Thoughts on Povinelli

Click here to read Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”

I noticed in “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” that Le Guin does not assign the child in the broomcloset a gender. “It could be a boy or a girl,” the narrator states, and goes on to use the pronoun “it” or the construction “the child” for the rest of the story. Povinelli, however, assigns the child a female gender and uses the pronouns “she” and “her” in her discussion (510). I wonder why. Maybe she is trying to humanize the child for her readers whereas Le Guin may have left the gender unassigned in order to use the dehumanizing pronoun “it,” thus underscoring the status of the child in the Omelas society.

The story, and Povinelli’s reading of it, are upsetting indictments of societies who rely on the suffering of others for their “happiness.” Just reading Povinelli’s gloss of the story made me feel guilty, uncomfortable, unsure, and helpless. It is difficult to read this “ethical wager” (509), as Povinelli calls it, without identifying with the people of Omelas. But rather than one wretched child, the privileged existence I am part of (as a Westerner, as an American, as a white person, as someone with access to clean water, as someone with health insurance… and on and on) is constituted by the wretched situation of huge portions of the human population.

“Everyone must decide if his or her happiness is worth the suffering of those within the fetid broom closet. And in this world where we live, there is no exit. We can only change the distribution of life and death so that some have more and some have less” (528). Povinelli closes her essay with a troubling call for action. How, exactly, do we redistribute life and death? Clearly we must recognize those whose suffering is left out because it cannot be commodified into spectacle. And we have to shift our paradigm out of the “then… then.. then…” of the future anterior and establish an understanding of ourselves as part of a “radically present” (511) set of relations. But these theoretical moves necessary for change seem inadequate when you are left feeling depressed by the story and Povinelli’s reading. None of the article assigned for our fourth week were “easy” to read from an affective standpoint. This one just happens to carry a more direct (and general) indictment. I find myself guilty as charged.

Now I will turn to some of the specific issues Povinelli raises. I will also note some connections to our other readings from last week.

I think the most important points that emerge in Povinelli’s essay are:

-the danger of “the future anterior” (510). Le Guin’s story (and Povinelli’s article) write against the pragmatic approach to ethics epitomized by William James. As Povinelli describes, “It is what will have been the ultimate truth, good, and justice, after every last man has had his experience and his say” (510). This idea that what will occur in the future can justify present actions can have devastating consequences on current trends in legislation and the way we think about human interrelations, as Povinelli points out in her discussion of the Howard administration and its troubling approach to legislating normalization for aboriginal groups.

When Mbembe discusses matrydom, he says “in death the future is collapsed into the present” because “the martyr…can be seen as laboring under the sign of the future” (37). After thinking about how Povinelli underscores the danger of justifying actions through futurity, I think this passage becomes more crystallized. A lot of our readings touch on ethical questions that are constituted by a look future consequences. I think it will be helpful to keep Povinelli’s discussion in mind whenever the future/present is mentioned.

-the problematic nature of our fixation on events and eventfulness. We (“late liberal subjects”) pay attention to spectacles, horrific disasters, and violent massacres but we ignore slow deaths–corrosive, chronic suffering.Povinelli cites Lauren Berlant’s work on slow death and obesity (527). I read Berlant’s article last semester. It has been really influential for my thinking about subjectivities. She discusses how things we do that are “bad” for us- the things that can cause slow deaths- we might do in order to temporarily evacuate our own subjectivities, to take a mini-vacation from the self. If any of you are interested in looking at the article, let me know.

-“privatizing risk” (517) and the effects this kind of individuation has on people such as Australian aboriginals.

Angela Mitropoulas used some of the same examples in her two essays (she cites Povinelli). The overlap in their work consists in the way they contextualize and theorize interventions into the lives of indigenous people. Near the end of her essay, Povinelli touches on the Howard administration’s actions concerning asylum seekers. She glosses the issues that Pugliese extensively engages with.

I think this post falls somewhere between the new style Aren called for and what we have been doing in the last few weeks. Let me know what works for you guys.


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