The spectacle of police officers at UC Davis pepper-spraying peaceful, seated students last week has, rightly, caused an outraged uproar both within and outside the Occupy movement. Bob Ostertag, a Davis professor, has pointed out that even in prison riots, prison guards are forbidden to use pepper spray on seated prisoners because they are “not considered to be an imminent threat,” and that when prison guards plan to use pepper spray they are required to have medical personnel on the scene to treat the victims. Today, as a means of welcoming this blog back to the land of the living (after my year-long bout with finishing my dissertation), I plan to investigate the significance of the Davis police’s actions in my customarily roundabout way.
Last night, I watched Chris Marker’s La jetée, a 1962 short French dystopian film about time travel, and Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, a 1995 film inspired by La jetée that, as you probably recall, stars Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt. Both films take place in a dystopian future where humanity has been forced to live underground due to the ruination of the earth’s surface — in La jetée, the cause is nuclear war, and in 12 Monkeys it’s a viral epidemic. In both films, the protagonist is forcefully “volunteered” by the draconian government of the survivors and is made to participate in time-travel experiments designed to help humanity out of its desperate situation. In La jetée, the protagonist is sent back in time on a series of short visits, where he befriends a woman seemingly tolerant of his tendency to literally appear and disappear unpredictably. These visits to the past are eventually revealed to be mere rehearsals for the real work at hand: once the protagonist has proven that he is mentally stable enough to handle time travel, he is sent to the distant future to beg help from the more technologically advanced society that he finds there. These future people equip him with technology to save his people, but instead of being hailed as a hero, the protagonist is sentenced to death by his draconian government now that he has served his purpose. The people from the future offer to help him escape to their time permanently, but he asks instead to be sent back to the past to live out his days with the woman he met there. The people from the future do this for him, but he is pursued by an agent from the draconian government of the present who guns him down as soon as he gets back to the past. (I am concealing the biggest plot twist from you out of the goodness of my heart.)
12 Monkeys, being a feature-length studio film from the 1990s rather than a short auteur film from the 1960s, makes many changes and complicates the plot immensely. But the change that bothered me the most is that the circumstances of the hero’s death are entirely different. Bruce Willis is killed not in the midst of trying to build a life with the woman he loves, but in the midst of trying to save the world from the very government for whom he has been forced to work. He discovers that the plague which wiped out the world was aided and abetted by the draconian government that sent him back in time in the first place, and is shot by agents of that government while trying to stop the man who will spread the disease. What bothered me so much about this change is that it actually takes the teeth out of the original film’s criticism of the power of the state. It is not very difficult to imagine a corrupt government trying to protect itself by executing people who are actively trying to bring it down. But what makes the ending of La jetée so shocking is that the protagonist is not trying to bring down the government at all — all he wants is to be left alone and allowed to pursue his own happiness. The state evidently views these desires themselves as a threat, since they are in excess of its instrumental plans for this citizen.
Viewing these films now, in what some are calling the “American Autumn” as a corollary to this year’s “Arab Spring,” I can’t help but notice the parallels to the Occupy movement and the power of the state that has recently been flexed in order to quash it. The powers that be wish they were fighting Bruce Willis, an enemy trying actively to bring them down. If they were, they’d have a much stronger case about the need to use force against the protestors. But in fact, the protestors are much more like the nameless protagonist of La jetée. The Occupy movement’s continued refusal to produce concrete demands has made it clear that — for now, at least — what the movement is about is the occupations themselves. Members of the movement talk enthusiastically about the communities built at the occupation sites: they have libraries, social services, first aid, and many other communal resources. Many people who have been living at the occupations report that the Occupy movement is one of the first communities in which they’ve truly felt at home. What they want, in other words, is to be left alone and allowed to pursue their own happiness.
This is not, however, an insular or apolitical demand — as the fascist government in La jetée realized, and as our own government may also be realizing. Unlike the communes of the 1960s, which were generally set up out in the wilderness away from population centers, the occupations are in our town squares and parks, in our faces every day. As Matt Taibbi recently explained in Rolling Stone, the movement at its heart is about “going on strike from one’s own culture”:
This is a visceral, impassioned, deep-seated rejection of the entire direction of our society, a refusal to take even one more step forward into the shallow commercial abyss of phoniness, short-term calculation, withered idealism and intellectual bankruptcy that American mass society has become.
This idea is, ultimately, much more radical than a list of concrete demands such as “increase regulation on the banks” and “remove money from politics” could ever encompass. The Occupy movement points to the fact that daring to dream of a better and more free life than the one offered by the current economico-political regime is a deep and dangerous threat to the powers that prop up that regime. This is why the government in La jetée had to kill the protagonist of that film, and it’s why the police in Zucotti Park, Oakland, Seattle, and UC Davis feel authorized to use viciously violent force on peaceful protestors. Our challenge, then, is to continue to dream — both because and in spite of the opposition.
