Serialized Short Story, Conclusion: “I count myself as lucky if even this letter should find its destination.”

He: Accidental harm & love are not unlike time. We can look back & ahead only so far or so wide. Pleading anything more, successfully or not, is pretense, unavoidable though it may be.

* * *

I originally read your note in the dead of night, having awakened at 3 or 3.30 in search of a glass of water, and have ever since been toying with the notion of what happens to silent compliments — the ones stowed for later in the pocket, or under the hat for safe-keeping, or even under the ground for memorialized forgetting. The words not said, don’t the poets & mystics talk about how they’re the ones with the most power? But do words need to have power to act? I’m not sure.

Clumsiness, awkwardness, trains of thought that’ve skipped the tracks and emptied their cargo — compliments regrettably given, praise painfully accepted — these are the moments, the silences that aren’t the terminal sort for which poets & mystics clamor or yearn — that occur along the way … to what, exactly? … frustrating all our noblest intentions and greatest efforts — such as when you excitedly read aloud the most ‘beautiful thing ever’, whatever it is, to a kindred, and hear their coldness & inattention as you do; and, oh, you’re loathe to continue, but you do, and somewhere within (but not identifiably because) the persistence something happens — perhaps to neither of you — for you may remain disappointed and she bored — that redeems the frustration and inattention — that doesn’t change a person or circumstance so much as affirm and allow both — doors thrown open and welcomes met with wine — and upon reflection, maybe, sometimes, one of you, maybe neither, maybe somebody sitting nearby watching, is pleased to have bore witness.

* * *

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Why deny obvious racism?

In the wake of the horrific white-supremacist terrorist attack in Charleston, a disturbing number of people — including the governor of South Carolina — seem dedicated to downplaying, ignoring, or even denying the obvious racist motivations of the attacker. Arguably the only thing he could have done to make his intentions more clear would be to tattoo “I am a racist” on his forehead. Why deny it?

This is especially strange to me because the usual reactionary strategy would be to seize upon this extreme and exceptional instance of racism in order to imply that only such extreme and exceptional cases are properly racist. Probably the best-known example of this dynamic is the treatment of rape, where the exceptional case of a stranger using extreme violence is taken as the normative case. In both instances, the intent is to take advantage of the existence of extreme cases in order to downplay more common, everyday cases.

This rhetorical strategy is deplorable, yet clearly effective. What’s more, the Charleston massacre seems like an absolutely classic occasion for its deployment. So why are so many people opting for the seemingly much less convincing strategy of outright obfuscation and denial?

This is a serious question. I discussed it briefly on Twitter, but my hope is that blog comments will provide a better forum.

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Serialized Short Story, Part 4: “I oblige, with needlessly reserved happiness.”

It began, this game of ours, innocently –
Did it not?
A private humiliation,
This, our affair, it lacked reciprocity.
Only the give, never the take, shall we say –
Of erotic provocation.

This was not ours.
We inhabited our little injustices, our fears and fucks,
Like they were bodies –
Never so much piled high, these,  as they were flung low –
To the dingy proud and impoverished gluttons waiting to set upon
And devour them.

You say –
I left you alone.
I say –
I let you be.
The distinction, you claim, is more sadistic than a slap,
And this, I agree, may be so –

But no less true.

* * *

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Descartes: Epistemology as Theodicy

I am probably stating the entirely obvious, but taking a class on Descartes’ Meditations this year, it struck me for the first time how closely his epistemology is linked to a theodicy.

It is well known that God plays a significant role in the structure of the work. It is the proof for God’s existence in the third meditation which establishes the possibility of moving from the certain perception of one’s own existence to any confidence that the external, material world exists. Crucial to the argument is that the idea of God is the idea of a perfect being. By establishing that ideas possess a kind of reality which demands a causal explanation, and that a finite imperfect being cannot be the cause of an idea of perfection, Descartes builds his escape route from the cogito to an external reality.

However, as soon as the proof is given, we are presented with a new problem. If God is, in reality, perfect, why has he created a being like me who is obviously imperfect and prone to error? Descartes argues that, while my will and capacity for judgement is unlimited (like God’s), able to range over any object, my intellect is finite. Problems arise when I make judgements which surpass the reach of my intellect. Confine myself to what I can know clearly and distinctly, and I will not go wrong.

The problem facing Descartes is that he must maintain two things at once. On the one hand, he must present us with a clear and distinct idea of a perfect being, an idea we know to be that of perfection. On the other, he must maintain the limitation of the intellect, or his theodicy falls to the ground, and with it God’s perfection.

So we read that we do not need direct knowledge of actual perfections, but knowledge of attributes which imply a perfection; that it is not surprising that I do not understand how God acts; that perhaps there is a bigger picture in terms of which everything can be justified, but I don’t have access to it. Repeatedly, we are told that we cannot complain, that perhaps the answer is out there. Evil is a privation, not something God has made. And so on. At this absolutely crucial fulcrum of the argument, everything becomes clouded in an Augustinian fog.

