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I’ve been listening to Petra Haden‘s recordings for years now. I’ve never had the pleasure of hearing her sing live, but still respond to a vibrant directness, a deeply engaging vitality, that inheres in her music, particularly in the overdubbed choric covers of popular song that she’s been self-releasing through YouTube and Facebook. I associate her vibrancy with an adaptive, attentive and essentially improvisatory approach to singing—improvisatory not despite the compositional fixity of any recording, but as a structural principal of this kind of recording. That claim needs to be argued, rather than taken as a given, and making a version of that argument is what I’m starting to do in the essay I’m posting here; it’s a paper that I delivered on Friday, March 30, 2018, at UCLA during the annual conference of the American Comparative Literature Association, as part of a seminar called ‘“Stay Woke”: The Politics of Protest Song,’ organized and chaired by Bronwyn Malloy of the University of British Columbia. I’m working with Petra Haden’s cover of the David Bowie-Pat Metheny Group collaboration, “This Is Not America,” which is the theme song from the 1985 spy-thriller The Falcon and the Snowman, to try to discover the ways in which dissent voices itself not necessarily as dissonance or discord but rather in the re-figurations of plurality in the varietals of community represented by choral song: to concoct a multiplicity out of an initial gesture at negation or lyric refusal, the promise of an America sounded from what it is not or what it refuses to be. Many of her covers of film themes and of pop and pop kitsch (such as Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’”) operate neither as satire nor as mere celebration, but produce a form of Americana – Haden’s collaborations with Bill Frisell and with Jesse Harris, as well as her work with her father Charlie Haden’s legacy operate in this vein, in my view – that sustains a democratizing impulse in its aural blend of irony and joy; her songs open up an auditory and audible space in which an attentive and open-hearted America can begin to hear itself more fully.
[I presented this text as part of a lecture in the first week of my upper-level undergraduate course on “Denatured Reading,” taking a cue from – among many others – Graham Harman’s claim that “[n]ature is not natural and can never be naturalized.” What kind of writing do such claims ask for?]
I’m looking for a way to frame a set of concerns for this class, to trace some kind of conceptual architecture. By beginning with what must seem like arbitrarily compiling a handful of poems—some from writers on the course syllabus, some not—I haven’t made it too easy to see anything like a focus, and the syllabus itself, revised from an earlier version of the course, still appears to me a bit cobbled and unkempt—heterotopic, perhaps, to borrow a term from the introduction to Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things, an idea he develops from reading Jorge Luis Borges. Maybe this amorphousness, this assemblage, is appropriate to the course, too, given the unruliness of the subject matter—the decomposition of contemporary concepts of the natural—and its attendant image-pool—flotsam, junkyards, scrapheaps, wastelands, yardsales, edgelands, cyborgs, plastics, stuff. But I still feel like I need to offer you, and myself, some means of holding the material together, some imperative that drives me, and you along with me, through this slice of the contemporary, of the work of those who live with us, now. I need, I think, to pose a question—and what comes to mind is a question posed a good seventy years ago, but which has a way of lingering, of insinuating itself into our present.
Ventriloquizing a key half-line from Friedrich Hölderlin’s 1801 elegy “Brod und Wein,” a disgraced Martin Heidegger asks, in 1946, “und wozu Dichter in dürftiger Zeit?”—”and what are poets for in a destitute time?” or “and why poets in [a] paltry time?” Following on the material and cultural desolation of Western Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War, Heidegger inclines toward a version of the religiosity of the late and last Romantics, linking Hölderlin to Rainer Maria Rilke’s orphic vestiges, to discover some remainder of a saving grace for humanity, some reason for our collective persistence as a species, some scrap of holiness:
To be a poet in a destitute time means: to attend, singing, to the trace of the fugitive gods. This is why the poet in the time of the world’s night utters the holy.
