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Magic Words: A Numbered List

This article is part of the series:

  1. Boundary
  2. Biǎo 表
  3. Interiorization (Inclusion)
  4. The Fold
  5. Emptiness
  6. Pathway
  7. Tōng
  8. Media/Medium
  9. Resonance
  10. Excess
  11. Immunity/Community


1. Boundary

Boundary is such a common-sense concept that it hardly needs to be glossed. Indeed, the definition of the word in the Oxford English Dictionary flirts with tautology in its obviousness: “that which serves to indicate the bounds or limits of anything….” Interestingly, however, “boundary” in this definition takes an active verb, it “serves” to do something social, conceptual, and even political. In recent scholarship boundaries between knowledge domains are seen as disputed, just as the political boundaries between nation-states often are. It has become common in science studies to examine the very practice of “serving to indicate the bounds or limits of anything.” Historians and sociologists of science have analyzed border wars or boundary disputes in which scientists and commentators ask, about fields like psychology or cold fusion: is it really science, or is it superstition, error, ideology? Some observers of biomedicine have asked whether this field is, properly speaking, a science or, like “non-Western” healing modalities, a skilled art, thus challenging the distinctness of the two worlds of science and art.

Susan Leigh Star and James Griesemer have given us the useful notion of a boundary object, “which both inhabit[s] several intersecting social worlds and [satisfies] the informational requirements of each of them.” Boundary objects “have different meanings in different social worlds but their structure is common enough … to make them recognizable, a means of translation.” These uses of the concept of boundary do not presume that boundaries (“whether material or immaterial,” the OED says) exist in the world undisputed.  Nor are boundary lines drawn such that their location is clear to everyone. Rather, boundary-making is a polemic, and combatants (or translators) struggle over the meaning of the objects that bump up against each other at boundaries.

The most extended reflection on boundaries in China that we have seen is introduced by art historian John Hay (1994). Hay emphasizes the dynamism, hybridity, and polemic character of all boundaries and border zones, and especially the sometimes fetishized boundaries formed by walls in China. Urbanism scholar Lu Duanfang (2006) has also interpreted walls (city walls, compound walls), as part of the cultural history and phenomenology of urban spacecrafting in Beijing. These historical-philosophical treatments of boundaries explore Chinese practices to challenge many essentialisms. Walls may argue for the discreteness and coherence of the things they contain, but when boundaries (like the walls that “serve to indicate …limits”) are rendered active, porous, and full of dilemmas, they cease being clear to common sense.

These active processes of bounding draw attention to the agency required to establish the limits of any thing and invite us to examine the historical practice of bounding domains and privileging relations over essences. See the Chinese medical concept of biǎo in this list of magic words. Like the mostly imaginary Great Wall of China, the biǎo boundary is made and contested, salient only at certain times and to certain actors. These boundaries – perhaps all boundaries? – are drawn and re-drawn, contingent on the situated needs of particular collectives with different ideas of what is essential, what the thing that is bounded is, what belongs inside and what outside. (JF)

Works Cited

John Hay, 1995. Introduction. Boundaries in China.  London: Reaktion Books.

Lu Duanfang, 2006. Remaking Chinese Urban Form: Modernity, Scarcity, and Space, 1949– 2005. New York: Routledge.

Susan Leigh Star and James Griesemer, 1989. Institutional Ecology, “Translations,” and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39. Social Studies of Science 19 (3), pp. 387-420.

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2. Biǎo

The character biǎo 表 depicts the hairy (毛 mao) side of a fur garment (衣 yi). Hence, biǎo denotes the exterior, the surface, the external that manifests or signals and (and most specifically in Chinese medicine) is opposed to the inside or lining (裡) of a garment. Biǎo is not quite the same idea as the outside or the public (waì 外), which is opposed to the inside or the private (內 nèi).  There is no gulf: internal organs lie hidden within the body but connect to or even govern outward-facing sense organs or body structures. Surface and exterior are zones of activity and communication engaged in complex work; they are never merely a simple boundary.

