Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Issue 23, November 2012)

BB: I want to go back and retrieve something from Precarious Life that has been meaningful to me. If it is not affect and the availability to touch that Butler founds (like Sedgwick) for our commonality, it is something close: our bodies and our common development as subjects who have first been related to others by our bodies. This is (most of) the paragraph that levels me.

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. Given over from the start to the world of others, it bears their imprint, is formed within the crucible of social life; only later, and with some uncertainty, do I lay claim to my body as my own, if, in fact, I ever do. Indeed, if I deny that prior to the formation of my “will,” my body related me to others whom I did not choose to have in proximity to myself, if I build a notion of “autonomy” on the basis of the denial of this sphere of a primary and unwilled physical proximity with others, then am I denying the social conditions of my embodiment in the name of autonomy?

What she does with this articulation is profound, to me. Conceding the equally bracing extrapolation that I certainly found myself making, that it is humiliating as an adult who “exercises judgment in matters of love” to reflect on the uncritical and boundless love and surrender one had as an infant or a child for one’s parents, she goes on to suggest the autonomous huff we get ourselves in, as avengers of some preconscious betrayal (the “child is father of the man” in the shitty dad way too), is actually a construction. (Stay with me, she says, and I do. I listen close, I sit up on the therapist’s couch—am I alone, he must have gone to the restroom or canceled our appointment.) She says to consider the common status we all share then, as selves with bodies that began with and are imprinted with dependency on others and, more to the point, vulnerability toward others. “Is this not another way of imagining community, one in which we are alike only in having this condition separately and so having in common a condition that cannot be thought without difference?” Beautiful, elegant, reassuring, and yet worrisomely inexact.

I’m reminded of Whitman’s most gently paratactic poem “The Sleepers,” (and maybe a little bit of the children’s book—did Lenny [MN’s stepson] read it?—Everybody Poops), which blesses all the nightly retiring bodies, underway in various predicaments and identities and partnerships, equivalent in their need for sleep, and conjoined by equivalence—but wait! Conjoined in their equivalence, is it a dream? A community of separate dependents reckoning separately their immersion in and immanence from dependency—is it too fantastic? Just as I don’t think Whitman’s poem is actually, performatively democratizing, as many are quick to claim, I don’t think our common experience of vulnerability assures anything close to interdependence or family-of-man humanism. (And this from someone whose practice of poetry is pervaded with “conjoined in their equivalence” sleights and other principles of sympathetic magic.)

But/and/so I am humbled and provoked by sitting with the real truth that my body related me to others whom I did not choose (and, as it turns out, would not have chosen!), and my latecomer’s (paranoid?) relationship with the outward-public and here-before-me (heraldic?) body that needed others to make it their own is made richer by Butler’s characterization. It seems important in the extreme not to build a notion of autonomy on the dismissal or disregard of that phenomenon. And that’s where I am at the moment with that. Here, with my cursor hovering a possible transposition: Needed others. Others needed.

MN: Indeed. I wonder, though, why you say that Butler’s proposition about community (i.e. formed from the common condition of each person’s vulnerability toward others—a condition that cannot be thought without difference) is “worrisomely inexact”? It seems related to your calling Sedgwick’s notion of reparative reading “disappointingly diffuse.” I guess, for me, if something is “beautiful, elegant, and reassuring,” as you say Butler’s proposition is, I feel it has done its (affective, not necessarily political) job. But maybe I am a push-over? I read their books to see things anew, to let different seeds be planted within me; I don’t look to them for plans of political action. But I suspect you don’t either.

I wonder, too, why commonality rushes, in your equation, into equivalence, as they don’t seem to me the same thing at all. I mean, everyone needs to poop, but not always equally, right? I guess what I’m saying is that it seems to me that there could be, should be, likely is, more difference within commonality than “equivalence” implies.

But maybe this is hair splitting. I agree with your more troublesome point: that the common experience of our vulnerability doesn’t necessarily assure us anything close to interdependence or family-of-man-humanism. I guess the point here—and it is one with which I think Butler would heartily agree—is that there is no guarantee. In fact, much/most of Precarious Life is concerned with what happens when our reaction to our shared vulnerability goes haywire, when we displace it onto others, when we smear our wounds around in an attempt not to suffer from them ourselves, and the disastrous consequences therein. I devote much time in my Art of Cruelty book to such dynamics, which I call (after certain Buddhist writings) “styles of imprisonments.”

As per Sedgwick’s writing on paranoia, sketching out these styles, or “knots,” to use R. D. Laing’s phrase, sadly does not guarantee anything about their undoing or redirection, no matter how clearly executed by the sketch artist (and I do always hope to be clear!). But I decided, in The Art of Cruelty, that the sketching was a worthwhile task anyway. I don’t have too grand a theory behind it, so far as pragmatism or the reduction of suffering goes—whatever theory there is, hopefully the book itself enacts it, by the simple performance of playing close attention to the knots, and then, when necessary, demonstrating that it’s OK to turn away from them. That one doesn’t necessarily need to unravel them in order to see them clearly, give them their due respect, then devote one’s attention elsewhere—to what I call in my book “rarer and better things” (a phrase lifted from Ivy Compton-Burnett, of all people!).

BB: Agreed. A little chime sounds in what you have said here. I’m afraid I read as a poet often, not as a footsoldier in the cause. Which is to say I am transformed a bit by the formulations of both Butler and Sedgwick, and the way I can metabolize that change is to isolate and lift and re-treat and repurpose to my present circumstance the locutions that have embedded in me, fuss with them, with their interrelationship to other elements that are impacting me at the contemporary moment.

