Archive for Agamben

What we talk about when we talk about werewolves: Genre and Genus, Wer- and Wolf

Posted in Conferences, Here at the End of All Things, papers, The Generic, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 18 April 2014 by Ben

Following is the transcript of my talk for Morrisville State College’s Science, Technology, and Society Symposium on monsters. I was given the topic “Abominations” and, as you will see, chose to speak about werewolves, among other things. I am definitely humming some of the hard parts here, but will leave it at that. You can download a PDF of the talk here.

What we talk about when we talk about werewolves: Genre and Genus, Wer- and Wolf

Benjamin J Robertson

My epigraph is from Angela Carter’s short story, “The company of wolves:

Those slavering jaws; the lolling tongue; the rime of saliva on the grizzled chops–of all the teeming perils of the night and the forest, ghosts, hobgoblins, orgres that grill babies upon gridirons, witches that fatten their captives in cages for cannibal tables, the wolf is the worst, for he cannot listen to reason.

Introduction: why talk about werewolves?

It’s weird to me to be talking about werewolves, because they terrify me. Or perhaps it’s not so weird. Perhaps I am talking about them because they terrify me. In a short encyclopedia entry on the relationship between horror and science fiction, Leslie Fiedler writes:

[I]f many of us tend to speak apologetically, defensively, self-mockingly about our fondness for horror fantasy, this is primarily because of a cognitive dissonance that lies at the heart of our response, a conflict deep in our psyches between what we, as heirs to the Age of Reason, think we know to be so and what we ambivalently wish or fear to be true. We are convinced that the universe we inhabit is fully explicable in terms of ‘natural’ cause and effect and that once we understand their ‘laws’ we will be the masters of our fate. But we also suspect that we are the playthings of occult forces that we can never understand and that, therefore, will always control our destinies.

Perhaps I am talking about werewolves despite the fact that my father let me watch An American Werewolf in London when I was far too young. Perhaps I am talking about them despite the fact that I still get a tiny bit creeped out by the full moon when I am walking my dog late at night. Perhaps I am talking to you about werewolves today despite the fact that doing so forces me, a grown man in theory, to acknowledge my own fear of something I know for certain not to be real.

Or perhaps I am talking to you about werewolves because of all of these things, because such discussion is productive, because it reveals something important about who we are in 2014, about what we think, about what we are capable of. Perhaps, along with Fiedler, I am talking about werewolves because I believe that if I understand them, if I understand horror, I will become master of my fate. If knowledge of equates with control over, then perhaps I believe, along with humanity, that I can avoid horror altogether by knowing it. I take as one of my core assumptions that humans do precisely this: order the world for themselves so that they might escape or ignore horror, so that they might forever forget that existence is not their understanding of it.

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Old syllabus: Posthuman Media

Posted in Teaching with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 1 February 2014 by Ben

Following a discussion with Marc Weidenbaum via Twitter, here is the syllabus for an old course: Posthuman Media.

ENGL_3116_Daily_Schedule_-_Revised_3

Horror after history: Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf

Posted in Conferences, Here at the End of All Things, The Generic, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 27 September 2013 by Ben

Text of a talk I gave at the 2013 &NOW Conference. Warning: rough edges.

There is a moment in the life of concepts when they lose their immediate intelligibility and can then, like all empty terms, be overburdened with contradictory meanings.

—Agamben, Homo Sacer

This paper is about horror—both what we feel and the genre known as such—and history. The intersection of these two terms in this paper involves the claim that horror—both the feeling and the genre—has a history and that history in one of its most prevalent senses—that being the sense that history is progressive—horrifies. I will not come to a strong conclusion.

The Last Werewolf is potboiler full of sex and violence (although, truth be told, in both quality and quantity not so much, contra the breathless reviews). Glen Duncan, like so many who have written genre fiction, appears in this context to be, as Melville once said satirically of Hawthorne, a man who means no meanings. Of course to be a man who means no meanings at the end of history, is simply to be a man. Or an animal, as to be a man means to mean meanings and to mean meanings means to be a man. After the end of history, after meaning has ceased, one can no longer be a man properly so-called. Nor can one be beast. Such distinctions are part and parcel of history and the meaning, the technology or the means of meaning which it affords. After history, the genres such distinctions create and maintain—genres which must be created and maintained because they have no inherent reality—disappear. No more human and animal. No more horror, sf, fantasy. No more potboilers and no more literature.

