Story, no story

from Trinh T. Minh-ha‘s Woman, Native, Other, with gratitude to Yukiyo Kawano, for showing me.

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The story is older than my body, my mother’s, my grandmother’s. As old as my me, Old Spontaneous me, the world….

Never does one open the discussion by coming right to the heart of the matter. For the heart of the matter is always somewhere else than where it is supposed to be …. There is no catching, no pushing, no directing, no breaking through, no need for linear progression which gives the comforting illusion that one knows where one goes….

The story never stops beginning or ending. It appears headless and bottomless … Its (in)finitude subverts every notion of completeness … We–you and me, she and he, we and they–we differ in the content of the words, the construction and weaving of sentences but most of all, I feel, in the choices and mixing of utterances, the ethos, the tones, the paces, the cuts, the pauses. The story circulates like a gift; an empty gift which anybody can lay claim to … yet can never truly possess. A gift built on multiplicity. One that stays inexhaustible within its own limits. Its departures and arrivals. Its quietness.

 

H-bomb ontologist

1-model-of-modern-h-bombHoward Morland, guy who released the H-bomb secret, as object oriented ontologist: “The most important impression I wanted my article to convey was that of the materiality of nuclear weapons. By describing a more or less imaginary weapon in graphic terms, I hoped to make the reader feel that he or she, or at least I, had actually seen one, inside and out. I wanted to prove with words and line drawings that nuclear weapons have size and shape. They occupy space. The parts are made by real people using real industrial equipment. They are transported, assembled, stored, and tinkered with as if they were tank turrets, machine guns, or any other military gadget.” The Secret that Exploded, (New York: Random House, 1981) 151

Learning how to live in the Anthropocene?

More thoughts arising from Roy Scranton’s piece in the NYT called “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene.”

I agree with Jonathan Skinner in his thoughtful response to my response. Scranton’s piece seems like a wake-up call. Asking people to learn how to die has drama. It may be the kind of rhetoric needed to penetrate political inertia in wealthy countries. Others of course are writing in similar terms about the Anthropocene. Timothy Morton, for example, declares in his book Hyperobjects that the world has already ended (twice).

The writings of the object oriented ontologists like Morton have been central to me as I figure out how to write/live this Plastic Autobiography. I find inspiring and transformative the idea of the ecological thought, and of a flat ontology that places everything on an equal plane of being.

But I noted something that happened in Scranton’s piece that also happens with the OOOs (whom he mentions): the lives disappeared. Perhaps making concrete the actual lives (and deaths) of U.S. soldiers, Iraqis, victims of Katrina, would have been too dissonant in a piece calling for people to “learn how to die.” Because of course, the death Scranton calls for is metaphorical, the death of a way of life.

In some OOO writings the engagement with the object in all its mysterious hiddenness seems to have the effect of not only deprioritizing the human subject but occluding  it altogether. As others have pointed out, the context in which objects come into existence—global capitalist production and all the inequities and exploitation it entails—tends to disappear. Some OOO thinkers have noted that this consideration of power structures is just not what OOO is about. Maybe not, but I’m interested in learning about possibilities for living in the Anthropocene—not just for my own life but for all the lives put at risk—so I’m interested in power structures.

In this line of thinking, I appreciate Jane Bennett in particular. As a political scientist, she places the human interaction with the object in an explicitly political context. She says it is the guiding question of her book Vibrant Matter, to ask: “How would political responses to public problems change were we to take seriously the vitality of (nonhuman) bodies?”

She also notes the limits of foregrounding objects, saying that she “elides what is commonly taken as distinctive or even unique about humans” only “for a while” and “up to a point.” She makes explicit that her project is motivated by concern for human survival.

I’m concerned with survival of many types of lives, not just humans. Nonetheless, I admire Bennett’s positioning. Setting limits, conditioning a stance—these are not bold and dramatic gestures. Such an approach is not likely to garner a headline in The New York Times. Perhaps we need both dramatic rhetoric and carefully delineated scholarship, every tactic possible to draw attention and change thinking. I admire Bennett, though, because her work shows a rigorous sense of responsibility to the subject matter, and to what is at stake. You know, lives.

Response to the luxury of learning how to die

Here is Jonathan Skinner’s response to my response to Roy Scranton’s piece in the New York Times: Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene:

“I myself read Scranton’s piece less as a call to mourn and rebuild than as an urgent wake up call, to the emergency of every day (beyond ‘kill the buddha’), that to be responsible to the demands of life on edge, including the needs of those who barely live, by everyday standards, one has to see one’s “own” mortality through, all the way. That the “developed” world can’t continue with the pretense of development–petroculture (to follow the rather undetermined leap Scranton makes from individual to society) must see through its own demise, before it can even begin to function, in any way that is remotely useful.

