Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Hélène Cixous Hyperdream: Derrida’s Gift of Death

Hyperdream is not a book about mourning. It is an act of mourning. Mourning for mother. Mourning for a friend: J.D. Mère. Ami. Mommy. My me. Morning comes and the narrator anoints her mother. This unction against death conjures another. Giving grieving to the mother whose living flesh skin is inscribed with moutheyesscarsores calling, gazing, insisting to be seen, holes to be healed. A skin of eyes. Unheimliche. The scene of the home, homme, femme, healing unto death. The gift of death from the giver of life. How does one go about mourning the present? “I’ll be this skin tomorrow” [1] The Twins burn into the night. “One dies in the end, too fast.”[2] Manhattan. May happen. Those who gave us the gift of life, the two (mommy-daddy) must always fall in time, towers collapsing into the ashes of tomorrow.

“This concern for death, this awakening that keeps vigil over death, this conscience that looks death in the face is another name for freedom.”[3] Freedom is the gift of death, the other’s sacrifice of the self, for the other, in the other. As the narrator keeps vigil over death, the death to come of her mother, she remembers 1) The Twin Towers in New York. 2) Her friend Derrida who she wishes she could telephone. 3) The bed her brother has been sleeping in that was once owned by Walter Benjamin. “You can always loose more.”[4]Leaves fall from trees to spring new life. More loss.

Benjamin’s bed, a literary inheritance her mother bought years before, a place to lie, alive. More life.

To sleep—perchance to dream. Ay, there's the rub! For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause.”[5]

The aura of Benjamin’s bed haunts the narrator with memories of her friend, conversations, conversions.

“Maybe I ought to convert.”[6] Her friend tells her once, promising to continue the conversation. She is haunted by never finishing this conversation, whether he was speaking to her or through her to himself. The conversion from life to death? Death to life? Christian conversion, as he speaks of in The Gift of Death? The call has been disconnected --------

But Derrida is granted a leave. Having left her once, he is given leave as a patient is given leave from the hospital of death to visit the world, this hospitality. Ghostpitality. A leave to converse, traverse the line of life and death. “And, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age.”[7] The narrator understands her loss is life. “We were dying of death, one goes on dying for a very long time, but since we might see each other again, life could ebb and flow, come back in go out again, I told myself, its warm flux irrigate all that was dead dying from the death of my friend, my animals, my trees my books my dreams all that was needed I told myself was to invent some superhuman strength[.]”[8]Life is always loosing. “Now and then one could re-establish the lines of communication that nourish friendship.”[9]Holding on to the haunting trace of the other established in the call, a call that continues past death, that even comes from death, beyond death, the call yet to come. “It is from the site of death as the place of my irreplaceability, that is, of my singularity, that I feel called to responsibility.” Response from death. The future’s call to the past to create the present. “I wanted to go on living on the hypothesis of leaves being granted but perhaps inside me the other side, my friend’s, truth to tell, had blazed itself a voice to which I’d never on my own have considered yielding, but which spoke to me with an authority I couldn’t not wish to yield to, supposing it was my friend’s, providing I myself remain unaware of this.”[10]

Now burning the ashes of yesterday’s tomorrow.

[1] Hélène Cixous. Hyperdream Trans. Beverly Bie Brahie. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2009. passim.

[2] An utterance attributed to J.D. that becomes a major mediation for the narrator. passim.

[3] Jacques Derrida. The Gift of Death. Trans. David Willis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. 15

[4] Cixous, passim.

[5] Hamlet Act III Scene 1 Lines 72-75.

[6] Cixous, 104.

[7] Matthew 28:20

[8] Cixious, 149

[9] Cixous, 146.

