Losing Lauren Berlant

Joining the faculty in 1984, Lauren Berlant had a transformative impact on students, colleagues, and the intellectual culture at the University of Chicago—most robustly, perhaps, in the ongoing conversation named Critical Inquiry. Lauren joined the editorial collective in 1991.  The insight and creativity of Lauren’s critical thinking—about the past and about our present—proved no less field-changing in their editorial work at CI, which included three special issues: Intimacy (Winter 1998); On the Case (Summer 2007 and Autumn 2007); and Comedy, an Issue (Winter 2017, with Sianne Ngai).  Their work will continue to challenge and to inspire. The University of Chicago Press has provided open access to all of the essays that Lauren published in the pages of CI.  

Frances Ferguson and Bill Brown, Editors

Photo by Nathan Keay

ARTICLES

Race, Gender, and Nation in “The Color Purple” (Summer 1988)

’68, or Something (Autumn 1994)

Intimacy: A Special Issue (Winter 1998)

Sex in Public (Winter 1998, with Michael Warner)

Critical Inquiry, Affirmative Culture (Winter 2004)

On the Case (Summer 2007)

Slow Death (Sovereignty, Obesity, Lateral Agency) (Summer 2007)

Introduction: What Does It Matter Who One Is? (Autumn 2007)

Eve Sedgwick, Once More (Summer 2009)

Comedy Has Issues (Winter 2017, with Sianne Ngai)

Humorlessness (Three Monologues and a Hairpiece) (Winter 2017)

TRIBUTES

W. J. T. Mitchell’s “Remembering Lauren on 28 June 2021″

Virginia Jackson’s “Triptych for Lauren

Michael Hardt’s “Love Is a Muscle

Elizabeth Freeman’s “Without You, I’m Not Necessarily Nothing

Caleb Smith’s “The Berlant Opening

Feeling Out Loud: The Affective Publics Reading Group Remembers Lauren Berlant

Kris Cohen’s “Withholding to Show Up

Dana Luciano’s “Untitled, for Lauren

Joseph J. Fischel’s “for lb

Lisa Duggan’s “On Being Difficult

Jenny Holzer’s “COHERENCE IS ALWAYS PROVISIONAL

Katie Stewart’s “After Lauren

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Posts from the Pandemic

Since early March, Critical Inquiry has been publishing a series of short pieces about the global outbreak of the coronavirus. “Posts from the Pandemic” features critical writing by Lorraine Daston, Bruno Latour, Catherine Malabou, Slavoj Žižek, Achille Mbembe, N. Katherine Hayles and others, many of whom are frequent contributors to the journal. Sometimes speaking alone, but often in conversation with each other, these blog posts have touched on the environmental, political, and economic consequences of the spread of Covid-19. The online response to the series has been overwhelming. With over 200,000 views so far, the blog is being read and commented on by readers all across the world. We’ve never seen anything like this. And we hope to keep posting as contributions to the series continue. Thank you for reading and writing!

COVID_IMAGE

 

W. J. T. Mitchell’s “Groundhog Day and the Epoché”

Slavoj Žižek’s “Is Barbarism with a Human Face Our Fate?” (3/18/20)

Nikolaj Schultz’s “The Climatic Virus in an Age of Paralysis” (3/21/20)

Catherine Malabou’s “To Quarantine from Quarantine: Rousseau, Robinson Crusoe, and ‘I’” (3/23/20)

Kyle Stevens’s “When Movies Get Sick” (3/25/20)

Bruno Latour’s “Is This a Dress Rehearsal” (3/26/20)

Joshua Clover’s “The Rise and Fall of Biopolitics: A Response to Bruno Latour” (3/29/20)

Michael Taussig’s “Would a Shaman Help” (3/30/20)

Andrea Brady’s “Hanging in the Air” (4/1/20)

Daniele Lorenzini’s “Biopolitics in the Time of Coronavirus” (4/2/20)

Carol J. Adams’s “Anticipatory Care” (4/5/20)

Norman MacLeod’s “COVID-19 Metaphors” (4/6/20)

Alexander Garcia Düttmann’s “A Letter to Oliver Vogel,” translated by James Fontini (4/8/20)

Lorraine Daston’s “Ground-Zero Empiricism” (4/10/20)

Achille Mbembe’s “The Universal Right to Breathe,” translated by Carolyn Shread (4/13/20)

Peter Szendy’s “Viral Times” (4/15/20)

N. Katherine Hayles‘s “Novel Corona: Posthuman Virus” (4/17/20)

Emmanuel Alloa’s “Coronavirus: A Contingency that Eliminates Contingency” (4/20/20)

Irina Dumitrescu and Caleb Smith’s “The Demon of Distraction” (4/22/20)

Charles Bernstein’s “Covidity” (4/24/20)

Bill Ayers’s “OK, Zoomer” (4/27/20)

John Wilkinson’s “After Lucretius” (4/29/20)

Bernard E. Harcourt’s “On Cooperationism: An End to the Economic Plague” (5/5/20)

Chiara Cappelletto’s “Arguments for a New Aesthetic of Presence,” translated by Samuel Fleck (5/13/20)

Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s “Net-munity, or The Space between Us . . . Will Open the Future”(5/20/20)

Lydia H. Liu’s “The Incalculable: Thoughts on the Collapse of the Biosecurity Regime” (5/26/20)

Leela Gandhi’s “Skeptical Conditions” (6/1/20)

Romi Crawford’s “Connecting Breaths” (6/3/20)

Jenny Holzer’s “COVID-19 / EXPOSE” (6/8/20)

Ewan Jones’s “How to Learn Together, Apart” (6/12/20)

Hannah B Higgins’s “Sonic Images of the Coronavirus” (6/17/20)

Robert Gooding-Williams’s “Revisiting the Ferguson Report: Antiblack Concepts and the Practice of Policing” (6/19/20)

Lennard Davis’s “In the Time of Pandemic, the Deep Structure of Biopower Is Laid Bare”(6/26/20)

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Ocular Truth and the Irreparable [Veil]

Charles Bernstein

Charles Bernstein is the Donald T. Regan Professor emeritus of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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After Lauren

Katie Stewart

Lauren hated academic politics. 

Collaboration took its ferocious place. A bossy push for associational thinking together.

She wanted reaction; she wanted to be edited; she wanted reciprocity.

It was hard to keep up with her. She’d wait.

Our phone calls were long in the tooth. Stories with back stories and speculations, each of us hanging on the other’s every word, she already typing notes, rewriting sentences, feeling-out a  structure of tentative lines around something that seemed to be showing-up.

A phone call accreted a world of words. 

It would open into the funny. The tip into play was the most serious thought we had. Company was in the riff. We held there like card players staring at the colorful miracle of a handful of queens arrived from somewhere, already shot through with intensity, already composing and decomposing.

We sharpened what words we had; we twisted off. Nothing was ever dismissed out of hand though thoughts failed. We’d land in a logic of one thing after another, fragments languishing, bodies laden in the skittish overwhelm of the crisis ordinary, an endless potential, good and bad.

I remember once after a hard session together in Berlin where things happened as we tried or failed to defend each other from attack she came up behind me and threw her arms around my neck like a monkey.

For Lauren, enduring was not a minimalist practice. She showed up.

For her, to be intellectual is to produce new forms for optimism by being in sync with someone, with something forming up in some rickety damaged world.

Work, after Lauren, is a binding to things ideas people smells we don’t know. The binding is what matters in the labor of making a more fitting world for the affects we have.


Kathleen Stewart is a professor in the Anthropology Department at the University of Texas, Austin. She writes and teaches on affect, the ordinary, the senses, and modes of ethnographic engagement based on curiosity and attachment.

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COHERENCE IS ALWAYS PROVISIONAL

Jenny Holzer

She was an ally.

“COHERENCE IS ALWAYS PROVISIONAL” is a warning and a belly laugh.

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On Being Difficult

Lisa Duggan

Lauren Berlant was luminous, intimidating, uncannily perceptive, generous, incisive, devastating.  Their years long investigations of everyday affect, their extensive collaborations, their fierce and capacious pedagogy, their creative vocabulary, had a decisive impact on overlapping worlds of scholarships, politics, and friendship. Lauren  was an extraordinarily influential writer and thinker, and a dearly loved comrade with whom I collaborated and socialized for over two decades.  Their contradictions complicated their impact. A generous collaborator and a withering critic, they were a warm and empathic friend who could also be mean to the people they loved.

The words often used to describe them are brilliant, and difficult. When the first term is used to describe outsiders in elite social or intellectual spaces, the second almost goes without saying. There is something about being out of place and knowing it, about excelling in a sometimes hostile environment, that produces difficulty. In getting to brilliant, the sharp, cutting edges of difficult are often forged.

The use of the term difficult can be confusing. It is usually an invidious epithet, used to demean and discredit people who are principled, forthright, and too direct for the comfort of more powerful or more compromised others. In this usage, it is often misogynist or aimed at others who are socially or politically marginalized (racialized minorities, queer and trans people, colleagues from working class backgrounds, supporters of Palestinian freedom). In this usage it is a weapon of psychologized political and cultural war. Combined with the epithet crazy this kind of labeling can be a very effective tool. I’ve been on academic hiring committees where every single senior woman of color nominated was considered either not accomplished enough (because on so many committees etc. as an institutional and professional token), or if clearly accomplished, she is difficult or crazy (because of refusal to function as an over-committed token).

Lauren was brilliant and therefore difficult in this sense. They irritated complacent gatekeepers.  But there was something else to the description difficult, something familiar to me in my own life as a difficult person, and to many of those close to me. There was some kind of missing social radar, some imbalance in sensitivities (bracingly described in Anna McCarthy’s short stories about Thorny Acres, co-housing for difficult people).  Lauren was easily hurt, but sometimes weirdly unperceptive when they hurt students, colleagues, friends and comrades. This is a common kind of imbalance in assertive, ambitious people with a sense of unbelonging. Always already hurt by the persistent experience of rejection, the push through despite the barriers can develop insensitivity that becomes too cutting, too pervasive.  More unquestioningly privileged and complacent people are often grossly insensitive to others of course, but they are not usually so easily hurt themselves. They are not called difficult or crazy, but maybe just jerks.

Lauren Berlant’s stunning achievement is that they used their uncanny sensitivity to see the affective impact of power over time, to analyze the dominion of neoliberal capitalism’s cruelties in daily lives of struggling precarity, but also to mine the utopian wishes embedded in otherwise crushed hopes. Their imperviousness helped them put their genre bending work out there despite not fitting any disciplinary or theoretical mold.  Lauren’s alchemical trick was to turn the everyday life of difficulty into the dazzling light of brilliance.


Lisa Duggan is professor in the department of social and cultural analysis at New York University and author most recently of Mean Girl: Ayn Rand and the Culture of Greed (2019). 


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for lb

Joseph J. Fischel

“Art humbles theory in its propositional mode, allows an encounter instead of inciting a pronouncement.”[1]

I did not write this sentence even though I did. Time varnishes memory like fantasy fabricates it, as Lauren describes.[2]  But my recollection is this: in the winter of 2011, Lauren wrote that sentence into the first pages of the fourth chapter of my dissertation. Lauren’s was a translation of my effort to explain to an imagined audience of political theorists why I was turning to an archive of films, rather than an archive of other political theorists, to evidence my argument. The argument was that adolescents and adolescence, as idealized abstractions, offer countermodels against the suffocating sovereignty of liberal personhood, the rigid taxonomy of modern sexual orientation, the gothic figures of the sex predator and the innocent child, and consent as a moralized, underperforming guarantor of sexual freedom. All this from Superbad, more or less. I have hyperbolized here my already-ambitious argument, but I figured if Lauren successfully squeezed a theory of intimate citizenship and national belonging out of a 22-minute The Simpsons episode, why not give big thinking a shot?[3] “One must refuse the intractable’s demand to experience pre-defeat.”[4] Most importantly, they taught me that big thinking, politically emancipatory thinking, is too often desiccated by pronouncement or prescription.  To allow an encounter, and to build solidarity out of that encounter, is to reperceive or sustain the inconveniences, incongruences, and contradictions of others.

I rear-ended into this essay’s epigraph—my/Lauren’s claim for the political theory of film—when control effing for “Berlant” in my first book (the dissertation’s final draft), as if I could enumerate by citation the influence Lauren had on my scholarship, research methods, and teaching. Ha ha, Lauren would have said. In bluntest terms, Lauren inverted consent as my normative gold star (if we get consent right, sex will be unsexist and nonviolent) to my central object of critique. An object of critique, Lauren modeled, is the opposite of an object of cynicism. Our cruelly optimistic attachments to consent require an analytic that is caring and careful, neither trashing nor glib.[5] In the 1990s, Lauren explained that our national sexuality was heterosexuality, and they so spectacularly surveyed the political imaginary and collateral damage that heteronormativity conjures and obscures.[6] I came to propose, building off Lauren’s work, that by the early 2000s adult consensuality was rivaling heterosexuality as nationally endorsed. This was not an altogether unwelcome development, thus demanding greater interrogation, not less.

Lauren would email me troves of articles and podcasts, book, film and television show recommendations, stand-up routines, cartoons, and whatever else pertaining or proximate to my research.  They did this for countless others, exhibiting to their students, and therefore to their students’ students, that archives ought to be wildly expansive, promiscuously interdisciplinary, multimedia, alive, sometimes funny, enriched by your friends.  Co-teaching a class titled Sex & Ethics with Lauren around 2009, I discovered that the interdisciplinary, multimedia syllabus is a pedagogic gold mine for students too, students aching to make sense of their historical present, to countenance their present as historical.[7]

Lauren revolutionized my thesis, thinking, teaching. They also taught me how to watch a film as a theorist and not just as a supplicant; how to theorize cultural artifacts in relation to social problems; how to generatively engage challenging material with students, that is, how to stage a scene of learning to be a scene of learning; how to offer feedback to colleagues and comrades that is fierce yet facilitative (“constructive criticism” does not quite capture Lauren’s modus operandi; it was more like “the way a Band-aid covering an unhealed wound will take away part of the wound and its bit of healing with it … an opening of the wound to air … a foundational condition for the next steps”);[8] how to record attachments and identifications as partial and ongoing, nourishing and relieving;[9] how words lubricate thought, despite but more surely because of the “distancing mediation of speech.”[10]

About words, I hope the first sentence of this tribute hooked you. I learned the art of first sentence seduction from Lauren.  “You are a better writer than I was when I was a graduate student,” Lauren once said to me in a dingy grey basement cafeteria at the University of Chicago. As my ego began to bloat, they side-smiled, “but then again, I didn’t have me.” Lauren was being neither hubristic nor a jerk. Their caveat took me down a notch and betrayed an outward confidence that female-bodied scholars rarely possess. This does not mean Lauren was without their insecurities.  Late in 2009, after I gushed to them that their review of Leo Bersani and Adam Phillips’ Intimacies and David Halperin’s What Do Gay Men Want? was fabulous (and for me, paradigm-shifting), they replied something to the affective effect of, “who am I to be writing about Leo Bersani?”[11] To which I answered something to the affective effect of, “who am I to be eating lunch with Lauren Berlant?” My suspicion, which feels Berlantian, is that academics who never suffer imposter syndrome are assholes.

“Italics make you look anxious,” Lauren once commented in the margins of another dissertation chapter, drafted more than a decade ago.  I recall this sentence—I hear Lauren say it, even though they did not—whenever I write anything.  I imagine I was not the only beneficiary of this insight. After I draft an essay or book chapter I comb through the text, de-italicizing words or phrases that I thought demanded super-duper emphasis. What Lauren meant was: italics imply you are unconvinced by your own claims, so fancy typography stands in for an argument that should have been better made, or for an argument that was made well-enough despite your anxiety about sharing it with readers.  I relay this advice, hat-tipping Lauren, to all my students.

Two final examples of Lauren’s marginalia on my dissertation that forever bettered my writing and my thinking and my life: 1) in the second chapter, I had written the phrase “Justice Kennedy believes,” and Lauren had scribbled back, “you have no idea what Justice Kennedy believes”; 2) in the third chapter, I too hastily glossed 1990s US welfare reform, to which Lauren wrote “this is bad history.” I learned not to take short cuts from Lauren, to not let fancy words or superlative (and tendentious) adjectives substitute for textured intervention. And I learned too that claiming to know or report what is in the head of this or that public person or stakeholder (“Justice Kennedy believes”) is hardly ever accurate and almost always uninteresting.  The admonition against telegraphing others’ thinking x or believing y was generative if a generative admonition is not an oxymoron. It helped shift my research focus away from motives, intentions, and the psychic life of anyone to effects, affects, sexual climates, space-making and power.  Absent such a shift, one could never think a thought[12] like, “My mother died of femininity.”[13] Lauren enabled me to register the yawning gap between desire and consent; one can, and girls and women too often do, consent to sex that is undesired, unpleasant, or unwanted (Rebecca Traister and Robin West mind the gap, too).[14]  What does this mean? That consent, a moral-turned-legal concept, may be an alibi for rather than a solution to gendered suffering. Sometimes I think I concentrate my analytic energies on consent, law, and institutions because I do not have Lauren’s capacity to theorize desire, love, and sociality.[15]

Lauren came to give a talk at Yale University in December 2012 on Mysterious Skin and flat affect.[16] I had been working at Yale for the prior three months as an assistant professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. It was the unicorn job of the academy, yet I was miserable and ashamed by my own misery. I felt alienated from my colleagues and inadequate to my students (things got better). As we drank Vitamin Zeroes in the lobby of a swank hotel, Lauren said they were unsettled because they had never seen me anhedonic. I asked what anhedonic meant. A few years later, I recalibrated my research in the service of promoting a “democratically hedonic sexual culture.” Thank you lb. When it comes to pleasure, I am not utilitarian. But the pleasureless life, a life without “the optimism of a fundamental attachment,” is not worth living.[17] Feeling pleasureless? It might be political.[18]

After Lauren gave their lecture, a graduate student asked a pedantic question thinly disguising that he knew better than Lauren about Lauren’s object. For academics, this question is all but self-parodic, memed into mundanity.  “You are so good at answering your own question,” Lauren gently reproached the young white man, “why do you need me?”     

The audience giggled at Lauren’s chide. The chide was a necessary corrective, not least to detoxify the drab gender politics stinking up the room. Here is the pedagogy Lauren was serving, just shy of a performative contradiction: one does not need to shit on someone else’s thinking to index their own intelligence. I use that line—you don’t need to shit on others to index your own intelligence—on the first day of class for every seminar I ever teach. I think of it as a Laurenism.

I came across the textual version of Lauren’s comment as I reread some of their work in preparation for this essay. Lauren is asked in an interview to make sense of the affective atmosphere surrounding the assassination of Osama bin Laden, but the interviewer, Jordan Greenwald, provides some insights of his own along the way. “You answered your own question beautifully,” Lauren offers, before proceeding to deliver one of their characteristically luminous diagnoses: “One really big difference between political institutions and people is that people are able to manage ordinary affective incoherence and disorganization with much grace as long as their anchors in the ongoing world or the ordinary feel sufficiently stable.”[19] How terribly prescient and presciently terrible as we witness so many right- and good-minded folks pummeled into polarity “by the media’s anxiogenic sensationalist analysis.”[20] In any case, what struck me is how this time, Lauren’s response (“you answered your own question beautifully”) alley-oops their interlocutor as someone to learn with and to learn from. Lauren, by way of Eve Sedgwick, criticized reparatively, refusing Scorched Earth Theory.[21] What a gift for our (inter)disciplines, underappreciated and underemployed by my colleagues and by me, the “splashi[ness]” of reparativity notwithstanding.[22]  

In their final years I failed Lauren as a friend. I sensed that Lauren wanted renewed closeness between us and I could not deliver. I apologized for my absences a lot. Mercifully, Lauren recognized my suffering as a blockage to bear theirs, which meant they also revealed to me that I was suffering. At the time Lauren got sick my family was in great and overdetermined pain.  For too long I could neither see nor manage my own hurt because I thought my social advantages immunized me from injuries. A powerful thread of Lauren’s scholarship is that getting by under conditions of late capitalism and failed infrastructures is attritional and exhausting, even as attrition and exhaustion are asymmetrically patterned by inequality.[23] “We are all combover subjects” now.[24] Still, I wish I had been there for them.

A second wish: that Lauren could revise this essay. It would be better.


Joseph Fischel is associate professor and director of graduate studies and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Yale University


Thanks to Katie Lofton for her Berlantian review.

[1] Joseph J. Fischel, Sex and Harm in the Age of Consent (Minneapolis, 2016), p. 135.

[2] “Memory is the Amnesia You Like” (Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, “Sex in Public,” Critical Inquiry 24 [Winter, 1998]: 549).

[3] See Berlant, The Queen of American Goes to Washington City (Durham, N.C., 1997), pp. 25-52.

[4] Berlant, “Sitting on an Airplane, A Mule,” Supervalent Thought, 18 Sep. 2010, https://supervalentthought.com/2010/09/18/sitting-on-an-airplane-a-mule/.

[5] “An optimistic attachment is cruel when the object/scene of desire is itself an obstacle to fulfilling the very wants that bring people to it: but its life-organizing status can trump interfering with the damage it provokes” (Berlant, Cruel Optimism [Durham, N.C., 2011], p. 227).

[6] Berlant, Queen of America, pp. 15-19.

[7] See Berlant, Cruel Optimism, pp. 4-11.   

[8] Berlant, Queen of America, p. 81.

[9] See Lauren Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (Durham, N.C., 2008), pp. 9-14.   

[10] Berlant, Cruel Optimism, p. 224.

[11] See Lauren Berlant, “Neither Monstrous nor Pastoral, but Scary and Sweet: Some Thoughts on Sex and Emotional Performance in Intimacies and What Do Gay Men Want?Women & Performance 19 (July 2009): 261-73.

[12] See “‘What Would It Mean to Think That Thought? The Era of Lauren Berlant,” The Nation, 8 July 2021, https://www.thenation.com/article/culture/lauren-berlant-obituary/.

[13] Berlant, “For Example,” Supervalent Thought, 16 May 2012, https://supervalentthought.com/2012/05/16/for-example/.  

[14] See Rebecca Traister, “The Game is Rigged,” The Cut: New York Magazine, 10 Dec. 2015, https://www.thecut.com/2015/10/why-consensual-sex-can-still-be-bad.html, and Robin West, “Consent, Legitimation, and Dysphoria,” The Modern Law Review 83, no. 1 (2020): 1-34.  

[15] See Berlant, Desire/Love (New York, 2012). 

[16] See Berlant, “Structures of Unfeeling: Mysterious Skin,” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 28 (2015): 191-213.

[17] Berlant, Female Complaint, p. 14.

[18] “I close with the slogan that will be on [Feel Tank Chicago’s] first cache of T-shirts and stickers: Depressed? … It Might Be Political” (Berlant, “Feel Tank,” in Sexualities in Education: A Reader, ed. Erica R. Meiners and Therese Quinn [New York, 2012], pp. 340-43).

[19] Berlant and Jordan Greenwald, “Affect in the End Times: A Conversation with Lauren Berlant,” Qui Parle 20 (Spring/Summer, 2012): 76.

[20] Berlant, Cruel Optimism, 225.

[21] See Lauren Berlant, “Reading Sedgwick, Then and Now,” in Reading Sedgwick, ed. Berlant (Durham, N.C., 2019), pp. 1-5.

[22] Ibid., p. 4.

[23] “We are all contingent beings, and life proceeds without guarantees, just with more or less reliable infrastructures of continuity” (Jasbir Puar, “Precarity Talk: A Virtual Roundtable with Lauren Berlant, Judith Butler, Bojana Cvejić, Isabell Lorey, Jasbir Puar, and Ana Vujanović,” The Drama Review 56 [Winter, 2012]: 166).  

[24] Berlant, “Humorlessness (Three Monologues and a Hairpiece),” Critical Inquiry 43 (Winter, 2017): 308.

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Untitled, for Lauren

Dana Luciano

The first thing Lauren ever said to me? “I see you’re the kind of person who uses exclamation points!” We’d just been introduced; they were sitting in front of me at a lecture (some queer-theoretical something or other, I imagine; it was the fall of 1993), and they’d glanced down at the pad on which I’d been scribbling notes—punctuated, evidently, with exclamation points. (I was young.)  It was pure Lauren, funny, with a caustic edge neutralized by charm: they were teasing me, but it was also their way of asking what had so excited me about the lecture. I have no idea, all these years later, what excited me about the lecture. It’s been replaced in my memory by the momentousness of an encounter that would turn into mentorship, then a friendship, that would energize me for decades to come.

Lauren had a preference for the ellipsis. An ellipsis, for them, marked a number of distinct, even contradictory, possibilities in the break it made between a sentence’s beginning and its end. An ellipsis could be “a figure of loss or plenitude.” They described their own thought as elliptical in that it grounded itself in concepts while seeking to remain live, in process, to permit “unfinishedness” and movement. If you’ve read even a paragraph of their writing, you know how precise it was, how closely it followed the contours of their thought. But part of Lauren’s brilliance was how keenly open they were to not knowing everything already. New objects, complicated concepts, other people’s experiences and ideas extended opportunities to learn a thing or two, to be surprised by an unexpected observation, an intriguing impulse. And being present to such opportunities meant maintaining both a fierce attentiveness and a certain porosity, remaining, as they wrote of José Muñoz, “open, interested and attracted to the surprises” that punch holes in the present which enable us to catch sight of the possibility of worlds beyond the historical present, and perhaps to experience touches of them.   

Lauren described their later critical method as reading with. Reading with texts, with collaborators, with friends, meant attending closely to the strangeness of their ways of thinking, writing, being, so that one might be disturbed. It exposed one to moments of nonsovereignty—not world-shattering, just experiences of double-vision, “see[ing] with the perspective of an object, while also moving through the world in your difference from it,” meant to shift things a little.[1] They possessed a related and remarkable talent for being with colleagues, students, loved ones. They weren’t superhuman; like everyone else they could be distracted, exhausted, annoyed, bored. But when they showed up, they managed to magnetize and redistribute whatever needed to be in the room. An entry on their blog, Supervalent Thought, narrates the experience of giving a visiting lecture and seminar, tired out from being on all the time, sick of their own voice and feeling inadequate, yet still reminding themself to be present, to be “game,” to keep the conversations in “a circulation mode that allows an exchange of fluid in the middle of the water crisis now and always coming.” No romance of blissful community; they were too attentive to the less romanticizable affects—ambivalence, aggression, distraction, detachment—for that. But the kind of sustenance that managed to remind one of the world-altering possibilities resonating out from the “noise of relation’s impact.”[2]

How do you mourn someone like Lauren? Freud tells us that the world, for the mourner, becomes “poor and empty”; that the mourner loses interest in the outside world, turning away from activities not connected with the lost object as they sift through memory images connected with them.[3] But every memory of Lauren reminds me of their interestedness, their attentiveness. Even their writing on modes of detachment—flatness, withdrawal, humorlessness, suicidal ideation—finds in these means of staying in the world. I’ve never been entirely at ease with Freudian mourning; its tidy depiction of the ego’s narcissistic need to sever its attachment to the lost object seems to bypass the possibility of maintaining some degree of nonsovereignty, both as affective necessity and as ethical orientation. At the same time, I’m not wholly persuaded by the revisionary claims of queer melancholia—its conversion of the melancholic inability to decathect from the dead into a defiant refusal to abandon them—even though I’m moved by its utopian aspirations. But its marshalling of affect as resistance leaves too little room for the pain of loss, the thudding recollection that the object is really gone. More than once, writing this, I’d muse over what Lauren might have meant by a word or a phase—ellipses, really?—and think I’ll ask her, then blink, the hand that had already been reaching for the phone balling itself into an anguished little fist instead.

Yet grief’s unbearable withoutness demands some form of being-with, some way of sustaining the presence of the object as we try to make worlds out of whatever we have left. Lauren’s description of José, above, came from a paper they wrote, some years after his death, about Cruising Utopia, a paper that worked through the ongoing incomprehensibility of his death by reading with his writing, closely and caringly, attending to his attention to queer comings-together. They wonder whether one of José’s embodying concepts could be extended to what they are doing in the paper, which is “staying near a body who at this point is a referent, concept, and memory and whose voice, which is part of the body after all, still chatters away in my and many of our heads.” The paper is loose, unrevised, bearing the impress of the event at which it was presented. I don’t know if they later reworked it, but I like this version: it carries their own voice so palpably with it.

The night after Lauren died, wanting to hear their voice however we could, Dana S., Jordan, and I pulled together a flash online memorial, a small happening based on an idea Lauren themself had given me. They’d been asked to say a few words honoring José at some queer event a month or so after his death, but they didn’t want to speak alone. Instead, they suggested, we could make it collaborative, everyone bringing four sentences of Jose’s that they loved and reading them aloud, loudly. The event never happened for some reason, but the idea, like so many of Lauren’s, stayed with me over the years, and we thought it might begin to shift the weight of our loss the tiniest bit. A few dozen people signed on, a few dozen Zoom windows, glimpses into a few dozen rooms. We read our sentences. Mine were about what we do when we revise a sentence. I finished them quickly and then listened to the buzz of so many people giving voice to Lauren’s words. It seemed to take a long time to finish. After we did, we all looked at one another, moved and a bit uncertain. Someone asked if we could collect our sentences. A Google doc was created. Then Anjali told a deliberately terrible joke to close things, and we all waved at one another and signed off.

In the paper about José, Lauren adapts Bracha Ettinger’s term withnessing, which they gloss as “staying alive in sync with a situation of loss.” They use it to describe the activation of queer energy in protest—Jose’s account of a vigil for Matthew Shepard that turned into a defiant march against all homophobic violence, a queer presencing on the street that insisted, in Lauren’s words, “on the right to the version of the city it want[ed].” I don’t know if they’d accept my own adaptation of the term to a loss differently instantiated, a staying-alive differently paced. But if a version of withnessing can index our (myriad, ongoing) demonstrations of the living-on of the vitalizing effect of Lauren’s practices of reading- and being-with, even in the situation, our situation, of withoutness, then it’s a word I want, as long as their words remain to us.     

One of the last things Lauren said to me, a sentiment they shared, I think, widely: “I still look forward to waking up. I hope you do too.” Waking up to a world without Lauren is hard. It leaves me flailing. The hopefulness, and now the heartbreak, of those sentences devastates, but also sustains me. I don’t think that will ever stop. I hope not.


Dana Luciano is associate professor in the Departments of English and Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University, where she teaches queer studies, nineteenth-century US literatures, and environmental humanities.


[1] Lauren Berlant, “Genre Flailing,” Capacious: Journal for Emerging Affect Inquiry 1 no. 2 (2018): 161.

[2] Berlant, “Afterword,” in Berlant and Lee Edelman, Sex, or the Unbearable (Durham, N.C., 2014), p. 250.

[3] Sigmund Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (London, 1957), 14:246.

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Withholding to Show Up

Kris Cohen

I’ve found myself, in the wake of Lauren’s death, in the weird position of being stuck in exactly the kind of treading water temporality (continually just not drowning) that Lauren always described so well, while also trying to learn how to have patience for that stuckness in ways that I also learned from Lauren . . . or am still learning . . . or have never learned well enough. I’ve wondered, uselessly toggling: Did Lauren leave us possible worlds to strive to inhabit better, or in leaving did they leave us to a more straightened world? When faced with that kind of question—this or that, good or bad, revolutionary or regressive, world or worldless—Lauren would sometimes say: “I’m not that kind of person” and then laugh their staccato laugh, a laugh that was both spontaneous and careful, the one that offered a kind of cushioning for a response they knew was likely to be destabilizing, that a certain kind of interlocutor might take as a rebuke. What I think Lauren meant was: I don’t think that way, I don’t think the work of theory, or writing, or experimental thought, or just a conversation in which one makes oneself vulnerable to others, is to judge, to decide, to pantomime a kind of compensatory sovereignty—it is learning to make different worlds possible.

There’s a related disposition I’m still trying to learn from Lauren about how to pay attention to things . . . what Lauren often called cases, but which we could also call aesthetics, or experiments in social form, or just improvisatory collaborative thought. Cases are the objects that we study in the hopes that they will teach us something, although those hopes are also fraught with worry because learning requires unlearning. Sometimes we collect cases, as in a research project; sometimes they collect us, as in the death of someone we love. Then I remember that Lauren gave us so many ways to re-think that very contrast, the fantasy that there needs to be an opposition between control and the loss of control, between intention and that which turns intention inside out, between what we do and what is done to us—they were always trying to let a relationship (with one’s cases, with friends and mentors) dissolve whatever resources one had for holding something stable, be it object or self. The case in Lauren’s writing and thinking—be it a musical, a deadpan performance, the insider secrets of an intimate public, a concept, a desire, John Kerry, a comb-over, a classroom, a cat’s will to power—was never an example in the sense of upholding a relationship to something larger. Cases, in their hands, didn’t shuttle us to a higher plane of meaning. But neither were they singular in the sense of universal, something great or powerful in and of themselves. It’s not, in other words, that their cases didn’t exist in a world alongside other objects, participating in an always unevenly distributed present tense. It’s that Lauren never let them fall out of a world in order to make examples of them, in order to grace them with the gift of the critic’s acumen. They always brought along the entire mess, invited it. Reading their work, the thrill doesn’t come from the sense of being in the presence of a virtuoso close reading. It comes from the sudden, shocking awareness that description could DO that, could BE that—that that film, that lyric, that political phrasing contained (all along) the possibility of its own unraveling, its own dissolution, and therefore the possibility that another world, a world more possible for more people, could become thinkable in the face of, alongside, in the slow unlearning of . . . that.

Lauren tried to work in a scene where entities came together in a mutual undoing—or, said in the soft hierarchical vocabulary of Liberalism, where a nonsovereign met with another nonsovereign. That was the aspiration anyway, and the effort was measured by aspiration more than achievement, which is why Lauren was always talking about wanting to become a better writer. How does one become pedagogical while refusing the power of the exemplum, the power of the critic to determine what matters and why? What amazes me, every time I read Lauren’s work, is how magnetizing it could be to watch the objects and subjects of writing undo each other, to watch things working together to give up on the fantasy of becoming large, powerful, properly analytical, or stably coherent in encounter with another, which is to say, in encounter with the world. What if criticism, in wanting to resist supremacies hard and soft, didn’t exist to help us learn to be more confident, mimicking those forms of control—what if it helped us learn how to experiment with, to live inside the awkwardness of ceasing to be what we were, of ceasing to cling to whatever shreds and shards and compensations we had? Lauren’s sentences, their phrases, bore the strain of the effort of continually asking that question—it is difficult to give up the grammars of self-empowerment, the compensations of criticism, the confident, orienting assertions of what Eve Sedgwick called strong theory. It was the work of a lifetime.

The first thing Lauren said at my dissertation defense was: “As you know [staccato laugh], you and I disagree about some things.” Actually, I didn’t know. That’s what was really funny about that moment. “As you know”—a conspiratorial phrasing. It included me in a relationship that I didn’t even know was possible. It placed me on the inside of an intimacy, just not the intimacy I had thought I was having, which was, unsurprisingly, the kind that I knew how to have. At the time, faced with the need to defend my dissertation, my brain scrambled to identify the sticking points of that disagreement. Now, I think more about its form, its offer to live together inside an undoing, an unraveling, that could nevertheless feel sustaining (sometimes), promising a kind of ballast for the privations of unlearning.

Because, despite how long and patiently they dwelt with stuck relations, treading water, flailing in stasis, they were a heterotopian through and through. I don’t mean despite; I mean because. Lauren was uniquely committed to maintaining contact between the stuck and the utopian. Their work tried to sustain optimism while never letting us forget that awkwardness, antagonism, anxiety, loss, ordinary destabilizing difference would continue into whatever utopian future one could imagine—should continue! Still, the openings Lauren left were large, teeming with thought and promise, and it can feel now that they are closed. I don’t have a way to make that feel better, to redeem it, or make a lesson out of it. Yet, the forms of life Lauren fought all their life to make space for—minor literatures, weak theory, lateral agency, small objects—these were anything but redemptive or heroic (though one could feel temporarily enlivened by the oxygen they created around the airlessness of norms). Rather, they were all models for learning to make a world by giving up a world. I guess Lauren was always preparing us for life after Lauren.

So, what happens now? Show up with everything you’ve got . . . this is something Lauren said a lot in settings where the aspiration was to learn something, to collaborate, to build relations through undoing power rather than consolidating it. So we show up with our losses too, our uncertainties, our incoherence, our bereavements. It’s the lesson I’ve always found hardest to learn. It’s harder now. Maybe I don’t want to learn it; maybe I’m not ready. Well, as you know, I can imagine Lauren saying, there is no guarantee of living with in living on. I hope that voice never stops talking back to me, washing over my defenses, never stops nudging me to acknowledge that being stuck isn’t the obstacle to moving on, but its source and sustenance.


Kris Cohen is associate professor of art and humanities at Reed College. He works on the relationships between art, economy, and media technology, focusing especially on the aesthetics of collective life. His first book, Never Alone, Except for Now (2017), addresses these concerns in the context of electronic networks. His current research explores the way that black artists, working in the wake of the Black Arts Movement, engaged a set of earlier computational technologies.

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Feeling Out Loud: The Affective Publics Reading Group Remembers Lauren Berlant

The Affective Publics Reading Group (Katarzyna Bartoszyńska, Kris Cohen, Gerard Cohen-Vrignaud, Rachel Furnari, Luis-Manuel Garcia Mispireta, Laura-Zoë Humphreys, Adam T. Jernigan, Andrew R. Johnston, Leigh Claire La Berge, Michelle Menzies, Anahid Nersessian, Scott C. Richmond, Jennifer Tyburczy)

In 2006, at the University of Chicago, in the wake of a class Lauren taught regularly called “Intimate Public Sphere,” a para-institutional form was born, in the university but not of it, nor about it—though definitely bruised by it. Lauren taught us that publics emerge through their orientation to common objects and scenes. The lesson was so vivid that we established our own “intimate public sphere” to supplement the institutional form of the classroom. Conventionally, this was a reading group. Affectively, it was a refuge from some of the more constraining ways that graduate school reproduces itself. We were a diverse bunch, hailing from anthropology, art history, literature, cultural studies, music studies, queer studies, performance studies, and film and media studies, all variously disenchanted with disciplinarity as we were coming to know it. We were galvanized to and by what Lauren often called a “concept-cluster:” the affective public.

AffPub is what we came to call the group. We all had some questions about how collective worlds were built, and lived, in relation to affects, questions that emerged in our own work, and that eventually changed what we had thought of as our own work. But we were also galvanized by Lauren, their work, their thinking, their commitment to improvising thought with others, their generosity, their laughter. We were all a little in love with Lauren and that slant and sly way they turned conversations on their head. We read and talked and met over food, we curated objects for each other, we invited guests. It’s not too much to say we became a world for each other, though that’s nothing we could have intended. Those conversations happened, they mattered, and they made our work and our relationship to our own disciplines more livable.

Lauren was remarkably horizontal about archives and objects of study: film melodramas, genre fiction, television series, blogs, zines, internet video, installation and conceptual art, songs, political slogans were all valid sources of both analytic insight and cultural theory. Informed by the omnivorous methodological frameworks of cultural studies as well as queer studies, they modeled to us a form of intellectual engagement with overlooked cultural artefacts that made our own projects seem possible. We were encouraged to program AffPub sessions that nourished our curiosity through queerly improper combinations of readings, multimedia, and everyday objects. This aspect of AffPub was especially meaningful to those of us who studied low-prestige topics and archives, who often contended with disciplinary marginalization in our home departments. Lauren was pivotal in making AffPub an oasis where exploratory, experimental, and playful thinking could flourish.

Some of us sought out Lauren’s mentorship because we are queer and sexually dissident. We wanted to write about sex, not only sexuality, as something so corporeally and excessively teeming that we knew our scholarship would be tested (endlessly) for legitimacy in academia. The institutions in which we were matriculated were devoted to reproducing canons of “great books” and great ideas but Lauren gave us a vocabulary to fight for ourselves, our work, and our worlds. Most importantly, they modeled for us experimental methods for analyzing and writing about scandal, censorship, zoning, and public performances of disgust to uncover these practices as well-honed political tools that silence and destroy all forms of difference. Lauren once said (something like this) to one of us, “Sex always involves some discomfort,” in and out of the sack. Lauren showed us how to bravely go to those sites of sexual discomfort, conflict, and backlash, to view them as portals for understanding culture’s deep-seated attachments to erotophobia, and to dream of queer world-making projects beyond these attachments. AffPub became one such site to dream and enact this distinctly queer, feminist, and anti-racist form of belonging.

One of the most important lessons from AffPub was how to read generously. Lauren embodied this in each meeting of the group, in every seminar they taught, and in their writing practice. Every text had something to teach, even (especially) texts we might think we already thoroughly understand. Lauren’s generous reading was an iteration of what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick taught us to call “weak theory”: reading from the depressive position for news about one’s own world, anticipating surprise. Weak theory, it turns out, is really hard to do well. It requires admitting that one does not, quite, understand a scene, nor know how to go about understanding it. It demands improvisation. Weak theory requires orienting one’s sensorium to what is general in the personal. What in my own response does not simply belong to me? Lauren called this, in their own work, “dedramatization.” How might we desaturate the scene of scholarly encounter in such a way that admits of ambivalence, curiosity, not-knowing, impasse?

So much of the project of graduate school (at the University of Chicago, at that time) was oriented around proving oneself smarter than a text by exercising a bumptious and performative paranoia: I already know what this is. The vulnerability of weak theory’s reparative posture was often unimaginable in other spaces of graduate school. AffPub—oriented by Lauren’s example and also by the fellow travelers that were drawn to that example—was a space in which weak, and generous, and vulnerable, and excitable thought was not simply tolerated, but supported, elaborated, and encouraged. And, while this was certainly an explicit commitment on their part, it was also something they simply embodied: they knew how to be interested in just about everything, even and especially the tentative, incipient thinking of their students.

When designing a syllabus, Lauren sought to organize readings as an opening toward conceptualizations that didn’t yet exist. They wanted the classroom to be a space where students might collaborate to open new avenues of thought about a set of topics and texts. To encourage such thinking, they cultivated a climate that would make room for the likes of ineloquence and discomposure. Lauren understood that some of the most generative moments in a classroom happen when students take the risk of sharing a “half-formed thought”; and Lauren was careful to reassure such students that the rest of us would provide a holding to help them finish the thought. They gave students permission to exercise their intelligence beyond their expertise, to experiment with what it might be possible to say about a text, and to throw language at an intellectual problem until something would stick.

Yet Lauren was also keenly attuned to the ways in which affects circulate in the classroom. For example, they were attentive to the ways in which students form attachments to the classroom as a catalyst for self-transformation. They wanted students to experience the pleasure that can result from having their minds stretched and expanded. And they worked hard to foster a space where students might experiment with being together in new and enlivening ways. During one of our last AffPub meetings, Lauren waxed poetic about the kinds of events that bring a diverse range of people together around a shared passion: events such as art openings, poetry readings, and protest marches. Lauren observed that such events give people an experience of what a better world might “feel like,” then speculated that such feelings might be leveraged toward utopian world-building. It couldn’t have been clearer, to those of us who were lucky enough to have them as a teacher, that Lauren sought to foster those feelings in the classroom too.

During discussions in courses or AffPub meetings, Lauren encouraged and modeled forms of intellectual empathy and exploration. This often came through an intense listening and discussion of the stakes of a thought or even the group’s conversation. Lauren would help carry a new thought or idea further with the group, but they also modeled a process of generative thinking with others. Even if the thought was tentative, experimental, or abandoned, its working through was the point, and became the practice that we shared and that helped consolidate this group. In moments like these, Lauren showed us how intensity could shed its pejorative associations and generate forms of pleasure and joy. There was care in these acts and in the time they took to help create the community and spaces where that could happen.

Not all of our members shared a common theoretical idiom. “The object” Lauren always said. In psychoanalysis, the object is a subject; but in Marxism, the subject is often the object. That’s quite a conceptual bridge, and yet who better to cross it with than Lauren?

Somewhere between these two transmutations, among others, our AffPub gatherings found common ground. It’s unusual to genuinely delight in an interlocutor’s thought process, but with Lauren’s thought that was a regular occurrence for many in our group. There were certainly more Marxist-oriented members of our group, and indeed, plenty of Marxist-oriented theorists turn to psychoanalysis. Less often, however, do psychoanalytically oriented critics, particularly in Lauren’s preferred Relational Psychoanalysis, turn toward economic criticism. Lauren was an exception. “Love is the commodity form of subjectivity,” they once wrote.  No one used psychoanalysis like Lauren, but their usage of it contained an odd affinity with political economy.  Most people who study Marxism seem to accept some fidelity to its politics in their daily life. Those who study class struggle might honor a picket line; those who talk of revolution might join an uprising—a minimum it should be said. Not so, however, for those who study psychoanalysis—they do not, it seems, tend to be more aware, more self-conscious, less repressed. Lauren was distinct in this regard, too; the seminar room was, for them, the couch and the couch, a site for education. In one sense, Lauren followed Freud in grouping education and psychoanalysis together; he called them both “impossible professions,” ones whose goals could never be achieved. In a more profound sense, however, Lauren differed from the master: for them, everything indeed was possible, if only one adapted one’s scale to all vectors of perceived transformation. 

Risk. For us an enduring facet of Lauren’s mentorship and way of being in the world is bound up with risk as a self-conscious dimension of their ethics. They modeled how to live with it, and the importance of doing so. Intellectual risk pervaded their utterance: the vertiginous quality of their discourse, and the sense of air that expanded the room as they listened intently, reframed, synthesized, summarized, and addressed—acutely, often tenderly—the inarticulate remnant behind what was said.  

Something about this atmosphere of liveness and curiosity and expansiveness allowed our reading group to form a meaningful collective and remain one for many years. Rare for the context, Lauren was uninvested in disciplinary reproduction. Far more vital was the question of how to articulate and maintain a relationship to one’s passions, and thus to various forms of precarity. Perhaps for these reasons, for many of us AffPub remains a touchstone for what intellectual collaboration can be.

Many of us have said that Affpub was a kind of sanctuary, a shelter from some of the cruelties of the university, a place where their work and interests were honored. But it was also possible to feel like an interloper. Not because people were unwelcoming; quite the opposite, there was a wonderful sense of intimacy, comfort, and trust between us. But there were also times of feeling completely lost in the conversation, utterly confused, and even downright stupid. So many things one had never questioned before, never thought to think about, suddenly appeared incredibly complicated. What is a feeling? What does your enjoyment mean? How does this thing work? What does it do? Surrounded by brilliant, welcoming people who spoke a language that seemed familiar, yet totally alien, you’d find yourself wondering whether any word meant what you thought it did. And it taught us how you could think (and feel) differently, how you had all kinds of knowledge that you weren’t even aware of, how anything could become a question. It taught us to theorize.

An enduring memory of those many conversations is an echoing refrain of Lauren’s voice, saying “And isn’t that so interesting.”

Lauren repeatedly told us that they were not in charge of AffPub, we were, and this empowered us to approach thought in newly collaborative ways in an institution that could sometimes feel anything but. As a dissertation advisor (which Lauren served as for many of us), they brought this same interest in encouraging students to follow their own creativity and lines of thought. As so many have noted, Lauren had a particular knack for listening intently. For one of us, Lauren was the advisor she turned to when she was still at a stage where the ideas were nothing but fuzzy intuitions. She would spill words searching for that something she could sense was there and yet couldn’t quite articulate and Lauren would push her thoughts further then give them back to her, shot through with their own brilliance and in a more concrete form that made getting to the writing always more desirable than it had been before they spoke. Despite working outside of our specific subfields, Lauren often seemed to work harder (for us) than could be reasonably expected, giving us copious and transformative feedback.

But most of all, what Lauren brought to their role as advisor was kindness and a practicality that always took into account students’ precarity. For many of us, Lauren was often willing to be present for and hold difficult feelings as we learned to navigate our way through institutional politics. At the collective level, Lauren’s commitment to graduate students showed when they supported the graduate-student unionization effort, in which many members of AffPub were involved, when few faculty did. Even for those of us for whom Lauren was “only” a third or even fourth, or fifth, member of a committee, Lauren was often the one who showed up on a practical level, whether by guiding advisees through mock job interviews or coaching us through negotiating jobs. For some of us, Lauren remained an important mentor and friend even after we graduated, listening to our mixed feelings about the jobs we moved into or brainstorming and playing with ideas about new projects. In a recent message, Lauren wrote to one of us, “don’t let the profession infect your infectious interest in things.” More than anything, what Lauren modeled was this: an infectious interest in people and things that they kept alive in themself and in others, often in spite of the university and the ways it so often works against the flourishing of so many people.   

When we learned that Lauren had died, we looked for AffPub. On email, via text message, WhatsApp, and Zoom, we found one another as if we were walking into one of the free seminar rooms wrangled for our monthly meetings, even though some of us had not spoken in several years. We cried, complained, made jokes, and had ideas together. We remembered why we joined AffPub in the first place, and that, as Lauren used to say, the great thing about AffPub is that it exists because people show up to it. We are grateful to Lauren for showing up for us. We are grateful to them for carrying our optimism and our rage. We will use what they taught us to carry our grief.