In The Open, Agamben discusses a messianic and a modern account of the reconciliation of the human to the animal, each of which involves the end times or the end of history. In the messianic account, what survives the last judgment is the purely human, the human exclusive of its embodiment, its physicality, its animality. In the modern account, which comes out of Hegel on Kojeve’s reading and very much determines popular and populist notions of history to the present insofar as it’s underpinned by “progres”, the end of history involves the “disappearance of Man properly so-called,” the end of “Action negating the given, and Error, or, in general, the Subject opposed to the Object.” At the conclusion of History, “Man remains alive as animal in harmony with Nature or Given being.” In other words, at the end of history the human loses what makes it human; the animalization of the human takes place through the exclusion of humanity.

Later, in Homo Sacer, in a chapter entitled “The Ban and the Wolf,” Agamben returns to his discussion of animality in the context of the political conditions of modernity. He notes that the werewolf, in its origin, is closely related to the figure of homo sacer, or sacred man, who, in contradiction to his title, can be killed but not sacrificed. He notes that Germanic and Anglo-Saxon sources define the bandit (who is excluded from the polis and the laws that protect the demos such that anyone may kill him) as a wolf-man. “What had to remain in the collective unconscious as a monstrous hybrid of human and animal, divided between the forest and the city—the werewolf—is, therefore, in its origin the figure of the man who has been banned from the city.” Notably, for all of its etymological inquiries, for all of genealogical tracings of an obscure figure of ancient law, Homo Sacer concerns itself first and foremost with what Agamben calls “the nomos of the modern,” under which the state of exception (which can be traced back first to sacred man and then to the werewolf) becomes permanent.

Agamben notes that, as a term, “homo sacer” makes almost no sense, burdened as it is with so many contradictory meanings. For example, if the man in question is sacred—that is, if he belongs to the gods—why may he be killed by anyone? To come to some understanding of the term, although this definition does not account for its complexity entirely, we might articulate it with a concept of history and say that homo sacer is excluded from all humanity, including that which we call history. Homo sacer, in other words, cannot be made meaningful, cannot be included in the city, in the purview of “Man properly so-called.” In some sense, homo sacer is already removed from such profanity, from human use and is therefore already sacred, but cannot partake in a becoming sacred that meaning requires. If this point seems contradictory, it is. That meaning is human is part and parcel of Hegel’s notion of history, but at the same time this meaning, history itself, requires spirit, something fundamentally non-human, in order to mean.

Glen Duncan’s title refers literally to Jacob Marlowe, the last of his kind. However, I can’t hear it or read it without thinking of Fukuyama’s the last man who comes at the end of history or of Nietzsche’s last man who heralds the arrival of what comes after the human. However, this echo raises the question of whether Marlowe is the last wer and the last wolf, the last human (or at least the last man) as well as the last beast or if he is the last werewolf, the last intersection of the two? That is, with his conclusion does the distinction between human and animal cease or is it completed? Whatever the case, he is both human and beast, an animal in an urban world, a creature whose fleshly (dare I say natural?) appetites—which include well-aged scotch and constant sexual intercourse—can only be satiated by the conveniences of modern culture. He lives always in a human world, but apart from humanity. He is integrated in the system of culture through his investments, but has few friends and a life that has no value whatsoever. he may be captured and tortured without consequence, killed by those who hate and fear him without anyone knowing or caring.

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Paper Proposal for 2013 &Now Conference

Posted in Conferences, Writing with tags , , , , , , on 2 April 2013 by Ben

Second proposal of the night. If it weren’t for the last second and all that. This one is for the 2013 &Now Conference, this September in Boulder. I wish this proposal was a bit more fleshed out, but that’s the way it is.

Horror after History: Glenn Duncan’s The Last Werewolf

Proposal for &Now 7

Benjamin J. Robertson

Jake Marlowe is, as the title of Glenn Duncan’s 2011 novel suggests, The Last Werewolf—and he dreams of suicide. Jake’s life, perhaps never meaningful, has become unbearable in its absurdity. Despite the pleas of his single friend, he prepares to end his centuries-long existence in the knowledge that his death will be as meaningless as his life.

According to Kojève, following Hegel, at culmination of modernity, the end of history, the human, having achieved its perfection and without the possibility of art and therefore meaning, will revert to animality. Similar to Marlowe’s understanding of his imminent death, the disappearance of the human has little consequence for the universe: “The disappearance of Man at the end of history is not a catastrophe: the natural World remains what it has been from all eternity. And it is not a biological catastrophe either: Man remains live as animal in harmony with Nature or given Being. What disappears is Man properly so-called.”

