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Ed Cohen, The Fortress Body

In his book A Body Worth Defending (2009), Ed Cohen aims at reviewing conceptions of the modern body through the invention of immunology, following the path of authors such as Pauline Mazumdar and Alfred I. Tauber. Employing Michel Foucault’s methodological tools, he seeks to demonstrate how the conception of our immune systems is closely linked to religious, political and military ideologies. In this excerpt, he goes back over the historical and conceptual foundations of immunity-as-defence, resulting in the idea of the fortress body being under siege. Between the lines, we get to understand the relationship between colonialism and the production of a militarised perception of the body and the immune system.

The Fortress Body

by Ed Cohen

In the penultimate chapter of Leviathan, “Of Darkness from Vain Philosophy and Fabulous Traditions,” Thomas Hobbes offers a materialist rebuttal to theopolitical investments in “Abstract Essences and Spiritual Forms”:

“The World (I mean not the Earthly onely, that denominated the Lovers of it Worldly men, but the Universe, that is the whole masse of all things that are) is Corporeall, that is to say, Body; and hath the dimensions of Magnitude, namely Length, Bredth, and Depth: also every part of Body, is likewise Body, and hath the like dimensions; and consequently every part of the Universe, is Body, and that which is not Body, is no part of the Universe: And because the Universe is All, that which is no part of it, is Nothing; and consequently no where.”⁠1

Hobbes affirms “the Universe” as “Body” to disqualify political appeals to “incorporeal substance” (which he thought an oxymoronic formula).⁠2 In doing so, he wants to mitigate the divisive role he believes religion plays in the state when it divides citizens’ loyalty between the sovereign and the priesthood.⁠3 This bodily presumption grounds Hobbes’s political ontology and locates natural law within the laws of (physical) nature.⁠4 Short-circuiting the distinction between the laws of nature and natural law, Hobbes aspires to an unassailable and immutable political rationality owing no debt to the “insubstantial” reasons proffered by political theology and therefore invulnerable to (or, we might say, “immune from”) the kind of upheaval and violence which forced him to flee England for France during the English Civil War.⁠5 Hobbes desires political philosophy to serve the commonwealth as geometry serves science: by establishing a logic through which the “laws of motion” become both recognizable and intelligible. Yet by abstractly grounding natural law in this way, Hobbes incorporates the very violence which Jacques Derrida avers the law contains as the law’s raison d’être.

Not surprisingly, this “corporeal” perspective provokes accusations that, despite his professed allegiance to God, Hobbes’s bodily materialism conceals, or rather reveals, a covert atheism. The theological implications of Hobbes’s ideas, among others, so trouble even as esteemed a scientific figure as Robert Boyle (who also opposed Hobbes on points of science and politics) that in a codicil to his will he endows the Boyle lectures “for proving the Christian religion against notorious infidels.”⁠6 However, given such overt Christian hostility to the Hobbesian worldview, what does surprise (much more so than any aspersions cast upon his faith) is that the first person to adapt the notion of “self-defense” to a medical context, thereby foreshadowing what we now call immunity, is the most iconic and bombastic incarnation of the American Protestant, Cotton Mather.

Mather’s role in importing the practice of inoculation (or variolization, as it was then known)⁠7 into the Massachusetts Bay Colony has been much discussed ever since he first advocated the practice during a smallpox epidemic in 1721.⁠8 Long interested in science generally and medicine specifically—about which he had read widely since his days as a precocious Harvard undergraduate⁠9—Mather learns of this prophylactic technique from two very different sources: the first European reports published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (1714–16) and the testimony of slaves who had undergone the practice in Africa.⁠10 When smallpox appears in Boston in the spring of 1721, Mather vigorously promotes the new procedure and enlists a sympathetic physician, Zabdiel Boylston, in his campaign to stop the spread of infection. Although Boylston turns out to be the only doctor to heed Mather’s call, he eventually inoculates 242 people during the eight-month crisis.⁠11 However, Mather and Boylston quickly run athwart the only Boston physician to have actually taken a medical degree, William Douglass. Douglass not only opposes variolization on medical grounds (he believes it spreads infection rather than mitigates it) but also vociferously objects to Mather’s endorsement itself, which Douglass views as an untrained divine’s encroachment on the doctor’s professional turf. The rancorous dissention between Mather, Boylston, and their largely religious supporters, and Douglass and his medical cohort soon spills over into the municipal arena. In the controversy, the practice’s efficacy and safety provoke intense public concern and political struggle. Eventually the Boston selectmen and justices side with Douglass and force Boylston to cease inoculating without their specific consent.⁠12

Certainly the inoculation controversy reveals much about the politics of medicine and religion in colonial America. Moreover, it illustrates how from the early eighteenth century onward, discourses about nature, society, and God openly coincide in framing public reactions to epidemic disease, thereby marking such medical interventions as what Bruno Latour terms “hybrid networks.” With inoculation, Western medicine introduces the first prophylactic procedure that promises to diminish the epidemic risk that haunts human aggregations. Medico-political responses to epidemics—especially to smallpox in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and cholera in the mid- to late nineteenth century—provide frequent occasions to negotiate the play between politics and nature (and sometimes God). Concomitantly they reveal the ways that medicine increasingly legitimates its protocols in terms of political values and outcomes to extend its own power and expertise. Through this hybrid process, medicine begins to supplant religion as an authoritative basis for making political decisions about the public good (especially after the French Revolution). When theories about epidemics simultaneously involve scientific, medical, political, and religious concerns, they locate medicine at the interstices of these domains and thereby invest its privileged subject-object, the human body, with their overdetermined values.

Mather’s own innovative theory about how variolization circumvents smallpox surfaces in the wake of, and in reaction to, the inoculation controversy. This theoretical framing appears in The Angel of Bethesda (1724), one of the first systematic medical treatises written in the Americas.⁠13 Though never published in his lifetime (and not, in fact, until well into the twentieth century), Mather’s manuscript nevertheless provides an early example of how defense can figure as a healing modality of the human organism. Therefore, while this text in no way influences later interpretations of how organisms respond to disease, it does illustrate how such a defensive rendering imaginatively coalesces at least a century and a half before it achieves its scientific apotheosis. Mather’s proleptic endorsement of organismic defense demonstrates something quite simple: if the idea precedes the evidence, then the evidence does not produce the idea (as Metchnikoff and his followers assume). In The Angel of Bethesda, Mather passionately advocates inoculation by hypothesizing about why the practice is both sound and warranted. In so doing, he celebrates inoculation’s simultaneously prophylactic and political value. Given this explicitly medico-political agenda, Mather introduces a telling medical formulation that anticipates biological immunity’s emergence at the intersection of juridico-political and biomedical thinking: Mather portrays the human organism as an embattled fortress, besieged on all sides by the forces of illness, and he describes his new prophylactic procedure as a strategic, if cunning, form of self-defense.⁠14

The defensive figuration of the fortress body derives from Mather’s interest in “a New theory of many Diseases,” as the subtitle to chapter 7 of The Angel of Bethesda frames it. Here Mather offers an incipient version of what a century and a half later will reappear as germ theory.⁠15 Mather starts small—literally. Owning one of colonial New England’s few microscopes (and obviously entranced by what he sees through it), Mather portrays the magnified world as a teeming, if looming, environment:

“Every Part of Matter is Peopled. Every Green Leaf swarms with Inhabitants. The Surfaces of Animals are covered with other Animals. Yea, the most Solid Bodies, even Marble itself, have innumerable Cells, which are crouded with imperceptible Inmates. As there are Infinite Numbers of these, which Microscopes bring to our View, so there may be inconceivable Myriads yett Smaller than these which no glasses have yett reach’d unto. The Animals that are much more than Thousands of times Less than the finest Grain of Sand, have their Motions; and so, their Muscles, their Tendons, their Fibres, their Blood, and the Eggs wherein their Propagation is carried on. The Eggs of these Insects (and why not the living Insects too!) may insinuate themselves by the Air, and with our Ailments, yea, thro’ the Pores of our skin; and soon gett into the Juices of our Bodies. They may be convey’d into our Fluids, with the Nourishment which we received, even before we were born; and may ly dormant until the Vessels are grown more capable of bringing them into their Figure and Vigour for Operations.”⁠16

Clearly Mather finds the plenitude that appears within the scope of his enhanced gaze ominous. His choice of verbs (“swarms,” “covered,” “crouded,” “insinuate”) underscores the potential danger that the miniscule multitudes manifest. The very necessities we require provide conduits through which “inconceivable Myriads” can undo us. Even before birth, the hardly visible world impinges on the human organism and threatens to compromise our borders. Amid this microscopic profusion, human life appears terribly, terribly vulnerable. Filled with anxiety about this microcosmic plethora, Mather imagines the convergence among living beings of vastly different scales as not only dangerous but openly hostile: “And Vast Numbers of these Animals keeping together, may at once make such Invasions, as to render Diseases Epidemical; which those particularly are, that are called, Pestilential.”⁠17 He then extends this invasive trope by explicitly representing the “Vast Numbers of these Animals” as an “unseen Army” against whose incursions only God prevails:

“How much does our Life ly at the mercy of our God! How much do we walk thro’ unseen Armies of Numberless Things, ready to Sieze and Prey upon us! A Walk, like a Running of the Deadly Garloup, which was of old called a passing thro’ the Brick-kiln! What Unknown Armies has the Holy One, wherein to chastise, and Even destroy, the Rebellious Children of men? Millions of Billions of Trillions of Invisible Velites! Of Sinful men they say, Our father, Shall We Smite Them? On His order, they do it Immediately; they do it Effectually.”⁠18

As H. G. Wells’s narrator does two centuries later, Mather identifies the militarized might of these “unseen” and “unknown” mites “ready to Sieze and Prey upon us” as the scourge of God. Yet whether or not they are doing God’s bidding, the “Armies of Numberless Things” constitute a hostile ambience though which we travel, unaware of the dangers that beset us.⁠19 Mather figures the ambient world as an antagonistic environment, and the antagonism derives not just from other humans (as Hobbes dreads) but from “Millions of Billions of Trillions of Invisible Velites” (“Velites: light armed soldiers employed as skirmishers by the Roman armies” [Oxford English Dictionary])

Personifying the agents of microscopic invasions as foreign military forces, Mather translates Hobbes’s fears about personal property (including the person as property) in the state of nature into the organism: “Where an Invader hath no more to feare, than an other mans single power; if one plant, sow, build, or possesse a convenient Seat, others may probably be expected to come prepared with forces united, to dispossesse, and deprive him, not only of the fruit of his labour, but also of his life, or liberty.”⁠20 Mather’s identification of smallpox as invasion resituates such natural threats on a new scale—one both more ubiquitous and less human than Hobbes conjures. Mather’s portrayal of epidemics as violent military incursions concomitantly imagines the organism’s resistance to such threats as a fending off or as a defending. Over the next century and a half, the trope of invasion proliferates in medico-political discussions of epidemics in Europe. Especially after 1832, when cholera “from India” besieges most European nations, invasion encompasses (even while masking) epidemics’ inextricably biological and political stakes. Metchnikoff then explicitly turns this biopolitical conceit inward—into the body itself—and scientifically validates immunity-as-defense as the organism’s active response to such small-scale invasions by bacteria and other microbes.

Mather, however, writing 150 years before this validation, does not yet draw out the implications of his metaphor. Instead, with his threatening and bellicose image, he offers a defensive theory of disease prevention to affirm inoculation as a simultaneously providential and political practice. While Mather devotes most of his discussion to elaborating the “Way of Proceeding in the practice,” he begins it with an extended analogy that theoretically elucidates the technique. Addressing the reader as a political ally (i.e., not of the anti-inoculation camp), Mather underscores their shared assumptions to unite them against their common enemy:

“Behold, the Enemy at once gott into the very Center of the Citadel: And the Invaded party must be very Strong indeed, if it can struggle with him, and after all Entirely Expel and Conquer him. Whereas, the Miasmas of the Small-Pox being admitted in the Way of Inoculation, their Approaches are made only by the Outerworks of the Citadel, and at Considerable Distance from the Center of it. The Enemy, tis true, getts in so far as to make Some Spoil, yea, so much as to satisfy him, and leaves no Prey in the Body of the Patient, for him ever afterwards to seize upon. But the Vital Powers kept so clear from his Assaults, that they can manage the Combats bravely and, tho’ not without a Surrender of those Humours in the Blood, which the Invader makes a Seizure on, they oblige him to march out the same way he came in, and are sure of never being troubled with him any more.”⁠21

Here Mather combines a humoral depletion theory with a defense of the fortress body to picture how variolization works. Likening the body to a “citadel” at whose front gate the “venemous Miasmas” of smallpox normally lay siege, Mather imagines inoculation as a preemptive strike. If the physician introduces the seeds of contagion by way of a secondary fortification not critical to the organism’s integrity, Mather suggests, then the enemy’s appropriative gusto exhausts itself by depleting “the prey” which it covets, causing only a minor loss of humoral wealth. By relinquishing the part of its property which makes it desirable for “the Invader [to] make a Seizure on,” the inoculated body frees itself from future life-threatening attacks on its fortifications through a project of strategic impoverishment.

Needless to say, both the logic and the metaphors in this account remain fuzzy. Nevertheless the biological analogy, grounded in a proprietary understanding of individuality, seems clear. Mather introduces an image of the body as a kind of property whose vital resources are strategically alienable—in the same way, for example, that wage labor begins to be understood at exactly this historical moment. Thus Mather (like Hobbes) characterizes modern embodiment as an essentially defensive posture through which the fortress body fends off the marauding tendencies of hostile enemies which would attempt to seize its vital properties for their own ends.

That Mather seems to anticipate the rudiments of immunity-as-defense more than 150 years before Metchnikoff “scientifically” articulates it does not attest either to Mather’s prescience or to his clairvoyance. Rather, it suggests that biological immunity appears only belatedly within a political domain which had long since conceived such defensive modes of embodiment. Moreover, it indicates that when biomedicine does confer scientific legitimacy on the trope of immunity-as-defense, it retroactively naturalizes such defensive presumptions by repurposing these juridicopolitical concepts as intrinsic to the human organism.

This text is an excerpt from “Living Before and Beyond the Law, or A Reasonable Organism Defends Itself,” in Ed Cohen, A Body Worth Defending: Immunity, Biopolitics, and the Apotheosis of the Modern Body (Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2009), 32–67. Copyright 2009, Duke University Press. All rights reserved. Republished by permission of the copyright holder. www.dukeupress.edu.

Ed Cohen teaches Modern Thought in the department of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University (New Jersey). His preferred archive ranges across discourses often considered philosophical, economic, political, historiographical, ethnographical, biological, and medical. His most recent book is A Body Worth Defending: Immunity, Biopolitics and the Apotheosis of the Modern Body (2009). In a number of subsequent essays, he has shown how limited and limiting assumptions underwrite contemporary medicine’s failures to address persistent problems, especially autoimmune illnesses. He is currently finishing a new book Shit Happens: Ruminations on Illness and Healing which draws on his forty years of experience with Crohn’s disease, to be released in 2021.

  • Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, C. B. Macpherson (ed.) (London: Penguin, 1968), 689 [371].

  • Hobbes explains his idiomatic use of body on p. 428 [208].

  • On Hobbes’s political ontology, see Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985), 80–109.

  • Needless to say, Hobbes’s notion of natural law is not only much more complex but also framed within a political theology that still derives “natural law” from God, but a God who is “the author of nature” (Leviathan, 394 [185–86]). For a detailed discussion of these complex issues, see David Gauthier, “Hobbes: The Laws of Nature,” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 82, Nos. 3–4 (2001), 258–84.

  • In Behemoth, Hobbes’s last work, conceived as an extended reflection on the consequences of civil war, he makes this point explicit in part 1: “Besides, you cannot doubt but that they, who in the pulpit did animate the people to take arms in the defense of the then Parliament, alleged Scripture, that is, the word of God for it. If it be lawful then for subjects to resist the King, when he commands anything that is against the Scripture, that is, contrary to the command of God, and to be judge of the meaning of the Scripture, it is impossible that the life of any King, or the peace of any Christian kingdom, can be long secure.” See Warren Montag, Bodies, Masses, Power: Spinoza and His Contemporaries (London: Verso, 1999), 51.

  • For the definitive assessment of the Hobbes and Boyle engagement, see Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985).

  • Variolization entails “grafting” infectious matter from a smallpox pustule into a cut opened on the limbs of a person not yet afflicted (the word “inoculation” derives from the Latin for plant graft). Histories of medicine usually note the introduction of inoculation against smallpox in England during the early eighteenth century as initiating modern immunological practice in the West. Chinese and Islamic schools of medicine, on the other hand, appear to have used it for much longer. The first European accounts on the subject—which Mather reads—were by an Italian and a Greek physician corresponding from Constantinople: Emanuel Timonius, “An Account, or History, of the Procuring of the Small Pox by Incision, or Inoculation; As It Has for Some Time Been Practiced at Constantinople,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 29 (1714–16), 72–82; Jacobum Pylarinum, “Nova et Tuta Variolas Excitandi per Transplantationem Methodus, Nuper Inventa et in Usum Tracta,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 29 (1714–16), 393–99. Credit often goes to Lady Wortley Montagu, wife of the English ambassador to Constantinople, who learned of the prophylactic practice from Islamic medicine. Nevertheless, as Arthur Silverstein indicates, by the beginning of the eighteenth century information about the non-Western practices of inoculation already circulate through Western scientific literature. Silverstein notes that much of this literature appears as communications from Europeans who were either in the employ of English corporations (the East India Company) or the foreign service. See Arthur Silverstein, A History of Immunology (San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 1989), 25–28.

  • The literature on Mather and inoculation is copious. See, for example, Otho T. Beall and Richard Shryock, Cotton Mather: First Significant Figure in American Medicine (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1954), 489–56; Maxine Van de Wetering, “A Reconsideration of the Inoculation Controversy,” New England Quarterly 58 (1985), 46–67; Margot Minardi, “The Boston Inoculation Controversy, 1721–1722: An Incident in the History of Race,” William and Mary Quarterly 61, No. 1 (2004), 47–76.

  • Mather’s interest in the natural philosophy of the seventeenth century is conspicuous in his tome The Christian Philosopher [1721] (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2000), see the excellent introduction. See also Jeffrey Jeske, “Cotton Mather: Physico-Theologian.” Journal of the History of Ideas 47, No. 4 (1986), 583–94.

  • Margot Minardi discusses these dual contexts at length. See Cotton Mather, The Angel of Bethesda (Barre, MA: American Antiquarian Society, 1972), 10.

  • John B. Blake, “The Inoculation Controversy in Boston: 1721–1722,” New England Quarterly 25 (1952), 497.

  • With mixed metaphors flying, Douglass gloats over this in the May 21, 1722, edition of the New England Courant: “Last January Inoculation made a Sort of Exit, like the Infatuation Thirty Years ago, after several had fallen Victims to the mistaken notions of Dr. M——r and several other learned Clerks concerning Witchcraft. But finding Inoculation in this Town, like the Serpents in Summer, beginning to crawl about again the last Week, it was in time, and effectually crushed in the Bud, by the Justices, Select-Men, and the unanimous Vote of a general Town-Meeting”. See John B. Blake, “The Inoculation Controversy in Boston: 1721–1722,” New England Quarterly 25 (1952), 497.

  • In the introduction to The Angel of Bethesda, Gordon Jones describes the context and the history of Mather’s manuscript. See also Otho T. Beall and Richard Shryock, Cotton Mather: First Significant Figure in American Medicine (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1954); Bernard Cohen (ed.), Cotton Mather and American Science and Medicine: With Studies and Documents concerning the Introduction of Inoculation or Variolation (New York, NY: Arno Press, 1980).

  • In The Christian Philosopher (1721), completed just three years before The Angel of Bethesda, Mather uses a different architectural image to figure the body: a “Holy Temple”.

