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 am currently reading Kenneth Goldsmith’s Traffic, a conceptual poetry project consisting of twenty-four hours of traffic reports from New York’s 1010 WINS (available online in its entirety here), and am stunned to find myself moved nearly to tears. Goldsmith, who claims that his transcription projects make him “the most boring writer that has ever lived,” is not thought of as a particularly moving writer, and I was certainly not expecting to react this way. But as soon as I opened the book I was floored; I was transported Proust-style right back into the kitchen of the house where I grew up in suburban New Jersey:
12:01 Well, in conjunction with the big holiday weekend, we start out with the Hudson River horror show right now. Big delays in the Holland Tunnel either way with roadwork, only one lane will be getting by. You’re talking about, at least, twenty to thirty minutes worth of traffic either way, possibly even more than that. Meanwhile the Lincoln Tunnel, not great back to Jersey but still your best option. And the GW Bridge your worst possible option. Thirty to forty minute delays, and that’s just going into town. Lower level closed, upper level all you get. Then back to New Jersey every approach is fouled-up: West Side Highway from the 150’s, the Major Deegan, the Bronx approaches and the Harlem River Drive are all a disaster, the Harlem River Drive could take you an hour, no direct access to the GW Bridge with roadwork. And right now across the East River 59th Street Bridge, you’ve gotta steer clear of that one. Midtown Tunnel, Triboro Bridge, they remain in better shape. Still very slow on the eastbound Southern State Parkway here at the area of the, uh, Meadowbrook there’s a, uh, stalled car there blocking a lane and traffic very slow.
Just about every weekday morning of my life between ages six and eighteen, I listened to traffic reports exactly like this one sputtering out of my father’s battery-powered radio. And I do mean exactly: it was 1010 WINS that he had on every morning, with traffic updates every ten minutes from Pete Tauriello, who is evidently still doing the traffic reports that Goldsmith is transcribing. (Actually, now that I think about it, there was definitely a period where my dad listened to WNEW’s Bloomberg Radio instead — another AM news channel financed, of course, by the man who would eventually become mayor of New York.) But in any case, Goldsmith’s block of text activated neurons I didn’t even remember I had, and it occurred to me that his work is rarely considered in terms of the specific times, places, and communities that it evokes. Critics tend to be concerned with what it means to copy something so banal word-for-word — to be concerned, that is, with the theoretical — and miss that perhaps what he’s trying to get at is the banal itself, rather than the philosophy that leads him to reproduce the banal.
My dad listened to that little battery-powered radio while shaving, and then would bring it with him into the kitchen to make breakfast for himself, me, and my brother. My mother didn’t really eat breakfast; she seemed to subsist on instant coffee and diet Pepsi until noon. When I was very young, I would hang around in the bathroom watching my dad shave and then follow him and the radio out to the kitchen. When I was older, I would endeavor to wake up as late as possible, but I’d still find myself downstairs in the kitchen shoveling cereal or Pop Tarts into my mouth in the cold dark morning while the radio chattered away. This was a decidedly pre-internet age; my dad listened to AM radio every morning so he could get the news efficiently, which I now suddenly recognize as an antiquated practice. I doubt he listens to that radio at all anymore, now that he has an iPhone. Stations like 1010 WINS are on a very short loop — the traffic and weather recur every ten minutes (and each time are just the slightest bit different, as conditions progress) and the material between these reports varies a bit more — sometimes you’ll get financial news, sometimes political news, etc — but even so, you don’t have to listen to the radio for more than twenty or thirty minutes before you start hearing the same stories repeated exactly. So it was always a little bit of a mystery to me why my father let the radio accompany him through his whole morning ritual — he, and I by extension especially when I was young and following him around, would be subjected to not just repeated-with-a-difference content like the traffic, but actually verbatim repeated content.
In addition to being repetitive, a lot of the news on the radio didn’t really affect my dad very much, and it certainly didn’t affect me. My parents had some investments, so I guess the financial news was sort of important, and it’s also how I learned about the stock market myself. (“Dad, what’s a ‘bear market’?”) The traffic reports that came on every ten minutes meant nothing to anybody in my family, since both of my parents had “commutes” that were less than ten minutes long. But listening to the traffic reports every morning taught me a fair amount about local geography — the BQE, the Major Deegan, the Verrazano — these names were burned into my brain before they even really meant anything, and years later when I learned to drive and started navigating the highways myself, I found myself having little a-ha moments every time I crossed a bridge in real life that I had previously only known from Pete Tauriello’s traffic reports.