[10] Cixous, 159-160

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A Bad Joke: Nietzsche and The Dark Knight

Friedrich Nietzsche reconceptualized ethics by questioning the foundations of good and evil. He traced the terms back to what he called the development of “noble morality” and “slave morality.” Etymologically, the word “good” is related to the words the Goths, Greeks, and Celts used to describe themselves, an affirmative definition based on the nobility of life. “Bad” is the term for others in noble morality. However, with the development of “slave morality,” the terms were reversed in a negative definition that applies the term “evil” to what was formerly “good” and makes the “bad” become “good.” As Nietzsche explains, “[w]hile every noble morality develops from a triumphant affirmation of itself, slave morality from the outset says No to what is ‘outside,’ what is ‘different,’ what is ‘not itself;’ and this No is its creative deed” (p. 36). Absent immanent affirmation of life, slave morality must develop an elaborate mechanism for enforcing itself as not the other. This is because since the rise of the church in Europe the rules governing morality have been in the hands of a priesthood, and, according to Nietzsche, “The truly great haters of the world have always been priests” (p. 33).

For Nietzsche, the victory of Christianity in Europe is the spread of a certain type of attitude that defines the self in relation to others: “The slave revolt in morality begins when ressentiment itself becomes creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment of natures that are denied the true reaction, that of deeds, and compensate themselves with imaginary revenge” (p. 36). The meek are promised that they will inherit the earth as a way of stopping them from becoming active against their masters, a reactive force. It is ressentiment that defines the self by first negating the other, by projecting evil onto the other, in what is a failure of forgetting. For Nietzsche the noble is able to forget any perceived slight against itself, because it is strong, but the weak latches on to the evil as a means of developing the self: so that evil is both something that we apply as a label for the other that we conceive of as our oppressors and a source for our own bad conscience in recognizing that evil is also inherent to ourselves. In the reactive, slave morality of the person of ressentiment, the statement “They are bad so I am good” is what allows us to say “I am,” but so doing requires a memory of our own selfishness which triggers bad conscience. In the development of bad conscience there is an inability to employ “active forgetfulness, which is like a doorkeeper, a preserver of psychic order, repose and etiquette: so that it will be immediately obvious how there could be no happiness, no cheerfulness, no hope, no pride, no present, without forgetfulness.” (57-58). Christianity, and by extension modern European morality, has developed a system to overcome this forgetfulness, making us always aware of our debt, never letting us get over it. And the job of enforcing this order falls to the ascetic priests, those who deny life by enforcing a set of rules that create bad conscience by telling us that we’re evil, that life itself is evil, but also provide succor through adherence to their rules and sacraments.

In The Dark Knight the Joker describes himself as a man of action: “I don’t have a plan … I just do things.” The things he does include robbing a bank, kidnapping a fake Batman and killing him, attempting to kill the mayor, chasing a SWAT van with Harvey Dent in it around Gotham City, having Dent and Rachel Dawes kidnapped and tied to explosives, rigging two ferries with explosives, and lying. He is the man of active destruction. One wonders how these things can be accomplished without plans, however the Joker explains: “I just did what I do best – I took your plan, and I turned it on itself.” The Joker’s actions are reactions to the plans made by Dent, Batman and Jim Gordon, but in these reactive actions the Joker puts the forces of law and order (and Batman) in a position where they are forced to be reactive – his reactive force stops them from being active by making them reactive as well: a will to nothingness. As Gilles Deleuze explains, the fulfillment of nihilism is the nihilism that destroys nihilism, or the will to nothingness entails the negation of nihilism itself, so that the man of active destruction wants to be overcome. The Joker tells the mob that he wants to kill Batman, but he cannot and continue to exist. As the Joker tells Batman: “You. Complete. Me.” Batman and Joker are two sides of the same coin, the coin that Harvey Dent uses at first to “make his own luck” and then later in his acceptance of chance as destiny. Two-Face is born from the affirmation of destiny, the acceptance of the Joker’s role as an “agent of chaos,” because “you know the thing about chaos, Harvey? It’s fair.”

