Author Archives: Ashley

“Nearly Utopian, Nearly Normal” Notes on Berlant

In “Nearly Utopian, Nearly Normal: Post-Fordist Affect in La Promesse and Rosetta” Lauren Berlant close reads these two films from the 1990s as entry points into a larger discussion of the role of children and affect within the globalized labor networks of late capitalism. The article is devastating in its presentation of the function of fantasy and imagination. As Berlant says “I want to tell a story from this perspective about post-Fordist affect as a scene of constant bargaining with normalcy in the face of conditions that can barely support even the memory of the fantasy. How do fantasy-practice clusters…become the grounds for political and social conservatism?” (278). This question may not seem like a natural one at first. Berlant’s aim in the article, however,  is to demonstrate how affect is completely entangled with  social and political economies, as well as circuits of labor.

Affect cannot be considered separately:

“There is no room to make a distinction among political, economic, and affective forms of existence, because the institutions of intimacy that constitute the everyday environments of the social are only viscerally distinct but actually, as we know, intricately and dynamically related to all sorts of institutional, economic, historical and symbolic dynamics” (279).

But why do affective fantasy practices produce “social conservatism”? Berlant links the fantasy and longing for “normativity” on the part of the children represented in the  films as a major link in hegemonic systems of labor. The “will to feel that feeling” of normalcy, or “aspirational normalcy” constitutes an affective reinvestment into the “the normative promises of capital”  (281) rather than leading to a subversive or resistant stance. Berlant describes how the rise of immaterial labor and the weakening of nation-states, and, consequently, citizenship rights, has led to the situation of “survivalists, scavengers bargaining against defeat by the capitalist destruction of life” (282). Because of their inability to ‘get ahead,’ these “survivalists” have nothing to pass along to their children except the hope for a better life. This is the fantasy that underpins the production of “social conservatism.”

In the second half of the article, Berlant prepares to theorize childhood by engaging in a theoretical archive including Judith Butler, W.R.D. Fairbairn and Christopher Bollas. It might be helpful to unpack this section together in class so we can see precisely where Berlant positions herself in this conversation.

We could also discuss how often the construction “a story” comes up in the article. Why does Berlant insist over and over again on the narrative quality of these issues?

One more interesting issue is the discussion of futurity in the article. It brought to my mind Elizabeth Povinelli’s critique of the “future anterior,” especially part of Berlant’s closing material:

“I close, therefore, not with a solution to the problem of aspirational normativity as expressed in the conventionalities of subaltern feeling, because, I am arguing, the subordinated sensorium of the immaterial worker, whose acts of rage and ruthlessness are mixed with forms of care, is an effect of the relation of capitalism’s refusal of futurity in an overwhelmingly productive present and the normative promise of intimacy, which enables us to imagine that having a friend or making a date or looking longingly at someone who might, after all, show compassion for our struggles, is really where living takes place.” (301)

I was especially interested in the idea of “capitalism’s refusal of futurity” in the passage above, but I decided not to excerpt the paragraph because I think we can use it as a productive place to start talking about the thrust of the article overall.

Rachel Lee Lecture Tomorrow

Here is the info about the lecture tomorrow. I hope to see some of you there.

Associate Professor Rachel Lee, English and Women’s Studies, UCLA, will present “Disaggregating Racial Bodies: Biopolitics and Borderlands in Literature, Theory, and Culture” Tuesday, March 29, 2011 – 4:00 p.m. in the Maple Room, IMU.

A brief response focusing on Parisi

I found the three responses that have already been posted for this week very useful and insightful. No one has discussed the excerpt from Luciana Parisi’s book Abstract Sex very much. I found it the most difficult reading to get through this week. I could definitely use some help unpacking some of the theoretical framing, especially in the opening pages of “Parthenogenic Sex.” I found Parisi’s discussion of entropy really fascinating. One passage in particular seemed, to me, to theorize and connect up a lot of the issues we have been discussing, particularly the management of populations through reproductive labor and the extraction of surplus value from biological processes and materials.