This paper investigates, through a consideration of The Last Werewolf, the horror genre in relation to questions of history, knowledge, and human being. Far from returning the human to a state of nature, in The Last Werewolf, the animal ‘inside’ the human takes the human out of sync with itself and undermines the notion of history’s end by undermining the notion of history itself in the manner that Kojève pace Hegel understood it, Specifically, I consider Marlowe’s statements, made with regard to his soon-to-be werewolf lover Talulla: “Thus she’s discovered the Conradian truth: The first horror is there’s horror. The second is you accommodate it. […] You do what you do because it’s that or death.” This short passage moves the horror genre beyond the knowledge practices of modernity, in which horror derives from a challenge to positive knowledge and rationality, a challenge to our deepest epistemological assumptions. Here, horror becomes the groundless ground of being, an ontological “truth” that renders all meaning impossible, including the meaning of one’s life and the meaning of one’s death.

 

Fall 2013 Course: Topics in Advanced Theory: History after History

Posted in Teaching with tags , , , , , , , , , , on 5 March 2013 by Ben

I have been complaining today on Twitter about having to order my fall textbooks now. It feels too early. More to the point, I know what I am teaching in terms of topic/course numbers, but I have not fully worked out what material to cover. I think about material intermittently, but of course never write anything down. Even if I had written things down, they would be likely of little use when it comes time to put the course together. So, instead of doing some heavy research and giving the matter as much thought as I would like, I tend to wind up ordering books based on how much we can read in a given week and in the term overall and how much books will cost students (under $100 is necessary, under $80 ideal).

So here is my class on History after History, a 3000 level course that falls under the heading “Topics in Advanced Theory.” I think that this material is all relevant, and is all in my wheelhouse, so to speak. That said, I would like some more time to consider. I still can fiddle a lot here, as there is lots of room around the books for other essays (whether I eliminate some of those proposed here or just add). I would think that Haraway would fit here nicely, especially her considerations of myth and animality. Also relevant would be the Paul Gilroy of The Black Atlantic. Both of these thinkers would provide a nice corrective to the whiteness and maleness of this reading list. I know nothing about postcolonial scholarship in this area, but assume it must be out there. That would help as well, so I will see what I can do between now and August, when the decisions about what to read have to become final.

ENGL 3116-002: Topics in Advanced Theory

History after History

“History” has never been “the past,” but a way of thinking about the past. Rather, it has been a way of connecting the past, present, and future in the context of the human so that the passage of time takes on meaning. We call this meaning “progress.” But if humanity ceases to progress, or if it recognizes that such progress is a human construction and not a natural fact, what happens to history? Surely events will continue to happen, but will they still mean in the same way?

This class considers what posthistory looks like. We will study several accounts of the dominant form of historical thinking, that of GWF Hegel, and then consider the strengths, shortcomings, and alternatives to this manner of thinking. Walter Benn Michaels and Francis Fukuyama will provide the Hegelian point of view. Giorgio Agamben will provide the critique of that point of view. Michel Foucault and Vilém Flusser will provide philosophical, and Octavia Butler and Kim Stanley Robinson speculative/fictional, alternatives to that point of view.

Evaluation will be based on short response papers and a final project.

 

Possible Reading List:

Giorgio Agamben: The Open

Walter Benjamin: “On the Concept of History”

Octavia Butler: Parable of the Talents

Vilém Flusser: Post-History

Francis Fukuyama: “The End of History?”

Michel Foucault: The Archaeology of Knowledge & “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History”

Fredric Jameson: “Postmodernism and Consumer Society”

Walter Benn Michaels: The Shape of the Signifier

Friedrich Nietzsche: from Thus Spoke Zarathustra and The Genealogy of Morals

Kim Stanley Robinson: Red Mars

 

Chapter from my dissertation: The Declaration of Future Democracy

Posted in Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 3 March 2013 by Ben

Another text from the archives, a more complete and wide-ranging version of the MLA paper I posted last week. This was the dissertation chapter form which that paper was culled. This was the third chapter in the diss, following from a long discussion of Octavia Butler’s Kindred in chapter one (published in somewhat different form in Science Fiction Studies) and a discussion of politics and science in the context of Stuart Kauffman’s theory of complexity in chapter two (published in Configurations–my first ever publication! Thanks Jim Bono, Hugh Crawford, and Mark Hansen!). Chapter four dealt with the problem of the monster and offered a conceptualization of wonder.