The Joker recognizes the ressentiment at the heart of the slave morality in Gotham City: “Their morals, their code … it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. You’ll see – I’ll show you … when the chips are down, these civilized people … they’ll eat each other. See I’m not a monster … I’m just ahead of the curve.” The rules of society – the rules of Harvey Dent and Jim Gordon – are a façade, according to the Joker, a reaction to the chaos that is the essential force of reality. So then is the Joker the “man of the future, who will redeem us not only from the hitherto reigning ideal but also from that which was bound to grow out of it, the great nausea, the will to nothingness, nihilism” (96)? It is the Joker – not Batman – who ultimately defeats the mob, but is not the Joker’s morality based on the syllogism “I am evil therefore you are evil?” The Joker sees in Harvey Dent the embodiment of society’s ideals and sees that through corruption of Dent he can bring Gotham down as well. And he succeeds, because Harvey Dent becomes Two-Face – the man of ressentiment – as a result of his failure to mourn Rachel Dawes. He embraces the Joker’s chaos: “You thought we could be decent men in an indecent world. You thought we could lead by example. You thought the rules could be bent but not break … you were wrong. The world is cruel. And the only morality in a cruel world is chance.”

Batman answers Dent by taking responsibility: “We decided to act. We three. We knew the risks and we acted as one. We are all responsible for the consequences.” Batman has only one rule, the rule he makes for himself, perhaps as the ascetic priest to Gotham City, giving meaning to the city by taking the crimes of Harvey Dent upon himself. He can do this without seeking revenge because in the end it is the Batman who is strong enough, who can take it.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Elegy for eloquence

In insomnolence I thought about the apparent superficiality of our society, considering whether it is not a condition made preferable by convenience of consumption. Upon reflection, it seemed to be a projection. In an attempt to understand the other's outlook, I often will rip off your face, erasing what life lies behind those eyes. Rather than brood on the jejune, perhaps I should return to my base and in solitude trace the texts that suture my place.

Be comfortable with complexity.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The selfishness of the subject and liberal (in)tolerance

The following is a response to John Sloop's Disciplining Gender written for Dana Cloud's Feminist Theory and Rhetorical Criticism class.

I think Sloop’s book highlights an important problematic to the idea of gender performativity as a means of resistance: transgression of norms invites disciplining, and in many of these cases the subjects paid for their “gender trouble” with their lives. Of course it is unacceptable that human beings were the objects of violence when their subjectivity came into conflict with external norms, but I think that Sloop’s examination of the discourses surrounding these cases shows that the ideal of ‘self-determination’ is problematic in that (re)presentations of subjectivity will always be structured within existing discourses. In other words, part of reclaiming marginalized subject positions is recognizing the role ideology plays in constituting those subject positions, or, recognizing the colonization inherent in the structuring of subjectivity in the position of the other. You can’t just celebrate oppression and claim to be empowered.

I have to situate my response within some observations of Slavoj Zizek regarding the neoliberal ideal of “tolerance.” Zizek argues that the ideal of tolerance hides within it an inherent disregard for the “other” in that we tolerate things that disgust us. As Zizek says, Martin Luther King never talked about tolerance because the idea of white people “tolerating” black people is repugnant. So the neoliberal idea of moral relativism or as Zizek says the celebration of the suspension of all rules is at heart an unethical system that betrays a disregard for the other and instead reinforces selfishness. Ie: No one is wrong except those who believe in something. How dare you question me? And the idea that if someone tells you that you are wrong you must be right because they are only reifying oppressive norms. That is no basis for an ethical system that respects difference and engages with others as equals. What is really going on here, according to Zizek, is a rebellion against the “Law of the Father” (norms) that hides a desire for disciplining. It’s really an adolescent subjectivity transferred into adulthood as if it’s a revolutionary positioning. As Lacan told the protestors in 1968 “What you want is a Master. You’ll get it.” To complicate things further, Zizek argues that this ideal of tolerance implies an elitist positioning in which those of us who are enlightened are somehow seen as beyond culture (or in a postmodern logic, we can choose our culture) and those who seen as barbaric are those who identify with their culture: for example, Muslims. In other words, the ideal of tolerance promotes a disidentification with culture that commodifies our subjectivity and inherently shows disdain for those who identify with the markers of culture. Respecting everyone's choices equally reifies capitalist hegemony.