In Chinese thought it is widely taken as a given that the inner (which is difficult to access) invariably manifests on the surface. However, one might fail to properly see such manifestations. Developing the necessary skills of attention – not, as in Plato, detecting the false reflections of hidden truths – thus becomes the main problem of Chinese hermeneutics. For instance, in the Analects (II.10) Confucius says, “Look to how it is. Consider from what it comes. Examine what a person would be at rest.” Stephen Owen places this passage at the very origin of Chinese literary thought, inasmuch as what Confucius draws attention to is the outer form that makes possible an understanding of “from what it comes” by means of a particular mode of attention. Later Confucians extended the notion of manifestations on the exterior first to language 言 (yān) and then to poetry 詩 (shì) and literature 文 (wēn); these are expressions that endure over time and allow access to meaning or, which is the same, the inner being of worthwhile people (shì 士). In “The Way of Heaven,” Zhuangzi questions this model through the story of wheelwright Pian, who speaks of a knowledge that exists but cannot be put into words, and yet can be transmitted, i.e., it depends on direct contact between people; the worthies (shì 士) who understand only through access to literature are merely reading the “dregs of the ancients.”

Thus, though Chinese thinkers differ as to how stable the relationship between inside and outside might be, how long such a relationship endures and how precisely it might need to be attended to, they were not usually compelled to cut through the exterior in their search for hidden facts and eternal truths. Instead they learned to read manifestations. (VS)

Works Cited

Stephen Owen, 1992, Readings in Chinese Literary Thought. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press. Analects p. 21, Zhuangzi  pp. 35-36.

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3. Interiorization (Inclusion)

Interiorization refers to a most basic position of being in space(s). It could be described as a series of processes through which the world is constantly being transformed into “interior spaces.” Such spaces, however, do not come first. They are not already there, like inanimate containers waiting to be occupied. Interiorization refers, in contrast, to the ongoing crafting of interior spaces of all scales, be they houses, temples, villages, spaceships, nation-states, and so on. Because it always involves relations with outside forces, or more specifically a selection of and from the outside, interiorization is never a finite process. Interior spaces are at once distinct and contingent on a constitutive exteriority. Michel Foucault is certainly one of the thinkers who has most vividly described tensions between interior and exterior, inside and outside. Speaking of the Renaissance madman, Foucault wrote: “He is put in the interior of the exterior, and inversely [ …] He is a prisoner in the midst of what is the freest, the openest of routes: bound fast at the infinite crossroads.” (Foucault 2001/1961, p. 9) A few years later, Foucault described the interiorization of disease, and indeed of death, within the space of the individual body. This process, suggests Foucault, was instrumental in the birth of the clinic and it may more broadly be conceived as a key philosophical contribution of modern medicine.

Interiorization, in this sense, closely resembles folding — see magic word #4 below. In both cases, thinking interior spaces entails the abandonment of holistic, sovereign, or centering worldviews. Interior spaces are, by contrast, crafted out of an inherent relationality, a continuity, or movement which precedes and exceeds the “inner” subject. As such, interiorization is, paradoxically enough, best apprehended from the outside.

One illustration of this is that of the interiorization of outer space within the space of a unified, whole Earth, triggered by satellite technology and images like the Blue Marble (Earth seen from space), among other events. This relationship between space technology and a world conceived of as a global, interior space is wonderfully described by Peter Redfield in Space in the Tropics:

“Space technology closed the sky again, bounded it from above and sealed it whole. Only then could the sky become fully modern in an active, technological sense, and only then could what lay beyond it become meaningful as space, a vast sea of darkness surrounding a blue and green point of human place. At last the world was one.” (Redfield, 2000, p. 123)

The most unforgettable image of the Space Age, suggests Redfield, is not of the infinite beyond but rather the finite below: “the Earth becomes a whole and suddenly intimate place.” (p. 174) Never has the world seemed as isolated and unified as when at last seen from above. Space technology, like the opening up of corpses described by Foucault, reveals the illusion of a self-contained, autonomous space by making explicit the operations through which it is actually taking shape. Failures to recognize these operations are arguably a defining feature of modern conceptions of technological mastery and spatial immunity. (VD)

Works cited

Michel Foucault, 2001 (1961). Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Ed. Richard Howard.  London and New York: Routledge Classics.

Peter Redfield, 2000. Space in the Tropics: From Convicts to Rockets in French Guiana.  Berkeley: University of California Press.

