Monthly Archives: February 2011

Stofwolk (Dust cloud)

“We all know” Aristotle’s famous definition of the human being as a political animal: “It is evident from these considerations, then, that a city-state is among the things that exist by nature, that a human being is by nature a political animal, and that anyone who is without a city-state, not by luck but by nature, is either a poor specimen or else superhuman. Like the one Homer condemns, he too is ‘clanless, lawless, and homeless’.” As a political animal, the human being is thus caught up between two kinds of life: the mere life of the poor specimen, and the more life of the superhuman. As political animals, we are caught up between bare life and sovereign power.

In Giorgio Agamben’s work, bare life and sovereignty form a couple; but the particular nature of their coupling has not yet been fully understood. The closest I’ve come to it, is in a book that explicitly distances itself from Agamben: it does not focus on sovereignty but on biopolitics; it does not focus on bare life but on more life, or “life as surplus.” The book—Melinda Cooper’s Life as Surplus—argues that there is a connection in the neoliberal era between biotechnology and capitalism: at the same time that neoliberalism does nothing to prevent life-destroying disasters such as the one caused by hurricane Katrina (more precisely, by the levees breaking as a result of the hurricane), it invests unprecedented sums in the life-sciences, funding scientists to speculate on life’s continued generation beyond disaster. It is a delirious form of capitalism that is thanatopolitical and biopolitical at the same time.

Cooper argues that neither Agamben nor Roberto Esposito, who addresses the coincision of thanatopolitics and biopolitics in Bíos: Biopolitics and Philosophy, have understood this particular nexus between the politics of life and new forms of speculative capitalization. This may be because of the relative absence of Karl Marx in their writings. By contrast, Marx takes up a central place in Cooper’s book, which lays bare—after Marx—the ways in which the production of bare life goes hand in hand with “the capitalist promise of more abundant life.” Interestingly, both these forms of life—bare life and more abundant life—could fall under the heading of “surplus life”: the supernumerary life of the poor specimen that’s not worth living, on the one hand; the life of the superhuman, on the other. Cooper’s book thus exposes a political heritage in the neoliberal era that goes back at least as far as Aristotle’s celebrated definition.

In response, she calls for “something like a creative sabotage of the future; a pragmatics of preemptive resistance capable of actualizing the future outside of the policeable boundaries of property right. And in the face of a politics that all too often adopts a posture of resignation in the face of the biospheric catastrophe, it is imperative that we do not give in to the sense of the inevitable.” One might wonder whether this creative sabotage, which aims to take care of life in a different way, is merely another biotechnic? And whether politics, then, is merely a question of disentangling biotechnology from capitalism in the neoliberal era?

References: Aristotle. Politics. Trans. C.D.C. Reeve. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett, 1998; Melinda Cooper, Life as Surplus: Biotechnology and Capitalism in the Neo-Liberal Era. Seattle: U of Washington P, 2008. Image: Willem Weismann, Stofwolk (Dust cloud), 60 x 60 cm, oil on canvas, 2010.


The patient finger

The theory of evolutionary aesthetics argues that in our partner choices, we are driven by evolutionary concerns. Our partner choices are determined by a concern, conscious or not, with the survival of our gene pool. This is supposed to hold true regardless of our sexual orientation. Whom we think is beautiful is biologically determined. For many, this is no doubt a theory that is difficult to accept. At the same time, we aren’t creationists either. During that dinner conversation, we will happily come to the aid of Charles Darwin–but without being willing to pursue evolutionary theory to the above end. Both creationists and scientists may be quick to hold this ambiguity against us. Suddenly, it appears necessary to decide. What side are we on? Are we with or against evolution?

As in many such situations, it is not entirely certain that we must choose. It may be that the answer is neither. “Of course,” when it comes to the creation of human life, we are with evolution, and not with the bible. But that shouldn’t mean that we follow the theory of evolutionary aesthetics. Indeed, since the creation of human life, culture has speeded up to such a degree that we might have spun outside of the realms of evolution altogether. As the members of Critical Art Ensemble state in a text titled Flesh Machine, “evolution is a theory, not a fact”—and they are hardly creationists. Evolution, as we know, moves forward like Walter Benjamin’s angel of history: with its back turned towards the future, it sees wreckage being piled upon wreckage as part of what Benjamin describes as “a single catastrophe.” It doesn’t know what it is doing. It just does—and out of all of this doing, certain gene pools survive. But it’s not as if we know what we are looking for when we choose our mates. From an evolutionary perspective, we might at best be making educated guesses.

