogether (cf. Deborah Cook, Adorno, Foucault and the Critique of the West).

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.