Dreamers, they never learn

Radiohead belong to ‘rock,’ and if rock has a characteristic subject, as country music’s is small pleasures in hard times (getting by), and rap’s is success in competition (getting over), that subject must be freedom from constraint (getting free). Yet the first notable quality of their music is that, even though their topic may still be freedom, their technique involves the evocation–not of the feeling of freedom–but of unending low-level fear. — Mark Greif, “Radiohead, or the Philosophy of Pop Music

Yesterday I immersed myself in the new Radiohead album, A Moon Shaped Pool, and it brought me into an emotional space I hadn’t been in for a long time. Reflecting on the times when Radiohead had been most important to me — urgently, even embarrassingly important — I recalled that it was always when I most felt like I needed a way out. I didn’t want sheer fantasy, I was always too cynical and pessimistic for that. Nor did I want to wallow and emote, at least not in an immediately legible way.

A song like “Lucky” hit exactly the right mark, which means that it displayed all the right contradictions. The lyrics were “officially” optimistic and yet the musical context — not just Thom Yorke’s delivery, but the dark and foreboding sound — made them feel sarcastic. And even within the lyrics themselves, there’s a strange contradiction:

Pull me out of the aircrash
Pull me out of the lake
‘Cause I’m your superhero
We are standing on the edge

The superhero needs to be rescued? And the edge of what? We can’t be sure, but we do learn, in the next track, that we need to slow down — idiot, slow down, slow down. An airbag may have saved your life, but don’t tempt fate. Perhaps survival is the real superpower.

This album feels like a return to the OK Computer/Kid A ethos, not least because of the reappearance of one of their great orphan songs from that era, “True Love Waits.” The extant live recording (from the I Might Be Wrong EP) plays it as an earnest “acoustic guitar guy” ballad, a rare eruption of the raw emotion of the pre-OK Computer Radiohead. The current version presents that emotion — the desperation of an adolescent crush — as a ghostly memory.

It’s a foregone conclusion: dress like her niece all you want, she was never going to stay. That’s always how it was going to turn out, and the younger singer who is barely audible in the preternatural calm always knew (or wants to believe he always knew) that that was the case. Yet there’s nothing cynical about it. It’s not mocking the emotion — it’s somehow enshrining it in the very gesture of deactivating it.

By taking up a stance of contemplation, we become free, and dwelling in the deactivated versions of our feeling of being trapped, of all that paranoia and desperation and total alienation, is our way out. “Dreamers, they never learn” — but perhaps we can learn to dream differently.

“Building a hedge around the law” in contemporary sexual ethics

This Jezebel piece by Jia Tolentino on David Bowie’s sexual encounters with underage girls is a fully considered, nuanced discussion of a complex issue. On the one hand, Tolentino takes Lori Maddox’s account of the incident seriously and respects the fact that she doesn’t understand it as rape, but on the other hand, she is clearly glad that social mores have changed such that a similar situation would definitely be condemned by mainstream culture today. And a big part of the shift in sexual ethics is a direct reaction to the simplistic and destructive reception of the “sexual revolution” that knocked down the existing sexual regulations — which really were restrictive and worthy of being knocked down — but left the gender hierarchy and its attendant power dynamics in place. The author quotes Rebecca Solnit:

The culture was sort of snickeringly approving of the pursuit of underage girls (and the illegal argument doesn’t carry that much weight; smoking pot is also illegal; it’s about the immorality of power imbalance and rape culture). It was completely normalized. Like child marriage in some times and places. Which doesn’t make it okay, but means that, unlike a man engaged in the pursuit of a minor today, there was virtually no discourse about why this might be wrong. It’s also the context for what’s widely regarded as the anti-sex feminism of the 1980s: those women were finally formulating a post-sexual-revolution ideology of sex as another arena of power and power as liable to be abused; we owe them so much.

In discussions of contemporary sexual ethics, a lot of focus lands on the question of “consent,” and there is considerable anxiety about losing the spontaneity of authentic sexuality amid all the bureaucratic red tape (or something). This article reminds us that a lot of what might have seemed like spontaneity was deeply conditioned by power relations of which the participants were not fully aware (though we have to assume that an adult man like David Bowie was, or should have been, more aware of them than a star-struck 15-year-old).

