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.


Foucault and Cuvier in 1970

  In May, 1969, three years after the publication of Les Mots et les Choses, and a year after the upheavals of May 1968, Foucault presided over a colloquium at the University of Paris’s Institute of the History of Sciences and Technologies celebrating the bicentennial of Georges Cuvier’s birth (1769-1832). I read this colloquium as part of my daily plunge into Dits et Écrits; Lynne Huffer has beautifully translated the presentation and proceedings for us in Foucault Studies (No. 22, pp. 208-237).

I wish for more time (of course)–time to reach back to The Order of Things and forward to “L’ordre du discours”, but I’ll settle for a short note on the status of the individual. The backdrop for me, here, is actually Marx, specifically the Marx of the Manifesto (1848) and the Eighteenth Brumaire (1852).

In turning to Cuvier, Foucault looks for the epistemological seeds of Darwin, not in the crass sense that somehow Darwin could pilfer what Cuvier spent his life growing, but in the much murkier sense in which the epistemology assumed by Cuvier somehow allowed for a kind of cracking. Foucault calls this an “epistemological transformation” of biological knowledge (savoir), particularly pertaining to the status of the individual.

For Cuvier, an individual (e.g, a mollusk or a guinea pig) is an ensemble of (1) anatomical functions that can be compared across different species, and (2) a paleontological inheritance that can be studied in the fossil record and related to differences in environment. An individual, then, is for Cuvier a kind of nodal point between the organic history given to it and the specific anatomical variation that describe its current position vis-à-vis other individuals (which are more or less similar, and which are divided by this very “more or less” into species, genus, class, and order).

Foucault writes that, “One can say that Cuvier was only able to make his system hold together by submitting the conditions of existence to the unity of type. This is what Darwin did, as he says in fact in The Origin of Species (1859): it is to free the conditions of existence in relation to the unity of type. The unity of type is fundamentally no more than the result of [historical and environmental] work on the level of the individual” (Huffer’s translation, p. 214).

I am struck by the resonance between Cuvier’s sense of an individual as a complicated navigation between the constraints of the given (i.e., anatomy) and contemporary constraints of a milieu (i.e, environmental variation), and Marx’s famous opening of the 18th Brumaire, namely, that “Humans make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” Marx, in fact, was keenly sensitivity to what humans “find” or “are given”. His material approach to history wrestles with ways to articulate the possibility of social change in light of the dense weight of the past and also without recourse to the internal will of separate individuals. Humans do act singly sometimes, but we are never separate. We carry our pasts quite literally in our bones and flesh, and whatever future we make, we make together. Cuvier, it seems, knew this intimately.

Darwin, on the other hand, seemed in good British fashion to idolize the prestige of the individual, even while he nudged historical agency to the individual’s reception–suffering, passive–of environmental effects on (basically) reproducibility. Foucault doesn’t put the matter quite this way. He writes, “For Darwin, then, there is one reality that is the individual and a second reality that defines the “varietivity” [“variativité”] of the individual: its capacity to vary. Everything else (be it species, genus, order) is a kind of construction built from this reality’s starting point: the individual” (Huffer’s translation, p. 210).

From one perspective, this difference in the understanding of individuality illuminates what Foucault terms the two thinkers’ openness to “conditions of existence”, that is, to life as a category of that knowledge (savoir) the 19th century would eventually call biology. But from another perspective, might we (well, might we?) see in Foucault’s subtle delineation of the difference between Cuvier and Darwin the political difference between Marx and Adam Smith?

The Queen’s Purse

Sara Ahmed: “Gender is an effect of how bodies take objects up, which involves how they occupy space by being occupied in one way or another” [1]

Paul Veyne: For Foucault, “the dispositif consists of the interface of subject and object.” [2]

download-1 In watching Seasons 1 and 2 of “The Crown”, I am obsessed with the Queen’s purse. No matter where she is or whom she’s engaging, the queen has her purse on her arm, or on the table beside her, or on the floor next to her chair. Sometime I am so focused on spotting the purse that I miss crucial plot elements.

The purse functions, I think, as the not-crown, as the persistent object that marks Elizabeth’s femaleness by the very way in which she takes it up, and in all the ways that matter (that materialize and that have significance) to her personal and public struggles. Unlike the actual crown, the purse is pervasive–it follows her into every public situation. Also unlike the actual crown, the purse is utterly unnecessary. What could a sovereign Queen possibly need to lug around in her purse? Money for a taxi in case her security forces lose track of her? Lipstick? Gloves?   Can you imagine a King regularly sporting a man-purse?