“The notion of entropy…was crucial to Marx’s study of the dynamics of reproduction of capital involving a capacity of extracting surplus value by deadening human labour. Capital is a homeostatic system. It incorporates and discharges energy-flows outside it’s semi-open cycle so as to ensure constant reproduction. By sucking in all useful flows capital deprives the vital lymph of the forces of production distorting the equal relationship between life and death: the more wealth or balance the more death. In a similar way, this entropic death is fundamental to the psychoanalytical and anatomical study of the reproductive forces of the body. Death becomes the principle of finitude of life spreading across the pathology of sexual reproduction” (94).

Sorry to quote at such length, but I hope this excerpt might provide us with an entry point for bringing Parisi into the discussion.

On another note, I reread Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake this past weekend, one of the novels I am planning on writing about for the seminar paper this term. Although it can definitely be classified as a future-dystopian novel, Atwood insisted at the time of publication that all of the technologies she describes in the book are already happening or are beginning to happen. Reading the novel alongside Waldby and Cooper brought the truth of this statement home. The “promissory claims” and bank-like structure of companies like Cordlife creepily echo the use of human clone banks (for “spare parts”- organs and tissues) in the future world of the novel.

Niklas Luhmann’s systems theory (and “The Paradigm of Immunization”)

Near the beginning of “The Paradigm of Immunization” (ch. 2) in Bios, Esposito tracks the two critical lines which illustrate the “immunitary semantics at the center of modern self-representation” (48). One is “Freud to Norbert Elias,” how violence becomes embedded “within the confines of the individual pysche” (48); the other line he tracks leads to “Parson’s functionalism and Luhmann’s systems theory”(49). Esposito remarks that Luhmann “is the one who has derived the most radical consequences from immunization, particularly regarding terminology…His thesis that systems function not by rejecting conflicts and contradictions, but by producing them as necessary antigens for reactivating their own antibodies, places the entire Luhmannian discourse within the semantic orbit of immunity” (49).

Earlier this term I wrote a short piece on Luhmann’s systems theory and the concept of the individual  that emerges in his essay “The Individuality of the Individual: Historical Meanings and Contemporary Problems.” I thought it might be interesting to read a gloss of some of his work for those of you who aren’t familiar with Luhmann (I wasn’t before this term). I think the focus on the individual as a conscious system could inform our discussion of Esposito’s analysis of  “individuation.” Also, we might be better positioned to talk about why Esposito includes such a wide theoretical archive in the first few pages of chapter two and then narrows to mostly discussing Hobbes and Locke for the bulk of the chapter. I am also trying to put together a more standard set of response notes to the chapter but I am not sure if they will be ready before class. Hopefully my excerpts on Luhmann will be somewhat useful.

In “The Individuality of the Individual: Historical Meanings and Contemporary Problems,” Niklas Luhmann offers a version of individuality from the vantage point of systems theory. After framing the basic tenants of his theory of autopoietic systems, Luhmann states, “whoever gets this message will at least see the possibility of defining the individuality of an individual as autopoiesis” (322). Luhmann argues that conscious systems are self-referential and self-constituting. “There is no individuality ab extra, only self-referential individuality. But this means that cells and societies, maybe physical atoms, certainly immune systems and brains, are all individuals. Conscious systems have no exceptional status.” (322). Individuality, then, can be seen as a closed, self-created (or self-maintaining) system. This is not an individuality of the human subject, but rather an individuality of a conscious system. The integral whole here is not the “whole human” in any sense, but rather the (unexceptional) conscious system.

Like all other systems, the conscious system is defined by its difference from its environment. Unlike social systems or living systems “conscious systems” have the ability to recognize this difference, “the identity of the difference between themselves and their environments” (322). This ability to conceive the difference does not, however, change the circumstances of the conscious system or make it an exceptional type of system. A key point here is the fact that the only recognition of difference that takes place is “always one difference” (322). In this way, the awareness of the conscious system is an awareness of a rigid binary difference—that of self and other, system and environment. This boundary is inflexible. Although the environment of the system can affect the system, it nevertheless remains a closed, self-constituting (self-replicating) system.