Theodor Adorno notoriously excoriates this poetical onto-theology as barbaric, consigning the lyric—except, perhaps, that it makes room in these latter days for the voices of suffering—to bathos and redaction. Even if we remain justly suspicious of Heidegger’s cult of Being, it feels too desolate, too hopeless, to abandon altogether the poetic imperative he articulates. At least, it does to me. How can writing, poetic or otherwise, still manage somehow to face the hard fact of our looming destitution, the tenor of our catastrophic times, what Maurice Blanchot names our “disaster”? “We others,” Heidegger continues, by which he seems to me to mean we readers, “must learn to listen to what these poets say.” Poetry, in our time, emerges around the recalibration of attention. We have missed hearing something, have been less than perfect listeners, poor students. Hölderlin’s poetry, though a bit dire and over-serious, presents an imperative to attend to what persists and insists beyond its human limits: “But there would be, and there is, the sole necessity, by thinking our way soberly into what his poetry says, to come to learn what is unspoken.” Poetry, in fits and starts, still gestures sometimes toward a refiguration of the encounter with the non-human world, the obscurity into which those fugitive gods appear to have retreated, and is still impelled by creative effort. Hölderlin’s adjective dürftiger—needy, meager, scanty, sparse, paltry, destitute—has at its root the verb dürfen—can or may—which suggests both capacity and possibility, a trace of this ontological imperative. When I quoted, a little abruptly last class, a line from Isabelle Stengers’s In Catastrophic Times remarking on “the felt necessity of trying to listen to that which insists, obscurely,” it was with an eye (and an ear) toward framing this poetic imperative. Following James Lovelock, Stengers names “that which insists” Gaia, the inhuman earth, and argues that if we mean to resist barbarism (deriving for her more from Rosa Luxemburg’s critique of capitalism than from Adorno), we need to try—notice how qualified her imperative remains—to think creatively and experimentally, and I would say poetically around and with this imperative. Pervasive anxieties these days around climate change, displaced populations, pharmacology, genomic modification and other environmental and biological incursions of human progress have become shared hallmarks of our human condition. Biotechnologies both reactivate and intensify an unease around what feels like an unspoken and unspeakable ontological threat. What poetry, what creative writing, might be for in our times is to broach the question of how to voice what’s unspeakable, to begin, again, to trace the boundaries, the contact zones, the edges, the membranes between humanity and its others, between the made and the given, between the natural and the denatured.
The philosopher Alain Badiou declared in a fairly recent interview that “[i]t must be clearly affirmed that humanity is an animal species that attempts to overcome its animality, a natural set that attempts to denaturalise itself.” Badiou is not only reframing an enlightenment rationalism embedded in myths of human progress—what remains to us today, maybe, of liberal humanism—but also pointing up an irony inherent in deep ecology and human concern with the environment: an untenable separation of the human and the non-human in the guise of the “natural.” Just yesterday, an article in The Guardian reiterated that human technologies have fundamentally altered the geological record, that we have inscribed ourselves into the planet such that we have ashifted the narrative of the history of being itself, and hardly for the better. The anthropocene has arrived. “The history of life on earth,” Rachel Carson writes in Silent Spring (1962), “has been a history of interaction between living things and their surroundings,” but those interactions, particularly from the human side of things, have been characterized not so much by reciprocity as by “irrecoverable” contamination. The three poets we have touched on so far address this contamination, directly. Tom Raworth’s “Beautiful Habit” concatenates the fragmented discursive remainders of those contaminants, and attempts to siphon some form of last-ditch, vestigial beauty from them, the leftover possibility of close listening: “it’s us / or rust / listener.” Paul Farley, by contrast, calls the creative intellect’s bluff, shuffling through the greasy, porous surfaces of man-made objects—a deck of cards, a microwave—trying to make contact with the nothingness—the withdrawn guarantees of meaning or of surety—behind his own crafted and crafty words, his tells and his tellings. Kathleen Jamie wants to attend to the “seed-small notes” along a remote shoreline scattered with natural detritus, to begin to listen to what’s left to her brief attention.
Unmade Remarks on Innovation (Michel Foucault, Walter Benjamin, Samuel Beckett, C. D. Wright, Tanya Tagaq)
I was invited to take part in the closing panel of the UBC Arts Undergraduate Society’s student conference on “Innovation.” The members of the panel were asked to discuss ways in which academic faculty could foster innovation in student research, but I seem to have missed the memo, and so I prepared a set of remarks offering a critique of the concept of innovation. I realized my mistake about five minutes before I was scheduled to speak, so I ended up improvising some comments—using bits and pieces from what I had written—on the poetics of “study” (gesturing a little at Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s work on the undercommons) and on research as question and risk rather than innovative production: that it might be better to think of ourselves as students rather than experts. I also felt that I had pitched my remarks all wrong, and that it would be better to talk with this audience than read out my prose. Still, I like what I wrote; I used this moment to start thinking about Tanya Tagaq’s music, a critical project I have been meaning to set in motion for some time. Here is the composed undelivered text I’d prepared.
Innovation Without Innovation
Kevin McNeilly, University of British Columbia
Unmade Remarks at the AUS Humanities Conference
Saturday, 16 January 2016
I want to make a few remarks to frame and to critique the ideological loading of the concept of innovation. I’m resisting the un-interrogated praise of making things new—the allure of novelty—and at the same time trying to suggest a relationship to time, a going forward (or perhaps better, outward) that can be sounded as a crucial potential in particular forms of lyric, in poetic language that W. H. Auden famously imagines as “a way of happening, a mouth.”