Are will still within the era of evolution? If Critical Art Ensemble is correct in its diagnosis of the emergence of a flesh machine—a power machine that operates onto our biological lives directly–, does it still make sense, within this emergence, to speak of evolution? It may be that we can only hold on to this notion if we recognize that we have become its masters, that we have become our own gods, that we have entered into the era of “superhumanism,” as Peter Sloterdijk in a text from the late 1990s already put it. The risk, of course, is that we won’t have the courage to take on this responsibility, and that evolution will be run for us—by capital. To be sure, there is no way out of the flesh machine. But who is going to operate it?

References: Critical Art Ensemble, Flesh Machine: Cyborgs, Designer Babies, and New Eugenic Consciousness. Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 1998; Peter Sloterdijk, “Rules for the Human Zoo: Response to the Letter on Humanism”. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space (2009), 12-28; Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”. In: Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken, 1968. 253-264. Image: Willem Weismann, The patient finger, 50 x 60 cm, oil on canvas, 2010.


In the final section of his text “In Praise of Profanation,” Giorgio Agamben discusses Walter Benjamin’s concept of “exhibition-value.” Benjamin uses this concept “to characterize the transformation that the work of art undergoes in the era of its technological reproducibility”; according to Agamben, it characterizes better than any other concept “the new condition of objects and even of the human body in the era of fulfilled capitalism.” As an example of what he understands by exhibition-value, Agamben turns to the human face: “It is a common experience that the face of a woman who feels she is being looked at becomes inexpressive. That is, the awareness of being exposed to the gaze creates a vacuum in consciousness and powerfully disrupts the expressive processes that usually animate the face.”

In a more recent text titled “Nudity,” Agamben characterizes the attitude expressed here as the “nihilism of beauty”: “common to many beautiful women,” this attitude “consists in reducing one’s own beauty to pure appearance and then exhibiting this appearance with a sort of remote sadness, stubbornly denying the idea that beauty can signify something other than itself. … This disenchantment of beauty, this special nihilism, reaches its extreme stage with the mannequins or the fashion models, who learn before all else to erase all expression from their faces. In so doing, their faces become pure exhibition value and, as a result, acquire a particular allure.” In the profanation essay, Agamben turns to the porn star Chloë des Lysses to develop his point. She is cited as an example of someone who “has recently pushed this procedure to the extreme”: “She has herself photographed in the act of performing or submitting to the most obscene acts, but always so that her face is fully visible in the foreground. But instead of simulating pleasure, as dictated by the conventions of the genre, she affects and displays—like fashion models—the most absolute indifference, the most stoic ataraxy. … Her impassive face breaks every connection between lived experience and the expressive sphere; it no longer expresses anything but shows itself as a place without a hint of expression, as pure means.”

Agamben characterizes this capacity to show itself as pure means as a “profanatory potential.” As such, “[n]either the brazen-faced gesture of the porn star nor the impassive face of the fashion model is … to be blamed.” What he condemns, instead, is pornography’s attempt to neutralize this potential; the fashion show’s attempt to divert the fashion model from the use of this potential. In Nudities, the conclusion that Agamben draws from his discussion of exhibition value is clear: “The only thing that the beautiful face can say, exhibiting its nudity with a smile, is, ‘You wanted to see my secret? You wanted to clarify my envelopment? Then look right at it, if you can. Look at this absolute, unforgivable absence of secrets!’ The matheme of nudity is, in this sense, simply this: haecce! there is nothing other than this.” (Presumably, this haecce also leads beyond Agamben’s focus on the face of beautiful women—into the faces of women as such, whether they are beautiful or not, as well as into the faces of men.) Or, as he puts it at the very end of his even earlier text “The Face”: “Be only your face. Go to the threshold. Do not remain the subjects of your properties or faculties, do not stay beneath them; rather, go with them, in them, beyond them.”

References: Giorgio Agamben. Profanations. Trans. Jeff Fort. New York: Zone Books, 2007; Agamben. Nudities. Trans. David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2010; Agamben. Means Without End: Notes on Politics. Trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino. Minneapolis: U of Minneapolis P, 2000. Image: Dan Davis, Center of the Universe, 80 x 170cm, oil on canvas, 2007.