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The Berlant Opening

Caleb Smith

An opening might be a welcoming ceremony or it might be an attack. At an artist’s opening, guests are invited to see new work for the first time; in a game like chess, one player’s opening calls for the other’s defense. An opening sets the terms for an encounter, hospitable or hostile, and it is rarely just one or the other. Sometimes an apparent weak spot, a gap in the armor, is really an alluring trap. Sometimes what looks like aggression turns out to be an invitation to play along. Lauren Berlant’s opening sentences bristle with this ambivalence. That’s what draws me back to them just now.

Opening can mean timeliness, a window of opportunity. I am approaching Berlant as a writer, a sentence-maker whose ideas are inextricable from their composition in carefully arranged sequences of words. In Cruel Optimism, Berlant writes, “The problem of detaching from the normal applies to writing criticism” (p. 21). I take this to mean that the political and intellectual task of detaching ourselves from normality—getting some distance from customary, compulsive habits—is, among other things, a writing problem.

Genre makes reading easier, and it also imposes restraint, more or less invisibly, conducting its audiences from once upon a time to a familiar conclusion. This is one reason why Berlant expresses a “need to invent new genres” for speculative work on the page (p. 21). The Berlant opening, at once an invitation and a provocation, is by design disorienting, detaching from the normal so that it might open onto other, less familiar horizons. Closely reading some of Berlant’s opening sentences, I am going to use the literary present to treat them as ongoing but not ahistorical gambits. I attend to how Berlant begins things, rather than the ways they end.

1. “Nations Provoke Fantasy”

The opening sentence of the Introduction to The Anatomy of National Fantasy (1991) contains just three words. The reader comes upon just the bare bones of a plot: a subject, a verb, and an object. There is no article, definite or indefinite. What allows for this economy is Berlant’s use of the plural; the subject is nations, generally. Still, everyone knows which nation the book will focus on. The Statue of Liberty is on its cover.

With just a little modification, the opening line from Berlant’s first book might serve as a topic sentence for most of their work, across what they called their “national sentiment trilogy” and beyond. This nation provokes fantasy.

The sentence Berlant does give us is a premise, rather than a claim. That nations provoke fantasy is an observation, a starting-point. That such fantasies are rich, significant objects of study—that they have real force and consequences—is the book’s wager. Provoke, from the Latin pro and vocare: to call forth or summon, but also to challenge, to disturb. Provocation is an act of verbal magic with a hint of violence.

In the long run, over the course of The Anatomy of National Fantasy, the positions of subject and object, cause and effect, become unstable, even reversible. The reader will be provoked into asking: What if fantasies are substantial and fateful in a way that nations really aren’t? What if there are no nations, only fantasies?

In the example that Berlant turns to in the subsequent sentence, an image from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Custom-House,” a decommissioned government official imagines himself as a walking corpse, headless and absurd. Charged with castration anxiety, it is a fantasy of dispossession, exclusion, even murder by the state. The anatomy of national fantasy begins with a diagnosis of wounded entitlement. Grotesque images of violence and victimization arise not only from within the circle of political belonging but also from the margins. 

2. “Something Strange Has Happened to Citizenship”

The opening sentence from The Queen of American Goes to Washington City (1997) is a line of pentameter in the mode of the forensic. Readers arrive at the scene of a crime. We observe effects, and we are invited to speculate about their causes. An unspecified event has taken place. Berlant withholds its character, except to call it strange. What is it?

In the phrase “something strange,” I can’t help hearing the earworm theme song from Ghostbusters: “If there’s something strange in your neighborhood, who you gonna call?” One cultural critic has interpreted the Ghostbusters remake using Berlant’s theoretical work as a guide. The film is a mystery with a heavy dose of the supernatural. In this way it is a lot like American national fantasy.

The strange thing that has happened is the intrusion of private, intimate matters into public life, a “process of collapsing the political and the personal” (p. 1). The collapse is so total that there is no genuine public sphere, no arena of depersonalized and disinterested arguing about law. Instead, there is an emotionally saturated scene of public intimacy, populated by children, fetuses, and “citizen-victims” whose vulnerability is their main claim to authority (p. 1). “A citizen is defined as a person traumatized by some aspect of life in the United States” (p. 1).

Berlant does not simply mourn the loss of some earlier, putatively tougher-minded style of politics. They find the transformation curious—“startling” and “moving”—and it draws them in for a closer examination.

3. “Everyone Knows What the Female Complaint Is: Women Live for Love, and Love Is the Gift That Keeps On Taking”

Introducing The Female Complaint (2008), Berlant seems to say that the topic needs no introduction. The female complaint is a matter of general agreement, common sense. Being a woman entails a special kind of grievance, and everyone knows already just what kind.

In making this opening gesture, invoking something everybody knows, Berlant creates a problem for the prose that follows. The sentence will have to express not just its author’s idea but also something larger, more nebulous, a notion entertained by everyone. How do you ventriloquize everyone? Berlant does it by manipulating cliches. There’s a pair of them, conjoined: “women live for love, and love is the gift that keeps on taking.”

Berlant plays the first one straight. Women live for love. The reader is supposed to recognize this proposition, almost as if it were a quotation, not a quotation from any particular love song or story but a citation of our whole culture’s ready-to-hand wisdom. Berlant is saying something that anyone might say.

Women live for love. It is a generic statement, and it is a statement about genericness. It is not for any special beloved that women live. They live for the loving. Their lives are devoted not to an object but to attachment itself.

This first cliché is followed by a second, and the second one comes with a twist: “love is the gift that keeps on taking.” Berlant has lifted and revised an expression out of advertising’s lexicon. The gift that keeps on giving is a stock phrase from radio and television commercials. It has also become a campy euphemism for sexually transmitted disease, one of the ways that love can hurt. But love in the opening line of The Female Complaint does not keep on giving. It takes. It keeps on taking. It is a gift that keeps and takes.

Rehearsing a gendered cultural script, but doing so imperfectly, messing it up, making a crucial difference that disturbs its self-reproducing design: Berlant has composed a sentence that enacts something close to the theory of performativity, as laid out by one of their interlocutors, Judith Butler. The phrase “the female complaint” itself might be read as a reworking of Butler’s famous title, Gender Trouble. But Berlant’s writing here is unlike Butler’s. It operates with a different kind of estrangement, a different kind of critical distance from the popular cultural scripts that it will analyze.

Berlant makes a new cliché out of an older one. The same thing happens all the time in American popular culture, for instance in country music. Take the lyrics “I’ve got friends in low places” or “what doesn’t kill you makes your story longer.” Like Berlant’s “love is the gift that keeps on taking,” these are lines about attachment, describing flawed relations that endure.

What’s more, you could set this sentence of Berlant’s, like some popular songs, to ballad meter:

Everyone knows what the female complaint is:

            Women live for love,

And love is the gift that keeps on taking.

It works almost perfectly, though it is incomplete. The final line, a tetrameter to match “women live for love,” would be the missing piece. It seems to have been taken.

4. “A Relation of Cruel Optimism Exists When Something You Desire Is Actually an Obstacle to Your Flourishing”

Cruel Optimism (2011) opens with a definition. Another writer might have worked their way more cautiously toward the concept. One might have started with an anecdote, then made some generalizations about the case, before endeavoring to coin the term: this is the type of relation that I call cruel optimism. Berlant does not work that way, this time. They begin by establishing the crucial, killer idea.

A relation of cruel optimism exists. It is out there, a reality. It is not an attitude; it is a relation, one that takes shape on certain occasions. It happens when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing. Take warning, though: you are not the subject of this clause. Grammatically speaking, something else is the subject. It is the object of your desire, the obstacle to your flourishing. Your flourishing is its victim.

Actually is a funny word in this context, as it implies a paradox or a surprise. Berlant’s actually does indicate that cruel optimism is the exception, rather than the rule. Berlant will entertain but also dismiss the notion that all optimism should properly be called cruel.

Meanwhile the interjection actually also bears a further significance, one about the optimist instead of the optimism: it suggests that you are not aware of your predicament. Berlant is explaining things to you. You think the thing you desire will help you flourish if you get it, but you’re wrong. In fact, at present, that very thing is messing you up. What is the cruel opposite of flourishing? Is it wilting? Withering? That’s what the thing you desire is doing to you, actually. The good news is that it is not the only thing.

Extraordinarily, Berlant is writing about cruelty without making punitive judgments. Berlant writes with rigor and feeling but not with piety, never in jeremiads. Cruel Optimism does not condemn the optimist. Rather than policing anyone’s desire, it makes descriptions, and in the end it affirms (not without ambivalence) the necessity of attachment.

Again, Berlant articulates high hopes for what language can do in opening less cruel relations. “The urgency,” they write before ending, “is to reinvent, from the scene of survival, new idioms of the political, and of belonging itself, which requires debating what the baselines of survival should be in the near future, which is, now, the future we are making” (p. 262).


Caleb Smith is professor of English and American studies at Yale University and the author of The Oracle and the Curse (2013) and The Prison and the American Imagination (2009). He is writing a book about disciplines of attention and the history of distraction.

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Without You, I’m Not Necessarily Nothing

Elizabeth Freeman

Elegy

Who would I show it to

—W. S. Merwin

Lauren Berlant provoked fantasy.  That wasn’t (usually) Lauren’s fault, and it must have been a burden to bear.  Someone I’m close to said, the day of her death, that now they had to give up the dream of writing something good enough for Lauren to notice.[1]  And I’m now tasked with discussing what Lauren taught us about X, hoping she would not hate whatever I will write, exactly the kind of projection that she recoiled from and that some might say prevents flourishing, though as you’ll see I beg to differ.  And I don’t know who “us” is anyway.  I only know about me.  And I don’t know what X to choose: there were so many.  And I refuse any competition about who knew her best, who understands her work best, who is her legacy.  Fuck all that.  I have no theory.  I’ve only got a story to tell. 

When I was twenty-four, during my second quarter of graduate school in 1991, I took Lauren’s class, “Hawthorne and Power.”  During the third week or so, we read Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities.  I had moved to Chicago that summer, and that city’s chapter of Queer Nation had just begun meeting.  I went to Lauren’s office hours and mused that I wanted to write something for Out/Look, the late great magazine of queer criticism and commentary.  “I’m curious about putting ‘queer’ together with ‘nation,’” I said, “It seems oddly contradictory.  And I can’t help but think that it also has something to do with the corporate logo, the trademark.  I’m not sure.  Would you help me?”  Lauren swiveled around in her desk chair to face me and said, “Oh. We should write this together.”  I said, “That would be amazing.  But I think we’d have to be pretty meta about what it would mean to write across structural differences, a professor and a graduate student in the Humanities.”  Lauren swiveled back the other way, toward her desk.  “Never mind,” she said, “We shouldn’t write it together.”  I said, “That wasn’t what I meant.  I meant that it would involve a commitment to thinking about the institutional context.”  We began writing in the spring of 1991.

It is an understatement to say that whatever we thought and said to each other, we failed spectacularly to control the institutional context.  A grad student peer said I was selling out the movement by writing with a married straight woman (as if).  A faculty member stormed into her office and asked what the hell she was doing with me, implying that he knew very well.  Another faculty member treated the abstract I submitted for a seminar paper in Fall 1992 with drippingly contemptuous comments, the gist of which were “who do you think you are, Lauren Berlant?” People demanded to know which sentences I had written and which Lauren had written.  A quarter-century after the publication of “Queer Nationality” in boundary 2 (because the stakes got higher), someone asked me, was Lauren my domme?  Queer sex literalism, Lauren used to call it.  And anyway, in the 1990s, America was my domme.  Moving on: anyone who knows me well knows I cracked under the pressure, lost my footing and all intellectual confidence, and proceeded to fail equally spectacularly at everything connected to graduate school.  Lauren didn’t teach me this on purpose, but the academy hates two women, and yes, that’s how we identified then, working together.  There is no utopia uninflected by not only erotics (good!), but also other people’s sexual fantasies (maybe not so good), I had learned from Lauren’s teaching of The Blithedale Romance

But oh, the writing.  What I learned from Lauren about how to think with words.  Picture the two of us, glowing with health, in her apartment living room, as the Persian Gulf War flickered on the TV with the sound off, the Cocteau Twins played, and the AIDS epidemic raged around us.  We’d go over what each of us had written separately.  Lauren would read each sentence aloud and say, “But is that true?”  We’d hash it out: no, she said, that paragraph on tribes was racist and embarrassing; yes, we agreed, changing the P to Y in The GAP was genius; I don’t know, I said, isn’t this commitment to the anti-taxonomic and unintelligible just high Modernism?  She’d spin the verbs like gold—laminate, arrogate, smudge.  I was lucky to get to see that sometimes her first drafts were wandering and opaque and that she revised and revised and revised, and to actually help her by asking clarifying questions.  I was brave to present my clumsy, sophomoric renderings of actually halfway decent ideas to her.  She was generous to see through my commitment to the passive voice and to “that is,” extracting the usable ore.  I’d ride my bike home at 3 AM after these sessions, sobbing from the sheer exhaustion of trying to keep up with her, wishing, in my time-travelly way, that we were age-peers and could just go to the disco at Oberlin, which was both of our alma mater.  We were trying to build a world out of words: a safe inside for queer thinking and experimentation, a redrawing of the outside as already saturated with that inside unbeknownst to itself, a punk elsewhere not constituted by these boundaries. 

We were trying to do this while that world was also happening, as Lauren would continue to do.  She had an incredible capacity to be inside of something and still be thinking about it, dissecting it, unsettling it.  The cliché says “building the plane while it is flying.”  Foucault called it writing the history of the present; Marx called it writing the poetry of the future; I call it making a DIY now.  I used to say about Chicago, to prospective graduate students, that you had to be willing to build the culture there that you would need to survive, that it didn’t come preconstituted as an exciting “scene” to enter and consume the way it might at, say, Duke.  I learned how to do that at Oberlin, a fairly friendly institutional context,  and then from Lauren in the much more hostile context of the University of Chicago, where there were still gay bashings on the quads in 1990—to gather motley crews of people and make things out of photocopies and thrift store costumes and slogans and concepts until the sheer energy of that making felt like, well, a place to live for a while.  But Lauren was the motor of so many of those projects, not just the scrappy little queer one in which I knew her.  And she understood that the world, as a destination, was not the point: it was the attachments generated by making it that mattered. We would both go on to work in and help make a field whose collaborations—good, bad, awkward—are both vital and not guaranteed to last forever. 

After almost thirty years of often stilted conversation precipitated by our parting in the wake of the institutional reception of our work, in November 2020 Lauren texted to ask how I was.  Call me, I said.  And she did, and I told her I had been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer in June.  Terminal, like hers, though I was near the beginning and she was near the end.  How do you make a world out of cancer?  The endless subjection to medical techniques, the ungodly fear, the understanding that almost everything will continue to be without you getting to behold it?  All there is, it turns out, are the relationships you can sustain in the midst of it.  Lauren sent me a care package of keto chocolate, seasickness bands, a hundred mini-packs of oyster crackers for nausea, and a cell phone stand.  I puzzled over the last item until I realized that it was for when my hands were eventually too numb from chemo to text and my grip too weak to hold the phone up to talk, so that I could continue to commune with my people, continue to be attached to the world even if it would go on without me.  Lauren’s work on how to keep being attached, how to make spacetimes you could live in somehow, was, I think, initially about the depression we both battled: about how not to leave even when you desperately want to.  But finally, it was about the cancer we both endure(d): about how to stay attached even as you know you will be forced to relinquish, at some point, everything. 

In the end, our bodies, this time ravaged by treatment under our professional outfits, shared a pedagogical space that was tender again. Our last academic appearance together (and first since 1992) was, fittingly enough,  for a virtual panel on gay divorce, and eventually we were talking just to each other across the hyperspace of Zoom, about how last wills and testaments reconstitute family.  Lauren, my next of kin, I can’t believe I have to do this, make a world out of cancer, without you.   But then again, I’ve had to make a lot without you as anything but a projection, a melancholic lost object, a fantasy of someone to whom someday, I could show something that would prove how much I learned from you even after our intimacy foundered.  This, too, will have been a failure to do so.  But you might say to me, “I am not the point.  If having known me has helped you stay attached to the world, even to write, that will have been enough.”  And so here I am, for now.


Elizabeth Freeman is professor of English at the University of California, Davis. She is the author of three books from Duke University Press:  The Wedding Complex (2002), Time Binds (2010), and Beside You in Time (2019).


I thank Bill Brown for not letting me not write this, Ethan Philbrick for bringing Lauren and me together for a panel for the last time, and Candace Moore and Stephanie Foote for offering helpful phrases and critiquing what must have been, for people who love me, very hard to read.

[1] I’m using “her” to refer to Lauren, because I find the turf battle over her pronouns exhausting.  As her partner Ian revealed shortly after her death, Lauren used “they” professionally and “her” interpersonally.  This is an essay about interpersonality.

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Love Is a Muscle

Michael Hardt

I have never met anyone more relentlessly intelligent than Lauren, more intensely present. 

I remember once saying to them – admittedly, a rather banal comment – that love is a muscle.  The more you use it, the more you work at it, the more you will be able to love and, conversely, disuse leads to atrophy.  Loving needs something like a workout regime.

You’re right, Michael, they responded, but you have to remember how violent the process is.  By exercising you are really ripping the muscles apart, creating thousands of micro-tears.  When blood flows to repair those tears is when you start feeling pain.  Only then, with the pain, do muscles grow.  Yes, love is like that.  Don’t forget the pain, the violence of attachment.  It’s inseparable from the joy.  (Lauren is a master at holding conflicting affects together, pain and joy, hope and despair.)

Lauren’s response about love and muscles resonates in an uncanny way with famous US Marine Corps motto, “pain is weakness leaving the body.”  But, really, it’s just the opposite.  Rather than pain creating invincible warriors, here it is a sign of our becoming more able to be affected by others, more able to sustain and deepen our attachments.

One of the accomplishments of Lauren’s work that I continually return to is the way they elevate the power to be affected to a primary status.  To flourish, to experience joy, does require that we increase our power to act and to think, but equally important (and, perhaps, inseparable from this) is the need constantly to enrich our affective life, to increase our powers to be affected.  Being able to think and to act more powerfully is the result not of separation or shields but instead of being able to form more powerful attachments, being able to engage more openly with the world.  Hence the supreme power of the affects.

Now, after Lauren’s death, I’m not sure what to do with this pain.  I should remember that the sensation of tearing inside is inseparable from the joy of attachment and love.


Michael Hardt teaches political theory in the literature program at Duke, where he is also codirector of the Social Movements Lab.

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Triptych for Lauren

Virginia Jackson

I. The Function of Criticism

In 2015, before she got sick and after they turned down an offer from my university, I wrote an essay about Lauren’s work and what it meant to me.

That essay was a poor rehearsal for an elegy, since all I was mourning then was the chance to have them as a colleague, the missed opportunity to have her close.  I never imagined a world without her; instead, I selfishly and grandiosely thought that we could create a world together, and then I missed that fantasy world when it did not happen (they would have had a lot to say about that).  I see now (as I think she saw then) that world would have been impossible, but that’s the kind of thing Lauren made you believe: that the sum of [nothing is impossible] + [everything is impossible] = {some things must actually be possible}.  And they made you think that work—academic work!– could be a form of personally motivated communal expression, maybe even a way of making wishes come true.  I needed that reassurance at the time (I still do), and maybe it is also reassuring to confess that Lauren answered that need, though honestly, I am embarrassed to write about my deep affection for and attachment to Lauren in Critical Inquiry, since such public testimony translates so immediately into cultural capital, given who Lauren was and will continue to become.   They would have pointed that out, too.  In fact, they would have said that may be all criticism ever is.  Like that precarious sequence and like the pronouns in those sentences, my feelings then as now were and are a muddle of the personal and the professional:  as everybody can’t seem to stop saying these days, in recent years, Lauren used “she” for personal stuff and “they” for professional stuff, but the problem with this separation is that she was terrible at telling the personal from the public, the personal from the professional, the personal from the academic, the personal from, well, anything.  Whatever they did, there she was.  Now that they are gone, and she is, too, I see that what I wrote six years ago didn’t even come close to measuring our loss.

Lauren was a public figure, so of course they had a mediated life that was very different than her life with her cats and Ian.  That’s not what I’m saying.  I was not one of her best friends, though I loved her dearly, but probably like a lot of people, what I loved most was their work.  Like a lot of people, what I have thought has been made possible by what they thought.  That’s intimacy for sure, but many of us have such intimacy with Lauren’s work—if you pay attention, it demands it—which means that for the most part our intimacy remains silent and widely shared, like most good things.  Apart from our infrequent encounters and calls and texts, what I knew about Lauren was what I read.  But here’s the thing (and again, anyone will tell you this):  their work was not separable from her sheer Laurenness, her over-the-top, full-on, no-holds-barred approach to everything she thought or wrote or did.  I am only one of many people who wanted them to become a colleague, so many of you will know what I mean when I say that even though they never left Chicago, she was all in when it came to investing in the idea and relational dynamics of possible lives.  Just as there was no difference for Lauren between the personal and the professional, there was no doing anything halfway, no reserve, no remove.

I called the essay I wrote about Lauren’s work “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” because I thought it was clever to make them into our contemporary Matthew Arnold.  He was a prig, they were anything but; he wanted to tell everyone what to do and they wanted to tell you to do more of what you really want to do; he wanted people to align their desires with the higher good; they told you to find out what your desires are if you want to know what’s good for you.  But like Arnold, I wrote, Lauren was a utopian thinker who knew that utopias are disappointing.  Cruel Optimism, The Female Complaint, The Queen of America Goes to Washington City, The Anatomy of National Fantasy, even Sex, or the Unbearable and Desire/Love are all books about disappointment.  For Lauren, as for Arnold, “the true life of literature”—and not only of literature—was always “a promised land, toward which criticism can only beckon.”  The funny thing is that for the two of them, the promises weren’t really that different, though the response to being interpellated by those promises could not have differed more.  Arnold wrote that the promised land of literature “will not be ours to enter, and we shall die in the wilderness”; Lauren told an interviewer on the “Society and Space” blog in 2013 that “it’s never about shaming people’s objects, it’s always about creating better and better objects.  It’s always about creating better worlds, making it possible for us to think in more and different kinds of ways about how we relationally can move through life.” For them, exile was just the beginning. What I wrote six years ago was that “if for Arnold the function of criticism at the present time was to help us agree to be mutually and soberly bummed out, to move through life in a shared state of exile from literary scenes of fulfillment, distinguished only by our cultivated taste for more such disappointments, for Berlant the function of criticism at the present time is to create better worlds, worlds in which genres are not settled states of common disappointment . . . but are instead signs and figures for shared world making.”  That present-tense “is” hurts, as does the fact that I see now that I was wrong.

The reason I was wrong was not only, as Lauren wrote, “the personal is the generic,” but because I thought that the difference between their criticism and Arnold’s was that he was settling and they were not.  But the truth is that Lauren was always settling, too.  And they settled in deeper and deeper, settled for more and more as well as less and less, settled in ways no one else has even considered settling, at least in print.  Matter of Flatness, one of the projects that Lauren was working on while she was ill (I’m hoping they finished it), turned from their earlier preoccupation with melodrama and melancholy in the books they called their “national sentimentality trilogy” toward what they began to call “structures of unfeeling.”  That phrase is not just a riff on Raymond Williams.  If for Williams, collective response could only be registered as a trajectory glimpsed in traces and symptoms and keywords, Lauren had moved beyond such tentative historiography long ago.  In Matter of Flatness, they were deep in the weeds of the multiplying genres of response that belong to the history of the present, and if the personal really is the generic (which it is), which belong to us.  They named these genres one after another, though they also began to see that these ways of being had also left modes of recognition instantiated in discourse behind, too, and so not only are they not exactly genres anymore, but there are also now too many to name: “worlds and events that would have conventionally predicted melodramatic performances of inflated subjectivity, intense relationality, and freighted social existence appear in this approach [the “recessive” approach of “flatness”] mutedly or aleatorily, in gestures and tones that could indicate a range of registers: from trauma-related psychic dissociation and punk style radical carelessness to ordinary dissipated, distracted, or loosely-quilted consciousness.  Events that would have been framed as tragic merge in not-quite-comic timbres that foreground enigmas of causality and the event in contemporary life, as seen in the difficulty of predicting the relation of freefall to pratfall, of suffering to enduring, of disturbance to trauma, and of incident to genre.”  Would have been framed as tragic?  So why not now?  Is Lauren’s death tragic, or is it caught somewhere between tragedy and an enigma of causality?  I am hung up on that last predictive enigma of “incident to genre.”  Lauren liked to say that we are all made out of genres, but what if we are not?  I don’t think she was.  I think they were an incident that never became generic because they were greater than the sum of all these parts, and because their modes of recognition had outpaced those of the rest of us.  We may never catch up.

2. Moulin Rouge

This morning silence is aftermath,

The quiet after the storm.

You were the storm.  You were also

Anything but a sequel.  You were

Those Toulouse-Lautrec dancers shouldering

Us all out of the way.  But then

You wanted to know how we felt

About that.  What I want to know

Is what you really wanted to know:

Did you get out of your way?

About suffering you were never wrong.

And then were you ever.

3. The Visit

A decade ago, Lauren invited me to give a talk at the University of Chicago.  I was of course honored and also very nervous.  Lauren booked a beautiful hotel room overlooking the city, and she picked me up at my hotel and drove me back and forth to Hyde Park for a couple of days.  She asked if I would visit her seminar before the talk, and I agreed.  When we got to the seminar, it turned out that the students had read one of my essays, and we had a conversation about that and a number of other pieces that put me on the edge of my seat.  In fact, we were all on the edge of our seats, because Lauren kept us there.  I cannot remember a thing they said, but I do remember the thrill.  Then I looked at my watch.  The seminar was supposed to have ended fifteen minutes earlier and my talk was about to start in fifteen minutes.  I tried to get Lauren’s attention, but they and the students were so deep in conversation I could not make eye contact.  So I stood up and said I had to go to my talk.  Lauren looked a little surprised, then said, oh sure, please go ahead, we’ll be there soon.  I found my way to the Franke Institute and walked into a room full of people waiting for me.  I asked around for someone to help set up the tech, and then Lauren and their students entered.  I started breathing again, and after their breathtakingly generous introduction, stopped breathing again, but somehow managed to make it through the talk.  I was so relieved at the end I could have cried, but then of course it was the University of Chicago, so the Q & A was a gauntlet.  At long last, the reception began, I was handed a glass of wine, and I felt lucky to have survived.  Then Lauren said the seminar hadn’t quite finished.  Was it OK if we ordered in and went back to work for a few more hours?  To my amazement, it was more than OK.  We did. 


Virginia Jackson is UCI Endowed Chair in Rhetoric in the departments of English and comparative literature at the University of California, Irvine.

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Monumental Fugitivity: The Aesthetics of #BlackLivesMatter Defacement

John Brooks

Defacement’s engine is the excessive, the disorderly, the disquieting, and any other sort of radical exclamation that troubles the state of things. It is not simply an act of destruction but rather a process of rupturing the surface of social normativity to create the conditions in which the public can confront that which it thinks it knows. This is to say that defacement is first and foremost a critique of Western epistemology, which is why it does not resolve into the kinds of meaning that the dominant culture considers to be intelligible or legitimate.

The disfigurement of the J. E. B. Stuart Monument in Richmond, Virginia, exemplifies defacement’s troubling affect. This monument, comprised of a fifteen-foot-tall bronze statue and a seven-and-a-half-foot granite pedestal, depicted Confederate General James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart in equestrian pose.[1]

Beginning on 29 May 2020, the J. E. B. Stuart Monument served as a rallying point for #BlackLivesMatter protesters, who climbed its plinth to display signs, chant, and listen to speakers. As a form of publicly staged defiance that cut into the normative surface of racial discourse, these demonstrations aimed to upend received ideas about race and rehearse new terms for Black life.

During the demonstrations, protesters pulled down the wrought-iron fence that surrounded the site and covered the monument in graffiti. The messages included “BLM” and “Black Lives Matter” but also antipolice slogans like “ACAB,” “Police are Creepy,” and “Fuck 12.” Amplifying these familiar political phrases were calls to action like “Justice 4 George Floyd” and “Stop White Supremacy” along with statements of grief like “We Lost a Life for Nothing.” In a country where “rules are rules,” “heritage not hate,” and “all lives matter” have become common refrains, these radical transformations of public space raise provocative questions about the function and value of disruptive social energy.

In this post, I use the term re-curation to delineate such acts of defacement. Conventionally, the curator develops the context in which objects can be encountered and understood. Yet, even when curatorial processes seem to impart their own meaning, the aesthetic value the curator creates serves the institutionalized knowledge of the museum. The re-curator is not bound by such parameters. Re-curation denotes an unsolicited, unapproved, and undesired adjustment to the context in which something is exhibited, one that challenges the authority of institutionalized knowledge in controlling how it should be encountered and understood. These kinds of unauthorized performance gestures share a fugitive relation to Western normativity because their very enactment challenges the status quo as the arbiter of aesthetic taste politics.

During the #BlackLivesMatter protests in the summer of 2020, defacers wholly re-curated the J. E. B. Stuart Monument. Originally, the statue had lionized Stuart as a hero with an inscription that emphasized, “He gave his life for his country and saved his city from capture.” These kinds of curated inscriptions serve the New South’s social order by bulwarking the “Lost Cause” nationalist ideology, which sought to vindicate the Confederacy while assuaging white anxieties during—and since—Reconstruction. Protesters re-curated the monument’s eulogy when they spray painted “BLM” and a bold graffiti label identifying Stuart as “RACIST.” The new label overturned the representation of Stuart’s valor and produced, in its stead, an image of a disfigured supremacist who appears inconsistent with the fictive heroes of the Lost Cause narrative.

As an act of re-curation, protesters also bent Stuart’s cavalry saber comically and masochistically backward, and splashed him with red paint reminiscent of blood. The blood-red paint draws attention to both the routine murders of enslaved Africans in the antebellum period and also the continuing racial violence that modern American policing routinizes in the present. It calls to mind the #BlackLivesMatter movement’s martyrs, including but not limited to George Floyd, which organizes revolutionary consciousness around a shared understanding of injustice.

Moreover, demonstrators symbolically lynched Stuart, inverting the conventional master-slave power structure. They draped two nooses around his neck and, on 22 June, pulled on them in an attempt to topple the statue. This action would have completed the death cycle that they had initiated the previous month, but they were unable to unseat the six-ton effigy before police broke up the crowd with teargas.

To consider defacement as an aesthetic act is to recognize these re-curations as creative responses to the racial contract that underwrites social normativity. By disputing the context in which Confederate statuary has been encountered and understood, re-curations also disturb mainstream perspectives about how monuments should be regarded (as neutral historical artifacts or heritage sites, for instance). As a re-curative practice, defacement transgresses the comfort of conceptual familiarity to render visible the everyday racism that the status quo preserves, as well as the public’s complicity with that racism. Defacers use a statue’s surface as material for generating new meaning and thus furnish a confrontation with society’s “public secret,” the term Michael Taussig uses to describe the truths a society is unwilling—or unable—to acknowledge because doing so threatens that society’s unmaking.[2]

Logical reasoning and objective judgment cannot be the end goal of defacement because society already knows its public secrets (even as it also knows not to know them). Instead of appealing to logos, defacement’s strategic violations aim to provoke affective responses—like shock and anger; or relief and pleasure—that might spark an embodied mode of critical inquiry in which spectators can negotiate the tension between society’s professed beliefs and its racial contract. If the body acts as a prism through which the world is experienced, meaning it and its sensations are constitutive of all that can be known, then this immediate sensory experience might be a more significant means for confronting the reach of the racial episteme than abstract rationalism alone.

Defacement’s critical momentum is apparent in the reactions that it provokes. When images of the re-curated J. E. B. Stuart Monument began circulating on Instagram, some users called demonstrators “Left wing thugs” and described their actions as “utterly disgusting” or “Terrible atrocious and criminal.” These attempts to construe protesters’ actions as evidence for the failure—or even absence—of moral reasoning spring of a certain nervousness over the forces that defacement unleashes. Such socio-moral appeals to the law reflect a desire for the stability of the racial order, both a commitment to social normativity and a preservation concern for the racial discourse that safeguards it. Like the paternalistic voice these Instagram users adopt to render defacement juvenile, accusations of criminality and incivility aim to preserve Western perspectives about moral reasoning, modern subjectivity, and respectability, all of which are predicated on the rationality of whiteness.

Other Instagram users accused protesters of vandalism. Some wrote, “Sad to see a debate, whatever it is, expressed in graffiti vandalism of public spaces” and “Sad they had to revert to vandalism and destruction of property.” Like defacement, vandalism describes acts that visibly mar an object. But, as Vernon L. Allen and David B. Greenberger have argued, for the vandalizer the destruction of property serves no purpose other than the pleasure of property’s destruction.[3] More significantly, vandalism’s preoccupation with property ownership and value implies a hierarchy of concern in the service of racial capitalism. Vandalism denotes “ruthless destruction or spoiling of anything beautiful or venerable,”[4] presuming an unequal differentiation of property-human value in which objects like Confederate monuments are worth more—or, at least, worthy of more protection—than the Black lives they disparage. The charge of vandalism (much like “rioters,” “looters,” or “thugs”) is racially coded language deployed to vilify communities of color while affirming the assumed civility of whiteness.

Reducing #BlackLivesMatter defacement to vandalism erases its disruptive social energy. For example, the demonstrations at the J. E. B. Stuart Monument effectively re-curated Richmond’s “white space”[5] by turning Monument Avenue into an impromptu skatepark. As a conscious, indexical act intended to support #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations, hundreds of skateboarders gathered at the statue under the hashtag #SkateInSolidarity on 31 May 2020. One of them could be seen waving a Rastafarian flag, which combines the conquering lion of Judah (a symbol of the Ethiopian monarchy from Haile Selassie’s reign) with green, gold, and red. The flag represents kingship, pride, and African sovereignty. It brings a visible sign of Black empowerment to the scene and disputes the de facto whiteness of the US nation-state.

Fugitivity is an essential feature of re-curation and the critical force that gives defacement its aesthetic value. When cultural arbiters authorize #BlackLivesMatter messages, their apparent “legitimacy” hollows out their impact. Consider the “Black Lives Matter Plaza” in Washington, D.C. Its thirty-five-foot-long street mural seems to echo protesters’ calls for inclusion, diversity, and equality, but because a spirit of white supremacy tacitly (and explicitly) underwrites the long tradition of liberal thought, the US Capitol’s advocacy amounts to empty mimicry of #BlackLivesMatter dissent. The mural cannot be interpreted as an unruly and irruptive refusal of Western civilization’s social norms or ethical values, but it might be perceived as a mode of performative appeasement intended to placate protesters while preserving the status quo.

In August 2020, after the defaced J. E. B. Stuart Monument had been removed, city officials commissioned pressure washing and repainting of the site where it previously stood. Undiscouraged, protesters returned to reenact their dissent. When Richmond whitewashed the plinth of the monumentwith a chalky, pale paint the week of 10 August, activists re-curated it with tags of “BLM,” “ACAB,” “Fuck 12,” and “Fuck the Confederacy.” This restoration/re-curation process continued over subsequent months. New messages included “You Can’t Stop the Movement” (20 August), “Marcus David Peters” (22 August), “Justice for Breonna!!! Black Lives Matter!!!” (24 September), “Fuck U Proud boys,” (3 October), “Fuck Trump” (5 October), and “ELECTION NIGHT BECOME UNGOVERNABLE” (8 October).[6]

As an ongoing return to the scene of subjection and a continuing rejection of white hegemony, the reenactment of defacement unfolds as a kind of “rehearsal” of Black liberation. Connected to a theoretical paradigm that I developed with Laura Partain,[7] this sense of rehearsal is double natured. It describes the coordination of a Black liberation ensemble in preparation for a liberated future, something akin to goal-oriented practicing or reciting; however, it also suggests that the processual reenactment of defacement is itself a creative process of liberation, rehearsal being coextensive with the performance that participants plan to produce. I mean that the anticipatory logic of the Black radical imagination infuses and inspires the reenactment of defacement and that this anticipatory logic both imagines new terms for Black life in the United States and, by insisting on agency in the face of subjugation, also creates the conditions in which those new terms can be realized. This is to say that defacement opens onto an experimental exercise of freedom in which radical acts of refusal signal the becoming of a critical Blackness.

The re-curation enacted at the former site of the J. E. B. Stuart Monument on 27 September 2020 shows how defacement rehearses new terms for Black life. On the plinth’s eastern face, a protester painted “Blackness is beauty, patience, love, grace. / We are ART. / I hope this disturbs you.”

The rear of the pedestal was tagged “Blackness is forced / strength / sorrow, pain, suffering.”

The smaller sides were similarly re-curated, one declaring “We Matter” and the other urging spectators to “look / listen / learn.”

This defacement enlivens critical Blackness as an aesthetic response to racialization in the West that expands, synthesizes, and comments on historically entrenched ideas about race. Such a reimagining of Blackness is significant not only because it constitutes an abrupt and turbulent refusal of reason but also because its actors, in the act of refusing, are claiming the authority to refuse, meaning they gain an antagonistic agency that argues with the Blackness-as-slaveness subjectivity posited by racial discourse. As an insurrection against the social codes and customs that aim to make Blackness culturally legible as slaveness, we might even read the defacement as an expression of ontogeny, a coming into being of a mode of consciousness that is distinct from that with which protesters had heretofore navigated the white space reconstituted by the J. E. B. Stuart Monument. Indeed, this defacement expresses what Blackness is—a vehicle for querying the West’s racial order—that is known only by its irruptive, rupturing power: “I hope this disturbs you.”


John Brooks is visiting assistant professor of English at Boston College. His research draws on performance studies and phenomenological inquiry to examine the role of abstraction in rendering discourses of race unintelligible. In his forthcoming book, The Racial Unfamiliar: Encountering Illegibility in Contemporary African American Literature and Culture (Columbia University Press, 2022), he argues that a group of twenty-first-century artists refute established racial discourse by disregarding and defying the conventions that govern Black aesthetic practices. His published research includes essays in PMLAAfrican American Review, and J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists.


[1] Stuart (6 February 1833 – 12 May 1864) was a slave owner and Confederate cavalry commander who died from a gunshot wound sustained during the Battle of Yellow Tavern.

[2] Michael T. Taussig, Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labor of the Negative (Stanford, Calif., 1999), p. 5.

[3] See Vernon L. Allen and David B. Greenberger, “An Aesthetic Theory of Vandalism,” Crime & Delinquency 24, no. 3 (1978): 309-21.

[4] Oxford English Dictionary, online ed., s.v. “Vandalism.”

[5] Elijah Anderson, “The White Space,” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity 1, no. 1 (2015): 10-21.

[6] And later, “Vote Racism Out” (21 October); a large red heart (October 24); spray-painted penises surrounding “Cops are Dicks,” “ACAB,” and “Fuck J. E. B” (30 November).

[7] See “preservation” in Laura Partain, “Dynamic Exchanges: A Mixed Method Analysis of Palestinians and Syrians in US News Media Cycles” (PhD diss., Indiana University, 2021), p. 258. 

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Notes on Late Eurocentrism

Achille Mbembe

Translated by Carolyn Shread

When considering the recent history of critical thought, two major events invite reflection today. First, Europe is no longer the center of gravity of the world. As I wrote in the introduction to Critique of Black Reason, this is “the fundamental experience of our era.”[1] This change does not mean that Europe no longer has any influence on the workings of the world, nor that we should now discount it. But Europe can no longer harbor the illusion that it alone has the power to dictate the course of the world. This is the case not only for the economy or for military and technological power; it is also true in the field of culture, arts, and ideas.

Second, there is a clear danger that in response to this historical downgrading, this eclipse, some people from the extreme right to the extreme left have been drawn either to nihilism or to ideological excess (or both), that is, by what I call late Eurocentrism, a Eurocentrism that is still more rancid and aggressive, even more deaf, blind, and vindictive than in the past. It is, indeed, a form of folly.

Chronologically, late Eurocentrism is the direct heritage of two earlier manifestations, each as reactionary as the other. Originally, there was primitive Eurocentrism, the type associated with imperial conquests, military occupation, and exploitation of colonial territories.[2] Then, from the 1950s, an anti-third-world Eurocentrism arose in opposition to anticolonial nationalisms. It reached its apogee in the 1970s in the critique of dependence and unequal development theories and the attempts to establish a more just international economic order.[3] All this occurred before the advent of neoliberalism, of which late Eurocentrism is, so to speak, the offshoot.

With the arrival of China on the world stage, the illusion of supremacy seemingly ran up against its ultimate limits.[4] The question now is to assess the full consequences of this situation: first it requires the creation of new paths for art and thought; second, bridges and byways must be built to facilitate encounters, so that together we can finally free ourselves of singular visions of history, and even more than that, the constant colonial temptation to hierarchize beings and objects.

What our present moment in fact demands is a welcoming of other ways of experiencing time and space. In the era of the combustion of the planet, as “radioactive contamination is constantly growing and expanding its reach across the planet beyond national borders,” we must invent other ways of inhabiting Earth, envisaging it as a true refuge not just for some, but for all—human and nonhuman.[5]

1.

In this context, how can we forget that in the Atlantic Basin from 1619 onward the greatest obstacle to the project of a common inhabiting of Earth was race?

Originally, race is an entirely fantastical reality. It has never existed as a natural fact. At the beginning of the modern period, perhaps for the first time, it was discovered that as a spectral reality, race offers an inexhaustible resource, that it is, a formidable technology of power. To achieve this effect, race must be constantly produced, manufactured and circulated. This historical process is what we call racializing.

Racializing refers to the conscious seizing and deployment of a set of techniques of power (legal, instrumental and representational techniques, social conventions, mores, customs and habits) in order to produce a reality (race) and to naturalize it as quickly as possible. To achieve this goal, its manufactured nature must be masked, precisely in order to represent the result as a natural fact, even though it is no such thing.

In the Atlantic Triangle, this production of reality according to the principle of partition, differentiation, separation and hierarchization has been operational since the seventeenth century.[6] Moreover, the long axis that ties Europe to Africa, Africa to the Americas, and the Americas to Europe in what is called the age of Enlightenment, culminated with the production of the Black Codes (Codes Noirs). Via these Black Codes, race—now a hypostatized fantastical category—lodged itself in many legal apparati, notably in colonial and enslavement regimes.[7] These regimes formed a space that was essentially outside of time in which, as a technique of power, racism (actually a historically datable power dynamic) now found within itself both the principle and end of its functioning.

In legal terms, the Black Codes transformed people of African descent into “Blacks,” that is, into an exploitable raw material, the matter of wealth. As the product of a power dynamic and a dominating relation, the raced person, the “Black,” was simultaneously an exchange value and a use value. This person had the value of personal property or a good. The person was related to the use of a thing. At the same time, the person was the creator of things and value. However, unlike the proletariat per se, neither their labor power nor the energy resource they offered nor the product of their labor are exchanged for a salary.[8]

This form of originary expropriation cannot be reduced objectively to the class alienation at the heart of orthodox Marxism. It certainly shares with wage earners the experience of an operation capturing time, energy and labor power but it is fundamentally different in that racial alienation is a form of native alienation that cannot be quantified and has no objective equivalent.[9] In conjunction with the capturing of bodies, energies, and even vital flows, there is an originary discrediting and shaming, a hereditary debasement and abjection that is transmitted from one generation to the next and that is therefore, by its very definition, insurmountable. This effect is what sociologist Orlando Patterson terms “social death.”[10]

2.

There is no shadow of a doubt that race and the principle of racial hierarchy were the preferred motors of colonial thinking.[11] The fact that as a result colonial thinking was one of the primary matrices of Eurocentrism has been demonstrated many times over. But let us not forget that colonial thinking does not comprise the entirety of European thought since throughout the centuries it also developed the terms of its own critique at its very core.

Colonial thinking should thus be understood as the set of techniques and sciences, myths, knowledge and skills that, from the fifteenth century onwards, made possible the destruction of the conditions of renewal of life on Earth. The deployment of this assemblage (myths, science, knowledge, skills) over the course of more than four centuries has, moreover, led to a profound destabilization in both many distant societies and natural processes in general.[12] In Afro-diasporic thought, the colonial gesture reflects the capturing of autonomous power and bodies, vital flows that are subdivided, expended, recoded (racialization) in an attempt to transform them into immediately manipulable, sellable and buyable energy.

One of the major characteristics of colonial thinking—and Eurocentrism—thus understood is the place granted to abstraction. Indeed, from the colonial point of view, knowing does not necessarily consist in a staying with things in themselves, let alone with Others. Knowing essentially amounts to shaping and quantifying relations at a distance—the relations of distance between units, each of which is grasped in isolation. These units are held separate from one another in what, in another context, Bartoli and Gosselin term “a relation of mutual distancing.”[13]

But this capacity to shape, codify, and institutionalize separation relations is not simply a mental affair. In many cases, it leads to the destruction of the conditions of sensible experience, an experience that, as we are realizing more and more today, is absolutely necessary for any ethic of cohabitation, whether it be the coexistence of humans or between species.

Alongside techniques and sciences, knowledge and skills, there were also, of course, infrastructures. Contrary to what orthodox Marxists believe, race was one of these. Who can deny the extent to which colonial racism was consubstantial with liberalism and racial violence necessary to the constitution of the global order?[14] Who can deny the role race has played in the dynamics of dispossession and exploitation on a global scale and in the mechanisms instituting power and society in Western societies?[15]

With the demise of the Eurocentrist illusion, the possibility thus arises for us to turn our backs once and for all on what Stuart Hall called “racial fundamentalism”—a phenomenon that has also served as a pillar for capitalism in as much as capitalism itself constantly leans on what are, in effect, racial subsidies to further its planetary expansion.[16]

In the current moment almost everything points, if not to a rupture, then at least to a renewed contestation of the sort of virulent, nativist Eurocentrism that adopts eradication as its goal and whose manifestations we witness in the regular attempts at stigmatization of thought that is supposedly non-native, both in France and elsewhere.

As the offshoot of neoliberalism in its authoritarian phase, late Eurocentrism is a deceitful ideology that claims to defend science, secularism, the Republic, Enlightenment, and universalism, even as it knows next to nothing about the universe, other worlds, and other histories. In fact, it seeks above all else to make everything that eludes it vanish from the surface of the Earth. What it is, in truth, is both a corrupt and nihilist response to European loss of social privilege. Clinging to a fictive past and ignoring traditions of dissidence within the European canon itself, it fools itself with a mortal melancholy while what the world actually needs now is new thinking about life.[17]

Where primitive Eurocentrism sought to establish European conquest and domination of the world, the late Eurocentrism of the twenty-first century seeks to justify the battening down of Europe on itself, its withdrawal from the world (askêsis) and its eclipse, calling for a extirpating violence against currents of thought that contest it and individuals who bear these ideas, starting with nonwhite women thinkers.

3.

Contrary to common assumptions, critique of Eurocentrism in its various forms is not new. The fact that it is appearing today under the guise of decolonial theories, postcolonial studies, or the critiques of race, gender, and intersectional approaches will be news only to those who, walled off in their local visions, willingly cut themselves off from voyages in planetary thought.

Despite what is frequently claimed, the critique of Eurocentrism never sought to replace class warfare with race warfare; rather, it has always sought to bring together race, class, and gender conflict. In afro-diasporic traditions in particular, the critique crystallized around several key concepts, notably abolition and decolonization, which have always been the subject of fierce debates among afro-centrists, afro-pessimists and afro-futurists.

It is safe to say that abolitionism not only preceded the Enlightenment but is precisely what guarantees its universality. So long as Enlightenment has not integrated abolitionism, it remains fundamentally tribal. This vast multinational and multiracial intellectual movement spanned three centuries. Prefiguring what we now call intersectionality, it brought together in a single knot both racial and gender issues (the race of classes and their gender), questions linked to the history of capitalism itself (the class of races and their gender) and concerns about universal justice (Ida B. Wells, Crusade for Justice. The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells, Edited by Alfreda M. Duster, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1970).[18]

Abolitionism experienced two significant moments. The first was the growing criticism of the slave trade and the enslavement system in the Americas from the sixteenth century onwards (Bartolomeo de las Casas). This movement reached its apogee among the Quakers and other Protestant dissidents and in revolutionary and anticolonial groups between 1770 and 1820.[19]

This abolitionist moment fostered the emergence of generations of Black intellectuals who, in the pathogenic context of today no doubt appear on the lists drawn up by the Observatoire du décolonialisme and regularly appear in publications—William Wells Brown, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederik Douglass, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, William Hamilton, Martin Delany and others.[20] The Haitian Revolution of 1791 to 1804 was the high point of the antienslavement cause. The second abolitionist wave, demanding the immediate end of the enslavement system, took place from the 1820s to the time of the American civil war.[21]

While the concept of abolition is opposed on principle to all and any regime of capture and represents a radical demand for justice in the face of everything that endangers the conditions of renewal of life, anticolonialism is no less demanding. In fact, the anticolonialist movement extends the originary intuitions of the abolitionist movement. Anticolonialism seeks self-determination on principle, that is, it calls for the liberation of power, the power of those who are reduced to raw materials in the colonial paradigm.[22] Similarly to the abolitionist project, anticolonialism seeks to reinvent communal forms and support new phenomena.[23]

During the Négritude period, which coincided with the end of the war against fascism and Hitlerism, anticolonialism identified with the quest for a self-founding logos.[24] Today, far more than a cry of protest, decolonize has become an injunction, an unstoppable movement. Of course, this quest has always involved it its own ambiguities and contradictions.[25] Simultaneously an act of defiance, a coup, and a taking of power via the power to self-institute, the decolonial summons captivated as many minds in the North as in the Souths of the world.