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4. The Fold

“The fold” is a term developed by Gilles Deleuze, first in the last chapter of his extended commentary on the thought of Michel Foucault (1986/1988) and then in a widely read book on “Leibniz and the Baroque” (1988/1993). As with many of the special usages that appear in Deleuze’s writing, “fold” is not readily defined, especially if we think of definitions as stabilizing the implications and restricting the semiotic play of a term’s root metaphor.

The image of folding should be easy, though. It should speak directly to us, with our experience of the overlapping, juxtaposing, touching, resonating, combining and separating of things in life. Attention to the fold invites us to look and listen for the forms taken up by skin and fabric, sounds and mountain ranges, brush strokes and stream eddies, blood and qi. Perhaps most important, unlike so many structural metaphors we have inherited in modernism, the fold is not a phallic or violent notion. Folding – perhaps especially in a baroque aesthetic – establishes no predictable hierarchies of domination or silencing. Things fold of their own accord, almost randomly; there are so many other ways that the hem could fall or the raindrops drip. In the folding of the surfaces of life, new relationships (of nearness or farness, of attraction or repulsion) are trivially formed, and just as shallowly re-formed.

As is often the case with Deleuzian concepts, our apprehension of this term and our ability to find it useful is helped by imagining some concrete examples. Some readers of The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque know enough about 17th and 18th century painting and music to supply imaginary pictures and musical accompaniment to concretize some of the abstractions; others perhaps understand the mathematics for which Leibniz is so famous. For these readers, a folded universe might be obvious.

The way that Deleuze uses folding in his study of Foucault is a narrower, less technical, and perhaps clearer usage than he developed later in explorations of Leibniz. In this chapter entitled “Foldings, or the Inside of Thought (Subjectivation),” he is most interested in how Foucault thought the genesis of the subject (“Man?”) in an archaeology of discourse and experience that left no room for mystical interiorities, no tremulous interior self that was ontologically different from an “object” exterior. The image is more akin to invagination than penetration and depth. In other words, for Foucault (says Deleuze) “the outside [e.g., discourse] is not a fixed limit [e.g., to the embodied subject] but a moving matter animated by peristaltic movements, folds and foldings that together make up an inside: they are not something other than the outside but precisely the inside of the outside” (96-97). This is a Foucault we can recognize, though we don’t always think of him as a space crafter for whom interior and exterior terrains were important. But he was a thinker and writer who deliberately shattered the boundary between subject and object, between a unique interior self and a conventional outside world, between the body and its context, or, one could say, Body and Soul. And he did it by way of witnessing acts of interiorization, folding and unfolding. Perhaps when Foucault is channeled to us by way of Deleuze and the fold, we can see a less dualistic world, one in which surfaces are active and sensible, a manifest reality akin to the folding and unfolding tissues described in The Birth of the Clinic and recognizable as a moment in the history of the body. (JF)

Works cited

Gilles Deleuze, 1988 (1986), Foucault. Tr./Ed. Seán Hand.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Gilles Deleuze, 1993 (1988), The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque. Tr. Tom Conley.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Michel Foucault, 1994, The Birth of the Clinic: An archaeology of medical perception.  New York: Vintage Books.

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5. Emptiness

Emptiness can best be understood through imagining it along with its alter self – excess. Deeply embedded in Chinese medicine as a way of understanding and quantifying the relative balances, flows and expressions of “things” – deficiency (虚  xu) is thought of as depletion contrasted with overflow (实 shi, excess). This perspective does not sufficiently emphasize the ‘formless but radical potentiality’ (Kroll,2015) of emptiness – for Laozi an empty Dao (Way) is the origin or the source of the universe – “the profound and deep continuum in which there is no obstruction” (流 liu, flow), that is, no obstruction to the pouring in or to the emergence of phenomena – the ‘autopoietic’ or spontaneous, ‘self-so’ (自然 ziran) (Moeller, 2006). Emptiness is a precondition for the knower who would apprehend the movements of the vitalities at the root of the world. Achieving a state of emptiness (and recognizing it in others) is not a cognitive task but must be approached in a fully embodied manner. Shaking off the excesses and stilling the multiple voices of the interiorized body allows one to make more porous the boundaries between us. (SC)

Works Cited

Hans-Georg Moeller, 2006 The Philosophy of the Daodejing. New York: Columbia University Press.