  • While derived from an ancient doctrine, the seeds of germ theory are resown in 1546 by Girolomo Frascotoro in De Contagionibus et Contagiosis Morbis et Earum Curatione [On Contagion and Contagious Diseases]. See Vivain Nutton, “The Seeds of Disease: An Explanation of Contagion and Infection from the Greeks to the Renaissance,” Medical History 27, No. 1 (1983), 1–34.

  • Cotton Mather, The Angel of Bethesda (Barre, MA: American Antiquarian Society, 1972), 43–44.

  • Cotton Mather, The Angel of Bethesda (Barre, MA: American Antiquarian Society, 1972), 44.

  • Cotton Mather, The Angel of Bethesda (Barre, MA: American Antiquarian Society, 1972), 47.

  • Especially if we are one of the abject sinners, which, according to Calvinist doctrine, we could never know.

  • Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, C. B. Macpherson (ed.) (London: Penguin, 1968), 184 [61].

  • Cotton Mather, The Angel of Bethesda (Barre, MA: American Antiquarian Society, 1972), 112.

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Ann Cooper Albright, Contact Improvisation and the Politics of Empathy

Ann Cooper Albright, whose research and teachings merge theory and practice, considers that an understanding of our bodies and an awareness of ourselves and others occur in particular through dance, the study of phenomenology as well as art history. In this text, the American scholar and dancer aims at transcending the subject/object dyad that shapes our perception of the world. The skin is no longer a boundary, or a shield, but a porous surface enabling an interconnectedness between bodies and world, so that both the inside and the outside can be felt simultaneously.

Feeling In and Out: Contact Improvisation and the Politics of Empathy

by Ann Cooper Albright

In an extraordinarily profound and poetic short essay on Rembrandt’s paintings, art critic John Berger traces the differences between the artist’s drawings and his paintings—particularly the late portraits. Whereas in his drawings Rembrandt is a master of proportion, in his paintings this realistic perspective is radically altered. Berger asks: “Why in his paintings did he forget—or ignore—what he could do with such mastery in his drawings?”⁠1 Alluding to the historical context of Rembrandt’s time, Berger suggests: “He grew old in a climate of economic fanaticism and indifference—not dissimilar to the climate of the period we are living through. The human could no longer simply be copied… the human was no longer self-evident; it had to be found in the darkness.”⁠2 Berger searches for language to address what is not directly visible in Rembrandt’s painting, and postulates that “Something else—something antithetical to “real” space must have interested him more.”⁠3 Vital yet elusive, palpable yet not immediately visible, this “something else” present in Rembrandt’s work is defined by Berger as a “corporeal space.” By distorting a part or parts of the bodies he was painting, Rembrandt was able to give them what Berger calls a “special power of narration.” Tellingly, this corporeal space is incompatible with architectural, measured space. It is connected to energy, not geometric lines. Berger writes: “corporeal space is continually changing its measures and focal centres, according to circumstances. It measures by waves, not metres. Hence its necessary dislocations of ‘real’ space.”⁠4

In order to give his readers a sense of the different orientations of this corporeal space, Berger charges us to “leave the museum”⁠5 and go the emergency room of a hospital. It is there, Berger insists, that we will find

“[t]he space of each sentient body’s awareness of itself. It is not boundless like subjective space: it is always finally bound by the laws of the body, but its landmarks, its emphasis, its inner proportions are continually changing. Pain sharpens our awareness of such space. It is the space of our first vulnerability and solitude. Also of disease. But is also, potentially, the space of pleasure, well-being and the sensation of being loved.”⁠6

For Berger, this corporeal space can be felt by touch more clearly than it can be seen by sight, which is why it is the space that nurses occupy more often than doctors. “[O]n each mattress, within each patient, it takes a different form.”⁠7 I am intrigued by Berger’s notion of a corporeal space, one that requires another “way of seeing” to register its potency. In the writing that follows, I want to explore how this space prioritizes touch and “feeling” rather than seeing, shifting the traditional subject/object dynamic of these exchanges. Of course, I am writing not only about the social and political relationship between painter and model, or even that of an art critic and the work of art, but also of the relationship between one’s self and an “other.” I will argue that by attending to the practice of feeling rather than its affects, Contact Improvisation can help us revise Western notions of empathy that are based on a psychological conception of the individual subject and an object of sympathy.

In English, feeling is both a noun and a verb form. Its many definitions span the gamut from the strictly material – such as to finger, palpate, or touch something—to the highly cerebral. It can be used to describe a physical sensation (I feel something sticky), an intellectual perception (I have a feeling that…), or an emotive state (feeling blue). Feeling can refer to both the surface of the body and the interior self. Feelings, of course, are closely linked to empathy, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the German term Einfühlung, which can be translated as feeling in or feeling into. As Susan Foster outlines in her recent genealogy of empathy, this term was originally coined in 1873 by German aesthetician Robert Vischer and subsequently translated into English as “empathy.”⁠8 In its late 19th century German context, feeling into (or empathy) was primarily used to describe the experience of contemplating, moving into and merging with a work of art, something that John Berger does very well in his perceptive writing. In an early 21st century context, however, empathy usually refers to the experience of relating to someone else’s circumstances, and constitutes the stuff of daytime talk shows à la Oprah Winfrey. As feeling moves from a verb to a noun, from the physical sensing of touch to a projected image of another’s experience, it can take on the colonial baggage of sympathy and the psychic mantle of emotion.

But what if we were to refuse this stabilizing of a verb into a noun—of an active experience into a passive object? What if we kept feeling at the surface of the body, rather than letting it sink into what Foster describes as the late 19th century’s “newly constructed interiority whose proclivities for repression, identification, transference, and sublimation were just beginning to be explored and whose defining consciousness could be fathomed only through intensive introspection”?⁠9 What if we approached Einfühlung, or feeling into, as a kinesthetic practice rather than a psychological state? By holding our attention to the physical, I am not trying to suggest that this realm is any more authentic, natural, “real,” or less culturally grounded than the psychological. On the contrary, I am quite interested in foregrounding the socio-political moorings of corporeal training. But it is crucial for us to recognize just how quickly and easily we tend to elide feeling with emotions, setting up a subject position based on possession (I have emotions) rather than one based in sensation (I am feeling).

Contact Improvisation has been around for almost four decades and I have been involved with the form for three of those decades. I have participated in and taught workshops in many different communities all over the world. Although the form has changed and moved as it adapts to different historical circumstances and geographic locations, there are some fundamental elements that comprise the core of the physical training, no matter whether it is conducted in German or English, Mandarin or Tamil. One of these is a focused attention to sensation at the level of the skin.

As we all know, skin is one of the largest and most sensitive of our organs. It covers our entire bodies and it is impossible to exist in the world without one’s skin. Ironically, however, many people go through their everyday lives with little awareness of their skin as a perceptual faculty. This is because our current post-industrial culture reifies the visual almost to the exclusion of our other senses, including those of sound and smell. Most of us use sight to navigate the world—off-line as well as on-line. Generally speaking in the West, seeing is believing, and feeling is suspect. We tend to become aware of our skin only in extreme situations such as fear (the skin crawling up the back of my neck), awe (it gave me goose bumps), or pleasure (the tingling sensation of a lover’s caress). Much of the foundational training in Contact Improvisation attempts to reverse this cultural hierarchy by reducing our dependency on the visual and bringing awareness to the nuances of the tactile. In Contact, one’s skin becomes a primary site of communication.

The first step in this process of retraining our corporeal habitus is to release the tension that is a direct result of what I call a territorial approach to the body’s integrity. We can conceive of our skin as either a boundary or a conduit and this shift in perception leads to a radically different understanding of the relationship between myself and the world. If my skin is seen as a barrier to disease, infection, or any kind of “otherness,” I might well approach life with a certain Cold War mentality, shoring up any breaches in my defense system and using my skin as a wall or a container meant to keep me safe from the outside world. If, on the other hand, I experience my skin as the porous interface between myself and the world, then I will be more apt to engage my skin as a permeable, sensitive layer that facilitates that exchange. As Corey Spiro, one of my students in a recent Contact class, suggests:

“I feel as though we live in a world where the boundary between self and ‘other’ is constantly being defined, labeled, and monitored. This is especially apparent in our perceptions of the ownership of space. MY PROPERTY, MY ROOM, etc. Nowhere is this line more clearly drawn than at our skin […]. It’s all too easy to convince oneself that the skin represents the ultimate energetic boundary between self and other. Of course, this barrier works both ways, just as it stops the world from coming into us, it similarly prevents our conception of self from expanding beyond the limits of our physical bodies.
I would expect then, that opening the pores of my skin wide enough to let the world in would be a frightening experience. Rather than an upsetting intrusion, however, I was surprised to find out that it was actually extremely refreshing. My energy in class was perhaps lagging a little bit today, but I felt that by opening myself up I was able to simultaneously expand outward into the energy of Wild Main Space and also feel more acutely the electromagnetic fields of everyone else standing around me. In short, opening my pores did more than just “let the world in,” it also let me out. The feeling was one of freedom and relief, as I was no longer alone within the prison-like confines of my injured and fatigued frame.”⁠10

In this dialogue between the self and the world, one becomes aware of the intriguing possibilities of interdependence, including a deeper sense of responsibility. I think of responsibility not as an oppressive duty towards others, but rather as an ability to respond, an ability to be present with the world and as a way of being present with oneself. This is the fruit of kinesthetic attention, a physical mindfulness that prepares one for improvisation. It is also a kind of somatic engagement which leads to a profound psychic reorganization as well. If the world is already inside one’s body, then the separation between internal and external—self and other—is much less distinct. The skin is no longer the boundary between the world and myself, but rather the sensing organ, which brings the world into my awareness. Given the anxiety swirling around boundaries and bodies in contemporary society, however, this latter sensibility requires a bit of practice.

One of the earliest exercises that I give in my improvisation classes is referred to as “the small dance” or “the stand.” First developed by Steve Paxton in the early seventies as he explored the physical skills that would lead towards defining the form of Contact Improvisation, the stand allows one to focus on the internal movements created by the shifts of bones, muscles and breath required to stand “still.” After they have been warming up, moving through the space for awhile with big, vigorous movements, I ask the students to chose a spot and stand in a relaxed, but active manner. Engaging one’s peripheral vision is crucial to this process, and I tell the dancers to try and release the fronts of their eyes, allowing images and colors to come into their head instead of straining their eyes in order to go out and grab the visual image. Often, I will call their attention to the sensation of the moisture on their skin, asking them to feel the difference between air and clothing. Next, I ask them to concentrate on opening the pores of their skin so that it becomes like a window screen, allowing air, smells and sounds to come in from the outside. I ask them to try to breathe through the pores of their skin. Only once they sense the responsiveness of their own skin, are my students ready to work with a partner and feel their weight shifting back and forth between two people. I emphasize the homonymic connections between pore (of the skin) and pour (as in pouring water from a pitcher), asking the students to reflect in writing on what it feels like to open the pores of your skin wide enough to let the world pour in. Here is how Isabel Roth, another of my recent Contact students, responds to this physical practice:

“I think the idea of opening pores as being similar to the idea of opening your mind. It’s not as if you can actively think to open pores and actually feel the individual pores opening. But it is a palpable feeling of release, of spreading and opening your skin to the physical space and people around you […]. Just like opening the pores of the skin allows you to be ready to receive, it also makes you ready to give. Skin is such a pliable and ever-flexible organ, constantly shifting and regenerating, depending on movement and contact. By opening the pores you prepare the skin for contact and for the willingness to open up to another’s touch. Now ready to accept that touch, it is easier to reciprocate pouring weight from open pores to a partner.”⁠11

As you may have noticed, each of my students’ responses uses feeling as both noun and verb – an active state of sensing and also a reflection of that experience. These two meanings of the word resonate with one another, vibrating in an ambiguous space between a subject (who feels) and an object (of feeling). Reading the students’ descriptions of their experience, I am reminded of Berger’s sense that corporeal space is measured in “waves, not metres,” and is predicated on touch, not sight. The somatic state of responsiveness that these students articulate is crucial in preparing the body to enter safely into a Contact duet. But before I move into an analysis of the physical dimensions of touch and sharing weight, I want to look at two different ways of thinking about empathy by making a distinction between introspection and interoception.

Etymologically, introspection means to look into one’s self, which is usually specified as one’s own mind or feelings. This interior space is the site of empathy, envisioned as contained within one’s self until it is drawn out by the object of one’s gaze, sympathy, or even pity. As Foster demonstrates in her study cited earlier, introspection is implicated in the scopic economy of the 19th-century self. Interoception, on the other hand, replaces the visual emphasis (spect) with the more tactile sensibility of cept. Used mostly in neuropsychology, the term “interoception” references one’s ability to feel sensations arising from within the body, specifically one’s visceral organs, giving us the term “gut feelings.” Advances in brain imaging over the last decade have helped scientists locate interoception in the right frontal insula, a part of the brain also identified with emotional intelligence. It could be easy to collapse these two terms into an overall feeling of empathy. But as any Zen master will tell you, feeling does not necessarily have to evolve into emotion. In fact, I want to suggest that the physical mind of interoception can produce an entirely different kind of empathetic exchange, one that stays with feeling without getting stuck in the emotional baggage of feelings.

Once my students are comfortable with opening the pores of their skin, we begin the infinitely interesting process of learning to pour our weight, like water, into one another’s bodies. Starting with two hands, one partner will firmly, yet openly, touch another person on the back or shoulder, kinesthetically “asking” their partner to pour their weight into the receptacle of their hands. The asking partner can regulate how much weight is given by resisting and pouring back even as they accept the responsibility for the other person’s weight. This mutual pouring creates an energetic dialogue that continuously loops between the partners. Eventually, the partners begin to pour their weight back and forth, using different body parts as their physical contact revolves around the space and across their bodies. As the dancers gain fluidity in the giving and receiving of weight, the dancing tends to speed up. This is the moment when the responsiveness of one’s body is critical. There is no time for the lengthy processing of emotions here; one has to focus entirely on keeping up with the point of contact.

This point of connection is sometimes referred to in Contact parlance as the “third mind.” Allowing their dancing to be led by this “third mind,” the two partners endeavor to follow its spatial and rhythmic journey throughout the studio space. At first it may seem clear which partner is leading and which one is following, but eventually those roles evolve into such a fluid and subtle exchange that the categories of leader and follower lose their oppositional moorings. This does not mean, however, that all difference is collapsed. For me, this ‘third mind” marks an intersubjective space in which one is aware of sensations both internal and external without necessarily categorizing those feelings into socially recognizable roles. The notion of a “third mind” directs attention away from the oppositional poles of self and other, stretching a single line into a more open field of play. Contact trains for a physical interconnectedness that is akin to what Deirdre Sklar calls “empathic kinesthetic perception.”

“Emphatic kinesthetic perception suggests a combination of mimesis and empathy. […] Whereas visual perception implies an ‘object’ to be perceived from a distance with the eyes alone, empathic kinesthetic perception implies a bridging between subjectivities. This kind of ‘connected knowing’ produces a very intimate kind of knowledge, a taste of those ineffable movement experiences that can’t be easily put into words. Paradoxically, as feminist psychologist Judith Jordan points out, the kind of temporary joining that occurs in empathy produces not a blurry merger but an articulated perception of differences.”⁠12

It is this “articulated perception of differences” that I want to focus on in these last few pages. When I am teaching Contact and I use terms such as “interconnected,” “feeling one’s partner’s experience,” or “moving together,” I emphasize that this “going with the flow” does not mean one becomes a neutral container, nor does it suggest a “blurry merger” of energies such that the dancing homogenizes into one long fluid chain of rolls and lifts. Quite the contrary. The sensitivity to another’s experience also creates an awareness of subtle differences, differences that can be celebrated within the improvisation. While I do not have time to fully engage with Merleau-Ponty’s ideas about intersubjectivity and touch in this context, I do think it is important to point out that in French the verbs for “touch” and feel” are both transitive and reflexive verb forms. That is to say that one feels an “other” at the same time that one feels oneself feeling. Similarly one can touch something and feel oneself being touched at the same time (such as Merleau-Ponty’s famous example of one hand holding the other). This looping across to another and then back to oneself intrigues me, for it loosens up the psychological patterns of always already relating to an “other” as an object (of empathy, scrutiny, or desire…). This play of difference can be accentuated in another dance score, which I give to my students. Here are my instructions:

“This is a duet, not an exercise. A dance, not an activity. To begin, one person lies down, completely passive, allowing their weight to sink fully into the floor. Their partner begins to move their body with attention to giving the passive person an experience of the weight of their bones and the mobility of their joints. As any one who has ever done any kind of body work or physical therapy knows, a passive body allows one to feel sensations unavailable to a body that is self engaged, even the most released one. Focusing on their breaths, the partners establish a vibration of energetic exchange. Bit by bit, percentage point by percentage point, the passive partner becomes increasingly active, engaging first the core of the body’s structure and working outwards to mobilize the limbs—arms, legs, head and tailbone. Both partners dance together in a fully active state. Eventually, the originally active partner becomes progressively passive until they are lying on the floor, enjoying the sensations of their own body through the manipulations of their partner’s.”

The implications of this score are pretty obvious. Over the course of this duet one experiences the entire continuum of possibilities of being active or passive. Normally in our culture, these various positions of active and passive are pathologized into power dynamics, where the passive figure is seen as not having control, as being either infantile or lazy, rendering them an object of pity. But my experience and that of many of my students is that the experience of being totally passive, rather than feeling powerless, actually opens up a great deal of feeling that can create its own pleasures and sense of agency. Experiencing both extreme ends of these positions can be truly revelatory. For instance, Heather Sedlacek writes:

“I also found novelty and enjoyment in being able to dance at a different level than my partner. […] It was clearly stated that we were at different levels, that this was okay, and that the high intensity partner would take care and responsibility for the low intensity partner. Thus, for the first time I didn’t have to resist when my partner resisted or attempt to match her intensity. I didn’t have to be fire when she was fire, or wind when she was wind. I could simply revel in the percentage that our teacher called out every few minutes. […] Reaching 100% intensity and then helping my partner down to 0% provided another new and powerful experience. […] I felt a sense of responsibility that I have not felt before in Contact. Instead of moving with my partner and following the point of contact, as my partner decreased in intensity, I began to control her movements and direction. I had a unique sense of agency in the dance that for me is usually left up to the Third Mind, not to an individual partner.”⁠13

Throughout this paper I have tried to articulate how Contact Improvisation creates a corporeal space in which feeling allows for an interconnectedness with another person without solidifying that relationship into the subject/object dyad implicit in classic conceptions of empathy. I have highlighted how attention to skin as porous and open to the world can facilitate a dancing based on an interchange and multiplicity of subject positions. Moving with the point of contact requires a willingness to stay engaged with feeling (verb) in the present moment, refusing to allow any one kinesthetic exchange to get stuck in a particular feeling (noun). This is not to suggest that relationships in Contact Improvisation are so fluid as to be meaningless. Quite the contrary. But we need to enter something like Berger’s corporeal space with the dancers in order to read the meaning of their connection differently. Watching two people explore the continuum of energies available in Contact, we become aware of the basic generosity at the core of the form. To dance with you, I need to first feel you, recognizing that this feeling can change. The improvisational possibilities of this dancing can teach us that Einfühlung does not have to be only an introspective process, but rather can open us up to feeling both in and out.

This text was first published in Ann Cooper Albright, Engaging Bodies: The Politics and Poetics of Corporeality (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2013).