4.

The injunction to decolonize would, however, be of limited interest if it did not lead to a truly radical cultural agenda, one such as the much regretted Édouard Glissant continued to propose up until recently. This agenda focused on the idea of Whole World.

The concept of Whole World has three distinctive features. First, it is committed to a total break with all forms of closing in on the self, whether in the form of a territorial, national, ethno-racial, or religious enclosure. Second, it is opposed to the sort of authoritarian universalism upon which the colonial enterprise is founded—a universalism based on conquest that sought to achieve its goals not through a multiplicity of bodies and beings but within a single body arbitrarily held as the one and only truly significant body. Thirdly, in the Whole-World conception, the drive to know is first and foremost an invitation to emerge from willing ignorance and discover our own limits. More than anything, it is about learning to be-born-with-others, that is, an uncompromising break up of all the mirrors expected to faithfully return an image of the self.

In Glissant’s thought, the world of Whole World twists and weaves itself in tangled relations between a multiplicity of centers. The greatest obstacle to its accession is an ignorance that is so self-unaware that it ultimately transforms into a pure nativism that tries to pass as both science and universalism.

The battle against this self-interested form of ignorance requires a departure from the self, a deliberate opening up the possibility of multiple passages and multiple crossings for only the trial of passage and crossing allows us to not talk constantly either about ourselves or about other worlds, in their place, as if they did not already exist for themselves. It is instead to look together and see, but each time starting from several worlds.

The same might be said, mutatis mutandis, of decolonization proper. To decolonize knowledge, arts, and thinking is to try to listen, look, and see reality starting from several worlds or centers at once; to read and interpret history from a multiplicity of archives.

A project of this sort urgently requires a fresh critique of difference and segregation. For without a resolute critique of difference what V.Y. Mudimbe called “the colonial library” that is the cornerstone of Eurocentrism will never be dismantled.[26] To decolonize is to learn to be born together (cobirth). Being born together is the only way to overcome the two-fold desire for abstraction and segregation that typifies colonial thinking—both the separation of humans amongst themselves and the separation of humans from other species, from nature and the multiple forces of life.

5.

Ultimately, the Eurocentrist illusion failed. From its ashes, in the North, South and East, we see emerging new ways of thinking, thinking that is truly planetary. This thought not only takes humans as its object but also earth, fire, air, water, and winds, in short, life itself.[27] These modes of thinking are all anticolonial by definition, if by colonial we mean the refusal to be “born together,” the determination to separate, put up walls, all sorts of walls and fortresses, transforming pathways into borders, identity into enclosure and freedom into private property.[28]

These anti-colonial and post-Eurocentric modes of thought highlight not essences or compact and homogenous blocks, but instead porosities. They do not depend on the flying buttresses of a nationalistic heritage. Where Eurocentrism habitually cut up time, space, and history into discrete parts, marked by supposedly irreducible and unassimilable differences, these ways of thinking deal in tangled skeins. In art, music, cinema, and other forms of writing, they seek to multiply byways and build bridges. While late Eurocentrism sees nothing but lines of occupation, bridges to cut, walls to raise, prisons to build, points of arrival never connected to points of departure, Whole-World thinking valorizes the fact that we are all traversed through and through by multiple genealogies, forged by sinuous, interconnected lines.

Today we are witnessing the take-off of these anticolonial and postEurocentric ways of thinking, and not just in the Souths of the world. They are blooming everywhere, including in the heart of Europe. But in the current withdrawal into often fantastical identities, in the era of conspiracy theories and the deliberate production of fakes and disharmony, their thriving and resonance among new generations give rise to anxiety, fear and panic, especially in the old centers of the world but not exclusively.[29]

This is the case because a new war with a quasi-religious appearance has taken hold of the world. Waged in all corners of the earth scale by the global alt-right against a selection of real and imaginary enemies (liberals, leftists, Marxists, activists for minority, immigration, queer, decolonial feminists, islamo-leftists), its goal is to overturn the very terms of reality along with its modes of appearance and revelation.

Studying the way in which this war is waged allows us to shine a harsh light on some of the great fantasies of our epoch.[30] The first is the fantasy of closure and its corollary, eradicating and extirpating violence. This desire for brutality, especially against those who have lost out, the weakest and most vulnerable amongst us, particularly those who were formerly subjected, feeds off of the rise in theologies of necrosis. It presents feeble fables that preach impossibility and incompatibility—impossible encounters, impossible sharing, in short, the impossibility of a multiplicity of worlds. Here there is a drive towards totalization everywhere.[31]

The second is the fantasy of extinction and replacement.[32] In this war of demonization and delegitimization, which combines fundamentally incompatible narratives, it is claimed that the white race is under siege, threatened with extinction, the victim of pernicious counter-racism.

The West and its “civilization” are presented as having all the features of a full and self-sufficient body, developed throughout the centuries from its own cloth. It owes a debt to no one, still less any reparation. Meanwhile, it is the recipient of serious internal threats from groups that are themselves inside, but that are ready to ally themselves with ungrateful and malevolent enemies.[33]  Hence the obligation to mount a massive self-defense.[34]

The necrosis theology used to justify this war distinguishes two antagonistic categories of human beings: the good and the bad, enemies and friends, the majority and the minority. Dualistic and Manichean, it excludes any possibility of common inhabiting on principle.[35]

The necrosis theology used to justify this war distinguishes two antagonistic categories of human beings: the good and the bad, enemies and friends, the majority and the minority. Dualistic and Manichean, it excludes any possibility of common inhabiting on principle (Angela Nagle, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumbler to Trump and the Alt-Right, John Hunt Publishing, 2017).

Meanwhile, from every corner of the earth cries that cannot be stifled rise up constantly towards the heavens. The old problem of knowing how to think the singularity of other people, along with the irreducibility of their suffering, returns once again with acuity, even as the planet is caught up in a movement of accelerated combustion and the call for thinking that is not local or regional, but truly planetary, has never been heard so urgently.

6.

The elements of just such a planetary mode of thinking can be found in the archives of Whole World. Indeed, we should recall, there was a time when the critique of racial enslavement and colonialism, along with the denunciation of anti-Semitism, were established preconditions for the adoption of any position on universal battles for equality, justice ,and human emancipation.[36]

At that time it was a matter of proving that there were not two types of humanity; rather, spread all across the globe, it was thought that the innumerable mass of living beings converged towards a single humanity open to all the forces of life.[37] Far from referring solely to a relative, a compatriot, or a member of the clan, a fellow human being was, by definition, whoever had a human face, whether or not that face had the features of one’s own ethnic group, religion, or nationality.[38]

In the end, it was through revolts by enslaved peoples, such as the revolution in Haiti, the great abolitionist campaigns of the nineteenth century, and the anticolonial insurrections that categories such as freedom, alterity, universality, the right to self-determination “became flesh” for all, eventually acquiring a political and philosophical density, reaffirming the reality of our common participation in humanity. The hope was that through this “community of participation” the human adventure on Earth would eventually find its meaning. Each face taken in its singularity would finally be protected from inhumanity, and the suffering of those who made up the majority of humankind would finally come to an end.[39]

7.

In our time it is clear that ultra-nationalism as a social force and cultural sensibility, along with ideologies of racial supremacy, are experiencing a global renaissance. This renewal is accompanied by the rise of a hard, xenophobic, and openly racist extreme right, which is in power in many Western democratic institutions and whose influence can be felt even within the various strata of the techno-structure itself. In an environment marked by the segregation of memories and their privatization, as well as by discourses on incommensurability and the incomparable nature of suffering, the strictly ethical concept of the fellow human being as another self no longer holds.

The idea of an essential human resemblance has been replaced by the notion of difference, taken as both anathema and prohibition. As a result, it has become extremely difficult to determine the way in which each of the innumerable sites of defeat and dispossession, the trauma and abandon that modern history has bequeathed us, bear the face of the whole of humanity, torn asunder in every instance. Concepts such as the human, the human race, humankind, or humanity barely mean anything at all even if contemporary pandemics and the consequences of the ongoing combustion of the planet keep imbuing them with weight and significance.

In the West, but also in other parts of the world, we are witnessing the rise of new forms of racism that might be described as paroxysms. The nature of paroxysmal racism is that, in a metabolic manner, it can infiltrate the functioning of power, technology, culture, language, and even the air we breathe. The dual turn of racism towards a techno-algorithmic and eco-atmospheric variety is making it an increasingly lethal weapon, a virus.

This form of racism is termed viral because it goes hand in hand with the exacerbation of fears, including and especially the fear of extinction, which appears to have become one of the driving engines of white supremacy in the world. However, the virulence of contemporary racism is equaled only by its denial. Late Eurocentrism is a malignant form of this denial.

In a spectacular reversal, anti-racist efforts are held responsible for the rise in racism. The most invidious historical crimes in the heart of Europe by Europe are now blamed on others, starting with the descendants of the victims of European imperialism. Such is the case with anti-Semitism. At the same time, with the help of the escalation of technology and the crisis of neoliberalism, the illiberal turn of liberal democracies is hardening.

Perhaps the time will come when the regeneration of the forces of life so necessary to our survival on the plant will come from the global North. While we wait, a good part of Europe continues to wall itself up behind the darkest of ramparts. There is absolutely nothing to concede to this part of Europe, or to late Eurocentrism.

[This text was read virtually at the Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac Museum on the occasion of the “September Summit” organized in Paris during Saison Africa 2020.


Achille Mbembe is the author of Brutalisme (Paris, 2020). He is the cofounder with Felwine Sarr of Ateliers de la pensée in Dakar.


[After translating “The Universal Right to Breathe” as the world went into lockdown in 2020, I return here to Achille Mbembe’s thought as some places seemingly emerge from the pandemic – thereby revealing local and global disparities all the more forcefully. Has the virus changed us? Perhaps not, for while this was translated over the first federally recognized Juneteenth holiday in the United States, this translation also coincides with a doomed voting rights bill. These Notes offer the clarity and uncompromising historical account upon which the only possible futures for all can be built. Taking Celia Britton’s translation of Édouard Glissant’s Traité du Tout-Monde (Treatise on the Whole World, 2020), I called that world, rather than One or All, Whole World in English. Mbembe’s reflections on the centuries long effects of the fabrication of race via processes of racialization, pointed the way when it came to the “Nègre” of the Codes noirs: it is enough to refer to “Black” rather than any more offensive racial term. Late eurocentrism is a potent conceptual tool for showing the way forward, understanding the place for steely refusal of the newly emerging mechanisms of hate. I hope that my contribution to the linguistic crossings and encounters we need for planetary healing will offer a tiny reparation amidst all the work we have ahead to make our world whole—Carolyn Shread, translator]


[1] Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason (2017).

[2] See Edward Said, Orientalism (New York, 1978), and Walter Mignolo, The Darker Side of Western Modernity. Global Futures, Decolonial Options (Durham, N.C., 2011)

[3] See André Gunder Frank, “Le développement du sous-développement”, Cahiers Vilfredo Pareto 6, nos. 16–17 (1968), and Samir Amin, L’accumulation à l’échelle mondiale (Paris, 1970). See also Samir Amin, L’eurocentrisme. Critique d’une idéologie (Paris, 1988), and Immanuel Wallerstein, “Eurocentrism and its Avatars: The Dilemmas of Social Science,”Sociological Bulletin, 1 Mar. 1997.

[4] See Giovanni Arrighi, Adam Smith in Beijing. Lineages of the Twenty-First Century (New York, 2007).

[5] Sabu Kohso, Radiations et révolution. Capitalisme apocalyptique et luttes pour la vie au Japon (Paris, 2021). See also Kohso, “Radiation, Pandemic, Insurrection”, The New Inquiry, 14 Dec. 2020.

[6] See Peter Kolchin, American Slavery, 1619–1877 (New York, 1993), and Thomas D. Morris, Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619–1860 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1996).

[7] See Phillip J. Schwarz, Twice Condemned. Slaves and the Criminal Laws of Virginia, 1705–1865 (Union, N.J., 1998), and Sally E. Hadden, Slave Patrols. Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas (Cambridge, Mass., 2001).

[8] See W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America. An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880 (New York, 1935).

[9] See Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism. The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1983).

[10] See Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death. A Comparative Study (Cambridge, Mass., 1982).

[11] In the French context, see Elsa Dorlin, La matrice de la race. Généalogie sexuelle et coloniale de la nation française (Paris, 2006).

[12] See David Bartoli and Sophie Gosselin, Le toucher du monde. Techniques du naturer (Paris, 2020), p. 15.

[13] Ibid.

[14] See Uday Singh Mehta, Liberalism and Empire. A Study in Nineteenth-Century British Liberal Thought (Chicago, 1999), and Duncan Bell, Reordering the World: Essays on Liberalism and Empire (Princeton, N.J., 2016).

[15] See Stuart Hall, Selected Writings on Race and Difference (Durham, N.C, 2021), and Simon Gikandi, Slavery and the Culture of Taste (Princeton, N.J., 2011).

[16] On these debates and critiques, see Edward Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Cambridge, Mass., 2016); Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York, 2014); Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge, Mass,, 2016); and Trevor Burnard and Giorgio Riello, “Slavery and the New History of Capitalism,” Journal of Global History 15, no. 2 (2020).

[17] See Paul Gilroy, Postcolonial Melancholia (New York, 2004).

[18] See Bronwen Everill, Not Made by Slaves. Ethical Capitalism in the Age of Abolition (Cambridge, Mass., 2020). See also

[19] See Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution (Charlottesville, N.C., 1996).

[20] See Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause. A History of Abolition (New Haven, Conn., 2008).

[21] See Black Soldiers in Blue. African-American Troops in the Civil War Era, ed. John David Smith(Charlottesville, N.C.,2004).

[22] See Adom Getachew, Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination (Princeton, N.J., 2019).

[23] See Aric Putnam, The Insistent Call. Rhetorical Moments in Black Anticolonialism, 1929–1927 (Amherst, Mass., 2012); Michael Goebel, Anti-Imperial Metropolis: Interwar Paris and the Seeds of Third World Nationalism (New York, 2015); and Chad L. Williams, Torchbearers of Democracy: African-American Soldiers in World War I Era (Charlottesville, N.C., 2010).

[24] See Donna V. Jones, The Racial Discourses of Life Philosophy. Négritude, Vitalism, and Modernity (New York, 2011).

[25] See Mbembe, Out of the Dark Night: Essays on Decolonization (New York, 2021) and “Thoughts on the Planetary: An Interview with Achille Mbembe,” 5 Sept. 2019.

[26] V. Y. Mudimbe, The Invention of Africa (Bloomington, Ind., 1998).

[27] See Édouard Glissant, La terre, le feu, l’eau et les vents: Une anthologie de la poésie du Tout-Monde (Paris, 2010).

[28] See Tim Ingold, Une brève histoire des lignes (Paris, 2013).

[29] See Arjun Appadurai, “Fear of Small Disciplines: India’s Battle against Creative Thought”, Postcolonial Studies (2021).

[30]  See Nick Land, The Dark Enlightenment, and Olivia Goldhill, “The Neo-Fascist Philosophy that Underpins Both the Alt-Right and Silicon Valley Technophiles”, Science Reporter, 18 June 2017.

[31] See Scott F. Alkin, “Deep Disagreement, the Dark Enlightenment, and the Rhetoric of the Red Pill,” Journal of Applied Philosophy 36, no 3 (2018).

[32] See Chetan Bhatt, “White Extinction: Metaphysical Elements of Contemporary Western Fascism,” Theory, Culture and Society, 23 June 2020.

[33] See Ilan E. Strauss, “The Dark Reality of Betting Against QAnon,” The Atlantic, 1 Jan. 2021; Clive Thompson, “QAnon Is Like a Game—A  Most Dangerous Game,” Wired, 22 Sept. 2020; and David Goldberg, “On Civil War,” Critical Times, 9 Sept. 2020.

[34] See Roger Burrows, “On Neoreaction,” The Sociological Review, 28 Mar. 2019, and Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Democracy. The God That Failed: The Economics and Politics of Monarchy, Democracy, and Natural Order (2001).

[35] See Angela Nagle, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumbler to Trump and the Alt-Right (2017).

[36] See Manu Goswami, “Imaginary Futures and Colonial Internationalisms,” The American Historical Review 117, no. 5 (2012): 1461–85.

[37] See  Helen Tilley, “Racial Science, Geopolitics, and Empires,” Isis 105 (2014): 773–81.

[38] See Michael Goebel, Anti-Imperial Metropolis. Interwar Paris and the Seeds of Third World Nationalism (New York, 2015).

[39] See Simone Weil, Écrits historiques et politiques (Paris, 1960), pp. 331–78.

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Remembering Lauren on 28 June 2021

W. J. T. Mitchell

“‘I didn’t think it would turn out this way.’”

That, according to Lauren Berlant, “is the secret epitaph of intimacy.”

It is also the most fitting epitaph for Lauren Berlant’s own career, not just as a critical theorist and scholar, but as a complex individual in an intimate space of thought and community. For Lauren was supposed to live forever. Now they have defied expectation once again and moved on to a place of silence, leaving us to assess what they meant to us, what they did for us, what they left us. The job is overwhelming and will require many more hands and brains than my own.

So let me start with the simplest facts. Lauren Berlant arrived in Chicago with a fresh PhD in American literature from Cornell in 1984. Lauren rode the crest of a wave of brilliant young arrivals who took over Chicago’s English Department from the old, mostly male, generation that was in charge when I arrived some ten years earlier. It quickly became evident that Lauren was perfectly suited to the ambitions of Critical Inquiry, which I had been editing since 1977. The journal was hot on the trail of new developments in the humanities and social sciences, with recent issues on feminism and race, politics and interpretation, and the fateful transformation in the human sciences that went by the name of “Theory.” Lauren joined our editorial board as an untenured assistant professor, a decision that was regarded by some as risky because the workload of a coeditor (300 pages of reading per month) was thought to be a distraction from what was called “one’s own work.” But Lauren’s work turned out to be all about others—their colleagues, friends, students, and an ever-expanding network of allies and interlocutors in fields other than literature. Anthropology, poetry, philosophy, sociology, political theory, psychoanalysis, critical legal studies, movements for Gay Rights, racial equality, immigrants, the list goes on of fields where their interventions made a difference. What exactly was that difference?

Let me begin with the obvious. It sometimes struck me, reading Lauren’s footnotes, that they never slept—or at least one of their many selves was always awake and watchful, even when dreaming. We often talked about our dreams and our writing, which somehow stretched across numerous territories, from ambition to fantasy to comic failure. Lauren provided the best advice I ever received about writing. In a response to one of my first drafts, Lauren told me: “Keep going. Once you get all the gas out of your system, the good shit is bound to follow.” Lauren did not merely write things that ventured into “other fields.” Constantly on the move, Lauren followed a question into the dark corners of “adult bookstores” and the laws that shut them down or moved them to “the waterfronts” of violence and poverty. Channel surfacing through the spaces of women’s magazines, late-night TV, kitsch and celebrity culture, Lauren once quoted to me a comment from a senior colleague: “I love your mind, but I hate your archive.” True enough. It was the wrong archive for an English professor. Not merely “popular culture,” but deeply unpopular, controversial, and marginal subcultures formed the habitus of Lauren’s inquiries, right alongside all the monuments of high and official culture. Lauren’s second book, The Queen of America Comes to Washington City, brought together the Reagan version of the American dream with Anita Hill, Queer Nation, Forrest Gump, and The Simpsons. Essays like “Sex in Public,” “Cruel Optimism,” and books like The Female Complaint (2008) made it clear all the received ideas about politics, culture, sexuality, and the American nation were (and are) in deep trouble.

Trouble, however, of the very best kind. For Lauren’s special contribution to human thought (as distinct from academic knowledge) was the unsettling of “normativity,” the routine, normal unexamined habits that infect thinking in the mundane spaces of everyday life, the halls of academe, and the corridors of power. For Lauren, these infections (not just heterosexuality, but the entire panoply of normative differentiations—yours and mine, his and hers, private and public, us and them) generate destructive fantasies of purity and fulfilment, not to mention the slow death of routinized thought and behavior. Needless to say, this made Lauren a crucial member of a feisty editorial group that loves nothing better than a battle of wits and tastes. Like a dazzling point guard who opens unexpected passing lanes with jukes, changes of direction, and sudden bursts of speed, Lauren raised everyone’s game, keeping us off balance, uncertain, with a correspondingly heightened attention to everything being said, decided, and done. Lauren demanded alertness, responsiveness, and counter-play. It was never enough, in my experience, to tell Lauren that you agreed with something they had just said.

All this could be summarized best in Lauren and Michael Warner’s “Sex in Public” (1998):

Queer social practices like sex and theory try to unsettle the garbled but powerful norms supporting that privilege—including the project of normalization that has made heterosexuality hegemonic—as well as those material practices that, though not explicitly sexual, are implicated in the hierarchies of property and propriety that we will describe as heteronormative.

Normativity: we were enjoined by Lauren neither to accept it or reject it but to “unsettle” it. Is this where deconstruction meets queer theory, where pure reason unveils its affective foundations? It is notable that Lauren regarded theory itself as a “Queer social practice,” right alongside that most mundane and mysterious thing called sex. I immediately want to insert a third term at this point, namely Death, the Queerest thing of all, and wonder what Lauren would have to say to us. Somehow, consolation is not the first thing that comes to mind. Death at age 63, with a mind constantly reaching beyond itself, was not the way things were supposed to turn out. Inconsolable at losing a dear friend who went from being my mentee to my mentor in a few short years, I think of how Lauren’s last conversation with me was a Seminary Co-op dialogue on Mental Traveler, my memoir—deeply influenced by Lauren—of the life and death of my son, Gabriel. In the last months before passing, Lauren found a way to emerge from the isolation of illness and the pandemic to find the right questions to ask. Lauren transformed our mourning, helping us find a way beyond melancholy into a manic intensity that reveals Death itself in all its unsettling Queerness. I didn’t think it would turn out this way.


W. J. T. Mitchell is senior editor of Critical Inquiry

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Video Games: A Discussion with Patrick Jagoda, Soraya Murray, and Noah Wardrip-Fruin

This June, Executive Editor Patrick Jagoda met with Soraya Murray, associate professor in the Film and Digital Media Department at UCSC, and Noah Wardrip-Fruin, professor in the Computational Media Department of UCSC, to discuss video games and critical theory. Their triptych, “Conceptual Games, or the Language of Video Games,” was published in the Autumn 2018 issue of Critical Inquiry.

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Thinking and Thanking: Responding to the Critical Comments on Textures of the Ordinary

Veena Das

I take the pleasure of companionship that these five comments offer me as an invitation to overreach myself. My response then to these careful, critical, and challenging comments is taken from my experience of threading a delicate piece of embroidery in which the thickness or thinness of each thread, its color, the way it loops into other threads, comes to define the motifs that the embroider makes alive. More than one commentator has been struck by the autobiographical tone of the writing in Textures— yet, if one took the story as a defining feature of autobiography (that is, the biography of a person written by himself)[1], I am not moved to offer a narrative within which different autobiographical moments can be made to fit, as Puett, Han, and Donatelli each comment. I want to reflect here more closely on what it means for Puett to say that this is the text telling its story; or, for Laugier to find that description itself becomes akin to raking the leaves of memory; or, for Han to bring into relief the moment when Swapan, the protagonist of chapter 6, finds me in the doubling of the mad professor he meets in the mental hospital with his (the professor’s) capacity to speak English (I imagine) to the staff of the hospital with their smattering of English words, with the mad professor that is me, the anthropologist (“auntie, do you have a PhD?”).

The opening paragraph that introduces Textures reads thus: “This book is composed in the nature of a collection, not only in the sense that it is a collection of essays, many of which had earlier incarnations, but also because it involved a task best described as raking the leaves of memory; collecting pieces of an ethnographic past, recollecting a life lived with texts — literary and philosophical— and in the process allowing myself to be educated in public.”[2] I did not then explicitly think that what I was saying about Textures was also a way of speaking about the self as a collection, rather in the mode of the Buddhist idea that giving unity to the self is a conceptual construction. This conceptual construction might result from the imperative to supply a narrative, as in the nineteenth-century novel (as Puett notes); or it might be to think of the contingencies through which one’s life might have allowed different texts to find each other (Laugier, Donatelli); or in the way the surge of an expression (“you know”, “no one takes an interest in me” ) reveals the violence of ethnographic authority (Deutscher) or of an appeal to the ethnographer “aunty” to recognize the force of desire that others in the community discount and to make things otherwise (Han).

One task that requires better description from me is to show how reading Wittgenstein and Cavell resonated for me with my experience of texts from Sanskrit, Prakrit, and other Indian languages. Let me give an example. In Textures, I speak of the physiognomy of words drawing from Amrit Lal Nagar’s description of male talk in his novel Seth Bankemal, when the protagonist is heartbroken at the death of his wife and his friend admonishes him for stooping so low as to grieve for a woman, especially as he could have hundreds of other women for the asking![3] But the way that Nagar juxtaposes the protagonist’s inability to reengage with life and the public display of bravado expresses not a “contempt” of women but a concealment of emotions. Now, imagine reading Wittgenstein’s comments: “Meaning is physiognomy”—“The familiar physiognomy of a word, the feeling that it has taken up its meaning into itself, that it is an actual likeness of its meaning.[4] Wittgenstein functions here not a resource for understanding Nagar; each is enriched by the other.

Take one more example. When Wittgenstein speaks of the physiognomy of words, he speaks of the way we experiment with words as we place them in a sentence: This one? No, not quite. May be this? Ah yes—this has a feeling of rightness about it. Wittgenstein will think of this way of coming to words, the feeling of rightness, as a grammatical investigation—words are grown within forms of life. Philosophical grammar is not simply a rule-bound application to a case but the sense of our being at home with words. Now consider what some might think of as a scandalous juxtaposition of a sutra from the great grammarian Panini, whose text Ashtadhyayi,[5] I feel, weaves together technical grammar (rules, say for affixes, or for substitution) with a philosophical grammar (determining what counts as action in the first place). Since the deep case in Paninian grammar, as is well-known, is premised on an understanding of what is action,[6] we begin with a simple case, “Rama is going to the village”: the action is movement signaled by the verb going, the agent is Rama from whom the action ensues, and the village is the direct object. Accordingly, Rama will be declined by the addition of the affix from the agentive case and the village in the accusative case. However, Panini introduces an interesting complication here. Suppose Rama is going to the village but only in his mind? Here the prescribed affix for the village will not be the accusative case but the dative case while the mind is put in the instrumental case. Why did the village now become an indirect object? It is my thought here that Panini’s technical rules are about correct speech, as many linguists understand grammar to be; but there is a plethora of other sutras that force us to think of grammar in the Wittgensteinian sense as telling us what an agent, or an object, or an instrument is. There is also here the physiognomy of words—after all Panini could have said Rama is thinking of the village, but the physiognomy of thinking is quite different from the physiognomy of imagining the whole experience in one’s mind of being in the village with its smells and its sights and its sounds. The dative then blocks the notion of physical movement (the use of road in conjunction with manasa is forbidden), and we learn the longing for the village in our imagination. I could give other examples but will stop here to acknowledge what these comments have enabled me to say.

On the Ordinary

There are very interesting ways in which the commentaries elaborate on different strands of my argument in both Textures and my larger work to make the ordinary appear, whether modelled on the domestic or on marriage or on contract. Depending upon how we imagine the ordinary, we will imagine the threats to it as coming from related directions, grounded in that imagination of the ordinary. As Donatelli says, I do not take the ordinary to be a mere background to basic rhythms of life repeated through force of habit; instead, I take habit itself to be a condition of creativity ingrained in the “tissues of everyday actions.” Yet the pathological normativity of life in the slums, as I have called it, could make for very blurred lines between what can be absorbed within the normal and what constitutes a breakdown. As Donatelli says, “The humble gestures of ordinary life disclose the residues of trauma yet they are also intimations of a better future to come. In the minute and unnoticed fragments of the present we are encouraged to find the echoes of a desirable future.” But attention to such minute gestures, to the physiognomy of words, and to whom the words are addressed (second person or third person?) requires attention to detail and even an openness to surplus description. As Laugier says, the object of description in Textures is life and not a recounting of opinions or description of bounded domains of specific institutions. Hence it is within life forms that the empirical and the conceptual are brought together. As Laugier, Han, and Deutscher all bring out, the empirical does not simply play the role of illustrating a theoretical argument but instead brings forward the nuances of what it is to live in language rather than with it. One important point that comes out in both Laugier and Han’s comments is that that language is used within a life form (meaning is use but use within a life form) but also abused within it (language is on holiday; it is like an engine idling away, as Wittgenstein said). It was Austin who brought out the many ways in which the fragility of context makes words tumble down in directions that might be called abuse: certainly in many cases described in Textures there is a sense that language itself is cursed—but I also argue that such slippages and abuses are “caught” and their poisons absorbed through the particularity of relations between two people with this kind of history, this kind of laughter shared, this kind of betrayal, rather than through a general appeal to norms. It is not that norms are not evoked but that their particular meanings and their force comes from the conversation with the milieu.

Knowledge

Deutscher’s commentary takes us to the different ways in which authority might be established in a relationship and the subtle ways in which skepticism takes gendered forms. Deutscher takes three instances of “you know”—the first is when Cameron, the Scotland Yard detective, appeals to what Deutscher calls Paula’s “counter knowledge” and, using the “you know,” tries to show her that she can trust her own sense of doubts in her husband’s version of things. Deutscher thinks that Cavell overemphasizes Paula’s helplessness and overstates the role played by Cameron. To my ears, he lets her find what she already knows, and if there are resources that they both have, these go back to recovering knowledge that Paula as a child had but seems now distant and vague to her. Perhaps my interpretation is colored by my knowing many women who had the experience of being constantly corrected by a more overpowering figure, male or female. So, I hear Cameron saying a minimal “you know”—he is inviting her to trust herself—at least that appears a more congenial interpretation to me. In a similar vein, my exchanges with Swapan (“what you have is an illness”) came at a point where I am trying to ward off an emergency. If there is an elevation in an appeal to my role as anthropologist, it is offered as an act of desperation to prevent a tumbling into the spiral of violence. I could say more on the way Cavell enabled my words to find life, find breath—he first offered to “trace a line or two of Veena Das’s more elusive thoughts” when he had no idea of my work and when it was faced with a very skeptical reviewer. My interpretation of Wittgenstein’s notion of pain through the idea of acknowledgement did not have any crutches of citational support, so I did not feel any bearing of elevated philosophical authority in these words of Cavell. In fact, I wish I could have done for Swapan what Cavell did for me, but neither the anthropologist nor the double of the mad professor, nor indeed “Aunty Ji,” could do much more than convey to Swapan the legitimacy of the reality of his desire in contest with the reality his mother was trying to impose on him. Clara Han recognizes this kind of failure from her own fieldwork experiences and in the modes of her writing. I too will live with these uncertainties.

As concluding observations, let me say that I am grateful to each commentator for the quality of their listening. I owe a special debt to Sandra Laugier who showed how philosophy might receive anthropology through attention to detail, turning away from the temptation to think that philosophy would have done great honor to anthropology by its “upgrading as philosophy.” Instead, as Laugier says, Textures illustrates and exemplifies the philosophical method Wittgenstein proposes, which is to pay attention to ordinary human forms of life in their unity and diversity, but it also wants to do away with the distinction between ethnography and anthropology. The resolute attention to forms of life and life forms is what creates a path into ordinary ethics for me, as distinct from normative ethics, and into an ordinary realism. My thanks to each commentator for the echoes of Cavell’s words in their writing but equally for their attention to the way that the flesh and blood character of those who figure in Textures create the possibility of continuing to write philosophy and anthropology in company of each other.


This response was written while in hospital during a medical emergency. I thank the teams of physicians, nurses, and staff of Ellison 10 at the Massachusetts General Hospital for their exemplary care and command over clinical expertise. To Saumya, Christiana, and Leigh Simmons—my profound gratitude for including their patient in the discussions and decision-making processes at every step. Thank you all. 


Veena Das is Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Anthropology at The Johns Hopkins University and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the Academy of Scientists from Developing Countries. She is the author of several books, most recently Textures of the Ordinary: Doing Anthropology after Wittgenstein, Slum Acts, and Affliction: Health, Poverty and Disease. She has also edited a number of highly influential edited collections, including Living and Dying in the Contemporary World, Social Suffering, Violence and Subjectivity,


[1] Jean Starobinksi., “The Style of Autobiography,” in Literary Style, ed. Seymour Chatman (London, 1971), pp. 285–96.

[2] Veena Das, Textures of the Ordinary: Doing Anthropology After Wittgenstein. (New York, 2020), p. xi.

[3] Ibid., p. 154.

[4] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe (Oxford, 1958), #568.

[5] See Panini, Ashtadhyayi of Panini, trans. S.C. Vasu, (Delhi, 1962).

[6] See V. P.Bhatta, “Theory of Karaka,” Bulletin of the Deccan College 47/48 (1988-1989): 15-22.

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Knowledge, Interpretation, and the Self: Notes on Textures of the Ordinary: Doing Anthropology After Wittgenstein by Veena Das

Michael Puett

Textures of the Ordinary is an intensely personal work in which Veena Das invites the reader to join her as she rethinks the key stories, problems, and tensions with which she has wrestled over the course of her life and career. It is a process she refers to as “raking the leaves of memory: collecting pieces of an ethnographic past, recollecting a life lived with texts—literary and philosophical—and in the process allowing myself to be educated, as it were, in public.”[1] 

Das allows the reader to see this rethinking in action, as she introduces each key idea and problem, and then takes the reader ever deeper, layer by layer, into the complex implications that need to be explored. This is true for every chapter but equally true for the entire book, as each chapter builds upon and adds complexity to issues introduced in earlier chapters. It is a tremendously moving work and a work of extraordinary depth. 

One can even call it an autobiographical work. This is true in part because interwoven throughout the book are anecdotes, memories, and stories from the author’s own life:

Because I have imagined my reader in this book as a “you” and not as part of an anonymous third-person public, I have allowed autobiographical moments to seep into the scenes I construct out of my ethnography and out of my life. [T, p. 1]

But it is autobiographical in a deeper sense as well, even beyond these explicitly autobiographical moments. Das has lived her life immersed in low-income neighborhoods from Delhi, in the writings of Wittgenstein and Cavell, in Sanskrit theories of language and ritual, and in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, as well as in fragmentary memories from her childhood. These are the worlds in which she has lived, and these are the worlds into which she is ushering the reader to join as she reflects upon, reopens, and reinterprets her earlier understandings. As she phrases it so eloquently:

Readers familiar with my earlier work will see how new aspects of a biography, or of a relationship, or of a neighborhood, dawn upon me as I go back to earlier accounts; or they will see how the passage of time has made certain figures reappear, made to carry a different kind of weight in my thinking now. [T, p. xi]

This intense reinterpretation of the questions and concerns that have been the focus of her thinking for decades is, in a larger sense, the autobiography of the work.

When we think of autobiography, we often think of the form that has become dominant in the Euro-American world over the past century, a form based directly on the narrative arc of nineteenth-century Euro-American novels. It is a narrative in which the author undergoes a set of difficult challenges in her familial and societal life and ultimately finds herself as she works through these challenges and emerges reborn. A coherent narrative resulting in a self-aware, coherent self.

Textures of the Ordinary most certainly does not fit this model. There is no coherent narrative, and certainly no coherent self. Not only are there several narratives, but many of the narratives are fragmentary and contradictory. And not only is there no coherent self, but we are rather presented with the complexities of how a self inhabits an ordinary reality that is itself multiple, layered, and requiring constant reinterpretation.

The book is written in a fragmentary style, involving surprising juxtapositions of different bodies of material, tentative conclusions that are broken off and then reanalyzed later, and, in several of the chapters, conclusions that are not only not final but often provocations and questions to be picked up in counterintuitive ways in later chapters. And the entire book reads as an invitation to the reader to work through these layers of complex ideas, fragmented stories, and sedimented concepts with her. 

This gives the book a textured richness that not only reveals the complex depth of the thinking but also beautifully embodies the themes of the work as well. In a work devoted to exploring the complexities and tensions of ordinary life and the ways in which violence and suffering are woven into the quotidian, Das works us through these complexities, layer by layer, offering brilliant insights but only tentative conclusions.

In giving these reinterpretations, it is not that she is rethinking some of the “theorists” (such as Wittgenstein and Cavell) and rethinking how she has “applied” their concepts to the ethnographic materials, the works of literature, and her childhood memories. For Das, the theories equally arise from the ethnographic work, and the works of those usually labeled as theorists are read, interpreted, and interrogated with the same depth as her ethnographic studies. Moreover, Das sees the philosophical and literary traditions of India as every bit as theoretically rich and sophisticated as twentieth-century Euro-American philosophy. All of these are sources of knowledge, and all are used to reinterpret and rethink the others. It is not just that discussions of Wittgenstein, Sanskrit theorists of grammar, and the painful words uttered by a child from a slum in Delhi are juxtaposed with each other. Each of these are seen as bodies of knowledge, and each are interpreted and reinterpreted through the others:

I treat the philosophical impulses, the anthropological mode of being in a world, literary references that come into the text sometimes unbidden, as well as autobiographical moments, as lying on the same plane in their ability to bring thought into closer harmony with modes of living; it is important for me to see how each of these impulses is able (or not) to receive figures of thought that generate a picture of everyday life and its forebodings, its ill omens, as well as its ability to stand up to these threats. [T, p. 11]

Tellingly, the book has no conclusion, and ends with a horrifying image and quotation, followed by a haunting pair of questions: “Is this the ‘difficulty of reality’? Should thought stop here?” (T, p. 332). It is fitting that the book ends with such a question. This is not a rhetorical flourish: the entire book is written in the form of a groping for answers. It is not just that her everyday is imbued with layers of sedimentation, it is that the author is reaching out and inviting the reader to work through these layers as well. Indeed, the text is composed such that the reader is called upon to do so. Das states the following about Coetzee, but the same point could be equally made about her own book:

An important feature of Coetzee’s novels is that the form of writing seems integral to the task of generating ethical thinking by inviting the reader to form a relation to the novel that is not based on the authority of the author. [T, p. 199]

Among many other questions, Das in a sense is asking what it would mean to write an autobiography that is not committed to a coherent view of the self, developed through a coherent narrative, with a clear ethical drive to celebrate the final achievement of self-knowledge. An autobiography, in other words, that took seriously views of the self, of knowledge, and of ethics that have developed outside of recent Euro-American conceptions.  It is a work of self-knowledge, but one without a pre-commitment to a coherent self and without a sense that such knowledge could or even should ever be final.

I mentioned above that the mode of autobiography dominant today derives directly from conceptions of narrative and of the self found in the nineteenth-century European novel. In contrast, the closest analogue I can find for Textures of the Ordinary is the Mahabharata, a work in which the complexities of the characters and their relationships are developed (if that’s even the right word) through endless fragments of earlier stories that slowly accumulate into a rich tapestry of interweaving lives. The narrative is not singular but rather a seemingly endless interplay of digressions in which minor characters become the key figures that inspire reinterpretations of what the reader thought she previously understood. And some of these digressions become almost texts unto themselves, as when, most famously, a battle scene is interrupted for a lengthy philosophical discussion on agency and ethics.

In such a narrative, knowledge is not obtained through an achievement of coherence.  Indeed, the Mahabharata requires constant rereadings, retellings, and reinterpretations. It lives through the commentaries and interpretations. The reader is in a sense being called upon to undertake these reinterpretations, precisely because the text itself offers no final answers.

This gives a sense of how Textures of the Ordinary works. It is a book that challenges our usual notions of the self, of interpretation, and of the ethics of interpretation and offers us, in practice, a way of understanding how knowledge can be built up through the layers of the ordinary. It is an extraordinary work, focused on an intense rethinking of the ordinary.  Das refuses to give final answers, but she should at least here have the final words:

Why is this book also an autobiography? I do not possess the stories and the fragments I arrive at. Instead, in finding my voice through words that I have had to beg, borrow, and steal, I hope it shows what being an anthropologist, or at least one version of being an anthropologist, is. From yet another perspective, if asked to sum up what the book is about, I might say, after Edgar Allen Poe: it is a mere recounting of household events. Such is my understanding of the everyday and of self-knowledge. [T, p. 27]


Michael J. Puett is Walter C. Klein Professor of Chinese History and Anthropology at Harvard University. He is the author of The Ambivalence of Creation: Debates Concerning Innovation and Artifice in Early China and To Become a God: Cosmology, Sacrifice, and Self-Divinization in Early China, as well as the coauthor of Ritual and its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity.


[1]Veena Das, Textures of the Ordinary: Doing Anthropology After Wittgenstein (New York, 2020), xi; hereafter abbreviated T.

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“As if in Mourning for It”: Knowledge of Violence, Violence as Knowledge

Penelope Deutscher

1. An endeavor to take flight from the everyday in which we are immersed will likely fail. But sometimes the everyday flees from us. And one can err, simply by having confidence in the everyday.

Textures of the Ordinary speaks to the dual character of everyday life:  routine, reassuringly habitual and yet constitutively capable of becoming defamiliarized, distrusted, monstrous. In the conjunctions explored by Veena Das in Textures, one consideration of doubt or unease about others is provided by Wittgenstein, for whom a kind of answer might sometimes be available through a reimmersion in the thick detail of daily life. A second order of possibility for looking into someone’s familiar face and doubting all is as it seems is attributed to Gaslight’s Paula Anton. Here, to respond by taking recourse in the practical details of quotidian life can also prove to be a blunder, a denial of what one has begun to know. A third, different possibility is attributed elsewhere in Textures to Sardar Ji, whose many years of marriage with Manjit (a survivor of Partition’s mass abductions), can’t alleviate his frenetic suspicions about the possible deceit her face might be concealing. They are first discussed in Life and Words (2007) in which Das had described the “coming to doubt of relationships that the Partition amplified [as having] a specificity of its own. It could be repaired only by allowing oneself a descent into the ordinary world but as if in mourning for it.”[1]

Das explores everyday immersion in this ordinary so immediate that it verges on imperceptibility while remaining vulnerable to the possibility of its own collapse.[2] Returning frequently to the quotidian lives of women living in the wake of sexual assault and bloodbath, Das’s account of how knowledge of the ordinary is sometimes more available in its breakdown, has given attention to the transformations in daily meaning for women who have survived kidnap, extreme brutality and sexual assault in twentieth century and contemporary India and Pakistan.[3] It’s noticeable that Textures of the Ordinary turns to an intelligence of form and conduct that can be differentiated from the knowledge sometimes attributed to sovereign subjects.

2. We cannot always “assume that subjects are in possession of the knowledge that they are enacting.”[4]  (Nor should one assume that subjects are not.)

Paula Anton, the heroine of George Cukor’s 1944 film Gaslight, has been misled by her lover from the outset. She ought to have been warier of him. But the scenario she has never entertained is incredible: that she might be the target of an elaborate plot to distort her perceptions, drive her mad, and appropriate hidden treasure. When she scrutinizes her fiancé’s face, she sees the spontaneous tenderness and romantic acceleration so marvelously incarnated by Charles Boyer. Paula’s actual situation would require, as Cavell and Das observe, a catastrophic version of doubt extended to the faces on whose affection she relies and to the very fabric of her environment. When a Scotland Yard detective, Brian Cameron, suggests to Paula that her marriage, her husband’s intentions and identity have all been an elaborate fraud, her repudiation takes recourse in their domestic intimacy and the shared roof over their heads:

“You’re wrong, you’re making a mistake. I know him, he’s my husband. I’ve lived in the same house with him. You’re talking about the man I’m married to.”

On what kind of knowledge can Paula draw in these circumstances? On this point, Cameron, who has befriended her, speaks with certainty. He appeals to the counter-knowledge that is the backing, he insinuates, to her continued attachment to the quotidian. He takes his assertion: “you know,” to be confirmed by the form with which Paula repudiates it:

– “Mrs. Anton—you know,  don’t you? You know who is up there?”

– “No.  No.” 

– “Are you sure you don’t?”

– “How could he be?”

3. Knowledge is often lined with the potential of doubt’s friction.

Cameron reminds Paula about one of the forms of knowledge of special interest to Das: it is possible to act in accordance with forms of knowledge that inhabit us, without recognizing them. Cameron undertakes to reassure Paula that she is not mad. But Paula’s earlier actions had also been accompanied by a countering intelligence. Might one then suggest that Cavell’s rendering of Cameron’s role over-emphasizes Paula’s helplessness and the necessity of his intervention? From Cameron’s perspective, his confirmation makes possible her acceptance of the facts and, as Cavell sees it, initiates her turn to her freedom.[5] It unleashes her turn of the tables, her brief, brilliant performance of the gaslighting of her husband, her moment of revenge. But despite her stupefaction, Paula has not been entirely isolated:  her milieu has included her deceased aunt’s wealthy friend, a lawyer, a loyal housekeeper, her own affection for Guardi, her long training with him, her fidelity to her aunt, and her past familiarity with her own capacities. The role assumed by Cameron obliterates those resources, not recognizing the wisdom and forms of community also embedded in them.

Das does not disagree with Cavell’s characterization of Paula: “Not only individual men are destroying her mind, but the world of men, in its contradictions with itself, is destroying for her the idea and possibility of reality as such.”[6] She makes mention, also, of Jonathan Lear’s account of how structural injustice can impair the imagination:

it is likely that our own possibilities for thought will be tainted by the very injustice we are trying to understand. . . The crippled nature of our thought will be enacted in reflection, rather than addressed by it. Second, in conditions of injustice. . . we suffer deprivation in imagination: we fail to envisage possibilities for life and thought. [quoted in T, p. 201]

But as with the other resources in play in Textures of the Ordinary, Das propels Lear’s comment in a new direction. She invites philosophy to recognize forms of thought that are enacted, even when not articulated, particularly in contexts of sexual violence, abduction, and their aftermaths. But when she draws attention to the tendency to represent survival in terms of women’s muteness, incapacity, and need for external sources of intelligence, she just as importantly points out how a lack of imagination should be ascribed to this type of representation of women. Without questioning the need for state measures, judicial process, and truth commissions, she also directs her critical attention to the cultural imaginaries surrounding national, police, and bureaucratic intervention. The result is a complex exploration of knowledge’s materiality, an argument for more flexible definitions of the forms taken by thought, knowledge, communication, testimony, collectivity, and repair in the wake of violence.

4. Insofar as sexual contracts have often been presupposed by social contracts they may be at once occluded from and palpable in everyday life.

Das has described how, in the wake of Partition, the rescue of abducted women formed part of a national promise to restore them to their families. In the intertwined social and sexual contracts elsewhere discussed by Das, this generated a surplus benefit for the new national government’s identity: to repair a sexual order was to repair a nation, to generate retroactive moral and epistemic authority for a (performatively) reparative government for which the “return” of women to their families becomes the emblem of its care for the nation’s future.[7]

In the face of the many women who did not speak readily about their abductions—and in the face of widely circulating narratives aboutwomen’s silence and inability to act, testify, or defend themselves—the state makes an intervention not unlike Cameron’s seemingly enabling: “You know,” which delivered at the same time the detective’s authoritative appeal to what is known, and that he knows. Das observes a habitual lack of imagination at the junction of the social and sexual contract, in the narratives of restitution, the representation of women as requiring both rescue and explanatory narrative, as passive, incapacitated, silent, as seen in public announcements aimed at families concerning the importance of absolving women of blame following their return, the state’s role as both dominant and protective, reparative and authoritative.

5. That knowledge is often lined with the potential of doubt’s friction is also a resource for forms of counter-knowledge and resistance

This same rethinking of incapacity occurs in another intersection between public institutional resources and domestic, life-threatening violence, and the multiplication of available knowledges, in chapter 6, when the psychically disturbed Swapan confronts a number of possible authorities concerning the epistemology of his madness. Now it is his mother and sister who are exposed to domestic violence at his hands, the former beaten to unconsciousness and threatened with death (see T, p. 189). Their recourse includes negotiation with the local police force, traditional knowledge and psychiatric consultation, the limits of overstretched public medicine, the pressure of authorities within family, the local community, bureaucracy. Here, Das offers a different account of the multiple forms through which subjects are asked to recognize their own madness. Das describes Swapan as situated within nomadic flows between local agents of the state, police stations, hospitals, doctors, and family that she also sees (in the company of Foucault) as an intersection of multiple forms of power and their residues.[8] What she refers to as an intensified real is the result of relays between various positions of authority within the family, the police, local leaders, an anthropologist, medical diagnosis, and psychiatry (see T, p. 179). Without epistemic rupture, it is possible for Swapan’s contexts of treatment to include family authority, the reference to malevolent spirits of local diviners, and the bureaucracy of psychiatric diagnosis and prescribed medication. But the question is what practical knowledge is embedded in, or arises from, this multiplicity itself. The question is not always what one knows, but what is enacted by the forms and intersections of knowledge and multiple modes of power. In Das’s work, the answers can range from: flights of fantasy incorporated into racist characterizations of other peoples, instances of epistemic violence in some conventions and conducts in the history of anthropology, quotidian work of micro-repair through which life may resume in the wake of violence, or attentive responsiveness to family dynamics.