Paul Kroll, 2015, A Student’s Dictionary of Classical & Medieval Chinese. Leiden: Brill

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6. Pathway

The metaphor of path, or road, or journey, is everywhere in use in the global humanities. Indeed, it almost marks the humanistic by contrast with the scientific: a generation ago Harvard named its new, more humanistic medical curriculum “the new pathway,” turning attention from the scientific facts learned by medical students to the process through which they were made into physicians. Science studies has been translating structural descriptions of natural entities (microbes, quarks) known to “Science” into chronological narratives detailing the path to existence of scientific objects. A certain return to phenomenology, and the ontological mode of attentiveness it encourages among anthropologists, [1] has tried to teach the English language (at least) to speak effectively of process rather than product, pathway rather than destination. All these usages have been part of an effort to replace the “god’s eye view” of the 19th and (to some extent) 20th century human sciences with more dynamic and historical stories. Perhaps especially in anthropology, the map is no longer our privileged metaphor, any more than we have (lately) laid claim to a comprehensive view from above of “the territory.” Instead, as subjects of knowledge or anthropological knowers, we travel, and we often invoke the experience of fieldwork to ground the legitimacy of our analysis.

As anthropologists reflect on collective processes of coming to know, as we critically dwell on pathways to understanding, we privilege experience and worry about how to reliably and responsibly scale up an embodied view of the world. How can mere travelers on particular roads, each an agent in a personal microcosm, each oriented and located by limitations of perspective, know what’s true about the global environment or the global economy? On the other hand, how can we evaluate the truth of comprehensive knowledge claimed by a natural or social science that has adopted a god’s-eye view? One common strategy of study and teaching is to rely on both modalities, the personal pathway and the world map. This is unsatisfying, isn’t it? It leaves the world we can know divided, or sorted, between the humanities and the sciences, between experience and knowledge, between perception and cognition, even between body and mind.

But there are some worldviews in which there is only a pathway. This presents its own ethical and political challenges. Many classical Chinese knowers of the Dao, or the Way, imagine no global territory and have little interest in maps visualized from above. Yet they don’t write as if they are trapped in a microcosmic cage. Some ancient Chinese visions of how existence came from nothingness and chaos – the Book of the Prince of Huainan and the classic Daoists Laozi and Zhuangzi are good examples – tell us that Being appears as a Great Way oscillating and flowing in accord with the spatial and temporal poles of yin and yang, manifesting phases like the seasons, and giving birth to the myriad things. Actions in accord with the Dao are, then, predictable: extremes of yin generate yang, the depths of cold hold the seeds of warmer weather. Though things wander from the Way – especially perhaps, arrogant humans who think they can distinguish truth from falsehood, good from evil – they cannot forever resist the pull of its flow.

But if the Great Dao is nothing more than a pathway, there might be many places it does not go. No road reaches all the possible spaces of a universe. Every road takes form and snakes its way along as a function of its use by the myriad lively things. There are many perspectives that are not possible from any particular position along the Way (and there is no position that is not particular). Only God’s eye can see everything, and God is, as we know, presumed dead. The philosophical and methodological implications of the pathway metaphor have been worked out by thinkers as different (and convergent) as Laozi, Nietzsche, and Viveiros de Castro. These philosophers don’t seem to desire a map of the world; rather they are committed to working with the actual world that comes to us as we go, as we make our Way. (JF)

Notes

[1] Think Brian Massumi, Michel Serres, Gabriel Tarde, and Sarah Ahmed, just as examples.

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7. Tōng (throughness, extension)

The character tōng 通 is composed of the phonetic yǒng 甬, whose ancient meaning was ‘sprout’ or ‘burst forth’, and 辶(chuò 辵) or ‘go’. Common meanings thus include connectivity, continuity, flow, extension, and reaching towards. In the Canon of Changes (Yijing 易經) tōng  denotes ‘continuity’ as opposed to ‘modification’ or ‘mutation’ (bian 變), but the two terms can also be combined to imply ‘constant modification’ or ‘modification permitting continuity’ and, by extension, constant ’renewal’ by way of remaining open to change and transformation. As such, both are opposed to 理 or 體, the patterning and coherence of the world that retains identity through space/time; while tōng 通, inasmuch as it refers to the connection between things, is always particularized.