Yes, I am aware of the tabloid revelations that suggest the Queen uses her purse as a signaling device to cut short a meeting or indicate her desire to transition to the next part of an itinerary, but in the television show she carries her purse into closed door tête-à-têtes with the Prime Minister, with her sister, with her husband. These are not situations in which she is likely to signal her staff to assist her. The only scenes in which I don’t see the purse are those in her bedroom. It’s as if the purse is the external marker of her sexed body that is deemed unnecessary only when that sexed body is alone and within a strikingly (if not utterly) personal or domestic moment (the sexuality of a monarch can never be considered simply personal or domestic, right?).

Paul Veyne’s notion of the dispositif in Foucault as that arrangement or ensemble that produces the interface of “subject” and “object” is helpful here. I have come to think of Foucault as theorizing his questions about society (self, science, government, power, etc.) through a triad of interactions that flow between bodies, institutions, and discourses. To merge this triad with his notion of the dispositif as “interface” requires grasping bodies as both flesh and practices of the flesh; institutions as buildings, but also the specific objects and tools of and in those buildings; and discourse as technical terminology and rules of language use, but also specific policies and particular logics of categorization.

claire-foy-the-crown-2-838636The dipositif of the British monarchy is constituted by the interface of the Queen (subject) and her purse (object). It is a dispositif that threads together, expresses, and projects the specific humanity of the Queen–the particular personhood of this monarchical hyper-person. This particular personhood is gendered. As interface, the dispositif produces gender, as Ahmed notes, as an effect of the ways in which the purse-object is taken up, and how the queen-purse assemblage occupies and moves through space. The queen-purse interface produces the general type “womanliness” in and as Elizabeth’s particular vulnerabilities and contradictions, felt in her serving as monarch to and in a stridently patriarchal family, nation, and culture.

[1] Sara Ahmed, “Orientations Matter,” in Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, ed.s, New Materialisms: Ontology Agency Politics (Duke, 2010), p. 251.

[2] Paul Veyne, Michel Foucault. Sa pensée, sa personne. (Albin Michel, 2008), p. 115.

Analogy: Foucault and Merleau-Ponty

Yesterday I finished year 1969 in Dits et Écrits v. 1, the chronological collection of Foucault’s writings. The year’s set of writings almost literally ends with an analogy between the method of Foucault and that of his former teacher, Merleau-Ponty.

Recall that 1969 is the year Archaeology of Knowledge is published. It is also the year in which Foucault notes in an interview (“Michel Foucault explique son dernier livre”) that “this word archaeology embarrasses me a bit” (“Ce mot ‘archéologie’ me gêne un peu“) because it ably suggests two things that Foucault does not intend: a search for an origin (archè) and a digging down to uncover what has been hidden away. Foucault says that, on the contrary, “I am attempting to render visible what is invisible only by being too much on the surface of things” (“je tente de renre visible ce qui n’est invisible que d’être trop à la surface des choses.”) (both quotes from D&É1, 800).

Why is this “rendering visible” an “archaeology”? This question stayed with me as I read through 1969, right up to page 874, where Foucault ends his presentation to the Collège de France for his candidacy:

“In its most general formulation, the problem that I encounter is not without analogy with that which philosophy has posed over the last few decades. Between a reflexive tradition of pure consciousness and an empiricism of sensation, philosophy had the task of finding not the genesis, not the bond, not even the surface of contact, but a third dimension: that of the perception of the body. The history of thought perhaps requires today a readjustment of the same order; between constituted sciences (the history of which is often made) and the phenomena of opinion (which historians know to deal with), we need to undertake the history of systems of thought. But in bringing out the specificity of knowledge (savoir), we not only define a level of historical analysis that has been neglected up to now, we are also forced to re-examine knowing (connaissance), its conditions and the status of the the subject that knows (connaît). (Again, you can find the French on D&É1, 874).

I don’t claim originality here– I am only trying to get into words what I sense Foucault is sensing. Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of perception focuses on le corps propre, the body itself, in ways that sidestep or nullify the contradictions of idealism and empiricism. Foucault’s history of systems of thought seeks a similar mediation. What is the medium that structures meaning, a medium that can be examined without searching for an original referent (an archè) and that doesn’t require uncovering essential or fixed significations (a digging down to uncover truth)? That medium is the systems of savoir, each of which is constituted through words that are strung together or made up or reconfigured in order to record and convey specific experiences (connaissances) and that, in sustaining or maintaining themselves, generate a buoyant matrix (savoir) that is analogous to (and as stable, solid, mutable, and vulnerable as) the living body.  Just as perception requires a body, so connaissance requires savoir. The philosophical labor emerges from the attempt to articulate the unendingly variable relations and differences between the two. And just as the mystery of perception can be sought in the surfaces of the body, not deep in consciousness but in the ways the capacities of the body coalesce and constellate experiences into meaning, so also the mystery of knowing can be sought in the surfaces of language, not deep in some essential meaning but in the systematization of lived and felt connections (suggested and then sustained) that take on the regulatory force of truth.