It is striking, then, that at the heart of the radical, rationalist foundation of modern epistemology is a theodicy which demands a theological humiliation of knowledge. And I wonder if there is something haunting the continuing theological and forensic power of the language of ‘justification’ which has played such a key role in epistemology since then. It demands a kind of compliance with ‘what there is’. Our knowledge is guilty until we reach a point where it is justified by an external factor: and then, we have surrendered the right to complain.

Serialized Short Story, Part 3: “the mildly therapeutic, if nevertheless flatulent, confines of ‘expressing yourself'”

There is also a real need for the work one shares with others to be about more than the one who shares? For some this motivates political poetry (about people & systems). For others, religious verse (about practices & signs)? Or, still for others, like me, & I think you, to the necessity that a truly memorable writing is one that is so stylized & intentional that the author herself is lost within, but by no means vanished by, the language?

No, none of this should come necessarily at the loss of the writer, her identity, or luggage of issues, etc. When done well, shouldn’t it deepen their significance beyond the mildly therapeutic, if nevertheless flatulent, confines of “expressing yourself”?

* * *

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Regimes of feline visibility

Foucauldian cat

For a long time, we have been accustomed to talk about cats. They wander the streets, they live in our homes, and they populate the internet in the form of images and videos. While the latter is admittedly a new phenomenon, it does nothing to shake our firm opinion that cats have existed from time immemorial.

In reality, the cat is a recent invention, which only came into existence within the last two decades. This is not to say that animals with certain identifiable anatomical and physiological features did not exist prior to the late 1990s. Doubtless, people kept these creatures as pets, employed them to hunt mice, left food out for them. Yet what we know today as cat is an unheard-of innovation, which has shaken the entire Western episteme to its core.

The cat’s genealogy is not to be traced through the familiar apparatus of the zoological chart, which would place the feline genus among the mammals. Instead, we must turn to the series of shifts in the technological field that, while small in themselves, converged to create an entirely new regime of feline visibility — an epochal shift that would bring these private household animals into the public sphere for the first time, constituting a radical new concept of cat within whose horizon we still in some way live.

I am speaking, of course, of the deployment of the camera phone. What must be called the camerafication of the cell phone was at first doubtless a marketing gimmick, an attempt to distinguish certain phones from others by providing a differentiating feature that was meaningless and even useless in itself. Who, after all, had any need of a camera on a day-to-day basis? We ask this in all innocence, as though the camera was a familiar tool. We behave as though we can trace a steady development of the camera from its earliest “precursors” over a century ago, through to the handheld model, the Polaroid, the disposable camera, and its digital model. What we are accustomed to view as a gradual accretion of “features” and “capabilities” on a tool whose concept and nature remain constant, is in actuality a history of ruptures, breaks, disruptions, unexpected redeployments — of which what we could also call the phonification of the camera is only the latest and surely not the last.

It would require a quasi-infinite investigation to detail all the many shifts in the history of that related but not identical technology that we call the “picture” — all the discourses surrounding the distribution and visibility of pictures, the power-knowledge that invests their production and dissemination in the form of family albums, newspapers, old shoeboxes, bulletin boards, magazines, and all the other apparatuses that provide us with access to what we know as “pictures.” The decisive step in our genealogy of the “cat” is the deployment of “sharing” in the digital realm.

With the advent of “photo sharing services,” wholly new forms of display opened up, entire regimes of the ocular. And what did we share but our very cats. Those animals that had once been a byword for isolation — and here one would need to trace the vast and complex history of the deployment of the “cat lady” in the field of discourse — were now sharability itself. The cat as we know it was born.

We are the first generation to castigate ourselves for taking so many photos of our cats. The appeal of the figure of the “cat” is seemingly irresistible even as it seems trivial or even risible. The cat is put forward as our savior from boredom — at work, during lectures, on the subway — when in reality the entire technology of the cat is a deployment and production of boredom. And even when we finish reading this blog post, it is likely that we will turn to yet more pictures of “cats.”

Silent partners

Someone once told me that Foucault recommended that everyone should have a thinker they’re always reading but never write about. When I heard that, it struck me that mine is Foucault himself. I started reading him in college, and I’ve been reading and rereading steadily ever since. When I’d gotten through most of his published works, the lecture series started coming out. I kept up with those at first, but as I started falling behind, I started teaching Foucault. Now I’m in a reading group on The Order of Things, which I somehow skipped before.

In sum, Foucault is probably in my top five for authors I’ve read most. Yet it never occurs to me to write on him. I might use him here or there — for instance, I’m planning to do something with him in The Prince of This World — but I’d never sit down to write something thematically on Foucault.

A big part of this is my perception that Foucault is a scholarly mine field. There are so many controversies over his development and the appropriate way to periodize his work that I can already anticipate people dismissing what I have to say with the scholar’s deflationary “it’s much more complicated than that.”

The same goes for another figure I’ve spent a lot of time on but never formally written on: Heidegger. There, however, it’s more a question of not having plowed through as big a proportion of the vast material available. I know that there’s probably some text or seminar — preferrably a late one, judging by the more popular secondary works in recent years — that completely changes everything and shows that I don’t know what I’m talking about.

What about you, my dear readers? Do you have any silent partners of the kind Foucault describes?


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