A dancer and a scholar, Ann Cooper Albright is professor and chair of the department of Dance at Oberlin College (Ohio). Combining her interests in dancing and cultural theory, she teaches a variety of courses that seek to engage students in both practices and theories of the body. Her latest book How to Land: Finding Ground in an Unstable World (2018) offers a new look at embodiment that treats gravity as the organizing force for thinking and moving through our twenty-first century world. Her other publications include: Engaging Bodies: The Politics and Poetics of Corporeality (2013), Encounters with Contact Improvisation (2010), Traces of Light: Absence and Presence in the Work of Loïe Fuller (2007), as well as Taken By Surprise: Improvisation in Dance and Mind (2003) coedited with David Gere, and Moving History/Dancing Cultures: A Dance History Reader (2001), coedited with Ann Dils.

  • John Berger, “Rembrandt and the Body,” in The Shape of a Pocket (New York: Vintage Books, 2001), 103–112, 106.

  • John Berger, “Rembrandt and the Body,” in The Shape of a Pocket (New York: Vintage Books, 2001), 103–112, 105.

  • John Berger, “Rembrandt and the Body,” in The Shape of a Pocket (New York: Vintage Books, 2001), 103–112, 106-7.

  • John Berger, “Rembrandt and the Body,” in The Shape of a Pocket (New York: Vintage Books, 2001), 103–112, 109.

  • John Berger, “Rembrandt and the Body,” in The Shape of a Pocket (New York: Vintage Books, 2001), 103–112, 106.

  • John Berger, “Rembrandt and the Body,” in The Shape of a Pocket (New York: Vintage Books, 2001), 103–112, 107.

  • John Berger, “Rembrandt and the Body,” in The Shape of a Pocket (New York: Vintage Books, 2001), 103–112, 107.

  • Susan Foster, Choreographing Empathy (London, New York: Routledge, 2011), 127.

  • Susan Foster, Choreographing Empathy (London, New York: Routledge, 2011), 154.

  • Corey Spiro, “Journal Entry,” in Ann Cooper Albright (ed.), Encounters with Contact: Dancing Contact Improvisation in College (Oberlin, OH: Oberlin Theater and Dance Program [distributed by Contact Quarterly], 2010), 40.

  • See Corey Spiro, “Journal Entry,” in Ann Cooper Albright (ed.), Encounters with Contact: Dancing Contact Improvisation in College (Oberlin, OH: Oberlin Theater and Dance Program [distributed by Contact Quarterly], 2010), 38.

  • Dreide Sklar, “Five Premises for a Culturally Sensitive Approach to Dance,” in Ann Dils & Ann Cooper Albright (eds.), Moving History/Dancing Cultures. A Dance History Reader (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001), 30–32, 31. (Emphasis added).

  • See Corey Spiro, “Journal Entry,” in Ann Cooper Albright (ed.), Encounters with Contact: Dancing Contact Improvisation in College (Oberlin, OH: Oberlin Theater and Dance Program [distributed by Contact Quarterly], 2010), 17.

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Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading…

"The sphere of influence [of the paranoid process] only expands as each unanticipated disaster seems to demonstrate more conclusively that, guess what, you can never be paranoid enough." The way in which our emotional states are shaped by social situations, and how we take into account these “affects”, is at the heart of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s (1950–2009) thinking, one of the pioneers of queer theory. This excerpt, from her book Touching Feeling (2003), introduces the notion of paranoia as a tool as much as an alienation in the production, the organisation and the use of knowledge.

Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,
or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think
This Essay Is About You.

by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

For convenience’s sake, I borrow my critical examples as I proceed from two influential studies of the past decade, one roughly psychoanalytic and the other roughly New Historicist—but I do so for more than the sake of convenience, as both are books (Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble and D. A. Miller’s The Novel and the Police) whose centrality to the development of my own thought, and that of the critical movements that most interest me, are examples of their remarkable force and exemplarity. Each, as well, is interestingly located in a tacit or ostensibly marginal, but in hindsight originary and authorizing relation to different strains of queer theory. Finally, I draw a sense of permission from the fact that neither book is any longer very representative of the most recent work of either author, so that observations about the reading practices of either book may, I hope, escape being glued as if allegorically to the name of the author.

I would like to begin by setting outside the scope of this discussion any overlap between paranoia per se on the one hand, and on the other hand the states variously called dementia praecox (by Kraepelin), schizophrenia (by Bleuler), or, more generally, delusionality or psychosis. […]

I am saying that the main reasons for questioning paranoid practices are other than the possibility that their suspicions can be delusional or simply wrong. Concomitantly, some of the main reasons for practicing paranoid strategies may be other than the possibility that they offer unique access to true knowledge. They represent a way, among other ways, of seeking, finding, and organizing knowledge. Paranoia knows some things well and others poorly.

I’d like to undertake now something like a composite sketch of what I mean by paranoia in this connection—not as a tool of differential diagnosis, but as a tool for better seeing differentials of practice. My main headings are:

Paranoia is anticipatory.

Paranoia is reflexive and mimetic.

Paranoia is a strong theory.

Paranoia is a theory of negative aects.

Paranoia places its faith in exposure.

Paranoia is anticipatory

That paranoia is anticipatory is clear from every account and theory of the phenomenon. The first imperative of paranoia is There must be no bad surprises, and indeed, the aversion to surprise seems to be what cements the intimacy between paranoia and knowledge per se, including both epistemophilia and skepticism. D. A. Miller notes in The Novel and the Police, “Surprise… is precisely what the paranoid seeks to eliminate, but it is also what, in the event, he survives by reading as a frightening incentive: he can never be paranoid enough.”⁠1

The unidirectionally future-oriented vigilance of paranoia generates, paradoxically, a complex relation to temporality that burrows both backward and forward: because there must be no bad surprises, and because learning of the possibility of a bad surprise would itself constitute a bad surprise, paranoia requires that bad news be always already known. As Miller’s analysis also suggests, the temporal progress and regress of paranoia are, in principle, infinite. Hence perhaps, I suggest, Butler’s repeated and scouringly thorough demonstrations in Gender Trouble that there can have been no moment prior to the imposition of the totalizing Law of gender difference; hence her unresting vigilance for traces in other theorists’ writing of nostalgia for such an impossible prior moment. No time could be too early for one’s having-already-known, for its having-already-been-inevitable, that something bad would happen. And no loss could be too far in the future to need to be preemptively discounted.

Paranoia is reflexive and mimetic

In noting, as I have already, the contagious tropism of paranoia toward symmetrical epistemologies, I have relied on the double senses of paranoia as reflexive and mimetic. […] At the risk of being awfully reductive, I suggest that this anticipatory, mimetic mechanism may also shed light on a striking feature of recent feminist and queer uses of psychoanalysis. Lacan aside, few actual psychoanalysts would dream of being as rigorously insistent as are many oppositional theorists—of whom Butler is very far from the most single-minded—in asserting the inexorable, irreducible, uncircumnavigable, omnipresent centrality, at every psychic juncture, of the facts (however factitious) of “sexual difference” and “the phallus.” From such often tautological work, it would be hard to learn that—from Freud onward, including, for example, the later writings of Melanie Klein—the history of psychoanalytic thought offers richly divergent, heterogeneous tools for thinking about aspects of personhood, consciousness, affect, filiation, social dynamics, and sexuality that, though relevant to the experience of gender and queerness, are often not centrally organized around “sexual difference” at all. Not that they are necessarily prior to “sexual difference”: they may simply be conceptualized as somewhere to the side of it, tangentially or contingently related or even rather unrelated to it.

Seemingly, the reservoir of such thought and speculation could make an important resource for theorists committed to thinking about human lives otherwise than through the prejudicious gender reifications that are common in psychoanalysis as in other projects of modern philosophy and science. What has happened instead, I think, is something like the following. First, through what might be called a process of vigilant scanning, feminists and queers have rightly understood that no topic or area of psychoanalytic thought can be declared a priori immune to the influence of such gender reifications. Second, however—and, it seems to me, unnecessarily and often damagingly—the lack of such a priori immunity, the absence of any guaranteed nonprejudicial point of beginning for feminist thought within psychoanalysis has led to the widespread adoption by some thinkers of an anticipatory mimetic strategy whereby a certain, stylized violence of sexual differentiation must always be presumed or self-assumed—even, where necessary, imposed—simply on the ground that it can never be finally ruled out. (I don’t want to suggest, in using the word “mimetic,” that these uses of psychoanalytic gender categories need be either uncritical of or identical to the originals. Butler, among others, has taught us a much less deadening use of “mimetic.”) But, for example, in this post-Lacanian tradition, psychoanalytic thought that is not in the first place centrally organized around phallic “sexual difference” must seemingly be translated, with however distorting results, into that language before it can be put to any other theoretical use. The contingent possibilities of thinking otherwise than through “sexual difference” are subordinated to the paranoid imperative that, if the violence of such gender reification cannot be definitively halted in advance, it must at least never arrive on any conceptual scene as a surprise. In a paranoid view, it is more dangerous for such reification ever to be unanticipated than often to be unchallenged.

Paranoia is a strong theory

It is for reasons like these that, in the work of Silvan Tomkins, paranoia is offered as the example par excellence of what Tomkins refers to as “strong affect theory”—in this case, a strong humiliation or humiliation-fear theory. […]

To call paranoia a strong theory is, then, at the same time to congratulate it as a big achievement (it’s a strong theory rather as, for Harold Bloom, Milton is a strong poet) but also to classify it. It is one kind of affect theory among other possible kinds, and by Tomkins’s account, a number of interrelated affect theories of different kinds and strengths are likely to constitute the mental life of any individual. Most pointedly, the contrast of strong theory in Tomkins is with weak theory, and the contrast is not in every respect to the advantage of the strong kind. The reach and reductiveness of strong theory—that is, its conceptual economy or elegance—involve both assets and deficits. What characterizes strong theory in Tomkins is not, after all, how well it avoids negative affect or finds positive affect, but the size and topology of the domain that it organizes. “Any theory of wide generality,” he writes,

“is capable of accounting for a wide spectrum of phenomena which appear to be very remote, one from the other, and from a common source. This is a commonly accepted criterion by which the explanatory power of any scientific theory can be evaluated. To the extent to which the theory can account only for ‘near’ phenomena, it is a weak theory, little better than a description of the phenomena which it purports to explain. As it orders more and more remote phenomena to a single formulation, its power grows… A humiliation theory is strong to the extent to which it enables more and more experiences to be accounted for as instances of humiliating experiences on the one hand, or to the extent to which it enables more and more anticipation of such contingencies before they actually happen.”⁠2

As this account suggests, far from becoming stronger through obviating or alleviating humiliation, a humiliation theory becomes stronger exactly insofar as it fails to do so. Tomkins’s conclusion is not that all strong theory is ineffective—indeed, it may grow to be only too effective—but that “aect theory must be eective to be weak”. […]

An affect theory is, among other things, a mode of selective scanning and amplification; for this reason, any affect theory risks being somewhat tautological, but because of its wide reach and rigorous exclusiveness, a strong theory risks being strongly tautological:

“[…] The entire cognitive apparatus is in a constant state of alert for possibilities, imminent or remote, ambiguous or clear.
Like any highly organized effort at detection, as little as possible is left to chance. The radar antennae are placed wherever it seems possible the enemy may attack. Intelligence officers may monitor even unlikely conversations if there is an outside chance something relevant may be detected or if there is a chance that two independent bits of information taken together may give indication of the enemy’s intentions… But above all there is a highly organized way of interpreting information so that what is possibly relevant can be quickly abstracted and magnified, and the rest discarded.”⁠3

This is how it happens that an explanatory structure that a reader may see as tautological, in that it can’t help or can’t stop or can’t do anything other than prove the very same assumptions with which it began, may be experienced by the practitioner as a triumphant advance toward truth and vindication. […]

Paranoia is a theory of negative affects

While Tomkins distinguishes among a number of qualitatively different affects, he also for some purposes groups affects together loosely as either positive or negative. In these terms, paranoia is characterized not only by being a strong theory as opposed to a weak one, but by being a strong theory of a negative affect. This proves important in terms of the overarching affective goals Tomkins sees as potentially conflicting with each other in each individual: he distinguishes in the first place between the general goal of seeking to minimize negative affect and that of seeking to maximize positive affect. […] In most practices—in most lives—there are small and subtle (though cumulatively powerful) negotiations between and among these goals, but the mushrooming, self-confirming strength of a monopolistic strategy of anticipating negative affect can have, according to Tomkins, the effect of entirely blocking the potentially operative goal of seeking positive affect. […]

Similarly, in Klein’s writings from the 1940s and 1950s, it again represents an actual achievement—a distinct, often risky positional shift—for an infant or adult to move toward a sustained seeking of pleasure (through the reparative strategies of the depressive position), rather than continue to pursue the self-reinforcing because self-defeating strategies for forestalling pain offered by the paranoid/schizoid position. It’s probably more usual for discussions of the depressive position in Klein to emphasize that that position inaugurates ethical possibility—in the form of a guilty, empathetic view of the other as at once good, damaged, integral, and requiring and eliciting love and care. Such ethical possibility, however, is founded on and coextensive with the subject’s movement toward what Foucault calls “care of the self,” the often very fragile concern to provide the self with pleasure and nourishment in an environment that is perceived as not particularly offering them.

Klein’s and Tomkins’s conceptual moves here are more sophisticated and, in an important way, less tendentious than the corresponding assumptions in Freud. To begin with, Freud subsumes pleasure seeking and pain avoidance together under the rubric of the supposedly primordial “pleasure principle,” as though the two motives could not themselves radically differ.⁠4 Second, it is the pain-forestalling strategy alone in Freud that (as anxiety) gets extended forward into the developmental achievement of the “reality principle.” This leaves pleasure seeking as an always presumable, unexaminable, inexhaustible underground wellspring of supposedly “natural” motive, one that presents only the question of how to keep its irrepressible ebullitions under control. Perhaps even more problematically, this Freudian schema silently installs the anxious paranoid imperative, the impossibility but also the supposed necessity of forestalling pain and surprise, as “reality”—as the only and inevitable mode, motive, content, and proof of true knowledge. […]

Paranoia places its faith in exposure

Whatever account it may give of its own motivation, paranoia is characterized by placing, in practice, an extraordinary stress on the efficacy of knowledge per se—knowledge in the form of exposure. Maybe that’s why paranoid knowing is so inescapably narrative. Like the deinstitutionalized person on the street who, betrayed and plotted against by everyone else in the city, still urges on you the finger-worn dossier bristling with his precious correspondence, paranoia for all its vaunted suspicion acts as though its work would be accomplished if only it could finally, this time, somehow get its story truly known. That a fully initiated listener could still remain indifferent or inimical, or might have no help to offer, is hardly treated as a possibility.

It’s strange that a hermeneutics of suspicion would appear so trusting about the effects of exposure, but Nietzsche (through the genealogy of morals), Marx (through the theory of ideology), and Freud (through the theory of ideals and illusions) already represent, in Ricœur’s phrase, “convergent procedures of demystification”⁠5 and therefore a seeming faith, inexplicable in their own terms, in the effects of such a proceeding. In the influential final pages of Gender Trouble, for example, Butler offers a programmatic argument in favor of demystification as “the normative focus for gay and lesbian practice,”⁠6 with such claims as that “drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself”⁠7 ; “we see sex and gender denaturalized by means of a performance”⁠8 ; “gender parody reveals that the original identity… is an imitation”⁠9 ; “gender performance will enact and reveal the performativity of gender itself”⁠10 ; “parodic repetition… exposes the phantasmatic effect of abiding identity”⁠11 ; “the parodic repetition of gender exposes… the illusion of gender identity”⁠12 ; and “hyperbolic exhibitions of ‘the natural’… reveal its fundamentally phantasmatic status”⁠13 as well as “exposing its fundamental unnaturalness.”⁠14 […]

Furthermore, the force of any interpretive project of unveiling hidden violence would seem to depend on a cultural context, like the one assumed in Foucault’s early works, in which violence would be deprecated and hence hidden in the first place. Why bother exposing the ruses of power in a country where, at any given moment, 40 percent of young black men are enmeshed in the penal system? In the United States and internationally, while there is plenty of hidden violence that requires exposure there is also, and increasingly, an ethos where forms of violence that are hypervisible from the start may be offered as an exemplary spectacle rather than remain to be unveiled as a scandalous secret. Human rights controversy around, for example, torture and disappearances in Argentina or the use of mass rape as part of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia marks, not an unveiling of practices that had been hidden or naturalized, but a wrestle of different frameworks of visibility. That is, violence that was from the beginning exemplary and spectacular, pointedly addressed, meant to serve as a public warning or terror to members of a particular community is combated by efforts to displace and redirect (as well as simply expand) its aperture of visibility.

A further problem with these critical practices: What does a hermeneutics of suspicion and exposure have to say to social formations in which visibility itself constitutes much of the violence? […] Here is one remarkable index of historical change: it used to be opponents of capital punishment who argued that, if practiced at all, executions should be done in public so as to shame state and spectators by the airing of previously hidden judicial violence. Today it is no longer opponents but death penalty cheerleaders, flushed with triumphal ambitions, who consider that the proper place for executions is on television. What price now the cultural critics’ hard-won skill at making visible, behind permissive appearances, the hidden traces of oppression and persecution?

The paranoid trust in exposure seemingly depends, in addition, on an infinite reservoir of naïveté in those who make up the audience for these unveilings. What is the basis for assuming that it will surprise or disturb, never mind motivate, anyone to learn that a given social manifestation is artificial, self-contradictory, imitative, phantasmatic, or even violent? As Peter Sloterdijk points out, cynicism or “enlightened false consciousness”—false consciousness that knows itself to be false, “its falseness already reflexively buffered”—already represents “the universally widespread way in which enlightened people see to it that they are not taken for suckers.”⁠15 How television-starved would someone have to be to find it shocking that ideologies contradict themselves, that simulacra don’t have originals, or that gender representations are artificial? […] Some exposés, some demystifications, some bearings of witness do have great effectual force (though often of an unanticipated kind). Many that are just as true and convincing have none at all, however, and as long as that is so, we must admit that the efficacy and directionality of such acts reside somewhere else than in their relation to knowledge per se.

Writing in 1988—that is, after two full terms of Reaganism in the United States—D. A. Miller proposes to follow Foucault in demystifying “the intensive and continuous ‘pastoral’ care that liberal society proposes to take of each and every one of its charges.”⁠16 As if! I’m a lot less worried about being pathologized by my therapist than about my vanishing mental health coverage—and that’s given the great good luck of having health insurance at all. Since the beginning of the tax revolt, the government of the United States—and, increasingly, those of other so-called liberal democracies—has been positively rushing to divest itself of answerability for care to its charges, with no other institutions proposing to fill the gap.

This development, however, is the last thing anyone could have expected from reading New Historicist prose, which constitutes a full genealogy of the secular welfare state that peaked in the 1960s and 1970s, along with a watertight proof of why things must become more and more like that forever. No one can blame a writer in the 1980s for not having foreseen the effects of the Republicans’ 1994 Contract with America. But if, as Miller says, “Surprise… is precisely what the paranoid seeks to eliminate,” it must be admitted that, as a form of paranoia, the New Historicism fails spectacularly. While its general tenor of “things are bad and getting worse” is immune to refutation, any more specific predictive value—and as a result, arguably, any value for making oppositional strategy—has been nil. Such accelerating failure to anticipate change is, moreover, as I’ve discussed, entirely in the nature of the paranoid process, whose sphere of influence (like that of the New Historicism itself) only expands as each unanticipated disaster seems to demonstrate more conclusively that, guess what, you can never be paranoid enough.

This text is an excerpt from “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You,” in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 123-152. Copyright 2003, Duke University Press. All rights reserved. Republished by permission of the copyright holder. www.dukeupress.edu

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1950–2009) was a scholar in the fields of gender studies, queer theory and queer studies, as well as critical theory. Sedgwick published several books considered groundbreaking in the field of queer theory including Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (2003), Tendencies (1993), Epistemology of the Closet (1990) and Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985). Her critical writings helped create the field of queer studies.

  • D. A. Miller, The Novel and the Police (Berkely, CA: University of California Press, 1988), 164.