This is an archaeology that skips across the surface of knowledge instead of digging down, and that seeks not the truth of what or when something was (a pottery fragment, a stela) but the process of how meaning emerges and persists within a horizontal stratification of ordered connections.

Much more to say and consider. But I’m aiming to keep these posts shorter this new year.

This one is for Randy, on his birthday.

Down Girl, non-sexist misogyny, and filmic stereotypes


  I’ve just finished Kate Manne’s amazing Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (2018, OUP). Through a carefully nuanced and clear argument, Manne positions misogyny as the law enforcement wing of a patriarchal society, as opposed to sexism which, she insists, is the heady, intellectual justification for patriarchy. Misogyny, in short, is the police force of patriarchy, while sexism is the court of law.

Approaching the problems of misogyny through this broad separation of patriarchal powers enables Manne to focus on misogyny as having to do with particular acts (of speech or body) that have particular effects on women and girls, such that the latter are taught or otherwise relegated (back) to their ‘proper place’, as the latter is understood by patriarchy. This proper place, according to Manne, is both completely unsurprising and oddly under-theorized. It is that women exist and should exist as givers to men, specifically as givers of “feminine-coded goods and services” such as “attention, affection, admiration, sympathy, sex, and children,” as well as “safe haven, nurture, security, soothing, and comfort.” Women who do not align their attention and service along this giving trajectory—whether out of disinterest, refusal, or temporary lapse—can call out the ‘police actions’ of misogyny, as do women who ask for or assume “masculine-coded perks and privileges” such as “power, prestige, public recognition, rank, reputation, honor, ‘face’, respect, money, status, upward mobility, and the status conferred by having a woman’s loyalty, love, devotion, etc.” (partial paraphrase of the passage, p. 130) Hence Manne’s title: Down Girl, as in the command one gives a pet dog who needs to heel or otherwise back down or off the situation.

Manne’s analysis of misogyny as acts-with-effects helpfully avoids a psychological etiology of misogyny that wrenches discussion toward the depth, extent, and authenticity of a person’s misogyny—including whether their expressed misogyny isn’t better seen as ‘really’ mental illness or about abandonment issues, or problems with their mothers—as opposed to the inter-relational effects of their actions, specifically whether they result in limiting, constraining, or harming women and girls. It also helpfully provides a way to understand the passive and often oblique modes of misogyny perpetuated by well-intentioned liberals (men and women) who don’t think of themselves as sexist and yet act in ways that undermine or exclude women and girls. As Manne writes, inchoate misogyny “will plausibly often be subject to pos hoc rationalization, a well-documented phenomenon in psychology. We experience a hostile feeling toward someone without quite knowing why, for example. Our minds subsequently search for a rationale to justify our ill feelings. Her voice was shrill; she is shouting; and why isn’t she smiling?” (103)

I have witnessed such rationalizations so many times in academia. A faculty member’s inability to handle a woman who doesn’t act within expected norms of femininity is never discussed as an inability; instead, the discomfort and disgust they feel is rationalized as the woman’s being “too political” or “condescending.” Importantly, such a liberal or non-sexist logic (and disavowal) of misogyny helps us understand the continued widespread use of gender stereotypes in film.

Last week I watched Caroline Champetier’s 2012 TV film, Berthe Morisot on Mubi. Berthe Morisot was an accomplished Impressionist painter supported (and thus entangled) with Édouard Manet and who eventually married Édouard’s brother, Eugène. The film shows the impossibility of focusing on Morisot’s artistic talent or life without placing it in the misogynistic context of a society and art world that punished women for remaining unmarried and also for withholding sexual favors from men who asked for them. The film struck me as revolving around the gendered clichés:  the woman frightened of being an old maid; the woman tempted to and scared of becoming a prominent (married) man’s mistress; the new wife, now pregnant, complaining of isolation and boredom; the cowed wife of the prominent man; and the old mother anxious to do whatever is necessary to marry off her daughters. In a film about the agency of a woman artist, the female characters are sunk down into their patriarchally appropriate place. This seems misogynistic to me.