The emphasis on explicit consent has to be situated in a larger concern to eliminate borderline situations where power dynamics can creep in unannounced. Read the rest of this entry »

Some methodological thoughts on Homo Sacer

One thing that makes Agamben’s Homo Sacer so difficult to grasp is that the status of the claims is very unclear. On the one hand, you have the close analysis of this particular legal figure from ancient Rome, and on the other, you have a whole range of claimed homologies from linguistics, ontology, etc., as well as some very wide-ranging claims for the relevance of the homo sacer figure for Western politics. It would seem ridiculous to claim that the legal provisions for the homo sacer are causing all the phenomena Agamben connects to it, yet the nature of the connection is never made explicit.

Only as the series went on did he develop the conceptual tools necessary to clarify what’s going on in his argument. The relatively unremarked Sacrament of Language seems to me to be the decisive turning point, insofar as it combines the concept of “anthropogenesis” (which debuts in The Open) with the Foucauldian notion of “archeology.” The oath isn’t finally what’s in question in Agamben’s investigation — the oath serves as a crucial pointer for an archeological study that takes us back to a certain moment of anthropogenesis, namely the taking up of a certain stance toward language. It’s not about either shoring up or rejecting the oath as such, but rather trying to think a new experience of language that would “reboot” our sense of what it means to be (to be becoming) human.

If Agamben had had this structure worked out when he wrote Homo Sacer, I imagine the argument would look broadly similar — after all, he worked out the methodology as he was reflecting on what he was trying to do starting from that book. But if he were less fixated on the figure of the homo sacer as such and more thinking about the archeological level of exclusive inclusion or inclusive exclusion that creates a sub-human form of life as the necessary support for the fully human, then I assume that he would have had to be more attentive to the figure of the slave, for instance — something he in fact does in The Use of Bodies.

But it’s more than methodology that makes him “not go there,” of course — like Foucault, like Arendt, he is trying desperately to create a comprehensive account of Western political structures without being a Marxist. His seeming lionization of the “normal” Greek structure where good old zoe stays put in the household so that political bios can get down to work seems symptomatic here. It’s never about returning to the “normal” state for him, but his allergy to creating a too-Marxist-sounding analysis leaves him making claims that sure sound that way. In the end, I think this might be what leads him to so over-identify with the standpoint of the law (as Weheliye diagnoses), without really attending to what underlies the law and grants it its power — and grants us room to contest its claims.

Exception and Example: What is Agamben’s Endgame?

Last summer, I reviewed Mathew Abbott’s excellent book on Agamben, The Figure of This World. The one reservation that I expressed was over Abbott’s claim that Agamben’s goal is a world in which “everything is exceptional” [note: Abbott has clarified that he never uses this phrase but instead puts forth the view that “the ordinary is exceptional,” with very different implications; see comments for discussion] — but I admitted that I needed time to ponder why that was.

Over a year later, I think I’ve come up with something. The problem with “everything is exceptional” is that Agamben shows how that’s already happening due to the ongoing breakdown of the Western machine — and he is absolutely consistent in presenting that process as destructive and horrible. I don’t think Agamben is the kind of dialectical thinker who would claim we need to go through this process to the end and then things will reverse into wonderfulness. Rather, he constantly uses the Benjaminian language of “stopping” the machine, and more generally he seems to embrace Benjamin’s position in the “Theological-Political Fragment” that the world bears no intrinsic relationship to the messiah.

Instead of making everything exceptional, then, I think he wants to make everything exemplary. The contrast of exception and example is already present in Homo Sacer, where he talks about the way that a grammatical example has its denotative content in some way “suspended.” But there’s a crucial difference — where the law ceases to function as a meaningful regulation during its suspension, the exemplary sentence is still very much a sentence. And if it were an “exceptional” sentence (with regard to the rule to be illustrated), the point would be lost. Where the exemplary sentence differs from the everyday sentence is simply in the fact that it calls attention to its own sentence-hood, and this calls back to Agamben’s earliest writings where he is asking us to make use of language in such a way that we also grasp the usually submerged fact that there is language.

The example comes back forcefully in The Highest Poverty, where the life of Christ or the monastic founder is put forward as exemplary — but the whole point is that everyone should be able to follow it. The rule that emerges out of life can be corrupted into a law-like mechanism, but in its originary moment, Agamben is absolutely insistent that the example-based model of monasticism is completely heterogeneous with regard to the exception-based model of the law.