  • Silvan S. Tomkins, Affect Imagery Consciousness, 4 Vol. (New York, NY: Springer, 1962–1992), Vol. 2, 333–334.

  • Silvan S. Tomkins, Affect Imagery Consciousness, 4 Vol. (New York, NY: Springer, 1962–1992), Vol. 2, 433.

  • Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis, in their entry under “Pleasure Principle,” show that Freud was long aware of this problem. They paraphrase: “Must we therefore be content with a purely economic definition and accept that pleasure and unpleasure are nothing more than the translation of quantitative changes into qualitative terms? And what then is the precise correlation between these two aspects, the qualitative and the quantitative? Little by little, Freud came to lay considerable emphasis on the great difficulty encountered in the attempt to provide a simple answer to this question.” (Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis, The Language of Psycho-Analysis, Donald Nicholson-Smith [trans.] [New York, NY: Norton, 1973], 323).

  • Paul Ricœur, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation, Denis Savage (trans.) (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1970), 34.

  • Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York, NY: Routledge, 1990), 124.

  • Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York, NY: Routledge, 1990), 137. (Emphasis added.)

  • Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York, NY: Routledge, 1990), 138. (Emphasis added.)

  • Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York, NY: Routledge, 1990), 138. (Emphasis added.)

  • Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York, NY: Routledge, 1990), 139. (Emphasis added.)

  • Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York, NY: Routledge, 1990), 141. (Emphasis added.)

  • Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York, NY: Routledge, 1990), 146. (Emphasis added.)

  • Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York, NY: Routledge, 1990), 147. (Emphasis added.

  • Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York, NY: Routledge, 1990), 149. (Emphasis added.)

  • Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason, Michael Eldred (trans.) (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 5.

  • D. A. Miller, The Novel and the Police (Berkely, CA: University of California Press, 1988), viii.

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Elsa Dorlin, Disarming Slaves and the Indigenous…

Several artworks in Anticorps argue that not all bodies are subjected to violence and risks exposure equally. Some of the artists summon potential weapons and devise means of resistance or protection that chime with the genealogy of self-defence as shown by Elsa Dorlin in her book Self Defence. A Philosophy of Violence (2017; English ed. forthcoming). The excerpt presented here dwells on rulings and habits developed by the colonial system to keep supposedly violent social groups defenceless, while introducing a “corporal discipline” leading to a dispossession of the self.

Disarming Slaves and the Indigenous:
the Right to Kill Versus
“Bare-knuckled” Subjectivity

by Elsa Dorlin
Translated by Callisto Mc Nulty

In 1685, article 15 of the French Code noir [Black Code] forbade “slaves from carrying any offensive weapon, or large stick,”⁠1 otherwise they would be whipped. The Spanish Código negro of 1768 in Santo Domingo also prohibited Black people from “using any type of weapon on pain of fifty lashes of the whip;”⁠2 the machete was authorised for agricultural labour but its total length could not be more than a half-cubit.⁠3 The 1784 edition, also known as “Código Carolino,” renewed the ban but specified however that the machete had to be replaced by tools that were more “practical” and less “detrimental to the public and private peace and rest on the island,” and reserved their use to the quadroons, half-castes and “beyond.”⁠4

This ban on carrying and possessing weapons betrays the colonists’ endless worry that attests to the effectiveness of the slaves’ practices of resistance. Anything that could give the slaves the opportunity to prepare and to train for revolt also had to be prohibited. In the 19th century, in the US pro-slavery context, Elijah Green, a former slave born in 1843 in Louisiana, reported that it was strictly forbidden for a Black person to be in possession of a pencil or a pen on pain of being sentenced for attempted murder and hanged.⁠5 On the other hand, in most colonial and imperial contexts, the right to bear and use arms was systematically granted to colonists.

Under the French colonial State in Algeria, a decree dated 12 December 1851 prohibited the sale of arms to indigenous people. An order from 11 December 1872, following the Kabyle insurrection of 1871, gave on the other hand the permanent right to “French colonists of European descent” to buy, possess, bear and use arms when living in regions that were isolated or unprotected by garrisons⁠6 : in this way, they “will continue, on their request, and wherever the need arises, to be authorised to possess, in their houses, the weapons and munitions of war deemed necessary by the territorial commander, to ensure their defence and that of their family and the security of their home”.⁠7 In fact, the colonial State cannot function without a militia system capable of ensuring the occupation’s measly jobs.

The Code noir already granted the right to policing⁠8 to the inhabitants of the colonies, specifying that any slave found outside their house without a “pass”⁠9 (a detailed authorisation written in the owner’s hand) would be punished by whipping and branded with the fleur de lys. Any subject of the king who witnessed a gathering or an illicit meeting thus enjoyed the right to arrest the guilty parties “and to take them to gaol, even if they are not officers and there has not yet been any decree issued against them”⁠10 (article 16). Despite these drastic measures, the colonial government was in permanent crisis: the criminalisation of the slaves’ acts and deeds required costly surveillance. The Seven Years’ War against the English having hardly finished, the French, back in Martinique, could not contain the slaves’ “criminality.” In a letter to governor Fénelon, the Comte d’Elva wrote: “I have received many complaints about Maroon Negroes who ravage houses, and about others who march armed, assemble and insult Whites, and who publicly sell in town all kinds of things without a permission slip signed by their masters.”⁠11 The governor’s reply evokes the lack of means and men to carry out policing tasks, but not without promising a new general regulation—to be published the following month—imposing tougher penalties on slaves for the crime of gathering together and freely moving around.⁠12

During the entire pro-slavery period, disarming slaves went arm in arm with a veritable disciplining of bodies to keep them defenceless, which necessitated redressing the slightest martial activity. This process found its philosophical principle in what constitutes the very essence of the servile condition: a slave is someone who does not enjoy the right and responsibility of self-preservation. Disarmament must be immediately understood as a security measure for the free population, but, more fundamentally, it institutes a watershed line between subjects who are their own masters and solely responsible for their own preservation, and slaves who do not belong to themselves and whose preservation depends entirely on their master’s good will. In this context, two views of self-preservation are in play: preservation insofar as it is to do with the preservation of one’s life and preservation as the capitalisation of one’s own value. The collision between these two understandings of self-preservation takes place at the very moment when beings are considered as things and the preservation of their life only depends on the person who owns them and on the market on which they are traded and which sets their price.

At the height of the slave revolts in Martinique, it was custom to execute the “Maroons” in front of their mothers and to force the latter to watch the torture inflicted upon their children.⁠13 This practice was regarded as among the most “didactic” by the administrators, and among the most entertaining by the colonists who enjoyed such torment. It aimed, in fact, at making fugitive slaves understand that by trying to preserve their own life they were only “robbing their master of the price of their value”⁠14 : colonial justice, thereby creating an unprecedented crime, wanted to teach slaves that the right to self-preservation neither belonged to themselves nor to those who had given birth to them, but only fell under their master’s interest, he being the only one able to make decisions about it. Slaves no longer have lives, they only have value.⁠15 As Joseph Elzéar Morénas then wrote in his abolitionist plea: “the right to their own preservation belongs entirely to the master”—any attempt to preserve one’s own life is thus turned into a crime, any act of defence on the part of slaves is akin to an act of aggression towards masters.

In the same way that slaves were deprived of the natural right to self-preservation, they had no right to jurisdiction—a privilege of the colonist alone. Regarding the administration of justice, a royal order of 30 December 1712 forbade White people from interrogating their slaves under torture, for which the penalty was a fine of 500 livres; but Black people were judged in closed courts by a single magistrate, without a lawyer and without the possibility of calling a witness. They were, strictly speaking, defenceless.⁠16 To this, one has to add the principle of impunity. Article 43 of the Code noir allows for “absolving masters who have killed slaves under their power”⁠17—and, if the murder of a slave belonging to another master was punishable by the death penalty, in most cases the killer was acquitted. This was notably the case with the murder of a slave named Colas, aged 25 and pregnant, who was killed by gunshots by a planter, M. Ravenne-Desforges, while she was crossing his coffee plantation in Marie-Galante on 5 October 1821. In the first trial, the court rejected the application of article 43 on the pretext that the colonist was armed with the intention of going hunting and that “the gunshot fired by Master Ravenne can only be considered as the result of the instinctive impulse of his anger, with the design to mark the Negress with a couple of lead pellets so as to be able to recognise her, rather than that of killing her.”⁠18 The punishment sentenced him to be banished for ten months and confiscated his gun; in the event of reoffending, it was provided for that he would definitively lose his right to bear arms in the said colony. A second judgement once again did not apply article 43 of the Code noir, on the basis of a letter from the king in 1744. Finally, while the Minister ordered a retrial of the case, Ravenne-Desforges’ defence consisted in judging his slave Cajou in his place—as the said slave was carrying his gun. Cajou was sentenced to ten years of forced labour, considering that he was still a minor. Customary in the colonies, this “guilty party substitution”⁠19 was eventually rejected by the royal court of justice which nonetheless considered that there was no need to sentence Ravenne-Desforges. Thus, slaves represent a legal replica20 for their master—they are judged, sentenced, tortured on their behalf and constitute their best defence.

The colonial order established the systematic disarmament of slaves, natives and subalterns for the benefit of a White minority who enjoyed the permanent and absolute right to bear arms and to use them with impunity; the “old” rights to preservation and jurisdiction were retranslated into a set of special rules which granted colonists a right to policing and to justice that aligned with disarming certain individuals to render them per se “killable” and “sentenceable”—a privilege that was codified as a legitimate right to self-defence.

But this is not all. The colonial definition of the right to self-defence moreover included much “exceptional” casuistry⁠21, which defined a minority as alone capable of asking for justice to be done. Isabelle Merle cites the decree of 23 December 1887 that fixed a list of special offences for the Indigenous people of New Caledonia, among which featured “bearing Kanak arms in the areas inhabited by Europeans, but also moving around outside an administratively defined perimeter, disobedience, entering cabarets or drinking establishments, and being naked on roads”. The list was continually added to, in 1888, in 1892, then in 1915, including the “refusal to pay head tax,”⁠22 the “failure to appear at the Office of Indigenous Affairs,” refusing to provide the information requested or to collaborate with the authorities, “disrespectful acts,” or “holding public speeches with the aim of weakening the respect due to the French authority.”⁠23 From the exponential creation of special crimes and offences emerged a racialist anthropological categorisation of criminality: from then on, every act, if carried out by a slave, or an Indigenous, colonised or Black person… became unlawful or criminal.⁠24 Justice then proceeded against a type of individuals always presumed guilty⁠25—i.e., whose only recognised agency fell within phantasmagorical aggression—to the benefit of a type of people always entitled to demand justice.

The history of systems of disarmament bears witness to the construction of social groups maintained in the position of being defenceless. They go hand in hand with the regulation of access to weapons and defence techniques that attempt to curb multiple forms of counter-conduct. If we have witnessed throughout Modernity a process of judicialisation of conflicts which has consisted in drastically framing social antagonisms and clashes “among peers,” inciting individuals to turn to justice and the law, this same process has also produced a space outside of citizenship. The exclusion of the right to be defended has implied the production of undefendable subjects because they were deemed to be “dangerous,” violent and always already guilty, even though everything was done to render them powerless to defend themselves.

This text is an excerpt translated from Se défendre. Une philosophie de la violence (Paris: Éditions Zones, 2017). Copyright Éditions Zones, 2017
Forthcoming from Verso Books: Elsa Dorlin,
Self Defense: A philosophy of violence, translated by Kieran Aarons.

Elsa Dorlin teaches political and social philosophy at the University of Paris 8. Her main research focuses on the fabrication of modern sexism and racism, approached from the angles of history, philosophy and epistemology. Her publications include: Self Defense: A Philosophy of Violence (2017; English ed. forthcoming), Sexe, genre et sexualités. Introduction à la théorie féministe (2008) and La Matrice de la race. Généalogie sexuelle et coloniale de la Nation française (2006). She coedited Penser avec Donna Haraway (2012) with Éva Rodriguez.

  • Louis Sala-Molins, Le Code noir ou le calvaire de Canaan (Paris: PUF, 1987), 120.

  • Black code of Santo Domingo, 1768, article 27, reproduced in Manuel Lucena Salmoral, Les Codes noirs hispaniques (Paris: UNESCO, 2004), 260.

  • See Manuel Lucena Salmoral, Les Codes noirs hispaniques (Paris: UNESCO, 2004), 269.

  • Manuel Lucena Salmoral, Les Codes noirs hispaniques (Paris: UNESCO, 2004), 115. We witness here two different modalities of the same process of racialisation: in the Spanish part of Santo Domingo, the colonial administrators, via legislation on bearing arms, granted mixed-race people a relative privilege, thus creating an intermediary class distinguished from «Negroes» and from whom loyalty was therefore guaranteed. On the other hand, in the French part of the island, while until the end of the 1750s pro-slavery legislation articulated race with the servile condition, several judgements were announced in order to clearly impose colour discrimination among «free» people: forbidding, for example, freedmen and freedwomen and free people of colour to «carry a machete (1758) or a sword (1761).» In the same period, they were prohibited from «selling or buying powder or munitions without the governor’s authorisation;» certain professions, functions and ranks were from then on forbidden to them (priesthood, nobility, doctor, surgeon, militia officer), as was bearing a White name (they were forced to adopt a surname of African origin), or being called master or mistress. See Dominique Rogers, «Raciser la société : un projet administratif pour une société domingoise complexe (1760-1791)», Journal de la Société des Américanistes, 2009, 95—2, 235—260.

  • Norma R. Yetman (ed.), Voices from Slavery: 100 Authentic Slave Narratives (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970), 149.

  • This right goes hand in hand with the strict ban on Indigenous people to walk around with weapons. Édouard Sautayra, Législation de l’Algérie (Paris: Maisonneuve & Cie, 1883), 26 (2nd edition). General Governor’s decree dated 11 December 1872, quoted by Olivier Le Cour Grandmaison, Coloniser, exterminer. Sur la guerre et l’État colonial (Paris: Fayard, 2005), 260.

  • First Article of the decree of 11 December 1872, quoted by Olivier Le Cour Grandmaison, De l’Indigénat. Anatomie d’un « monstre » juridique : le droit colonial en Algérie et dans l’Empire français (Paris: Zones, 2010).

  • In the same way, in France, a «police for Blacks» was set up in August 1777, the king’s order declaring: «We were informed today that the number of Black people [in France] has increased so much, due to the ease of communication of America with France, that we take daily to the colonies this portion of men who are most necessary for cultivating the land, as their stay in the towns of our kingdom, especially in the capital city, causes the greatest disorders; and, when they return to the colonies, they carry the spirit of independence and unruliness, and become more harmful than useful,» «Declaration for the police for Blacks,» Versailles, 9 August 1777. All Black people were therefore banned from staying in France and colonists from bringing more than one slave as a servant, who had to remain confined to their port of arrival; free people of colour had to obtain a «certificate of presence,» after declaring themselves to the Admiralty upon their arrival. See « Police des Noirs, certificat pour un an » (Après 1777).

  • The same «passport» system was systematised in 1897 in Algeria. Olivier Le Cour Grandmaison also noted that in 1781 a working class book was created in Metropolitan France, a major control instrument of the working class, abolished in 1890. See Olivier Le Cour Grandmaison, Coloniser, exterminer. Sur la guerre et l’État colonial, Sur la guerre et l’État colonial (Paris: Fayard, 2005), 255. See also Robert Castel, Les Métamorphoses de la question sociale. Une chronique du salariat (Paris: Fayard, 1995), and John Turpey, L’Invention du passeport. État, citoyenneté et surveillance (Paris: Belin, 2005).

  • Louis Sala-Molins, Le Code noir ou le calvaire de Canaan (Paris: PUF, 1987), 122.

  • The Code noir prohibited slaves from selling in markets—-notably because of a fear of poisoning. See Caroline Oudin-Bastide, L’Effroi et la Terreur. Esclavage, poison et sorcellerie aux Antilles (Paris: La Découverte, 2013).

  • Letter from the Comte d’Elva sent to the Marquis de Fénelon, 5 August 1763, C.A.O.M, C 84 66, fol. 334, quoted by Jean-Pierre Sainton et al., Histoire et civilisation de la Caraïbe*, T. 2 (Paris: Éditions Karthala, 2012), 326—327.

  • «Very recently, in Martinique, we have made thirteen Black people perish in this way, of whom several were not yet 15 years old; the judgement states that they had wanted to escape,» Joseph Elzéar Morénas, Précis historique de la traite des Noirs et de l’esclavage colonial (Paris: Éditions Firmin Didot, 1828), 89. See also the case from 30 November 1815: «A certain Élisée and ten other companions are sentenced to death for having wanted, by seeking to escape, to strip the price of their value from their masters.» Agnès, the mother of Élisée, was sentenced to witness the execution, and then imprisoned for not having delivered her child to justice and having fed him while he was in hiding. Throughout the pro-slavery period we have to remember that everything was done so that colonists had precisely no interest in preserving the «value» that the slave represented: while the average buying price of a slave at the end of the 18th century was around 1700 to 2000 livres, the courts gave out 2000 livres per «head of tortured slave» to their owner in compensation. On the slaves’ resistance and their repression, allow me to recommend this text: Elsa Dorlin, «Les Espaces-Temps des résistances esclaves : des suicidés de Saint-Jean aux marrons de Nanny Town (xviie-xviiie siècle)», Tumultes, No. 27, 2006, 11—26.

  • Joseph Elzéar Morénas, Précis historique de la traite des Noirs et de l’esclavage colonial (Paris: Éditions Firmin Didot, 1828).

  • Joseph Elzéar Morénas, Précis historique de la traite des Noirs et de l’esclavage colonial (Paris: Éditions Firmin Didot, 1828). We also note in the framework of this systemic negation of «the right to self-preservation» that the pro-slavery system banned slaves from taking care of themselves: the prohibition of defending one’s body from afflictions was achieved through the criminalisation of healthcare practices: the use of plants and self-medication, making remedies, caring for the sick (see the order of 1 February 1743). See Samir Boumediene, La Colonisation du savoir. Une histoire des plantes médicinales du Nouveau Monde, 1492-1750 (Vaulx-en-Velin: Des mondes à faire, 2016) (many thanks to Hourya Bentouhami for having brought my attention to this reference); Londa Schiebinger, Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).

  • Justice of exception that would be reinforced by the setting up of a provost court (a criminal court set up temporarily, making unappealable judgements) during the Restoration in 1815 to judge the «political offences» in Martinique and which would sentence hundreds of slaves and free people of colour to beheading on suspicion of poisoning between 1822 et 1827. Joseph Elézar Morénas reminds us that slaves could thereby be arrested, sentenced and executed in the morning. A number of slave owners also used this judicial process to get rid of old slaves whom they denounced for poisoning in order to obtain financial compensation. See Joseph Elzéar Morénas, Précis historique de la traite des Noirs et de l’esclavage colonial (Paris: Éditions Firmin Didot, 1828), 322 onwards.

  • Louis Sala-Molins, Le Code noir ou le calvaire de Canaan (Paris: PUF, 1987), 176.

  • Louis Sala-Molins, Le Code noir ou le calvaire de Canaan (Paris: PUF, 1987), 319 onwards.

  • Louis Sala-Molins, Le Code noir ou le calvaire de Canaan (Paris: PUF, 1987), 322.

  • Hourya Bentouhami provides, in an ongoing work of research, the heuristic concept of «the double» to think more broadly about the ontological status of enslaved, racialised and dominated subjectivity. I would like to thank her for having kindly introduced me to this text.