It is between the “you know” Swapan is asked to recognize, and his delusion, that Das observes a different order of knowledge. It is to be the found in the abyss between the reality whose acceptance would be dictated by the norms of psychiatric health (and would require his recognizing the slim chances of his exiting poverty), and his projection of routes of self-improvement and success (“perhaps now my career will be made”) (T, p. 194).

Here, Das turns to the term “countermaneuver,” which, for Foucault, indicates that sometimes a symptom might be the means of obliging a psychiatrist to listen to the patient (T, p. 176).[9] But Das reads Swapan with Foucault in a manner that departs from the latter’s resources. She identifies an alternative form of practical knowledge in the space between the psychically disordered conduct that intertwines with his ambitious hopes for the outcome of learning English and the grim confrontation that might result from that symptom’s relinquishment. Das makes her own maneuver at this point, “It suggests to me that the patient is not simply offering countermaneuvers as a form of resistance but trying to find ways toward an ordinary realism” (T, p. 197). Cavell’s characterization of Das as appropriating remnants of thought to articulate what otherwise goes silent, could also be described as somewhat under-calculating, (or under-imagining) her interventions, albeit appreciatively (see T, p. 308).  For example, it is by working between Wittgenstein and Foucault that Das foregrounds alternative ways of knowing embedded in a conduct that is neither the countermaneuver nor an unavailability of the ordinary. Indrawing at once on the enfolded national, political, neighborhood, and domestic scenes and forms of thought that may not otherwise be understood as philosophical activity, and on the ordinary language philosophers whose concerns might seem remote from these scenes, Textures of the Ordinary shows how perceptions and insights of both can transform through the conjunction.


Penelope Deutscher is Joan and Sarepta Harrison Professor of Philosophy at Northwestern University. She is the author of several books, most recently Foucault’s Futures: A Critique of Reproductive Reason and The Philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir: Ambiguity, Conversion, and Resistance, and the editor of Repenser le politique: l’apport du féminisme and Enigmas: Essays on Sarah Kofman.


With warm thanks to Alice Crary and Clara Han for their invitations to respond to Veena Das in symposia engaging Textures of the Ordinary, and to Sandra Laugier and Das for their helpful responses and engagement.

[1] Veena Das, Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary (Berkeley, 2006), p. 77.

[2] Das, “What Does Ordinary Ethics Look Like?” in Four Lectures on Ethics: Anthropological Perspectives, ed. Michael Lambek et al. (Chicago, 2015), pp. 53–126. 

[3] Das, Textures of the Ordinary: Doing Anthropology After Wittgenstein (New York, 2020), p. 60; hereafter abbreviated T.

[4]Das, Life and Words, p. 159.

[5] Stanley Cavell, Contesting Tears: The Hollywood Melodrama of the Unknown Woman (Chicago), pp. 48-51.

[6] Ibid., pp. 50–51.

[7] Das, “Violence, Gender and Subjectivity,” Annual Review of Anthropology 37 (2008): 283-99.

[8] See Michel Foucault, Psychiatric Power: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1973-1974 (New York, 2013).

[9] See ibid., p. 322.

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The Difficult Normality of Anthropology: Veena Das on Philosophy and the Ordinary

Piergiorgio Donatelli

1.

Professor Veena Das has given us a book filled with knowledge, insight, and imagination in the many fields she covers. It is a book that belongs both to anthropology and philosophy. Veena Das is a renowned anthropologist and a great scholar of Wittgenstein and of Stanley Cavell and we touch here the heights to which this combination of learning and inspiration has brought her. The relationship between the two disciplines is not the one which is perhaps most familiar, where philosophy provides a general view of human nature while anthropology is expected to offer examples and applications. In the work of Veena Das philosophy rather finds its natural continuation in anthropological work.

2.

I will begin with a note on her manner of writing, and more specifically on how her more philosophical comments, which are striking in their intensity and depth—offered as a suggested conclusion or a break in the description—are introduced in conversation with her ethnographic accounts. If one of the main concerns of the book is the way in which the description of ordinary lives hosts critical reflection, this is shown in the writing itself, in the way in which a thought that takes over the responsibility to speak from its detached stance acquires its weight and authority from inhabiting this context of description, as a remark that has a life within the conversation with the people whose stories are recounted in the book.

I find this manner of writing an exciting and powerful continuation of Wittgenstein’s way of doing philosophy, in which the voice of philosophy is given an occasion and a place within a conversation about detailed investigations on how words express interests in specific contexts of life. Stanley Cavell has written on this way of writing in the Investigations. He has remarked on the peculiar aphoristic moments to be found in the book (the picture of philosophy as a fly in the fly-bottle, thought skating on slippery ice, the human body as the best picture of the human soul). Cavell writes that at such moments ordinary words “epitomize, separate a thought, with finish and permanence (one might say with beauty), from the general range of experience.”[1]

In chapter 2,  Das says that the issues on which she writes, the lives of low-income people in Delhi dealing with all sorts of everyday problems, may seem banal if compared to the great battles for justice and freedom that are of immediate theoretical and political interest.

Yet, as I sat in dark rooms without windows, or in the shadow and smells of heaps of waste collected from the neighborhood hospitals or factories, with discordant sounds pouring in from the street and listened to stories about what it took to get an official document, or the extent of effort a woman had to make to carry gallons of water perched on the back of a bicycle from a tube well or a water tanker and carry it up a hilly terrain—I would hear the protests of a Beckett character—“you’re on earth, you’re on earth, there’s no cure for that.” I feel that if a conversation between anthropology and philosophy is to have any meaning at all for me, philosophy must learn to respond to the pressure of questions that I encountered in these settings. It is not a matter of some grand gestures of attraction or repulsion that anthropology could make toward philosophy, but a need to respond to the intensity with which the voices in these streets and houses pervade my very being.[2]

This description of how she considers the role of philosophy also illuminates her manner of writing. Philosophical thought is never introduced as self-standing, rather it always responds with its own intensity to the intensity of the voices in the streets and in the houses that inhabit these chapters.

3.

This book brings together many issues that are of great interest to philosophers and especially to scholars of Wittgenstein’s and Cavell’s work and more broadly of a whole tradition in philosophy that takes as the point of departure the lives of people instead of the normative criteria offered in theories and decision procedures. Crucial issues in this area in philosophy such as those of action, expression, form of life, vulnerability, and the ordinary are offered a rich treatment and are given new meaning and potential.

I will pause only a moment to refer to the idea of the ordinary, which is tied to ordinary language philosophy and especially to the work of Wittgenstein, Austin, and Cavell himself, who leads the notion on a complex journey that reaches American transcendentalism with Emerson and Thoreau. We touch here an aspect of her work that is extremely important. Veena Das is keenly aware of the difficulty of descending into the ordinary—to use her signature expression—without idealizing it and deforming it. An inclination in philosophy, also to be found in anthropology, is that of treating the ordinary as a place of unredeemable normality or misery, as an otherness that haunts us and that may be treasured only in the form of negative critique. Her work on the ordinary lives of people shifts instead the understanding of the ordinary from that of being a mere background inhabited by the mechanical repetition of the basic rhythms of life to a condition of creativity ingrained in the tissue of everyday actions.

From the point of view of this de-sublimized ordinary, Das describes the working of the great dispositives of society, the legal apparatus, medicine, many sorts of technology, religious institutions. She follows Wittgenstein’s difficult lesson here which is that of describing a civilization from the perspective of our ordinary activities. Cavell writes: “My claim is that the Investigations can be seen, as it stands, as a portrait, or say as a sequence of sketches (Wittgenstein calls his text an album) of our civilization.”[3] That a civilization with its blocks and failures may be detected in how our ordinary lives are lived with their blocks and failures is a lesson that we can learn from the modernists, from Freud, Musil, and Wittgenstein, among others. Das continues this project and shows its radicality, which is also tied to the issue of realism, the realism which avoids any temptation of mythologizing. At one point in the book, referring to the experimenting that artists are pursuing around what they perceive as the ordinary (say, urban life in the banlieues in Paris or the trash and debris in Vivan Sundaram’s installations), she comments as follows: “These are works that make us look at life anew, but I feel that the ordinary appears in these works for the other sensibilities to be enriched—the concrete others actually disappear as the artist produces ordinariness as a work of art” (T, p. 93).

The risk thus is to aestheticize the ordinary by turning it into a safe source of interesting pleasures that enrich our lives, sealed though from what could put them in jeopardy. Das is keenly aware of this risk inherent in the appeal to the ordinary, and this is also connected to how she conceives her work as an anthropologist. The notion of life is important here. The life of the people described in this book is a life that Das has experienced and lived: it is her own life with these people. The conceptual and intellectual instruments deployed in the book are part of the author’s life with these people. Their ordinary is also her ordinary and demands that for us as readers it become our ordinary as we engage with her work and are transformed by it.

In a comment on Stephan Palmié’s work, she warns her anthropologist colleagues against making their acts of mediation “disappear in the excitement of encountering ‘radical alterity’ [thus contributing] to the picture of self-enclosed ontologies that are always located at the distance” (T, p. 291). In Das the experience of distance, crucial to anthropology and philosophy alike, is never turned into a way of securing the observer, the thinker and the reader of her place and standing in the world. It is, all the time, a distance that we observers, thinkers, and readers are compelled to discover in ourselves; it expresses the need to rethink our convictions, to check our experience and to educate it.

4.

One final consideration. The appeal to how life persists with its rhythms, the appeal to the normal tonality of lives, to the dimension of the habitual and the familiar, do not work for Das as a defense of the customary, which absorbs the need for reflection, criticism, and transcendence. The issue is crucial and delicate. In defending the ordinary and the role of anthropology, Das works against the idea that the force of critical intellectual tools can be placed outside the life upon which they reflect. This is a familiar note in the Wittgensteinian strand in philosophy that she wishes to inherit. Yet she also does something important and original. Following Cavell’s lesson, she reads the ordinary as a site of routines and habits as well as of exile and skepticism. Exile takes the form of suffering and violence, yet it also signals the imagination of a different and better world.

At one point Das discusses an example taken from the work of Valentine Daniel. In 1977 at the time of the anti-Tamil riots, a Sinhala woman is travelling on a train in the same compartment with a Tamil man. When the mob comes to beat the Tamils, the woman easily recognizable as a Kandyan Sinhalese because of the way she wears her sari, moves over, and holds his hand. This is her description:

Some members of the mob entered the compartment, but the gesture of conjugal familiarity persuaded them that the gentleman was a Sinhala, so they proceeded elsewhere. Daniel (1997) thinks of the gesture of the woman as a sign, gravid with possibilities. But what are these possibilities? From a Wittgensteinian perspective, these seem to be only possibilities of recovery through a descent into the ordinariness of everyday life, of domesticity, through which alone the words that have been exiled may be brought back. This everydayness is then in the nature of a return – one that has been recovered in the face of madness. [T, p. 45]

Exile as violence and evil as well as unexpected generosity and goodness is represented here as a dimension that comes from some other place, yet it is revealed in the detailed life of a gesture. An original and striking thought emerges here. The power that we have to overcome and transcend the present lies in details. Das’s appeal to descend into the ordinary is an instrument of redescription and transformation. It works toward uncovering “the turbulent waters that often flow behind the seemingly peaceful and uneventful everyday,” or it can lead us to recognize an unperceived chance of innovation and change (T, p. 21). The humble gestures of ordinary life disclose the residues of trauma, yet they are also intimations of a better future to come. In the minute and unnoticed fragments of the present we are encouraged to find the echoes of a desirable future.


Piergiorgio Donatelli is professor of philosophy at Sapienza Università di Roma. He is the author of numerous books, including Il lato ordinario della vita, Filosofia ed esperienza communeLa vita umana in prima persona, Il senso della virtúWittgenstein e l’etica, and is the editor of the journal Iride.


[1] Stanley Cavell, “The Investigations’ Everyday Aesthetics of Itself,” in Wittgenstein in America, ed. Timothy G. McCarthy and Sean C. Stidd (New York, 2001), p. 260.

[2] Veena Das, Textures of the Ordinary. Doing Anthropology after Wittgenstein (New York, 2020), p. 60; hereafter abbreviated T.

[3] Stanley Cavell, This New Yet Unapproachable America. Lectures after Emerson after Wittgenstein (Albuquerque, N.M., 1989), p. 59.

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Method and Ethnographic Impulse in Textures of the Ordinary: Doing Anthropology after Wittgenstein by Veena Das

Clara Han

In Textures of the Ordinary, Veena Das invites us think closely on method as that which allows for philosophical texts, anthropological texts, and ethnography to be on the same plane. The philosophical method that Das hones from her mode of reading Wittgenstein and Cavell responds to the problems that arise in the weave of actual lives, lives she has participated in as an anthropologist—lives that mark her life. Rather than assert a dominance of sharp-edged philosophical concepts over ethnographic material, Das shows us how an attention to the life of words—their draining of life and what gives them life—can give critical depth to anthropological thinking. My colleagues in this series of responses have focused on how Textures of the Ordinary continues and deepens Wittgenstein’s way of doing philosophy, such that anthropology might be a continuation of this philosophy. Yet, I would like to focus on the ways in which Das’s method deepens and rekindles ethnography itself. The attention to the life of words simultaneously loosens the impulse to grasp context while inviting us to multiple routes of knowing—to look and see, to pay close attention to detail:

Context here cannot be restricted to what can be carved out from a flux of experiences by the linguistic apparatus of indexical statements; not is it simply the information about location and chronology. Rather, it is oriented to questions such as how boundaries between sense and nonsense emerge in a particular life world and how philosophical grammar and its associative criteria create broader understandings of what is a statement, what a request, what a command, and what an appeal for deferral. Said otherwise, we might say that what is at stake is not simply the meaning of a word but what gives words life.[1]

What are the implications of this method for ethnography? In what way does this method compel anthropology to critically revisit the picture of social life as undergirded by mechanical rule-following or marked by the consolidation of forms of power? I take these questions into the realm of kinship, family, and intimacy. As I hope becomes clear, Textures presents us with the utterly powerful work of re-learning anthropology, unlocking a potential within anthropology such that it might become its “next self.”

The First-Person Perspective

In chapter 4, Das returns to a scene that briefly appeared in her book Life and Words, in which a woman, Sita, utters a dying wish to deny her brother the right to provide the shroud, stunning everyone.[2] Was this the woman’s own voice? To whom were these words addressed? In returning to this scene, Das describes the corrosions of kinship relations that she had registered at that time. Yet, these corrosions were embedded within the give and take of kinship—what Das calls the “aesthetics of kinship.” What Das had not fathomed then was the extent of the anger to the brother. Perceiving that anger again, Das opens up two avenues for thought: first, that familiarity with routines might dull one to the undercurrents or volatility that lay just beneath the surface; and second, that an opacity of experience is tied to the opacity of the self, “is the placement of habit and routines at the heart of everyday life also a way of concealment of the way in which we cannot bring ourselves to actually experience that which is unfolding in our own story?” (T, p. 131).

In discussing this opacity of the self, Das shows us the limits to models of the first person that take a “reflective stance”—taking an impersonal third-person stance on one’s actions—or that give primacy to the embedding of the impersonal third-person stance into the first person. Instead, Das establishes the centrality of the second-person stance for the first person.[3] Where Wittgenstein helps us loosen our grip on the notion of the inner as hidden or private and see how the inner and the outer line each other, Das offers us a searing insight: “The world counts—it has a say. However, how the world counts is somewhat different when we think of the first person as taking a third-person stance and a second-person stance. In the first case, the facts that are to be taken account of are “impersonal” facts. . . . In the second case, I seek someone who can receive the words that give testimony to myself” (T, p. 136, my emphasis).

At stake here is the inhabitation of life with the concrete other with whom you share “this kind of past, this kind of laughter.” (T, p. 138). In this sense, it may be possible that Sita’s words were not addressed to an impersonal third person, but rather the “you” of close kin. Yet, the danger of Sita’s words is that they could bring the undercurrents of kinship out into the domain of publicity. The picture of kinship and intimacy here is neither one of examining a structure of typified experiences nor is it delineating the various plot lines that privilege third-person accounts. Instead, attention to the “you” brings within our view the disorders of kinship, the fleeting moments—moments that might present an opportunity to allow an adjacent self to come into being, moments that are lethal or maddening—that are diffused into our life lived as a whole.

Madness and the Family

Let me bring this discussion of the second-person stance and the disorders of kinship into Das’s writings on madness, family, the state, and psychiatric institutions in chapter 6, where she returns to the case of Swapan, his family and neighborhood, whom we had met in her book Affliction: Health, Disease, Poverty (2015).[4] Das’s ethnography takes place in a low-income neighborhood, and Das pays close attention to the aspirations for education and securing jobs as well as the complex web of relations that mediate actual social mobility via activities on the borderline of the legal and illegal. In this context, the protagonist in madness is not only the individual but the milieu itself—there is a debate between the individual and the milieu. Madness does not stand outside of everyday life, “but is woven into it as a possibility contained within the everyday” (T, p. 175).

Bringing this milieu into conversation with an acute reading of Foucault’s lectures on Psychiatric Power (1973–1974) and Abnormal (1974–1975), Das shifts our focus from the centrality of the psychiatrist in the scene of madness to how madness unfolds in the family: “I want to make a shift in this scene to ask: what happens before the arrival of the psychiatrist and after his disappearance?” (T, p. 185). Foucault sees the family as a crucial institution. It is the hinge between different forms of power (sovereign and disciplinary) while also a junction among the different disciplinary institutions (army, school, asylum). Yet, as Das points out, “a description of madness . . . would require that we tell the story as if the person was located not inside the body but in the network of relations, affects and encounters” (T, p. 185). Different forms of power do not recede from view in Das’s description of madness; rather, we perceive these forms of power differently—not as definitive consolidations but as echoes. The opening of the family to agents of the state and psychiatric confinement secretes residues, “that then morph into contests over the real in which neither the patient nor the psychiatrist are able to prevail” (T, p. 186).

What is striking in Das’s description of madness, however, is that it is not only the contest over the real between the patient and the psychiatrist but also the confrontation of the “mad” person’s reality with other realities—these confrontations are part and parcel of the disorders of kinship. Let me turn to Swapan’s conversation with Das in the first scene of crisis that she describes. The relation between Swapan and his mother had deteriorated to the point where his mother urges Das to broach the question to Swapan as to why he does not want to go to the doctor. Swapan responds to Das in a challenging tone, “Who will take me?” Surprised, Das replies, “I will.” Swapan says: “My problem is that I am not mad. My problem is that no one takes an interest in me” (T, p. 188, my emphasis). When Das further asks what he means by no one taking interest in you, he expresses the desire to pass his tenth exam, and his rejection of his mother’s desire that he work in a factory, “work in a factory” (he emphasizes). . . . But I will not work in anyone’s factory. I want to pass my exam” (T, p. 188). The mother addresses Das directly, emphasizing their financial conditions.

Here, rather than the psychiatrist staging a dramatic stripping of the “as-if reality” of the patient to impose an intensified real, we see the mother imposing the reality of the slums on Swapan’s “as-if reality,” what Das describes as “both quotidian and pervasive—for example, the hope that getting a degree, learning English, will get the person a “good government job,” or, even better, the possibility to become a “film star.” Swapan, in some ways was simply taking the promissory notes of the modern state at face value” (T, p. 189). Swapan’s madness is the milieu’s madness. The milieu contains both these aspirations and the need to overcome them (that is, of acknowledging the reality of the slums). Swapan refuses the pathological normativity in the slums—the reality of the factory job, the intermittent jobs as courier, for example. In this confrontation of realities, we might see again the centrality of the second-person stance in the first-person perspective. That is, Swapan’s desire cannot find a home; his words cannot be received by “you”: “no one”—you, Swapan’s mother, his sister, his father—”takes an interest in me.” 

Ordinary Realism: The Normal and the Critical

Georges Canguilhem posits pathology as the site from which knowledge of physiology takes shape. Disease produces new norms, such that pathology is not the logical contradictory of “normal” but the vital contrary of “healthy.”[5] Yet, in Das’s description of madness unfolding in the family, we see not the normal and the pathological, but rather the normal and the critical. That is, if the normal in the neighborhood might be characterized as a “pathological normativity”, the critical are the moments of crisis when the family may open itself to intervention to the state and psychiatric institutions and in which the neighborhood may be called as witness to the contest of realities within the family.

This conceptualization of disease in terms of the normal and the critical is but one of the routes through which the ordinary is made to appear in Textures. As Das remarks, “the characteristic of the ordinary—that we cannot see it directly precisely because it is before our eyes—means that we have to imagine what the labor of making the everyday appear entails” (T, p. 195). Das’s method of close attention to detail reveals paths to imagining ordinary realism—this is jarring in both its depth and simplicity. It asks anthropology to look again, to ask “how much detail, what kind of detail?” (T, p. 2). In doing so, we open ourselves to an education, and anthropology itself gets a new lease on life.

In closing, I offer a brief comment on Das’s attentiveness to Swapan’s desires, his words not at home. Might describing this loss of a foothold, these confrontations of realities, the madness of the milieu, also be a gesture to invite words home, that is, to this book? In the intensification of his own reality, Swapan makes a series of doubles, one of which is the mad professor and the anthropologist professor, “representing a world out of reach but that could still be intermittently touched” (T, p. 195). In acknowledging Swapan’s aspirations, Das shows how the path to imagining an ordinary realism in anthropology is marked by and in response to actual lives, such that residues of the workings of power might not only produce death but also new ways of engaging life, even if as a “mad person’s reality.” Just as Das writes, “That some, like Swapan will not find their way back to the ordinary leaves us with a melancholy that ethnographic work also inevitably entails when one has to say, with Wittgenstein, my spade is turned,” I might also catch within Das’s attentiveness to desire the flickers of human intimacy (T, p. 197).


Clara Han is associate professor of anthropology at The Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of Seeing like a Child: Inheriting the Korean War and Life in Debt: Times of Care and Violence in Neoliberal Chile, and the coeditor of Living and Dying in the Contemporary World.


[1] Veena Das, Textures of the Ordinary: Doing Anthropology after Wittgenstein (New York, 2020), p. 3, my emphasis; hereafter abbreviated T.

[2] See Das, Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary (Berkeley, 2007).

[3] See Das, “What Does Ordinary Ethics Look Like?” in Four Lectures on Ethics: Anthropological Perspectives ed. Michael Lambek et al. (Chicago), pp. 53-126.

[4] See Das, Affliction: Health, Disease, Poverty (New York, 2015).

[5] Georges Canguilhem. Knowledge of Life (New York, 2008), p. 131.

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A New Departure in Ordinary Language Philosophy

Sandra Laugier

Veena Das is an anthropologist of exceptional reputation, but for more than a decade she has also been a crucial commentator on Wittgenstein, especially as he is read in Ordinary Language Philosophy (OLP) and by philosophers such as Stanley Cavell and Cora Diamond. She is in fact the most important scholar to inherit Stanley Cavell’s thought, whose variety of interests and themes covered the whole of human life, and it is only suitable that an anthropologist should be the one to do so. Das’s interest in language, in the life of words, in what makes them alive, is what connects her work most deeply to a tradition she is reviving in the most powerful and innovative way.

Starting with “Wittgenstein and Anthropology,” Das offers an original reading of Wittgenstein (and Austin), anchored in the concept of the ordinary and the “descent” into it. Das’s use of Cavell’s essay on passionate and performative utterances is significant for its analysis of human expressiveness throughout the book. Das writes that Austin offers us a way to think of the fragility of human action and that the categories of misfire and abuse (used by Austin in connection with the felicity/infelicity of performative utterances) work to qualify action and its failures. As Austin says elsewhere, “you cannot abuse ordinary language without paying for it.”[1] And early on, Cavell too insisted on the abuse inflicted on language by philosophers.[2]

The relation of use to abuse (a word absent in Wittgenstein) is an important connection between OLP and anthropology. How can language itself be abused (our words and expressions) – who is the abuser? OLP turns out to be a philosophy of non-violence in/to language. Cavell opposes awareness and attention (care) to abuse of language.

Connecting these thoughts to her ethnography, Das offers original analyses of Wittgenstein, by finding their articulation in ordinary situations and stories, including tragic and violent realities. In this way, the book is among the first major anthropological elaborations of an ordinary ethics as alternative to normative ethics.

Anthropology and Philosophy: New Alliances

Textures of the Ordinary proposes a new relation (some might call it a new alliance) between philosophy and anthropology. Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough, analyzed in the penultimate chapter, represents a crucial stage in this evolving relationship. Given that philosophy has long claimed to subsume the task of anthropology (as a science of the human), Das questions how anthropology itself can claim to be philosophy— because it illustrates and exemplifies the philosophical method Wittgenstein proposes: resolute attention to ordinary human forms of life in their unity and diversity, that is, to forms of life and to life forms.

It is no insult to anthropology to say that (as a discipline) it was born out of a philosophical concern. The epistemological difficulty is that philosophy and anthropology are related once philosophy begins to turn toward the human in general, as part of the “modern” turn represented by Kant. They grow apart precisely because philosophy, when it takes an “anthropological” tone, speaks of the human in general—without paying attention to the various ways of being human that exist or to the various ways in which humans may be living beings.[3] The Kantian break meant reintroducing the human as a philosophical question independent of metaphysics.

Kant distinguishes “physiological” and “pragmatic points of view on anthropology, that of man “as a freely acting being,” the science of humans as social and political beings, or of human forms of life. Elsewhere, he locates philosophy itself within the anthropology. Except that anthropology is here not conceived of as a domain of knowledge proper; its mission is still a matter of philosophy. Out of “anthropology from a pragmatic point of view” was born the vague domain of “philosophical anthropology,” which reverses Kant’s discovery and instead establishes the monopoly of philosophy over anthropology. Kant’s turn to the human is followed and radicalized by Wittgenstein, by turning to particular human situations. Wittgenstein’s immediate curiosity about The Golden Bough is due to the insight ethnographic material offers as a response to the mounting pretensions of philosophy. Wittgenstein takes the critique of metaphysics a step further, subverting the very concept of philosophical anthropology. And Das takes it yet another step, bringing anthropology home, reading Wittgenstein as a method for conceptual attention to the detail of ordinary human forms of life. 

Forms of Life and Life Forms

Textures pursues an elucidation of the everyday and the various shapes the ordinary takes. One can understand this claim of anthropology through the concept of forms of life that she develops:

Agreement in forms of life, in Wittgenstein, is never a matter of shared opinions. It thus requires an excess of description to capture the entanglements of customs, habits, rules, and examples. It provides the context in which we could see how we are to trace words back to their original homes when we do not know our way about: The anthropological quest takes us to the point at which Wittgenstein takes up his grammatical investigation.[4]

The task of anthropology is to delineate that which characterizes a human form of life, as it is woven into distinct forms of life. This is a matter of description, of saying “what is the case”.

Das’s earlier formulation started with the difference between violence that occurs within the weave of life and violence that is seen to tear apart the very fabric of life.

What Cavell finds wanting in the conventional view of forms of life is that it is not able to convey the mutual absorption of the natural and the social—it emphasizes form but not life. . . . Cavell suggests a distinction between what he calls the ethnological or horizontal sense of form of life and its vertical or “biological” sense.[5]

The theme of forms of life has, in the twenty years since, become central to contemporary thought, especially with the attention now paid to human vulnerability and violence, where the limits of the human and of the living itself are blurred. Das takes Cavell’s remark again a step further: her book provides a total elucidation of this concept of forms of life and a powerful criticism of those who use it as a synonym for “culture”; the violence exercised on women during the partition of India and Pakistan is not a cultural variation but raises the question of redefining what a human life is, the border between the living and the nonliving: in situations of extreme violence, war, or disaster or everyday horror, the very concept of life is destroyed. “The blurring between what is human and what is not human shades into the blurring over what is life and what is not life”[6].

Her attention to forms of life is a way of pursuing and accomplishing Wittgenstein’s ambition of undermining philosophy’s privilege, bringing it back down to the “rough ground” of ordinary life.  It is a project of rearranging the conceptual and the empirical and exploring the limits of thought.  The “texture of life” is neither given nor obvious; it is made of tragedy as well as domestic reality, which is constantly demonstrated in the book. This conception of ethics is close to an ethics of care[7], characterized by a reorientation of morality towards attention to moral textures and to the structural vulnerability of experience. It is in the use of language (choice of words, style of expression and conversation) that a person’s moral vision, her texture of being, is intimately developed and openly shown[8]. Form of life – from the point of view established by Iris Murdoch, Diamond, and Das – is perceived through attention to moral textures or motifs; reality is morally expressive. The capacity to perceive the detail of ordinary life – to grasp “what matters, makes differences, in human lives”[9] against the background of the life form – is a central element of moral perception, which allows us to reconceive ethics as an exploration of details.  

Thinkers who invite us to pay attention to attention try to help us find expressions that will bring out what counts, to account for the emergence of new importance and new meanings, founded in each person, in order to develop grammars better able to describe, hence to do justice, to the concrete reality of our forms of life and to enable us to say what counts (“to say,” “to count,” “to “tell”).

Murdoch summarizes this ethical method: “How we see and describe the world is morals too.”[10]

Descriptions

Description is not “an absence of morality.”[11] It is essential to ethics. Philosophy itself becomes an ethnographic experience. Cavell speaks of the “the uncanniness of the ordinary” inherent in the anthropological tone. This intersection of the familiar and the strange is the location of the ordinary and of Wittgenstein’s philosophy of culture. Both forms of life and life forms require description, even an “excess of description” – what must be described is no longer belief or opinions, or practices, but rather what life is like.

The point of the allegory would then be that the explorer coming into an unknown country with a strange language is a figure of the philosopher moved to philosophical wonder by the strangeness of the humans among whom he or she lives, their strangeness to themselves, therefore of himself or herself to himself or herself, at home perhaps nowhere, perhaps anywhere.[12]

Das’s reading of Wittgenstein is a remarkable expression of the willingness of anthropologists to work with philosophy in exploring, describing, and repairing textures of the ordinary. Describing a life form means looking carefully (as Wittgenstein said, “don’t think, look!”) at networks of relations and institutions and at the everyday forms lives take.  Attention to the everyday is attention to what is before our eyes, what we don’t see because it is too close. As Foucault also observed:

We have long known that the role of philosophy is not to discover what is hidden, but to render visible what precisely is visible – which is to say, to make appear what is so close, so immediate, so intimately linked to ourselves that, as a consequence, we do not perceive it.[13]

After Wittgenstein, philosophy must become a mythology, a clarification and expression of the myths deposited in our language – archaeological and anthropological work. Wittgenstein’s philosophy turns out, Das demonstrates, to be an effort to give sense and significance to a philosophy becoming anthropological. “Wittgenstein’s anthropological perspective is one puzzled in principle by anything human beings say and do, hence perhaps, at a moment, by nothing”[14].

If “the whole mythology is deposited in our language,” the philosopher’s work is to unearth “the great treasure deposited deep down the tree of language”.[15]  Which means that describing is not only seeing but plowing. “We must plow over language in its entirety.” There is violence in this idea, as in Emerson’s motto, “Language must be raked, the secrets of the slaughter-houses and infamous holes that cannot front the day, must be ransacked, to tell what negro-slavery has been”. [16]

Textures offers a perspicuous view of how anthropologists have come to appreciate and to read Wittgenstein. It is a remarkable illustration of Das’s distinctive contribution to contemporary anthropology, and her style of thought, articulating the conceptual and the ordinary, an ethnography and an autobiography. Meanwhile, she brings together anthropology and OLP as the main subversive resources available in the twenty-first century. Textures of the Ordinary opens new avenues in philosophy and enables us to overcome the limitations of core strands of contemporary thought that have proved incapable of shedding light on forms of life or transforming them.


Sandra Laugier is professor of philosophy at Université Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne and senior member of l’institut Universitaire de France. She is the author of numerous books, including Why We Need Ordinary Language Philosophy and Wittgenstein: Le mythe de l’inexpressivé, the editor of more than twenty-five volumes, and the translator of Stanley Cavell’s work into French.


[1] J. L. Austin, Sense and Sensibilia (New York, 1962), p. 15.

[2] See Stanley Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say? (Cambridge, Mass., 1969)

[3] See Sandra Laugier, “On an Anthropological Tone in Philosophy,” inThe Mythology in Our Language, ed. G. Da Col and S. Palmié. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018).

[4] Veena Das, Textures of the Ordinary: Doing Anthropology After Wittgenstein (New York, 2020), pp. 38-39.

[5] Ibid., pp. 40-41.

[6] Veena Das, Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary (Berkeley, 2007), p. 16.

[7] See Laugier “The Ethics of Care as a Politics of the Ordinary,” New Literary History 46 (2015): 217-40.

[8] See R. W. Hepburn and Iris Murdoch, “Symposium: Vision and Choice in Morality,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 30 (1956): 14-58.

[9] Cora Diamond, “Having a Rough Story about What Moral Philosophy Is”, New Literary History 15 (Autumn, 1983): 163.

[10] Iris Murdoch, “Metaphysics and Ethics” (1957), in Iris Murdoch and the Search for Human Goodness, ed. Maria Antonaccio and William Schweiker (Chicago, 1996), pp. 259-60.

[11]  Cavell, The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy (New York, 1979), pp. 247-328.

[12] Quoted in Das, Life and Words, p. x.

[13] Michel Foucault “Méthodologie pour la connaissance du monde: comment se débarrasser du marx,” in Dits et ecrits (Paris,1994), pp. 540-41.

[14] Cavell, This New Yet Unapproachable America: Lectures after Emerson after Wittgenstein (Chicago, 1989), p. 170.

[15] Heonik Kwon, “Wittgenstein’s Spirit, Frazier’s Ghost,” in The Mythology in Our Language, ed. G. Da Col and S. Palmié. (Chicago, 2018), p. 95.

[16] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Address on the Anniversary of Emancipation in the British West Indies (1844),” archive.vcu.edu/english/engweb/transcendentalism/authors/emerson/essays/emancipation.html

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Introduction to a Forum on Veena Das’s Textures of the Ordinary: Doing Anthropology after Wittgenstein

Starting on Monday, Critical Inquiry brings together, over the course of a week, five scholars – three philosophers and two anthropologists – to discuss Veena Das’s Textures of the Ordinary: Doing Anthropology after Wittgenstein (2020)[1], a book in which Das re-turns, differently, to persistent questions in her thought over the course of an entire work – or, we might say, a life. Treating philosophical and literary texts, anthropological modes of being in the world, and autobiographical moments on the same plane, Textures offers us a picture of thought that arises from paying attention to ordinary human forms of life and life forms. Textures thus exemplifies Wittgenstein’s philosophical method and shows how anthropology might be a continuation of this philosophy through an attention to detail.  

The commentaries gathered here will respond to this picture of thought in various, overlapping ways. First, as Sandra Laugier remarks, we see in Textures how Das offers a new departure for ordinary language philosophy. In her abiding interest in life in language and the life of words, Das has been one of the most important commentators on Wittgenstein as read within ordinary language philosophy (Cavell and Diamond). In Das’s writing, we never see philosophy standing by itself, but as Piergiorgio Donatelli remarks, philosophy responds with “its own intensity to the intensity of voices in the streets and houses” that inhabit this book. Thus, the ordinary in Das is never one of an aestheticized ordinary but one lined by the threat of skepticism and marked by suffering and violence. Second, we see how the autobiographical is marked by texts and by actual lives, such that we are presented with what Michael Puett aptly describes as “the complexities with how a self inhabits an ordinary reality that is itself multiple, layered, and requiring constant re-interpretation.” Third, as Penelope Deutscher elaboratesTextures offers us ways to receive how skepticism takes gendered forms while also having us critically engage the various ways authority is established. Yet, as Clara Han discussesTextures also shows us how skepticism comes to be absorbed within concrete relations, thus recasting our understanding and description of human intimacy. As Han notes, Das’s method of close attention to detail reveals paths to imagining an ordinary realism; and in so doing, it gives anthropology a new lease on life.

In her response to the commentaries, we will get a sense of the open character of Das’s thought and the intellectual community that she so beautifully describes as embroidery. We hope readers will find their own ways of taking Textures and these commentaries further in their own research, reading, and lives.


[1] Veena Das, Textures of the Ordinary: Doing Anthropology after Wittgenstein (New York, 2020).

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The Fragility of Democracy: Now Everywhere and Anywhere

Homi Bhabha

During the presidential election, Joe Biden made frequent references to the fragility of democracy. In his inaugural address, Biden returned to the subject. In the days between these repeated warnings of the perilous state of democracy, all Americans, and much of the rest of the world, witnessed the pageantry of the vandalism of the US Capitol on 6 January. Is the fragility of democracy any different from our ongoing apprehensions about the fate of democracy or the future of democracy? Does the phrase “the fragility of democracy” strike a different note of alarm?

I believe it does. The value of words lies in using them cautiously and reading them carefully. Phrases like the “future of democracy” anticipate the next chapter of the democratic experiment, however dark and difficult it may be. It may not be business as usual, but there is little doubt that our view of democracy is still in business. “The fragility of democracy” expresses the anxiety that, for the present moment at least, democracy, as a political idea and a repertoire of normative practices may not only be losing ground but losing the plot altogether. Well into February, three quarters of Republican voters still believed the lie that the election was stolen.

This has, of course, happened before, but each time it happens we have to rethink it in the moment by holding on to the shock of its iteration and interruption, rather than relegating the short moment to the long-known lessons of history.

There are moments in On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life where Friedrich Nietzsche suggests something similar. Our reverence for monumental history and its longue durée, he argues, might prevent us from taking our place on “threshold of the moment,” standing on a single “point,” and hence recovering a necessary feeling of strangeness and “astonish[ment]” in confronting and conceptualizing the history of the present.[1] Without occupying the temporal threshold of strangeness and astonishment, contemporary history is in danger of becoming presentist, while monumental history is vulnerable to celebrating the archaic and the anticipated.

On 6 January, the Make America Great Again mob mounted an assault on electoral rights and democratic institutions in the name of “all Americans”—threatening to hang the vice-president in the process. They were responding, as the case for Donald Trump’s impeachment made plain, to a carefully crafted call to arms: “we fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” Trump beat the war-drums to egg his followers on to fight the courts with frivolous petitions, to fight the constitution with fraudulent actions, to fight the election with insurrection.

The story doesn’t end there. Trump’s 6 January speech contains a dark racial conceit that suggests that America is now in danger of sinking to the status of a “third world country”—those nations that he had once called “shit-hole” countries: “It’s a disgrace. There’s never been anything like that.” Trump hollers: “You could take third-world countries. Just take a look. Take third-world countries. Their elections are more honest than what we’ve been going through in this country. It’s a disgrace. It’s a disgrace.” After ranting against his bêtes noires—Biden, Mitt Romney, Hillary Clinton—Trump turns on those Black Americans, faux Americans to a person, as he sees it, who are most responsible for America’s impending “Third World” doom: “And then I had to beat Stacey Abrams with this guy, Brian Kemp. I had to beat Stacey Abrams. And I had to beat Oprah, used to be a friend of mine. . . . And I had a campaign against Michelle Obama and Barack Hussein Obama.”

The devil lurks in the details. You can almost hear Trump’s disdain: Are Black Americans really American citizens at all, or are they more like Third World peoples? Does Barack Hussein . . . Hussein . . .Hussein . . .even sound American to you? Trump never tires of asking. As I watched the insurrection in real time, the Black Lives Matter protests of the summer were never far from my mind. Why? Because the MAGA mob had chosen as their totemic symbol—their monument—the lynching gallows. The gallows and the Confederate flag were the standards they raised against the election result; it was the gallows and the confederacy that they associated with Trump’s restoration.

While the attention of the world was focused on the violent break-in at the Capitol, it was the gallows with its twisted, hanging noose, and its dire history of racial death, that caught my eye. “Hang them” and “Stop the Steal” were meant for Senate Democrats and Republican “Never Trumpers”; but the dire reality of American racial death haunted the MAGA monument of gallows and noose.

Black death by lynching or police chokeholds or shots in the back; and Native American death by genocide and territorial dispossession. Trump protesters mockingly appropriated “I can’t breathe”—Floyd’s dying words—to express their discomfort at being teargassed as they broke into the Capitol. In a tableau macabre, two MAGA members enacted Floyd’s death beneath a Black Lives Matter banner displayed at the National City Christian Church in D.C. before participating in the storming of the Capitol. “The racism structured into every aspect of the coup attempt is a call to heed our own history,” Timothy Snyder writes in The American Abyss, his remarkable account of that January day.

The United States of America is by no means the only country vulnerable to the fragility of democracy. The insurrection at the Capitol signals the fragility of democracy in other ethnonationalist regimes across the world—most recently in Myanmar and repeatedly in Hungary, Poland, Turkey, India, Israel, and Brazil. There is, of course, no one-size-fits-all model for authoritarian regimes, but what they share are tyrannical leaders whose principal line of attack is an assault on minorities, migrants, and dissidents—a world of enemies. These leaders, populist narcissists to a man, share a political ideology that Hannah Arendt once described as “tribal nationalism”:

Tribal nationalism is introverted, concentrates on the individual’s own soul which is considered as the embodiment of general national qualities. . . . Tribalism . . . starts from non-existent pseudo-mystical elements which it proposes to realize fully in the future. It can be easily recognized by the tremendous arrogance, inherent in its self-concentration, which dares to measure a people, its past and present, by the yardstick of exalted inner qualities and inevitably rejects its visible existence, tradition, institutions, and culture.

Politically speaking, tribal nationalism always insists that its own people is surrounded by “a world of enemies,” “one against all,” that a fundamental difference exists between this people and all others. It claims its people to be unique, individual, incompatible with all others, and denies theoretically the very possibility of a common mankind long before it is used to destroy the humanity of man.[2]

While the world’s press was counting Trump’s lies—30,573 “misleading claims” in four years, The Washington Post reports—Trump’s rhetoric of untruth was loudly and restlessly doing its work. The untruths uttered by tribal nationalists—to whom majoritarian ethnonationalists bear a striking family likeness—have no real epistemic stakes in making a political argument; their ambitions are more performative than epistemic. To describe a public discourse as generating untruth or post-truth (Snyder’s term) does not mean that you affirm, in contrast to it, an absolute or universal realm of the truth. To shortcut this complex argument, let me resort to a common phrase—“to arrive at the truth”—that catches something of what I mean. To arrive at the truth is to acknowledge the long and hard journey of judgment: map reading; consulting a GPS, making decisions en route, starting the journey all over again. To arrive at the truth is as much duration as destination: a process of arguing, reflecting and judging on the grounds of evidence, facts, interpretations, and interventions. Self-doubt and epistemic uncertainty are essential parts of the process. Arriving at the truth is to subscribe to the verifiability of a framework of facts and values that commits you to making up your mind and to standing your ground. This is as true of the judicial process as it is of philological procedures and psychoanalytic practices. Untruth resists this difficult journey; its unverified end point exclusively serves its own interests; it rushes to allege and accuse because it refuses the duration that it takes to arrive at the truth.

To accuse tribal nationalists of not telling the truth is to miss the point that their arrogant self-concentration is only committed to selling themselves. Their public images and political brands are constructed to transgress party systems and transcend national interests. This, I think, is what Arendt means when she considers tribal nationalist leaders to be “introverted,” elevating themselves as “embodiments of general national qualities” at the cost of the multiethnic, interfaith traditions of a people’s “visible existence, tradition, institutions, and culture.”

Leaders who resist press conferences, who demand lofty platforms to rally the people as massed bodies, seek to turn citizens into sycophants and the people into partisan mobs. These leaders are arbiters of power who thrive on the arbitrariness of governance to keep citizens and residents in states of anxiety and unpreparedness in times of emergency. The Chinese government concealed the outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan for weeks, leaving vulnerable inhabitants exposed to the virus, unprepared for the pandemic. The Indian government gave migrant workers and wage laborers four hours between 8 p.m. and midnight on 24 March to de-densify cities and head to their hometowns and villages to be locked down without any provision of food, money, or transport. Ethnonationalist rhetoric, in its rabble-rousing recruiting mode, is based on “non-existent pseudo-mystical elements”: COVID-19 will disappear like a miracle in April, Trump prophesied; Light a lamp for nine minutes on 5 April to ward off the pandemic, India’s Prime Minister Modi advised, and join in Vedic prayer: “Lead us from unreal to real, from darkness to light, from death to immortality.” Death, be not proud, just be untruthful, is the tribalist leaders’ adage.

When truths and facts are pitted against untruths and conspiracies, populist leaders and their followers brazen it out. Untruth disregards evidence, science, deliberation, and due process, because the tribalist promise to its own unique people—one against all—is the achievement of a racially pure and culturally homogenous nation in the future. Populist power, articulated in the language of untruth, wagers the perils of the present against a promised, yet provisional, future. There is always a political and psychic risk involved in such a promissory bet on an uncertain future—like Trump’s loss in the 2020 election— so the anxiety associated with future risk requires a blind belief in untruths uttered in the present moment. Time is as much an instrument of the tyranny of tribalism as it is the political manipulation of place and people. When the promise of the present doesn’t come to pass, then all hell breaks loose, and the intimidatory maneuvers of the police force assume a directly political role. In some countries the army is called in at this point and democracy dies. In others, the violence of electoral autocracy makes its symbolic presence felt in the hanging gallows and the swinging noose.

Make America great again; make India Hindu again; take back control and make Britain a sovereign nation again—it is the futurity of the again and the yet to come that drives tyrannical leaders to take risks with inflationary cycles of untruth and that put the lives and livelihoods of their followers at risk—over 315 members of the MAGA Capitol mob are facing criminal charges to date; over 500,000 Americans have died of the little flu that Trump insisted would not, and should not, change the way we live. This is to say nothing of the everyday risks faced by ethnic minorities, whom White supremacists see as a “world of enemies.” The January riot does not reveal the sudden fragility of American democracy; it is symptomatic of structural failures within American democracy. This is the American nightmare from which the American dream never fully wakes.

The shadow of death does not enter the corridors of power uninvited. When a political system hinders the people’s right to speak truth to power by alleging that dissent is sedition and protest is antinational—and that peaceful demonstrators are antipatriotic anarchists—then dogmatism and demagoguery destroy the checks and balances of representative democracy. The silencing of public voices and the devaluing of public reason open the door to untruths and conspiracy theories. Snyder puts his finger on the dangers of “pre-fascism” that lurks within ethnonationalist “tribal” democracies: In Snyder’s view:

Post-truth is pre-fascism. . . . A joint statement Ted Cruz issued about the senators’ challenge to the vote nicely captured the post-truth aspect of the whole: It never alleged that there was fraud, only that there were allegations of fraud. Allegations of allegations, allegations all the way.

Allegations of allegations, allegations all the way. . . . Allegations define the lifeworlds of minorities mauled by indignity, inequality, and psychic injury. Allegations attached to skin color and race; allegations exploiting inequalities of caste and class; allegations against religious and political affiliations; allegations related to the embodiments of gender and sexuality. The content of conspiracist allegations may seem outrageously out of touch with negotiated realities, but conspiracists, amongst whom I include racists, set their clocks by these “facts”; they read the weather by these facts; they interpret causes and consequences in the light of these facts. To oppose conspiracy theory with the ballast of reason serves only as a foil for its own game of denial and victimhood, which is wired into the repetitive logic of allegation, allegations, allegations all the way. The content of allegations of allegations may seem outrageously untruthful but, as the poet Claudia Rankine writes, these “fantasies cost lives” as the American record of recent police killing of Black people attests:[3]

From Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (Minneapolis, 2014), p. 134.

Systemic racism leans heavily on legal justice and policy reform, but the phenomenology of everyday traumatic racism—violent, iterative, interruptive, erratic—plays out on streets and neighborhoods: the quick stab of hate speech; the precarious moments of “stop and search”; the eight minutes and forty-six seconds it takes to kill George Floyd on the side of a public throughfare in Minnesota. These risky moments in which life and death hang by a thread—these risks to minority living that end up as a risk to minority life itself—find their voice in the haunting evocations of Rankine’s call to poetic justice. Because white policemen, protected by the legal doctrine of qualified immunity, cannot police their imaginations, Black people are dying. Black Lives do not Matter. This is a condition we might conceptualize as the burdened life, not Giorgio Agamben’s bare life.