I write to you today in response to an article that some of my friends have been pointing to urgently but not really talking about: On Repressive Sentimentalism, by Mark Greif. The piece is worth reading in its entirety if you have the time, but here’s the Cliff’s Notes version: Greif proposes that progressive politics has allowed itself to be straightjacketed by the rhetoric of the religious right, defending gay rights in terms only of marriage and feminism in terms only of abortion. The particular problem he sees is that progressives seem to unquestioningly accept the ways that the right characterizes these as sentimental issues: marriage is a happily-ever-after union with your destined partner, and abortions are tragic. How else might we view these issues? Greif proposes that the promise of the gay rights movement is not simply equal marriage rights for all, but the possibility that the institution of marriage itself could be radically questioned. The nuclear family once served a number of socioeconomic functions that it no longer does, which has has left marriage with only an emotional function, and one that it does not even fulfill very well. This part of the argument is worth quoting at some length:
[The nuclear family] is no longer necessary as the site of the pre-capitalist workshop. It is no longer the only structure for child-rearing, as children now come out of so many differently constituted families. The family no longer houses the old folks of several generations. It’s no longer even the privileged secular space for intimate confession and support, as this modern necessity is increasingly outsourced, well down the class ladder, to therapists, gurus, and members of all the helping professions. When marriage has as its main purpose a total and unique defense against loneliness and isolation and anomie, then it’s been saddled with a function too grand and dishonest for it ever to meet; no wonder it will seem imperfect, disappointing, not yet the right, ﬁnal marriage.
The appeal to anomie simply ignores, post-1960s, the emotional capacities we’ve gained. We now resist atomization and anomie with the wide range of unusually warm, non-exclusive and simultaneous friendships, often verging on erotism but not compelled to it, both across and within the sexes, and among straights and gays—this extraordinary birthright the ’60s gave to all those of us born, say, after 1969. The range is better than any narrowing. The multiplicity of friendships trumps the marriage structure. Yet these relations really survive, and thrive, only until marriage begins to clear its throat, and they are jeopardized by the cowardly constraints of couplehood. Marriage is lye poured upon the petri dish of the new relations of erotic sociality.
For better and worse (and for richer and for poorer), marriage is also almost inevitably intolerable to any post-’60s individual who counts the accumulation of strong experience and passionate feeling as the sine qua non of meaningful existence.
I will have some things to say about this in a minute, but for now I will continue with the paraphrase. Marriage, sentimentalized as a forever-bond, prevents people from recognizing the other interesting ways that they could be connecting with people. The abortion debate is similarly restricted by sentimentalization; Greif argues that progressives should stop calling abortion “sad but necessary” and start calling it “right and good” — the issue, he says, should be freedom rather than choice: free and legal abortion is required for women to have the most basic equality with men in terms of planning their lives. The connection between the two issues — marriage and abortion — is, of course, sex. Both debates come down to a squeamishness on the part of the religious right about the idea of sex without consequences, which Greif defends as not just fun and fulfilling, but deeply important to developing a more inclusive and tolerant morality:
You have to defend sex because we still have no better model than the actual, concrete sexual relation for a deep intuitive process opposed to domination. We have no better model for a bodily process that, fundamentally, is free and universal. It does not produce (there is no experiential remainder but pleasure) nor consume. It is cooperative (within the relation of the lovers) and, in that relation, seems to forbid competition. It makes you love people, and accept the look and difference of their bodies. […] Sexual cooperation is the other side of our basic human nature, and matches and disarms economic competition. Conservatives look to the chimpanzees, utopians to bonobos. One viewpoint prefers that side of our evolutionary ancestry that punches and rapes; the other that side, of equal propinquity, that rubs genitals and makes out.
I think these are all valuable and interesting ideas, which is why I’m bringing them to your attention, but something about this article didn’t sit quite right with me, and after some thought I realized it was this: Fundamental to Greif’s argument is a valuing of freedom with regard to our interpersonal relationships — marriage is bad because it restricts that freedom, limiting our ability to get to know and love our neighbors, and outlawing abortion is bad because it prevents women from being able to determine the course of their lives. But what happens when you do decide to bring a child into your life, whether by giving birth or by adoption? You commit to loving a person, sight unseen, who may not turn out to even like you very much. You commit enormous amounts of financial and emotional resources to a person who may walk out the door on her eighteenth birthday and never speak to you again. Even if your relationship with your child doesn’t fail quite that dramatically, it’s almost certain that the relationship will not turn out exactly as you imagined — and yet you are still ethically obligated to that relationship at least until your child reaches adulthood. My point here is that it is actually impossible to conduct all of our relationships as though we had no long-term obligations to them. Greif mentions “unorthodox childrearing and communal parenthood” in his list of reforms that utopians have historically fought for, but I think that solution misses the point in two ways. First, it is extremely difficult to manage both legally and socially in today’s world, though it might be viable as a longterm progressive goal. Second, if you were going to make something like communal parenthood work, and have it be more like a family than like an institution, it would have to involve serious commitments to the parenting enterprise on the part of at least one if not several members of the commune — which gets us right back to my point that the freedom to terminate your affective ties at will runs up against a limit case when you are talking about a parent’s affective ties to a child.
