Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Heart and Head at Kalamazoo, or, The Displacement of the Entirely Out of Place

“Gloom and solemnity are entirely out of place in even the most rigorous study of an art originally intended to make glad the heart of man. ‘Gravity, a mysterious carriage of the body to conceal the defects of the mind’—Laurence Sterne” (Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading, p.13).

Jeffrey Cohen's recent disembodiment, Karl Steel's counting of tears, Eileen Joy's profession of love, and Dan Remein's shimmering essay on being-together as theoretical practice and communistic labor recall to me the truth of these lines which, in a fit of shy humanistic terrorism, I once wrote on the chalkboard of an empty classroom about 20 years ago in the hopeful fantasy of their affecting unknown others in a manner that would create and confirm our invisible friendship. Now (not just now, but now including all the nows up to now), this note, which shared in the logic of Eileen's ethical "as if" and Anna Klosowska's insights about the posthumous futurism of non sequitur at the Place of the Present and Why Am I Me? panels at Kalamazoo, respectively, seems to be taking effect, or rather, is finding its way back to me, like Macarius's grapes, back to my future, or rather, is being revealed to be not my note at all, but ours, or rather everyone's and no one's, an index and instance of the possession of what can not be possessed, the proverbial treasure that increases when shared, or rather . . .

So, a couple comments:

First, about place. The framing of the question of the presentness of scholarship in terms of place is more than rhetorical or metaphorical. I.e. it does not mean role, much less topic in the weak sense, but has everything to do with the present as the topos of our work in the fullest sense, as the placeless, always present place where we and it take place. This was confirmed in the shared vocabulary of the presentations at the Place of the Present session (wandering, restless, affective, performative, presence, peripatetic, mendicant/monastic, communal, beside) which nearly took on the structure of a fugal composition on the theme of Sufistic Medieval Studies, with Nancy Partner's opening remarks serving as the generative countersubject, if I understand my music theory correctly (which I don't). For the place of the wandering scholar, in all the senses that this figure had meaning at the panel, is precisely the place of effective and affective embodiment, the ongoing present of our own taking place. To recognize this is not for one second to deny--clearly the obvious is what most needs repeating--the real specific material ends (public, political, pedagogical, philosophical, etc) for which scholarship can and should "most rigorous[ly]" work, as Steven Kruger's comment about good work made clear. Rather, to recognize the academic's performative, communal, brushed-up-against body as the placeless place of scholarly practice, is precisely the opposite, namely, the finding of the very space and means and opening for the actual realization of those ends. But this is not something that criticism or rather the critical subject, enthroned in the tomb of its Cartesian detachment, subsisting in the dungeon tower of 'if only' rather than wandering in the paradise deserts of 'as if,' is comfortable with. Such comfort belongs rather to the third area of the proto-discursive and the post-civilized:

"The localization of culture and play . . . is neither within nor outside of the individual, but in a 'third area,' distinct both 'from interior psychic reality and from the effective world in which the individual lives'[Winnicott]. The topology that is here expressed . . . has always been known to children, fetishists, 'savages,' and poets. It is in this 'third area' that a science of man truly freed of every eighteenth-century prejudice should focus its study. Things are not outside of us, in measurable external space, like neutral objects (ob-jecta) of use and exchange; rather, they open to us the original place solely from which the experience of measurable external space becomes possible. They are therefore held and comprehended from the outset in the topos outopos (placeless place, no-place place) in which our experience of being-in-the-world is situated. The question 'where is the thing?' is inseparable from the question 'where is the human?' Like the fetish, like the toy, things are not properly anywhere, because their place is found on this side of objects and beyond the human in a zone that is no longer objective or subjective, neither personal nor impersonal, neither material nor immaterial, but where we find ourselves suddenly facing [like Karl Steel before an animal, and the animal before you] these apparently so simple unknows: the human, the thing." (Giorgio Agamben, Stanzas, p.59).

Second, about torture and philosophy. At the Place of the Present panel I unsuccessfully posed or perhaps poorly articulated a question about what I perceived to be the philosophical agon "behind" the presentations, namely, the contest between the Cartesian subject (o the misfortune of nominal adjectives) which by believing in its rational transcendence of the world only ends up reducing itself to another, 'mere' thing in the world (cf. Agamben's definition of evil in Coming Community) and the phenomenological subject which sees itself as an inexplicable presence whose inherent wonder attends to and inhabits every act of world-making and understanding, as the place of the never ending beginning of philosophy. That my question was answered by an intentional non sequitur to the issue of torture is, now that I think about it, the best possible and the most telling of answers. For just as torture intends to disclose, materialize, prove the tortured subject only to destroy it, so is concern for torture the perfect place for the critical subject to hide (not that it might not do good work while it is there, caveat, bla bla, etc.) most intimately and unconsciously from itself and others.

So, lastly, it was lovely to see (and feel and know and witness) the displacement of the entirely out of place by the taking-place of medieval studies. All told, it was like being in several places at once, being antipodally (Cf. Matthew Boyd Goldie's wonderful paper on the antipodes), with and without a globe between. Je est un autre. Which of course is the work of love, the philia that forever haunts philosophy from the inside.


anna klosowska said...

Hi Nicola, I love the idea of invisible friendship! I think that Babel makes invisible friendships visible. I cannot tell you all enough how much I craved that, and how much the withdrawal hurts. Here is what I think: we are soo Sufi, we should adopt Descartes like we (we?) adopted the Littlest Shriner. I am thinking of Dalia Judowitz's 20-years old distinction between two Carthesian subjects: the subject of the meditations, bounded, rational, mathematical, and the subject that thinks that subject: fugitive, fugue-like, who has thoughts like "what if my head is a glass jar? what if I am a pumpkin" and who, with perfectly medieval style, gets all his ideas (about the Carthesian subject) from a disturbing and prophetic dream that drives him half-mad. What do you say?

Eileen Joy said...

Anna's description here of the Cartesian subject who is both bounded and mathematical and the "subject who thinks that subject" in the fugue-like way that produces what I would call ridiculously beautiful [and imaginatively necessary] questions inspired by dreams that drive him mad, is, I think, perfect for BABEL. But do you think it could be printed on a t-shirt?

Nicola Masciandaro said...

Tutto e possibile in questo mondo.

Perhaps we could find a BABELian riff on Descartes's cogito ergo sum and Augustine's (and Descartes's) dubito ergo sum, but something that gets away from the solitary first person.

An idea: we could splice "dubito ergo sum" with the Latin ending of "where two or three gather . . . ibi sum in medio eorum" to read "Dubito ergo sum in medio eorum" [I doubt therefore I am in their midst], which also picks up the 'middle' and fits on a tshirt.

Or, perhaps even better, "somnio ergo sum in medio eorum" [I dream therefore I am in their midst].

Eileen Joy said...

Wow. I like: "somnio ergo sum in medio eorum" a LOT. That will definitely fit on a t-shirt. Notes being scribbled now.