I wrote a short poem last month that takes its title from Touching Feeling:

Paranoia Places Its Faith in Exposure

Some touch is received and the sensation is entire
at contact, and some touch there is a rising into. Lucky
the lover who is encouraged to fit or press
into the hand presented, lucky to have a hand, gloves off.
The hard jar against eyetooth and black jowl the tom
engineers if a fist presents, the kitten in the brick cinders
beneath the broken road, her dusty body knowledgeable.
Pick me up can also be as frequency and antennae do.

I’m still a little bit “in love” with this formulation of Sedgwick’s, in the title, with the wisdom of it as an urge to move past or move aside proving how all along someone has slighted or abused or deceived or desired you. I find in her aphorism and her personal paradigm shift a beautiful emblem hard won from the years of stunned citizenry under the Bush administration. Again and again the nightmarish fears of we who suspected deep corruption and abuse of power were proven correct, or very nearly so, and “broad daylight” turned out not to be much of a dissuasion and hardly a disinfectant. (That still floors us; I think of Rachel Maddow’s segment about congressional Republicans, “They’re Not Embarrassed.”) But here, I put the formulation in play in a small arena with a remark I made to someone who is very attractive to me and the observation similar to something Sedgwick investigates, that being touched is mysteriously constitutively different than touch. So I make a sort of oblique and even ambivalent love poem out of it, through which I answer or mean to please someone rather specific, and, I guess, wager the poem holds that energy for others. Partly I wonder whether it is “wrong” to use her episteme in this grammar. Do you also suffer from this, or am I particularly weak-willed?

MN: I, like you, read primarily as a poet, rather than a footsoldier, as you say, in any cause. I too have a long and deeply-ingrained habit of taking what I need and leaving the rest. You ask if I think it’s wrong to do so, to drag Sedgwick’s, or anyone’s episteme into a different grammar—and I say, of course not! It is, to my mind, THE action (or at least one main action) of poetry, of art. After working in academia a bit, and then moving to an art school environment, I would say that’s the biggest difference: academia privileges being scrupulous, because whole careers depend on poking holes—exposing—weak or undeveloped points in other people’s arguments. Art doesn’t function on the level of argument—or, at least, not all art, or most art—so the exposure model doesn’t hold. One loses a degree of rigor in the change, but one also gains.

Your concern about wrongness here reminds me of one of my favorite passages in Barthes’s The Neutral, which I’m currently deep into. The passage arrives in Barthes’s weekly response to the questions and comments his students have handed into him re: the previous week’s lecture. Here a student has taken issue with Barthes’s use of Buddhism in the previous week’s session, and the “seemingly uninformed way [Barthes] uses mysticism.” He responds:

. . . I thank her, but this observation reveals a misunderstanding about the way I proceed when I ‘cite’ (I call) a knowledge . . . It’s obvious that knowledge enters the course by means of very fragmented bits, which can seem offhand: this knowledge is never cohesive. It is never mobilized as doctrinal knowledge: I know nothing and do not pretend to know anything about Buddhism, about Taoism, about negative theology, about Skepticism . . . when I cite from Buddhism or from Skepticism, you must not believe me: I am outside mastery, I have no mastery whatsoever, I have no other choice than (Nietzsche) to ‘lose respect for the whole’: for the master is one who teaches the whole (the whole according to himself): and I don’t teach the whole (about Buddhism, about Skepticism). My aim = to be neither master or disciple, but in the Nietzschean sense (thus with no need for a good grade), ‘artist.’

I think about such issues quite a bit, perhaps because—unlike Barthes, who was teaching highly sophisticated and curious graduate students at the College de France—I teach undergraduate art students in California, who not only aren’t in need of a good grade (they are in a low-stakes, pass/fail situation), but who also don’t often strike me as needing to be disabused of the notion of the whole, or of mastery, or of knowledge. In fact, often I feel as though my job is the opposite—i.e. to let them know that such notions even exist! This all relates to larger questions I have about pedagogy: is “experimental pedagogy,” or a pedagogy that disavows mastery, a one-size-fits-all approach? Or is truly experimental pedagogy that which—like good therapy, perhaps—adapts itself to the particular humans at hand? How does the task of the teacher change in a culture in which reading, writing, and thinking themselves—radical tools, it seems to me—have become whipping posts, tagged as potentially dispensable in whatever wacko phase of capitalism we’re now in? The Neutral is so great on this account because it is literally a pedagogical text: it’s Barthes’s lecture notes, for God’s sake.

But back to poetry, which is our ostensible subject here: I’m all for dragging epistemes into poetry; my only demand is that they be metabolized, embodied or inhabited in some way—i.e. don’t toss in the word “Hegel” just because you want to sound smart, but don’t really give a hoot about the referent; don’t mock critical theory or terms for sport, especially with the aim of demonstrating that poetry doesn’t need those things, doesn’t need to be “thinky” in order to have value. Of course it doesn’t! Poetry doesn’t need to be thinky, or intellectual, in any proper sense! It can be, but it can also be a shimmer of mood scribbled on a cocktail napkin. And, as our mutual friend Aaron Kunin has recently demonstrated, in his brilliant and moving book The Sore Throat—a poetry with an intensely limited and accessible vocabulary can be extremely challenging and smart.

Perhaps I will here trot out a favorite phrase, one which I relied upon a great deal while writing Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions: “Each narrowing of what contemporary poetry is supposed to do bears with it an equivalent narrowing in the definition of a human being” (Douglas Oliver). Like Sedgwick’s axiom, “People are different from each other,” it’s so sage, so simple, and, I think, so true—yet it’s also so unbelievably hard to remember, or to learn how to live by.