Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Monday, March 03, 2008

Loss, Connection, Transformation

I find myself thinking today about a beautiful passage in Judith Butler's Undoing Gender that seems to me among her most Arendtian… Indeed, Butler really goes Arendt one better in the passage, finding natality (the political life of novelty, variation, and beginnings) in mortality (the political life of limits, discipline, and the administration of ends (life/death)) itself.
[O]ne mourns when one accepts the fact that the loss one undergoes will be one that changes you, changes you possibly forever, and that mourning has to do with agreeing to undergo a transformation the full result of which you cannot know in advance. So there is losing, and there is the transformative effect of loss, and this latter cannot be charted or planned....

To be ec-static means, literally, to be beside oneself with rage or grief. I think that if I can still speak to a "we" and include myself within its terms, I am speaking of those of us who are living in certain ways beside ourselves, whether it is in sexual passion, or emotional grief, or political rage. In a sense, the predicament is to understand what kind of community is composed of those who are beside themselves.

It is easy to see why Butler's perspective would resonate with an Arendtian like me, especially back when I was just starting out, devoted as I was to queer politics first of all. But it seems to me now we need to think the democratic politics of shared creative expressivity (much of which testifies to loss and the fear of it) and collaborative problem solving in these terms, especially in that most fraught and promising place in our own historical moment, as the politics of emerging p2p democratization confronts and intertwines with collective awareness of ecosystemic catastrophe and loss. Butler and Arendt still speak to me in this moment as much as ever.

Butler contrasts her perspective on mourning with what she disdains as a "Protestant ethic" or -- one assumes -- facile rugged individualist -- perspective in which one tells oneself, "Oh, I'll go through loss this way, and that will be the result, and I'll apply myself to the task, and I'll endeavor to achieve the resolution of grief that is before me." It is precisely this sort of facile denial of loss and disavowal of the collective working through loss that is world building that I think drives much of the Superlative Imaginary I critique so regularly here on Amor Mundi.

Superlativity is the techno-utopian fantasy that seeks not the emancipatory transformation of the open but always finite human condition, but a desperate "transcendence" of that finitude.

Confusing the openness of futurity with a fanboy's enthusiasm for particular visions of "the" future, whether found in the pages of science fiction novels or the scenarios of corporate futurist "non-fiction," this is the always retro-futural vision of the conventional futurological imaginary, the reactionary face of radical technoscience (as against its many promising progressive democratizing and emancipatory faces) that sees emerging technique as a mastery that changes everything on the surface while prolonging endlessly the root concepts and institutions of the contemporary staus quo.

Confusing the promising and dangerous elaboration of human agency and collective freedom with the sad old fraud of the rugged individualist but now encrusted with a "superhumanizing" or "posthumanizing" roboticized shell, this is the damaged, deluded, death dealing egotism of the bankrupt Western subject writ large, fueled by fear of pain and death rather than love of lived life, fueled by disgust for the actually-existing vulnerable variety of bodies in which life is lived, fueled by the pampered ignorance of privileged people mistaking their dependence for genius, their luck for destiny, their parochialism for The Way.

In the richer understanding of freedom emerging from Butler -- so resonant for me with Arendt's accounting of it -- read through the lens of freedom's most demanding moment, the derangement of narrative selfhood inaugurated by losses beyond bearing in the terms available to ourselves as we have been to ourselves -- Butler insists we find ourselves here in "[s]omething… larger than one's deliberate plan or project, larger than one's own knowing." (To know yourself, by yourself, says Arendt, is as impossible as trying to jump over your own shadow.) It is right here that Butler lodges her conception of autonomy:
The body implies mortality, vulnerability, agency: the skin and the flesh expose us to the gaze of others but also to touch and to violence. The body can be the agency and instrument of all these as well, or the site where "doing" and "being done to" become equivocal. Although we struggle for rights over our own bodies, the very bodies for which we struggle are not quite ever only our own. The body has its invariably public dimension; constituted as a social phenomenon in the public sphere, my body is and is not mine….

As Butler puts this point elsewhere, to speak of "the body" is always already to be speaking of the socially legible body.
[I]f I seek to deny the fact that my body relates me -- against my will and from the start -- to others I do not choose to have in proximity to myself (the subway… [is an] excellent example of this dimension of sociality [I will add here, that our definitive unchosen encounters with family, authorities, mass mediated figures, and so on are a key part of this point as well -- d]), and if I build a notion of "autonomy" based on the denial of this sphere… then do I deny the social and political conditions of my embodiment in the name of autonomy? If I am struggling for autonomy, do I not need to be struggling for something else as well, a conception of myself as invariably in community, impressed upon by others, impressing them as well, and in ways that are not always clearly delineable, in forms that are not fully predictable?