Where this comes into play is in the problematic homophobia displayed by the cases in Sloop’s study. What is interesting to me that seems to be relegated to the background is that Brandon Teena’s biological sex was only discovered after he was arrested for what amounts to identity theft: check and credit card fraud. It is strange to me that this seems to not come into play in Sloop’s discussion of the perception that Brandon Teena was deceptive. Instead, we are supposed to accept Brandon Teena’s portrayal of himself as masculine without engaging the possibility that perhaps he really was being deceptive towards his relational partners as a way of negating his/her lesbianism. Because of the idolization of the enlightenment subject and respect for assumed agency (free will) in which the idea of personal responsibility is ignored as oppressive (because, you know, Republicans talk about it so it must be wrong). In the name of tolerance, we’re not supposed to interrogate the assumptions that caused Brandon Teena to perform masculinity in order to engage in relationships with women, while he was biologically a woman himself. In short, I wonder if his disidentification as a lesbian acts to make lesbians and gays invisible yet again. The same goes for the argument that k.d. lang’s ambiguity was somehow better than her identification as a lesbian, or Barry Winchell and Calpernia Addams’s disidentification as homosexuals, etc.

So while my theoretical positioning marks me as postmodern in that I draw primarily on the theories of Foucault, Derrida and Lacan, I also recognize the need for an ethical system (as they did, incidentally) that moves beyond simplistic relativism and perhaps reengages with psychoanalytic theory in recognizing that there are, in fact, dysfunctional subject positions. In other words, even though truth is always already situated within discourses of power/knowledge, that doesn’t mean we are supposed to accept everything as equally viable. Those subject positions that act to reinforce the oppression of homosexuals, women, people of color or the workers should be recognized as problematic rather than simply celebrated as “subversive = good.” Questioning the received wisdom of prior ethical systems does not imply that their reversal is the correct way to be.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The babies

You ever think about the life that someone born around now will have?
It isn't going to end with us. We have to leave them something. It should be something good.

It isn't that complicated. In the past all species have developed until they became extinct. Because they couldn't survive. Some of these we killed. Others died because of ecological changes. One of the things that distinguishes humans from other animals is the impact we have on the environment. A wolf might eat a deer, but damn thing isn't dumping poison into the oceans.

We do this. Because we have to have stuff. Because we are selfish and live for our own pleasure, ignoring the impact it has on anyone else.

A lot of people have talked about how to make the world a better place, but beyond sin, beyond oppression, beyond racism, beyond sexism, beyond whatever you want to call the bad in the world is the selfishness of evolution. That's what capitalism is: evolution. We compete to see who gets to reproduce. Or whose ideas get to reproduce themselves. Humans, see, can think about shit and figure it out. So we come up with ideas and those reproduce themselves in culture so we can become selves who fight to survive. So our DNA can get from here to there.

It is culture that keeps us from being condemned to the fate of all previous species who have had their day and died. We can talk all we want about the fallen civilizations of the past, but truth is the Roman Empire lives on in the U.S. and it will live on in China or whomever survives us. As a species we've only been around a little while, but we've managed to transgress our temporality because of our ability to communicate. A dinosaur could only warn his immediate contemporaries of dangers, could only pass on her acquired knowledge to immediate contacts. We can learn from those who have been dead for thousands of years.

People die. Culture doesn't. It just mutates.

We need to make sure there are hosts for it in the future. Because it is all we can leave of the past.


Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Think with me please.

Just read the words, don't think too much about what they mean.

A point becomes a line becomes a circle becomes a sphere becomes time becomes thought becomes language becomes consciousness becomes culture becomes reality becomes cosmos becomes God becomes a point.

Now think about each of these words.

A point becomes a line becomes a circle becomes a sphere becomes time becomes thought becomes language becomes consciousness becomes culture becomes reality becomes cosmos becomes God becomes a point.