  • «The regime of the indigénat, characterised as an exceptional legal system, cannot be thought of outside of the legal norms in use in Metropolitan France, and more generally cannot be thought of independently of the context in which it was produced: the French State, and the nation […]. One of the main contributions of a certain number of recent works focusing on the colonial State is their attempt to bring to light the tensions and contradictions that accompanied the expansion process of Metropolitan States as they were becoming imperial […], these new perspectives, which were developed in the first place in North America, insist […] on the continuities by considering colonies not as stand-alone cases but as borderline cases», Isabelle Merle, «De la ‘légalisation’ de la violence en contexte colonial. Le régime de l’indigénat en question,» Politix, Vol. 17, No. 66, 2004, 154—155; 140.

  • The head tax was established in the colonies at the end of the 19th century and refers to the personal tax that each colonised person had to pay the French State in lieu of fair financial participation in France’s «colonial effort» (understood as the «development» and the «showcase» of the colony, «access to infrastructures,» to «peace» and to «colonial protection,» sic). On this point, see Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch, L’Afrique occidentale au temps des Français. Colonisateurs et colonisés (Paris: La Découverte, 1992), 108.

  • Cited by Isabelle Merle, «De la ‘légalisation’ de la violence en contexte colonial. Le régime de l’indigénat en question», Politix, Vol. 17, No. 66, 2004, 154—155; 155. In the case of Algeria, Isabelle Merle draws a distinction between, on the one hand, the exorbitant powers of the «high policing» carried out by an administrative authority (the governor) regarding acts deemed serious that threaten «public security» without ever these acts being a priori defined; and, on the other hand, regarding the «‘local’ means of repression» and «simple policing» placed in the hands of the administration’s subaltern officers,» and which concerns an indefinite list of offences and violations, ibid., 147. The regime of the indigénat was extended by decree in 1881 to Cochinchina, New Caledonia and French West Africa. These special infringements were subject to criticism—-including from the inspection missions dispatched locally—-cf. the Fillon/Revel inspection mission (New Caledonia, 1907), the major source for Isabelle Merle’s study; see also the criticism from the corpus of anti-colonial thought, such as L’Indigénat : code de l’esclavage (Paris: Petite bibliothèque de l’Internationale syndicale rouge, 1928).

  • In Coloniser, exterminer. Sur la guerre et l’État colonial, Olivier Le Cour Grandmaison takes up the category of the sacer: «The person and the property of the French, whatever their status, can be considered as sacred—-in the sense of the «untouchables», since sacer notably designates that which cannot be touched without being soiled—-, any physical or symbolical attack against them is immediately punished through the use of exceptional provisions that define specific and particularly severe penalties» (page 261). In support of his argument, he also cites Sautayra’s work (Édouard Sautayra, Législation de l’Algérie [Paris: Maisonneuve & Cie, 1883], 269 onwards) which lists the «disrespectful acts, or offensive words towards a law enforcement officer, even outside their duties […]. Fuss, scandal, dispute and other acts of disorder notably in markets, not being serious enough to constitute a crime […]. Words spoken in public with the purpose of weakening due respect for authority,» Coloniser, exterminer, op. cit., 253.

  • «Confronted with a world ruled by the settler, the native is always presumed guilty. But the native’s guilt is never a guilt which he accepts; it is rather a kind of curse, a sort of sword of Damocles.» Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, Constance Farrington (trans.) (New York, NY: Grove Press, 1963). Les Damnés de la terre [1961] (Paris: La Découverte, 2002), 54.

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Jackie Wang, Oceanic Feeling and Communist Affect

Jackie Wang’s research interests are broad: there is first and foremost prison abolitionism, and the links that exist between the carceral system and the debt economy (perpetuating race inequalities and precariousness). But her work also explores a poetry of togetherness, the research for an individuality that transcends the borders of the “I”: it is the experience of the “oceanic feeling,” which can be reached through music (Alice Coltrane’s, for example) or meditation. Commenting the theories of various authors (from Romain Rolland to Julia Kristeva, Marion Millner to Fred Moten), Jackie Wang sketches out the horizon of another form of sociability.

Oceanic Feeling and Communist Affect

by Jackie Wang

Yesterday I watched Lucile Hadžihalilović’s new film Evolution. In a review of the film Laura Kern wrote, “Water is omnipresent throughout, in part, as Hadzihalilovic says, representing the ‘maternal waters’ that many maturing youngsters find difficult to escape.” The film depicts the lethal ocean of Julia Kristeva’s Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. On Twitter I asked, “What is the relationship between the maternal and the oceanic?” I promised that today I would share an essay I wrote on this topic. Here it is–I might eventually take it down because my professor wants to publish it in an anthology.

This essay is about the creative, social, and political implication of oceanic feeling. It might be of interest to anyone interested in the psychoanalysis of mysticism, psychoanalytic debates about religion, Fred Moten, Spinoza, affect theory, and critical theory. There was so much more I wanted to write–about the oceanic experience H.D. wrote about in Tribute to Freud. About the psychoanalysis of creativity. About Wilfred Bion, Michael Eigen, and other psychoanalysts who have written about mysticism. About the relationships between trauma, ecstatic experience, and monstrosity. About the political dimensions of mysticism….

Alas, we cannot say everything in every essay.

Now, to dive….


Between 1923 and 1936, the French novelist and mystic Romain Rolland exchanged twenty letters with the Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. Inspired by his exchanges with Rolland, Freud elaborated the concept of “oceanic feeling” in his 1930 work Civilization and Its Discontents. In this work Freud describes “oceanic feeling” as a feeling of limitlessness that marks a return to the infantile, pre-Oedipal mode of being, whereby the infant cannot distinguish itself from its mother. Rolland, however, describes “oceanic feeling” as a mystical feeling that enables one to commune with the universe. For Rolland, the “oceanic” was the affective state underlying all religious experience.

This essay examines the concept of “oceanic feeling” in psychoanalytic and philosophical discourses. First, I trace psychoanalytic debates about oceanic feeling and mystical experiences in the work of Freud, Julia Kristeva, and Jacques Lacan. Next, I look at British psychoanalyst Marion Milner’s playful avowal of oceanic states during the creative process. Then I examine Rolland’s Spinozist conception of oceanic feeling and discuss some of its social implications, particularly the potential for oceanic states to serve as an affective foundation for social modes that are communistic. Lastly, I discuss how Fred Moten’s theorization of blackness revises the psychoanalytic conceptions of the “oceanic,” as he relates the “oceanic” to blackness and to the trauma of the Middle Passage.

There are two distinct notions of the oceanic operating in the work of Freud, Rolland, and Kristeva. On the one hand, we have a notion of the oceanic as defensive, infantile, and dissociative; on the other, we have a notion of the oceanic as joyful, connective, and integrative. I will take up the latter form of oceanic feeling in my essay for the purpose of elaborating a project of communist affect. In particular, I am interested in how the disintegration of the ego alters one’s orientation to the world and others. Given that the oceanic has the potential to unsettle subjectivity, I argue that the oceanic can be a point of departure for new socialities and political models that do not rely on discrete selves. My analysis of the social implications of oceanic feeling will draw heavily on the performance studies and black studies scholar Fred Moten’s discussion of blackness and paraontology. Though some psychoanalytic thinkers have disavowed the oceanic, at its best, oceanic feeling can, as Gérard de Nerval says, illuminate the “transparent network that covers the world” and sensitize us to the way that “everything lives, moves, everything corresponds.”⁠1

Regression: Freud and Kristeva

In 1930 psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud first popularized the term “oceanic feeling” in his work Civilization and Its Discontents. In chapter 2 he notes that the text, like his 1927 text The Future of an Illusion, is a study of religion that is focused on the role of religion in the life of the “common man,” rather than the “sources of religious feeling” for mystics and saints. For Freud “great men” of religious feeling are rare, but in the opening chapter of the book, he prefaces his analysis of religion with a discussion of the comments of one such “great man”: the religious scholar, novelist and mystic Romain Rolland. Rolland had written to Freud after reading The Future of an Illusion expressing that he was sympathetic to Freud’s critiques of religion, but noted that he overlooked that all religion is, in some sense, rooted in mystical experience or “oceanic feeling.” Freud writes:

“One of these exceptional few calls himself my friend in his letters to me. I had sent him my small book that treats religion as an illusion, [The Future of an Illusion (1927c)] and he answered that he entirely agreed with my judgement upon religion, but that he was sorry I had not properly appreciated the true source of religious sentiments. This, he says, consists in a peculiar feeling, which he himself is never without, which he finds confirmed by many others, and which he may suppose is present in millions of people. It is a feeling which he would like to call a sensation of ‘eternity’, a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded—as it were, ‘oceanic’. This feeling, he adds, is a purely subjective fact, not an article of faith; it brings with it no assurance of personal immortality, but it is the source of the religious energy which is seized upon by the various Churches and religious systems, directed by them into particular channels, and doubtless also exhausted by them. One may, he thinks, rightly call oneself religious on the ground of this oceanic feeling alone, even if one rejects every belief and every illusion.”⁠2

On Rolland’s view (according to Freud’s account), even if organized religion is an undesirable perversion of the subjective experience of eternity, it still derives its energy from this source. Freud then goes on to subtly dismiss “oceanic feeling” as a potential topic of psychoanalytic investigation by claiming that it is difficult to undertake a “scientific” study of feeling. He then goes on to deny the “primary nature of such a feeling;” however, his dismissal of Roland’s claim seems to be based on his ignorance of the nature of the experience. He writes, “I cannot discover this ‘oceanic’ feeling in myself,” but goes on to admit that he does not deny that the oceanic occurs in other people.

Freud describes Rolland’s notion of oceanic feeling as “a feeling of an indissoluble bond, of being one with the external world as a whole.”⁠3 In psychoanalytic terms Freud understands this “feeling” (which he notes is not a pure feeling-tone but a projection of intellectual concept onto a feeling-tone) as an ego disturbance that unsettles the boundaries of the self. When the ego is functioning properly it produces a solid sense of the self as autonomous and unitary. However, on Freud’s account, oceanic feeling harkens back to the time when the infant at the breast was not able to distinguish itself from its mother or the outside world. During this stage the ego included everything. Freud argues, by way of a strange digression about the (non-)traces left behind by ancient cities such as Rome, that this archaic experience of non-differentiation may be preserved in the psyche, and that oceanic feeling is a regression to this stage.

In Freud’s non-religious account of the psychic processes undergirding the experience of oceanic feelings, the oceanic (contrary to Rolland’s claim) is not the source of the need for religion. Rather than being the cause, Freud argues that the oceanic is associated with religion later, when it is offered as a kind of consolation for a helpless subject in the face of infantile impotence. Julia Kristeva’s conceptualization of “oceanic feeling” is similar to Freud’s in that the “oceanic” state is considered an infantile regression. In Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, she describes the oceanic as a depressive denial, a form of symbolic suicide, and a “fantasy of untouchable fullness” that “leads the subject to commit suicide without anguish of disintegration, as a reuniting with archaic non-integration, as lethal as it is jubilatory, ‘oceanic.’”⁠4 However, while Freud did not characterize “oceanic feeling” as either feminine or masculine, Kristeva’s description of the oceanic in Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, suggests that it emerges from a feminine psychic structure. Throughout the book Kristeva associates feminine melancholia with the “lethal ocean.” Though Kristeva acknowledges the ecstatic aspects of “oceanic feeling” (jouissance), she ultimately dismisses it as a form of wounded narcissism which allows women to gain a kind of protective omnipotence by “limitlessly spreading her constrained sorrow” to achieve a “hallucinated completeness.”⁠5 In a sense, Kristeva’s oceanic is a kind of premature death that is paradoxically a preemptive defense against death.

[…]

In both Kristeva and Freud oceanic feeling is threatening, infantile, and rooted in a pre-Oedipal (or perhaps even pre-natal) experience of non-differentiation. The oceanic is threatening because it has the potential to dissolve the individual’s subjective boundaries. For Kristeva , oceanic feeling is linked to feminine psychic structures. When speculating on why Freud was dismissive of both music and mysticism, Kristeva writes that although Freud was a “courageous explorer into the ‘black continent’ of femininity,” he—perhaps unconsciously?—was trying to ward off the threat of the maternal feminine.⁠6 Here the “feminine” is figured as a kind of terra incognita because, insofar as the feminine resists symbolization, it is unmappable. Though darkness is used as a metaphor for oceanic feeling and the maternal throughout Kristeva’s work, the “oceanic” is treated with more nuance in her later book The Incredible Need to Believe. In this work Kristeva attempts to take seriously the “prereligious need to believe” and thus distances herself from Freud’s position on religion, mysticism and ocean feeling. Kristeva makes the bold assertion that belief is the cornerstone of the subject’s capacity to speak. She writes, “Faith holds the key to the act of speech itself, even should it be plaintive (I am afflicted, men lie, etc.). Because I believe, I speak; I would not speak if I didn’t believe; believing in what I say, and persisting in saying it, comes from the capacity to believe in the Other and not at all from existential experience, necessarily disappointing.”⁠7 Not only is it necessary to believe in the existence of the Other in order to speak, but for psychoanalysis to work it is necessary to believe that it is possible to know. For Kristeva knowledge is not limited to reason or “calculated consciousness,” but also knowledge of inner experience that is gained through the process of signification in a psychoanalytic context. Though oceanic feeling, without the life raft of the loving father’s gift of the signifier, would obliterate the subject, the oceanic—insofar as it accompanied by a feeling of certainty and truth—can ground the subject by affirming the possibility of knowing. While Kristeva treats the oceanic as lethal in Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, in her later work the oceanic is an expression of the prereligious need to believe. Perhaps Kristeva did not so much change her position on the oceanic as she did merely emphasize the need for the paternal function and language to regulate the “destructivity” of the maternal oceanic and to “give meaning” to what would otherwise be an “unspeakable trauma.”⁠8 The capacity to “name” the experience ensures that the oceanic does not become a “catastrophic” dissolution of the self (thus, writing can also be a way to manage the oceanic). Essentially what Kristeva is proposing is not so much a disavowal of the oceanic on the grounds that it is infantile (as Freud does), but a new orientation to the oceanic, one that insists that the oceanic can be a gift or source of artistic inspiration so long as it is mediated and managed by the (psychoanalytic) practice of signification. For Kristeva it is important to affirm the prereligious need to believe—along with religion and the oceanic—because secularization and the abolition of faith has grave social consequences (Kristeva even goes so far as to say that secularization has a causal relationship to the holocaust). Perhaps, rather than trying to purge, disavow, avoid, or control, the “traumatic excitation” of ocean feeling, it makes more sense to dwell in it, to silence the repulsive dread of maternal suffocation, to inhabit the feeling (getting filled-up and blissed-out) knowing full well that on the other side of the experience lies an opportunity to assimilate the gift (of direct knowledge of the space beyond and outside the ego) by processing and naming it (in psychoanalysis or through artistic creation and other acts of sublimation). Perhaps it would be possible to alternate between these divergent affective spaces and use them to enrich each other.

Creativity and Aliveness: Marion Milner

Is it inherently bad to “regress” to a childlike state? Perhaps, rather than thinking of the oceanic as an infantile need to restore a sense of omnipotence in response to feeling helpless, the oceanic can be thought of as a stage in a cycle of creativity where a return to a state of infancy acts to wipe the mind clean (of a certain kind of knowledge) and represents the rebirth of the subject. In the psychoanalysis of creativity, the creative state is often described as a return to the immersive experience of child’s play. Infantile states need not be thought of as immature, defensive, or representative of the subject’s inability to cope with reality, but experimental, restorative, joyous, and enlivening.

In the work of British psychoanalyst Marion Milner, creativity is a dialectical and cyclical process that includes periods when the subject descends into an “incommunicable world” punctuated by states of focused consciousness.⁠9 Another way to put this is, there is a dynamic interplay between what Milner, drawing on the work of Anton Ehrenzweig, refers to as the “depth mind” and the “surface mind.” As she writes in her 1956 essay “Psychoanalysis and Art”:

“The state of mind which analysts describe as a repetition of the infant’s feelings in its mother’s arms, the state which Freud called oceanic, is thus being regarded by certain writers on art as an essential part of the creative process. But it is not the oceanic feeling by itself, for that would be the mystic’s state; it is rather the oceanic state in a cyclic oscillation with the activity of what Ehrenzweig calls the surface mind, with that activity in which ‘things’ and the self, as Maritain puts it, are grasped separately, not together. And the cyclic oscillation is not just passively experienced but actively used, with the intent to make something, produce something.”⁠10

Milner, like Kristeva, affirms the possibility of using the oceanic to “make something,” but in order to transform the oceanic state into an aesthetic object the artist must oscillate between different modes of perception and awareness because the oceanic state, like dream states, resists signification.⁠11 In other words, the writer or artist must “submerge” and then come to the surface for air. I would also add that oceanic states animate writers and artists precisely because they are inexpressible. If we agree with Lacan’s assertion that the subject’s desire is animated by lack, then the impossibility of expressing the oceanic state may paradoxically incite the subject’s desire to symbolize that state. The gap opened up by the oceanic state creates tension, frustration, and perhaps even sadness. When the oceanic state is over and the artist’s cognitive faculties return, she has already lost it. However, artistic creation itself can become a way to mourn the lost state (and its attendant feeling of completeness) when the artist succeeds in finding a substitute for that which always eludes the subject. Anticipating Lacan and Kristeva’s emphasis on the process of signification, Milner writes:

“Analysts find that in their most deeply disturbed patients the process of symbol formation has been interfered with, or perhaps never properly established. And two ideas are emerging from this. First, that the achieving of a symbol (a symbol being seen as essentially a substitute) involves a mourning for the loss of that for which it is a substitute. Second, that the process of finding the substitute requires a temporary merging of the idea of the original thing with the idea of the substitute.”⁠12

Here, loss is the precondition for all symbolic processes. It is not surprising that many writers, especially poets, have an extremely fraught relationship to language itself. They know that no matter how many signifiers they spill they will never be able to fully capture the affective states that they pass through. Perhaps this is what Samuel Beckett means when he writes that “To be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail.”⁠13 Milner’s essay discursively enacts this “failure.” Throughout “Psychoanalysis and Art” she writes about how difficult it was for her to write anything about creative and oceanic states. She opens the essay by acknowledging that when she approached the topic, her mind went blank. She notes, “I am trying to talk about a state of mind that does in a sense stop being that state of mind as soon as we separate ourselves from it sufficiently to talk about it in logical terms.”⁠14 Separating from such states in order to attempt to symbolize them is often psychically painful; however, this torturous separation (which may resemble the initial maternal separation) is necessary in order to create a substitution for the lost thing. If one were to dwell in the oceanic state indefinitely than one would never experience the wrenching separation that paradoxically may animate signification.

Cosmic Connectedness: Rolland and Spinoza

Rolland noted in his letters to Freud that he derived the concept of “oceanic feeling” from the 17th-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Spinoza proposed that “existence belongs to the nature of substance” and that all of existence consists of a single infinite substance he refers to as God or Nature.⁠15 In Rolland’s terms oceanic feeling is not an infantile defense or regressive return to a pre-Oedipal state, but part of a mature process of becoming; an experience of ego loss that enables one to commune with the “substance” of existence in a way that radically alters one’s orientation to the world.