For the most part, I don’t like my dissertation as a dissertation. It’s all over the place, and this chapter is sort of a microcosm of that all-over-the-placeness (it’s a word). I do like a lot of things I say, and I do like my attempt to draw together theories of democracy and violence from Agamben, Schmitt, Benjamin, Deleuze, Derrida, and others with literature by DeLillo, Coupland, Gibson and others. Also here is Battle of Algiers and Syriana as well as Robert Baer’s See No Evil, upon which Syriana was based. Oh, also: Thoreau and the Declaration of Independence.

I appear to myself, six or seven years later, a much less mature writer. So many block quotes here, which appear to me now as a mask for misunderstanding. I could not discuss or deploy these texts effectively, so I let them speak for themselves far too often and only addressed what I wanted to. In any case, not sure my readings of these texts hold up under scrutiny. Rather, I am pretty sure that my readings of individual texts hold up (simple as they are), but that these texts don’t play as nicely with each other as I might want them to, or believe them to. I am not sure how I feel about that now. I find being RIGHT so uninteresting, and abhor debates about what so-and-so REALLY means a waste of time. As such, if these texts don’t play well together, on some deeper level that only a proper close reading can find and address, then I am not sure I care.

The Declaration of Future Democracy

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, begun at a distinguished period and pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under despotism, it is their right, it is their duty to throw off such government.1

—The Declaration of Independence

 

Revolution.

In “Civil Disobedience,” Henry David Thoreau reiterates Jefferson’s claim that when the situation warrants, citizens have the right to change their government: “All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable” (389). However, what Thoreau is able to accomplish in his essay is not simply an affirmation of the right to revolution, but an expansion of Jefferson’s argument. For Thoreau, while political processes must include revolution (or at least its possibility), he also understands that not all decisions involve the dissolution and recreation of government. Thus the right to revolution becomes for him the right to make political decisions, specifically the right to decide upon slavery and the Mexican-American War. The problem, of course, is that while “all men” might recognize the “right to revolution” cum the “right to decide,” they will not all agree upon the proper moment for such decisions or even what decisions should be made and how.

To overcome this problem, democracy asks citizens to express their desires first in deliberation and then through their vote, with the majority awarded the right to make decisions (or the majority’s decision being enforced). However, for Thoreau, the ends reached via this method (what Kaufmann would call consensus) are not satisfactory:

After all, the practical reason why, when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule is not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest. But a government in which the majority rule in all cases can not be based on justice, even as far as men understand it. Can there not be a government in which the majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?—in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. (386-87)

The important aspect of Thoreau’s claim is not the notion of “might makes right” (what Jacques Derrida calls “the reason of the strongest”2). Thoreau does not mean here simply that a majority of citizens can forcefully execute their will upon a minority, as in a physical confrontation. What is important in Thoreau’s argument is the implicit claim that decisions cannot be rightfully made on the basis of the deliberation and agreement of the majority, but through an appeal to conscience. In that conscience is for Thoreau only found in the individual and never in groups (unless the groups are comprised of conscientious individuals acting in their capacity as conscientious individuals), the decision making process he advocates is, it would appear, fundamentally undemocratic. It is the purpose of this chapter to explain what Thoreau means as well as to explain the necessary non-democratic aspects of the democratic process.

We should not misinterpret what Thoreau means by “conscience,” or, rather, underestimate such a faculty. While conscience here retains its common meaning of a “moral sense” by which we determine right from wrong, it is not relativistic. The last line of the above passage informs this reading. There Thoreau seems to state that obligations are taken on through a choice, well-informed or otherwise. However, in the previous sentence he contrasts “law” with “right.” If we understand “right” in the context of chapter two, as a power coextensive with its exercise, then we must also understand that such rights are not simply taken on or left aside through a choice, but are obligations in the strongest sense of the term. So to follow conscience, or more appropriately to have a conscience, is to always do what one thinks is right. More specifically, to have a conscience is to use that conscience to the extent that one cannot do anything but what is right.

The difficulty for democracy, according to Thoreau, is that while individuals can and do make use of their consciences, groups of people, taken in total, lose their ability to distinguish between right and wrong, a fact that is demonstrated during voting procedures.