The fact that we have a profound — I hesitate to use the world “absolute” — obligation to our children is, I think, an argument for the importance of other kinds of interpersonal commitments, too. I agree wholeheartedly with Greif that the world would be a better place if the family unit were not so tyrannically policed, if family configurations other than man-woman-child were recognized and accepted, but I also think that without commitment there can be no family. (This does not, however, have to mean exclusive romantic commitment.) It’s nice to imagine a commitment-free world where you might be able to wake up each morning and freely choose whether to continue living with and loving your family members, but I think Greif is overstating the amount of choice we could theoretically have in the matter. In “Whom to Give to (Knowing Not to Know),” Jacques Derrida points out that choices like this are extremely difficult if we take them seriously: “As soon as I enter into a relation with the other, with the gaze, look, request, love, command, or call of the other I know I can respond only by sacrificing ethics, that is, by sacrificing whatever obliges me also to respond, in the same way, in the same instant, to all the others.” He gives the somewhat trivial but still troubling example of his cat: why should I feed my cat and ignore all the stray cats in the world? In terms of the family, one might ask: why should I feed this child and not all the children starving in Africa? Why should I devote my time and energy to this partner when there are so many other worthy partners in the world?
A family is, frankly, convenient to most people precisely because it provides us with a fairly easy answer to the terrifying ethical question posed by our limited time and resources and shouted at us by George Thorogood: “Who do you love?”. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Even if we bracketed the question of child-rearing, I don’t think a world without any concept of family is particularly desirable.
That said, I think there are some worthwhile lessons to be learned from Greif’s vision of a sexually-liberated utopia even if you refuse to throw the baby of commitment out with the bathwater of traditional marriage. For one thing, I think he’s right that most people do themselves a disservice if they allow a single romantic relationship to stifle all their other connections to people. I also think he’s right that it would be a mistake to let any romantic relationship go unevaluated — but commitment to a romantic relationship “for better or for worse” doesn’t have to mean not trying to make it better, or not leaving when it’s unfixably worse. The trick is to not allow yourself to slide into complacency, and Greif is not wrong to characterize marriage as an institution that seems almost designed to encourage it — but that doesn’t mean complacency is inevitable.
I turn, as I often do, to Simone Weil. One fragment in her notebooks goes like this: “Possible loves — are for fools — the wise have — impossible loves.” Weil has a gift for making counterintuitive statements that are strangely compelling, forcing you to change your habits of thinking, and this line is no exception. Two kinds of impossible loves come to mind first: those that are prevented by circumstances, and those that are unrequited. Weil is perhaps trying to tell us that these unrealizable loves are valuable because they ask us to make a change, to either break free from those repressive circumstances or to try to improve ourselves to be worthy of our beloved. Possible loves require no such change, and therefore do not help us grow. (This, I think, is similar to Greif’s position.) But there is a third kind of “impossible love” that Weil might be referring to: not the love that is denied us, but the love that we — impossibly — receive. If you can remember that everyone who loves you is a miracle, and if you work every day towards deserving that love, then I don’t think it matters whether you love fifty people or just one person over the course of your lifetime. Love can always change you for the better if you let it.
Tomemos has just written a post that, in an alternate universe, I might have written myself. Honeymooning in Mexico, he decided that since it was so difficult to eat satisfyingly as a vegetarian there, he might as well permit himself to sample some of the local carnivorous cuisine. I have just returned from a vacation in New Orleans, which is also no picnic for us veggies — its chief cuisines include cajun, which is full of seafood and sausage, and barbecue. It also features a bunch of upscale restaurants run by famous chefs such as Emeril, Paul Prudhomme, and Susan Spicer, none of whom have any vegetarian entrees on their menus. For the first time in years, I began to experience “meat ideation,” in which I would picture myself stealing a bite from my brother’s plate of lobster with no intention of actually doing so, in much the way a depressed person crossing a bridge might picture herself jumping.
I did not succumb to these temptations. Unlike Tomemos, who says he’s “never been one of those vegetarians who is appalled by the thought of eating meat unknowingly,” I once wept openly in an airport food court upon discovering that the burrito I had been happily eating contained shrimp. It was embarrassing, and I wish I could be a little more relaxed about it, but I just felt so bad for those poor shrimp. (It was kind of like this.)
A high school girl that I tutor in writing recently told me that she’s trying to go vegetarian, but keeps falling off the wagon. I told her that she shouldn’t try to impose an absolute prohibition on herself, but rather to think of herself as trying to eat less meat. That way, eating the occasional hamburger doesn’t become a sin that makes her want to give up her whole project. I was interested to read that Tomemos’ carnivorous experiments actually reinforced his convictions:
In the end, though, I think this experiment ended up strengthening my vegetarianism. The fish tacos tasted good; they didn’t make me feel like I had been missing out on something amazing for fifteen years. At one point during our trip, I had a vegetarian tostada, and that was as satisfying a meal as anything else I ate in Mexico. Taste is possibly the most transitory aesthetic experience: even if you eat a meal that you remember for the rest of your life—and I’ve had one or two—it can’t make you want to live a different way. My feelings on eating meat are unchanged: for me, it is a moral issue, but not a moral absolute.
This was immensely reassuring, because it appeared that amazing things were happening on my family members’ plates and I was a little bit jealous. I’m sure they were great, but the truth was that I managed to eat pretty well. Most decent restaurants will fix you a vegetarian plate even if it’s not on the menu, something I didn’t learn until I’d been one for a few years. At first, I hated having to order them — I felt like I was being a nuisance, and I resented the restaurants for putting me in that position in the first place. Over the years I’ve gotten used to it, but it wasn’t until this trip to New Orleans that I began to actually appreciate the experience. You see, ordering a vegetarian plate gives you a unique relationship to the chef. Some will just give you a collection of their side dishes, which can be a bummer, but some will look around at their kitchens, see what’s on hand, and improvise something special for you. If taste is the most transitory aesthetic experience, it is also one of the most intimate, and I am grateful to all the chefs who have ever taken extra time to consider my needs. While my family members struggled with difficult choices, I would be sitting serenely with a closed menu, waiting to see what delightful thing the chef would do for me. I didn’t feel restricted — I felt more free.