In his letters to Freud, Rolland distinguished between organized religion and religious feeling. He writes, “I would have liked to see you doing an analysis of spontaneous religious sentiment or, more exactly, of religious feeling, which is wholly different from religions in the strict sense of the word, and much more durable.”⁠16 For Rolland, religious feeling could be accessed directly by people by way of the oceanic, which he described in a letter to Freud as “the simple and direct fact of the feeling of the ‘eternal’ (which can very well not be eternal, but simply without perceptible limits, and like oceanic, as it were).”⁠17

Rolland was raised Catholic, but ultimately left the Catholic Church because he found it corrupt and oppressive. However, spirituality remained a central part of his life, and he was able to maintain a connection to religion through a direct contact with the eternal afforded by his oceanic experiences. Henri Vermorel, quoting Rolland, notes that “Shortly after losing his Catholic faith, one day in 1887, alone at his desk, reading Spinoza’s Ethics, he had an ‘illumination’, ‘the white sun of the Substance.’⁠18 He experienced it as an immersion in God, in the Universe, in the ‘Ocean of Being’, bringing him peace of mind.”⁠19 Thus, after Rolland “lost” his religion, he began to adopt a syncretic blend of Spinozism and Eastern religious traditions, which Jussi A. Saarinen described as “a pantheistic monism derived, amongst others, from Advaita Vedanta philosophy, Tolstoy, Leibniz, and Spinoza, the ‘European Krishna.’”⁠20

The influence of Spinoza on Rolland’s development of the concept of the “oceanic” cannot be understated because Spinoza not only provided a philosophical framework through which to understand oceanic feeling, but also because the oceanic was inspired by a mystical experience Rolland had while reading Spinoza’s Ethics. Rolland’s Spinozist conception of oceanic feeling differs from the psychoanalytic conception most markedly in its characterization of the affective state undergirding the experience. While Kristeva relates oceanic feeling to melancholia (and feminine melancholia in particular), Rolland—perhaps drawing on Spinoza’s affective philosophy—relates oceanic feeling to joy. This is a significant distinction because, for Spinoza, the ‘sad passions’ (what we might call depression or melancholia) decreases a body’s capacity to act, whereas joy enhances it. Thus we might distinguish between Kristeva’s morbid oceanic and Rolland’s vitalist oceanic, which produces a “vital upsurge” in the person experiencing it.⁠21 I would argue that a vitalist conception of the oceanic rooted in the thinking of Spinoza is more socially and politically enabling than certain antisocial psychoanalytic conceptions of the oceanic.

In recent years, Italian, French and American post-Marxists influenced by Gilles Deleuze’s thought have also used Spinoza to theorize the nature of collective struggle and the politics of affect.⁠22 It is not surprising that post-Marxists who feel that communism is at an impasse have turned to Spinoza, both for his affective philosophy (which posits joy as the most empowering emotion) and his radically ecological thought. For Spinoza, if God is infinity, then everything that exists is in God; therefore, all creatures and things are part of the single substance that is variously called Nature or God. Thus, Spinoza’s philosophy, which is sometimes called a rational mysticism, reveals a kind of already-existing communism, even while on another level, we inhabit a historical milieu that is considered post-communist (insofar as the major communist political endeavors of the 20th century have failed). But if we concede that communism failed, perhaps it is not due to a failure to figure out the best possible social and economic modes of organization, but because we didn’t have the affective and imaginative resources to even begin to envision a mode of existence centered on connectedness over differentiation.

Indeed, contemporary post-Marxist deployments of Spinoza were not the first attempts to articulate the social implications of Spinoza’s metaphysics. Rolland felt that mythical experiences could move subjects toward the social. As Saarinen writes, “Rolland was notably wary of any sustained mystical disengagement from worldly affairs, and emphasized instead the energizing effect of the oceanic orientation on social and political action.”⁠23

Social Implications of Oceanic Feeling

“…one instant’s contact with the Infinite is sufficient to make the Illusion of all ‘differentiated’ egos, our own and other men’s, disappear immediately.”⁠24
—Romain Rolland, The Life of Ramakrishna

As I have discussed so far, Rolland, unlike Freud and Kristeva, rejects the view of the oceanic as a “regressive-defensive withdrawal from the world” and instead asserts that the oceanic can enhance one’s being toward the world by disappearing the boundaries of the ego.⁠25 This perspective begs the question: Is our experience of ourselves as bounded, discrete selves just a trick of the ego? Is it an effect of language, which operates through differentiation and naming? Or is the self a construction or mode of perception conditioned by an idea of the “individual” articulated in the discourses of the Enlightenment, psychoanalysis, and liberalism (which locates freedom in individual choice and agency)? Whether psychic, discursive, linguistic, or ideological in origin, affective states that take us beyond the boundaries of the self and illuminate the “transparent network that covers the world” may be more than just personally formative experiences; they have the potential to open up new modes of relationality. On this view the oceanic cannot be reduced to mere egoic dysfunction or a delusional hallucination, but instead could be considered a revelation: the illumination of an already-existing communalism and the direct experience of our embeddedness in the world.

To dismiss oceanic feeling on the grounds that it is infantile tacitly locates “adult” subjectivity in the capacity to differentiate self from other rather than the capacity to conceptualize of the subject as connected: as part of an assemblage or node inscribed within a larger world or network. Framed this way, it becomes possible to see that the denigration of oceanic feeling by some psychoanalytic thinkers also reveals an attachment to a specific idea of the subject. In a sense, oceanic feeling as an affective state has the potential to open up the subject by temporarily dissolving its boundaries. While this has interesting implications for how we define and understand subjectivity (which I will get to in my discussion of Moten), it also has interesting social implications.

What would it mean to socialize (or communize) oceanic feeling? Could the oceanic act as a feeling-in-common that serves as the experiential basis for the co-construction of new worlds? If the experience of ego loss (and the attendant feeling of being cosmically connected to the universe) has the capacity to denaturalize the individual and undo the fiction of the bounded subject, then the oceanic has the potential to open up new socialites.

In the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guttari, the “rhizome”—a root system that grows laterally and puts out roots at intervals—is frequently used as a visual metaphor to imagine a networked form of social entanglement. With rhizomatic plants, what appears to be, say, a forest of bamboo consisting of discrete plants may actually be a cluster connected by a single root system. If we recalibrate our vision and filter our social worlds through the idea of the rhizome it would be difficult to clearly demarcate where one “I” stops and another begins. In a 2013 Tarnac seminar on love, Le Love Gang notes that in the work of Deleuze and Guattari, “‘I’ is not a monad surrounded by objects. I is a world, a mechinic assemblage, a certain nexus [nouage]. To love is not to project a closed ego towards another ego, hoping to make a two-part unity. It is to assemble [agencer], to destabilize and map out new lines of escape [lignes de fuite].”⁠26

In recent years a group of anonymous friendship theorists drawing on the work of Deleuze, Guattari, Tiqqun and Spinoza have used ‘constellations’ as a way to visualize their social mode: “We form constellations. Our bodies are never isolated, are always enmeshed in shifting patterns of relations. Scattered across space, our selves form patterns, trace connections ethical but unseen. They give us consistency and form outside of our solitude. When we make our connections material, our constellations take shape, become tactile, make worlds.”⁠27

This use of constellations to imagine social relations emphasizes the need for both social imagination (to put things in relation and experiment with new forms) and material acts that make the constellation tangible. For instance, a constellation may be made palpable when a group of friends live together, care for each other, think together and create new forms of life. Affinity thus becomes not just a matter of shared personal or political beliefs, but the entwinement of our everyday lives. As the constellation becomes more material, it becomes more difficult to imagine that the self “can ever be understood in isolation.”⁠28 Furthermore, the creation of constellations enchants our social worlds by giving intention and meaning to our webs of relations.

The image of the constellation struck me because I had recently read Kristeva, quoting Nerval, describe the oceanic as the illumination of the “transparent network that covers the world.” What is a constellation if not the illumination of possible lines of connection between scattered celestial bodies, such that they form a larger body? When forms become ossified, could the oceanic be a way to map out new constellations? Perhaps when the differentiating mind is silenced, during those moments one experiences the “oceanic,” it becomes possible to imagine oneself as embedded in a constellation.

Collectivity and the Unbounded Self: Moten’s Seaborne Sociality

“Never being on the right side of the Atlantic is an unsettled feeling, the feeling of a thing that unsettles with others. It’s a feeling, if you ride with it, that produces a certain distance from the settled, from those who determine themselves in space and time, who locate themselves in a determined history. To have been shipped is to have been moved by others, with others. It is to feel at home with the homeless, at ease with the fugitive, at peace with the pursued, at rest with the ones who consent not to be one.”⁠29
—Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study.

While oceanic feeling is a term that was popularized by Freud and subsequently taken up psychoanalytic thinkers, Fred Moten’s theorization of blackness bears striking resemblance to both Freud and Rolland’s take on oceanic feeling. For Moten, blackness is a paraontological mode of being that is literally connected to (and produced by) the ocean. In Freud and Moten’s discourse black being and oceanic feeling are both connected with the maternal, though unlike Kristeva, Moten does not frame the maternal as threatening, nor does he describe the maternal as engulfing and in need of the intervention of the paternal function. For both Rolland and Moten, the sea is that which unsettles being. However, while Rolland used the ocean to illustrate Spinoza’s conception of the single substance as a kind of metaphor for the experience of limitlessness, in Moten’s writing the sea is linked to legacies of slavery, and in particular the dispersal of people of African descent around the world via the slave ship. In Moten’s work and the work of Afro-pessimist thinkers such as Saidiya Hartman the sea is also a passage that marks an ontological rupture.

The “unsettled” and uncoded way of being (which Moten calls ‘blackness’) is described by Moten in the essay “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh)” as the “unmappable zone of paraontological consent.”⁠30 The “paraontological” mode of being differs from ontological or intersubjective modes of being in that it does not presuppose discrete, self-contained subjects who interact or encounter each other. Moten’s notion of paraontology comes from Nahum Chandler’s reading of W. E. B. Du Bois’s discussion of the strange meaning of being black. According to Moten, the idea that black being functions differently than other modes of being is elaborated in Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks and through Jacques Derrida’s work and theorization of différance. While the German philosopher Martin Heidegger makes a distinction between the ontic and the ontological as well as being and beings (a distinction that is analogous to Socrates distinction between essence and instance), Moten resists this distinction and argues that paraontological force of black being disrupts fundamental categories and even the idea of the category itself. Moten’s paraontological subjects (perhaps “subjects” is a misnomer here) are without boundaries. They are oceanic. Not only are they affected by others, they spill over, into and are haptically undone and remade by each other.

This notion of paraontology dispenses with an idea of selfhood as a kind of property relation characterized by self-ownership. Being is not self-possession or even self-determination; it is movement and circulation. Another way Moten has formulated this notion of blackness is by describing it as both MORE and LESS than ONE. If “one” is the self, than blackness disrupts the very idea of the self as singular. Moten notes that the history of blackness is history of the imposition of this “less than one” (or notion of black selfhood as not-full) onto black people. This dual quality of blackness as, on the one hand, nothing and less than one, and on the other hand, as multiple and excessive, is why Moten insists on describing blackness as paraontological and not ontological. This is also why Moten refuses to define blackness as an identity, though he acknowledges that black people have a privileged relationship to blackness because of their intimate relationship to loss, pain, suffering and deprivation.

Furthermore, blackness is also oceanic insofar as it is not fixed to a particular land base. For Moten blackness unsettles the notion of home, for black being is marked by dislocation.⁠31 But unlike Afro-pessimists such as Frank Wilderson and Jared Sexton, Moten does not believe that blackness amounts to social death. For him blackness is irreducibly social. As he writes, “The zone of nonbeing is experimental, is a kind of experiment, this double edge of the experiment, this theater of like and unlike in which friendship’s sociality overflows its political regulation.”⁠32

For Moten blackness is also an ejection from the symbolics of legitimate personhood. Thus blackness is an uncoded zone of being that exist outside the arena of social recognition. Though Moten does not downplay the brutality of this imposed banishment from subjectivity, he does see it as the condition of possibility for the creation of insurgent black social life, or what he sometimes calls undercommon sociality. When Moten writes about “the wailing that accompanies entrance into and expulsion from sociality,” he does so in a lyrical register that captures both the terrible and the ecstatic dimensions of this violent expulsion-entrance.⁠33

This expulsion from “human” sociality and entrance into black sociality is also constituted by the violence of the Middle Passage. He writes, “It’s terrible to have come from nothing but the sea, which is nowhere, navigable only in its constant autodislocation. The absence of solidity seems to demand some other ceremony of hailing that will have been carried out on some more exalted frequency.”⁠34 Throughout Moten’s work, the sea—as well as the experience of being shipped—is used to theorize the fluidity of blackness (the “absence of solidity”). To be a citizen of the sea is also to be stateless. In a breathtakingly beautiful passage that opens with an uncited reference Hart Crane’s poem “The Broken Tower,”⁠35 Moten writes:

“And so it is that we remain in the hold, in the break, as if entering again and again the broken world, to trace the visionary company and join it. This contrapuntal island, where we are marooned in search of marronage, where we linger in stateless emergency, is our mobile, constant study, our lysed cell and held dislocation, our blown standpoint and lyred chapel. We study our seaborne variance, sent by its prehistory into arrivance without arrival, as a poetics of lore, of abnormal articulation, where the relation between joint and flesh is the pleated distance of a musical moment that is emphatically, palpably imperceptible and, therefore, exhausts description.”⁠36

The experience of existing “in the break”—of being blown, shipped, marooned, dislocated—produces an “abnormal articulation” because it is an experience that exhausts description. Given that these subterranean modes of being are outside the realm of social recognition, black social life registers as “nothing” to those who don’t understand it. While Moten concedes to the Afro-pessimist analysis of blackness as a condition of bare life (read: flesh) that they characterize as a kind of nothingness, this nothingness has texture. Moten writes, “If the slave is, in the end and in essence, nothing, what remains is the necessity of an investigation of that nothingness.”⁠37 This investigation is only possible by way of an affirmation of negation and the introduction of a set of new terms to understand sociality outside of (white) notions of subjective self-possession. The uncontainability of blackness, like oceanic feeling, deconstructs notions of the subject as bounded.

Concluding Thoughts

In this essay I have analyzed psychoanalytic debates about oceanic feeling and discussed possible creative and social implications of this feeling state. Following Rolland and Milner (and departing with Freud and early Kristeva), I argue that oceanic feeling can be a source of creative and social inspiration. Given that this essay deals primarily with theoretical questions, perhaps the sections that discuss the ways in which oceanic feeling is enabling beg the question: Would it be possible to induce an oceanic experience? If not, why should we concern ourselves with an affective state that is only available to a few lucky (or unlucky) initiates?

In response to these questions I would argue that oceanic feeling, as described in psychoanalytic discourse, is largely involuntary; though my research on the topic suggests that it may be linked to trauma (in that people who have been traumatized may be more prone to having oceanic experiences). In trauma studies many scholars have noted that people who have experienced trauma do not experience themselves as selves at all. As Judith Herman notes in Trauma and Recovery, “Survivors routinely describe themselves as outside the compact of ordinary human relations, as supernatural creatures or nonhuman life forms. They think of themselves as witches, vampires, whores, dogs, rats, or snakes. Some use the imagery of excrement or filth to describe their inner sense of self.”⁠38 The linking of trauma to oceanic feeling might support the idea that oceanic feeling is a kind of manic defense against pain. However, even if this were the case, it still might (paradoxically) also be true that the oceanic is a source of ecstatic joy: a kind of terrible gift.

Furthermore, though oceanic experiences may be an involuntary mystical experiences, it might be possible to induce (or cultivated) oceanic experiences through meditation, rhythmic breathing, psychedelic drugs, participating in a riot, fasting, sleep-deprivation, tantric sex, BDSM play, chanting, emotional pain and grief, physical pain, exercise, prayer, music, experiences of collective euphoria and any number of other activities that push one to a threshold state of consciousness. [Don’t try this at home, kids!]

Lastly, since this essay deals mainly with theoretical discussions about the origins and nature of oceanic feeling, it is beyond the scope of this essay to examine empirical research that has been done on the effects of mystical experiences on how people relate to the world and others. There has been a renewed interest in research on psychedelic drugs that not only looks at how mystical experiences can help “treat” addiction, depression, and other disorders, but also how such chemically-induced experiences foster empathy and enrich social relationships.

Jackie Wang is a black studies scholar, prison abolitionist, poet, multimedia artist, performer, and PhD candidate at Harvard University in African and African American Studies. She is the author of Carceral Capitalism (2018), a number of punkzines including On Being Hard Femme, and collections of dream poems. In her most recent work she has been researching the bail bonds industry and the history of risk assessment in the criminal legal system. She has performed and exhibited work at many venues including MoMA PS1 (New York), Whitney Museum of American Art (New York), The Kitchen (New York), Los Angeles Filmforum’s Cinema Cabaret (Los Angeles), CCA: Centre for Contemporary Arts (Glasgow).

  • Gérard de Nerval quoted in Julia Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, Leon S. Roudiez (trans.) (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 170.

  • Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, James Strachey (trans.) (New York: Norton, 2005), 11.

  • Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, James Strachey (trans.) (New York: Norton, 2005), 11.

  • Julia Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, Leon S. Roudiez (trans.) (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 19-20.

  • Julia Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, Leon S. Roudiez (trans.) (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 74.

  • Julia Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, Leon S. Roudiez (trans.) (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 74.

  • Julia Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, Leon S. Roudiez (trans.) (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 74.

  • Julia Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, Leon S. Roudiez (trans.) (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 74.

  • Marion Milner, The Suppressed Madness of Sane Men, Forty-four Years of Exploring Psychoanalysis (London, New York: Tavistock Publications, 1987), 156.

  • Marion Milner, The Suppressed Madness of Sane Men, Forty-four Years of Exploring Psychoanalysis (London, New York: Tavistock Publications, 1987), 159-160.

  • Like Kristeva, Milner links these oceanic states to the feminine side of mental functioning, which she contrasts with a masculine, logical mode of thinking. If the formal logic of the conscious mind avoids contradictions, then, according to Milner, mystical thinking is dialectical, more suited to holding the ambivalence and contradictions of subjects who are partially opaque to themselves (insofar as the unconscious mind is always operant).

  • Marion Milner, The Suppressed Madness of Sane Men, Forty-four Years of Exploring Psychoanalysis (London, New York: Tavistock Publications, 1987), 175.

  • Samuel Beckett quoted in Harold Bloom (ed.), Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (New York: Bloom’s Literary Criticism, 2008), 118.
    Marion Milner, The Suppressed Madness of Sane Men, Forty-four Years of Exploring Psychoanalysis (London, New York: Tavistock Publications, 1987), 175.

  • Marion Milner, The Suppressed Madness of Sane Men, Forty-four Years of Exploring Psychoanalysis (London, New York: Tavistock Publications, 1987), 175.

  • Baruch Spinoza, A Spinoza Reader: The Ethics and Other Works, Edwin Curley (ed. & trans.) (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 160.

  • William B. Parsons, The Enigma of the Oceanic Feeling, Revisioning the Psychoanalytic Theory of Mysticism (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 172.

  • William B. Parsons, The Enigma of the Oceanic Feeling, Revisioning the Psychoanalytic Theory of Mysticism (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 173.

  • Romain Rolland quoted in Henri Vermorel, “The Presence of Spinoza in the Exchanges between Sigmund Freud and Romain Rolland,” in The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, Vol. 90, issue 6, 2009, 1234-1237.

  • Henri Vermorel, “The Presence of Spinoza in the Exchanges between Sigmund Freud and Romain Rolland,” in The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, Vol. 90, issue 6, 2009, 1237.

  • Jussi A. Saarinen, “The Oceanic Feeling A Case Study in Existential Feeling,” in Journal Of Consciousness Studies 21, June 2014, 201.

  • William B. Parsons, The Enigma of the Oceanic Feeling, Revisioning the Psychoanalytic Theory of Mysticism (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 174.

  • Most notably in the work of Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, Franco “Bifo” Berardi, and Tiqqun. See Antonio Negri and Timothy S. Murphy (ed.), Subversive Spinoza: (un)contemporary Variations (Manchester, NY: Manchester University Press, 2004).

  • Jussi A. Saarinen, “The Oceanic Feeling A Case Study in Existential Feeling,” in Journal Of Consciousness Studies 21, June 2014, 213.

  • Romain Rolland, The Life of Ramakrishna, E. F. Malcolm-Smith (trans.) (Mayavati: Advaita Ashrama, 1929), 73.

  • Jussi A. Saarinen, “The Oceanic Feeling A Case Study in Existential Feeling,” in Journal Of Consciousness Studies 21, June 2014, 201.