Approaching the end of writing The Order of Things(1966/1970), Michel Foucault admits that he discovers himself “on the threshold of a modernity that we have”—that he has—”not yet left behind” (xxiv). This unqualified “we” is epochal, its episteme described asymptotically by the reflexive acknowledgement not only of the limits of his own language, but also of a cultural latecomer’s language as such: “the question of the being of language,” as he puts it, is “intimately linked with the fundamental problems of our culture” (382). (I’m poaching and re-appropriating material, if not the argument, from John Rajchman’s 1983 essay “Foucault, or the Ends of Modernism” .) The shared cult of Bildung—linked to myths of progress, of newness, of innovation, of transcendence, of what the philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers refers to as the “epic” of our time—presently and lately, as it touches the expressive limits of its own futurity, its forward motion, can only cannibalize and repurpose itself in the guise of renewal, a mortal remix that tends to pass off an eviscerated avant garde for material discovery.
Foucault must be thinking of Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, pictured in the ninth of his “Theses on the Philosophy of History”:
A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
So-called progress names a cultural if not an ontological imperative as a species of dire pharmakon: remedy as ruin, betterment as destruction. In the opening paragraphs of one of his last texts, Worstward Ho, Samuel Beckett articulates this imperative as driving whatever remains of self-expression in our time, the need to “go on,” and to go on saying, despite exhaustion, despite the obvious futility and emptiness of the new, despite the asymptotic approach of his language to its absolute expressive limits, its nohow: “On. Say on. Be said on. Somehow on. Till nohow on. Said nohow on.” The work’s title parodies Charles Kingsley’s 1855 novel Westward Ho!, an extended romance of colonial expansion, masculine industry and liberal self-reliance. More recently, Beckett’s lines have often been misappropriated and repurposed as a kind of global capitalist mantra, a call to technological and corporate innovation. As readers, and fellow latecomers, we need to be more rigorous and careful about what Beckett articulates here.
Beckett’s language sloughs off the trappings of Western progress for an acknowledgement of cultural and epistemic decrepitude: “All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Speech deteriorates into fragmented clichés and bathetic puns; pushed to its verbal limits, the romance of expressive imperatives can only cannibalize itself. What passes for innovation or renewal reduces to tautology: “Imagination dead imagine.” For me, this fraught word-circuit allegorizes the broken teleology of the human project, its attenuated failure, a diagnosis that seems increasingly self-evident in our era of climate change, endocapitalism, exhaustive consumption, viral technocracy, global insecurity, displaced populations and supersaturated media. The imperative to innovate, however, persists as a resilient remainder, or “stirrings still” as Beckett’s last text puts it. Acknowledging the vestiges of this imaginative prod that might stir us on is one of the cultural functions of lyric, still, today. Confronted with its own extinction, Beckett’s language nonetheless enacts a thetic rhythm, a halting but persistent step beyond itself.
The American poet C. D. Wright, who died earlier this week, suggests in One with Others (2010) a comparable cultural function for poetry in our fraught, self-destructive era of “progress”: “It is a function of poetry to locate those zones inside us that would be free, and declare them so.” Wright’s declaration may sound as if she wants to recuperate naïve confession, potentially masking wreckage in aspirational nostalgia. That’s certainly a danger in advocating for poetry in an age when lyric language becomes increasingly corny, recycled and fatigued. Better understood, Wright advocates for a fracturing of interiority, a form of innovation, a freeing that doesn’t so much foster the cult of expressive genius as open intimacy onto an alterity, an outside, that refuses merely to cannibalize its own ruins.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. Tanya Tagaq’s 2014 album Animism culls a lyric intensity, an embodied affective immediacy, by splicing and looping an extemporaneous, situated circular breathing derived from Inuit throat-singing back onto itself, supported by her core improvising trio with Jesse Zubot and Jean Martin, and others. Confronting the porous boundaries between the human and the animal, the corporeal and the machinic, the given and the made, the recording troubles the edges of signification, and generates its eros by turning those zones of encounter inside out. Each nascent “song” offers a kind of post-natural ecology. It innovates not by being new but by freeing up, by crossing lines, and by making vocal music from the come-and-go of those transgressive stirrings. Her/their music surges up, finds its pulse, in sustained and audible risk. There is much to say, and to say on, about this recording, but I’ll finish my own set of re-purposed texts by briefly noting how Tagaq and group re-purpose and renew—innovate through—The Pixies’s “Caribou.” A parody, perhaps, of ethnomusicological collecting, the CD opens by concocting a form of techno-shamanism with a cover not of Inuit folksong but of American post-punk, inverting salvage anthropology into a call for, if not a performance of, primordial agency—deft ululation, yes, but also voicing an acute cultural politics through expansive virtuosity, decolonizing the ear: “Give dirt to me / I bite lament / This human form / Where I was born / I now repent.” In an interview in NME Black Francis apparently disclosed that “maybe even the singer of the song is reincarnated as a caribou.” In Tanya Tagaq’s version, animistic metempsychosis emerges from speech act—thematized as repentance in the lyrics—toward verbal becoming, the self—its human form—transubstantiated through unfolding textures of voice: anthropomorphic debris reanimated, said on, sung on.