“Living Differently in Time”

I found Hannah Landecker’s article “Living Differently in Time” a pleasurable and interesting read. There are two very distinct sections in this article, and while I found both useful, the turn to the ethnographic section felt a little disjointed to me at first. It is, however, a pretty good model on how to rework research plans when you are unable to get the data you want or expect. Landecker describes her initial plan for the ethnographic section of the piece (and how/why this plan did not match up with the reality- Landecker wanted to interview tissue culturists about something they were completely uninterested in- how the adjective “human” was applied to different biological materials). Landecker then goes on to give an intriguing close reading of her interview with what seems to be an “old school” tissue culturist. Even though her research plans were initially thwarted, Landecker reworked her plan to utilize one of her interviews anyway.

To me, the most interesting part of the ethnographic section was the discussion of generationality among tissue culturists (and how it ends up relating to the commodification of biologicals such as cell lines). The interview subject, whom Landecker refers to as Rita Elliot, displayed strong feelings about the propriety of her techniques in culturing cells, and lamented the sloppy techniques and attitudes of the new kids on the (cellular culturing) block- biochemists and molecular biologists. One of Elliot’s main critiques of her colleagues in biochemistry and molecular biology is their view of cells as “reagents” rather than “complex living entities.” For Elliot, this view is exemplified by their lack of foresight and particularity of technique in storing, saving, and caring for their cell lines. Landecker draws this critique together with the specific commodification (by companies like the Cambrex Corporation) of chemicals and biologicals- blurring the line between the two. As Landecker puts it, “For my interlocutor, trained a generation ago in the specialized and demanding task of actually coaxing cells to live in the laboratory after excising them from the guts of laboratory animals such as rats or dogs, cell lines come first packaged as organs in organisms. For many others, these days, cell lines come as small ampoules in a Fedex package, smoking with dry ice.”

The article shares a concern in temporality and an ethnographic approach with some of our other readings this week.  Landecker tracks the “practical, material genealogies” of cellular manipulation, or engages in “technique-watching.” Landecker uses this focus on the development of techniques and technologies to illustrate the relationship between material, technological advances and the emergence of (bio)ethical and (biopolitical) theoretical debates. I think this is a valuable line of enquiry. By highlighting an object like the freezer–and showing how this technology (and the ability to freeze living cells) was a necessary development–for the complicated processes of cloning or stem cell research, Landecker  grounds discussions of biotechnologies in material developments. This allows her to unpack the generally passionate cries concerning biotech’s affect on humanity by inserting “an interim step”: “the usual formula, ‘biotechnology changes what it is to be human,’ should have an interim step in it in order to understand this process in any detail: ‘biotechnology changes what it is to be biological.’ This interim step… is key to understanding the specificity of ‘life’ after biotechnology rather than ‘life’ after nineteenth century physiology.”

It is clear that Landecker does not want to dismantle or dismiss discussions about how biotechnologies affect humans or the perception of human life, she does, however, want to ground these discussions in material developments and give a more nuanced account of how changes in conceptions of life come about. One unexpected way to do so is to track how researchers in differing generations and specialties conceptualize cell lines.

My favorite passage (on temporality):

“All this screwy generationality, the novel simultaneities, the gaps of time between the death of one generation and birth of another with a suspension of continuity between them, all of these deeply unsettling temporal disruptions depend to some degree on the rather banal presence of a working deep freeze…to be biological, alive, cellular, also means (at present) to be a potential ‘age chimaera,’ to be suspendable, interruptible, storable, freezable in parts.”

I wonder how the very material “screwy generationality” of cell lines and tissues could be related to the theoretical concepts of queer generationality or queer temporality. I am thinking specifically of Sedgwick’s discussion in “Paranoid vs. Reparative Reading” but I know there is more work in these areas I could mine. It might be a weird connection to make, but my mind went there- if anyone has any thoughts on that (or anything else from the article) let me know!