  • Le Love Gang, “Love // Tarnac Seminar,” Robert Hurley (trans.) in Friendship as a Form of Life 2, 2016, 51.

  • Le Love Gang, “Love // Tarnac Seminar,” Robert Hurley (trans.) in Friendship as a Form of Life 2, 2016, 62.

  • Le Love Gang, “Love // Tarnac Seminar,” Robert Hurley (trans.) in Friendship as a Form of Life 2, 2016, 64.

  • Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons, Fugitive Planning & Black Study (London, New York: Minor Compositions, 2016), 97.

  • Fred Moten, “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh),” in South Atlantic Quarterly, Religion and the Futures of Blackness, Vol. 112, issue 4, 2013, 752. 

  • Insofar as blackness is defined negatively in relation to self-possession and ownership, Moten says that anyone is free to claim the gift of blackness so long as they are willing to give up the idea of home or being ontologically settled.

  • Fred Moten, “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh),” in South Atlantic Quarterly, Religion and the Futures of Blackness, Vol. 112, issue 4, 2013, 768.

  • Fred Moten, “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh),” in South Atlantic Quarterly, Religion and the Futures of Blackness, Vol. 112, issue 4, 2013, 746.

  • Fred Moten, “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh),” in South Atlantic Quarterly, Religion and the Futures of Blackness, Vol. 112, issue 4, 2013, 744.

  • Moten’s use of Hart Crane in his discussion of what it means to be of the sea is moving and strangely fitting when one considers Crane committed suicide by jumping off a ship between Cuba and Florida. The “Broken Tower” (1932) was the last poem Crane published before ending his life. The exact wording of the lines referenced in this passage are as follows: “And so it was I entered the broken world / To trace the visionary company of love, its voice.”

  • Fred Moten, “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh),” in South Atlantic Quarterly, Religion and the Futures of Blackness, Vol. 112, issue 4, 2013, 743.

  • Fred Moten, “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh),” in South Atlantic Quarterly, Religion and the Futures of Blackness, Vol. 112, issue 4, 2013, 744.

  • Judith L. Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (New York: Basic Books, 1997), 105.

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Eyal Weizman, Surveilling the Virus

The current pandemic is a pretext for countless models supposed to provide us with a real-time interpretation of the progression of the virus as well as a projection of the way in which we are going to be able to live through this unheard-of health situation. Such representations are of great interest to Eyal Weizman, architect and founder of Forensic Architecture in London. Over the past ten years, the collective led fifty-odd investigations in twenty different countries about the connections between state violence and environmental destruction, either independently or sometimes in collaboration with press bodies such as The New York Times or Le Monde.

Surveilling the Virus

by Eyal Weizman

The coronavirus pandemic makes a visual diagram of our social interaction—the physical contact and relations we have to one another, our proximities, our movement, our use of facilities and infrastructure.

In order to map and model the spread of the virus, we first needed to establish an understanding of a patterns of life on the level of the individual and of the population. This is why, besides signal intelligence—the surveillance of personal devices—one of the most useful tools now is “pattern recognition” algorithms.

This form of computation is oriented both backward and forward in time. The control apparatus thus merges surveillance—of actions we have done and places we have visited—with modelling—a mathematical description of possible futures. It is a cartography of not only where we have been and who we have been near, but where we might go in the future and who with, expanding at every juncture.

The computation of our past habits, combined with predictions of our response to the evolving situation constitutes our collective and personal risk landscape. This form of surveillance aims at understanding and preempting the event of contagion that will have happened in the future.

The modelling that is being applied in the spread of the virus, is not based only on the behavior of viral life forms (in relation to climatic conditions and certain chemical drugs for example) but also on human behavior—the circulation of populations in space and their response to instructions, restrictions, prompts, nudges, as well as how behavior is modulated through these interventions. The virus makes visible a viral-human-algorithmic environment. Or we can say that the pandemic is, to a certain extent, an information system that is both physical and algorithmic.

Such modes of pattern analysis were pioneered within the context of military targeting, notably in “signature” drone strikes. These were based upon predictive pattern recognition of people suspected by the CIA of posing “imminent risk” on the Afghanistan-Pakistan borders, or by the Israeli air force in Gaza. Analysis was dependent on patterns of associations, between some people and others, and between people and sites—virtual or physical—or roads. So that if somebody drove along a particular road in a particular direction with another particular person after having visited a particular madrasa, say, they could be computed as an imminent threat and targeted. These people were not executed (extrajudicially) for what they had done but for what they might or will have done in the future. It is not surprising to see some of these security and military surveillance companies capitalizing on the current viral crisis. An anxious public is lending these tools legitimacy, allowing them to enter our daily lives in ways seemingly unimaginable only a few months ago.

So, what was already experimented upon on the frontiers of the war on terror, in these “exceptional zones,” is now emerging in the context of the exception brought on by the pandemic. The frontier-lands have thus arrived home, though in a very roundabout way. This process is reminiscent of what Hannah Arendt called “colonial boomerang,” in which frontier-land conditions and experiments are brought home.

To a great extent, historical systems of policing and control were a task left to the architects and other designers and builders of space, houses, roads, city states. They oversaw the development of site-lines, the promotion (or blockage) of circulation, the construction of nodes and walls, whether on individual streets or in vast cityscapes. In the history of urbanism, plagues, pandemics, and epidemics almost always led to a phase-transition in the development of urban forms, from the invention of the Ghetto in early 16th-century Venice employed as a way to contain the imaginary spread of the black death by Jews, to the onset of the modern State itself and the idea of a totalizing regime of partition and segregation in the fabric of human life. The racist imagination always tended to associate viral contagion with migration control. Concerns around tropical infections in 19th and 20th centuries almost pushed this association further, leading to the advent of modernism and the production of increasingly isolated buildings within landscapes.

To a great extent the history of architecture is an attempt to control contamination and its more or less subtle racial codings. Whenever a new epidemic took hold, the spatial tools developed to contain it tended to remain, to linger on, conditioning the state control that would follow. When an emergency subsides, it is the specter or the fear of its return that governs transformation in space-time formations and systems of control. There has never been a full return back to “previous normality” and its normative benchmarks. Let’s also remember that the long history of urban policing, comes not from of crime, but from the control of epidemics and its associations with social interactions. What we see now however are new forms of governing in space which have been taken over via a relation between algorithms and bordering devices, which now exist on the scale of states, streets, and homes.

Our task as critical cartographers is to understand the ways by which this diagram is mapped, to understand what is at work in this changing spatial logic, and confront the protocols being enacted now with little or no resistance or scrutiny. Our task is to expose their lines of segmentation and propose what free movement might look like after the virus.

This text is based on a transcript of a telephone interview with Weizman conducted on March 30, 2020. It was first published in The Quarantine Files: Thinkers in Self-Isolation, Brad Evans (ed.) (Los Angeles, CA: Los Angeles Review of Books, April 14, 2020).

Eyal Weizman is an architect, professor of Spatial and Visual Cultures and director of the Center for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the founding director of Forensic Architecture, a multidisciplinary research agency that investigates cases of human rights violations with and on behalf of communities affected by state violence. He is the author of several books, including Forensic Architecture: Violence at the Threshold of Detectability (2017), Architecture After Revolution (2014) coedited with Alessandro Petti and Sandi Hilal, Forensic Architecture: Notes from Fields and Forums (2012), and Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation (2007).

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Carolyn Lazard, How to be a Person in the Age of Autoimmunity

Carolyn Lazard’s artistic practice expands through and feeds off their writing practice. “How to be a Person in the Age of Autoimmunity,” published in 2013 on the website Cluster Magazine, can be read both as an autobiographical account and a manifesto. They state: “The story I’m telling here is equal parts a processing of the trauma of illness and an exploration of how the body is treated under the regime of capitalism.” The text begins in Paris, where the artist had decided to settle in.

How to be a Person
in the Age of Autoimmunity

by Carolyn Lazard
“I’m afraid that then dialectics in its total abstrusity is only good for totally sick, ill, and mad people”
—Goethe to Hegel on October 18, 1827

This begins with the last meal I ate without being afraid. I remember it vividly. My friend Buyong was visiting me in Paris. I had already stopped working at that point because of pain in my joints. I was living off some money I’d saved. I was cautious of anything having to do with French bureaucracy, but mostly avoided seeking financial assistance because I had no idea what the fuck was going on with my body and assumed it was temporary. It was not.

I’d moved to Paris after graduating from college in the States. I needed a change and was trying to avoid New York for as long as possible. Paris wasn’t supposed to be a brief stint; I intended to make a life for myself there. In the year I lived there before I got sick, I worked part-time in a restaurant and part-time for a documentary production company.

Buyong and I were at some restaurant in the Marais—the kind of place populated by middle-aged French ladies who lunch. This was good. Buyong was in France and I wanted her to have a very French meal in an extremely French place. We were winning. We started off with foie gras, followed by mussels and fries, crème brûlée, two espressos, and some cigarettes.

That night, I puked. The next day, I puked twice and shit ten times. Over the course of the following weeks, I continued to puke and shit exponentially: a scatological nightmare. Every cigarette made me puke. I lost over forty pounds and grew weak. My mother, across the Atlantic, cried into the phone. She thought I was dying. I finally took myself to the hospital and was admitted.

My rheumatologist suggested I go to the rheumatology ward at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital. I was the youngest person in the wing by about thirty years. I’d already had many rheumatologists over the course of that year who couldn’t diagnose my joint pain. Though I arrived complaining of extreme pain in my abdomen, fatigue, and persistent diarrhea, my symptoms were ignored because I was in the rheumatology wing. I was put on steroids for the joint inflammation. The nurses continued to bring me plates of French hospital food: mass­produced gems like cow’s tongue, cod puree, and blood sausage. One night, I fainted and knocked my head while I was in the bathroom. They started running every test they could.

After a full year of undiagnosed symptoms and an acute crisis in which I spent a total of three weeks in the hospital, finally, I got a diagnosis: Crohn’s disease. That, and ankylosing spondylitis, one of those diseases that’s as awkward to say as it is to live with. Both are autoimmune in nature. Crohn’s is a disease of the intestinal tract, while AS affects the spine and peripheral joints. The doctors were sparing in their emotional presence. Of course, this is a critical ability in their profession. They explained to me the incurable and chronic nature of these diseases, that Crohn’s and AS are manageable through lifelong treatment. At this point, I was struggling to understand. As a young person, I had recognized illness as a momentary state of incapacitation that would always go away. I had spent the whole year hoping my joint pains would be cured with antibiotics, or something. My mind invented increasingly elaborate explanations: maybe I’d contracted a virus from a friend who had traveled abroad; maybe I’d developed a bizarre allergy. But I hadn’t.


The doctors insisted on a risky treatment of biologic drugs, either Humira or Remicade. Both are immune suppressants with the potential for terrifying side effects. Humira is self ­injected every two weeks and Remicade is given as an infusion in a chemo center every other month. They told me there was no alternative, but I’d heard that there were other drugs worth trying. I refused to believe that the treatment they offered was my only option. I insisted on a second opinion and asked to be discharged. They sent in medical students, nurses, residents, interns, and doctors to tell me that biologics were the only way. I was eventually taken off of the ineffective anti-inflammatory steroids.

The supposedly chronic nature of the diseases got me searching for other options, and ultimately a more holistic view of the body. From my hospital bed, I would look up alternative treatments and scroll through Crohn’s forums on my smartphone. Some people with Crohn’s had their colons removed through multiple surgeries and were still dependent on medication. Some people quit their medications, adopted specialized diets, or went on extended fasts, and they claimed to be cured. I believed them and I still do. My doctors told me there is a lot of misinformation on the web. This is true, but I was willing to listen to the suggestions of people who actually lived with the disease over advice from those who merely studied it.

Suspicious of anyone who tells me there is a singular approach to anything, I decided to leave. I crawled out of the hospital and all the way back to my apartment. I still don’t know how I came out of that flare without the help of medication, but I do have a hypothesis. Before receiving a colonoscopy, I was put on a liquid diet for a few days. The night before the procedure, I drank a foul laxative preparation. Since Crohn’s manifests as ulcers in the intestines, every time I ate it was like putting sandpaper to an internal open sore. Resting my bowels allowed me to slow down the flare. Eventually, I was able to eat soft foods such as bananas and avocados. I rested in my apartment until I had enough strength to leave. Incapable of taking care of myself physically or financially, I got on a flight home to Philadelphia as soon as possible.

The day after I landed, my knees started to swell and I couldn’t walk again. Eventually, my digestive system gave way, too. This was my second flare, with many to come. The story continues as such: constant fatigue and discomfort punctuated by the brief, high dramas of flares and successive hospitalizations. I spent the greater part of two years lying down in a bed.

These kinds of experiences are difficult to narrativize. There is no story arc. In “On Being Ill,” Virginia Woolf writes:

“Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to light… it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature. Novels, one would have thought, would have been devoted to influenza; epic poems to typhoid; odes to pneumonia… But no; … literature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear.”

This is, of course, the romantic view. Sometimes it’s not true; sometimes I’m the same asshole I was before I got sick. But as Susan Sontag once wrote, “illness exacerbates consciousness.” As such, my life has been irrevocably changed by the experience of illness. There is a lot of shame associated with disease. Disease is not polite conversation, and at my age, a career—not wellness—is the expected goal.

I give voice to this period of my life not as an inconvenient period, but as a profound one worthy of being shared. I want to valorize my time in ways that have nothing to do with work, to say a big “fuck you” to every person at a dinner party who has ever pointedly asked me, “So… what do you do?” because I haven’t “done” much in a long time. The story I’m telling here is equal parts a processing of the trauma of illness and an exploration of how the body is treated under the regime of capitalism. Stories of illness like mine should not be kept away in beds and in hospital wards. They should be written so that we can understand the body as something beyond a sheet of plain glass.


The experience of sickness is profoundly alienating. The difficulty of communicating illness is evident in the poverty of language available to us to describe our physical ailments. We express by simile: it feels like someone is stabbing me repeatedly with a sharp knife. It feels like someone is grabbing my intestines and squeezing them. It feels like I’m trapped in my own body.

In Illness as Metaphor, Sontag speaks of the influential eighteenth-century French physician Marie François Xavier Bichat, who called health “the silence of [the] organs” and disease “their revolt.” Under the influence of that image, only when we are sick do we become aware of our otherwise static, humming organs. Then there’s the parlance of doctors, which is a language of war. Your immune system is your body’s defense system. It has gone AWOL. We are here to defeat it. A militaristic approach is the prevailing ideology regarding autoimmune disease.

My particular manifestation of autoimmunity is very specific—it occurs in my intestines and my joints—yet the basic mechanism is the same across a wide range of illnesses and symptoms. The immune system is perplexed and is driven to hyperactivity. Autoimmune—attacking the self. The immune system mistakes its own bodily materials for foreign agents and is confused about the distinction between self and other.

Autoimmune disorders are difficult to diagnose. For ankylosing spondylitis, the average time between the onset of symptoms and diagnosis is eight to twelve years. I was lucky; I only had to wait one year. But the process of diagnosis can often be discouraging and upsetting. Several specialists offered the wrong diagnoses, treated me with drugs unrelated to my condition, and called me hysterical—a hypochondriac. In contrast, I was also treated well by some very sympathetic and nurturing nurses. It reminded me that mediocre treatment is not necessarily the fault of individuals, but of understaffed hospitals. At the same time, I’m not the only one who has felt infantilized by doctors.

In “The Autoimmune Epidemic,” Donna Jackson Nakazawa writes, “Forty-five percent of patients with autoimmune diseases have been labeled hypochondriacs in the earliest stages of their illnesses. Some of this, no doubt, has to do with the fact that 75 percent to 80 percent of autoimmune disease sufferers are women, who are more easily dismissed by the medical establishment when hard-to-diagnose symptoms arise.” In my case, this was echoed by friends and family who suggested that my pain was psychosomatic or the result of depression. Often, the identities of people with invisible disabilities do not fit neatly into either disabled or able-bodied communities.

Autoimmune diseases are being diagnosed with increasing frequency and boomed in the post­war era of unregulated development. The Mayo Clinic reports that the number of patients with lupus has tripled in the United States over the past forty years. Incidences of multiple sclerosis have risen at a rate of 3 percent every year in the U.K. and Scandinavia. Multiple sclerosis rates have doubled in the past forty years in Germany, Italy, and Greece, and type 1 diabetes has increased fivefold in the same time period. According to the NIH, twenty-four million Americans live with autoimmune disease.

Because of the rapid spread of autoimmune disease in industrialized nations, Nakazawa states, “Scientists the world over have dubbed it ‘the Western disease.’” The medical community remains unsure as to its origins, but often cites genetic factors. Others, unsatisfied with this weak causal explanation for these “Western” afflictions, have been exploring the environmental triggers of autoimmunity. One’s immune response is partially genetic. If you are not predisposed to autoimmunity, you are not likely to develop an autoimmune disease. Yet to not take into account environmental factors seems like a sanitization of a bizarre phenomenon, a reliance on the hermetic discourse of a medical field governed by specific protocols. I don’t mean to blame anyone specifically for the illnesses they have endured, but humans have likely participated in the creation of this situation. Our bodies have absorbed environmental degradation and the consequent chemical toxicity load.

If we explore the alternative to the medical community’s elusive explanation, we are left with a disease that is the result of unchecked capitalist production and its runoff. Just as autoimmune disorders have the confused body attacking itself, capitalism has humans attacking the natural world. Capitalism delineates a boundary between human society and the natural world; by separating them, it becomes easier to exploit the latter. What we are left with is bodies that are confused: incapable, on molecular level, of maintaining the basic boundaries that are constitutive of self. Mimicking, on a molecular level, the degrees of alienation and commodification that happen to the body on a social and economic level.

There are currently no known cures for most autoimmune diseases. They are discussed as chronic conditions that must be in a lifelong process of mitigation through biomedical means. My doctors would plead with me, as I shuffled into their offices with my walker, to take Humira. Biologics are a new class of drugs, barely a decade old, used to treat a few autoimmune conditions. Humira, which carries a black box warning, is an exact clone of a human antibody. It’s a human protein cultivated in the bodies of mice. These biologics function as immune suppressants, essentially shutting down the body’s immune system to prevent it from attacking itself.

But, left without its defenses, the body becomes vulnerable to fatal cancers, other autoimmune diseases, and opportunistic infections; Humira’s medicine-as-technology counteracted my body’s self-destructive but “natural” behavior. Forget the dualistic mode of thought, in which nothing was wrong with me, but something was wrong with my body. The idea is that I was deficient, and the only way to become the optimal version of myself was to embrace a drug that would make me do no more than function, all for $3,000 a month.

My doctors’ assurance was that I would get well. I would be able to get a job with benefits that would allow me to pay for insurance. Biomedical treatment operates on a capitalist understanding of time. Rather than embracing the regenerative powers of the body, the idea is to get back to work as quickly as possible. It is the body’s radical autonomy that resists commodification. To spite our optimal productivity, it gets sick. Sickness can be masked and treated but the body responds nonetheless. It reacts. It may take longer to recover than is convenient to your boss. We do not have time to get you better. We have time to make you functional.

You are too young to live like this!” became my well-intentioned doctors’ refrain. “What a shame! We can get you back to work! You should be out living your life!” And so, they perpetuated the supposed narrative of health and death: illness is something which comes late in life, right before the end. They acted as if I was experiencing an inconvenience. As if I wasn’t living my life anyway. They didn’t understand that this experience had stripped and shed a light on me, making it simply impossible to carry on as before. There was no return to “normal.”

They often asked me about what I did before I became sick. As if that was me, and this a brief interlude of discomfort. In fact, most discussions in doctors’ offices are about pain or discomfort. These are important issues. Proust wrote, “Illness is the doctor to whom we pay most heed; to kindness, to knowledge, we make promise only; pain we obey.”