One summer in college, I lived in a Buddhist monastery in Japan. One afternoon, I was assigned the job of sweeping out the spider webs from the temple’s windows. “But won’t that kill the spiders?” I asked. The monk responded, “We avoid harming other creatures when we can, but sometimes we have to. It’s not our intention to kill the spiders, but we need to clean our windows. You should bow to the spiders, say ‘Omitofo,’ and pray that they get reborn as humans.” This seems like a sensible attitude to me, certainly more sensible than crying over a few accidentally-eaten shrimp. We should honor all creatures, even and especially when circumstances beyond our control require us to harm them.
I apologize, again, for my extended absence. A personal crisis has kept me out of the blogosphere and firmly entrenched in the real world, dealing with practical matters. Things should be settling down soon, though, and I promise to return with gloriously eloquent thoughts on Modernist novels and Korean monster movies and all of the other important things in life.
Today I am pleased to introduce you to a new online publication that has been created, designed, and edited by Matthew T. Marco, a good friend of mine: The Never-Ending Noodle. It’s a food blog, sort of. Rather than focusing on recipes and reviews — though it may eventually come to contain things like that — it’s site that features interesting writing for food people by food people. From Matt’s publisher’s note:
Ultimately, I founded this periodical on this concept, to refract our lives’ experiences through a prism of culinary metaphor, because it’s a metaphor that is very nearly universal. The first three articles here are a start in that direction, the primi piatti of a feast of verbage that deeply investigates the relationships between palettes and personalities, between cultures and comestibles.
I have written one of these inaugural articles: “It Ain’t Easy Being Green: Memoirs of a Veggie Cowgirl”. It’s an account of the ass-backwards way in which I became a vegetarian, and it features a snappier writing style than I generally get to use here when talking about weighty literary matters. To whet your appetite, the first paragraph:
I became a vegetarian reluctantly. My two best friends in high school were vegetarians, so for years I had no choice but to champion the life of the carnivore. While Kate and Jessica wrinkled their pretty noses, I was the girl going out with the boys for all-you-can-eat ribs at Big Ed’s Barbecue. I believed in the food chain, meat was delicious, but also—and not unimportantly—eating meat marked me as a different kind of girl, one who made dirty jokes and drank hard liquor and just might be talked into a ride on the mechanical bull in the back corner of Big Ed’s.
It’s about ethics, it’s about gender, it’s about food snobbery, and I like to think it’s a pretty good time. Matt has written an article on metaphor and noodles and new beginnings, and Nikhil Moturi rounds out the first issue with an article on the role of Dosas in his transition to a new life on the other side of the country. I recommend both of them highly. And if you, too, are a person with a deep and personal relationship to food, we are looking for new writers and would love to have you on board.
“And we: spectators, always, everywhere,
looking at everything and never from!
It floods us. We arrange it. It decays.
We arrange it again, and we decay.
Who’s turned us around like this,
so that whatever we do, we always have
the look of someone going away? Just as a man
on the last hill showing him his whole valley
one last time, turns, and stops, and lingers —
so we live, and are forever leaving.”
— Rainer Marie Rilke, from the Eighth Duino Elegy
Something has been troubling me in all this talk of ecstatic self-forgetting. In order to make Bataille and Weil play nice with each other, I had to sand off some of their rough edges. In particular, I had to paint both Bataille’s abandon and Weil’s obedience as essentially mental states; in the foregoing post, these writers resemble nothing so much as a Buddhist monk and nun who, in their quite distinct ways, are striving to quiet the chatter of conscious thought and to replace it with the profound silence of the sacred. As a Buddhist sympathizer, I respect a lot of things about Weil’s ethics of attention, but the weakest link in her chain is the way that attention translates into action — all she can say is that “the actions that follow [attention] will be automatic.” There is a troubling refusal of responsibility here that seems to have to do with Weil’s discomfort in her own embodiedness; we have already seen, in my post on Weilian self-sacrifice, the fierceness with which she deprives herself of necessities in the name of ethics, but her wish to be “decreated” is more profound than a wish for death — it is a wish, as her term suggests, to undo her own creation. She writes, “When I am in any place, I disturb the silence of heaven and earth by my breathing and the beating of my heart.” She wishes, in short, to not have a body, and this creates a problem in terms of engaging with the physical world — her efforts at ethical action, as outlined in that earlier post, are often bizarre, unsuccessful, and misunderstood. Ultimately they are fatal. (Though they retain, as I argued, a symbolic value.)