Zylinska: “Bioethics: A Critical Introduction”

The first chapter in Bioethics in the Age of New Media was an accessible and helpful gloss of the historical and theoretical underpinnings of what Zylinska calls “traditional” or “conventional” bioethics. I read this chapter before moving on to our other readings for this week and I think that was a good decision. “Bioethics” provided a lot of baselines and reference points valuable to the perusal of the other more specific (or technical) chapters we were assigned this week.

Zylinska traces the development of numerous strands of bioethics in this chapter, so many, in fact, that I think it would be fruitless to try to summarize. Instead I will talk about specific passages and concepts that might be useful for discussion.

The various (tradtional) bioethical frameworks share in common: “predefined normativity, human subjectivity, and universal applicability” (6). Most problematic for Zylinska, however, is the humanism underpinning all of the disparate approaches to traditional bioethics. Therefore, a “critique of humanism, and of the inherent ‘truth’ of the human and its preestablished, albeit competing, definitions of what it means to live a meaningful life, thus presents itself as inherent to bioethical enquiry” (12).

Zylinska also critiques traditional bioethics for becoming overly prescriptivist and utilitarian, “a ‘technological fix’ to a technical problem” (9). Even more explicitly, “‘Applied bioethics,’ understood as the application of the previously agreed moral principles, informed by the rational argument and based on biological knowledge, can thus perhaps be seen as threatening to close off an ethical enquiry into the emergence of, and encounters between, organisms and life forms that defy traditional classification all too quickly” (10). This foreclosure of possible realms for enquiry is a major problem because, as Zylinska points out, numerous bioethical issues are still developing, or “emerging,” as Cooper might say. Again and again, Zylinska calls for specificity and openness. She critiques the bioethical positions that seem to account for only abstract situations, “disembodied and decontextualized” problems (9).

Zylinska’s discussion of technology helped me to understand Thacker’s argument (who Zylinska glosses on 27-28) a little easier. “if we think technology beyond its Aristotelian concept of a mere tool and see it instead as an environment, or a field of dynamic forces, we will have a more interesting and more critical framework for understanding ‘human enhancement’ or ‘extension'” (16). Her succinct call for a change in our understanding of technology as a tool resonated with me while I was reading the Thacker (which I found more difficult to get through).

In the section “A Medical History of Bioethics,” Zylinska notes the historical import of the Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial in the emergence of bioethics. To Zylinska, this history “signals its [bioethics’] inevitable and necessary engagement with issues of race, heredity, the technization of modernity, and the constitution of the caesura between the human and nonhuman” (18). I thought this was a unique point to make and it helped connect this gloss of bioethics to some of the readings we have had from previous weeks dealing with the intersectionality of biopolitics, race, tech, and modernity.

Other possible points for discussion:

-the centrality of public discourse for the significance of bioethics (21-22) and Zylinska’s discussion of the “right” to participate in discourse on life (4)

-the concept of risk in bioethics (19-20). The discourse of risk is one that appears and reappears in our readings. Authors emphasize different things, however, when discussing risk. It might be useful to trace the differences. Zylinska discusses risk/benefit as part of the utilitarian perspective in bioethics. Calculations of risks and benefits, and the theoretical perspectives that value these calculations, lead to “increased proceduralism and codification of the field” (19). This is connected to the ‘technical fix’ idea discussed above (as well as to lack of specificity- risk calculations deal in populations rather than in specific persons or cases). Rose discusses risk in his section on susceptibility: “What is treated by doctors and drugs here is not disease but the almost infinitely expandable and malleable empire of risk” (87).

-the distinctions Zylinska makes between Deleuze and Derrida (and the way she uses them alongside one another in her own methodology). I think Zylinska’s own perspective would be more clear if we read another chapter from her book since so much of this one is introducing the field overall and what she is writing against. Seeing it put to use would make her theoretical framework more apparent.

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.