I’m intensely grateful to the Graduate Program in Science and Technology Studies (STS) at UBC for inviting Isabelle Stengers to lead a seminar on her reading of Alfred North Whitehead’s Process and Reality, and on what she calls “cosmopolitics.” In practice, she didn’t really lead a discussion so much as aim to foster spontaneous interchange and to interrogate and even challenge some of her own thinking; her recent book is called Thinking with Whitehead (2002, trans. 2011)—rather than thinking about or explaining—and the character and practice of that with-ness, of a reading that involves co-creatively being witha work rather that staging some sort of magisterial (professorial?) exegetical mastery of it, is what I think for Stengers makes philosophy matter.
Still, the seminar involved less mutual interchange—less a practice of collaborative speculation, a discursive echo of the “open ontology” she wants to address—and became more about participants posing questions to Professor Stengers about her work. She had offered two papers for participants to read ahead of time, in the hope, perhaps, of avoiding professing, although given the opportunity of having her present in the classroom, it’s certainly understandable why a rather formal question-and-answer session might happen. Describing, in one of those papers, the emergence of her term “cosmopolitical,” she points to how “gripped by worry,” by what sounds like anxiety over philosophical reach, she “needed to slow down.” That slowing is not a diminution of attention but rather its intensification—an attention, moreover, that remains iterative and hermeneutic, but that also aspires to a reading practice that is co-creative rather than derivative or, in the mundane sense, rather than merely critical. “It’s better to read slowly,” she said in the seminar, “in order not to have understood everything.” Reading doesn’t aim at comprehension, but to actualize the creative potential in careful misprision.
She doesn’t really articulate an aesthetics in Thinking with Whitehead, if by aesthetics you mean a theory of art. But what she calls the “adventure of the senses,” of aesthesis, pervades her meditations on Whitehead’s writing and thinking. What Professor Stengers wants a seminar to become, I think, is something that Whitehead describes, in Process and Reality, as “intense experience without the shackle of reiteration from the past. This is the condition for spontaneity of conceptual reaction” (Process and Reality 105). The active mind slows into the present tense, but that spontaneity—I want to call it improvisation, but Stengers does not—is not without relation to a past, without any iterative purchase on (reading) history. Rather, the active, embodied mind, as one reads, becomes (to borrow a few metaphors from both Whitehead and Stengers) an electromagnetic resonator, an amplifier, an interstitial matrix: “It receives from the past, it lives in the present” (Process and Reality 339). The interstice—the fictive and material space “between the lines” of tissue, of both flesh and text—is a crucial trope for Stengers, marking both a material and a societal openness, a biological and a conceptual betweenness (betweenity?) that offers the condition of possibility for communities of difference, for community as difference, the unresolved and contrary, risky situation of the speculative seminar itself: “speculative presence, and the eventual efficacy associated with it, constitutes the wager of the interstice” (Thinking with Whitehead 514). “Life,” as Whitehead puts it, “lurks in the interstices of each living cell, and in the interstices of the brain. In the history of a living society, its more vivid manifestations wander to whatever quarter is receiving from the animal body an enormous variety of physical experience.” (Process and Reality105-6) Those “vivid” intensities don’t and can’t happen all the time, and I’m not even sure what a seminar conducted along those lines of sustained risk might look like, might feel like, but in the classroom yesterday, what for me was notable was how often Isabelle Stengers laughed. Her laughter was never nervous or imperious or cynical—although she did make it clear that she doesn’t abide thoughtlessness or “stupidity”—but manifest moments of vital warmth, her celebratory enthusiasm for thinking that matters, in the present. I couldn’t help but hear, as well, the nascence of an interstitial poetics, an ecology of writing that attends to some as-yet-unapprehended upwelling of life between its own unfolding lines.
Isabelle Stengers, Thinking with Whitehead: A Free and Wild
Creation of Concepts. 2002. Trans. Michael Chase.
Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2011
Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, corrected
edition, ed. David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne.
New York: Free P, 1978.