In Bataille, the disconnect between mind/soul and body is just as profound, but since he values the body and not the soul, we encounter Weil’s difficulty reversed, as in a mirror: the blind spot in his thinking is how to get from action to attention, from ecstatic bodily practice to reflective morality. Bataille is not even really interested in reflective morality; the closest he comes is to argue for the continual overthrow of moral systems in favor of a continual quest for the authentically contradictory promptings of the deepest self. My problem with this is not so much that this ‘deepest self’ disappears into the bodily (though it could be said that this is another escape from responsibility), but rather with the particular way in which Bataille mobilizes the category of the animal in order to describe the embodied aspects of personhood.
Last time, I described Bataille’s sense of humans as “discontinuous” beings, fundamentally alone in their heads. This is imagined, in Erotism and especially in Theory of Religion, in contrast to the “continuity,” the immanence and immediacy, of the animal world, for which he argues we have a deep nostalgia. We imagine that animals “exist in the world like water in water,” and we experience ourselves as lacking this feeling: “Man is the being that has lost, and even rejected, that which he obscurely is, a vague intimacy.” Bataille’s pursuit of the experience of sovereignty is the quest to “lose his head” and give himself over to the animal within.
This account of the animal world resonates with us because it does sound true, it does recall a feeling we can empathize with. Animals are frequently evoked, in literature and film, as figures of Edenic innocence or of blind necessity — and either way, we see in their unselfconsciousness a state we envy. Rilke, in the poem excerpted in the epigraph, describes this nostalgia: “All other creatures look into the Open / with their whole eyes. But our eyes, / turned inward, are set all around it like snares.” The problem, as in Bataille, is self-consciousness; if only we could rid ourselves of it, we could exist “in that pure space . . . in which flowers endlessly open,” we could reside in “Nowhere without No.”
Giorgio Agamben’s The Open: Man and Animal follows Heidegger in exposing this imagined nostalgia as an utter fabrication. Where Rilke and Bataille see the animal’s experience as one of glorious harmony with its surroundings, Agamben and Heidegger see it as one of blindness and incomprehension. Agamben cites zoologist Jakob von Uexküll on the experience of the tick, who is blind, deaf, and ultimately responsive to only three things: the smell of butyric acid, contained in the sweat of all mammals, which causes her to abandon her post and fall blindly downward; the temperature of 37 degrees centigrade, which indicates that she has in fact fallen on a mammal; and the typology of mammal skin, which she navigates in order to find the least hairy spot from which to suck her meal.
The animal is, in Heidegger’s terms, “captivated” by those few phenomena that trigger its behaviors. He explains that a stone is “worldless,” while an animal is “poor in world” — it is open to certain specific phenomena, but it cannot recognize them as such. The tick has no knowledge of the dog, or its sweat, or butyric acid; it just responds automatically to a signal. The problem is that we don’t want to think of animals as mechanisms; waterfalls obey the laws of physics, but animals behave, even if they cannot act. Heidegger calls them “poor in world” to indicate the degree to which we humans project ourselves onto them; rather than seeing, as Bataille does, humanity as constituted by a lack of animal immediacy, Heidegger reverses the terms. We can think of animals, he argues, only in terms of a subtraction from ourselves: animals lack the uniquely human understanding of beings as beings.
The temptation to romanticize this lack is great. Agamben writes, “The tick is immediately united to these three elements in an intense and passionate relationship the likes of which we might never find in the relations that bind man to his apparently much richer world. The tick is this relationship; she lives only in and for it.” But is being a relationship the same thing as having a passionate relationship? The answer is an unequivocal “no,” and this is what Bataillean romanticizations of the animal obscure. When we speak of “animal passion,” we anthropomorphize the animal; for passion to be involved, there must first be a recognition of subject and object, which puts us squarely in the realm of the human.
At times, Bataille acknowledges this. Near the beginning of Theory of Religion, he admits that there is a “sticky temptation of poetry” about the animal, because “In a sense, I know this depth: it is my own.” Annie Dillard, in an essay called “Living Like Weasels,” succumbs to precisely this temptation: she valorizes the weasel’s instinct to bite and hold, offering an image of an eagle shot out of the sky with a weasel skull attached to its neck. The weasel, attacked by the eagle, must have fought back and almost won, and its corpse must have dangled from the eagle for weeks. Dillard, of course, turns this grim scenario into a moral imperative:
I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you. Then even death, where you’re going no matter how you live, cannot you part. Seize it and let it seize you up aloft even, till your eyes burn out and drop; let your musky flesh fall off in shreds, and let your very bones unhinge and scatter, loosened over fields, over fields and woods, lightly, thoughtless, from any height at all, from as high as eagles.
This is a beautiful metaphor for passion, but it cannot be said that the weasel feels passion. The danger here is that we believe these metaphors, and they trick us into facile ways of thinking about our own relationship to the animal part of us: our bodies. Bataille seeks, in his mystical practice, to liberate himself from conscious thought and obey his animal instincts, but this is never in fact possible. Agamben puts it this way: “While mystical knowledge is essentially the experience of a nonknowledge and of a concealment as such, the animal cannot comport itself toward the not open.” In other words, an animal doesn’t know that it doesn’t know itself, whereas a human can never quite escape her self-awareness. The terms of the comparison are always ours, because the animal doesn’t have terms.