Tōng 通 thus refers to a mutable world of interconnected, circulating things that are always in communication. From the late Warring States period (c. 3rd Century B.C.E.) onwards tōng 通 took on the additional sense of a distinctive kind of optimal or perfected human knowing. Here, remaining open to and engaging with the shifting and changing movements of the world is key for grasping the relationships and connections emerging within the flows of the world without losing sight of an underlying coherence.

How precisely this “throughness” was to be effected, though, changed over time in relation to wider perceptions and engagements with the world. For instance, tōng 通 entered medical discourse during the very formative stages of classical medicine’s development in the Spring and Autumn era (771-476 B.C.E.). In the phrase tong shenming 通神明 it meant getting through to or passing into (another state), the transition between the external spirits entering the body and the individuation of the personal spirit, and the ability to connect the mai 脈 – the acupuncture channels that were then still thought of as a series of distinctive conduits not united into one single system – within practices of self-cultivation. In late imperial China tōng 通 became a potent therapeutic tool for diagnosing and unblocking constraint, stagnation and stasis within the body/person (shenti 身體). These problems could be in the expression of one’s emotions, localized pain, a lack of movement of the bowels, blocking of the sweat pores and body pathways by invading pathogenic forces, or by poisons forming in the interior. (VS)

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8. Media/Medium

Media, plural of “medium,” should not be mistaken for “new media.” Some media are new, but there is nothing new about media. “Medium” has a rich linguistic history of usage in English, as it has been employed in many ways to express middle qualities, conditions, or states of in-betweenness (Boyer, 2009). Such states have, for instance, been associated with practices such as animal magnetism (mesmerism), rituals of communion (from the Eucharist to meditation), marriage negotiations between corporate families, among other forms of remote access to others, truth, and the real. Conceived in its broadest sense, then, media theory can be apprehended as attempts at explaining the how and the whereby of connections of existents — humans, things, souls, gods, etc. — within a shared space.

Human beings and communities have since time immemorial engaged in mediation practices — using language, symbolization (for instance writing as mediation of speech), memory, and countless techniques to communicate with others, spirits, and so on. Mediation, suggests William Mazzarella, is a process by which the irreducible particularities of our experience are apparently reduced, made commensurable and communicable in general terms. Mediation can be understood as the foundation of all social life. This is an argument that we can trace back to Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media (1964/2003), arguably a founding moment of media theory. Media, famously argued McLuhan, are not the docile devices we often take them to be. They do not merely convey entities — data, people, value, and so on — but also produce the very environment in which they come to be. McLuhan suggested that, like any technology (house, wheel, radio, etc.), media create a new environment for themselves: the medium is the environment, and the message is its effect. When McLuhan provocatively suggested that media were the “extensions of man,” he was not merely noting that human beings could use media as instruments of self-enhancement. Rather, he insisted on the constitutive relationship between media and the human sensorium. Media such as the written page or the radio are both technological externalizations of our senses, and they operate upon our modes of perception and judgment. At the same time, they transform the way we think about and experience space. The medium is the message because it “shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.” (McLuhan, 2003: 8-9) It is for this reason that McLuhan, far from being the techno-utopian we sometimes take him to be, insisted on the need to develop awareness of media processes, and to build a certain immunity to our media environment — a task he associated with the work of the arts and, more marginally, science.

Such a task is more important than ever, considering our present immersion in media environments of all kinds. Under the current circumstances, one could easily believe that there is no such thing as an unmediated relation to the world anymore — and that we are thus condemned to merely react to an overbearing mediality. While this view is plausible , we have to be careful not to over-emphasize the determinacy of mediation. Media are at once familiar and strange, local and remote, immediate and inaccessible, intimate and involving a form of going outside oneself — of ec-stasis. They are at once pure presence and never present in and of themselves.