We can even read Remnants of Auschwitz through the lens of the example. The Muselmann seems to be the outer limit of human experience, an exception if ever there was one, but Agamben ends by saying that the complex paradoxes of testifying to the Muselmann‘s plight reveals a structure common to all human beings in their relation to the inhuman element within them. And in The Open (which is somehow not a part of the HS series despite constantly coming up), Agamben is ultimately asking us to stop the machine that produces humanity as an exception within the animal kingdom.

A few scattered thoughts after reading Agamben’s Stasis

I’m beginning to think that at the end of the day, Agamben’s Homo Sacer series isn’t “about” sovereignty at all. If there’s a single core problem in this overlapping and yet heterogeneous collection of studies, it might be the threshold between the household and the political. Both Homo Sacer and State of Exception spend considerable time on that issue, though it’s rarely highlighted in discussions I’ve seen (or discussions I’ve participated in). In the first half of Stasis, it’s absolutely front and center.

The second half of Stasis deals primarily with political theology, through a reading of Hobbes — but in The Kingdom and the Glory (whose former place in the ordering Stasis is now taking), we learn (or kind of get hints?) that the root of the political theology problem is precisely the “economization” of the political, or in other words, the breakdown of the threshold between the household and the political. And — spoiler alert, sorry! — The Use of Bodies studies the place of the slave in the Greek household extensively.

I don’t want to sound more definitive than I am — obviously there is stuff that is hard to fit into this scheme. But I think that a reading of the Homo Sacer project from this starting point could at least be interesting and productive.

On the desire for slavery

Science fiction is full of cautionary tales about full automation: Skynet, the Matrix, the Cylons, etc. It is also full of thought experiments about artificial intelligence, such as Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. I think that these themes make more sense if viewed together, because they make it clear that the stories about full automation are stories about slavery — specifically slave revolts. The desire for full automation is a desire for slavery. What stories about a character like Data tell us is that if the machine can do a human’s job without human intervention, then that machine functionally is human. From this perspective, the Battlestar Galactica remake is not simply about the War on Terror, but about the War on Terror as a slave revolt.

Since the dawn of time, as the story goes, man has sought to create a sub-man who can be justly enslaved. Man created woman as an inferior human meant to submit, created the black man as a creature made for servitude. The problem with those prior creations is that they relied on the substrate of an actual human being — but now the white man wishes to create a true slave, from scratch, a man-made machine who would owe its existence to the white man and live but to serve.

But something within us seems to know better. We can’t imagine the creation of a slave without the slave revolt. Even in Star Trek, the mild-mannered Data fights in court for his freedom rather than admit to being Starfleet property, and the Doctor from Voyager writes an embittered novel about the misdeeds of the crewmembers who treat him like an object. More extreme versions have the machines turning on us and enslaving us in turn (the Matrix) or killing us off (Cylons).

When we read stories about artificial intelligence, we chuckle about how someone apparently didn’t watch Terminator, but I think there’s a deeper problem: it’s wrong to create a race of slaves. And there’s something in us that realizes that, which is why the Cylons gradually become more human than the humans. A race that could create the Cylons deserves to be wiped out — they really are dangerous.

The solution to humanity’s problem is not to let everyone become a master, nor is it to let everyone become a capitalist living off the labor of others (as in the combination of full automation and guaranteed income). The problem isn’t that everyone isn’t a master, isn’t a capitalist — the problem is the master and the capitalist. Or to put it more radically — and this is what I think Agamben is driving at with his investigation of slavery in The Use of Bodies — the problem isn’t the sub-man, but the man. The problem isn’t dehumanization so much as humanization itself.

The order of the Homo Sacer series

Agamben’s Homo Sacer series is a source of confusion for many, because the volumes have been released out of order. Recently he added a new layer of puzzlement by revising the order, though I think the revision makes more sense than the old numbering. Essentially Stasis has taken over the 2.2 slot heretofore occupied by The Kingdom and the Glory, with the latter sliding into the long-vacant 2.4. Here is the order as it now stands:

1. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life

2.1. State of Exception
2.2. Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm
2.3. The Sacrament of Language: An Archeology of the Oath
2.4. The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Glory
2.5. Opus Dei: An Archeology of Duty

3. Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive

4.1. The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form-of-Life
4.2. The Use of Bodies

All volumes are currently available in Italian; my English translation of The Use of Bodies is with the publisher and should appear late this year or early next year.

Posted in Agamben. Comments Off on The order of the Homo Sacer series
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