Short measures of traumatic time, as the lyric form demonstrates, have an intense and encrypted existence. Institutional incidents of systemic racism are recorded in linear or evolutionary narratives of the progress of policy or the failure of political will—or vice versa. The risky uncertainty of traumatic racism takes a different form of time and place, which was perfectly captured by W. E. B. Du Bois over a century ago: “Now seldom, now, sudden; now after a week, now in a chain of awful minutes; not everywhere, but anywhere—in Boston, in Atlanta. That’s the hell of it.”[4]

Rankine’s poetic enactment of a Black encounter with the police is narrated in the temporality of the traumatic “chain of awful minutes; not everywhere, but anywhere—in Boston, in Atlanta.” It happens in that brief, sudden moment of stop-and-frisk, before the police statement is written, before the union intervenes and the judge accepts the plea of reasonable doubt. Generations of cases filed against police officers accused of unlawful killings of Black men and women fail because of the legal provision of qualified immunity,  which inevitably determines the “truth” in favor of the police. Qualified immunity, granted by the courts and protected by police unions, has led to a situation that Noah Feldman makes no bones about: “The Supreme Court wants few lawsuits against the police to go forward”:[5]

A force within whiteness is forcing the whiteness

What is the feeling that pulls, that is pulling, that pulls it out, what sensation uncivilized the utterance. . .

Then the black person is asked to leave to vacate to prove to validate to authorize to legalize their right to be in the air in air in here and then the police help help the police is called help help

. . .

“NYPD Union Lawyers Argue That Eric Garner Would Have died Because He Was Obese,” New York magazine. . . . “Were he not overweight and asthmatic, they argue, he would have survived the violence to which he was subjected.”[6]

Post-truth kills: Allegations of allegations, allegations all the way.

Traumatic racism keeps you anxious and uncertain, but it also keeps you vigilant in the cause of freedom and the witness of justice. James Baldwin knew this only too well, which is why his life and work were built around psychic and social risk. This is how he saw it:

[If] we could accept ourselves as we are, we might bring new life to the Western achievements and transform them. The price of this transformation is the unconditional freedom of the Negro; it’s not too much to say that he … must now be embraced, and at no matter what psychic or social risk. He is the key figure in this country, and the American future is precisely as bright or dark as his. And the Negro recognizes this, in a negative way. Hence the question: Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?[7]

James Baldwin’s ethic of psychic and social risk is a mode of repair and reparation across races and ethnicities; it is picked up as much on the suddenness of the street as from narratives of literature and history. Whatever the psychic or social risk, White Americans must pay the price of giving Blacks unconditional freedom, now anywhere and everywhere, today in Boston, tomorrow in Atlanta, for that’s the price of the ticket. And Black Americans, as Baldwin says, must take the psychic and political risk of learning how to use the past, not drown in it—”to accept the fact . . . that the Negro has been formed by this nation, for better or for worse, and does not belong to any other.”[8]


Homi K. Bhabha is the Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities in the English and Comparative Literature Departments at Harvard University.


[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, trans. Peter Preuss (Indianapolis, 1980), pp. 9, 8.

[2]Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York, 1976), p. 227.

[3] Claudia Rankine, Just Us: An American Conversation (Minneapolis, 2020), p. 329.

[4] W. E. B. Du Bois, “On Being Black,” The New Republic, newrepublic.com/article/130290/black

[5] Joanna C. Schwartz, Yale Law Journal 127, no. 2 (2017): 6.

[6] Rankine, Just Us.

[7]James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York, 1993), p. 94.

[8] Ibid., p. 81.

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The Revolution Was Televised

W. J. T. Mitchell

You will not be able to stay home, brother
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag
And skip out for beer during commercials, because
The revolution will not be televised.

–Gil Scott-Heron (1971)

The Trump-inspired insurrection at the US Capitol on 6 January 2021 was a made for television event. In contrast to the revolution that Gil Scott-Heron was urging in 1971, it did not involve a change of heart or mind, much less a change of behavior. Showing up for a “wild time” was enough. Sticking to your guns, and better yet, bringing them along. Acting out and dressing up for a selfie was enough. Waving a flag and shouting slogans was plenty. Breaking a window, sitting on a dais, stomping on a fallen policeman was a bit extra. Scouring the office spaces for a member of Congress to kidnap or kill was more than enough, and setting up a gallows for Mike Pence was excellent theater.

The thirteen minute “supercut” of the video archive assembled by the House of Representatives’ impeachment managers condensed the entire spectacle, cross-cutting three distinct, simultaneous lines of place and time: (1) Trump’s speech near the White House with its incendiary call to march on the Capitol and “stop the steal” known as the peaceful transfer of power; (2) the main spectacle of the mob surging into the Capitol carrying the American flag along with banners of the Confederacy, QAnon, and Trump; (3) the quiet scenes of mounting anxiety inside the Capitol as the Congress realized that its defenses were crumbling. If an eighteen minute “gap” in an Oval Office tape recording spelled the end of the Nixon presidency, this thirteen minute video played the same role for Trump. His defense lawyers recognized this when they accused the house managers of employing professional film editors to manipulate and manufacture evidence.[1] 

The Trump epoch, gestated by reality TV and birthed by a popular vote defeat and an electoral college victory in 2016 ended with a spectacular bang not a whimper. Hopes that the defeated coward would slink away into retirement faded when he turned out to be the authentic psychopath and malignant narcissist that the American Psychiatric Association had been describing since before his election. Psychiatrist Jerrold Post’s final public appearance to promote his book about Trump, Dangerous Charisma, included precise descriptions of what would happen during the transition period between the election and the inauguration: not merely a refusal of the results but a manic spree of lawsuits, rallies, conspiracy theories, and threats of a military coup. Post‘s theory of charisma involves what he calls a “mirror psychosis” endemic to leader-follower relations. It is clearly one bridge (there are surely others) between individual and collective forms of madness. Charismatic individuals tend to be narcissistic in the first place, but when their wounded narcissism becomes malevolent, coupled with paranoia and grandiosity, they can become dangerous.  Especially when acted out with the powers of the American presidency. 

6 January 2021 exposed those dangers for all to see in the most completely televised revolution in human history. It will continue to resonate as more details surface from the archive and the time line is reconstructed down to the minute. The subgroups, lost souls, tourists, militants, and voyeurs will be exposed. Were you there to see or be seen? What did you really think would happen? What was the outcome you were hoping for? 

The behavior of the First Spectator of the event, bathing in enjoyment in the Oval Office will begin to fill in. We might learn how he felt about the gallows; we already know about his affection for monuments of the Confederacy. All his darkest desires were made manifest, bringing to the surface what had been lurking in his language all along, and in the specific American psychoses (racism, white supremacy, predatory capitalism). All the hints, metaphors of violence, and sly provocations suddenly became literal and spectacular; Trump’s lawyers tried in vain to remetaphorize the “fighting words” by creating a counter-montage of Democratic politicians using the word, as if context of utterance, speech as action, was irrelevant. 

We can hope that 6 January 2021 be the final spectacle of the Trump regime, its obscene underside finally exposed completely to view. The big question remains: What sort of beginning did it threaten? What did this unmasking of an endemic pathology in American national culture accomplish? Did it reveal an awful truth that has the capacity to awaken a nation to its own madness? Or will it (as many of the insurrectionists hope) stand as a historic triumph for White supremacy and fascistic nationalism? The very idea that a nation, much less an individual, could awaken from a collective psychosis may be impossible. The fact that the word woke has now become a sneer to chide anxious liberals is a sure sign of steadfast resistance and disavowal. The American dream, always a comforting delusion of an exceptional destiny, has become the American nightmare.

The television coverage created an unrivaled spectacle, emphasizing both the “big picture,” provided by the iconic architecture and landscape of the Capitol invaded by an overwhelming mob, and the innumerable little pictures, the closeups of agonized cops being stomped and crushed, the faces of frenzied rioters, the absurd images of militia members rifling through Senators desks and arguing about the meaning of the papers found there. Dozens of journalists armed with cameras accompanied the invaders, and the mob members themselves carried enough cell phone cameras to ensure that not a moment went unrecorded. Meanwhile, outside the building, rioters set about destroying the equipment of the main stream media (the “fake news”), blissfully unaware that the most comprehensive audio-visual archive ever made of an insurrection was being assembled in real time by their own traceable cell phones. 

How can we grasp the choreography of the masses that gathered to perform at a sacred national temple whose symbolism dates back to the founding of the “USA”? The crowd chanted those letters (and other three-syllable slogans coined by Trump—“Stop the Steal,” “Hang Mike Pence”) as the rhythmic accompaniment to its movements. Superficially, the crowd was a chaotic mob, in sharp contrast to the geometries of Siegried Kracauer’s “mass ornament” of the Tiller Girls’s precision line dancing, an emblem of capitalist rationalism. Or the massed dancers of George M. Cohan’s “It’s a Grand Old Flag”:

Trump’s mob was an exact inversion of Cohan’s dancers, following a more archaic choreography, complete with a charismatic cult figure (already being compared to a Golden Calf), a gathering, parading, and demonstrating the vulnerability of American democracy to a premodern style of military siege and sacrilegious ritual. Wall climbers and columns of militias snaking through the crowd led it toward access points of the sacred space, where sacrilege and the instruments of public execution were put on display.[2] Most notable was the relation of the Trump insurrection to the landscaping and architectural form of the Capitol. The crowd’s movements followed the geometric laws of political power as expressed in built space and the radial lines of force indicated in the Washington, D.C. street plan. The Capitol sits on a hill, the highest point in the city, visible from everywhere. It sits at the center of the enormous geometric web of radiating lines and concentric circles that emanate from it. If there is a symbolic center to American power, it is there, not the relatively modest White House or the Supreme Court.[3] The route of the crowd, from its starting point on the ellipse near the White House, precisely mapped the narrative of an insurrection incited and inspired by the executive branch against the legislative, reversing the normal direction of the inaugural parade. Abraham Lincoln insisted on continuing work on the great dome as a symbol of American unity during the Civil War, and the presence of Confederate flags waving under that dome gave the whole scene a sense of uncanny reenactment or of an alternate history and a possible future.[4] 

If the Capitol is primarily a place of assembly, the building itself is a kind of “assemblage” of the generic conventions of neoclassicism. No single architect of any note can be assigned as its “author.” Its history is one of constant renovation, expansion, and remodeling, often delayed or stymied by the contentions of the legislators assembled under its roof. All the same, the overall impression remains one of monumental unity, the central dome and two wings symbolizing the rational balancing of powers within the deliberative branch of the government, the House of Representatives standing for the rapid fluctuations of public opinion, the Senate symbolizing the more settled, “older” branch, resistant to the passions of the moment. As an architectural allegory of the nation and its constitution, it is the “first” and most important branch of the government, the place where the nation does its thinking––and therefore, where it periodically goes undergoes a “change of mind” induced by an election.

The analogy of architecture with the human body goes back at least as far as Vitruvius.[5] Exterior walls are the skin, the supporting structure is the skeleton, rooms are internal organs, the windows are eyes, the porches and doors are orifices for hearing/speaking, and the façade is the face. But the analogy does not stop with the individual body. In governmental structures, the metaphor extends to the “body politic,” a collective entity that, like an individual organic body, possesses a constitution that is more or less healthy, a structure that can endure and survive stress, just like a well-made building or a healthy body. The “framers” of the US Constitution regarded themselves as just that––architects of both structures and landscapes, and as designers of a mentally healthy body politic, constituted with a “balance of powers.” 

The dome is thus the most conspicuously readable feature in the analogy of building and body. It is the head, the skull under which the collective “brain” of the nation takes shelter. The circular row of columns that supports the dome are the “thousand eyes” of a panopticon, admitting light and scanning the horizon in all directions. The association of domes with sovereignty and the heavens goes back to ancient times, and in its modern, secularized form becomes a symbol of popular sovereignty by the demos, the rule of the people as contrasted with the (temporary) head of state in the White House.[6] The Capitol, therefore, is deliberately an open, rather porous structure at ground level. Just the opposite of a citadel or fortress, it is vulnerable to invasion by design, and radiates its power and attraction outward in all directions.

So the mass ornament of 6 January 2021 derived its meaning from the backdrop against which it occurred, the stage set, as it were. Despite the chaotic and random appearance of the crowd, it rapidly became clear that significant numbers of the mob were following a choreographed plan, namely to penetrate to the center of the building and seize by force the power it symbolizes on behalf of one man. The threats to “hang Mike Pence” and the efforts to locate various Democratic legislators and take them hostage or murder them were designed to literalize the metaphoric relations of building and bodies.  

Once inside the Capitol, the spectacle’s strange combination of absurdity and menace became evident. While some invaders were furiously searching through the offices for potential human targets, pounding on doors, others were like awestricken tourists, strolling through the Rotunda, carefully respecting the roped-off pathways across the open space. In the Senate chambers, rioters began quarreling among themselves about whether they should vandalize the space or respect its sacred character. One authoritative elder draped in military garb admonished his comrades that this was strictly an “informational mission,” and nothing should be damaged. A lone cop pleaded with the group to leave. And the QAnon Shaman howled like a banshee from the gallery above, then descended to arrange a photo op of himself occupying the chair of the President of the Senate. 

The historic character of this spectacle was rendered instantly legible, with the comparisons to the British invasion of Washington in 1812 leading the way on the nightly news, while the rioters themselves (and their media allies) presented their activity as a replay of 1776.[7] In the made for TV spectacle, members of the intoxicated mob posed for selfies, while masked stage managers lurked around the edges, coordinating siege routes for the masses. Many members of a crowd that would ordinarily refuse to mask themselves in recognition of the contagious virus, masked up to preserve anonymity like ordinary criminals. Others, recognizing the historical importance of the spectacle, wanted to brag about their presence at the overthrow of American democracy, and posed brazenly next to statues of presidents or stationed themselves in positions of symbolic authority, feet up on Nancy Pelosi’s desk.

Another aspect of the spectacle has to be acknowledged, one that might not occur to someone who is steeped (as is this author) in the aura of the Capitol.[8] What about those viewers who see that building, not as an allegory of democratic openness and freedom, but as itself a monument to American imperialism and white supremacy? The easiest way to reframe the spectacle in this way would be to image an alternate scenario. What if it had been Black Lives Matter marching down Pennsylvania Avenue? Does anyone think that a demonstration by people of color, Latinx immigrants, or Muslims would have penetrated the Capitol’s defenses so easily? Would the “optics” have been so accommodating?[9] Would some Capitol police officers have taken selfies with the protestors and ushered them into the building? The bizarre irony of a White supremacist mob overwhelming a citadel of white power takes the spectacle beyond mere shock into a surreal fantasy of some very dangerous chickens coming home to roost, clearly feeling that they had every right to be there. 

What will stick in memory? The mass against the backdrop of the Capitol? Or the individual portraits and the banners? What does it mean that Jacob Chansley, the QAnon Shaman, with his horns and Coyote pelt, has become the iconic figure? Was he there to personify the “mana” or magic of the mass?[10] 

Even for the most devoted insurrectionists, it put the whole spectacle in danger of becoming a clown show. In many ways this was the final Trump Carnival-as-Carnage, where Lords of Misrule and Anarchy have always been tolerated. The Shaman presents himself as an avatar of “native Americanism,” as a composite of animal attributes, elaborate Nordic tattoos associated with white supremacy, face painted with national colors. He is evidently a compulsive performance artist who has been showing up at Trump rallies for some time. But I wonder how welcome he was among the more serious insurrectionists, the ones who came for violence. It must have made them uneasy, as if he were presenting a satirical caricature of the event, rendering it not only a tactical military failure, but a symbolic fiasco.[11] The QAnon Shaman is also the Fool or Clown at the carnival, the “licensed Fool” who personifies the mad magical thinking of the tribe. One of Trump’s ex-lawyers tried to circulate a rumor that he was a member of antifa, carrying out a “false flag” operation.[12] But the flags––Trump and Confederate most notably––made it clear that this carnival was a symbolic reenactment of the American carnage of the Civil War that Trump invoked four years earlier at his inauguration. Has Trump come full circle?  Back to the clownish one-man band of his apprenticeship? Or are these images of a possible future, a rehearsal of sorts?

One issue that haunts this entire argument: What is the status of psychiatric language in diagnosing the American psychosis? The unleashing of psychiatric discourse into the public sphere is not without its dangers, a reduction of the language of mental illness too little more than polemic and accusation. On the other hand, as Jerrold Post argues, psychiatric understanding of anti-democratic, authoritarian leader-follower relations includes an ethical “duty to warn.” The Goldwater Rule, which protects the privacy of individual mental disorders from public exposure, clearly has to be revised for dangerous public figures. Those who are “woke” to the madness of the moment will have to adopt a politics of care for the enemy, and recognize that they too are inside the nightmare. We may want to put the dangerous leader in jail or at least keep him out of office. But we must try to understand his followers, to see the world through their madness. 

In short, it looks as if liberals have to find a way to care for our deluded fellow citizens with patience and firmness. There is something deeply rotten in the USA at this moment, reminiscent of the onset of the American Civil War. The daily news of families and long friendships falling apart over political differences, of shunning and censuring those few Republicans who stray from fealty to Trump is deeply alarming. Even more ominous is the strong majority of Republican legislators who, in the immediate aftermath of the insurrection, actually voted to ratify the goals of the mob by nullifying the election. The election of Joe Biden to the presidency, supported by a narrow and fragile majority in Congress seems to signal a return to normal after the madness of the Trump epoch and its final episodes of plague and insurrection. But “normal times” are a comforting delusion we will have to move beyond if the republic, not to mention the planet, is to survive. After all, the status quo is a state of emergency for millions around the world.

A state of emergency is the new normal.


[1] See defense attorney David Schoen‘s speech to the Senate, “WATCH: David Schoen Defends Trump in Senate Impeachment Trial,” Youtube, 12 Feb. 2021, www.youtube.com/watch?v=gKkHeLQXwBw

[2] The Oath Keepers used a military tactic known as the “stack,” where a line of soldiers with arms on the shoulder in front of them penetrated to the front of the guard and led the break-in (Alan Feuer, “Oath Keepers Plotting Before Capitol Riot Awaited ‘Direction’ From Trump, Prosecutors Say,” New York Times, 11 Feb. 2021, www.nytimes.com/2021/02/11/us/politics/oath-keepers-trump-investigation.html).

[3] The symbolism of Pierre L’Enfant’s “sacred design” for the layout of Washington D.C. has been documented exhaustively in Nicholas Mann’s The Sacred Geometry of Washington, D.C. (Somerset, 2006).

[4] See Siegfried Kracauer, The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays (Cambridge, Mass., 1995). 

[5] See Philip D. Plowright, “Extending Skin: Architecture Theory and Conceptual Metaphors,” ARCC Conference Repository (Sept. 2018): www.arcc-journal.org/index.php/repository/article/download/552/441/

[6] See Earl Baldwin Smith, The Dome: A Study in the History of Ideas (Princeton, N.J., 1950).

[7] The British actually set fire to the Capitol in 1814. A timely rainstorm prevented its from burning down. See The US Capitol Building website, www.nps.gov/nr/travel/wash/dc76.htm

[8] I want to acknowledge the timely advice of Omar Kholeif in thinking through the final drafts of this very provisional essay.

[9] Paul Irving, Sergeant of Arms of the House of Representatives said he wasn’t comfortable with the “optics” of treating this as an emergency (Laurel Wamsley, “What We Know So Far: A Timeline Of Security Response At The Capitol On Jan. 6,” NPR, 15 Jan. 2021, www.npr.org/2021/01/15/956842958/what-we-know-so-far-a-timeline-of-security-at-the-capitol-on-january-6

[10] For an account of the link between ancient ritual and revolutionary crowds, see William Mazarella, The Mana of Mass Society (Chicago, 2017).

[11] The QAnon Shaman was later accused of being an agent of antifa. The charge is false, and he has since expressed regret for being part of this.

[12] Trump defense lawyer Lin Wood appears to be the source of the “false flag” attribution of the insurrection to antifa moles.  The lie has been repeated across the right-wing media, including Fox News. See Spencer Sunshine, “I’ve Been Tracking the Far Right for Years. Then Lin Wood ‘Exposed’ Me as the QAnon Shaman,” The Daily Beast, 3 Feb. 2021, www.thedailybeast.com/how-the-far-right-made-me-the-false-face-of-the-dc-insurrection. In the video documentation of the police being crushed by the mob in a tight corridor, the black clad Proud Boys (they dressed especially for the occasion) started chanting  “we are antifa,” as they pressed against the police. For the video track, see twitter.com/exposingterror1

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In Memoriam: J. Hillis Miller and the Hospitality of Criticism

W. J. T. Mitchell

J. Hillis Miller, a massively influential literary critic and theorist, passed away at his home in Maine on 9 February 2021.  Miller was the author of dozens of important scholarly books on American and English literature, including The Disappearance of God, Poets of Reality, The Linguistic Moment, and The Ethics of Reading. Miller was generally associated with the renowned Yale School of Deconstruction, along with Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman, and Jacques Derrida.  His work was central to a “golden age of theory” in the 1970s and ’80s that transformed teaching and research, not just in literary study, but across the humanities and social sciences.  During his long and storied career, Miller taught at Johns Hopkins University, then at Yale, and finally at the University of California, Irvine.  He was a cherished mentor and friend to numerous students, notable for his vast learning, serene patience with apprentice scholars, and irrepressible humor.

Hillis was the second reader of my dissertation on William Blake, which I defended in 1968.  After the passing of my director, the formidable Earl Wasserman, Hillis moved readily into the position of mentor and friend to me for the next half century.  I have met a lot of smart, even brilliant people in my long career in academia, but Hillis stands out above them all as the wisest man I have ever known.  His generosity was legion.  He could be a formidable debater, and his mastery of nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature in both English and French was remarkable.  But he was always happy to return to the text alongside apprentice scholars and lead them into that marvelous labyrinth known as reading where he guided our searches for both the monsters and the hidden treasures.

I want to recall just one episode from that dark night of the soul known as graduate school.  I had arrived as a student in the Johns Hopkins English PhD program in 1964, exactly when Hillis was moving from his own long apprenticeship as a “phenomenological” reader toward the linguistic orientation of deconstruction—in short from a reader of minds to a reader of texts.  We were all learning the mantra of Georges Poulet, who taught a generation of critics to identify the cogito of the author:  “For Thomas Hardy the world is….[fill in the blank].”  In order to find this cogito it was of course necessary to read “every word that the author ever wrote,” a feat that I only accomplished once in my life, but Hillis must have done many times.  In his seminar on modern poetry we were discussing T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and one of my fellow students filled an awkward silence with the observation that Prufrock’s name, with its first name replace by a single letter, was an obvious sign of pomposity and class snobbery.  There was a long silence around the seminar table as we took in the implications of saying this in front of a distinguished professor with the name of “J. Hillis Miller.”   The student began to blush furiously and the rest of us buried ourselves in our books and notes, afraid to look up.  Suddenly a deep booming laugh broke the silence, and we looked up to see Hillis convulsed in laughter.  “You know,” he said, “I wonder why that never occurred to me before.”

This episode may help to explain why, many years later, a symposium at Irvine in Miller’s honor was organized around the permutations of the letter J.   Much of the symposium consisted of elaborate jokes and speculations about Hillis’s enigmatic initial, and what might have become of him if he had gone through life as plain “Joe Miller.”   My job as an iconologist was obvious.  I had to write about the shape of the letter J.  And so I wrote a paper for the symposium entitled “The Serpent in the Wilderness”[1] building upon Hillis’s observation about narrative design:   

Retrospective narration is then the retracing of a spatial design already there. That spatial design has been left as remnant after the events are over.   The meaning of such remnants is created magically, after the fact, when the results of an action that marked the world are seen.

–-J. Hillis Miller

What then, is the “shape of J”?  I argued that it was the trace of Miller’s own itinerary through texts, an incomplete U-turn that, when grafted to a second J would result in the familiar S-curve that is an invariable feature of British landscape painting and architecture, famously reinterpreted by Hogarth as the line of beauty, curiosity, and the shape of the devil’s pathway in Milton’s Paradise Lost.  Hillis greeted this over-reading of his initial with characteristic generosity, noting that it could have been worse.  The juncture of a double J could have led to an image of circular race track where narrative progression would have been impossible.

Hillis was a long-time supporter of Critical Inquiry, both as a member of our editorial board and as an author.  His most famous essay, The Critic as Host” appeared in CI’s pages in 1977 as the opening salvo in what was to become a central debate in the coming decades.  The debate was launched at a famous session at the Modern Language Association pitting him against M. H. Abrams, whose magnum opus on British Romanticism, Natural Supernaturalism, had recently been published.  Many versions of the stakes in this debate have been proposed:  was it about the possibility of truth and certainty in literary interpretation?  The relation between critical frameworks and interpretive results?  The status of “obvious” and “univocal” meanings?  The relation of speech, writing, and consciousness?  The ethical relation of authors and readers?  Of readers and those who write about reading (critics, scholars, and interpreters)?  About language as a tool for communication, or as the environment in which human life is located? 

M. H. Abrams critique of Miller was entitled “The Deconstructive Angel,” a title that drew upon an allegorical dialogue in William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, where Devil and Angel argue over their respective visions of the world.  Each accuses the other of imposing their metaphysics on the other.  The Angel’s vision of the Devil’s lot is of an “infinite abyss” with a burning city, “vast spiders,” and a fierce Leviathan “advancing toward us with all the fury of a spiritual existence.”  When the Angel withdraws from the argument, however, the Devil finds himself “sitting on a pleasant bank beside a river by moon light hearing a harper who sung to the harp. & his theme was, The Man who never alters his opinion is like standing water & breeds reptiles of the mind.”

As a Blake scholar, I always thought that Abrams had made a fatal mistake by labeling Miller the deconstructive Angel.  Everyone knew that Miller (along with every competent reader of Blake) was on the side of the Devil.  In fact, Blake ends the dialogue with a conversion experience:  “Note.  This Angel, who is now become a Devil, is my particular friend:  we often read the Bible together in its infernal or diabolical sense.”   Abrams and Miller remained particular friends for the rest of their days

I don’t know what contemporary readers will make of the Miller/Abrams debate from 1976, or Hillis’s tour de force of transforming the role of criticism from that of a parasite on literature into an expression of boundless hospitality to innovative readings, and new paradigms.  What I know for certain is that “The Critic as Host,” was published in Critical Inquiry in only its second year of existence, and helped to launch this journal as the critical host for numerous memorable debates and explosive new critical movements over the next half century.  Hillis continued to guide and inspire us well into the twenty-first century.  His life as a scholar, mentor, and friend will endure long beyond his passing.


W. J. T. Mitchell is senior editor of Critical Inquiry.


[1]Later published in the proceedings of the conference as “The Serpent in the Wilderness,” in Acts of Narrative, ed. Carol Jacobs and Henry Sussman (Stanford, Calif., 2003), pp. 146-56.

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The Plastic Controversy

Ranjan Ghosh

In June 1833, Charles Darwin asked the captain of the HMS Beagle to delay the departure from Tierra del Fuego because a “strange group of granite boulders” had stirred his investigative and imaginative energy – “One of these, shaped somewhat like a barn, was forty-seven feet in circumference and projected five feet above the sand beach,” he later wrote.1 In his accounts of the voyage, Darwin described crystalline boulders of notable size and abundance near Bahía San Sebastian, south of the Strait of Magellan. Darwin was curious about the shape of the boulders and could not understand how they got there and this intense interest in granite is an expression of his geological and romantic imagination.

Surprise. Those large masses of rock were later called Darwin’s Boulders – erratic and enigmatic, speculative and romantic.  Geologically, Darwin attributed the “erratic to ice rafting,”2 but their enormity and strangeness added to their wild beauty, and they ignited Darwin’s post-Lyell geological temper and imagination.

Bizarre. Granite has its own complicated formations – unstable and not simple in its petrological origin as the granite controversy attests – “consisting of known materials yet combined in a secret manner, it is impossible to determine whether its origin is from fire or water. Extremely variable in the greatest simplicity, its mixture presents innumerable combinations.”3

Becoming. The granite genesis has its competing explanations: “magmatic (granites are igneous rocks resulting from the crystallisation of magma) and metamorphic (granites are the result of a dry or wet granitisation process that transformed sialic sedimentary rocks into granite), because granites are the result of ultra-metamorphism involving melting (anatexis) of crustal rocks.”4 When H. H. Read suggested that “there are granites and granites,”5 he was referring to an overwhelmingly variegated schematic emergence – something that stares back at us as a prospect for a petri-becoming.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “On Granite” (1784) speaks about the antiquity of earth, a nearly unfathomable processual build-up within the Earth’s crust—the romantic and scientific imagination in a becoming earth. He observes that “composed of familiar materials, formed in mysterious ways, its origins are as little to be found in fire as they are in water. Extremely diverse in the greatest simplicity, its mixtures are compounded in numberless variety.”6 Granite has its own mix of quartz, feldspar, and mica, as Goethe observed in “On Geology,” particularly the Bohemian, in which he tried to analyse the mysterious trinity of Dreieinheit. The solidity, interestingly, conceals a fluidity of coming together, a kinesis in mineralization.

Conglomerate.  The “word Granitgeschiebe indicates,” argues Jason Groves, that “these ‘granite boulders’ are neither conceived in terms of static form nor in terms of the anteriority of ruins but rather in terms of an ongoing movement of ruination; rather than as a substance, granite is presented as a thing in motion.”7 Goethe’s sensitivity to earth formations is revealed in his principle of incongruence, in which the earth is left to transform and transit in a complex geoerotics. Reflecting on such “mineral actants,” Groves observes further that “stones and rock formations present themselves, express themselves, transform themselves, let themselves be seen, produce themselves, spread themselves out, alter themselves, and conceal themselves [zeigensich, sprechensichaus, verwandelnsich, lassensichsehen, erzeugensich, verbreitensich, verändernsich, verbergensich]. In this drama of things, mineral agents take humans as accusative objects: they direct our attention, they address us, they come together to make formations.”8

But the fascination and fetish, imagination and indignation today, is with plastic, and an aggrieved and aggressive turn to plastic has brought us not before granite or Darwin’s boulders but a strange petri-kin in “plastiglomerate.” It is a mixture of plastic-intermateriality – surprising, bizarre, becoming, erratic, and aberrant. Like granite, it is the “plastic-controversy.” Granite and the plastiglomerates are deeply embedded each in their own way – poesis in petrology and the petrochemical. Plastic was formed a little more than a hundred years ago; it was made formative and formable; finally, it forms itself. Today, like Darwin’s and Goethe’s granite, plastiglomerate comes through as a romantic rock, speculative and spectacular, with its distinct geological aesthetic.9 Like Goethe’s erratic granite (umherliegendeGranitblöcke, and Granitgeschiebe) and Darwin’s errant boulders, plastiglomerate – as an idiorhythmic emergence – signals a fresh poesis in geopoetical thought and the lithospheric imaginary. Living through inhuman time, we are attuned to a nonhuman surge and profusion both on land and in water. Humans had their event with plastic and now the whole of Earth is an event itself. If granite is the Ur-stone, plastiglomerate is the novice stone, the controversial stone. One demonstrates geological plasticity, the other a kind of plastic materialization – both attesting to an extraordinary geological becoming.

Plastiglomerate, this new-found geo-reality, is a product of hardened molten plastic holding sediment, basaltic lava fragments, and organic debris, natural debris, and sedimentary grains. If sedimentary or igneous rock speaks about the impact that a changing earth had on its own formations, plastiglomerate leaves behind the traces of a predatory human species and what it did to extinguish itself through an invention that ensured an eventual ruin. Patricia Concoron and Charles Moore admit that plastic melts beyond recognition in some plastiglomerates and in some it is still visible and recognizable as “netting/ropes, pellets, partial containers/packaging, lids, tubes/pipes, and confetti.”10 Embrittled remains– in the form of containers and lids, ropes, nylon fishing line, and parts of oyster spacer tubes– countenance the rock identity.

If granite grew out of a blend of quartz, feldspar, and mica – building its own mineralization with certainty and mystery– then the materials identified in the formation of the plastiglomerate speak of a larger story of civilization and its discontents and of a febrile controversy in the making:  a “kind of junkyard Frankenstein.”11 In the spirit of transcendental geology, standing on ground that has always been a dynamic ungrounding, we are left to ask: What legacy will humans leave in the rocks?12 As plastic is made to sieve through into the remotest nonhuman corners of this planet, the subterranean infiltration is no less emphatic – call it plastiturbation. Within anthropogenic morphostratigraphy, we have human inputs influencing sedimentation and the lithoscape. Imagine reading in a future textbook:

The history of the Earth can be read in the pages of geologic layers, built up sediments, igneous volcanic flows, rock stacked and folded until strata are formed. Each layer deciphered is an understanding of a past moment of natural history. In the year 2855 CE, a startling discovery was made that unfolded the mystery of what happened over 10,000 years ago, revealing clues of what happened in a time our popular press has come to call “The Age of Grease.” It was a time when fossil fuels were sucked out of the earth, dug out of the earth to drive a civilization towards its demise. A layer of brilliantly colored substances was found sandwiched between layers of rock: substances that civilization called “plastic”. The layer which is so distinctive that our geologists and archaeologists have come to call it a discontinuity, a term used to describe nonconforming conditions. Hence, “The Plasticene Discontinuity” is aptly named. 13

The interesting part of this development is in seeing how rocks that signaled inhuman time come to be humanized through the material remnants of a particular species. If geological imagination aspires to make the scalar and stratigraphic developments comprehensible to us, plastiglomerate evokes a new imagination that projects its own post-anthropocenic potentials – a future that will talk only about the past. “Plastifossilization” is a relentless and inexorable process that recharacterizes an already unstable earth that is a “compilation machine, an assembly line,” where “trash, construction debris, coal ash, dredged sediments, petroleum contamination, green lawns, decomposing bodies, and rock ballast not only alter the formation of soil but themselves form soil bodies, and in this respect are taxonomically indistinguishable from soil.”14 Plastic seepage and sedimentation keep changing the soil’s character and habit – plasticization of the soil-ego – to create a deterritorialized Earth weighed down by irrevocable plastic sink. Earth’s deep time, hence, is increasingly invaded by plastic time. Besides its nonplasticity and decay-resistant trajectory, this time includes forces that are global, capitalist, economic, and political. The processes that make the Earth’s crust chemicalize differently involve a temporality of a different order as soil organisms, including plants, face a different order of existence and expiry. When other fossilizations generated interest in the earth depths, tele-plastic fossilization has left us frozen in options: deposition as depravity, consequences as controversy. Plastiglomerate, however, announces no abrupt collapse of time and historical distance in understanding; it speaks of a clear trajectory of evolution even in the last sixty years, wedging the subject and the object together – the antiromantic formulation of reversal of subjectivity where the object formation has its own precise scientific understanding and clear heuristic discourse on the relational map with a transforming object. Plastic geolayering has its own telematic genealogy. It is here that a controversial parallelism builds between the plastic materiality and biological plasticity, where running away from plastic is always already a running into plastic. The plastic hardwaring of Earth develops its own vanishing and expiry moments, points of sustainability, composite fractures – a kind of ‘variantology.’15

The plastic objects swept up and unearthed reveal the threshold points of anthropogenic understanding of Earth and its elementality and phenomenality. It is in the exceeding of the scope of human knowledge and systems of representation that Amanda Boetzkes finds an “excess of the earth.”16 The elemental in artwork encourages a fresh sense generation where nature comes to create its own forms of representation that challenges our limits of understanding about what makes an intelligible form. Plastic nature never returns to itself, it merely re-turns. It is strange to itself and has become its own alterity. The plastic stones and the geo-sea profile come to reinforce our sheltering within the elemental. John Sallis points out that “fleeing to one’s home as a storm approaches does not allow one to escape from the storm but only to shelter oneself from its force. Cultivating the field, fishing in the sea, and cutting wood in the forest do not open a path beyond the field, the sea, or the forest but rather constitute certain kinds of human comportment to these elementals in which one is encompassed.”17 Fleeing and staying away from plastic is to dwell in the plastic elemental.

The plastic controversy questions: How could a toothbrush or nylon rope get into a particular rock? What force and instant synergized with the melting of the rock, the temperature gradient, the flow, the molecularity, the seepage and the conjugation? The interlocking of matter is unstable, unpredictable, and dynamic. If plastic clams its way into the digestive system of a fish and clanks out a space in the human body, it clings to rocks in exquisitely esoteric forms too. The earth delivers the unknown – plastiglomerate, in that sense, is a controversial event. Plastic at large, in its nonlaboratory avatar, is not limited to hylomorphic materialism. The turn to plastic has become a turn to composite plastic, dynamic multiform plastic, and nonstructural plastic in the sense of exceeding forms beyond human cognition and imagination. Where do we identify the connectors between a plastic toy and the degraded ghost of its own form after unknown periods of forcible weathering? How does the toothbrush we use relationalize with the frayed and frumpy toothbrush in the body of the plastiglomerate? Jeremy Skrzypek points out that in hyloenergeism “a material object is not itself an activity or process; it is something composed of matter, which comes into existence when that matter is engaged in a certain activity or process. Understood mereologically, a material object is composed of both its matter and the activity or process that is occurring in that matter.”18 Plasticofutures, through synchronic mineralization, reveal altplastics that infuse each other through substructural changes and processual energy. The figurality of plastic as an event (in the sense of a formation) and as an occurrence (as a state of occurring) emphasizes the “endurantist account of the persistence of material objects.” There is a chance in the indifference of altplastics, the hasard objectif (objective chance) – a sudden confluence point of contrasting objects. It’s the random in a process, causality not without probability. Mark the nylon-inscribed plastiglomerate.

Here is a displacement of agency that the invention of plastic a hundred years ago had never envisaged. The nylon-stamped rock announces a distant human hand to it. It’s both about how the Earth separates from its inmates and from itself; altplastics remind Earth how it can surprise itself and be its own cause of wonder. Isn’t that controversial enough?


Ranjan Ghosh teaches in the Department of English, University of North Bengal. His forthcoming book The Plastic Turn will be published by Cornell University Press in 2022.

Website: http://www.ranjanghosh.com


1 Richard A. Lovett, “Darwin’s Geological Mystery Solved,” Nature, 20 Oct. 2009.

2 Edward B. Evenson et al., “Enigmatic Boulder Trains, Supraglacial Rock Avalanches, and the Origin of ‘Darwin’s Boulders,’ Tierra del Fuego,” GSA Today 19 (Dec. 2009):  4-10.

3 See Heather I. Sullivan, “Collecting the Rocks of Time: Goethe, the Romantics and Early Geology,” European Romantic Review 10, nos. 1-4 (1999): 346.

5 Guo-Neng Chen and Rodney Grapes, Granite Genesis: In Situ Melting and Crustal Evolution (Berlin, 2007), p. 4.

6 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “On Granite (1784),” in The Essential Goethe, trans. pub., ed. Matthew Bell (Princeton, N.J., 2016), p. 913; my emphasis.

7 Jason Groves, “Goethe’s Petrofiction: Reading the Wanderjahre in the Anthropocene,” Goethe Yearbook 22 (Rochester, N.Y., 2015): 95-113.

8 Ibid.

9 See Noah Heringman, Romantic Rocks, Aesthetic Ideology (Ithaca, N.Y., 2010). See also Charles Lyell, Principles of Geology (New York, 1997). 

10 Patricia L. Corcoran, Charles J. Moore, and Kelly Jazvac, “An Anthropogenic Marker Horizon in the Future Rock Record,” GSA TODAY 24 (June 2014): 4-8.

11 Angus Chen Jun, “Rocks Made of Plastic Found on Hawaiian Beach,” Science, 4 June 2014.

12 See Jan Zalasiewicz, The Earth after Us: What Legacy Will Humans Leave in the Rocks? (New York, 2008). See also The Planet in a Pebble: A Journey into Earth’s Deep History (New York, 2010).

13 Judith Selby and Richard Lang, “Plasticene Discontinuity.” Plastic Forever.

14 Jussi Parikka, A Geology of Media (Minneapolis, 2015), p. 110.

15 Siegfried Zielinski, Deep Time of the Media Toward an Archaeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means, trans. Gloria Custance (Cambridge, Mass., 2006), p. 7.

16 Amanda Boetzkes, The Ethics of Earth Art (Minneapolis, 2010), p. 3.

17 John Sallis, Elemental Discourses (Bloomington, Ind., 2018), p. 95.

18 Jeremy W. Skrzypek, “From Potency to Act: Hyloenergeism,” Synthese , 21 Jan. 2019, p. 28.

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It Could Be So Much Worse

Pato Hebert and Alexandra Juhasz

From: Patrick Hebert

Sent: Saturday, December 12, 2020 2:29 PM
To: Alexandra Juhasz
Subject: Re: some prompts

Hi Alex,

Sorry for slow reply. School has been extremely difficult and I’m having 1-2 medical appointments daily, including rescheduled endoscopy and colonoscopy on Mon for ongoing GI challenges.

In terms of your prompts, for me, the photos I’ve been making are the embodiments of many of the questions you are asking.

What is a COVID body? Who is a COVID person? What is the value of COVID disclosure? They are less literal and textural, and very ambivalent. Is the body always human or can it be land? What do living relations and public space (parks) have to teach us about time, access, endurance, cycles, the human (and therefore dis-ease) in perspective?

I see the PPE as embodiments of care. When in touch with the ground or shrub growth they become something else, somewhere between fallen (accident) and abandoned (agency). No longer of practical use, now of environmental destruction, they slide between the titles of the two series—Disembodies and Lingering. They have many attendant feelings and states. Sadness, wonder, gratitude, concern, hope, fear, appreciation, curiosity, attentiveness, doubt, loneliness, connectedness. And as my friend Reid Gómez so astutely observed early on in the work, the land is very present. The human body (COVID or otherwise) is absented in the most obvious, representational forms but ever implied. The virus and pandemic are at once abstract and visceral, everywhere and nowhere, immediate and endless. And, of course, isolation. Ghosting. Care that is essential and not enough. The limits of the human.

I’ve attached but a few images. I continue to make more. Or maybe they, and COVID, make me. Saw gastroenterologist, neurologist and acupuncturist this week. The lingering is exhausting. 

From: Alexandra Juhasz
Sent: Saturday, December 13, 2020 2:29 PM
To: Patrick Hebert
Subject: Re: some prompts

I’m sad about all your appts, but glad you are being seen.

I get to see hives dr. at long last on Tuesday.

I’m attaching a response to and enlargement of the writing you sent to me.

In this experiment, I’ve used our email exchange as a format for socially distanced attention, respect, and learning.

Since March, our interactions over text, email, phone, Zoom, PowerPoint, and shared Word docs, have been places of ongoing comfort for me. 

I have found in you a wise and attentive ally who brings your new experiences of the body to long-learned interpretations of the body politic.

It has been startling, frustrating, and saddening to see how knowledge hard-won through AIDS activism does not simply carry over into our struggles with another virus.

I am most curious, today, to think alongside you about COVID-19 stigma.

We have both been practicing disclosure since the first weeks of the US pandemic.

And yet, each and every time I do it—come out with COVID in a Zoom room, express that I am sure that others have or have had COVID, have suffered and lost loved ones—it stays equally, or perhaps even more taboo, and yet always somehow also experienced as a relief.

At a recent event with the What Would an HIV Doula Do? collective, I expressed to those in the Zoom room that I was becoming increasingly perplexed by COVID stigma and a related lack of disclosure.

The pressure not to tell is definitive. 

The sense that I am dirty or have done something wrong is palpable.

It is clear that my words of disclosure will muddle an unstated and shared contract rooted in hygienic fear and oozing control.

But why? Where does this come from?

This is not the same as AIDS stigma, given that virus’s close connections to sex and drugs.

With COVID—while real-time reporting has made clear that the poor, the worker, the brown, the aged are suffering and dying disproportionately—we also see the most powerful contract the illness.

Fellow-Doula, Nick D’Avella suggested that COVID stigma is generated by a neo-liberal commitment to and investment in self-care and regulation.

I think this is true.

You and I, the COVID body, are asked to be ashamed of not managing properly; we must close the spread.

We are requested to repress contagion’s symptoms: its sores, fevers, fears.

And, oddly, we are also pressed to tell and show all, as part of a mystical act of warding off.

As if our revelations can hold the space for all future violations.

Why should I be ashamed of having COVID?

I caught it in early March on a train, or in a store, or at an expensive restaurant, or in my living room, or in bed with my partner. At a movie?

Maybe I didn’t catch it: I was never tested. In March, only the ill suffered this verification.

I am not ashamed of having COVID. I am an AIDS activist and viral shame’s mandate is racist, homophobic bullshit with a history of destruction, pain, and indifference I know too well to re-engage. My defiant pivot into disclosure is a podium that starts from privilege: that I “got better,” have a job, am white, like to write (with you.)

Our writing is a privilege: a public, inter-active disclosure that might be holding a place and promise for more.

Thinking with you is part of what keeps me most alive,

and yet this runs aside your enduring illness.

Your images help me see your pain, and also healing.

Your fear, and also calming.

Your isolation, and also connection.

But I’d rather you were well.

I look forward to your thoughts.

Love

Alex

From: Patrick Hebert
Sent: Tuesday, December 22, 2020 1:05 AM
To: Alexandra Juhasz
Subject: Re: some prompts

From: Patrick Hebert
Sent: Saturday, December 12, 2020 2:29 PM
To: Alexandra Juhasz
Subject: Re: some prompts

Dear Alex,

I’d rather I was well too. I wish I could undo my own ableist underpinnings therein, even as I also wish that some combination of rest, mindfulness, acupuncture, naturopathic supplements, Western pharmacology and countless care from beloveds could undo all that COVID continues to unravel in this body.

Buddhism teaches me to make room, to cultivate spaciousness for the uncertainty, discomfort and many feelings that arise on the ronacoaster.

I am reminded not to cling to outcomes like getting “well,” to not be averse to the nasty flare-ups I still experience. I practice sitting (or slumping, or stumbling, or striding—and weeping) with this COVID body in its many shifting states. I recall old urban slang for the remarkable: “That’s sick!” It makes me laugh, and heed that inversions hold open the prospect of something else arising from the here and unwanted.

Still, I wish I trusted our words and images to be enough, because thinking and feeling with you is part of what keeps me alive too. “And yet this runs aside your enduring illness,” you write. Yes. And what comes to me as I read your caring wisdom is that it also runs inside my enduring illness as well as the broader pandemic. Lingering is the name I have come to use for one of these photographic series.

I might also call it a body, a body of work. Like my (this) body, it is a series of uncertainties, a series of possibilities.

Living with COVID is not only about discomfort, frustration, impatience, yearning, or concern. There can also be enduring, healing, revelation, learning, and pleasure. But so much is disorienting and unknown. Long COVID is a dispiriting and confusing lingering. This reveals my temporal and spatial preoccupations. I have been living somewhere between the unpredictable, the possibly chronic, and an inverted now. But I am living, as fully as I can and then some.

A few weeks ago, my students gave each other a lovely prompt for their weekly writing reflection: “Has there ever been a time when you felt like a part of your body was not yours?”

I do not feel that this body is mine, in the sense of being anything I possess or control. But I also don’t feel that it is COVID’s. We now belong to each other and to something more. This is a bit like the way that we are fortunate to steward land (not own or extract or vanquish it), and perhaps even belong to a place with time and care.

I am trying to sit with the longing and belonging, the bodies and disembodiments that come with COVID. A lover once told me that he wanted to own his HIV. He meant that he didn’t want it to get the best of him, didn’t want being poz to be the primary determinant of his life. This was in the mid-late 1990s, and I think he also meant that he did not want to die.

I often think about his agency and resolve, even as I desire no ownership over COVID. When I walk the park and pay attention to the things that can be found there, the land helps me to feel connected to another kind of enduring, seasonal cycles and geologic time, things much larger than this moment. And then the PPE bring me back. Masks, soil, shimmering light, a COVID body.

Where does the COVID body belong? What is it that COVID undoes? What is undue on this never-ending timeline of lingering? I want vaccines and relief packages and universal healthcare. These political and structural necessities are vital. Yet I have learned to stop grasping at I will be healthier if, things will be different when, we will be better because …

COVID feels like an endless sky of uncertainty. Perhaps this is the COVID body. In the parlance of the day, our bodies got receipts. Our bodies are receipts.

Of course, there is nothing uncertain about 318,000 COVID deaths in the United States alone. Any talk of the COVID body must contend with these COVID bodies. Our dead, disproportionately brown, Black, Indigenous, elderly, poor. Devastating. Yet we don’t all die. 76.8 million people are infected worldwide, and it is estimated that at least 10% of us are COVID long haulers. How will we get ready for a few more years or a decade or generation or lifetime of the recovering COVID body? Are we ready?

We cannot get there, without being here.

A colleague recently commented on what she sees as my tenacity and grace. I told her that I don’t feel that way at all. I was tired that day. I was asked how I’m doing while on camera in a 1:1 breakout room. I could barely stop from crying in the face of the question, my condition, and my utter exhaustion. My not crying was not about tenacity or grace. It felt more banal, an effort to simply stay on (the) call, manage the basics.

If I expressed the fuller truth, if I cried, all those frightened non-COVID bodies might collapse under the details, our density and duration, the intensity and the agony. They just want to be reassured. But some days I don’t have any reassurance to offer. Only resilience.

I am not dead. I am profoundly uncertain. I have moments of hope amid deep ambivalence. I am curious. I have no idea what to prioritize, or even when or how to return this message. Sometimes I don’t give a damn about anything. Whole hours disappear and I have no idea why or what has happened.

The fog.