Long ago before you remember running your eyes across these words the codes to make you were scattered all around the world. Right now you’re thinking, the primary concern in your consciousness is trying to figure out what the fuck I’m talking about, because you imagine there is someone on the other end of these words and they might have something to tell you worth knowing. The words you hear in your head so many of them get lost before you can utter them.

Or write them.

Floating back into the sea of signifiers. This is the sea that makes up our consciousness. As it flows over the sands of the shore that makes up the self. It shapes it. Ideology. Language. You learn it to shape the seas, to have some control over the flows, so you can have control over yourself. And your ability to shape it is what limits your will to power.

Because you want to be affirmed.

You want to know that you’re not the only one who sees how crazy it is. And you want to join with others. But in that is a body, made up of cells. The light from the screen triggers synapses in your brain. The most complicated thing in the universe. Exchange of energy. Time is your experience of the expansion of the universe. The reason things go in this order is because you are moving from here to there. In multiple dimensions. We directly experience only four, and those poorly. Yet people try to pretend that what they can understand of that is all there is.

The reason there are neurotransmitters sending bioelectricalchemical signals across your synapses is the same reason there is communication. Transfer of energy. The reason humans communicate is because the pattern for us is a double-helix structure made of nucleotides that alternate in a sequence of G A T C to form a pattern that tells your cells to make proteins to make you a human instead of, say, a dolphin. As the universe expands this pattern tends to complicate itself as the energy from the big bang is expended.

The DNA in a single cell has the pattern for the proteins that align themselves in the brain you think is you, it’s what you’re using right now to think about this.

Humans make shit to keep their thoughts trapped, so that they can spread to more people. First we invented speech, but we had to move around in spacetime so to make our thoughts able to move beyond the immediate air we invented writing. So on and now we have the Internet. Huzzah, more people can read this than even existed 2000 years ago. Jesus.

So we developed language to help DNA get from here to there, to keep the expressions of the immanent expanding with the universe. To make room for God. Who is always coming.

The reason we have hierarchy: because our DNA is making survival machines, competing for exchange of energy. It’s called life. It expresses itself as libido and manifests itself in many forms. But our DNA also wants to replicate itself by dominating the DNA of others, whether we are men or women, because we all have “dominant” and “recessive” genes. That doesn’t make the genes better or worse than each other, it just means they contain the programming for different things. And the new combinations make new survival machines that then want to spread their DNA forward through the aeons.

The DNA is more tied to females, though, because it is through them that mitochondrial DNA is transmitted, and that’s what makes our cells being alive possible. That’s why we eat, shit, fuck and kill. Just more going through the system. That’s why we have ideology, an emanation from the DNA that replicated itself in language so make survival machines that could work together to become more complicated. So oppression is an expression of the domination at work on the genetic level. We make up consciousness, culture, society and all this other shit to become another organism. So the mind doesn’t die with the brain, because the mind allows the body to survive, which allows the DNA to replicate itself.


A point becomes a line becomes a circle becomes a sphere becomes time becomes thought becomes language becomes consciousness becomes culture becomes reality becomes cosmos becomes God becomes a point.

Because you're just trying to get from here to there. Because the universe exploded into being. Energy going from here to there. Just as the DNA in your body comes from your parents and goes to your kids, the thoughts in your head are the ocean of signifers beating against the shore of your material existence.


Monday, September 08, 2008

Feminism and agency

"The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house."
-Audre Lorde

"It is hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head."
-Sally Kempton

I somehow managed to do all the readings for my Feminist Theory and Rhetorical Criticism class this week and it has made me think a lot about things I've had an ongoing discourse with others about for the past two years. One thing I consistently find is that I have a real problem with the ideology of individualism so common to our society, because I think it's essentially an appeal to selfishness and I'm kind of a Buddhist so that's not cool to me. This shows up in our articles this week and is nicely responded to by Barbara Biesecker and Dana Cloud (who, along with Josh Gunn, make up the trio of communication scholars I think are usually right).

Here's where I'm coming from:

I approach these problems from a critical perspective that views partiarchy, racism and capitalism as all part of the same hegemonic order. My theoretical perspective is informed by Marxist, psychoanalytic, Foucauldian and Deluezian theory. Huzzah.