Now that I think about it, the reason the traffic reports are so burned into my brain is that the one thing I personally was always interested in was the weather report, and these radio stations of course do “traffic and weather together” — so when you started to hear the traffic report, you’d hush everybody up so you could catch the weather. The thing about these news stations is that they operate at a blinding pace — everybody is always speaking very quickly so they can cram as much information as possible into their minute-long slot. The rhythm and diction of the traffic reports that Goldsmith transcribes are at least as evocative for me as the names of the tunnels and bridges. Some phrases the announcer seemed to have by rote — “stalled car blocking a lane,” “only one lane getting by” — these we’d hear several times a morning. “Jackknifed tractor-trailer” was one we’d hear a lot, and I remember being somewhat enamored of the sound of the words as well as slightly alarmed by its frequency given what an enormous disaster a jackknifed tractor trailer in fact is. Sentences in this barrage of information tend to be clipped and lack verbs: “Meanwhile the Lincoln Tunnel, not great back to Jersey but still your best option. And the GW Bridge your worst possible option. Thirty to forty minute delays, and that’s just going into town.” And to make matters worse, the announcers would jump all over the map: “then back to New Jersey every approach is fouled-up.” I remember trying to hold it all in my head, to picture the places they were talking about, and I always found that it was too difficult to follow. On the rare occasions that we did need the traffic report’s wisdom, we found that we’d have to strain to pick out the relevant information from this rapid barrage. But colorful touches like “the Hudson River horror show” remind you that there’s a person and a personality on the other end of this deluge of information that is so particularly stylized. I hadn’t thought about Pete Tauriello in years — in fact, I never really thought about him; I just heard his name a lot — but when Marjorie Perloff mentioned him in her chapter on Traffic in her new book, Unoriginal Genius, I gasped aloud as the “Pete Tauriello” neurons in my brain started firing again more than ten years later.
In retrospect, I think my dad probably just liked the chatter. The radio made us all feel connected to the outside world, whether or not we were paying very close attention to it. Now, of course, we have the internet to fill our lives with chatter and connection — but I think one of the things we can learn from Goldsmith’s Traffic is that not all forms of chatter are alike. Ten years from now, will radio announcers still be clipping their diction and dropping their verbs to fit all the traffic into their one-minute report? Or will news radio wither and die from the internet’s competition? Even if it doesn’t entirely vanish, I’d wager that news radio will reach ever smaller — poorer and older — segments of the population, and that it will no longer be a mainstay of middle-class suburban houses like my parents’.
I think, then, that part of what Goldsmith is getting at in his transcription projects is the power of records of utterly banal minutia to evoke the particular places and times from which they emerge. I doubt that Traffic would have had so powerful an effect on me if I hadn’t moved across the country to southern California, where names like “the BQE” make me feel nostalgic and the very idea of straining to hear the weather report in order to choose appropriate clothing is somewhat quaint. Neither the radio nor even weather itself is much a part of my life these days. But I experience these traffic reports as microcosms of a life I once lived, reflected through something I never particularly paid attention to while I was living it. Traffic reports — and weather reports, and newspapers, subjects of some of Goldsmith’s other transcription projects — are part of the texture of the everyday; they are where we live without noticing that we live there.
Yesterday I had the minorly excruciating and entirely bizarre experience of sitting through three hours of personal introductions on the first day of a nine-person seminar class. The class, which I am considering auditing, is being taught by a Jesuit monk turned professor turned journalist and recently re-turned professor, so perhaps he doesn’t know that most graduate seminars consist of intellectual exchanges between people who, for the most part, don’t know each other very well outside the classroom and form their ideas of one another largely on the basis of how smart they manage to sound when talking about the assigned texts. Most graduate seminars begin with “introductions,” but these take the form of “Hi, I’m Mary, I’m a second year in the English department, and I work on Victorian novels.” This professor, by contrast, demanded that each of us give an account of our relationship to Americanness, to religion, and to poetry (this being a class on American religious poetry), and then proceeded to interrupt each of us numerous times with sincerely interested questions. “Oh, what town in Texas was that?” “Would you say your connection to Catholicism is more cultural, then?” etc. For the nine of us to account for ourselves and answer his questions in sufficient detail took the whole three hours allotted for the seminar, which was on the one hand excruciatingly boring and on the other hand fascinating.