Modes of mediation are many. As was noted by Dominic Boyer in a short but luminous essay (2009), the rising significance of the “medial” as a dimension of human life should be observed in the context of a wider “poetic-medial-formal” triad that provides, since the early days of Western philosophy, “a very rough schematic of being” (p. 26) Put loosely, Boyer borrows from Greek roots to approach the “poetic” as a principle of creation, or “bringing forth,” while he apprehends the “formal” in the Latin sense of a stable shape. Through such categories, Boyer aims to dampen down the medial qualities of media by underlining the fact that we also grasp media poetically and formally. The triad requires that one pay attention to the stubborn plurality of human immediacies, to experiences of being unmediated which tend to be hidden under the heightened attention given to the expanded sphere of social mediation.

One of the key issues raised here by mediation — see for instance the work of the so-called speculative realists — is indeed that of the possibility of gaining access to things themselves – to reality. Are things entirely made up, reduced to, and exhausted by their relations? Are we condemned to apprehend things through the prism of hermeneutic interpretation and thus give up on pure presence, on the ec-stasy and wonder of Being? The issue is thorny. On the one hand, there is definitely a need to emphasize the one aspect of mediation that is so hard to accept, namely its insufficiency (Galloway et al., 2014). On the other hand, claiming an unmediated access to the world arguably comes with a high risk of falling into nostalgic, if not reactionary (pre-political) romanticism. Ultimately, the challenge is to think of the potentiality of media without foundering on an either/or dichotomy — critical interpretation or pure phenomenological presence. It is to explore these moments when pure force and energy, when monstrous indeterminacy and distributed antagonism take form as media: the articulation of media and anti-media. (VD)

Works Cited

Dominic Boyer, 2007. Understanding Media: A Popular Philosophy.  Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

Alexander R. Galloway, Eugene Thacker, and McKenzie Wark, 2014. Excommunication: Three Inquiries in Media and Mediation. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

William Mazzarella, 2006. “Internet X-Ray: E-Governance, Transparency, and the Politics of Immediation in India.” Public Culture 18, no. 3 : 473-505.

Marshall McLuhan, 2003 (1964). Understanding Media : The Extensions of Man.  Berkeley, CA: Gingko Press Inc.

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9. Resonance

(應 [yìng]/感應 [gǎn yìng]). The term gǎn yìng 感應 literally refers to ‘being touched and responding.’ It is often translated as ‘resonance.’ It implies a connection among all things in the world so that they can influence each other according to preset patterns that appear spontaneous and do not require an external agent or cause. In Chinese thought the principles of connectivity were worked out through schemes such as yinyang (陰陽) thinking and the five phases (wǔ xíng 五行) relationships. For many Chinese thinkers yìng 應 is a goal of self-development. For Zhuangzi (4th century B.C.E.), for instance, it describes a state of spontaneous responsiveness in which the perfected person ‘responds but does not store.’ Xunzi (3rd century B.C.E.) portrays such perfection as ‘flowing with’ (shùn 順) the world, ‘responding to its changes’ (yìng biàn 應變), so that inner and outer, surface and interior are in complete accord. The first century B.C.E. Book of Huainan (Huainanzi 淮南子), too, outlines how humans can obtain true knowledge (zhēn zhī 真知) of the cosmos through self-development that leads to attainment of unity (yī tǐ 一體) by way of resonance. As an idealized mode of being, resonance completely embeds a person in a world of emergent relationships where he moves in accordance with its rhythms, in a state of constant non-thusness or non-positivity (wú wéi 無為), open and receptive to the touch of the world. (VS)

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10. Excess

Inescapable connections, systemic food waste, 24/7 sensory overload, Black Friday, oil spills and exhausted bodies. In a globalized, networked capitalist world, excess seems to be the measure of all things. Excess is a compelling force. It is, among other things, interiorized as a lifestyle: “pushing toward the limit,” “putting yourself at risk,” keeping bodies on the brink of burnout. Excess is exhausting. Even successful insulation from excess — think of the overbearing character of non-stop connectivity and information overload — requires an active suppression and thus a lot of energy (Boyer 2009). As was noted by Steven Shaviro (2015), there is nothing transgressive about excess anymore. The question, therefore, is not how to move beyond (or faster?) than these environments we are immersed in — how to exceed them — but rather how to shake off excessive energy and implications. How, by contrast, are we to shake off our hands full of useless things? How are we going to cultivate non-indifference amidst all of this?