Here, the claims of autonomy are inextricable from an embrace of futurity as radical openness and agency as interminable social struggle rather than any facile politics of a linear or unilateral or instrumental aspiration toward "the future" that is always anyway just some parochial characterization of the present, but imagined as endlessly prolonged and repackaged and essentialized and superlativized, the future as always only retro-future.

For me the key to a properly democratized politics of autonomy is always to lodge autonomy in the legible (what I describe elsewhere as substantiated -- that is to say, both informed and nonduressed -- and hence substantiating) public scene of consent, the inter-personal inter-ested (inter-esse, being with and in-between things) scene of "feeling together" that enables both like-mindedness and permission.

6 comments:

Kyle Parry said...

Hear, hear.

You point to "ecosystemic catastrophe and loss."

I find myself wondering what we can say of mourning when

a) we mourn the loss of something we did not know we had, or better, did not find ourselves consciously attached to
b) we mourn but we know not what we mourn, as in it is either too multiplicitous, too elusive
c) consequent to the mourning is the rebirth of that person/thing, as in we mourn what we can simultaneously restore
d) we mourn the losses we anticipate

All four of these, of course, being possible paths of mourning "ecosystemic catastrophe and loss."

They would show how complex mourning can be, and how an aspect of the natality of mourning is the various objects the mourning brings into the light of the mourned object, and a second aspect is the mourning of mourning, how the mourning is and is not at the same time.

Perhaps it is the task of "shared creative expressivity" as you call it, to to gives images of what we mourn, just as it gives images of our mourning, just as it gives images of the natality of our mourning, so on.

It is for the ec-static "we" to give unity to the active cause, united around a shared sense of "ecosystemic catastrophe and loss." The non-autonomy, the non-Nature of the object that we lose is, of course, essential and a source of creative power for what follows.

jfehlinger said...

> Butler really goes Arendt one better in the passage, finding natality (...beginnings)
> in mortality (...ends (,,,death)) itself.

Oh, those deathists! ;->

> > I find myself wondering what we can say of mourning when. . .
> > we mourn the loss of something we did not know we had

Don't it always seem to go
that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone?
They pave paradise, put up a parkin' lot[*]
Shoooh, ba ba ba ba
Shoooh, ba ba ba ba

[*]with a pink hotel, a boutique, and a swingin' hot spot

De Thezier said...

Studies show that "disembodiment—that is, transcendence of body constraints in cyberspace—in online chat affects social psychological well-being. The results demonstrate that disembodiment is a strong predictor of increased loneliness and depression, and decreased social support. However, the amount of chat use is a positive contributor to decreased offline estrangement and depression, and increased happiness. These contrasting results suggest that online chat use is a technology for social connection used for offline connectivity, but the disembodiment motive is associated with declines in social support and psychosocial well-being."

How does your politics of autonomy factor this in?

giulio said...

Yet another apology of the body defined in terms of its mortality and vulnerability.

You are beginning to sound like one of those preachers who tell people that they should be happy in their misery because we are born to suffer. Or like those Victorian writers who exalted the lives of the poor, while of course their masters accumulated wealth and they, like all good lackeys, got some crumbs of their masters' wealth.

I never considered myself as a rugged individualist, but if a rugged individualist is defined as someone who deals with things and achieves his objectives, then I am happy to be one.

You claim to be a person of the Left - did you ever read Marx?

De Thezier said...

Yet another apology of the body defined in terms of its mortality and vulnerability. You are beginning to sound like one of those preachers who tell people that they should be happy in their misery because we are born to suffer. Or like those Victorian writers who exalted the lives of the poor, while of course their masters accumulated wealth and they, like all good lackeys, got some crumbs of their masters' wealth. I never considered myself as a rugged individualist, but if a rugged individualist is defined as someone who deals with things and achieves his objectives, then I am happy to be one.

Wow... I honestly never cease to be amazed by this man's ability to entirely miss the point.

You claim to be a person of the Left - did you ever read Marx?

Although I am not sure what he has written that would make any rational person question whether or not he is a person of the Left, doesn't Dr. Dale Carrico actually teach Marx?

Jonathan Pfeiffer said...

Alisa Carse made very similar remarks today about personal vulnerability, namely that biomedical technologies can serve as distractions from the fact of human vulnerability.