In Rian Johnson’s 2019 release, Knives Out, the female characters are wonderfully varied but also completely stereotypical. Lynda, the aggressive “self-made” woman,  “built her business from the ground up” (with a million dollar grant from daddy) and is much more memorable than her whoever-he-was husband. Lynda acts the man in a man’s world. New-Age Joni is dismissed as fluff, the in-law Donna is set aside as hysterical, and the political cred of daughter, Meg (bought with a Smith College education), drops into free fall when she trades it all for the expediencies of wealth.

But where is the misogyny in this? The male characters, too, receive their punch lines and comeuppance.

Similar to Manne’s self-analysis of watching and enjoying the TV version of the Coen brothers’ Fargo (182-194), I submit that the males characters of Knives Out do not come off as badly as the women. It would be hard to reverse the gender relations in this film and have it work as well as it does and this, too, as Manne suggests about Fargo, indicates how the representation of gender is at the same time the policing of gender. Even the future well-being of the nurse and her family rely in the last moment on a man’s rapid insight and embrace of her essentially “good-hearted” nature.  If she had not abided by the normative practices of womanhood, she would have been glued irrevocably to all the (very familiar) slurs the family threw at her (manipulative, conniving, slut, bitch).

The ethical questions that Knives Out evoke for me–questions about what counts as a good life and whether we are spending out the days and labors of our lives in ways that comport to the flourishing of everyone–are anchored to the politics of gender in ways that remain concerning to me, despite how much I enjoyed the film.


Parasite: No Spoilers

If you have not yet seen Bong Joon-ho’s Palme D’Or winner, Parasite, you should. Like so many other viewers, I am infected by this film and also do not wish to spoil any of its surprises.

I will restrict myself to one image from Parasite–that of a long staircase angled steeply against a wall. It is raining and three members of a family approach the top of this staircase. They are already drenched and they are still far from home. This image from Parasite is not on the web (yet), but the image it reminded me of is.

In Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001), the protagonist, Chihiro gains work but loses her name by the owner of a spirit bathhouse. She knows herself only as Sen (One Thousand); that is, her sense of self has been shortened to a number. At one point, Sen finds herself on the outside of the bathhouse, at the top of a long, steep staircase that clings to the external wall of the bathhouse in precarious liminality. Neither fully inside nor outside the bathhouse, Sen wobbles hesitantly and then practically falls down the stairs and into the boiler room–indicated in the second image (right) by a glowing orange rectangle. In the boiler room, a spider-like man Kamaji directs the bathhouse mechanics of filling the baths with water and fragrances. It also is where we are introduced to tiny soot-ball creatures that seem to be at least alienated laborers, if not out-and-out slaves. The staircase–accessed only from this liminal exteriority–connects the beautiful bathhouse above with boiler room below. What seems interesting–and perhaps parallel with Parasite–is that the division between up and down is not that between no-work and work, or between consumption and production. The bathhouse is a place of work, after all, and the workers strive to satisfy the spirit-customers who, themselves, need to consume the services of the bathhouse because of the arduous labors they perform in the world.

And yet opposition is drawn and it is drawn starkly by this wall-clinging, steep, long, and precarious staircase. The urban staircase in Parasite brought this other animé staircase to mind, and led me to reflect on the divisions it is demarcating.


A word that moves me: Affect

Our faculty colloquium this fall asked colleagues to select one word that motivates our work in religion (teaching, scholarship, or both). My word, unsurprisingly, was affect. These are my remarks:

In turning to the noun, affect, I want to foreground its forcefulness, the way this noun indexes its correlative verb–to affect and be affected, to influence and be influenced– and I want to conjoin this forcefulness with an atmospherics that curiously dis-places agency.

Consider this. Claudia Rankine opens her recent short drama, The White Card, with two images. The first is one of Robert Rauschenberg’s “White Paintings”*, this one a triptych of plain white panels, and second a photograph by Robert Longo titled “Untitled (Ferguson Police, August 13, 2014).”** The photograph is also a kind of triptych, turned horizontal to Rauschenberg’s vertical panels, with two bands of blackness on the top and bottom of the photo and a center band of blotchy lights from police cruisers and tanks that bring the bodies of the police officers into relief. The juxtaposition of these two images works for Rankine to show how the violence of anti-black racism erupts out of the pervasive atmospherics of seamless whiteness.