When I disclose, as I often do in Zoomed group settings, I find that the uninfected sit back and go quiet or offer murmured condolences, while the infected lean forward into their own imminent disclosures and a desire to connect. We survivors are often restrained and weary, yet also stretching and eager. It seems many haven’t had the space to reveal their experiences with COVID. They ask if we can talk 1:1, later, compare notes, exchange strategies and resources. There is a sharing, a solidarity, that pushes against the loneliness, hurt, and angst. It can help to know someone else is going through something similar. To be believed from jump. To meet someone who’s had it longer than you and is still going. To not have to translate.

The stigma you write about is real, the shunning that so many people experience, the shame. The “How did you catch it …” tinged with “How could you?” The virus’ threat and people’s fears converge in our infected flesh, a flesh that to others feels neither warm nor cold because it is mediated by the screen. COVID’s constant disembodiment cum abstraction.

I have been thinking a lot about the paradox of the screen as a form of care. If we cannot gather or travel or touch as we’d like, the screen becomes as important as masks, and just as normalized yet alienating.

I’m trying to understand the isolation that is endemic to COVID, and how little the needs of the infected are foregrounded when media and public health talk of quarantine. Isolation and control are the structure of the plot and the protocols—protection of the uninfected—not consideration, connection, and care of the recovering. No wonder stigma is produced on endless loops. We hear far too little about the nuances of harm reduction, the dangers of shaming and fear as strategies of safety.

The voices of the coronavirus that do get featured too often bounce between the tropes of pitiful, lucky, or heroic. Mostly we are seen as vectors of infection and a risk to others, not agents of and partners in change. And for the long-haulers, we disrupt the dichotomy of dead or recovered, sick or well, risky or safe.

You and I often talk about people’s voracious fascination with the parading of symptoms. Perhaps this cataloguing animates in part because it makes COVID more real. The detailing or worrying or reciting through the screen brings the “it” that is COVID back into the body. But I think this is also part of why stigma persists. People’s fear and collective suffering are brought to bear on the individual body. The COVID body. We don’t see or experience people infected with COVID spending time and space with one another. Nary a long hauler march, or even a small gathering. Isolation. Beyond the specter of the ER’s triage is the mirage of long hauling.

If I can stigmatize that body—over there, on the other side of the screen—then COVID can’t be me, and I have no accountability or reciprocity, just the Corona Games of survival, la COVIDa loca.

Are narcissism, stigma and greed the COVID body? Isolation, worry, distance? Diligence and fierceness, instability and porosity, beauty and persistence? The body of best intentions. The body as shared aerosol. The body of amalgamations. The body as plural, ecological, lyrical, vulnerable, incidental, magical, speculative, tentative, developmental. The COVID body of becoming.

My neurologist offered me a new medicine that used to be prescribed in large doses in psychiatric treatments but was later discontinued. It’s now being used in the COVID care clinic as part of an experimental approach to headaches, insomnia, and brain fog. Check, check, check. For some patients it seems to help, for reasons that aren’t yet understood. I’ve only been on it a week. We’ve doubled my dosage and will continue to add 10 mg in exploratory stages. I can’t yet tell if it’s working.

The neurologist also mentioned another med that can help with my bouts of crying. But it can conflict with and counteract the first med so she says we should hold off for now.

Then she reminded me that anxiety and depression are very common in COVID long haulers. This, too, is the COVID body. Anxious and depressed. Not only, but typically. She asked if I have a therapist.

For months I’ve had a GI surgery scheduled for tomorrow. But it’s just been postponed due to the COVID surge that has left Southern California’s ICU capacity hovering dangerously close to 0%. All non-essential surgeries cancelled. Los Angeles has become COVID’s epicenter, a cauldron of accelerating suffering. The gastroenterologist counters the surgeon, says that maybe I don’t need the surgery after all, that perhaps my guts are just experiencing the lingering effects of COVID and things will improve with time. “You’re doing all the right things. Keep exercising and adjusting your diet, and let’s see how things are in a few more months.” Inflammation. Confusion. Lower abdominal rumbles playing hide-and-seek.

These, too, are the COVID body, as are the blood draws and endless bills, the future appointments with the pulmonologist and acupuncturist. Follow-ups.

How are your rashes?

Un abrazo,

Pato

To: Patrick Hebert
Sent: Tuesday, December 28, 2020 1:05 AM
From: Alexandra Juhasz
Subject: Re: The COVID Body poem-list and other notes

Dear Pato:

Can you believe it? My hives appointment has been cancelled and rescheduled yet again.

I realize I’ve had these grotesque, flowering, burning eruptions of skin, everywhere multiplying, since summer. So macho am I, that for months I simply overlooked them, naming them as bug bites. Then, over more months: I endured. They will and do pass.

Perhaps they—like the after-menopause bleeding that also began this summer, which I’ve monitored and treated with sonograms, pelvic exams, a DNC in a surgery ward, visits to a gynecological oncologist, hormones, late-life maxi-pads, and ever more COVID-aware follow-up visits—are an enduring symptom of the undiagnosed COVID that no one, let alone me, understands.

And yet, it could be so much worse. 

I endure these real indignities, threats, symptoms in the small gratitude and niggling embarrassment of my privilege: aware that for others, for you, for the dead, for the intubated, for the poor, for the families, for the uninsured, my COVID body is an easy price to pay.

I am learning that this calculus—it could be so much worse—is the logic and lifeblood of the sick and shameful COVID body. Words as a talisman; as a way of not having to see the self; as a method to honor and acknowledge the other; as a tactic, when so few are available, to name the structural imbalances of race, class, health, and education that make our distinct COVID bodies.

But as your work and words reminds me: the earth, time enduring, the trees, the sky, the colors and textures of pleasure and solace, all meet us through great imbalances. Their unequal scales create horizons by which humans can also make sense of our pain, our place, our commitments—by embracing them.

And as crazy as this dissymmetry is: I am so appreciative each time you ask after my lowly, silly hives; in turn, I ask back about your bones, surgeries, brain. I learn with you how to hold the particularities of pain, the possibilities of power, the certainties of oppression, and the joys of life, in one shared unequal embrace; a different logic for COVID bodies; one I hope we can pursue as a COVID politics, also unfolding. 

with love, alex


NOTE: Second to last image is by Alexandra Juhasz, 2021. All other images are by Pato Hebert, from the Lingering and Disembodies series, 2020.


Pato Hebert is an artist, teacher, and organizer. His work explores the aesthetics, ethics, and poetics of interconnectedness. He has exhibited in galleries, museums, and community spaces around the world. He is currently working on projects about nuclear energy, American football and resistance to colonialism. He has also worked in grassroots HIV prevention initiatives with queer communities of color since 1994. He serves as Chair of the Department of Art and Public Policy at Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. You can follow him on Instagram @volandito.

Dr. Alexandra Juhasz is Distinguished Professor of Film at Brooklyn College, CUNY. Author and/or editor since 1995 of scholarly books on activist media in light of AIDS, black lesbian and queer representation, feminism, and digital culture, she also makes videotapes on feminist issues from AIDS to teen pregnancy as well as producing the fake documentaries The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye, 1997) and The Owls (Cheryl Dunye, 2010). Her current work is on and about feminist internet culture and AIDS with two recent books: AIDS and the Distribution of Crises, co-edited with Jih-Fei Cheng and Nishant Shahani (Duke University Press, 2020), and We Are Having This Conversation Now: The Times of AIDS Cultural Production, with Ted Kerr (forthcoming from Duke University Press in 2021).

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An Era of Pandemics? What is Global and What is Planetary About COVID-19

Dipesh Chakrabarty

Let me state at the outset the point that I wish to get across in this short essay.

The current moment of the COVID-19 pandemic belongs not only to the global history of capitalism and its destructive impact on human life, but it also represents a moment in the history of biological life on this planet when humans are acting as the amplifiers of a virus whose host reservoir may have been some bats in China for millions of years. Bats are an old species, they have been around for about fifty million years—viruses for much, much longer. In the Darwinian history of life, all forms of life seek to increase their chances of survival. The novel coronavirus has, thanks to the demand for exotic meat in China, jumped species and has now found a wonderful agent in humans that allows it spread worldwide. Why? Because humans, very social creatures, now exist in very large numbers in big urban concentrations on a planet that is crowded with them, and most of them are extremely mobile in pursuit of their life opportunities. Our history in recent decades has been that of the Great Acceleration and expansion of the global economy in the emancipatory hope that this will pull millions of humans out of poverty. Or at least that has been the moral justification behind the rapid economic growth in certain nations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. From the point of view of the virus, however, the environmental disturbance this has caused and the fact of human global mobility have been welcome developments. Humans may win their battle against the virus––I really hope they do––but the virus has already won the war. This is no doubt an episode in the Darwinian history of life. And the changes it causes will be momentous both in our global history and in the planetary history of biological life.

The Global: Great Acceleration and the Emerging Era of Pandemics

That we did not have this tragic global pandemic a decade or so ago now appears to have been purely a matter of human luck. A team of scientists in Hong Kong warned the scientific community some thirteen years ago, in 2007, that because coronaviruses were “well known to undergo genetic recombination” that could lead to “new genotypes and outbreaks,” the “presence of a large reservoir of SARS-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb. The possibility of the reemergence of SARS and other novel viruses from animals or laboratories and therefore the need for preparedness should not be ignored.”[1] The warning was not heeded.[2] The “most crucial factor” about SARS-CoV, remarked David Quammen in Spillover (2012), was the way it affected the human body: “Symptoms tend to appear in a person before, rather than after, that person becomes highly infectious.”[3] “The much darker story,” Quammen observed, “remains to be told” (S, p. 207). Scientists were guessing that when the “Next Big One” came, it would likely conform to the opposite pattern: “high infectivity preceding notable symptoms” (S, p. 207). The “moral” is his finding, Quammen thought, was this: “If you are a thriving population, living at high density but exposed to new bugs, it’s just a matter of time until the Next Big One arrives” (S, p. 290). Prophetic words, but nobody was listening in either 2007 or in 2012.

Pandemics and epidemics have accompanied humans ever since the invention of agriculture and the domestication of animals. Hunter-gatherer communities also suffered some infectious diseases, but, “like the sparse populations of our primate relatives, they suffered infectious diseases with characteristics permitting them to persist in small populations, unlike crowd epidemic diseases.”[4] Agriculture with the concomitant domestication of animals played “multiple roles in the evolution of animal pathogens into human pathogens.”[5] Humans have seen many epidemics and pandemics since the rise of agriculture. But the difference today is this: These crises of the past “were once separated by centuries, or at least many decades,” write the infectious-diseases specialist David Morens and his coauthors in a recent paper, but the emergence of these diseases is now becoming more frequent.[6] Beginning from 2003, Morens and his colleagues recount the outbreak in seventeen years of at least five pandemics or potential pandemics in the world: severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS, 2003), “a near pandemic;” an influenza pandemic (H1N1 pdm, 2009), a chikungunya pandemic (2014), a Zika pandemic (2015), and a “pandemic-like extension of Ebola over five African countries” (2014–2015) (“P,” p. 1). They grant that “the meaning of the word ‘pandemic’ has recently been reinterpreted according to differing agendas,” and yet conclude with words that stare us in the face: “It seems clear that we now live in an era of pandemics, newly emerging infectious diseases, and the return of old contagious foes” (“P,” p. 1). A more recent paper by Morens and Anthony Fauci comes to the same conclusion:

Newly emerging (and re-emerging) infectious diseases have been threatening humans since the Neolithic revolution, 12,000 years ago, when human hunter-gatherers settled into villages to domesticate animals and cultivate crops. . . . Ancient emerging zoonotic diseases with deadly consequences include smallpox, falciparum malaria, measles, and bubonic/pneumonic plague. . . . [But] the past decade has witnessed unprecedented pandemic explosions: H1N1 “swine” influenza (2009), chikungunya (2014), and Zika (2015), as well as pandemic-like emergence of Ebola fever over large parts of Africa (2014 to the present) . . . . One can conclude from this recent experience that we have entered a pandemic era.[7]

All of the pandemics named here, and Middle East respiratory syndrome MERS that emerged into humans from dromedary camels in 2012, are zoonotic in origin––they are infections that have resulted from viruses and bacteria switching hosts from wild animals to humans, sometimes via other animals. A 2005 inquiry found that “zoonotic bugs accounted for 58 percent” of 1,407 “recognized species of human pathogen” (S, p. 44). A 2012 review of the sixth International Conference on Emerging Zoonoses, held in Cancun, Mexico, on 24–27 February 2011 with eighty-four participants from eighteen countries noted that “some 75 percent of emerging zoonoses worldwide” were of “wildlife origins.”[8] It further remarked: “With 1.5 billion animals being imported into the United States each year, as well as an extensive international illegal animal exports . . . EcoHealth has become a necessity, not an optional policy goal.”[9] The majority (92 percent) of imports of animals into the US, we learn from another study of 2009, “were designated for commercial purposes, largely the pet trade.”[10] Nearly 80 per cent of shipments contained wild animals, the majority of which had had “no mandatory testing for pathogens before or after shipment,” and nearly 70 percent of imported live animals “originated in Southeast Asia . . . a hotspot for emerging zoonotic diseases.”[11]

 What causes pandemics? Morens and his colleagues could not have been more blunt in their answer to this question: “Human beings are the ultimate causes of pandemics.” They point out that it is “deforestation, agricultural intensification, urbanization, and ecosystem disruption” that “bring people into contact with wildlife and their potentially zoonotic pathogens” (“P,” p. 4). This opinion is not exceptional by any chance. Most studies of pandemics underline this conclusion. Quammen writes: “To put the matter in its starkest form: Human-caused ecological pressures and disruptions are bringing animal pathogens ever more into contact with human populations, while human technology and behavior are spreading those pathogens ever more widely and quickly. . . . There are three elements to the situation,” he explains––humans are

causing the disintegration . . . of natural ecosystems at a cataclysmic rate. Logging, road building, slash-and-burn agriculture, hunting and eating of wild animals . . . clearing forest to create cattle pasture, mineral extraction, urban settlement, suburban sprawl, chemical pollution, nutrient runoff to the oceans, mining the oceans unsustainably for seafood, climate change . . . and other “civilizing” incursions upon natural landscape––by all such means, we are tearing ecosystems apart. [S, pp. 40–41]

Second, “millions of unknown creatures” that inhabit such ecosystems­­––including “viruses, bacteria, fungi, protists”––constitute what virologists call the “’virosphere,’ a vast realm of organisms that probably dwarfs every other group” (S, p. 41). And finally, “the disruption of natural ecosystems seems more and more to be unloosing such microbes into the wider world” (S, p. 41). “Spillover” is indeed the term used by “disease ecologists . . . to denote the moment when a pathogen passes from members of one species, as host, into members of another” (S, p. 43).

This understanding of the frequent emergence of zoonotic infectious diseases is backed up by several other publications: The United Nation’s Environment Programme’s Preventing the Next Pandemic: Zoonotic Diseases and How to Break the Chain of Transmission (2020) and The Loss of Nature and the Rise of Pandemics (2020) published by Word Wide Fund for Nature.[12] The first publication highlights “seven major anthropogenic drivers of zoonotic disease emergence”: (1) increasing demand for animal protein particularly in Asia and in Sub-Saharan Africa where “per capita increase in animal protein consumption has been accompanied in many low- and middle-income countries by significant growth in population;” (2) unsustainable agricultural intensification, in particular of domestic livestock farming that “results in large numbers of genetically similar animals” more vulnerable to infection (swine flu being a case in point); (3) increased use and exploitation of wildlife; (4) unsustainable use of natural resources accelerated by urbanization, land use change and extractive industries that include mining, oil and gas extraction, logging, and encouraging “new or expanded interactions between people and wildlife:” (5) the increasing amount of human travel and trade; (6) changes in food supply chains driven by “increased demand for animal source food, new markets [including “wet” markets] for wildlife food, and poorly regulated agricultural intensification;” (7) climate change as “many zoonoses are climate sensitive and a number of them will thrive in a warmer, wetter, and more disaster-prone world foreseen in future scenarios.”[13]

The publication by the World Wide Fund for Nature, The Loss of Nature and the Rise of Pandemics, puts forward very similar propositions:

Human activities are causing cataclysmic changes to our planet. The growing human population and rapid increases in consumption have led to profound changes in land cover, rivers and oceans, the climate system, biogeochemical cycles and the way ecosystems function – with major implications for our own health and well-being. According to the UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), three-quarters of land and two-thirds of the marine environment have been modified in a significant way, and around 1 million animal and plant species are at risk of extinction. WWF’s Living Planet Report 2018 charts a 60% average decline in abundance of vertebrate populations across the globe in just over 40 years. . . . Land-use change, including deforestation and the modification of natural habitats, are responsible for nearly half of emerging zoonoses.[14]

A study sponsored in the early 2000s by the Johns Hopkins University and the Cameroon Ministries of Health and Defense of Cameroon investigated in detail the impact of deforestation on traditional wildlife hunters. Authors of the study observed that “selective cutting” of high-value timber species––the chosen method of logging in Central Africa for reasons of costs of extraction and transportation––involved “constructing roads and transporting workers into relatively pristine forest regions.”[15] This in turn affected both hunting patterns and the reservoir hosts for pathogens. Building logging roads led to habitat fragmentation for wildlife. In some cases, it resulted in a loss of the “richness” of the “vertebrate reservoir host species” (“B,” p. 1823). This loss of diversity in the host species leads to an “increased abundance of highly competent reservoir of some zoonotic agents, increasing the risk for transmission to humans” (“B,” p. 1823). This fragmentation could also increase the zone of contact between human populations and reservoir hosts. The authors of the study write: “Historically, hunting activities radiated in a circular fashion from isolated villages, with decreasing impact at the periphery of the hunting range. . . . Roadside transport means that hunters can lay traps and hunt at the same distance from roads. This [shift] . . . from a circular pattern to a banded pattern [of human-animal contact] surrounding developed roads” increased the area of hunting and the risk for microbial emergence (“B,” p. 1823).

All this makes the pandemic a part of the phase of globalization that we equate with the Great Acceleration: the exponential increase, since the 1950s, in all parameters of growth of human presence on the planet, of economies, of travel, of population numbers, of greenhouse gas emissions, of human consumption, of human mobility, and so on. A recent (2017) report from the Brookings Institution informs us that:

It was only around 1985 that the middle class [with capacity for purchasing consumer gadgets] reached 1 billion people, about 150 years after the start of the Industrial Revolution in Europe. It then took 21 years, until 2006, for the middle class to add a second billion; much of this reflects the extraordinary growth of China. The third billion was added to the global middle class in nine years. Today we are on pace to add another billion in seven years and a fifth billion in six more years, by 2028.[16]

This is indeed the story of the intensification the process of globalization has undergone at the beginning of this century with China emerging as an industrial-military powerhouse of the world. Deforestation, loss wildlife habitat and biodiversity, factors that contributed majorly to the rise of this “era of pandemics” are thus critical parts of the story of the Great Acceleration of the global regime of capital.

But there is another aspect to the pandemic that points to the process that Bruno Latour and I discussed elsewhere under the heading, “The Global Reveals the Planetary.”[17] This emerges clearly when we read how virologists and specialists of infectious diseases understand the role of viruses in stories to do with pandemics. Understanding the emergence of this new era of pandemics actually requires us to look not only at the Great Acceleration of the process of globalization but also into the deep history of the evolution of life on this planet and how the current pandemic constitutes an episode in that history as well. This is what I briefly consider in the next section before concluding this essay.

The Pandemic and the Planetary

In a 2004 article examining “the challenge of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases,” Morens, Gregory Folkers, and Fauci opened their essay with a discussion of the only natural predators humans had failed to conquer in their technological and evolutionary history: microbial forms of life. They remembered the warning that Richard Krause, the Director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases from 1975 to 1984, issued in The Persistent Tide (1981), that “microbial diversity and evolutionary vigor were still dynamic forces threatening mankind.”[18] They ended their article by referring to the role that the evolution of microbes played in the history of infectious diseases. “Underlying disease emergence are evolutionary conflicts between rapidly evolving and adapting infectious agents and their slowly evolving hosts,” they wrote (“C,” p. 248). “These are fought out,” they added, “in the context of accelerating environmental and human behavioral alterations that provide new ecological niches into which evolving microbes can readily fit” (“C,” p. 248). This is an ongoing, unending battle in which humans are forced constantly to improve and upgrade their technology while the microbes evolve and manage, in particular situations often created by humans themselves, to switch hosts. In concluding their essay, Morens and Fauci observe:

The challenge presented by the ongoing conflict between pathogenic microorganisms and man has been well summarized by a noted champion of the war on EIs [emerging infections], [the Nobel Laureate] Joshua Lederberg, “The future of microbes and mankind will probably unfold as episodes of a suspense thriller that could be entitled Our Wits Versus Their Genes.” [“C,” p. 248]

Morens and Fauci return to this theme in their recent reflections on the current pandemic: “In the ancient ongoing struggle between microbes and man,” they write, “genetically adapted microbes have the upper hand in consistently surprising us and often catching us unprepared” (“E,” p. 1078). Even the technologies we create to fight microbes to ensure human flourishing generally open up new pathways of infection and evolution. This point was very clearly made in another paper on infectious diseases by Nathan Wolfe, Claire Dunavan, and Jared Diamond:

The emergence of novel pathogens is now being facilitated by modern developments exposing more potential human victims and/or making transmission between humans more efficient than before. These developments include blood transfusion (hepatitis C), the commercial bushmeat trade (retroviruses), industrial food production (bovine spongiform encephalitis, BSE), international travel (cholera), intravenous drug use (HIV), vaccine production (Simian virus 40), and susceptible pools of elderly, antibiotic-treated, immunosuppressed patients.[19]

A particular evolutionary advantage that coronaviruses––one strain of which is currently a pain in the backside of humanity (if we could imagine a body-social for this abstract entity!)––have over humans is the “genetic instability of microorganisms allowing rapid microbial evolution to adapt to ever-changing ecologic niches” (“E,” p. 1080). This, Morens and Fauci say:

is particularly true of RNA viruses such as influenza virus, flaviviruses, enteroviruses, and coronaviruses, which have an inherently deficient or absent polymerase error-correction mechanisms [no proofreading capacity, in other words, as they reproduce themselves] and are transmitted as quasispecies or swarms of many, often hundreds or thousands of, genetic variants [which makes it difficult to humans to fight them]. [“E,” p. 1080]

This is fundamentally an evolutionary struggle that reminds us that humans, the species called Homo sapiens, for all their mastery of technology, are not outside of the Darwinian history of life and evolution that unfolds on this planet. Infectious diseases in humans are about microbial survival “by [their] co-opting certain of our genetic, cellular, and immune mechanisms to ensure their continuing transmission” (“E,” p. 1078). Morens and Fauci refer to Richard Dawkins on this point: “Evolution occurs on the level of gene competition and we, phenotypic humans, are merely genetic ‘survival machines’ in the competition between microbes and humans” (“E,” p. 1078). As human degradation of the environment creates opportunities for coronaviruses of various strains to switch hosts by moving from their reservoir hosts to various mammalian species, they get preadapted to human cells by working inside other mammalian bodies. Morens and Fauci write: “Viruses have deep evolutionary roots in the cellular world. This is exemplified by the SARS-like bat b-coronavirus, or sarbecoronavirus, whose receptor binding domains appear to be hyper-evolving by sampling a variety of mammalian receptors” (“E,” p. 1980). And they go on to add: “Evidence suggests that there are many bat coronaviruses pre-adapted to emerge, and possibly to emerge pandemically” (“E,” p. 1081).

Ultimately, these infectious diseases remind us of the deep evolutionary connections that exist between our bodies and other bodily forms of life (one reason why we can develop vaccines by testing them first on other animals). Quammen makes the point in a telling fashion:

By a strict definition, zoonotic pathogens (accounting for about 60 percent of our infectious diseases) are those that presently and repeatedly pass between humans and other animals, whereas the other group of infections (40 percent, including smallpox, measles, and polio) are caused by pathogens descended from forms that must have made the leap to human ancestors sometime in the past. It might be going too far to say that all our diseases are ultimately zoonotic, but zoonoses do stand as evidence of the infernal, aboriginal connectedness between us and other kinds of host. [S, p. 137]

What is planetary then about the current pandemic is that, for all the human tragedy it has already caused and will cause (partly due to the failures of political leadership), it is an episode in the evolutionary history of life on this planet. In the struggle between microbes and humans, made more acute by factors that have contributed to the Great Acceleration of processes of globalization, “it may be a matter of perspectives [as to] who is in the evolutionary driver’s seat,” comment Morens and Fauci––microbes or humans (“E,” p. 1078). Microbial forms of life have persisted on this planet for 3.8 billion years. Homo sapiens have been around for 300,000 years. “This perspective, say Morens and Fauci, “has implications for how we think about and react to emerging infectious disease threats” (“E,” p. 1078).


Dipesh Chakrabarty is the Lawrence A. Kimpton Distinguished Service Professor of History and South Asian Studies at the University of Chicago. He is the author of, most recently, “The Planet: An Emergent Humanist Category,” in the Autumn 2019 issue of Critical Inquiry. He is also a consulting editor for the journal.


Thanks are due to Fredrik A. Jonsson for discussing some of these ideas with me.

[1] Vincent C. C. Cheng et al., “Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus as an Agent of Emerging and Reemerging Infection,” Clinical Microbiology Reviews 20 (Oct. 2007): 683.

[2] See David M. Morens et al., “Prespective Piece: The Origin of COVID-19 and Why It Matters,” American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 103, no. 3 (2020): 955.

[3] David Quammen, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic (New York, 2012), pp. 207–208; hereafter abbreviated S.

[4] Nathan Wolfe, Claire Panosian Dunavan, and Jared Diamond, “Origins of Major Human Infectious Diseases,” Nature, 17 May 2007, p. 281

[5] Ibid.

[6] David M. Morens et al., “Pandemic COVID-19 Joins History’s Pandemic Legion,” mBio 11 (May/June 2020): 1; hereafter abbreviated “P.” 

[7] Morens and Anthony S. Fauci, “Emerging Pandemic Diseases: How We Got to COVID-19,” Cell, 3 Sept. 2020, p. 1077; hereafter abbreviated “E.”

[8] R. E. Kahn et al., “Meeting Review: 6th International Conference on Emerging Zoonoses,” Zoonoses and Public Health 59 (2012), p. 6.

[9] Ibid., p. 7.

[10] Katherine F. Smith et al., “Reducing the Risks of the Wildlife Trade,” Science, 1 May 2009, p. 594.

[11] Ibid.

[12] See The United Nations Environment Programme and the International Livestock Research Institute, Preventing the Next Pandemic: Zoonotic Diseases and How to Break the Chain of Transmission (Nairobi, 2020); World Wide Fund for Nature, The Loss of Nature and the Rise of Pandemics (Gland, 2020).

[13] Preventing the Next Pandemic, pp. 15–17.

[14] The Loss of Nature, p. 14.

[15] Wolfe et al., “Bushmeat Hunting, Deforestation, and Prediction of Zoonotic Disease Emergence,” Emerging Infectious Diseases 11 (Dec. 2005):1823; hereafter abbreviated “B.”

[16] Hannes Bergthaller, “Thoughts on Asia and the Anthropocene,” in The Anthropocenic Turn: The Interplay Between Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Responses to a New Age, ed. Gabriele Dürbeck and Phillip Hüpkes(New York, 2020), pp. 78–79.

[17] See Bruno Latour and Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Global Reveals the Planetary,” in Critical Zones: The Science and Politics of Landing on Earth, ed. Latour and Peter Weibel (Cambridge, Mass., 2020), pp. 24­–31.

[18] Morens, Gregory K. Folkers, and Fauci, “The Challenge of Emerging and Re-emerging Infectious Diseases,” Nature 430, 8 July 2004, p. 242; hereafter abbreviated “C.” The full title of Richard Krause’s book is The Restless Tide: The Persistent Challenge of the Microbial World (Washington, D.C., 1981). For biographical details on Richard Krause (1925–2015), see Morens, “Richard M. Krause: The Avancular Avatar of Microbial Science,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) 113 (Feb. 2016): 1681–683.

[19] Wolfe, Dunavan, and Diamond, “Origins,” p. 282.

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Robert Bird (1969–2020): A Remembrance

Zachary Cahill

From left to right: Robert Bird, Christina Kiaer, and Zachary Cahill. Image Michael Christiano.

Robert Bird, a scholar of vast erudition of film and Russian literature, passed away on 7 September 2020, after a prolonged struggle with cancer. His book Andrei Tarkovsky: Elements of Cinema is considered a landmark contribution to the scholarship on the Russian film director. Professor Bird was a storied teacher in the Departments of Slavic Languages and Literatures and Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago.  Bird also curated major exhibitions of Soviet art at the university’s Smart Museum including: Vision and Communism: Viktor Koretsky and Dissident Public Visual Culture (with Christopher P. Heuer, Matthew Jesse Jackson, Tumelo Masaka, and Stephanie Smith) and Revolution Every Day (with Christina Kiaer, Diane Miliotes, and the author).

Words

As many of those close to Robert have expressed in the past few days—there are no words. No words and too many memories flooding in. Still, there is one word that keeps coming to mind as I remember Robert Bird: comrade.

This word, especially as applied to him, means something deeper, and conveys a relationship that is broader, than perhaps the more familiar word, friend.  I think it has something to do with a common cause, a cause worth devoting one’s life to. To be comrades with Robert Bird meant to be a witness to, and to share, his passion. It was a passion marked by a deep intellect, grace, gentleness, wit, and a poetic soul. It is one of the great fortunes of my life to share in some of his passions; it meant I would be one of the many beneficiaries of his genius and insight.

Debts

In my experience of academia, when folks are talking about art, the discussion tends to dwell on how artists affect scholarship. How artists lead thinking—that artists are the seers of knowledge production and culture. Less frequently do we hear the stories of how scholars impact artists and their work.  This latter perspective is the vantage point from where I write. So maybe this is a remembrance and an acknowledgment of a debt.

For the past decade, my time with Robert has had an enormous impact on my artwork. Always supportive and inquisitive, his energy and intellectual generosity buoyed my spirits as well as enlarged my mind and my art. For any artist knowing that there is even one person out in the world who not only understands but cares about your work is the ultimate life-line. Whether he knew it or not Robert was that lifeline to many artists, not just myself.

We met at the first birthday party of the daughter of our mutual comrade, Matthew Jesse Jackson. To my amazement, during casual party chit-chat, I had stumbled into talking with one of the world’s foremost scholars of Andrei Tarkovsky, a filmmaker whose work I was in awe of. But more than that, he also was a scholar of some of my favorite writers, Soviet authors like Andrei Platonov and Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. It was at this first meeting that I would start to accrue my many debts to Robert Bird. Fanboy enthusiastic, I blurted out something to the effect that Memories of The Future collected some of Krzhizhanovsky’s “real” writing (distinct from his work on say, The Great Soviet Encyclopedia—or so that was what I had thought I had read), to which Robert graciously pointed out that this claim was unclear and that, in fact, the author did not necessarily make such distinctions between his work on the encyclopedia, editorial work, and his novels—it was all his writing. For the Soviet writer there was no such divide between art and life. It was a casual thunderbolt, as was Robert’s way. This observation was both inspiring and liberating for me as an artist because I no longer felt hemmed in by a profession, or role, that my art wasn’t dependent on being claimed as such by other people, nor could anyone ever pay me enough in a job to stop being an artist: artist in the studio and artist in the office. Robert gave me that and so many more insights.

Time and Art

The metaphysical study of time was one of Robert Bird’s great passions. This is evidenced not only by the fact that he was a keen observer and interpreter of the time-based art of film, not only because he was a prolific writer on revolution and memory. His passion for time culminated, I believe, in the Soviet-style tear-off calendar-cum-exhibition catalog for Revolution Every Day. This little 800-page brick-shaped machine for art and primary research on what it was like to live everyday life in the Soviet Union was his invention for the exhibition. In it, Robert had essays about the Soviets early attempt to create a new sense of time through changing the workweek to changing the annual calendar from the Julian to the Gregorian (where 25 October became 7 November). These essays were placed alongside reproductions of the wildly creative soviet calendars, numerous diary entries that he translated at an unbelievable rate. The book and the exhibition Revolution Every Day had an ecstatic quality to it, not simply due to the revolutionary subject matter, but because he was working alongside his life comrade and wife, the renowned art historian Christina Kiaer. Two giants of Soviet art scholarship engaged in a true labor of love, and this labor was a gift to the city of Chicago that drew rock-star writers like Karl Ove Knausgaard (one of Robert’s favorite contemporary novelists) and real rock-and-roll stars like Ian Svenonius to the museum.

Robert Bird will surely be remembered for his scholarly work, but he also was a great curator. He had a discerning feel for space and vision for what would make an exhibition interesting. Robert was a wonderful collaborator (an essential ingredient for successful curation) open to other people’s ideas, he possessed a genuine desire to hear from people some beside himself (this no doubt was one of the things that made him such an excellent teacher.) Yet one key reason for his adeptness at curating had everything to do with his reverence for art and his enduring belief that, in fact, art could change the world. Standing beside him and Christina in this photo I definitely believed it could and, because of everything Robert gave to us, I still do.

Thank you, my comrade.

May you rest in peace and in art.

___________________________________________________________________________

Zachary Cahill is an interdisciplinary artist. Since 2010, he has worked on his artistic project the USSA a fictitious nation-state, which has taken the form of discreet artworks, exhibitions, performances, and a novel. He is the Director of Programs and Fellowships at the University of Chicago’s Richard and Mary L. Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry and editor-in-chief of Portable Gray, the center’s journal published twice yearly by the University of Chicago Press

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CI since 1978: Celebrating Tom Mitchell’s Editorship

To celebrate his forty-two years as the editor of Critical Inquiry, we asked past and present contributors and editors Homi Bhabha (0:55), Frances Ferguson (7:35),  Elizabeth Abel (10:07), Lauren Berlant (16:08), Slavoj Žižek (19:20), and Hillary Chute (27:30) to share their experiences of working with W. J. T. Mitchell at the journal. To read his farewell editorial note, see the Summer 2020 issue of Critical Inquiry.

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In the Time of Pandemic, the Deep Structure of Biopower Is Laid Bare

Lennard Davis

In regard to disability, the ableism that puts on a compassionate mask in milder times now reveals its brutal face. While laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act acknowledge human rights and subjectivities involved in disabled identity, a pandemic brings into play a war of survival whose rules are simpler and deadlier. Limited resources and pressured levels of triage create a situation in which medical decisions have to be made quickly and almost reflexively.  When those kinds of pressured judgments occur, health practitioners must rely on a wartime gut reaction as well as a combination of health ethics templates and cost-benefit analyses assessing whose life is worth saving and whose is less so.

Any metric used for determining who should get limited resources will inevitably be drawn into a eugenics sinkhole. It is here that biopolitics and thanatopolitics display a unity which might have seemed to have been oppositions.  The urge to let live and the urge to let die morph nicely into each other.  In order to let live, doctors must let die. An unenviable choice arises at every tension point in every hospital in every country. This proliferation of life/death decisions blunts the emotional response to what might be seen as programmed executions or even annihilations.

MIT-Low-Cost-Ventilator

While biopolitics and thanatopolitics have been drawn to dramatic personae like the comatose patient and the concentration camp prisoner, the more mundane bit players—the person with mobility impairments or the cognitively disabled person—barely get attention. Those in disability studies are well aware of this minor role assigned by the majority to the minority. Yet the actuality is that the disabled or Deaf person experiences the effects of communitas and immunity on a rather consistent and, to others, undetectable basis.

Bare life can be translated to equate with various physical and mental states, but it rarely includes, nor should it, people with what I might call routine disabilities.  The driving out of the homo sacer seems dramatically if not historically sound; but the social and political sequestering of disabled people, while far less dramatic, is far more widely practiced, even by people whose goal is to be intersectional and liberatory.

Enter the pandemic which, like a skilled taxidermist, lifts off the skin of this kind of discrimination to find the invidious structural armature that gives it shape and form. Now there seems to be a greater availability of ventilators (but only in richer countries in the global north) and a realization that some other life-saving techniques might work as well.  With a free market vision of limited supply and expansive demand, not only did the price of such equipment skyrocket, but the cultural capital, one must ultimately call it, of each individual determined their power to secure a machine, skilled nursing, and trained technicians. I say individual, but in reality, protocols were being developed to group individuals into risk groups.  Those who were older, disabled both physically and cognitively, were seen to have reduced buying power to claim treatment.  Those with underlying conditions (read: disability) who were less healthy (read: normal) were also to be triaged.

Who is worth more than whom?  Medical ethicists, and I use the word advisedly, have tried to quantify this worth.  There is a WHO metric called “disability adjusted life years.{DALY].” This measures years lost to disability and compares those years to those of someone in “ideal” health.  One can calculate the difference between your and my DALY and see, in effect, whose life has more value. Currently in the US a human life is calculated to be worth ten million dollars.  In poorer countries that worth could plummet to colonial chump change.

It may seem logical and even obvious that in pandemic settings, as on the battlefield, there must be triaging.  Many states have adopted such utilitarian guidelines, including the state of Washington, cited in a complaint by disability groups because Washington’s official guidelines recommended giving limited resources only to younger, healthier people, not to older patients. Alabama has specified that people with intellectual disabilities “are unlikely candidates for ventilator support,” while Tennessee has excluded from critical care people with spinal muscular atrophy who need assistance with activities of daily living. As with the social and political critiques of utilitarianism, one might want to be skeptical of any “greatest good for the greatest number” argument.  While founding texts of utilitarian philosophers usually grounded their arguments on economic principles, current applications fall prey to simple analogies.  Disease is translated to discussions about health.  Health is notoriously hard to define, but healthier patients become the priority.  The ideology of health is deeply imbued with ableist notions of the normal and the abnormal.

beds

In contrast to the utilitarian approach, the Disability Rights and Education Defense Fund [DREDF] suggests “When dealing with patients with a similar level of treatment urgency, providers should maintain their existing practice of ‘first come, first serve,’ rather than prioritizing people who would require the fewest resources.”  Ezekiel Emmanuel and others, while recognizing certain well-worn aspects of triage note in the New England Journal of Medicine “Limited time and information during an emergency also counsel against incorporating patients’ future quality of life, and quality-adjusted life-years, into benefit maximization.” Some have suggested a lottery system in which the health identity of the person is not a factor.

In the battle between letting live and letting die, there really is only one grand loser—the person with a disability or two. You can throw in old people, people who are overweight, people of color, poor people.  Yes, they are there, but the calculus within the hospital walls is basically over disability.  Race will factor in dramatically, and its combination with disability is an accelerant to any eugenic decision-making process. Social politesse, charitable involvement, religious concern all crumble in the face of the grand bargain of choosing those who appear “normal”—not those who are seen as weakened, abnormal, debilitated, less-than. There is a term for this demographic, and the Nazi’s used it with abandon Lives Unworthy of Living. The T4 Project, which gathered disabled people into institutions and then gassed and cremated them, provided the template for the death camps in Poland for Jews and other minorities. It is easy for us to blame the Nazis for these egregious and unimaginable deaths, but the current calculus about which lives are worth living provides a sobering if less overtly dramatic parallel.

In some sense, the discussion over the healthy person is a discussion about the formation of the modern citizen.  As Michel Foucault and others have noted, the development of a medical system is of course also a system of control.  If it works well, it is hidden and undetectable—powered by self-will rather than heavy-handed regulation.  And the system has worked very well, until now when the evolution of the word “health” suddenly becomes more clearly a way of talking about power and setting one group over another.  Enforcement now becomes a matter of medical metrics in a time of necessity.  This can be shown through a simple thought-experiment.  Choose any identity—gender-based, income based, race-based—and put it into the sentence “[People with this identity] won’t be given ICU beds during a time of pandemic shortage.”  While there is still clearly sexism, homophobia, racism, and neoliberalist capitalism, no one can publicly make that statement.  But include the term disability and the statement is being made without much embarrassment or consequence around the US and the world.

As the pandemic waxes and wanes, its tidal undulations will continue to affect populations and policies.  While ventilators may be in better supply, a new spike in cases could counteract that advantage. Even now, as I write, Texas is facing a shortage of hospital beds.  Countries in South Asia, Latin America and parts of Africa are unable to secure and provide even the basics for treatment, including ventilators, and oxygen tanks.  When the time comes for an effective vaccine to be distributed, again we will see shortages—and metrics to determine distribution—in the push to provide immunity to a staggering number of people worldwide. If herd immunity requires 80 percent of the population to be vaccinated, in the US alone that would be somewhere around 260 million doses (if only one dose per person is required) and worldwide that would be six billion doses.  Issues around cost (read: profit for the pharmaceutical industry), class (read: global north versus global south) and minority status will be crucial.  There will more life and death decisions about who is first in line.  In this case vaccine delayed could be vaccine denied.

And now we are seeing remnants of discrimination based on health status in institutions like nursing homes.  These for-profit institutions are uniquely suited to make decisions about who lives and who dies. Recently nursing homes  have begun evicting elderly people with disabilities so that they can bring in more lucrative patients with COVID-19.  When cognitively disabled people contract COVID-19, they die at a rate 2.5 higher than other patients.  The social and medical forces at work clearly have placed these lives at the bottom of lives worth living. Until critical theory and social justice advocacy recognize this form of devaluing human life, a liberatory approach will only be partial–and far from impartial.

26 June 2020


Lennard J. Davis is Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago in the departments of English, Disability Studies and Human Development, and Medical Education. His most recent book is Enabling Acts: The Hidden Story of How the Americans With Disabilities Act Gave the Largest US Minority Its Rights (2016) and he is the editor of the Disability Studies Reader (2013) and Beginning with Disability: A Primer (2017).

 

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Revisiting the Ferguson Report: Antiblack Concepts and the Practice of Policing

Robert Gooding-Williams

 

Now is a suitable moment to revisit the US Justice Department’s Ferguson Report.[1] What the report suggests, I propose, is that explicitly disparaging and stigmatizing antiblack racial stereotypes shaped the ordinary, business-as-usual, communications of the FPD, and that we may err in taking these stereotypes simply, or primarily, as evidence of bias or of the intent to discriminate—that is, as evidence of psychological states attributable to discrete individuals.  To be sure, I do not deny the power of such an approach.  Here, however, I take a different tack and suggest that we take FPD employees’ taken for granted, quotidian email communications of pejorative stereotypes as evidence of the workings of a practice of policing in which police officers participated—as evidence, that is, of what the DOJ report describes as a policing “culture.”

REPORT

In recent work, law professors Bryan Stevenson and Paul Butler have considered racist policing in a similar perspective.  According to Stevenson, “People of color in the United States . . . are burdened with a presumption of guilt and dangerousness. . . . This presumption of guilt and the racial narrative that created it have significantly shaped every institution in American society, especially our criminal justice system.”[2]  In a similar vein, Paul Butler has argued that “what happens in places like Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland—where the police routinely harass and discriminate against African Americans—is not a flaw in the criminal justice system.  Ferguson and Baltimore are examples of how the system is supposed to work.  The problem is not bad apple cops.  The problem is police work itself.  American cops are the enforcers of a criminal justice regime that targets black men and sets them up to fail.”[3]  While Stevenson and Butler present historical and sociological evidence for their claims, my related but different aim is conceptually to illuminate the picture of policing and criminal justice that they outline and defend.  More to the point, it is to use the Ferguson Report to construct a partial model of American practices of policing black Americans that captures Stevenson’s and Butler’s suggestion that, typically, the perpetuation of antiblack racial domination through the criminalization of black Americans, especially black men, is “integral” to these practices.[4]

Consider, then, the Ferguson Report’s summary description of the policing culture exhibited by Ferguson’s approach to law enforcement:

Partly as a consequence of City and FPD [revenue generating] priorities, many officers appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue.

This culture within the FPD influences officer activities in all areas of policing, beyond just ticketing.  Officers expect and demand compliance even when they lack legal authority.  They are inclined to interpret the exercise of free speech rights as unlawful disobedience, innocent movements as physical threats, indications of mental or physical illness as belligerence.  Police supervisors and leadership do too little to ensure that officers act in accordance with law and policy, and rarely respond meaningfully to civilian complaints of officer misconduct.  The result is a pattern of stops without reasonable suspicion and arrests without probable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment; infringement on free expression, as well as retaliation for protected expression, in violation of the First Amendment; and excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. [I, p. 2; my emphasis]

At least three features of the practice of policing sketched here merit attention.  I note, first, that the Ferguson Report describes a practice of subjecting black neighborhoods to the arbitrary power of police officers.  Because police supervisors failed to hold officers accountable to the requirements of law and policy, Ferguson’s police officers consistently discarded several of the constitutional rights (elsewhere, the Report documents Fourteenth as well as First and Fourth Amendment violations).  In effect, the police force degraded and debased the citizenship of black citizens. In Ferguson, the practice of policing black neighborhoods was a practice of politically subordinating black citizens, for it was a practice of coercively and wrongfully stripping their citizenship of some of its generally treasured prerogatives and, therefore, of rendering it inferior in rank to the citizenship of the white citizens of Ferguson.

I note, second, that the internally related roles of police officer and offender partly constituted the practice of policing black neighborhoods and politically subordinating black citizens in Ferguson.  Indeed, a scrupulous reading of the Ferguson Report—over and beyond the summary description I have quoted here —suggests that the FPD treated black citizens not simply as “potential offenders” whose offences could be financially exploited, but as actual offenders whose offences could be so exploited.  In effect, the FPD’s political subordination of black citizens obtained through the indefinitely many acts of indefinitely many police agents who, through their actions, exhibited a practice structured by the roles of police officer and criminal.

I note, third, that FPD members acted in accordance with the role of the police officer tasked with policing black neighborhoods when they assigned black citizens the role of actual offender—that is, the role of criminal; or, in other words, when they applied a concept of criminality to black citizens.  In Ferguson, enforcing and perpetuating the racial domination of black citizens by subsuming them under a concept of criminality was an essential feature of the role of policing black neighborhoods; thus, the operation of some such concept was a general, constitutive feature of a practice of policing that intrinsically functioned as mechanism of antiblack racial domination.  Put otherwise, when FPD police officers violated black citizens’ constitutional protections—based on their interpretation of black citizens’ “exercise of free speech rights as unlawful disobedience” or based on their interpretation of black citizens’ “innocent movements as physical threats” or based on their interpretation of black citizens’ “indications of mental or physical illness as belligerence”—they were applying a practice-constitutive notion of criminality to black citizens and satisfying an anonymously general demand of their role.[5]

The concept of criminality operative in the practice of policing—not, necessarily, the manifest concept that would be endorsed by way of reflective equilibrium (by comparing our intuitions about individual cases, both actual and hypothetical, to the definitions we formulate when asked to reflect on our concepts)—was, I conjecture, the concept of criminality tracked by the emails cited in the Ferguson Report as stereotyping racial minorities.[6]  In addition, I believe that the concept operative here was a cluster concept, such that having no one property was necessary to make a person a criminal, while having any one of several properties, or several sets of properties, sufficed to make a person a criminal.  I refrain from spelling out the details here, except to propose that one of the properties the possession of which sufficed to satisfy the FPD’s operative concept of being a criminal was the property of being black.  If that suggestion is right, then the FPD’s operative concept of criminality was racially loaded, for it licensed the tendency to interpret black citizens’ rejoinders to police actions, their innocent movements, and their expressions of illness as so many instances of criminal behavior and hence as warranting police actions that in fact violated black citizens’ constitutional protections.  In Ferguson, the role of police officer required subsuming black citizens under a concept of criminality that counted black citizens as criminals just in virtue of being black. An email that circulated among police supervisors and court staff seems explicitly to have tracked and expressed precisely this concept when it “joked about an abortion by an African-American woman being a means of crime control” (I, p. 5).

It is reasonable to characterize the concept of criminality that was operative in the FPD’s practice of policing black neighborhoods as a racist, antiblack concept: a concept that authorizes citizens to infer, from the consideration that a fellow citizen is black, that he, she, or they is an outlaw—broadly speaking, a deviant whose beliefs, character, capabilities, and/or behavior contravenes conventional and mainstream norms and expectations, thereby rendering that person a misfit, an inferior, a dysfunctional  blight on civil society, a threat to law and order, or, at the very limit, something other than human.[7]  Another, perhaps obvious example is the notion of personal responsibility that was operative in the emails sent between police officers and court supervisors in Ferguson, where it seems that having the property of being black sufficed to rule out the possibility of being personally responsible.  A less obvious example is the notion of romantic love, but Darryl Pinckney’s reading of Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins, 2016)—specifically, his claim that the film “bestows the capability of feeling romantic love onto a figure that has long been a symbol of predatory sexuality: the big, bad black male”[8]—interprets it as exposing the antiblackness implicit in that notion. As Pinckney views the film, it prompts us to see, to our chagrin, that our operative concept of romantic love excludes the possibility that big, bad black men enjoy tender, amorous feelings of affection. In a similar vein, Chris Ofili’s Rodin . . . The Thinker (1997–98), a portrait of a hypersexualized black woman in the image of Rodin’s famous sculpture, compels us to see that the concept of intellectual seriousness operative in some of our colleagues’ professional practices and some of our fellow citizens’ daily lives excludes the possibility that black women think weighty thoughts.[9]

MOONLIGHT

Unnoticed antiblack concepts constitute and shape ordinary practices (like policing black neighborhoods) and involvements (like falling in love and deciding whose ideas to take seriously). When antiblack concepts become the stuff of our entrenched common sense, a part of the point of ideology critique is to render them explicit and unsettle them.  Regarding practices of policing and political subordination of the sort that we have seen in Ferguson and elsewhere, the Black Lives Matters movement has played a salutary role in advancing precisely these aims.  For to take seriously the exhortation that “Black Lives Matter” (and “Black Lives Matter” is not simply a statement of fact, it is also an exhortation) is, in part, to answer a call to acknowledge and challenge the latent yet pervasive antiblack practices and conceptual repertoires that the movement has relentlessly brought to light, demanding that we see and transform them.