Timothy Treadwell, subject of the 2005 documentary Grizzly Man, provides a vivid example of one way this mistake can be fatal. He spent thirteen summers in remotest Alaska, living with and filming grizzly bears, until inevitably he was killed and eaten by them. This is not a spoiler; it’s revealed in the first three minutes of the movie and is plastered all over the preview — in fact, Treadwell’s death is what makes this a film worth watching and not just another nature show. Treadwell loves the bears; he names them all, he pets them, he mourns their deaths, and at several different points in the film he works himself into a frenzy about trappers and poachers and the encroachment of civilization: “I’m in love with my animal friends. I’m in love with my animal friends! In love with my animal friends. I’m very, very troubled. It’s very emotional. It’s probably not cool even looking like this. I’m so in love with them, and they’re so f-ed over, which so sucks.”
He is sympathetic because of his passion. It is animal passion, in the mistaken sense evoked by the passage from Dillard — the bears are Treadwell’s one necessity, and he is holding onto them even though they might be his death. In fact, it often seems that he devotes himself to the bears because they might be his death. One of the people interviewed in the film is a woman whose house in Kodiak, Alaska was always the last place Treadwell stayed when he was on his way out into the wilderness; she reports that every year, as he would set out, he would tell her that if he didn’t come back, she shouldn’t be sad, because he had died doing what he loved.
But the bears, as director Werner Herzog reminds us, cannot love him back:
And what haunts me, is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food. But for Timothy Treadwell, this bear was a friend, a savior.
The problem with romanticization of the animal is that it does not allow us to see the radical closedness of the animal. People like Treadwell, Dillard, Rilke, and Bataille fancy that they are getting in touch with something “primal,” originary, and authentic within the human when they embrace their “animal” passions, but in fact, this is a profound rejection of what is most animal-like within us. The animal is that which does not know itself; it is the truly unknowable, blindly biological forces that, terrifyingly, motivate us at the core.
The problem I have with both Weil and Bataille, then, is that whether you value the mind over the body or the body over the mind, you are still failing to deal adequately with the dual, always contradictory nature of the human. Treadwell becomes a reverse Ahab, proving that to embrace the animal is just as fatal as to reject it.
The last time I wrote about Simone Weil, I talked about her drive to self-effacement in terms of an ethics of attention. In this post, which is a condensation of material from my recent paper, I will talk about self-effacement as, paradoxically, a drive for authenticity. Georges Bataille is a veritable prophet of authenticity, seeking to live the vicissitudes of his id to their fullest, whereas Weil is fiercely obedient to the commands of God. These, I will argue, are actually quite similar practices — both mystics strive to be true to impulses within themselves that are, at the same time, perceived to be in excess of those selves. What I aim to uncover here is the way in which recognizing the otherness of ourselves provides a necessary counterpoint to the ethics of attention, which requires us to recognize others as ourselves.
The basic idea behind Weil’s ethics of attention, as I explained last time, is that affliction deprives people of their humanity and attention has the power to restore it. I demonstrated this through Weil’s thoughts on the parable of the good Samaritan; before he was paid attention to, the beaten man was just a pile of flesh and rags by the side of the road. Bataille also believes that the worst thing that can happen to a person is to be reduced to “thinghood” by the pressure of outside forces — the prime example of this is slavery, but lest we think that this problem ended with abolition, Bataille reminds us that in modern capitalist society, all human beings are required to be materially productive and thus we are all reduced to thinghood (see The Accursed Share, vol. 1). The way to restore humanity is to embrace uselessness in order to remove oneself from the chain of production — in Bataille’s mystical practice, a person restores herself to humanity through an experience of the self as sovereign.
In Blue of Noon, the character Dirty (short for “Dorothea”) stands for the sovereign orgy of expenditure. When the book opens, she is “utterly” drunk in a London dive bar, “the most squalid of unlikely places,” and wearing “a sumptuous evening gown.” The implied class status makes her debauchery more complete; for a woman “so rich . . . [that] she could spit in other people’s faces” to have arrived at a condition and a place like this, she must be squandering resources in earnest. Dirty and Troppmann (the protagonist) “managed, with no respect for conventional pigeonholes, to eliminate every possible urge, in the room at the Savoy as well as in the dive, wherever [they] had to.”
The experience of sovereignty that accompanies the breaking of taboos has a double source, according to Bataille (see Erotism: Death and Sensuality). Immediately apparent is the sensation of freedom that comes from transgressing a rule; one obeys only oneself, and feels that one’s desires are no longer in check. Alexander Irwin (in Saints of the Impossible) reads in this experience the potential groundwork for a politics: “The inner experience of freedom remains the precondition of any meaningful deployment of freedom in the public, political world.” But Troppmann is profoundly conflicted; he is enthralled by Dirty but impotent in bed with her. He longs to “lose his head” and give himself over to passion, but he cannot; he admires the candor of Dirty’s utter debauch, but witnessing it makes him “distraught with anxiety” almost to the point of weeping. This reflects Bataille’s theory that transgression “suspends a taboo without suppressing it.” From the suspension of the taboo comes a dizzying rush of freedom, but the prohibition itself remains, producing an anguished state of inner conflict. This anguish is the second source of the experience of sovereignty that accompanies transgression, more hidden and more powerful than the naïve sensation of freedom. Breaking rules would be trivial if we did not feel bound by them; in doing so, one exposes oneself to a lacerating experience of self-contradiction that threatens the unity of one’s selfhood, insofar as it is a unity, with annihilation: “Man achieves his inner experience at the instant when bursting out of the chrysalis he feels that he is tearing himself, not tearing something outside that resists him.” Rather than simply reveling in the freedom to pursue his own desires and thus being inspired to work toward freeing others to do the same, the practitioner of Bataille’s philosophy is led to suffer the anguish of realizing that his own desires are deeply contradictory. What are the political possibilities of this anguish? Bataille does not pursue them in depth, but we can begin to see them by putting him in conversation with Weil.