Well, that’s how I understood the argument Scranton was making, whether or not I agree. (Thinking about it . . . ) For credibility’s sake, he had to make that comment about being statistically safe, but it was a mistake for the terms of the piece. Even if the kind of reflection Scranton counsels *is* a relative luxury, then perhaps it’s a reflection on the mental moves necessary to response from positions of (relative) power. In any case, I didn’t read it as quietist . . . I’m trying to imagine reading an essay like this (in the NY Times) even ten years ago.

Then again, reading Will Alexander today, the essay “Ventriloquial Labor,” in Singing in Magnetic Hoofbeat (Essay Press, ed. Taylor Brady):

‘We face an insidious planetary future, collectively depleted by random cold, and patternless heat. The future, and the immediate future is like watching humanity being squandered inside a graph of poisoned condor’s milk. It’s as if an inward pole were shifting, leaving the living collective dulled by a withered orientation.

‘We are now left with inhuman probes, attempting to distill the outer worlds, yet compromised by their sporadic mechanical dysfunction. The nature of cosmic space being of such bizarre and invincible distance can never be apprehended by mechanical inquisition, never giving us the evolved level of communication which the race has subconsciously yearned for. So we are left with cellular objects, with electronic mails, with chatting rooms condensed by computer.

‘In this sense, the earth is proto-desolate, not so far as one would think from the primal desolation that one finds, while viewing vistas like Phobos or Ceres. . . .

‘What I prefer to sense, is a honing by human alchemic, to a zone where ventriloqual hearing would transpire. And by ventriloqual I am thinking of a rhythmical glottic, defining a ‘resonant pathway,’ ‘a cosmic lifeline’ extending ‘from the solar plexus through the reflective membrane of the planetary field on to the sun, and ultimately to the galactic core.’ . . .

‘Each utterance from this state is praxis by interior accuracy. . . .

‘I am concerned with language which breathes through explorational magnetics, alchemically superseding the poisonous metrical weight of our era.”

Another luxury? In the essay which (brilliantly) follows this, “The Zone Above Hunger”:

‘But as an artist, a poet, one does not have to curtail one’s power in order to evoke the suffering which comes from material deficiency. Inner radiance cannot be curtailed by the stones one has to sup with one’s bread.’

The luxury of learning to die

I read Roy Scranton’s “Learning how to die in the anthropocene” this morning via Jonathan Skinner. I instantly responded to it. It seemed just right—it set the tone of our moment. I tweeted it. Then I started really thinking about it.

Scranton notes that the biggest challenge of global warming is that, well, it changes everything. The global economy is predicated on technology that could destroy global civilization (and wipe out a bunch of other species in the process). The challenge of global warming, says Scranton, is “that now we have to learn how to die not as individuals, but as a civilization.”

Once we understand, he says, that our civilization is already dead—meaning, no longer tenable—we “can get down to the hard work of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.”

I realized I found that comforting, uplifting even, in the same melancholy way that gazing over ruins uplifted Romantic poets. If the end has already happened, well, the danger has passed, and we can get on with mourning and rebuilding.

One thing about the death of civilization, though—all these individual deaths keep haunting me. You know, the ones going on right now in the Philippines, hit two days before Scranton published his op-ed in the Times by one of the largest typhoons ever recorded. Here is the Filipino climate chief tearfully calling the world to act at the UN Climate Conference going on now in Poland.

Scranton has faced his own death. He was a soldier in Iraq. According to his essay, he faced his individual death admirably, with philosophy to help him. I’ve never experienced the kind of threat he lived through—and I hope never to—so I can’t say anything about it. Scranton notes, however, that even facing death he was “statistically” … “pretty safe,” given his membership in “the most powerful military the world has ever seen.”

He only glancingly mentions the fate of Iraqis, more than one hundred thousand of whom have died since 2003, and he barely alludes to deaths from Hurricane Katrina, where he watched on TV the same chaos and collapse he had seen in Baghdad, complete with uniformed officers shooting civilians.

Scranton glances past them, but there they are, the lives. They demand some response from us, don’t they? While those of us who have the luxury are learning how to die, what do we do about all the people who are actually dying?

The Beloved

Another in the ongoing saga of the car part. Isn’t it like a bridge, or a wing? This post is in tribute to Dominique Browning, who has the genius (and courage) to reduce the solution to its simplest, most powerful component: Love.

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Mortal: what hangs in the halo of its own blank, of course. Birth and death. In between—world. What exists. Stuff. Matter and form. Here it is. Kick it.