19 June 2020


Robert Gooding-Williams is the M. Moran Weston/Black Alumni Council Professor of African-American Studies and Professor of Philosophy and of African-American and African Diaspora Studies at Columbia University. He is the author of several books, including the award winning In the Shadow of Du Bois (Harvard UP, 2009).  His current projects include a book on Du Bois’s political aesthetics and a book on the political thought of Martin Delany.


[1] United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department, 4 Mar. 2015, www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/opa/press-releases/attachments/2015/03/04/ferguson_police_department_report.pdf; hereafter abbreviated I.

[2] Bryan Stevenson, “The Presumption of Guilt: The Legacy of America’s History of Racial Injustice,” in Policing the Black Man: Arrest, Prosecution, and Imprisonment, ed. Angela J. Davis (New York, 2017), pp. 4-5.

[3] Paul Butler, Chokehold: Policing Black Men (New York, 2017), pp. 2, 6.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Following Butler and Stevenson, my central claim here is that in Ferguson, Baltimore, and through much of US history racial domination and the conceptualization of blacks as criminals has been integral to practices of policing black neighborhoods and residential communities.  But that is not to deny that there could exist practices of policing black neighborhoods that, without degrading black citizenship, fairly enforced the law.  If such practices were to exist, however, then they would not be defined by the same internally related roles and role-related demands and expectations that have defined the practices of policing to which black Americans have typically been subject.

[6] I borrow the idea of an operative concept from Sally Haslanger and Jennifer Saul, “Philosophical Analysis and Social Kinds, II, Gender and Race,” The Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 80 (June 2006): 124.

[7] In the language of John Locke’s Second Treatise, antiblack concepts, at the limit, support the inference that, if a someone is black, he/she/they is “a Criminal, who having renounced reason, the Common Rule and Measure…hath…declared War against all Mankind, and therefore may be destroyed as a Lyon or a Tyger”(John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Haslett [New York, 1960], p. 274).

[8] Darryl Pinckney, “Moon Over Miami,” The New York Review of Books, 20 April 2017.

[9] As I interpret Ofili’s painting, it lets us see that our operative concept of intellectual seriousness tends to exclude black women, for in the eyes of the “white gaze” they are hyper-sexual and hence incapable of intellectual seriousness.  Ofili’s painting and Moonlight demonstrate what Martin Heidegger famously described as the world-disclosive power of works of art, for they expose the ready-to-hand, antiblack conceptual motifs that contaminate the world, or worlds, inhabited by US citizens.

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Sonic Images of the Coronavirus

Hannah B Higgins

First the images of absence became common place. Pictures were taken of a newly ubiquitous nothing: of no people on city streets, no people in major plazas of the world, no people at rallies, no people in classrooms, no one in abandoned markets, no one in desolate businesses, no one in churches without mourners where closed coffins conveyed the ever-silenced dead into the afterlife. These empty spaces were also quietly reassuring of state-mandated efforts to contain the spread of disease. For the most part these were images of relative silence.

US-HEALTH-VIRUS

Even as these sonic images of silence bore an alarming resemblance to postapocalyptic scenes of mass extinction, these hushed public spaces were almost always paired with images or descriptions of noisy places where essential workers were busy saving everyone else: these raucous hives took the form of hospitals, warehouses, essential markets, and factories making respirators and PPEs. Live human noise would become equivalent to possible contagion, to the sounds of humans working and dying together. Images of these spaces bear the imprint of these sounds in every respirator, every image of hoarding, every act of crowded public speech.

With time, the images of public silence denoted a sign language of publics that had listened to governments, whose response to the epidemic placed us in all manner of plywood, or brick, or gilded cage. The alternative to our physical isolation was to break the social contract and be placed behind iron bars, in noisy spaces that we now know are a perfect breeding ground for the virus.  Whatever the physical nature of our cages, we who can self-isolate came to see the world through a crystal plane, the metaform of the handheld or computer or television screen ever mediating between our many physical architectures.

Conditioned as I became to the images of silent streets and noisy essential-worker zones, the images of public protest against social distancing initially read as more images of mere contagion. The silence of the public sphere rendered the throngs of protestors (first) in Michigan, California, Colorado, Kentucky, Ohio, Oregon, and Pennsylvania especially loud (even in photographs). The experience was jarring. These protestors were flouting the rules by standing on streets and plazas and carrying signs that said things like “Freedom Trumps Safety,” “Set Us Free,” or (as the hymn goes) “Let My People Go.” Their slogans were shouted out passionately, as they stood in close quarters, oral vapors spreading the disease alongside convivial reunions with like-minded friends, family, and publics. The handheld signs said they were not afraid:  “Live Free or Die” (some will), “I’m not afraid of COVID” (you should be) or “Give me Liberty or Give me COVID” (your liberty will give you COVID-19—this is not an either or prospect).

Unknown

These early the images of protests  from the political right demanded reopening economies. As a group they are a largely non-compliant public of predominantly white protestors. Especially in rural communities, where the virus was less common, I understood their rage, but not their actions. Small wonder that a few weeks on and we are seeing spikes in states where these first in-person protests occurred.  I knew how to hear and see those early images in terms of the habituated dualism of silence versus noisy sonic image.

That is, until late May, when the words I can’t breathe resurfaced. Even without viewing the video (I haven’t), the image of George Floyd on the (at that point in the pandemic) mostly silent street amplified his suffering first a hundred, then a thousand, and now millions of fold. The phrase, an echo of the same phrase moving through contemporary time marked by violence against the black and brown bodies of Eric Garner, Javier Ambler, Manuel Ellis, and Derrick Scott now appears on the facemasks of protestors, on T-shirts and the walls of cities and town world-wide. The simple phrase forms the seed bed of the din of protest chant and anthem alike, both forms of expression not coincidentally shared in space by the human voice box. As written words placed over the mouths of protestors’ masks, the phrase “I can’t breathe” identifies each wearer as a potential victim, both of police violence but also of the virus.

Even as someone with family participating in the George Floyd protests, my eyes at first saw contagion in these protests. The continued violence against the poor and black and brown communities before and during the pandemic makes me sick, but the images of protestors elicit terrible anxiety as well. Arguably, my seeing contagion is a holdover from the first scenes of vocal rage, from the other side of the political spectrum. But these recent sonic images also feel like they’re planting seeds, like I’m sprouting eyes and ears all over the place.

These new sonic images turn the world upside down, or maybe more appropriately, inside out.

As I write this, I am sequestered with my elderly mother who has lived in SoHo since 1958. In these few weeks in New York City, I have encountered many different forms of the coronavirus sonic image. These mix and mingle before my eyes and around my ears. First the one, the near total silence captured in the image of an empty street, now newly walled off from pedestrians by plywood on every window. Then the other, a throng of masked protestors and a vocal din and sirens and violence and probable contagion captured up close by journalists walking alongside the protestors – brave journalists and citizen journalists putting themselves in terrible danger by being there. And finally, stillness seething with rage as voices and sirens and helicopter sounds move across the city, invisibly vibrating the surfaces of buildings as I watch the empty street from a rooftop.

Sound, more than pictures of various scenes, links us to each other in our daily lives: not just by way of the proximate voice of a friend or a coworker or a family member, but also through the live sounds of shoes crunching debris beneath our shoes, of cars passing, of trains and buses, and public experiences. During the pandemic, many of these sounds almost disappeared or became very rare. But for me, and people like me who can isolate, the threshold between wellness and contagion has been embodied in the sonic baffles between domains of quiet and noise.

As I see and hear the early sonic images with the benefit of hindsight, I understand that to be an essential worker has always meant inhabiting the range of sound environments that connect us to each other but which were, until the protests, closed off to the self-quarantining and privileged-to-be-so, like myself. Unlike me in my silent bubble, essential workers have been in sound and silence throughout the pandemic, weaving back and forth across the boundaries of family and work since this began in earnest in March.

At the level of sound as a diagnostic tool, these protestors (arguably both sets of protestors, but the latter in a more socially responsible way through mask wearing) have inserted actual public speech into actual public space during a pandemic, physically erasing the threshold between essential and nonessential worker by both class and racial forms of segregation. The shrinking distance between a banker, a nurse, and a manicurist, between people on the political right and the political left, between white protestors on one side and black and brown and white protestors on the other, not to mention the rich and poor, feels collapsed to irrelevance, although I know it is not. No doubt the burden of COVID-19 has been felt most vividly by the poor of all colors, but the changing meaning of the images of silence and the images of sonic activity first in hospitals and Amazon warehouses and then in protests of both kinds, means we are bearing witness to seismic shift both in how we see and hear the pandemic but also in how we see and hear responses to it in the imagery of sound.

I am, by equal turns, awake and inspired by the emergent sound of transformation, afraid and diminished by my fear of the virus and for the future, and increasingly alert to how present conditions are reshaping perception.

17 June 2020


Hannah Higgins is professor of art history and University Scholar at University of Illinois, Chicago. In addition to articles on the historic and neo-avant-gardes, her books include Fluxus Experience (2002) and The Grid Book (2009), and an anthology Mainframe Experimentalism: Early Computing and the Foundations of Digital Art (2012), coedited with Douglas Kahn. She has received DAAD, Getty, and Philips Collection fellowships in support of her research on sensation, cognition, and information across the avant-gardes and contemporary visual and material culture. She is coexecutor of the estate of Dick Higgins and the Something Else Press.

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How to Learn Together, Apart

Ewan Jones

If, in years to come, an intrepid researcher writes a dissertation upon the history of technology-assisted synchronous learning, her first chapter may well find room for 7 January 1977. It was on this day that the Collège de France attempted what it didn’t yet call a simulcast of Roland Barthes’s inaugural lecture, Barthes having recently been elected to the chair of Sémiologie Littéraire. The Collège live-broadcast the proceedings to the overspill of students unable to access the main lecture hall. Barthes’s performance uncannily anticipates the present order to which, with drastic quickness, we’ve become accustomed. Claude Coste notes that “the first session in particular suffered a number of interruptions: the retransmission not working, the irritated amusement of the students, having to send out for a technician, Barthes’s own embarrassment at the many technical failings.”[1] This anecdote reassures me whenever I loiter in the limbo of a Zoom waiting room.   

BARTHES

In addition to its means of delivery, the substance of Barthes’s lectures has much to say to our present selves. The first course of public talks and seminars that he delivered from January­–May 1977, under the nearly impossibly large title Comment vivre ensemble, parallels and prefigures our contemporary world so uncannily that at times I wonder whether it’s a trick of the lockdown-induced paranoid mind. Barthes surveys a wide variety of isolated, ascetic or otherwise self-distancing communities: the quotidian rituals of monastic life in Mount Athos; the sanatorium in which Hans Castorp intended only to spend days; the small room in which Blanche Monnier was sequestered for twenty-five years by parents disappointed by her refusal of an eligible marriage, and who later inspired André Gide’s “Confined Woman of Poitiers.” “What distance must I maintain between myself and others if we are to construct together a sociability without alienation, a solitude without exile?”[2] Barthes: as with much besides, the inadvertent prophet of COVID-19.

*

The laundry van that hit Barthes requires us to start thinking where his unfinished lectures left off. I’ve been using the hyphenated thoughts and trailing ellipses of Comment vivre ensemble as essential tools to help me make sense of and stay sane through the current times in which we live. Barely a half-day goes by without my being reminded of a concept that Barthes borrows from Jacques Lacarrière’s L’éte grec: “idiorrhythmy”—a constraining social space that nevertheless does not preclude individual freedom. Quotidian lockdown life is itself an idiorrhythmic case study. A conversation just the other day with a colleague, returned to care for her frail and elderly mother, Zooming her students as the distinguished academic that she is, from a childhood bedroom that reminds her of the child that she also still is. (She was shaken from her scholarly reflections when, through the window, she saw her mother, hanging laundry, fall.) My students, attempting as best they can to curate bare bookshelves in houses where reading was not encouraged. My own experience, stranded in an unfamiliar city, ordering cheap and pathetically small prints of artworks by Amy Sillman and Georges-Pierre Seurat, which I pin to the white walls of my unfamiliar apartment, just as when young I used to glue culture cut from newspapers (I was terrified that I would lose it). Art for art’s sake, revealed for what it always was: a means of getting through the day.

The pandemic has enabled an efflorescence of thoughts on the modalities of isolated thinking and feeling—to which the Critical Inquiry blog has provided signal contributions. As a means of opening up a dialogue with work that has sustained me, I want for the remainder of this disquisition-cum-diary-entry to pick up and carry further Irina Dumitrescu and Caleb Smith’s discussion of lockdown distraction, which itself shares much in common with Barthes’s considerations of monastic cohabitation. What follows are flash reflections (half-cooled hot takes) on what the continuing pandemic might entail both for critical theory and applied pedagogy. I list these two aspects of life and thought as if they were separate, when what I really want is to heal their rift.

*

First, critical theory. COVID-19 doesn’t only append a further compelling case study to the several recent scholarly treatments of attention; it radically alters the position from which any theorist of distraction speaks. Much of the most distinguished work in this field has considered cultures of attentiveness (or inattentiveness) from a broadly Foucauldian or immanently critical perspective.[3] Yet such work often betrays a revealing tension, between a one-size-fits-all process of “subjectivation” through which societies trammel or compel or mutilate attention and the curious freedom of the critical theorist to (undistractedly) read artworks or conduct often brilliantly erudite ideology critique. The present pandemic disallows us that privileged freedom: if nothing else, COVID-19 might help us to acknowledge the cognitive distractions and corporeal fatigue that always operate but which are now raised to a new and possibly useful level. In so doing, we might undo the distance between subjects and objects of knowledge; we might view the many previous cultures of distraction (ranging from the religious communities that mortified the senses, to the manual workers who labor automatically or involuntarily, to the nineteenth-century psychophysiologists who willfully overextend cognitive reach) not merely as pathologies or casualties of society but also as prospective resources. Immanent critique might then finally assume the concrete form to which it more often than not only pays lip service.

Such questions are to my mind inseparable from our teaching practice. In his Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History, Joseph North proposes “radical pedagogy” as one means by which the humanities might heal its diremption from social praxis.[4] I could not agree more vehemently, while at the same time wishing for a clearer sense of what such practice might entail, beyond a charismatic reading that compels assent. I teach English at Downing College, where decades ago F. R. Leavis famously held court; returning alumnae often tell me how much his forcefulness depended upon the small-group supervision. We cannot now gather in such small rooms for the foreseeable future (on the morning that I write this, my university has just announced that all lectures for the 2020/21 academic year will be conducted online). Yet this sad eventuality might enable forms of pedagogy less dependent upon charisma: “perhaps the ideal lecture course would be one,” Barthes self-deflatingly declared, “where the professor—the locutor—is less interesting than his audience.”[5]

And yet even Barthes struggled, in this respect. He had intended the thirteenth and concluding lecture of Comment vivre ensemble to take up the varying responses of his audience and by so doing produce a practical instance of “Living Together.” As things transpired, however, the session did not take place, with Barthes retreating (with uncharacteristic bashfulness) behind the dialogical yet defiantly written form of A Lover’s Discourse (1977), on which he was concurrently engaged.[6] But I believe that spatial constraints and technological innovations, which COVID-19 has thrust upon us, can inspire us to recover Barthes’s cancelled utopia of pedagogical idiorrhythmy. Not, perhaps, by adopting the forms of instantaneous feedback that increasingly characterize digital life: I am not calling for students to annotate lectures as they can new music tracks via SoundCloud, or to “react,” live on YouTube, to literature or to taught content. (Though why not? Such experiments might prove valuable, particularly if they reconnect students to the immediacy and gesturality of aesthetic response.)        

Rather, I’ve been developing over the past weeks a range of technologically mediated pedagogical exercises that intend both to extend and to reorient the forms of close and slow looking and listening that have historically characterized our critical practices. They include: asking undergraduate students to curate their own bedrooms, by cutting out images from newspapers or printing photographs from the internet so as to produce an exhibition in which they live; “paraphrasing” the television or Netflix series upon which for excellent reasons they need to binge into a prosodic form (ottava rima, Spenserian stanzas, and others) that they choose or that is chosen for them—or the relating of a given poem to the texture of objects in their immediate environment, so as to focus attention upon the tactile experience that has not only been overlooked by so much art criticism but also prohibited by the pandemic.

Such exercises might provide means not only of reanimating our own pedagogical approaches but also of building tentative bridges to other forms of communal or institutional life with which higher education presently seems to hold little in common. I don’t know about you, but most days I spend some of the time feeling like the teacher of literature that I am, sometimes like a prisoner fortunate enough to have a stable internet connection, sometimes like an insatiably curious child, sometimes like a premature retiree person trying to stave off early-onset cognitive degeneration. We all are all these things. COVID-19 is not a crisis that we can afford to waste.  

12 June 2020


Ewan Jones is a lecturer in English at Cambridge and a fellow of Downing College. He has just finished a second book on the history of the concept of rhythm in the nineteenth century and is working on a series of oblique pedagogical strategies that seek to extend and to deform historical practices of close (or slow) reading, looking, and listening. 


[1] Roland Barthes, How to Live Together: Novelistic Simulations of Some Everyday Spaces, trans. Kate Briggs (New York, 2013), p. xviii.

[2] Ibid., p. xxv.

[3] A representative instance is Jonathan Crary’s Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture (Cambridge, Mass., 1999).

[4] Joseph North, Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History (Cambridge, Mass., 2017), p. 107.

[5] Barthes, How to Live Together, 133–34.

[6] Ibid., 130–31.

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COVID-19 / EXPOSE

Jenny Holzer

8 June 2020


For more than forty years, Jenny Holzer has presented her astringent ideas, arguments, and sorrows in public places and international exhibitions, including 7 World Trade Center, the Venice Biennale, the Guggenheim Museums in New York and Bilbao, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Her medium, whether formulated as a T-shirt, a plaque, or an LED sign, is writing, and the public dimension is integral to the delivery of her work. Starting in the 1970s with the New York City posters, and continuing through her recent light projections on landscape and architecture, her practice has rivaled ignorance and violence with humor, kindness, and courage. Holzer received the Leone d’Oro at the Venice Biennale in 1990, the World Economic Forum’s Crystal Award in 1996, and the Barnard Medal of Distinction in 2011. She holds honorary degrees from Williams College, the Rhode Island School of Design, The New School, and Smith College. She lives and works in New York.  

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June 8, 2020 · 12:58 pm

Present Tense, Part 3:  The Two Plagues Converge

W.J.T. Mitchell

This is the third Part  of an essay on time located in the present moment in human history, an attempt to align “my time” with “our times.”[1]  It is impossible of course, to write about the present, because the moment one writes the words down, they are already in the past.  Time, like writing, marches on beyond our thought, our desires, our meanings, and it will write our epitaphs after our pens have gone dry.  We make up our stories in the moment, but time will tell.   It is the inexorable and fatal figure with the scythe that cuts us all down.  But the sickle is also a cycle, and the days and seasons and years return.  It may be a moment of ripening, of possibility, perhaps even opportunity.  Kronos, Aeion, and Kairos, the ancient personifications of the (usually grim) Reaper, the Zodiac, and the decisive moment converge today with special intensity.

BERGMAN

This convergence of time scales is especially evident in the days in which these words are written, early June of 2020.  The planetary time of climate change was pushed to the background by the intense temporality of pandemic, which is in turn over-written by fourteen days of global protest against the plague of American racism.  As summer arrived in North America, after an endless spring of pandemic and plague that is not yet over, and that swept away hundreds of thousands of lives, a single death suddenly captured the imagination of America, and of the world.  A Black man named George Floyd was subjected to a slow motion execution, strangled to death by a white police officer while a protesting crowd looked on in horror, and video-taped the excruciatingly slow death.  The officer, the aptly named “Derek Chauvin” (chauvinism acquires a proper name) calmly put his hand in his pocket as he pressed his knee down on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and forty-seven seconds, ignoring Floyd’s cries for help, for mercy, for his deceased mother to come to his aid.  The video immediately “went viral” in a nation that has perhaps become all too accustomed to scenes of this sort, reported, even video-taped, but perhaps less intensely focused on a single prolonged act of snuffing out a human life.  It is what Gilles Deleuze memorably called a “time image” as distinct from the “motion image” that is so central to cinema.[2]  A prolonged moment of steady, pitiless focus and unrelenting attention to a single act in which motion is almost completely absent, and then utterly vanishes into the real presence of death.

It is this time image, this prolongation of a merciless police murder that I think captured the imagination of the public so powerfully in the days after George Floyd’s death and mobilized one of the largest and longest mass protests in American history.  It was as if the literal plague of the coronoavirus and the figurative plague of American racism had somehow blended in the most intense moment of national mobilization since the heady days of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.  Added to the intensity of that convergence was the deeply felt contradiction between the moral imperatives dictated by the convergent plagues:  on the one hand, COVID-19 demanded “social distancing” and protective masking of individuals to inhibit infection;  on the other hand, the murder of George Floyd demanded social intimacy, assembly, crowding, a rushing together of masses of Americans in the name of ending the plague of American racism and fascistic militarism.[3]  Stay apart or come together?  In an instant, the first mandate was overtaken by the second.

William Blake, in his prophetic re-telling of the American Revolution in 1793 described this kind of historical moment with striking precision.  Then, as now, popular revolutions against absolutist monarchies in America and France were consistently described as devilish uprisings of  terrorists, to be suppressed by the angelic forces of order and social control.  When “Albions Angel,” the British Prime Minister, gives the command to suppress the Revolution, he does so by unleashing the plague of military violence against the American colonies:

In the flames stood & view’d the armies drawn out in the sky
Washington Franklin Paine, & Warren Allen Gates & Lee:
And heard the voice of Albions Angel give the thunderous command
His plagues obedient to his voice flew forth out of their clouds
Falling upon America, as a storm to cut them off. . . .
Then had America been lost, overwhelm’d by the Atlantic
And Earth had lost another portion of the infinite,
But all rush together in the night in wrath and raging fire
The red fires rag’d! the plagues recoil’d then rolld they back with fury
On Albions Angels.

Blake wrote these words in 1793 with the advantage of hindsight, about events that he followed in the British press in 1776, when he was nineteen years old. He wrote them in the midst of the French Revolution and the rise of the Reign of Terror.  He was soon to follow them with Visions of the Daughters of Albion, a polemic against the African slave trade and in favor of the emancipation of women, his poetic echo of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women.

BLAKE

So the American people, black, white, and brown, male, female, and LGBTQ, “rushed together” in nights of wrath and raging fire from 28 May to 5 June 2020, recoiling both plagues simultaneously.  The racist sexual predator who squats on the throne of the American presidency tried to stage a photo op as the angelic guardian of order and religion.  He assembled his armies to drive out protestors from the park across the street from his palatial slave-built White House so that he could stand on the steps of a church and hold a bible up to mobilize an evangelical reaction against the devilish descendants of the American revolutionaries.  And of course the predictable upsurge of looting and destruction of property that inevitably accompanies popular protest gave the right-wing media plenty of images to declare that the peaceful protestors were terrorists.

As the fires subsided, however, the rushing together continued, consolidating itself into articulate demands for reform and revolution, for the disarming of American police departments that see themselves as armies of occupation.  Meanwhile, one of the most powerful images of revulsion against actual racist terrorism imprinted itself on the ubiquitous masks that had been donned by the vast majority of American citizens during the COVID-19 plague:  “I can’t breathe,” the last words uttered by the dying Eric Garner in 2014, were echoed by George Floyd in his final moments.  It had become, along with “Hands up, don’t Shoot” and “No justice no peace,” the slogan of Black Lives Matter, the antiracist coalition rushing together in hundreds of cities across America.  Remarkably, the protest was multiracial and (in some cities) the police actually dropped their weapons and joined hands, taking a knee alongside the demonstrators.  It was as if the biological respiratory plague that drove us apart in the preceding months had transferred itself to the plague of police brutality and militarism that was sweeping across the nation.  Patients dying on short-supply ventilators in American hospitals, and Black men dying under the knee of white cops say “I can’t breathe,” calling out to one and the same corrupt system of racial capitalism.[4]  The police choke-hold and the Covid assault on human lungs suddenly converged in what Walter Benjamin called a “dialectical image,” capturing history at a standstill.

The right to breathe is not just put in danger by the police but by a lack of money and medicine. Black and brown Americans die from these biopolitical plagues in much greater numbers than white folks.  Well before the uprising of racist police violence in the summer of 2020, the toll of the coronavirus had disproportionately affected the people of color and the poor.  One of Trump regime’s central campaign pledges was the destruction of the meager healthcare system created during the Obama presidency.  The unleashing of the forces of speculative capital during the Trump regime was accompanied by the dismantling of centralized planning for the control of contagious diseases.  While the markets skyrocketed, the poor were herded into minimum wage jobs or part-time work devoid of health insurance.  Then, with unconscious irony, the underpaid workers in meat-packing plants, Amazon warehouses, and “essential services” like health care workers and even the police were declared to be “heroes” on the front lines of the newly declared “war” on the virus.   Already, while the coronavirus continues to rage, Amazon and other beneficiaries of contemporary wage slavery are beginning to announce that any bonuses and benefits conferred during the plague are strictly temporary and will soon be withdrawn.[5]  Workers concerned about their health, with insufficient access to medical care, had better show up for work or face termination.

Black Lives Matter is teaching an important tactical lesson from the last thirty years of racist police violence:  when you stage your demonstration, don’t do it in the poor, underserved neighborhoods and food deserts of South Side Chicago or South Central Los Angeles.  Take your protest to the doorsteps of racial capitalism in Beverly Hills and the Million Dollar Mile.

“We want to go to places of white affluence so that the pain and outrage that we feel can be put right in their faces,” said Melina Abdullah, one of the leaders of Black Lives Matter.  The group wanted to bring its rage over the Floyd case and so many others to L.A.’s elites, in their own neighborhoods. Its officials said their goal was not to cause looting but to send a message.[6]

Looting is not the message, but it is a predictable side effect.  Police seem to have no difficulty in distinguishing white folks from black.  Why is it so difficult to discriminate between peaceably assembled citizens and looters smashing windows?  Isn’t there a reasonably clear difference between protecting property and protecting the right of people to assemble?[7]  Between arresting a vandal who is breaking into a store and assaulting a citizen who is making a political statement by refusing to leave a public space?  The militarization of the police makes these distinctions very difficult, so-called training that leads police to treat protestors as terrorist enemies, makes it impossible.  If this is a teachable moment, these would be the minimal lessons to be learned.

Not to mention the much larger, planetary lesson that our species is struggling to learn in these extraordinary times.


W.J.T. Mitchell is the editor of Critical Inquiry.


[1] Part One appeared on October  2018, as “Present Tense:  Time, Madness, and Democracy,” on the CI Blog, “In the Moment.”  Part Two appeared in May of 2020 as “Ground Hog Day and the Epoché, on the same Blog.  All three essays will be revised and merged in the days after the U.S. Presidential election on November 3 2020.

[2] Gilles Deleuzes,  Cinema 2: The Time Image trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989).  

[3] https://www.npr.org/2017/10/23/559498678/i-can-t-breathe-explores-life-and-death-at-the-hands-of-police

[4] On Racial Capitalism:  https://contexts.org/blog/covid-19-and-the-future-of-society/#pirtle

[5] “Uneasy Workers Risk Losing Jobs by Staying Home,” NY Times, Friday June 5, 2020, 1.

[6] https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-06-03/south-l-a-is-largely-untouched-by-unrest-that-is-by-design.  Unfortunately, South Side Chicago has not been spared, and looting has made life difficult for already underserved neighborhoods. 

[7] One of the most encouraging signs of learning on the job has been the behavior of police who protect the protestors, and even join in their ranks.

 

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Connecting Breaths

Romi Crawford

“I can’t breathe”—these are now America’s defining words. Back once again in the national imagination, the words refer to Eric Garner, the young black man who died from a chokehold by a New York City policeman in 2014. At this point, there are so many accrued police-violence cases that a tally should be in the making, not unlike the tallies that have rolled out each day to monitor COVID-19 deaths. Perhaps they should be combined? In fact, connecting these two occurrences is critical. COVID-19 and the police violence against black men are both pandemics.

SIGN

In 2020, “I can’t breathe” intertwines the history of the coronavirus with the history of racially inflected police violence. The words now resound in both scenarios of COVID-19 and the recent instance of police violence experienced by George Floyd in Minneapolis on 25 May. The world is transfixed by both events and the emphasis on breath that they both stage: COVID-19 and the struggle for air that often comes with it, as well as George Floyd’s plea, a reinstantiation of Garner’s words, “I can’t breathe.”

It’s hard not to reflect upon the strange familiarity of Floyd’s last words and the resonance of his case with Garner’s. This has been noted and remarked upon in news media and by the protesters on the ground in Minnesota and elsewhere. Less has been said about how “I can’t breathe” also resonates with the current COVID-19 crisis. There are attempts to remove the discussion of the one from the discussion of the other. True, they are entirely different situationally, but there is a crucial common thread—racial and economic oppression. Giving these stories space from each other makes sense but so too does bringing discussions of them closer together.

Connecting rather than siloing COVID-19 and the George Floyd case is important and crucial.  An opportunity arises, now, from the pervasiveness, the territorial as well as the situational globality, of “I can’t breathe.” Its expansion into the universal medical complex and also its routine occurrence on American streets, in part motivated by the prison industrial complex, compels action and redress. While the circumstances of COVID-19 and George Floyd’s death are not the same, the outcomes of both are heavily impacted by American race and class imbalances. COVID-19 death statistics reveal racial disparity in American society and so does the George Floyd incident. Only an unarmed black man could be kneed to death in broad daylight with bystanders and three other police officers there to witness it.

Recognizing how these are on the same continuum is imperative. Why? Because they both make American race and class discrimination abundantly clear and apparent. Exploring the common ground would be productive on various levels. It would also help in finally recognizing and thinking through the ongoing racial violence and systemic racial injustice that impact black people’s bodies, making them more susceptible to hypertension and heart disease. As Achille Mbembe puts it in “The Universal Right to Breathe”: “Try as we might to rid ourselves of it, in the end everything brings us back to the body.” The black body shows up in response to a long history of racial violence and oppression, with injuries such as high blood pressure and heart disease. They are what ultimately make COVID-19 a more detrimental and life-threatening virus; according to the coroner’s report, they may have contributed to George Floyd’s death by asphyxiation. Then, it seems that the preconditions of a COVID-19 demise and the preconditions for Mr. Floyd’s death also correlate and connect in ways that should not be underestimated for what they both reveal about the black body in America.

Unknown-1

“I can’t breathe” is a phrase that now indexes the black body. Compounded utterances of it in both the locale of the hospital and the locale of the streets are eerie and unsettling. This is disturbing because breath is the most basic human birthright. Life commences with an all-important first breath and life ends when breathing stops.  Insofar as breath is symbolic for life, the lives of black people are crucially at stake, always perhaps but, at this particular moment, in numbers that are even more profound due to the coterminity of COVID-19 and police incited racial violence.

3 June 2020


Romi Crawford is a professor in the Visual and Critical Studies and Liberal Arts Departments at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her research revolves around ideas of race and ethnicity and their relation to American art and visual culture.

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Skeptical Conditions

Leela Gandhi

 

But He’s Much Bluer than When I Went Away

Many of us will recognize two cognitive phenomena from the intense experience of the coronavirus lockdown. The first is fairly ubiquitous. It is a perception that something is as likely to happen as not. It is as likely as not there will be a vaccine by the summer of 2021. It is as likely as not covid-19 is here to stay. Educational institutions are as likely as not to convene in person at some point in the coming academic year. Most countries are as likely as not in the deepest recession since the Great Depression, and so on. Forebodings of this type index the disquiet of our times. They also index a condition of skepticism—in the precise philosophical sense of the term. Such obtains from diverse intersecting traditions, as South Asian Mādhyamika Buddhism, Hellenistic Pyrrhonism, some chapters of American pragmatism and European poststructuralism, included (see W. J. T. Mitchell on the concept of the epoché).

MATTA_CLARK

Philosophical skepticism describes the equality of all antilogies. This means that cheerfulness and dejection, pleasure and pain are random points in a torque or shades of the same palette. Each leads to the other and back again. As well, each holds, each fails to hold, each both holds and fails to hold, each neither holds nor fails to hold. The Pyrrhonist and Buddhist so-called tetralemma formula of noncontradiction gets to the heart of the matter. Any position or theory or belief (indeed, any deed, act, or advantage) is no more than it is not; it both is and is not; it neither is nor is not.

The second cognitive phenomenon at hand is harder to pin down. It is a state of consciousness about something we have known for a very long time without bringing to the forefront of understanding. The experience is similar to an “aha” moment. Aha! The virtual face is more companionable than the telephonic voice. Aha! Distraction serves concentration better than homogenous empty time. Aha! Consumerism may be bad for the soul, but it certainly energizes the spirit.

There are more exacting examples. The disproportionate covid-related death toll of African Americans in the US and of Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and other black communities in the UK brings awareness to perfectly well-known, longstanding racialized disparities in health and access to medical care. The mass exodus of starving migrant workers making their way home from locked-down cities in India is arguably the worst such after Partition. Yet it relays no new data. It is a stark resume of known unknowns: every single aspect of routine lifestyle in the subcontinent runs on the back of precarious informal livelihoods.

The two phenomena under review may seem incongruous but are closely linked. Skeptical conditions (those we cultivate and which beset us, as at the present world- historical moment) are not ends in themselves. Nor are they alibi for existential defeatism and the view that the external world is just a rumor. Made over as spiritual exercises they show the way to ataraxia, the Greek word for undisturbedness, and to sthitaprajña, the Sanskrit word for something like a standing-still mentality. Both words are from the ancient skeptical lexicon, and the eventual respite from uncertainty that they hint at is the opposite of insensibility. (After all, the peaceful skeptic sage is depicted as enlightened rather than asleep).

A well-honed practice of noncontradiction is a deep epistemological cleanse that deflects attention from content, argument, and expectation to the quality of what is manifestly staring us in the face. It prompts us to trust direct interactions with the world rather than be swayed by prejudice and convention. It intensifies what is given and makes us present and alive to such—namely, woke, to follow the AAVE, or African American Vernacular English word. In this way, skepticism is a sine qua non of consciousness.

Consider a literary gloss. In his 1908 play, The Blue Bird, the Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlinck (an acknowledged skeptic and mystic) tells the story of two disaffected children who embark on a quest for knowledge. They learn nothing new. They stop searching. Once back home they notice that their pet bird, a turtledove, is much bluer than when they went away.

Wear a Mask

There’s some more to learn on the topic from the Consciousness-Raising (C-R) projects of 1960s and 1970s second-wave feminism that took hold in various postwar welfare societies. The C-R concept was put to circulation in 1968 by Kathie Sarachild, a member of the New York based Redstockings of the Women’s Liberation Movement and coeditor of Woman’s World newspaper. In time, the meaning of consciousness in this context became as diverse as its constituencies across civil rights venues, gay liberation, speakout and zap action groups, antiwar forums, and (within the academy) women’s studies programs, including feminist poetics, spirituality, and science.

There was a consensus that consciousness does not target the unconscious, namely, any sum of mental operations to occur well below the level of conscious awareness. Nor is it the rarefied presentism of mindfulness meditation with a limit on recursive and projective thinking. It is, rather, an orientation to what is already there but so much in plain view as to be unintelligible, much like Maeterlinck’s turtledove—and the daily housework performed by a homeless migrant laborer in Delhi and the calculus of risks for women in the present conditions of compulsory domestic confinement (as Bikas Sarma and Shruti Sarma observe in their response to Catherine Malabou in this forum). There’s another problem. The already there is hard to grasp, tout court, because it is obscured, variously, by false consciousness, bad representations, and estrangement, to name but a few malefactors.

C-R protocols do not pave the way to some unalloyed jewel of consciousness. The major payoff of an elevated consciousness is the end of isolation. The systems that obscure are the very same that quarantine. Once free of these—and to borrow some words from the American skeptical philosopher, George Santayana—we begin (to think, to act) in medias res; that is, right into the unpartitioned middle of things.1   Where there is consciousness there is connectedness, according to many flag bearers of the C-R movement.

To be conscious is to be minimally aware of the ambient world and the presence of others (no different from Thomas Nagel’s echolocation bats). A conscious person is not particularly brilliant or wise. But they are likely to be good company in a lockdown. They are also likely to wear a mask in public, less to protect themselves as others who are vulnerable to infection.

Coda: Companion Species

Ancient and medieval Indic philosophers are very taken by a Ṛgveda parable of two birds, beautiful of wing, who shelter in a common tree. One eats the fruit of the tree. The other does not eat but watches its fellow. The birds are said to stand for the duality of consciousness (active/passive, finite/infinite, mundane/enlightened, and so on).

In the soteriological gloss on this parable, the noneating bird is perched above and measures her distance from the lower bird, somewhat smugly. Her actual sights are on the insipid metaphysical fruit further up in the canopy. In the devotional gloss on the same story there is no arboreal hierarchy. The birds are close companions and look upon each other adoringly. They grasp the inextricability of testimony and witnessing, eating and not eating, breathing and not breathing. Whatever they know they know with each other.

1 June 2020


Leela Gandhi is John Hawkes Professor of Humanities and English at Brown
University. She is the author of Postcolonial Theory (Second edition, 2019), The Common Cause (2014), and Affective Communities (2006).


1. George Santayana, Skepticism and Animal Faith: Introduction to a System of Philosophy (New York, 1923), p. 1

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The Incalculable: Thoughts on the Collapse of the Biosecurity Regime

 

Lydia H. Liu

It makes a world of difference where the novel coronavirus travels.

For the first time, I feel as vulnerable as my eighty-eight-year old mother who is locked down in another part of the world. Neither she nor anyone I know has ever, in living memory, been through a moment like this. Has the world woken up to a new catastrophe, or are we pretending that we do not know what we have always known?

This is a terrible thought, and it haunts me as my city, New York, succumbs to the COVID-19 outbreak. Sirens wail day and night on the streets as doctors and nurses struggle to keep critically ill patients alive while exposing themselves to the deadly pathogen. To the astonishment of the world, American society has not prepared itself for a disaster of this magnitude; and worse, many in Europe and America had initially been led to believe that the novel coronavirus might be one of those isolated, regional affairs, not unlike SARS (2003), MERS (2012), and Ebola (2014) or what gets reported from those remote, disease-prone countries of Asia and Africa.[1] Therefore, US travel restrictions on flights from China on 2 February and from Iran on 29 February should have taken care of the matter, but they didn’t. Recent genomic analyses suggest that the vast majority of coronavirus cases in New York came from Europe, not from Asia.[2] Blindsided by its own racism, the political calculus of the US biosecurity regime has misfired. It forgets to reckon with the incalculable.

Donald Trump’s remarks during a press conference on 19 March 2020 where “corona” was crossed out and replaced with “Chinese.” Source: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The moral balance sheet of the ruling caste in America is bankrupt. How would you weigh the losses and gains of human lives on the scale of a global pandemic? You simply can’t. People are dying, and tens of millions are suffering and faced with economic hardships. There are so many questions bearing upon the incalculable—and the possibility of a second or third wave of the pandemic in the coming months or years—that we must heed W.J.T. Mitchell’s call to reflect on the moment itself.

When I say that the incalculable escapes the political calculus, I do not mean to suggest that it falls outside of the calculating machine but rather, it penetrates the core of that machine by virtue of being excluded from its terms of reckoning. The incalculable contaminates the political calculus with its own shadow—in the manner of the return of the repressed—which is why we must be careful with our facile metaphors and comparisons. The analogies with the Spanish flu and with other plagues from the past may help us talk about the tragic consequences of a major public health fallout, but they are misleading if we let them guide our thought on the fallout itself. For such analogies often dissimulate what they simulate and, therefore, can do more to obscure the truth of the moment than clarify it. To return to the question I have raised: Are we pretending that we do not know what we have always known?

Take the most recent U.S. biosecurity exercises—code named Crimson Contagion— organized by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as well as Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). This is a series of simulation exercises that ran from January to August 2019, involving Washington and 12 states including Illinois and New York.[3] During those exercises, the HHS asked its federal and local partners to imagine a fictional scenario where a global pandemic breaks out in China. What should we do to prevent the deadly respiratory virus from spreading to the U.S.? How would the federal government, state governments, hospitals and private stakeholders coordinate effective operations? Here is the HHS script as summarized by New York Times reporters:

The outbreak of the respiratory virus began in China and was quickly spread around the world by air travelers, who ran high fevers. In the United States, it was first detected in Chicago, and 47 days later, the World Health Organization declared a pandemic. By then it was too late: 110 million Americans were expected to become ill, leading to 7.7 million hospitalized and 586,000 dead.[4]

Call it prescience or extraordinary coincidence. Sometimes, fiction provides the kind of insights that intelligence or the facts on the ground cannot. But in this case, the fictional scenario bears uncanny resemblance to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus that would actually happen in Wuhan within three months of the conclusion of Crimson Contagion. Chicago, for instance, participated in the simulation exercises in the summer of 2019 and, according to Allison Arwady, commissioner for the Chicago Department of Public Health, “We actually did a preparedness exercise here in Chicago that, believe it or not, was actually written as an exercise for a new virus emerging from China with the first cases seen here in Chicago.”[5]

By contrast, the government officials in Wuhan, a city regarded as China’s Chicago for its central geographic location and its function as the nation’s transportation hub, wasted the summer of 2019 doing absolutely nothing to prepare its eleven million residents for the possibility of a SARS-like respiratory disease. Rumors abound as to how the virus—be it crimson or red contagion—got there in the first place; while we await the pending independent WHO investigation, all we can say at this point is that people of Wuhan became the first casualty of the pandemic. But here is the rub: Had the officials there adopted the same biosecurity regime as did those in Chicago or other American cities, would Wuhan have had a better chance of averting the initial catastrophe?[6] Sadly, the answer is “no,” if we look to New York for inspiration.

Not only was New York involved in the Crimson Contagion exercises last year but it was also the location of a high-level pandemic exercise code-named Event 201 that took place in October 2019, just four weeks before the actual novel coronavirus outbreak. Led by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, this tabletop exercise partnered with the World Economic Forum and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to simulate the outbreak of a novel zoonotic coronavirus modeled on SARS. The fictional pathogen, originating from Brazil, is transmittable from bats to pigs to people and then becomes highly transmissible from person to person. One poignant detail predicted by Event 201 is that the coronavirus spreads more efficiently in the low-income, densely packed neighborhoods, and this is exactly borne out by New York, Detroit, and other American cities where African American and Latinx working-class communities have suffered the highest death rates. The close parallel with Event 201’s fictional scenario is so unnerving that it has prompted the Johns Hopkins Center to issue a statement to disavow its uncanny prediction of nCov-2019.

This is a shocking revelation. The political calculus of the world’s most advanced biosecurity regime has failed miserably. Bear in mind that the US is ranked at the top of the 2019 Global Health Security Index, with the United Kingdom running a close second, in the most recent worldwide survey of 195 countries conducted by the same Johns Hopkins Center and Nuclear Threat Initiative and published four weeks before the actual coronavirus outbreak in China.

FIG1

With our best-funded research, farsighted preparations, carefully designed simulation exercises, and timely warnings, we are supposed to outperform all other nations in coping with a pandemic. Instead, we are currently ranked highest in the number of deaths and COVID-19 cases as of late May, when I last checked. It is not as if there had been no political will or that the biosecurity regime had not seen action until 2019, leaving the federal and state governments little time to fix the vulnerable links they identified, such as the stockpile of masks and ventilators.

Has knowledge failed to translate into action? This seems unlikely. We will have learned nothing from this fiasco if we think that COVID-19 is just another worldwide public health disaster like the Spanish flu, pretending that we do not know what we have always known since the HIV/AIDS pandemic.[7] The US imperial biosecurity regime, both before and since Trump, has been unusually active in leading the world in preparations, mobilizations, and simulation exercises like Dark Winter (2001), Atlantic Storm (2005), Clade X (2018), Crimson Contagion,  and Event 201, to name just a few. And then, how do we end up in a state of unpreparedness in the midst of advanced preparedness? The biosecurity regime is the key to understanding this, not the pandemic nor the virus itself. Driven by its imperial fantasy of world control, the regime has allowed itself to operate on a logic of racism in its conceptualization and implementation of the political calculus; yet it forgets to reckon with the unintended consequences of its own logic.

It is my hope that a safe and effective vaccine for SARS-Cov-2 (the virus responsible for the disease COVID-19) will become available and get us out of the mess in a year or so. Even so, will the scientists be able to put us back in control of our destiny by bringing uncertainty to tolerable levels as suggested by Lorraine Daston? I confess that I feel some trepidation: Is there the likelihood of SARS-Cov-3 or SARS-Cov-4 coming in the wake of SARS-Cov2? What if the incalculable—be it the infinitely small or the infinitely gigantic[8]—escapes the political calculus of the imperial biosecurity machine time and again?

26 May 2020


Lydia H. Liu is the Wun Tsun Tam Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University and Director of the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society. She is the author of The Freudian Robot: Digital Media and the Future of the Unconscious (2010); The Clash of Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World Making (2004); Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity (1995)    


[1] On 3 February 2020 just as the ICUs in Wuhan hospitals were being overwhelmed by dying patients, the Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece under the headline “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia.” The uproar on social media over the paper’s callous display of racist disregard for the suffering of nonwhites led the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to expel three WSJ journalists from China. Instead of taking urgent action to protect the lives of the American people when time was running out, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted: “mature, responsible countries understand that a free press reports facts and expresses opinions.”

[2] Carl Simmer, “Most New York Coronavirus Cases Came From Europe, Genomes Show,” New York Times, April 8, 2020.

[3]Crimson Contagion 2019 Exercise Draft After-Action Report,” Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, October, 2019.

[4]Before Virus Outbreak, a Cascade of Warnings Went Unheeded,” New York Times, 19 March 2020 and updated March 22, 2020.

[5]Chicago Officials Held Exercise Last Summer Preparing for New Virus Emerging From China,” 4 March 2020, NBC Chicago.

[6] Under unprecedented lockdown measures, Wuhan’s pandemic was actually contained by the central government who swiftly moved in and implemented its military style campaign. According to South China Morning Post dated 17 March, the campaign was literally led by the PLA army, navy, and air force medical personnel who swooped down in full protective gear as if they engaged in a large-scale defense exercise against some bioterrorist attack.

[7] There are many academic studies on how this biosecurity regime came into being. See Andrew T. Price-Smith’s Contagion and Chaos: Disease, Ecology, and National Security in the Era of Globalization (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press. 2008).

[8] “The gigantic” is an allusion to one of Martin Heidegger’s observations in “The Age of the World Picture.” See The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (New York, Garland Publishing, 1977), p.135.

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Net-munity, or The Space between Us … Will Open the Future

Wendy Hui Kyong Chun

I write this during a time when we feel acutely the stakes and consequences of connection, polarization, infrastructures, models, and habits.  To many, it seems a world turned upside-down, in which the unimaginable has become possible: “socialism” and extensive surveillance within the US; the retraction of the Chinese economy and the negative price of oil; the invocation of Cold War shelter-in-place ordinances; and KKK masks worn as protective masks in California. This crisis has highlighted and augmented already existing divides: from white collar employees who seek the “perfect” gadget for working from home; to the mainly non-white and poor essential personnel who have had to balance daily financial and medical risks; from French dentists without proper protective equipment who posted naked pictures to protest back-to-work orders to Donald Trump supporters—compared to a “modern-day Rosa Parks”–who publicly demonstrate against orders by Democratic governors to stay at home.

It is a time of uncertainty and therefore responsibility—and something like community.  Scientific, economic, and political knowledge and models are constantly evolving.  Many of the first guidelines presumed similarities between SARS Cov-2 and SARS Cov-1, which were later proven to be untrue, such as the period during which a person is most infectious: in SARS Cov-1 it is when one is most symptomatic; for SARS Cov-2 it is just beforehand. Our current knowledge of Covid-19 is mainly correlational, with mechanistic-genetic explanations, as always, lagging behind observation and comparison. For example, SARS Cov-2 is widely assumed not to be airborne because it is far less contagious than airborne diseases such as measles. In desperation turned pharmaceutical opportunity, drugs are being approved, such as remdesivir, which were discontinued in early clinical trials due to debilitating side effects.  Most significantly, because of the lack and poor quality of existing tests and testing materials, the scope of the pandemic—necessary for modelling the basic reproduction number (R0)—is poorly known.  It is even unclear if “recovereds” are immune or for how long.