Troppmann and Dirty strive to “lose their heads” by “eliminat[ing] every possible urge”—that is, in their debaucheries they seek to transcend their rational, unified selves by allowing their irrational, fragementary desires to take over. Troppmann’s boorishness and cruelty are at least partly the result of a deep concern for authenticity: “I would have liked to give her a real kiss, but I felt myself verging on insincerity. I left immediately.” It makes perfect sense that a Bataillean profligate would place such value on being true to himself; the experience of sovereignty seems to entail a radical trueness to self that goes beyond all fictions of unified desire.
Curiously, Weil’s self-emptying attention also entails a concern for authenticity. Born a Jew and raised an agnostic, Weil experienced a Christian awakening in 1937 following a stint of factory labor wherein she realized that “Christianity is pre-eminently the religion of slaves” (see Waiting for God). Her conversion experience was one of being subject to a strong external force; in a chapel at Assisi, she writes, “something stronger than I was compelled me for the first time in my life to go down on my knees.” The perceived externality of this force is what convinces her of its reality, and similar mystical experiences will continue to fuel her religious belief. However, she is adamant in refusing baptism because she has not experienced a similar kind of compulsion with regard to it. She explains, in a letter to Father Joseph Perrin, that she has resolved to stop wrestling with the question and plans to simply wait for God’s command:
It is very possible that after having passed weeks, months, or years without thinking about it all, one day I shall suddenly feel an irresistible impulse to ask suddenly and immediately for baptism and I shall run to ask for it. For the action of grace in our hearts is secret and silent. It may also be that my life will come to an end before I have ever felt this impulse.
Bataille would applaud the decision to take the promptings of “irresistible impulse” so seriously, but for him impulse originates in surging internal desire whereas Weil waits for something she can attribute to an external source. This points up what I see as the crux of the difference between Bataille’s and Weil’s thought: it’s not that she believes in God and he is an atheist (for the God that she believes in is quite absent from the world), it’s not that she advocates “good” and he advocates “evil” (for these categories are slippery, as will be discussed in more detail below), and it’s not even that she sees an orderly universe where he sees a disorderly one (though this is true). In terms of their ethical thought, all these concerns are secondary to and derive their importance from the fundamental situation of the subject: Bataille’s is profoundly isolated while Weil’s is profoundly open.
The experience of sovereignty, which Irwin reads as “the basis for an effective resistance to political tyranny,” is a self-enclosed experience, “an experience of the self as sacred.” In Erotism, Bataille explains that humans are “discontinuous” beings, which is more or less to say that we are alone in our heads:
Each being is distinct from all others. His birth, his death, the events of his life may have an interest for others, but he alone is directly concerned in them. He is born alone. He dies alone. Between one being and another, there is a gulf, a discontinuity.
This creates a profound sense of loss, Bataille theorizes, wherein we yearn for the imagined continuity that links everything outside of us; we long to “exist in the world like a wave lost among many other waves.” This sense of loss is what motivates human endeavors such as love, religion, and violence, none of which in its ordinary form can ever really heal over this imagined loss. Death is imagined as a return to continuity, but actual death does not allow its subject to continue to exist and reap the benefits — so Bataille’s mystical practice aims instead at the shattering of the subject, which is a kind of death-while-still-conscious. Eroticism is the name he gives to his mystical practice in this particular book, and he names three varieties: physical, emotional, and religious. Troppmann and Dirty engage at the physical level, wherein the transgressing of taboos and the unselfconsciousness of orgasm offer “little deaths” and the experience of sovereignty described above. The emotional level is tied to romantic love, wherein one can imagine oneself dissolving into one’s beloved. Both of these practices do involve the participation of another person, but the experience of the subject as Bataille conceives it is profoundly isolated; the importance of the encounter with the other lies in the trauma it inflicts on the self, trauma that can cause the desired shattering. In the third level, that of religious mysticism, the other is no longer necessary at all and the required trauma is internalized, imagined through meditation.
Faced with the same gulf between human beings, Weil turns not inward but outward. Bataille seems to conclude that, since inner experience is the only kind available, the best one can do is to cultivate that experience to its extremes. Weil, on the other hand, finds her inner experience boring and trivial, choosing instead to focus on the challenge presented by the unknowable outside world. In her ethical practice, this takes the form of attention to the suffering other; in her religious practice, it takes the form of attention to God.