The work that moves me right now is work on this atmospheric whiteness, this ability for racist norms and racial normativity to be lived and launched transparently, as unnoticeable and—as Merleau-Ponty puts it—as seemingly natural as the tone of light in a room, even while these racist norms and this racial normativity are deeply felt and deeply valued, an affective embrace evidenced most readily by the tremendous resistance to changing them. These questions about norms and normativity hook up with my recent reflections on theorizing religion as and through affective and discursive structures of valuation and transvaluation. Religion for me, these days, denominates collective (i.e., interpersonal and institutional) structures that name, codify, form, train, and ritualize the values that bind members of a collective over and over again. The binding through structures of valuation becomes the material grist for attempts to change, that is, transvalue, those structures. My interest in cinema derives in large part from the fact that directors and writers often evoke and deploy religion in just this affective way—as a shorthand for the characters’ shared values or as a gesture to pressures, practices, or presences that transvalue a film’s diegetically operative values.

My newest questions about the atmospheric and luminous qualities of norms and normativity have pressed me to consider not only how characters are filmed vis-à-vis their surroundings in ways that convey religion as valuation and transvaluation but also how the characters themselves emerge as normed subjects through the navigation of these structures of valuation. In this work I’ve been helped by two philosophers who were influential on the 68ers (Foucault and Deleuze), namely Étienne Souriau and Gilbert Simondon. Both philosophers examine how individuals emerge out of unchosen dependence on surrounding environments, with Souriau emphasizing the instauration of entities through different aesthetic regimes, and Simondon emphasizing the process of individuation out of differential resource gradients of a milieu. Agency, then, or (better) the differential capacities for agency are displaced to questions of environment, structure, and technology.

Taking this back to film and religion, I’m interested to see how the camera itself is functioning as a normalizing force that forms and deforms the persons and objects before it—not only how the camera is a milieu and an aesthetic that gives rise to subjectivities (or something like an individual), on the one hand, and to structures of valuation (or something like religion), on the other, but also how the unfolding of this emergence can cue scholars to the passive, not-quite-conscious, and always affective absorption of norms and normativity that, once extant, become very difficult to change.



Foucault: “the limits of enunciability”

Sean Scully, “Landline Yellow Line”

I return, finally, to Foucault’s early interest in limit. But as the past 12 weeks (!!) have seeped away, I have realized that to return to this question in the context of his relation to the Tel Quel group, on the one hand, and Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, on the other, is too large and complex a task for a blog post. Here is a briefer engagement, which I hope can stand as a promise toward further thinking.

In January 1966, on the cusp of the April publication of Les Mots et les Choses (The Order of Things), Foucault writes to a friend: “Non, ce ne’st pas cela, le problème n’est pas la langue, mais les limites de l’énonciabilité”: “No, not that; the problem is not language but the limits of enunciability” (Dits et Écrits I, 36; the addressee is not named).  The problem–what problem?–is not language (here langue, a linguistic system such as French or Russian, and not langage, a style or pattern of use within une langue), but the limits of enunciability, the limits of the capacity to assert (something)(anything).

What does it mean to pinpoint the limits of enunciability as a problem? At least three things, I think:

  1. It means to seek in language not signification but that which signification borders and excludes. In recognizing that linguistic assertions block out and exclude meaning as much as they ground and substantiate it, Foucault’s attention to the limits of enunciability attends to language as both norm and technology of normalization.
  2. It signals a hermeneutic attentive not to desires or affects that are expressed but to those that are silenced. In sensing that words form channels for desires, Foucault attempts to peer over or beyond the boundaries of these channels toward desires(affects, intensities) that flow against or outside them, thereby evading the limits of enunciability, and leveraging (perhaps) something like encounter or shock with those limits, or transgression of them, or change within them.
  3. It pursues lines of inquiry that sink a scholar into discourse not so as to better understand what is said but rather to tease out, by attending to the space or structure of the work itself, the merest suggestion of those murmurings that limn discourse and steer its functioning without ever breaking through to expression. Such limits of enunciability lead Foucault to distinguish unreason from the binary of reason/madness (to approach, as he writes, the “murmur of obscure insects” (“ce murmure d’insectes sombre”, Dits et Écrits, 192) that precedes the division between reason and madness). Such limits suggest to Foucault that Rousseau’s writing structures language so as to function madly or deliriously, even if it is not itself ‘mad’ or ‘delirious.’ Such limits, finally (for here, skipping the usual references to Roussel and Bataille), lead Foucault in the 1964 Cerisy-la-Salle seminar on the novel to suggest “a chache, a blind spot, something from which one speaks and is never there” (“une cache, un point aveugle, quelque chose à partir de quoi on parle et qui n’est jamais là“). The poignancy and difference of the “new novel” comes from writing from or as this cache, writing words that effectively are limits more than they are indices or referents.