This uncertainty, however, does not undermine science or politics; it drives research and makes political decisions difficult and necessary. Intersecting this cloud of uncertainty are correlations and probabilities, which can guide our decisions, even if they cannot guarantee them, for the pandemic and its “cures” confront us with responsibility in the strongest sense of the word.  As Thomas Keenan has argued, we face responsibility not when we make decisions by following guidelines and rules but when we desperately want to but cannot: “when we do not know exactly what we should do, when the effects and conditions of our actions can no longer be calculated, and when we have nowhere else to turn, not even back onto our ‘self.’”[1] Not even back onto our self—because at these moments we realize that the individual is, to use Jean-Luc Nancy’s evocative phrase, “the residue of the dissolution of community.”[2]

Tellingly, although ostensibly about the human death toll, calls for communal responsibility are mainly framed in terms of infrastructure: things that ground and touch us, even as we strive not to touch too many others. The April UK motto of “staying at home to protect the NHS and save lives” encapsulates this perfectly (fig. 1).  By caring for infrastructure, we care for ourselves and others. In countries with national health services, the fear is becoming another Italy. In other countries, such as the US, the motto would seem to be “work, save businesses, and save your grandchildren’s livelihoods (and your pension, if you have one) (fig. 2). Or, more positively, “stay home/distant, flatten the curve, and save lives and the city.”

Picture1

FIGURE 1

Picture2

FIGURE 2

The “cures” proposed, emergency powers granted, and sacrifices demanded reflect and reveal profoundly different national, regional, and local perceptions of which curve matters—the number of “infecteds,” the stock market, national employment figures, GDP, the mortality rate—and which ties bind most strongly—capital, public health, taxes, national deficits, public transportation, and others.  These cures acknowledge that exit is impossible, even for the most nonessential wealthy, whose New Zealand bunkers and seasteading dreams still rely on the value of capital and the lives of “essential workers.”

The proposed cures and sacrifices reveal different diagrams of the social.  If the nation is mainly viewed as a network , the goal is to produce “safe” exceptional neighborhoods: to create/augment clusters so that the “infected” are separated from the “recovereds” and “susceptibles” (fig. 3).

Picture3

FIGURE 3

Surveillance to track and manage contagion and contacts becomes the key to amplifying social distance.  In this worldview, community cases become mysteries to be solved via stalking and recording undocumented cases and silent spreaders.  Tracking “patient zero” becomes a national pastime, as does blaming other countries for viral spread.  Safety—resting as it does on inequality and dreams of emptying space—is precarious.  Think of everything that must be erased for an edge to represent a friendship: institutions, such as schools and bars; interactions with “nodding strangers” (which during pandemics turn out to be essential); social media prompts to say “happy birthday”; regular meetings and events. In order for there to be networks, there must be gaps. Networks hollow clouds of uncertainty—that is, infrastructure and in/difference—in order to foreground clean connections across empty space.[3]

Perversely, the logic of networks spreads the word neighbor everywhere, in order to impoverish it conceptually. Machine learning is filled with “neighborhood” methods used for pattern recognition and collaborative filtering, which create segregated clusters of agitated sameness. Networks presume and prescribe homophily—that birds of a feather flock together, that similarity breeds connection.  A banal and therefore dangerous notion of friend becomes a synonym for neighbor: segregation becomes naturalized and hatred becomes love.[4] How do you show you love the same? By fleeing when others show up. Hatred attracts and repels at the same time, creating angry clusters that need to hate:

if homophily == true

neighbor := self

self.love := other.hate

neighbor.love := self.love

ethics := narcissism

society := nul

endif

If the nation is mainly viewed as a community—what I’m calling “net-munity”—the onset of nontrackable cases demands treating everyone as “infected,” in order to suppress the disease (we have to remember that viruses, such as SARS Cov-1, have been eradicated without vaccines). The Vancouver Parks motto “the space between us will hold us together” encapsulates vision, for rather than treating the population as a series of nodes and edges, it attends to the spaces that enable community to emerge.  Community presumes community transmission—community is communication and space.  Once a virus is endemic to a community, neatly drawn graphs become impossible and the goal becomes widespread habitual changes to save others and public infrastructures: physical distancing, wearing facemasks, washing hands, avoiding mass gatherings, cleaning public spaces. Even as the disease and these changes affect “vulnerable” populations differently, there are no exceptions to the call for—if not the act of—sacrifice.  Friends and mobility become dangerous, and addressing the needs of those “at risk” populations becomes key.

At its best, net-munity follows the call made by the Combahee River Collective to treat everyone as “levelly human,” by engaging—rather than ignoring—identity politics and individual experience.[5] In British Columbia and elsewhere, houseless populations finally are being moved into safer shelters, such as hotel rooms and empty apartment buildings, after individual consultations.  Appallingly, Vancouver’s long-standing housing and drug crises are finally being addressed, not because of the dangerous living conditions of the houseless or the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women or the Overdose Crisis public health emergency declared in 2016, but because of the need to contain Covid-19 (tellingly, 113 people in BC died due to illicit drug toxicity in March 2020 ; in comparison, a total of 141 people have died of Covid-19 as of 15 May). This sheltering, however, can also destroy. The construction of spiked fencing to prevent tents from re-merging in Oppenheimer Park evokes other clearances: Japanese Canadians were removed from this area into Interior internment camps during World War II; Vancouver lies on the still unceded lands of the Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations.

We must engage neighbors and relations in all their rich ambivalence. Neighbors are not innocuous—the term neighbor literally recalls “boors.” They are nosy and noisy. They can provoke hostility, resentment and ambivalence. They intrude, even—and especially—when they are inert. They offer, however, a way to reside in/difference and to engage interactions that go beyond homophily: not just heterophily (heterosexuality, electromagnetism and other opposites that attract), but also ambivalence, compassion, and neutrality.

Neighbors space.[6] At their best they un-settle, for their spacing resonates with what Ariella Azoulay has called “potential history.”[7] Diverse worlds and lands persist despite being crossed out in official maps and graphs.[8] The task before us, as Kara Keeling has put it, is to “listen, with others, for the poetry, the refrains, and the noise a world is making.”[9]

So, let us shelter in space; let us care for the infrastructures that touch us, so that “we” might surface and endure, in/difference.

20 May 2020


Wendy Hui Kyong Chun is the Canada 150 Research Chair in New Media at Simon Fraser University and leads the Digital Democracies Group. Dr. Chun is the author of Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media (2016), Programmed Visions: Software and Memory (2011), and Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics (2006), as well as numerous articles and edited collections.  She has received fellowships from< various foundations and institutes, including the Guggenheim Foundation, ACLS, American Academy of Berlin, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. She was Professor and Chair of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University, where she worked for almost two decades. Currently, Dr. Chun works with the Digital Democracies Group to undertake the proliferation of misinformation, abusive language and discriminatory algorithms. Through the investigation of natural language processing (NLP), political theory and critical data studies, the group aims to develop methods for creating effective online counterspeech and alternative models for connection. Her work has appeared in Critical Inquiry.


I would like to thank Lynn Festa and Paul Moorcroft for their comments, suggestions, and conversations, and Hannah Holtzclaw for her editorial help. They have been invaluable.

[1] Thomas Keenan, Fables of Responsibility: Aberrations and Predicaments in Ethics and Politics (Stanford, Calif., 1997).

[2] Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community, trans. Peter Connor et al., ed. Connor (Minneapolis, 1991).

[3] Wendy Chun, Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media (Cambridge, Mass., 2016).

[4] Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Edinburgh, 2014)

[5] Combahee River Collective, How We Get Free (Chicago, 2017).

[6] Kenneth Reinhard, “Toward a Political Theology of the Neighbor,” in Slavoj Žižek, Eric L. Santner and Reinhard, The Neighbor: Three Inquiries in Political Theology (Chicago, 2005).

[7] Ariella Azoulay, Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism (Brooklyn, N.Y., 2019).

[8] Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, “Land as pedagogy: Nishnaabeg intelligence and rebellious transformation,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education and Society 3, no. 3 (2014): 1-25.

[9] Kara Keeling, Queer Times, Black Futures (New York, 2019).

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Arguments for a New Aesthetic of Presence

Chiara Cappelletto

Translated by Samuel Fleck

The dominant narrative of the COVID-19 illness plays into the most conservative iconic order. On the one hand, there is a widely circulated, glossy image of SARS-CoV-2 that makes use of the realist rhetoric of photography: the virus is this. It hardly matters that such an image is not a depiction of the pathogen but an illustration designed “to grab the public’s attention.”[1] On the other hand, the virus is “invisible” above all else, and its symptoms largely “mimic” those of the seasonal flu, which they resemble. It is therefore said to be unknowable. The lay observer is once again caught in a double bind between optical efficacy and the phantasmal quality of the image.

Apart from its well-known paradoxes, the logic of the sign—still applicable to AIDS, which has in fact been termed an “epidemic of signification”[2]—is completely inadequate for understanding the current pandemic. The “pestiferous bodies,” the carriers of contagion, cannot be detected because they are largely asymptomatic. The virus strikes without marking the sick person, as confirmed by the frantic search for a tracking system that will compensate for the dearth of symptoms, using geolocation data to make up for the lack of stigmata.

MAG

Indeed, since anyone could be sick without knowing it, we are all asked to maintain distance from one another. This policy might have been called “physical distancing,” so as to grant relevance to all the forms of attachment, care, and aid that we have mobilized during this time. The fact that it has been called “social distancing” clearly underscores the aesthetic-political implications of this extraordinary type of negative performance. Social distance is the suppression of gestures of contact. It entails not shaking hands with, hugging, or leaning in toward—much less slapping, hitting, or attacking—one another. It abolishes the affordances of the world, thus working like an anesthetic. If, as Adam Phillips writes, “attention seeking . . . is a form of sociability, an appeal to others to help us with our wanting,”[3] then social distancing inhibits our desire to give and receive attention.

We talk about the pandemic using surface codes, but we live it as bodies embedded in our homes, as though in a cultural version of locked-in syndrome. Are we a new kind of freak in a new kind of circus? It will be interesting to see to what extent future reflections about the transformation of public space into media space, the virtualization of private space through the systematic use of online platforms, and new codes of social representation where only the upper half of the body is displayed remain reliant on our culture’s privileging of the iconic, and to what extent they acknowledge that vision itself is situated. We are currently living a critical stalemate and paying for it in the flesh.

Suffering due to suspended sociality alone does not account for the profound sense of disorientation that we are experiencing. Are we not asked to stay in what is, by definition, the most welcoming space for us: our homes? Why then does this space appear so inhospitable to us? Coming from decades where being mobile was everything, home confinement suddenly becomes the cutoff point where our experience of near and far, neighbor and stranger, collapses. After living so freely, after having the very notion of open space shape our understanding of what living space is in itself, we all find ourselves confinable.

A different understanding is needed to account for the current state of human affairs. The latter calls for a new aesthetic of presence.

We know that our bodies are coextensive with the physical, social, and cultural environments in which goods, medicine, laws, and artifacts play a part; that emotions, thoughts, practices, and tools modify the neurobiological processes of individuals and of our species as a whole. Cognitive science, neuroscience, and philosophy use the term embodiment for the interconnectedness of man, nature, and technology: our bodies cut the world into a continuous reciprocal dynamic of action and reaction. We are all cyborgs. We have supposedly known this for decades, though we resist the idea and continue to observe this embodiment from the outside, as a notion to be put in perspective; we thus have a paradoxically disembodied understanding of it.

This critical inertia occurs at a time when COVID-19 has raised the question of embodiment to a higher level: an institutional level. The problem has been clear from the outset: by all getting sick at the same time we would have made it impossible for doctors and hospitals to care for us. Sick people make the system sick. We have thus acknowledged a link between the vulnerability of the individual and the vulnerability of the government infrastructure responsible for medical care. The moral imperative has been to “flatten the curve.”

The ongoing pandemic shows us governments as institutional actors whose power to lead lies unexpectedly in their capacity for care and protection. I am in favor of rethinking political action as an exercise in care because it would entail an ecological, feminist, and intergenerational agenda and would acknowledge that citizens are an aggregate of women and men, children and older people, with different potentialities, who make up networks of knowledge, affections, desires, and abilities. Nevertheless, while care as an active and mutual practice is a positive and productive engagement, being taken into care suggests an attitude of submissiveness that weakens personal initiative, the freedom to try and fail. If responsibility is the ability to respond, as Karen Barad has put it, then the political perspective of being cared for can weaken us to the point of making us nonresponsible.

We are at a crossroads. We have the opportunity to implement an ecological agenda and finally recognize that a butterfly flapping its wings can indeed cause a hurricane; to increase individual responsibility and inventiveness as a result; to overcome the ill-conceived alternative between social justice and freedom; and to build a fair and inclusive system of power. At the same time, we run the risk of turning our vulnerability into passivity; of assimilating individuals into two broad categories—reliable healthy people and socially dangerous sick people, each tagged with its own health code; of substituting the medical specialist for the political leader and the military, driven by a magical faith in science, which we are asked to believe in as we might a patron saint and whose praxis and verification system are unfortunately largely unknown to citizens.[4]

This choice, which calls into question the ultimate meaning of democratic citizenship, arises at a time of increased implementation of the prosthetic nature of the human body. Since sealing ourselves in our homes, we have never been so unbounded: with all of us connected 24/7, using privately owned platforms, whether for birthday parties, dissertation defenses, homeschooling, or work meetings, we are redefining the experience of our self and of the outside with a blind faith in the openness of the web and its democratic accessibility, both of whose shortfalls we prefer to ignore.

To pursue the best way forward we need to queer the dominant narrative and finally abandon the regime of “natural iconicity,” with its divide between presence and absence, which has unfortunately withstood decades of academic studies; we need to think about how embodied and gendered minds perform freely in spaces where the affective values of near and far have taken on enormous political relevance. We need to be able to be in touch and respond.

13 May 2020


Chiara Cappelletto is Associate Professor of Aesthetics at the Philosophy Department, University of Milan, where she teaches Poetics & Rhetoric and Contemporary Aesthetics, and heads the Performing Identities Seminar (PIS).Her work focusses on the fabrication of personal identity through public discourse and theatrical performance. Her books include Neuroaesthetics: Art, Braincentrism, and the Embodied Mind, forthcoming Columbia University Press.

Samuel Fleck earned his PhD from Columbia University with a dissertation on Antonio Fogazzaro and late nineteenth-century Italian literature. His experience as a translator of French and Italian texts into English spans more than twelve years. Among his recent works are translations of the poetry collection Valsolda by Fogazzaro, with selected poems set to appear in the Italian Poetry Review, and the book Neuroaesthetics: Art, Braincentrism, and the Embodied Mind by Chiara Cappelletto, forthcoming Columbia University Press


[1] Cara Giaimo, “The Spiky Blob Seen Around the World: How C.D.C. Medical Illustrators Created the Coronavirus Pandemic’s Most Iconic Image,” New York Times, April 1, 2020,  https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/01/health/coronavirus-illustration-cdc.html.

[2] Paula Treichler, “AIDS, Homophobia and Biomedical Discourse: An Epidemic of Signification,” Cultural Studies 1, no. 3 (1987): 263–305.

[3] Adam Phillips, Attention Seeking (London: Penguin, 2019), p. 7.

[4] To complexify the question at hand, consider the notion of “therapeutic citizenship” coined by Vinh-Kim Nguyen. See Vinh-Kim Nguyen, “Antiretroviral Globalism, Biopolitics, and Therapeutic Citizenship,” in Global Assemblages, ed. Aihwa Ong and Stephen J. Collier (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008), pp. 124–44.

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Groundhog Day and the Epoché

W. J. T. Mitchell

I thought that, by seventy-eight, I had seen everything.  Every epidemic from polio to AIDS to SARS. Every war from Korea to Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan and the endless, stupid “War on Terror.” Every terrible president from Nixon to Reagan to Bush. Around the fall of 2016, with the election of Donald Trump, I was reminded of the old proverb, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” Now, in the spring of 2020, we see how deep nothingness can be, a black hole in time that has sucked the entire world into its gravitational field. And so I began thinking about time, the present moment, and asking why and how it might provide a unique moment of insight.

Of course, since we are in a state of emergency, crisis, and exception, who has time to think about time? Nurses, orderlies, doctors are overwhelmed with sixteen-hour days of nonstop work; grocery clerks, immigrant fruit pickers, and meat processors are essential workers, while  the poor and people of color line up with millions of unemployed at food banks. Politicians scurry about covering their asses, or making up for the incompetence at the helm of the national government, and we watch as the richest, most technologically advanced country on the planet, with 2 percent of the world’s population, catches one-third of the cases of coronavirus at the latest count and boasts the worst record in the first world for mismanagement of the crisis.

Unknown

Antony Gormley’s Clearing No. 1

So who has time to think about time?  The answer is stunningly clear.  We do.  I mean those of us who are paid to think, and write, and teach and who may be lucky enough to still be on the payroll of some academic institution.  Or those of us who are retired, drawing a pension, lucky to be sequestered at home rather than condemned to the petri dish of a nursing home.  As someone who is on the verge of retirement, in the process of stepping down from the helm of Critical Inquiry, a journal I have edited for the last forty-two years—the time of “theory”—I had already been thinking about time, numbering my days, and reflecting on the question of time itself.  Inspired by the maddest American political epoch in my lifetime, launched by the election of 2016, I had already plunged into the vast philosophical, historical, and scientific literature on time, trying to make sense of what makes this moment both unprecedented and utterly predictable, unique and yet exemplary, terrifying and yet filled with potential.[1] Above all I wanted to ask what makes this a teachable moment, one from which we could learn something together. And so I have found myself writing in the present tense about an extraordinarily tense present.

I have not been doing this alone.  On every side, pundits, essayists, poets, artists, intellectuals, novelists, historians, political theorists, and philosophers have been weighing in.  The present “Posts from the Pandemic” on the Critical Inquiry blog, “In the Moment,” have been pouring in from all over the world, crossing the screens of our editorial collective for debate and evaluation, and then reaching out to a readership much more numerous and far-reaching than the usual audience of a scholarly journal devoted to criticism and theory.

The result has been an enormous outpouring of thoughtful reflection gathered up in these posts.  They range from the personal and confessional (Slavoj Žižek noting that he finds himself hoping he will catch the virus) to the apocalyptic and prophetic (Bruno Latour and Achille Mbembe linking the pandemic to climate change, and Joshua Clover bringing it all back to capitalism).  Science (Norman Macleod urging us to “show some respect” for viruses and viral metaphors) and the history of science (Catherine Malabou and Lorraine Daston reflecting on how intellectuals have responded to plague).  Practical wisdom (Carol J. Adams on “anticipatory care-giving” and why we shouldn’t shake out clothes before washing them; Bill Ayers on the trials and dangers of Zoom teaching).   Virus-inspired reflections on biopower and biopolitics are everywhere as Michel Foucault’s prophetic writings continue to resonate (according to Daniele Lorenzini), and Jacques Derrida’s metaphorics of autoimmunity looms on the horizon. Katherine Hayles’s posthumanism relocates our bodies as the battleground between simplicity and complexity, viruses and the counter-virus of human intelligence. Affect theory and collective emotion go global in new forms of wonder and anxiety; the poetry of domestic immersion (Andrea Brady’s “Hanging in the Air”), ferocious tirade (Charles Bernstein’s “Covidity”), and John Wilkinson’s meditation on a time that has lost its legs to love. Mick Taussig’s shamanism finds a vocation, amid the “comic dimension” of self-isolating critical theorists, scholars, and poets laboring at their laptops, promoting their pet theories, predicting both u- and dys-topia, a new world of Green Socialism or a suicidal species hell-bent on authoritarian populism, nationalism, and racism.

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Antony Gormley’s Clearing No. 2

Are these “end times”?  Trump’s favorite Evangelical minister, Robert Jeffress, pastor of the Dallas First Baptist Church, recently conjured with the possibility that the coronavirus is an apocalyptic judgment from God. Although he asserted with total confidence that “all natural disasters can ultimately be traced to sin,” he reassured his flock that this is not the Biblical plague that signals the apocalyptic end times. The reason: the Antichrist has not appeared yet.  Please excuse the uncontrollable laughter that follows this remark as I watch the Dear Leader pontificate on the medicinal virtues of Lysol. Just kidding, wasn’t he?

So, are we experiencing the onset of a New World Order? Peter Szendy’s “Viral Times” explores the temporal paradoxes of “hypervelocity and standstill,” the onset of a surprise that was unthinkable a few short months ago and utterly predictable after “decades of neoliberal dismantling of health and research infrastructures.” Emmanuel Alloa, on the other hand, finds himself “envying the confidence” of those who are “eager to explain to us that everything they have been saying for years has thus proved to be right.”  Meanwhile, Irina Dumitrescu and Caleb Smith comfort us with reminders of monastic life as a precedent for temporal stress and chances for the “care of self” produced by “social isolation.”  If Hans Blumenberg were still among us, he would no doubt remind us that the trope of “Shipwreck with Spectator” is a “metaphor for existence,” especially that of the philosopher who withdraws from the world to observe it from the solid ground of reason.  But he would then go on to note that Nietzsche launched an epoch in the history of philosophy by declaring (with Pascal) that “we have left the land and have embarked. We have burned our bridges behind us—indeed, we have gone farther and destroyed the land behind us.”[2]

Let us agree, then, that we are “all at sea,” and even “all in the same boat,” Spaceship Earth drifting like a modern Titanic whose fate is still unknown, with first-class cabins protecting some of us from the chaos in the engine room and steerage, while the band plays on in the cyber salons.  We live in what historians call an “epoch,” a crazy, possibly revolutionary turning point in history in which old certainties collapse and science reveals its true nature as a discourse of contingency, uncertainty, and the incalculable.  At the same time, it feels like we socially isolated hermit scholars are trapped in the film Groundhog Day (1993), caught in a time loop in which every day feels like the last, but we are given one more chance for an imaginary do-over.  One prediction seems secure:  the dates of B.C. and A.D. will now designate the “before” and “after” of COVID-19 as a caesura in the time of our species on this planet.  A global pandemic coupled with a financial crisis on the scale of the Great Depression looms before us.  In the scale of cosmic time, this is a mere moment that will pass in the “blink of an eye,” what Germans call an Augenblick. In human history it promises to be a game changer.

The concept of epoch, the revolutionary turning point or “momentous moment,” is not the sole property of history.  Philosophy, especially skepticism and phenomenology are also grounded in the concept of the epoché, Edmund Husserl’s method of “bracketing” or “suspending” judgment in order to ponder our percepts and concepts for just a moment before getting back to work.  We lucky scholars thrive in “down times,”  “time-outs,” moments of suspension or bracketing of judgment, when we are compelled to meditate on both our objective perceptions and the “objectless representations” of collective hallucinations, dreams, fantasies, and ideologies.  The distinct scales of immediate, urgent, and microscopic “viral times” and the macroscopic planetary scale of climate change converge, as Achille Mbembe argues, and so with every breath you take, every move you make, CI will be watching you.

11 May 2020


W. J. T. Mitchell is the editor of Critical Inquiry.


[1] See also “American Psychosis:  Trump and the Nightmare of History,” Lecture at the University of Geneva, January 17, 2017.

[2] Shipwreck with Spectator:  Paradigm of a Metaphor for Existence, trans. Steven Rendall (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997), 19.   

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On Cooperationism: An End to the Economic Plague

Bernard E. Harcourt

Over thirty million Americans just filed first-time unemployment claims as a result of the economic devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic, pushing unemployment to its highest levels since the Great Depression. Despite that, the US stock markets recorded in April their best month since 1987; after an initial shock, the markets rallied steadily, rising over 30 percent since their lows in late March. Most economists sounded puzzled and offered fanciful daily explanations. Even Paul Krugman had little to say, suggesting that “Investors are buying stocks in part because they have nowhere else to go.”

But it’s no wonder the markets defied the economic crash. For the markets, there is nothing like a good crisis when the right people are in power. Philip Mirowski wrote tellingly about this during the last debacle—the financial meltdown of 2008—under the moniker “Never let a serious crisis go to waste.” Now too, the Faustian logic as to why institutional investors just put their bets on the market should not escape us.

AMERICA_MASK

First, Donald Trump and the Republican Senators have made it crystal clear that they have the backs of the large-cap corporations no matter how bad things get. By strengthening the largest corporations now, the bailouts will help them weed out their smaller competitors and facilitate monopolistic practices later. After the pandemic, the large-cap corporations will be poised to reap extractive profits, while most small businesses and mom-and-pop stores will be out of business.

Second, the sunset provisions on the bailout restrictions will allow shareholders and managers to enrich themselves when an economic recovery eventually happens, again without ever needing to build reserves because they know they’ll be bailed out next time as well. As Tim Wu details, these recurring bailouts have allowed wealthy managers to pillage in good times—through stock buy-backs and exorbitant executive pay—and get rescued in bad. This too enhances market value while extracting capital for the wealthy.

Third, Trump has sapped any momentum toward universal health care by promising financial exceptions for coronavirus-related health care costs. These COVID-19 carve outs will protect the Republicans from backlash in the November 2020 elections. After it’s all over, the less fortunate will continue to be ravaged by ordinary cancers and poverty-related diseases without any coverage, to the financial benefit of private insurance and corporate and wealthier taxpayers.

Fourth, the pandemic is disproportionately decimating the most vulnerable populations: the elderly, the poor, the uninsured, the incarcerated, and persons of color. The racial imbalance is unconscionable: the coronavirus mortality rate for African Americans is almost three times higher than the mortality rate for whites. The rates of infection in prison and jails are also horrifying. The populations at risk are disproportionately older and poorer, so on Medicare and Medicaid. Some refer to this as “culling the herd.” Market investors can expect that social security will be less of a drag on the economy in the future.

Fifth, the Republicans have been able to secret into the bailouts tax bonanzas for millionaires. One such provision temporarily suspends a limitation on the amount of deductions to nonbusiness income that owners of businesses established as pass-through entities can claim as a way to reduce their taxes owed. The nonpartisan congressional body, the Joint Committee on Taxation, estimates this will disproportionately benefit about 43,000 taxpayers in the highest tax bracket (over one million dollars in income) who will receive an average windfall of 1.63 million dollars per filer.

The markets have become the mirror of an ugly truth. Michel Foucault presciently observed, back in 1979, that markets are the touchstone of truth in neoliberal times. And the ugly truth that they reveal today is that the pandemic is a goldmine for large-cap corporations, institutional investors, and the wealthiest. I once overheard a New York real estate tycoon talking about the land grab in the Adirondacks in the 1930s and commenting “Wasn’t the Great Depression grand!” Institutional investors must feel the same way about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sadly, one can hardly expect that much difference in a Democratic administration, especially one that is equally beholden to Wall Street and wealthy donors. The last two—those of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama—avidly embraced neoliberal policies such as workfare for the unemployed and welfare for the corporate elite. The Hank Paulson and Timothy Geithner bailouts of 2008 were the model for today’s.

Mia Ruyter Hank Paulson 2008 v1

Mia Ruyter, Hank Paulson (oil on fake leather, 2008)

The only way forward—beyond a next Democratic administration—is a genuine legal transformation that replaces our existing corporate regime with cooperative, mutualist, and nonprofit enterprises. The many of us who create, invent, produce, work, and serve others need to displace the few who extract and hoard capital and put in place a new cooperationism that favors the equitable and sustainable distribution of economic growth and wealth creation.

The legal structure that enables the corporate form—what Katharina Pistor accurately calls the code of capital—has to be repealed and replaced with a new economic framework that circulates the wealth generated from production and consumption. These alternative legal forms, which have existed for centuries and surround us today, include cooperatives for producing and manufacturing, credit unions for banking, housing coops for living, mutualities for insuring, and nonprofit organizations for good works and learning.

This is also the only way to address head-on the global climate crisis. The logic, principles, and values of cooperative arrangements can serve to slow down our consumption-at-all-cost society. The goal of the cooperative enterprise is not to maximize the extraction of capital but to support and maintain all of the participants in the enterprise and to distribute well-being, which includes and depends on a healthy environment. By replacing the logic of capital extraction—the extractive logic as Saskia Sassen calls it—with an ethos of equitable distribution, we can prepare to address the climate crisis after the pandemic is over.

In hindsight, the term capitalism was always a misnomer, coined paradoxically by its critics in the nineteenth century. The term misleadingly suggests that capital inherently functions in certain ways, has a certain DNA, and is governed by economic laws. That’s an illusion though. Capital is just an artifact shaped by law and politics. Its code is entirely man-made. And as Thomas Piketty and others demonstrate, the current concentration of capital and increasing wealth inequalities today are nothing more than a political choice, not the product of any laws of capital.

In truth, we do not live today in a system in which capital dictates our economic circumstances. Instead, we live under the tyranny of what I would call “tournament dirigisme”: a type of state-directed gladiator sport where our political leaders bestow spoils on the wealthy in order to get reelected (and increasingly, to self-fund their own political campaigns).

We need to displace this tournament dirigisme with a legal and political framework that favors cooperation and collaboration between those who create, invent, produce, work, labor, and serve others. Rather than corporations that extract capital for the few shareholders and managers, we need cooperatives, mutuals, and nonprofits that distribute the wealth they create widely to everyone in the shared enterprise; and continually guard against the gross disparities in pay that now characterize our gladiator dirigisme. It will be the only way to tame our obscene and destructive consumerism.

It is not enough to increase progressive wealth taxes on the billionaires and invest more in public hospitals and public schools, as Piketty recently suggested. That won’t fundamentally change the Faustian logic and temptations. Instead, and urgently, it’s time to replace our system of tournament dirigisme with a new cooperationism.

Too many of us in this country are still entranced by the myth of American individualism—the idea that we can go it alone and invent and create and build things by ourselves and reap all the benefits. It is so ingrained in the public imagination, tied to the image of the pioneer gold digger and the shiny rewards of solitary hard work. The ideology undergirds the corporate form and the logic of capital extraction. But for the most part, we succeed in inventing, creating, and producing through mutual support, working together, and collaboration. It is these forms of cooperation that must ground a postpandemic economy.

This pandemic and economic crash must not prevent us from working together to place ourselves in a better position to deal with the other crisis—climate change—still looming on the horizon. On the contrary, these times call for a legal, political, and economic revolution to ring in a new epoch of cooperationism. This will demand political will. It will not come from our political leaders, so beholden now to corporate contributions. It will have to come from us all united.

5 May 2020

[A version of this post appears in French at AOC]


Bernard E. Harcourt is a professor of law and political science at Columbia University in New York City and directeur d’études at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris.  He is the author of The Illusion of Free Markets (2011) and The Counterrevolution (2018), and of the forthcoming book Critique & Praxis (2020).

 

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After Lucretius

LUCRETIUS

John Wilkinson

The lights have fallen dumb and refuse to travel,
preserving their angles is all that concerns them;
clothes hang in their creases, while in seed-banks
weevils curl up at the futility of spoiling green further.

This time had been expected to have legs, to move
formations across the plain. This time believes love
a moving force, but takes delight and bandages it,
runs closed captioning behind closed doors. What if

an elevator loses purpose, flashlights fail to search,
if empty buses void the timetable – did you survive
Rome’s marauding gangs, did you survive plague?
Lovers take turns round apartments, seek to bring

stars to earth, starring the recesses of bodies plainly
felt, might that stop the fever? – Courses deviate,
the very bricks lift off to touch skin, skin will float
song that pulmonary rises, falls and rises in the street.

 

29 April 2020


John Wilkinson is professor in the Department of English at the University of Chicago and director of the program in Creative Writing and the program in Poetry and Poetics. His first collection of poetry, Useful Reforms, was published in 1976. More recent publications include Reckitt’s Blue (2013), Ghost Nets (2016), and My Reef My Manifest Array (2019). A selected poems, Schedule of Unrest, was published in 2014.


This video is an excerpt from a longer reading featured in “Writers in Residence,” the University of Chicago Program in Creative Writing’s virtual reading series. For the full reading and more videos in the series, visit the Creative Writing YouTube channel.

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OK, Zoomer!

Bill Ayers

Yes, yes, I’m teaching my classes on Zoom (☹️).

It’s weird for me, but I’ve got it (I think) and, against my will and better judgment, I feel a little thrill and a burst of relief each time class ends without the internet exploding. I  push all the right buttons, issue all the appropriate commands. Oh, joy! (😀).

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Image by Beyza Ozer

So here we are, suddenly, all of us: distance learning, e-learning, online teaching, virtual classrooms—the whole bewildering turmoil. I soldier on, necessarily but not happily, all the while with an irritating chorus of cheerleaders in the background pushing me forward: “online learning is an excellent way to increase student engagement and differentiate instruction;” “digital tools save time and do the heavy lifting by providing ready-to-use lesson plans, instructional materials, and assessments;” “distance learning can continue delivering instruction without disruption even in events like snow days or the COVID-19 pandemic.” Every line offends what I know to be true about teaching, and my sense of what it can achieve, but, wow! snow days or COVID-19—that pretty much covers the waterfront; wait! better add floods and fires and extreme weather.

I was particularly annoyed when I saw my neighbor Arne Duncan, former Secretary of Education, on TV finding, as always, a silver lining in the catastrophe (after Katrina, you may remember, he famously declared that New Orleans was now liberated to create a whole new school system from  scratch!), this time ushering in the pandemic as dress rehearsal for the “classrooms of the future.”

Come on, Arne— Zoom is not the future of classroom life or teaching. In fact, that response betrays a staggering ignorance about the nature of each. When I saw Arne jogging while on my walk the other day, I suppressed the desire to strangle him, and, fortunately, remembered that  I couldn’t get closer than six feet.

Of course distance learning is nothing new—I took a correspondence course on figure drawing in the 1950s (a bust in my case, although I liked the colored pencils) and was tempted to take another on body building offered by Charles Atlas (the advertisement in the back of my comic books promised I could transform myself from a “97-pound weakling” into a tough guy who would never again allow a bully to kick sand in my face at the beach—of course I didn’t have a beach, but whatever). Correspondence courses and distance learning stretch in all directions—back to 1873 and the founding of the US Society to Encourage Studies at Home, onward to 2008 when salvation was offered in the form of MOOCs, or massive open online courses. A colleague of mine at the University of Illinois at Chicago told me in 1995 that e-learning represented the end of educational inequity: “In the remotest village in the Third World, or the most segregated poor neighborhood in this city, a student will be able to access the best professors and hear the best lecture ever given on Romeo and Juliet!” OMG!

charles-atlas-comic

The “Great Books Program” has been around for decades, and the “Great Courses,” a series of video classes produced and distributed by the for-profit Teaching Company based in Chantilly, Virginia, claims to have developed over seven hundred courses and sold over fourteen million copies—once again “the greatest scholars and their classic lectures.” So with these and other entrepreneurs already up and running, along with the millions and millions of books out there, why are we even bothering with Zoom? Or classes. Or bricks and mortar. Or professors.

A colleague with experience in distance learning told me that online classes are to actual classrooms what frozen pizza is to home-made pizza: similar ingredients but a vastly different experience. Staying with the metaphor, pizza delivered is straightforward and concrete, as well as often delicious; real classrooms can be delicious as well, but not because the teacher/pizza person “delivered instruction.” Teachers might write books and record lectures—I’ve done both—and those can be more-or-less delivered into the waiting hands (pizza-style) and upturned heads of hungry consumers.

Classroom teaching is quite different—it’s a relationship, a transformative journey for everyone involved. That’s why good teachers come to class ready to teach, but also primed to see, to hear, and to know their students as three-dimensional creatures, much like themselves, each the one-of-one, each a member of the group—an intimate encounter that cannot adequately take place at a distance. The teacher comes as a student-of-the-students, prepared to change lives, and simultaneously prepared to be changed by the propulsive, life-altering energy that’s released whenever a human being’s mind expands or rearranges itself.

Caution: Class Underway—May Be Explosive!

Social distancing is such an awkward, ugly term as well as an unfamiliar but necessary practice we’re all learning to implement together. As we move through these dire and unpredictable times, we might change that language and call it what it is: social solidarity—among the zillion things we can do to help one another out as part of a shared community is to break the chain of contagion and allow some sensible space between us—it’s an act of cooperation, really, not distance or isolation, and an expression of human harmony and not dissonance. Let’s call it by its truer name: social solidarity!

I have two seminars this term, one on Writing Creative Nonfiction, and one on Ethics and Education. I have students zooming in to class from western Canada, Eastern Europe, the Bronx, South Asia, Texas, and places in between. Their circumstances are dramatically different, of course, and yet they are uniformly flexible and forgiving, kind and generous with me and with one another, comrades facing the world arm-in-arm. Each seminar is scheduled for three hours a week, but I’ve kept  to about an hour and a half, supplementing with extensive office hours, and regularly correspondence with my students.

Both courses invite us to peer into the pandemic and shine a bright light on the many, many  contradictions that the virus illuminates. The ruling class—the powerful, the wealthy, the 1 percent and their enablers in the political class—has an agenda that’s aggressively promoted in good times and in bad, an agenda pulled quickly from the bottom drawer in any crisis and rushed relentlessly toward center stage. So here we are: the privatization of public goods and services, massive transfers of wealth from the public to the private, the destruction of participatory democracy and the erasure of the public, the suppression of voting, the reduction of education and health care and public safety to products, the intensification of white supremacy, and more. And so we wrestle in class with the outlines of an alternative agenda—what are we willing to fight for?

The perennial contradiction between “we” and “me”—a basic human tension with vast social, cultural, and political differences and dimensions—lurched violently toward an exclusive “ME” in our country in 1980 with the “Reagan Revolution” and its racist dog whistles, its opposition to any concept of collectivity or the public, its weaponized individualism, and its anemic, libertarian definition of freedom. Public safety became “own a gun;” “public education” became a product to be bought at the market place; public health was reduced to “take care of yourself.” The word itself—public—in some contexts was racially coded: public welfare, public housing, public aid, public transportation. Saint Ronald Reagan, godhead of the Right and the icon to whom every Republican leader bends a knee and genuflects piously to this day, famously said this at his inauguration: “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” That’s the dogma we’re now suffering together now, and that’s the orthodoxy under examination in seminar.

In the opening scene of the Cohen brothers’ Miller’s Crossing, Johnny struggles to explain to the big crime boss, Leo, how he’s been wronged by an associate mobster, Bernie.  “I’m talkin’ about friendship,” Johnny says, and the camera lingers on the saliva forming in the creases of his thin, menacing smile.  “I’m talkin’ about character,” he continues structuring his case. “I’m talkin’ about—Hell, Leo, I ain’t embarrassed to use the word—I’m talkin’ about ethics” (pronounced e-tics).

“When I fix a fight,” Johnny proceeds indignantly, “Say I play a three to one favorite to throw a goddam fight. I got a right to expect the fight to go off at three to one.”  Then Bernie, the lying cheat, hears of the deal, manipulates the situation, and the “odds go straight to hell.”

“Now, if you can’t trust a fix,” Johnny whines, “what can you trust?”  Without ethics, he concludes, “we’re back into anarchy, right back in the jungle. . . . That’s why ethics are important.  It’s what separates us from the animals, from beasts of burden, beasts of prey.  Ethics!”

“Do you want to kill him?” asks Leo, cooly.

“For starters,” Johnny replies earnestly.

Johnny, Leo, Bernie—and the Trump mafia—are all talkin’ about ethics.

And the crisis rages on.

27 April 2020


William Ayers, formerly Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) has written extensively about social justice, democracy, and education, and teaching as an essentially intellectual, ethical, and political enterprise. His books include A Kind and Just Parent; Teaching toward Freedom; Fugitive Days: A Memoir; Public Enemy: Confessions of an American Dissident; To Teach: The Journey, in Comics; Race Course: Against White Supremacy; and Demand the Impossible! A Radical Manifesto.

 

 

 

 

 

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Covidity

 

Question Mark

Susan Bee, Question Mark (2017, 30” x 24”, oil on linen) used by permission of Susan Bee.

 

Charles Bernstein

The covid gonna get me
If not now, it will
The covid gonna kill me
Find me where I live

Buried under covers
Sheltered in the hall
Trading goodbyes to all my friends
Through goddamn15-foot walls

The covid’ll get me
Get me bad
My lungs are weak
And I am much misunderstood

I practice social distance
Even got an oversize mask
Feel like the Lone Ranger
Just before he got the clap

The covid going to find me
If not today, in time
The covid after me
Find exactly where I am

Call it social distance
I call it pain in the soul
You say I can handle it
But it’s too heavy a load

The covid ’round the corner
’ll thrash me till I blue
But that’s not my worry
Terrified for you

You’ve always been distant
But not from me
Now I feel you drifting
Like you’re far out at sea

The covid gonna get me
If not now any day
The covid got my number
Knows just where I stay

You say I’ll manage social distance
That I can make it work
But if I’m distant from you
I’m sunk before I swum

The covid gonna get me
If not now, soon
The covid has me up all night
Fighting ’gainst all this gloom

Too much death surrounding
I darn near given up
Keep calling on the telephone
But you’re hung up on Skype

The covid coming
Sure to get us good
Our lungs are weak
And we are much misunderstood

24 April 2020


Charles Bernstein is the Donald T. Regan Professor emeritus of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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The Demon of Distraction

Irina Dumitrescu and Caleb Smith

 

When we first heard talk of a quarantine, we thought about open spaces closing down: travel bans and militarized border enforcement on an international scale, isolation orders that would restrain movement closer to home. The collective endeavor to flatten the curve seemed to entail drawing smaller and smaller circles around ourselves.

Now, as we inhabit our narrower circuits, the partitioning of space plays out for us in time. Closures disrupt the ordinary rhythms of business and pleasure, work and play. Some days seem to last forever; others flit by. What day is it, anyway? Lately the clock and the calendar seem obsolete. They still count the time, but they are measuring it for the people of some bygone civilization, the modern but outmoded Empire of Business as Usual. Just when we have time to ourselves, time becomes a problem for us.

clock-11

What gives us the feeling of losing touch with the old time, we know, is not only the reorganization of space but also, especially, the interruption of work. Even for those among us who are still healthy and being paid, the drift feels nervous, scattering. In other words, the phenomenology of being off the clock, of slipping out of what E. P. Thompson calls industrial modernity’s “time discipline,” is something other than a feeling of freedom. We are not so anxious about losing time anymore, but we begin to worry that we are getting lost in it.

We have been trying to get a handle on our time, to give our days some structure. Heightened distraction provokes a revival of old-fashioned devotional exercises. Cloistered away like so many monks, we seek solace in regularity, rituals of community, and working with our hands. We set up daily schedules of activities, plan happy hours in virtual chat rooms, and plant seasonal gardens. We craft. The global crisis of the coronavirus pandemic, hypermodern in so many ways, brings with it swift regression to ancient metrics of ceremonial time and reversion to preindustrial styles of labor.

In the fifth century, John Cassian wrote a systematic description of Egyptian monastic life. Cassian knew how difficult it was for the monks to endure their solitude, to remain steadfast through the monotony. One of the greatest dangers was restlessness: the mind wandered, the eye roved, soon enough the monk abandoned his cell and his vow. The term Cassian used, acedia, is often translated as “sloth,” but in the monastic tradition it meant something more complex and more severe than simple laziness. Borrowed from the Greek ἀκηδία, lack of care, acedia was a roving, lonely, agitated sensation, a feeling of being unhappy in one’s place that could spiral into downright depression.

Evagrius Pontius, the fourth-century theologian, analyzed the “noonday demon” in his catalogue of sinful thoughts. “When he reads,” wrote Evagrius, “the one afflicted with acedia yawns a lot and readily drifts off into sleep; he rubs his eyes and stretches his arms; turning his eyes away from the book, he stares at the wall and again goes back to reading for awhile; leafing through the pages, he looks curiously for the end of texts, he counts the folios and calculates the number of gatherings.”

Acedia in the tradition of the monks began with a lack of care. But the Greek κῆδος (kedos) underlying it had specialized meanings too. It referred to the attachments that bound people to each other. Κῆδος also described burial rites and honors, just as we still speak of attending a funeral or tending to the dead. Acedia is a special kind of distraction that comes on when ties to other people, and then to God, are severed: a lonely wandering of the mind.

Cassian, who had read Evagrius, highlighted the importance of manual labor in mitigating distraction: “On the heart’s slippery movements and thought’s unstable undulations” the monks “fasten the weight of toil as a kind of steadying and immovable anchor.” Much of the Egyptian monks’ labor was practical, aiding subsistence in a tough environment. There was a special place for fruitless toil too, however, as an opportunity to exercise obedience and cultivate devotion. Cassian tells of Abba John, a monk who carried himself so humbly that his mentor began to doubt his sincerity. Was John really virtuous, or only acting the part? To test him, the teacher stuck an old, rotted branch in the ground and ordered him to water it twice a day until it came alive again. For a year John watered that stick, walking four miles to get the water. Neither winter, nor holidays, nor illness broke his fruitless routine. He never questioned or complained. Finally, the elder pulled the stick out of the ground and tossed it aside.

Is our elective labor, often as ritualized and empty as Abba John’s, a way of seeking solace in our powerlessness? To be sure, much of what we are doing now is the poorly remunerated but essential work that really is necessary to the world. We teach our children and cook our meals, or we perform similar acts of care for others. We clean, over and over again. We carry out the labor we knew was fundamental–if often despised or ignored, largely by way of its gendering–all along.

But what of all the other tasks that the idle invent for themselves? No family will be saved from hunger by four baby lettuces growing in a hydroponic garden. We will not wear our hand-knitted clothes after the apocalypse. Even the homemade facemasks so lovingly crocheted or sewn out of colorful cloth scraps are only a symbol of protection–may, indeed, render anyone venturing outside in them less safe. By one measure, making these things is unproductive, a waste of time–and yet there is a difference between this evidently useless work and the soul-killing “bullshit jobs” David Graeber has taxonomized, those paper-pushing positions “so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify [their] existence.” The work we turn to now is unproductive, but it finds another use as a steadying anchor. It serves a therapeutics of attention.

Modern political philosophy has regarded attention with a deep ambivalence. In Capital, Marx describes attention as the force that binds the worker to the task. “The less he is attracted by the nature of the work and the way in which it has to be accomplished, and the less, therefore, he enjoys it as the free play of his own physical and mental powers, the closer his attention is forced to be.” Here, paying attention does not mean freely exercising a natural human capacity. Instead, attention becomes an instrument of exploitation.

Following Marx, E. P. Thompson argues that religion gives early industrial discipline moral legitimacy; attention is little more than supervision, internalized as an overseer God. Bringing this analysis into a more thoroughly secularized modernity, Jonathan Crary shows how the menace of distraction on the factory floor leads capitalists into an alliance with academic psychology, seeking to maximize workers’ focus and efficiency at their machines.

All along, though, critical theory has also taken on the culture industry and the society of the spectacle, uncovering the pernicious ways mass entertainment holds multitudes in thrall. The spectacle, as Guy Debord imagines it, “concentrates all gazing and all consciousness.” If attention can be instrumentalized in labor discipline, then distraction can be cultivated for the purposes of political pacification, a consolation for the acquiescent.

After the rise of digital media and the internet, such an analysis seems almost inescapable. We are in the attention economy now; attention deficit is our mass predicament. It is not E. P. Thompson but the Simone Weil of Gravity and Grace who seems most lucidly to see into our souls: “We have to try to cure our faults by attention.”

In the current feeling of disorder — with its swarms of buzzing news updates, its time flowing recklessly out of form — we sense that while the pandemonium is intense, it is not exactly new. The stream of public chatter had already surged into a flood before the pandemic. The hours for play and rest and work shaded into each other long ago. The demons of distraction have been with us for a long time, though we hear them more clearly in the present quiet.

The monks of late antiquity practiced manual labor and focused meditation to protect themselves against their invisible adversaries: evil spirits, like the noonday demon of acedia, who whispered temptation in their ears. Is our turn to the same ancient practices a way to defend ourselves against our own unseen enemies? We are bombarded with commands, asked to hark to unfathomable calculations of danger. In response, we take up small daily tasks, and we find, in this temporary, half-willing submission, some chance to repair ourselves.

For now, at least, our disciplines of attention are decoupled from our jobs. What will be the consequences of this untethering? We can’t help viewing the situation with some suspicion. It is easy to anticipate what the acolytes of Max Weber might say: Our voluntary makework betrays our deep internalization of capitalism’s compulsions; when no one else will require us to work, we’ll require it of ourselves. It might be suggested, too, that our exercises in attention are really distractions of their own, detaching us from the real world of economic and political conflict.

But when we recognize that our distraction partakes of ancient afflictions and that our disciplines of attention are older than machines, these are not the only prospects that come into view. There is no reason why the care of the self should have to end in isolated withdrawal. If we work with our hands and focus our minds in the face of a modern incarnation of acedia, it may be that we seek something deeper and more connected than self-discipline. We might not just be biding our time and keeping ourselves fit for a return to a more familiar time. We might also be learning how to live in another kind of time altogether, learning to tend to the living and the dead.

22 April 2020


Irina Dumitrescu is a writer and Professor of English Medieval Studies at the University of Bonn. She is the author of The Experience of Education in Anglo-Saxon Literature (2018) and editor of Rumba Under Fire: The Arts of Survival from West Point to Delhi (2016), a collection of essays about the arts and humanities in times of crisis. Caleb Smith is professor of English and American studies at Yale University and the author of The Oracle and the Curse (2013) and The Prison and the American Imagination (2009). He is writing a book about disciplines of attention and the history of distraction.

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