All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it. The character of the voters is not staked. I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority. Its obligation, therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority. There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men. When the majority shall at length vote for the abolition of slavery, it will be because they are indifferent to slavery, or because there is but little slavery left to be abolished by their vote. They will then be the only slaves. Only his vote can hasten the abolition of slavery who asserts his own freedom by his vote. (392)

That there is an election day once per year does less to afford right action than it does to obfuscate the structuring of action in a specific form. Along with Thoreau, thinkers as historically and politically diverse as Alexis de Toqueville, Carl Schmitt, and Derrida have made clear that voting is not what is important for democracy. What is clear, and here we must extend Thoreau’s discussion of this issue, is that voting, while necessary, is action in a form dictated by the state. It is rationality applied to human action, the naturalization of what Thoreau calls conscience. In that it is the design of a group rather than an individual, it is not guaranteed to be in the right. In that it operates according to juridical structures, it is manipuable in the manner of the history described in chapter one. I do not mean to suggest that elections can be bought or that elections are fraudulent (although both cases are sometimes true). Rather, what I would like to consider is the manner in which the juridical impinges upon the natural, how law (and the representations surrounding it) constrains right.

Most importantly, what I would like to offer is an analysis of the manner in which right must be brought to bear in the name of law, how juridical structures, how democratic institutions, can only ever be effectively democratic by allowing that which is not democratic to influence their behaviors. This statement is no doubt one that will cause concern, and I would like to be able to address it immediately. However, in order to do so effectively I will first turn to a further discussion of right in the context of democracy in order to demonstrate the tenuous legitimacy of democracy itself as well as the problematic legitimation it affords.

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MLA 07 Paper: Sameness or, the Declaration of Futuristic Democracy

Posted in papers, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , on 24 February 2013 by Ben

Another one from the vaults. Although I am certain that I am making mistakes in my readings of the various thinkers I engage here, I am nevertheless rather proud of this paper, which was easily the most well-received of any paper I have ever given. It is also much more coherent. I must have put a lot more effort into conference papers back then.

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My plans for this paper initially included a formulation of a theory of declaration, a means by which to break the Sameness of the endless present, a means of destroying extant relationships, especially those that involve asymmetrical power. In fact, this declaration was to posit a means by which asymmetrical power can become symmetrical, much in the manner that Thoreau claims that a single just man can stand up to the power of the state and disrupt its hegemony. However, what I discovered in my thinking was that, far from interrupting Sameness, declaration, as it is understood historically and in the context of documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, far from being that which interrupts Sameness and inaugurates the future, is that which produces Sameness. It is thus, in my argument, an agent of the futuristic, a false future that is merely an extrapolation from the present. This paper is about this issue.

Throughout his work Giorgio Agamben returns to Aristotle’s conception of the ground, that formulation through which things are categorized. As he puts it in The Open, in reference to a passage from De anima, “Here we see at work that principal of foundation which constitutes the strategic device par excellance of Aristotle’s thought. It consists in reformulating every question concerning ‘what something is’ as a question concerning ‘through what something belongs to another thing’” (14). Following from his attention to the Aristotelian ground, Agamben is concerned in much of his work on biopolitics with the question of inclusion and exclusion and the role it plays in the modern nation-state.

Similarly, Carl Schmitt turns to Aristotle in the preface to the second edition of The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, where he first notes that the notion of government by discussion, parliamentarianism, belongs not to democracy but, rather, to liberalism, a concept that Schmitt distinguishes from democracy. Writes Schmitt, cribbing from Aristotle’s Politics, “Every actual democracy rests on the principal that not only are equals equal but unequals will not be treated equally. Democracy requires, therefore, first homogeneity and second—if the need arises—elimination or eradication of heterogeneity” (9). Building upon his claim, Schmitt populates this equation with what, for Agamben and this paper, are problematic terms when he states that a “democracy demonstrates its political power by knowing how to refuse or keep at bay something foreign and unequal that threatens its homogeneity” (9). Schmitt would elaborate this distinction between the interior that is equal and the exterior that is not in The Concept of the Political, where he claims that the primary political opposition is that between friend and enemy. Agamben’s work marks a decisive turning away from Schmitt’s categories characterized by a reading of Aristotle that demonstrates the primacy of the formulation of the ground rather than the appearance of any particular instantiation of that formula. The significance of this turning away will become evident in the course of this paper.

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