Heidegger, though, goes further. He says it is things that bring the world into presence. By thing he means all, even animals. He makes a list: jug and bench, footbridge and plow. Tree and pond, brook and hill. Heron and deer, horse and bull. Mirror, clasp, picture, book.

No thing just sits there, inert. The thing things, says Heidegger. It gathers, enfolding earth and sky, divinities and mortals.[i]

This rang in me with a lovely clarity. Yes I thought.

Then I read that scholars find the claim obscure, or they dismiss it as a poetic indulgence, as “gibberish.”[ii]

Gibberish implies sound with no meaning, nonsense. Nonsense suggests being lost, from “to find one’s way.” I wander for months, through the turn of a year in fact, winding inside the nested potentials of Heidegger’s strange language, the painstaking labor to shape into English forms his transmuted nouns and verbs, the odd creations that result, intricate thought structures crowding up.

But listen,

the thing things.

It calls out, the car part — curled now for months on the floor of my bedroom, the flat clap when I trip over it in the dark as I do almost every night. The thing become joke, a thought, root, a prop.

No, that’s not right.

Be-thinged.

We are the be-thinged, says Heidegger. I think “bejeweled,” which means covered in rhinestones applied with a hot gun, and also a videogame that requires lining up rows of matching gems, which people have downloaded more than 150 million times.[iii]

Then I think betrothed.

In “A Year in Music,” Dana Ward writes “Voldemort deposited the pieces of his soul in several objects to resurrect his wretched body later. I’m typing this up on a Horcrux now … Unlike the Dark Lord, the people lost inside each thing & thought this room contains will not get back the bodies or the time they have lost. Nor will you.”[iv]

Nor will I. Thus loss

this world

brings forth

out of stuff. Loss,

loss claims every relation

to matter since Plato

says Heidegger.

All images are after.

That’s Joan Retallack.[v] The instant of encounter involves a swerve, something changes. Lucretius, the first century philosopher, called it the clinamen, from clinare “to bend.” He imagined atoms cascading through space, but if they never swerved to interact, nothing could come into being. “The change invents what it changes” — Catherine Malabou.[vi]

But still this desire lingers to stop, to know a thing to its depths, to fix it in understanding. And isn’t that the whole impetus for this? For spending like this these hours of a life that will not be got back?

Be-thinged. Betrothed. Bedingt. The common meaning of the German word is limited, qualified, conditional.

Heidegger: “In the strict sense of the German word bedingt, we are the be-thinged, the conditioned ones. We have left behind us the presumption of all unconditionedness.”

The English word condition comes from Latin com, together, plus dicere, to speak. As in to negotiate, make a pact, set terms — dwindled over time to mean the terms themselves. The conditions to which one agrees. One is limited, partial, so one must address oneself to others, one must pledge oneself to each other as essential. As also a part. Not only people but all things, made and unmade, that form the world. This is it. There is no outside — no “over there” — to flee to. Therefore, one is thoroughly pledged, that is, betrothed.

Betrothed leads to love? The word appears once in Heidegger’s lecture, and it is not his. He is talking about the tendency in Western metaphysics to use the word “thing” to refer to anything at all. He quotes Meister Eckhart quoting Dionysius the Areopagite: love is of such a nature that it changes man into the thing he loves.

What if we shed all this and turned to things as ourselves, with love. Not as ourselves, but as they, the things, as us. What if we loved the thing as life itself, lives lost, bodies and time. We could not get back what’s lost, but maybe, betrothing ourselves, we could stop the loss to come. If we loved enough.

Not we. Me. Let’s say me. Let’s say I did this. I turned toward this piece of plastic. And thought to betroth myself to it, to the lives in it, against future loss. As a stop to the loss to come.

I wait.

For what —

a sign. For an albatross to wake from my chest and take flight.

But it remains just me. Me alone in a room with a car part, its dirty carapace curled around me. Me and my desire, which is boundless, sidereal. It glues its glittering look onto every surface.


[i] Martin Heidegger, “The Thing” in Poetry, Language, Thought trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), 178

[ii] Graham Harman, Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (Chicago and La Salle, IL: Open Court, 2002), 190

Graham Harman, Heidegger Explained: From Phenomenon to Thing (Peru, IL: arus Publishing Company, 2007), 129

Graham Harman, “Dwelling with the Fourfold,” Space and Culture 2009 12: 292 originally published online 8 July 2009, 297.

On the fourfold also see Graham Harman, “Time, Space, Essence, and Eidos:

A New Theory of Causation,” Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, vol. 6, no. 1, 2010.

[v] Joan Retallack, The Poethical Wager (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 10.

[vi] Catherine Malabou, The Heidegger Change: On the Fantastic in Philosophy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2011), 63