Bataille seeks sovereignty; Weil seeks abdication. Both seek to liberate us from unexamined, fictively unified notions of self, and this has important ethical consequences. Peter Connor (in Georges Bataille and the Mysticism of Sin) calls our attention to an exchange between Bataille and Sartre that took place in March of 1944, in which Sartre points out that Bataille’s valorization of “evil” seems less like a rejection of moral systems than like an alternative moral system. Bataille responds by explaining that, in the overturning of “good” morality by “evil” morality, what is really important is the overturning itself. The process he is describing is not one of abandoning the search for morality, but rather one of an infinite search that seems to have something in common with Weil’s infinite wait for the commands of her absent God. Connor explains that for Bataille,
There is no moral of the story. Ethics does not consist in acquiring knowledge of some thing that can be communicated through a text. This was Kant’s error. Rather, it lies in the infinite inquiry into how communication is possible in general. The movement toward ethics is a movement away from knowledge.
Weil’s faculty of attention also depends crucially on the movement away from knowledge, which would lead one to draw hasty conclusions rather than waiting patiently the truth. But in a world where God is absent and other people are, at bottom, unknowable, must we wait forever?
Weil reflects that “to love a stranger as oneself implies the reverse: to love oneself as a stranger.” Her choice of the word “stranger” instead of the more common Biblical “neighbor” reflects the sense of the parable of the Good Samaritan as well as the thrust of her own ethics of attention, which involves taking on another’s suffering. But the reversal is intriguing, and this is where Bataille can help: ethics cannot be about self-denial alone. The love that motivates it must be universal, and this means that in addition to loving others, we must embrace our flawed, contradictory, selfish selves.
In the weeks leading up to my family’s Christmas trip to New Orleans, there was one question I had to answer more often than any other: “Are you going there to do charity work?”. The answer was an uncomfortable no; we were really just going there to eat, drink, and be merry. Often I would point out that merely by doing so, we would be pumping valuable dollars into the local economy — but this always seemed a bit flimsy; if we were going all the way there, why weren’t we going to swing over to the Lower Ninth Ward and pick up some debris?
To visit New Orleans these days is to be confronted with an intensified version of the ethical dilemma we first-worlders face every second of every day: with so much suffering in the world, why am I not doing anything to stop it right now? Any answer to this question makes us queasy: “I do what I can,” “I vote with my dollars,” “am I ethically required to sacrifice comfort?” In New Orleans you are faced with this problem immediately: on your way to the relatively immaculate French Quarter, you must pass by neighborhoods that are still a shambles — roofs caved in, boats on top of houses, doors boarded up and still bearing the spray-painted body counts of the initial rescue operations.
But in many neighborhoods, including the French Quarter, the damage is much more subtle. A cracked window here, some missing shingles there, and you begin to notice with discomfort your temptation to read all the decrepitude you see as evidence of the hurricane. But this can’t be right — surely there were always poor neighborhoods in this city; surely there were abandoned buildings before the disaster struck.
The locals make it easier on you by being extremely friendly. No matter where in the world you go, you always feel a little gauche when you’re a tourist — but the people you meet in New Orleans go out of their way to make sure you feel welcome and are aware of how much they appreciate having you visit. My family wandered into a cemetery we happened to pass by, and wound up being given a guided tour by a toothless old caretaker who was just thrilled to have us in his city. He offered to let us climb into an open, empty tomb for a photo opportunity. “There are no human remains inside!” We declined.
In the courtyard of a bar on Bourbon Street one night, my family was startled out of quiet conversation by a man getting down on his knees and declaring, loudly, his love for his wife. We laughed and applauded, and then talked to the couple: they had met in the Superdome during the hurricane. Now they lived in the neighboring town to which they had both been relocated by the government; they refused to move back to New Orleans because they trusted the fate that had brought them together via their uprooting.
Tonight, back home, while I was waiting for my friend Jeff to change his clothes so we could go out for the evening, I saw a scene of Miyazaki’s Spirited Away that moved me deeply. The protagonist, a young girl, is riding on the back of a dragon that is soaring through the sky when suddenly she recovers a memory. She leans over and whispers in the dragon’s ear something along these lines: “When I was a young girl, I lost a shoe in the Kohaku River. When I tried to get it out, I fell in, and I almost drowned. But something pulled me into shallow water. Your real name is ‘Kohaku River.’ You were a river spirit then, and you saved me.” At this revelation, the dragon turns back into a human boy and the two of them begin plummeting through the sky. The boy is overjoyed at being reminded of his true name, and the girl is crying tears that, because the two of them are falling so fast, drop upwards into the sky, leaving a trail from the heavens back to the earth.
This moment of recognition is every moment of recognition. Sometimes you meet a person and you love them immediately, and you don’t know why. You wish there were a story like this: you were a river spirit then, and you saved me. You wish you could cry tears up to the heavens.
I have been home, visiting my parents, for about two weeks now. Ever since I arrived, my mother has been hounding me to read a particular essay by Barbara Kingsolver called “Small Wonder.” I liked The Poisonwood Bible very much when I read it a few years ago, so this morning I finally made time for it. It’s a post-9/11 essay about how to deal with tragedies that are not your own, though they are kind of your own by virtue of being anybody’s at all. Her solution is beautiful: “It’s the same struggle for each of us, and the same path out: the utterly simple, infinitely wise, ultimately defiant act of loving one thing and then another, loving our way back to life.”
Probably your newest love is not the river spirit who saved you. The river spirits do not seem to save many people these days. Back home in New Jersey, the D has fallen off the “CARBORUNDUM” sign, and Amboy Cinemas has been closed and abandoned for years. There is no hurricane to blame. But love? Love is everywhere.