What fascinated me was not the particular details of my colleagues’ stories (though they sometimes were quite interesting), but the process of accounting for myself in this way, and of watching other people do the same thing. My “religion” and my “poetry” stories are both things I have recounted so many times that my telling of them in class today was more like a recitation than a process of self-discovery — but my “American” answer was a little more roughshod, and I ended up feeling dissatisfied with it, like I hadn’t really expressed what I’d wanted to. What happened, actually, was that I recited a couple of things about my parents’ families, but I didn’t really get a chance to think or talk about my own “American” experience, which has far more to do with my growing up in suburban New Jersey than with my mother’s family being Irish potato famine immigrants.
Whether or not it was true, it looked to me that my colleagues’ stories were, for the most part, more “authentic” than my own — they seemed to be answering these questions for the first time, and saying something “real,” rather than just rattling off the stories they’d told to themselves and their friends a billion times before. I realized immediately, even as I was having this thought, that it probably wasn’t true; it was just that since I was hearing their stories for the first time, they seemed more spontaneous.
I began to think, while walking home, that it would be a very interesting exercise to try to write one’s autobiography — or even just bits of it — completely without the help of one’s familiar store of stories about oneself. That is, to try to dig up and put into words the parts of your life that you’d never put into words before, not even to yourself. It may be that I’m an academic and a writer, or it may just be that I’m a human and everybody does this, but I am constantly, constantly telling myself stories about myself. Even as I know that I’m fictionalizing and oversimplifying, it’s helpful and reassuring to be able to trace certain kinds of continuity, to be able to say “I presently feel this way because of these other things that happened in the past” and “I did that terrible thing because I couldn’t help it, that is the kind of thing I have always done, but at least I did it less terribly this time.”
I suspect that, the farther back I tried to reach in my past without the aid of my stories, the less I would find. From my elementary school years, I don’t think there’s a single thing my mind could touch that is not already part of my Grand Narrative. But from middle school, and certainly later, there must be things lurking in my mind that are not crystallized into words in the same way that the more “important” events are.
I recently gave a paper at a conference on excess and obsession, which is one reason why I’ve been driven to think about the above things. In a lot of ways, the most illuminating panel at the conference turned out to be the one I had most snickered about to my friends beforehand: the panel on fandom. What the fandom scholars were able to articulate that the more traditional scholars (myself included) were not was, more or less, that what we are talking about when we are talking about “excess,” in any kind of literary/cultural way, is emotion, and that emotion is embarrassing. When you’re a Trekkie, a Xenaphile, or an emo kid, you are identifying with an emotional attachment that is viewed with skepticism by the rest of society because of its publicness and because of its fervor. It seems to me that we are generally expected, these days, to have our emotions quietly and at home. (And hasn’t this always been the case? With the brief subcultural exception of the Summer of Love?)
Many of the conference participants, in other words, seemed to be coding “excess” as “authentic,” to be buying into the idea that that which is unarticulated is unspoiled in much the same vein as my autobiography speculations above. This was particularly true of the queer theorists, at least two of whom focused on queer reading practice as something that draws on textual possibilities rather than textual actualities to move toward an imagined utopian future that is acknowledged as imagined, and yet still must be imagined.
I found their frankness about possibility very helpful. There probably are parts of my life that I haven’t articulated to myself, but the minute I discover them I begin to articulate them, and they become assimilated into the already-existing Grand Narrative, becoming just more examples of this or that Trend In My Life At That Time. Perhaps the only way these parts of my history can have power is as possibilities, as dark corners that remain dark. One of the keynote speakers at the conference remarked that, as a writer, “one has to hide one’s intent” — when I asked him in the Q&A to elaborate, he more or less said that your intent is not going to sell books; that you have to give readers something they want, and smuggle your “real” message in the back door. I can empathize, of course. Nearly every paper in my academic career has had the secret or not-so-secret message of “please please try to love one another,” and I think I would not be exaggerating to say that many, if not most, enduring works of art have exactly this message as well. But slapping a sticker on the front of Ulysses reading “LOVE IS IN HERE” would not particularly have helped Joyce sell more copies — because, as I said, emotion is embarrassing. You have to give readers something else to tell themselves that they want: the challenge of the experimentation, the pleasure of the text, the possibility of pornography, etc.
Probably the best readings of texts are the ones that leave some of the dark places unlit. Psyche should not have lit her lamp to look on Cupid’s face, and love suffers in the labeling.
“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.