So: I think appeals to selfishness are just another way of interpellating us as consumers. Which means we're colonized.

I believe that one of the ways 21st century hegemony works is by telling us that it's ok to objectify ourselves and others, thus robbing us of a position as a speaking subject. Objects don't have agency. Subjects do. Sort of (as subjects are formed by discourse). I believe this is part of our colonialization under late capitalism, where our identities are commodified and we're just another product on the market. From a psychoanalytic perspective, we become fetishes and fetishize(?) others to maintain them as "other" and reconstruct our identities as paranoid egos. Love has no place in hegemony. Love is consubstantial and breaks down barriers. We need barriers to sell shit.

So like, there are these theories of "empowerment" that I believe are just ways of buying into patriarchy from a different angle. They tell you others are selfish if their lives don't revolve around you. That others only have value inasmuch as they exist to serve you in some way. Doesn't anyone else see the irony there? This shit runs deep and many people probably don't even know it informs their perspectives. Once feminism deterritorialized sexuality, for example, capitalism responded by reterritorializing it.

Feminism reclaims sexuality by saying women can enjoy sex without being whores. Partiarchy/capitalism responds by saying "ok, but sex is still an economic exchange, whether you're a man or a woman. Women, you can have the currency, but you're still going to have to buy or sell." so we go out to the club and buy each other drinks to get each other drunk to fuck and think we're empowered (but you can't play a playa!). By reifying the mind/body binary and trying to seperate emotion from sexuality, capitalism wins because others just become another object to consume (also: you, mass-produced and marketed. We'll take your surplus).

Your body and mind are the same damn thing!

If you don't approach relationships from a basis of equality you're just becoming another tool in the system. If you think empowerment comes from manipulating others, it's because there are "outposts in your head." I don't think true empowerment comes at the expense of another. I think if you try to use the master's tools you end up becoming part of the problem. So there's that.

In Foss and Griffin's article about invitational rhetoric they say one of the fundamental principles of feminism is "self-determination" and my question is "what the fuck does that mean?" Does this assume an independent, rational subject? This, again, is a capitalist construction that makes us love our oppressors. We do what they want thinking it's what we want because, you know, we're colonized. Are we supposed to ignore the discourses that construct our subjectivity? Are we supposed to ignore the structures in our society that constrain our agency? Believing that if we do what we want we're doing what's best? What?!! What about other people?

There's a whole industry dedicated to constructing the illusion of self. "Self-help" books, "The Secret," "The Game" etc are all there to make us think more about what we want than what is good for society as a whole. Because if we start thinking socially we might question capitalism and they don't want that. But these are all parts of the discourses that construct our subjectivity and constrain our agency by determining our desires. You do what you want because it's what they tell you you want. Fuck everyone else. That's fucked up.

My answer of course is the doctrine of 'No-Self' and the Four Noble Truths. Desire causes suffering. That kind of thing. It is desire that chains us to our oppressors and makes us love it, making us another cog in a machine that is destroying the environment and keeping women, GLBT folks, people of color and the poor marginalized.

Which leads to another point I wonder about. In my master's program there were a couple people who insisted (by fiat, not really making an argument but saying it as if it's true and if I didn't believe it I was oppressing them) THAT only those on the margin can REALLY see the system. So automatically, I as a white middle-class male heterosexual should be taken as reinforcing the system with everything I say because, um, I'm not sure why. While I recognize that it took a lot for me to start (START) to understand my own privilege, I also have to wonder if my position as "master" doesn't give me some kind of insight into the master's tools. And perhaps on how they work on the colonized. Because while I obviously am wrong about a lot of stuff, I recognize that I can be seen as the "colonizer" rather than the "colonized." So, like, I'm sorry, but sometimes I look at people and just wonder how they can't be aware of how they are embodying angloamerican hegemony or whatever. I'm just saying. This isn't an idea I'm attached to. It's just something I've been wondering about.