As my life came to be ruled by the sensation of pain, it became impossible to think about anything except the sensation of pain. But pain is only the partial story of the body, a symptom of an underlying problem, whether an injury or a systemic issue. Pain is the body calling out for your attention. I wanted to be healthy again, not simply living without pain. I wanted a medical practice that addresses the true health of the body.

I resisted starting Humira for this very reason. My doctor explained that the way to eliminate the pain and inflammation was to clamp down my overactive immune system. Doing this would prevent it from attacking my joints and my intestines, leaving me pain-free. But it didn’t take care of the underlying problem: my immune system is confused. Eliminating my immune system sounded like a bad—an incomplete—idea.

Most of my friends and family urged me to take what was offered. Even the people that I’d identified or had self-identified as radical or left-leaning were suspiciously unsuspicious of the biomedical industrial complex: that every other industrial complex demanded rigorous scrutiny, but in matters of health and the body, medicine was unmarked and depoliticized.

Here I was in the hospital, having my body completely compartmentalized—treated not as a living organism but as an alienated collection of symptoms. What I realized through these visits, and my increased aversion to biomedical intervention (even while it was keeping me alive) was a resistance to a cyborgian present. I was in a futuristic nightmare, watching my body change and having no control over it; getting post­industrial noise MRIs; having a blood transfusion and feeling two pints of someone else’s cold blood course through my veins; getting a colonoscopy, where I was knocked out and a fiberoptic camera was stuck up my ass and through my intestines. I asked for a copy of the video, a request they did not take seriously, nor find humorous.

I am not a neo-Luddite. I am wholly indebted to modern science and technology for keeping me alive and in little pain. I believe in the specificity of cases. Sometimes biomedical treatment is inevitable and sometimes it is not, but I find expressions of the body purity problematic. Our bodies are not discrete entities. They constantly interface with organisms and substances in our environment. Body modification and augmentation is an age-old human practice. We have always been cyborgs.

Intellectually, I embrace the idea of being a cyborg, but in the midst of my health crisis I became opposed to this new identification. Faced with feeling less and less human, I clung to a particular idea of humanity denied through current medical practices. My symptoms also made me feel human, in a particularly disagreeable way.

The primary, most easily identifiable symptom of Crohn’s disease is diarrhea. In my worst flares, I would shit upwards of thirty times a day. I sacrificed entire days to incessant shitting. I was forced into more intimate relations with my body—relations that underscored my lack of control, thus my lack of civility, and ultimately my body’s radical realness. Nothing killed my ego more quickly than being an adult and having people I don’t know (nurses) or people I know well (my father) take away my bedpan and wipe my ass.

I’m nowhere near the first person to take shit seriously. Scholar Cindy LaCom cites the theoretical underpinnings of our shit adverse culture in “Filthy Bodies, Porous Boundaries: The Politics of Shit in Disability Studies”: Lacan suggested that the only thing distinguishing humans from animals is that we are ashamed by our shit. In “The Power of Horror,” Kristeva writes, “Excrement and its equivalents (decay, infection, disease, corpse, etc.) stand for the danger to identity that comes from without: the ego threatened by the non­ego, society threatened by its outside, life by death.” Shit reminds us of the fact that we shit, that we are in part biological process, not just social relations. Bataille saw the liberatory potential of human excrement and all the abject substances humans expulse in order to live.

IRA political prisoners in Northern Ireland during the “No Wash” protests of the ’70s and ’80s put this strain of thought into practice by refusing to wash. They shit, pissed, and vomited all over their cells. Women stopped using menstrual paraphernalia. They stopped performing social order and stopped conducting their bodies as expected.

We police our own bodies for the greater social order in a variety of ways. Only clean, sanitized bodies are allowed to participate. There were many things that I was unable to do while I was sick. For a whole year, I fucked no one. There were some technical issues, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t want to. I had the stamina of someone on her deathbed, but beyond that, to be sick and to desire is a faux pas. My doctors were anxious for me to get back to work, but some human activities were never discussed. Sexuality is the right of those designated as “healthy” in our culture. A quick scan of contemporary popular culture suggests that aside from the most able-bodied (white, straight, cis-bodied, and of means), it is repulsive and “unnatural” for the sick, the disabled, or the elderly to talk about or openly engage in sexual conduct.

The abject body aside, it is difficult to conceptualize the body in general under the current cult of health. Descartes discusses the body in mechanical terms. Sontag notes the metaphor of the body “as a factory, an image of the body’s functioning under the sign of health.” What happens when our bodies “revolt” and the factories stop functioning so smoothly? Perhaps they are trying to tell us something about their working conditions.

We are at a point at which the highly efficient mechanization of the body of the factory worker under capitalism has given way to the virtualization of our labor through the Internet (and through the extraction of our labor from other places).

The advent of the smartphone has usurped leisure time from the working able-bodied. According to the Critical Art Ensemble, a tactical media collective, people with smartphones are cyborgs who can be accessed at all time as autonomous 24­hour workstations. We’ve moved from a system based on the production and consumption of goods to a mystical finance capitalism. The increased virtuality of labor, not unlike the administering of biomedical technology, is meant to make life more convenient. Increased ease of life is the ideal that we assume technology fulfills. And yet as advanced capitalism has deemed the physical body an obsolete, outdated tool, the body still remains. It continues to fail under capitalist conditions and gets pathologized as illness. The body is another inconvenience that must be enhanced and optimized.

As our society views itself as approaching pure rationality, our bodies become subject to utilitarianism. In “Flesh Machine,” Critical Art Ensemble writes, “[The body] will be made to function instrumentally so that it may better fulfill the imperatives of pancapitalism… physical perfection will be defined by an individual’s ability to separate he/rself from non-rational motivation and emergent desires, thus increasing he/r potential devotion to varieties of political-economic service.” Capitalism objectifies the body. It views the body as an exploitable resource and attempts to render it indestructible and unstoppable with the aid of technology. Nothing is sacred; all is fair in the service of capital. In the U.S., there are no limitations on hours clocked in, and there are no mandates for employers to provide sick days to their employees. The body’s natural weaknesses and limitations are ignored. I’m hesitant to take an evolutionary approach, but our bodies have not changed for hundreds of thousands of years. What we do with them is radically different from our humble beginnings. I’m primarily concerned with whether these technologically engaged practices lead us toward increased autonomy or increased subservience.

Health and wellness become an ideological tool deployed to normalize the body in the interests of capitalist production. This is made all the more effective and complicated because well­being is naturally desired by the patient and can be administered through self-care. The paradox is that I want to feel better more than anything else.


I’ve been sick and unemployed for what feels like a long time. Before I became sick, I was fairly industrious. In college, I produced cultural events and lectures, I started clubs, I negotiated with the school administration, I took five to six classes per semester. I often did more than was expected of me and I spread myself thin. I went from incredible levels of productivity to spending most of my time alternately convalescing in a bed or puking in a toilet. I was chronically fatigued; getting dressed in the morning required a gargantuan effort. And on some days, holding a book or feeding myself was exhausting. Expectedly, I developed feelings of guilt over my inability to be a productive member of society: moralizing my disability as sloth, viewing my body’s natural limitations as personal failure. I was anxious to get back to work. I still occasionally have these feelings of anxiety, but for the most part they have subsided. After my fourth flare, I gave up on the idea of being employed for a while, accepted that it wasn’t a viable option for me. The pace of my life slowed down. I stopped multi­tasking. I became more forgiving with myself. I realized that there was nothing wrong with me.

A German activist group called the Socialist Patients’ Collective (SPK) addresses the internalized desire to work by casting the relationship between patients and doctors in a Marxist framework. For the SPK, everyone is sick under capitalism. For some, their bodies make them more aware of this. The SPK was formed in 1970 and existed for about a year. Before their dissolution, they managed to put out some fiery propaganda. Their slogan was, “Turn your illness into a weapon.” They also wrote, “Sickness is the condition and result of capitalism.” As a perpetual patient, this rhetoric is refreshing. The chronically ill are often cast as victims of fate or genetics. Rarely are we politicized or allowed to relate our personal experiences to larger social or cultural phenomena. As far as doctors are concerned, our diseases are empirical facts and not much else.

Following the logic of SPK, being ill appears to be a de facto resistance to the established social order, to capitalist production and subsequently to the engendering of material relations between humans. Disease necessitates unemployment and unemployment is a social disease. When we are sick, we enact unintended resistance to an economic system that privileges efficiency over resilience.

Of course, illness predates capitalism, but the physical impairments that make the condition of wage-dependence unlivable were not always disabling. The social model of disability maintains a clear distinction between disability and impairment. Impairment is an illness, injury, or congenital condition that causes loss of ability or partial ability to function. Disability, in contrast, signifies a particular relationship to one’s environment. Disability is the reflection of barriers that prevent people with impairments from participating in society. For example, when I have difficulty walking, it is a physical impairment. I am disabled not by my physical impairment, but by the fact that many buildings don’t have ramps or elevators. Capitalism is an economic system that assesses bodies in terms of labor power, designating certain bodies as useful and others as not. Physical or mental impairment as an excuse for exclusion from social or economic life is endlessly reinforced under this system.

So what does this resistance by way of illness look like? Sometimes it looks like leisure. Ah yes, leisure: the time we have when we are not at work, the time that we own. According to the Situationists, leisure is a cruel trick: it’s our precious time sold back to us as a commodity. After my many hospitalizations, there was always a period of convalescence. Convalescence is a bourgeois activity much like leisure. Sontag writes, “The Romantics invented invalidism as a pretext for leisure, and for dismissing bourgeois obligations in order to live for one’s art. It was a way of retiring from the world without having to take responsibility for the decision.” I was at times grateful for catching a break from my own high standards for myself. I imagined myself a nineteenth-century waif relaxing in a Swiss sanatorium. I was able to convalesce for many reasons, including the fact that I lived at home and was financially supported by my mother. Under the Affordable Care Act, I am covered under her insurance plan for six more months.

I am blessed. I live in a country where I have access to medical care, albeit at great cost. When I was first hospitalized in the States, I stayed for five days and left with a $52,000 bill—most of which was covered by my insurance. In France, I was hospitalized for three weeks and left with only a bill for the television in my hospital room. Everyone is minimally covered in France, yet as a low-income resident I qualified for 100 percent coverage.

I suffer from a disease that is not stigmatized or associated with so-called deviant or immoral behavior, unlike people with HIV or hepatitis. I am allowed to be a victim and no one assumes that I got what I deserved. While I was sick, my time was not economically exploitable in the Marxist sense. I could not contribute to the work force. What happens when time is not money? I spent a whole year mostly lying in a bed producing nothing; extremely bored. Maintaining remission and taking care of myself required a lot of my time. In order to justify my unemployment, I still thought in capitalist time designations, and would tell people that taking care of myself was a “full­time job.” If I was not seeing a specialist, getting medical tests, or in physical therapy, I spent most of my time on the Internet, probably as bored as you were at work. For many chronically ill and disabled people, the Internet is an invaluable social space. I was bed­bound and it became my life. Nerds have lived virtual lives since the advent of virtuality, but for those of us whose physical bodies can seem like a burden or an ontological prison, the Internet functions as a utopia of sorts.

No one knew I was sick. My Facebook presented an able-bodied version of myself stagnant for many months. On the net, my healthy self was frozen in poses of youthful exuberance, running around the city of Paris, wining and dining. Really, I was immobile in my mother’s one-bedroom apartment in Philadelphia, at times in a wheelchair, at times needing assistance for basic activities like brushing my teeth or holding a glass of water. To this day I have very few images of this period of my life. The day a friend decided to post a picture of me using my cane was a big day for me.

Over the months I have become more stable. I reluctantly started Humira, the drug that I had avoided for over a year. I told my doctors that I wanted to try to heal myself holistically and they skeptically agreed to monitor me while I took myself off of the steroids that had gotten me out of the previous flare. My gastroenterologist told me that I wouldn’t last a week without my medication. I adopted a raw diet, exercised regularly, slept a lot, meditated daily, went to acupuncture, and went to psychotherapy. I took no pills, except for some vitamins that I had been deficient in, and I lasted two months, to the surprise of my doctors. Then everything started to go downhill again.

I remained in this cycle of watching my health deteriorate rapidly, followed by long months of recovery. The minute I felt well again, I would start flaring and the cycle would continue. After the last course of steroids, I decided to go with Humira for some more stability. I was desperate for relief. It’s too early to tell, but I think it is helping make the day-to-day more manageable. I’m trying to accept this as the step I had to take, while still hoping for a less detrimental option in the future.

I’m still highly suspicious of the biomedical industrial complex. Over the past few years, I have found myself completely and inextricably tied to this world in a way that I didn’t want to be. I desire an alternative and I still believe that one day I won’t need this medication to live. Yet, currently, I’m fully dependent on Humira for my functionality. It is difficult to conceive of resistance to something that I need right now. The current battle is to not to let ideological extremes play out on a mental or physical level. I have a tendency to think it is all-or-nothing with my health. If I’m pumped full of toxic drugs, I can eat crap all day, never exercise or sleep, start smoking and drinking again. If I’m off of medication, I have to eat clean, exercise daily, and sleep a minimum of eight hours per night. Definitely no drugs or alcohol. For the moment, I’m trying to find a middle ground that means taking my medication diligently, taking care of myself, and allowing for vice in moderation.

I left my mother’s place and have been living in New York City for a month now. I am on the hunt for work and an apartment, much like the quarter million people who move here every year. For everyone hustling in this metropolis, it can be quite stressful. I try to stay calm and not worry about the two-year gap on my resume. I’ve dealt with worse things.

In college, I used to work my body to the bone, swallowing fistfuls of amphetamines to get as much done as possible. I can’t handle that anymore. I still struggle with deadlines, but I refuse to make them at the expense of my body. My body has aged considerably. I need those eight hours of sleep. I need nutrients.

When I first started dating my current partner, they asked me, “What is it that you want?” I said, “To be happy and healthy.”

“That’s what old people want.”

I said, “I’ve been through some things that old people go through.” My experience has made me less invested in notions of success and more invested in notions of happiness.

At the risk of sounding condescending and corny, I will say that I feel simultaneously late in the game and over the game. I have no idea what it’s like to work full­time, in the same place, for over a year. I’m 25, so not having that experience makes me feel left behind. Yet sometimes, my peers’ office concerns seem as absurd as a Dilbert comic strip. Unlike my oversubscribed friends, I’m learning how to say “no,” and I refuse to overbook myself.

Since we associate illness with old age, it’s no surprise that we view the elderly as the ultimate refuse of our capitalist system. Just look at how we treat them. I still don’t have the wisdom of an old person. Despite my wariness towards my doctors’ capitalist urgings, I crave normalcy. I can’t wait to get back to work. I’m at a place in my life where I’m trying to find out whether I am capable of making a living on my own or whether I need to take my social security appeal more seriously. In all of this uncertainty, all I can do is try to be my own advocate and remain medically informed.

My hair and bones have thinned from previous medications. I still have trouble with stairs. I’m still exhausted. I’ve been diagnosed with a third autoimmune condition, Graves’ disease. Now I get to see three different specialists. I know that the rest of my life might be spent mitigating side effects. But already there have been improvements: I’ve gained the weight back. I only shit once or twice a day. I can walk for longer than two minutes without being in pain. I’m learning to navigate this disease, anticipating flares before they spiral out of control. I try to remain in the present. My next flare may come in six days, six weeks, six months, six years—or never. This condition of existence requires an openness to the ebb and flow of things, an understanding that everything changes—for better or worse.

Bibliographical references:

Critical Art Ensemble, Flesh Machine: Cyborgs, Designer Babies and New Eugenic Consciousness (Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia and Critical Art Ensemble, 1998); available online.

Donna Jackson Nakazawa, The Autoimmune Epidemic: Bodies Gone Haywire in a World Out of Balance—and the Cutting Edge Science that Promises Hope (New York, NY: Touchstone / Simon & Schuster, 2008).

Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Leon S. Roudiez (trans.) (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1982).

Cindy LaCom, “Filthy Bodies, Porous Boundaries: The Politics of Shit in Disability Studies,” in Disability Studies Quarterly, Winter/Spring 2007, Vol. 27, No. 1–2; available online.

Sozialistisches Patientenkolletiv (SPK), Turn Illness into a Weapon, Wolfgang Huber (trans.) (Mannheim: KRRIM – PF-Verlag für Krankheit, 1993); available online.

Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor / AIDS and Its Metaphors (London: Penguin, 2009).

Virginia Woolf, On Being Ill (first ed. 1926) (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2012).

Carolyn Lazard, born in 1987 in Upland (USA), lives and works in Philadelphia (USA). Using installation, video, performance and text, Carolyn Lazard portrays the institutional, symbolic and linguistic structures that determine our perceptions and treatments of illnesses and disabilities. Adopting an intersectional approach, Lazard highlights how racial inequalities have historically structured people of colour’s experiences of illness and pain.

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Tarek Lakhrissi, Potential Threat

This text is part of Performing Unfinished Sentence by Tarek Lakhrissi, a performance inside his installation Unfinished Sentence, exhibited as part of Anticorps.

Potential Threat

by Tarek Lakhrissi

//
This is not a distribution of care,
I built these weapons with Thierry, but also Louis,
Nicolas, Yohann etc.
Thierry wears an earring like me
He has a very nice smile.
I built these weapons in late september 2019
I was living here for a week,
And I was so happy,
Every morning I was listening to the birds
They made me so happy
That exact same week, a few weird things
Happened
1) A member of my family passed away
2) I also had two premonitary dreams :
a. One about the death of the president Jacques Chirac
b. Another dream about baby birds after I realized that a bird was here,
Also dead
Close to my room upstairs.

I didn’t see these things as signs
These weapons are signs
I don’t think that words are signs
Only gestures are signs
This is a not distribution of care (once again).

For me this also happened because
This is life
(…)
I think I want to talk with you
But I feel like I should not talk to you
About these things
Y’know
These deadly things
These weapons are not birds
They are a forest of wild wet dreams

Do you think you are special ?

(soupir)

I didn’t want to talk to you
I thought the world was violent
The world is not a dream
I used to fight for good reasons
Now I don’t know what are the good reasons
Maybe I want to talk to you
To feel a little more closer,
To feel your breath
In the same room
To hear your name
You

//
I open a gay app,
a young man talks to me
I don’t know where he lives
29 miles from here,
It’s not that far.
He is 19,
And on his pic profile
He took a photo of his back
There was a diabolic pentagram
I said « Hi »

//
I am not a hero or a goddess
I am not a hero or a goddess

I want to pray with you for other beings
These weapons are many warrior spirits,
There are :
Assa, Monique,
Houria, Rokhaya,
Angela, Marguerite,
Kaoutar, Destiny,
Maboula, Fatima,
Saadia, Razel,
Rajah, Hanane,
Ghita, Josèfa,
Soraya, Fallon,
Mawena, Habibti,
Clarissa, Eve,
Mejda, Audrey,

And
I forgot the last one
I can’t remember
The last one.

(sourire)

//
Lying is a collective practice
Lying as a collective practice
I wanted to react
But I decided to do a step back
The world is already ending
Do you know how to take care
When it’s possible ?

(si j’écris c’est aussi pour être un peu réel, me rapprocher un peu d’un réel, je me sens pas tellement exister quand je n’écris pas, alors j’ai appris à écrire pour mieux flirter avec le réel, (…) Écrire, c’est se répéter. Il y a des répétitions qui te rendent encore une fois irréelle, c’est là où je disparais dans la fantaisie, dans mes personnages, mes chairs, mes espaces blancs, mes virgules, des lettres, etc. Il se passe tellement de choses entre les mots. J’adore mentir aussi, c’est là où je me sens le plus libre, dans les mensonges. Je -)

Tarek Lakhrissi (b.1992, Châtellerault, France) lives between Paris and Brussels.