To achieve such a demanding task, a few pitfalls have to be avoided. The first obvious pitfall is certainly that of contemplative withdrawal. The reason is pretty straightforward: there is nowhere to withdraw to — no inner self, no safe haven, no God to save us. Then there is the pitfall of reactionary insulation. Under the current conditions of xenophobic enclosure, need we really say more? Third and lastly, this task should not be confused with the acceptance of a state of austerity — becoming minimalist, “living with less,” survivalism, and so on. Enough has been sacrificed already. It is, after all, in the midst of abundance that scarcity is deliberately generated.

Only by avoiding these three pitfalls, which we could very loosely label as “theological,ˮ “political,ˮ and “economic,ˮ may we spacecrafters creatively participate in worldly abundance. (VD)

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11. Immunity/Community

Immunity is a relational process, and concept. At the core of the question of immunity is the relationship between self and nonself, inner and outer, proper and improper. It is not possible to fully grasp the problem of immunity without first understanding the primacy of the relation to otherness, to that which is not self, but constitutive of the self. This issue is central to most accounts of immunity, whether considered in biological, morphological, or social terms. For instance, biology has long conceived of the immune system as a form of protection against potential intruders. Drawing from military worldviews, immunologists conjured social arrangements that emphasize metaphors of warfare, producing militaristic models of the body – as Emily Martin has pointed out. For the self imagined as self-sufficient and autonomous, immunity stands as a protective mechanism aimed at freeing the individual from communal bonds.

It is noteworthy, however, that contemporary accounts of immunity have tended to move away from immunology as a “science of self and nonself.” Some writers have for instance mocked the “mystique of the immunological self” (Silverstein and Rose 1997). As Annemarie Moulin (2012) acknowledges, over the past few decades some areas of academic research “let go of the scientific goal of defining the self in purely molecular terms; and immunological ‘tolerance’ in terms of modification of the frontiers of the self has been increasingly acknowledged” (2012, p. 155). Such accounts have for instance insisted that “the self is being consistently and permanently renegotiated.” However, as Moulin suggests, this understanding of immunity remains marginal. Invoking the possibility that recent advances in a non-autonomist immunology might help reframe Enlightenment and the “self-centered” individuals it has been producing (see Napier 2012) is not enough. A lot more work has to be done.

See, for example, the writings of Roberto Esposito on immunity and community. Esposito’s whole work is specifically addressing the articulations between the immune and the common, sameness and difference, proper and improper. For Esposito, immunity is a reaction to community, which he considers as a transcendental condition of human existence. Community is not merely what binds or links a priori individuals together. It refers to an originary being-with, and recalls the Latin etymology of community – cum (“with”) and munus (“duty,” but also “gift” as obligation). It is about an irreducible alterity that is constitutive of the subject’s relation to the world. Community is that which does not belong to anyone but instead is general, anonymous, indeterminate. What is “common” in “community” is the improper. It is that which is not one’s own – and never has been.

That’s why community is conceptualized as a negativity: never will it be identified with itself, as a closed or stable identity.

On the one hand, this impossible enclosure is community’s strength. Community entails an obligation to give up on oneself – in a way that is intimately linked to a form of care. Esposito (2013) writes: “Community is determined by care, and care by community.” (pp. 25-26) Care does not lie at the basis of community as an individual endeavor. It has nothing to do with one’s moral task to “care for others.” Quite the opposite: the very possibility of care, for Esposito (here explicitly following Heidegger) is premised on a dissolution of the self (and thus on a radical parting from the sort of individuality so dear to liberal humanism, and that’s why I like him). The reason why there is no community without care is that both are inextricably linked to the figure of the Other, to alterity. To care is to be sensitive to this otherness, which is constitutive of the self. Put bluntly, care refers to a specific modality in our relationship with others, it starts with the realization of the nullity of the self’s own foundation.  Community, then, is about “the constitutively exposed character of existence” (Esposito, 2006, p. 51.) It is about a common obligation to move outside of oneself. On the other hand, this paradoxical condition of an impossible-yet-necessary community is also where immunity comes into play. For Esposito, immunity is a reaction to community. For instance, in legal terms immunity describes an exemption from certain forms of social interaction, an exemption from public service. Immunity is protection through exemption, if we may say so. More broadly, immunity is a response to fear produced by the impossibility of community. For Esposito, this immune response is exemplified by the modern political construct per excellence: the individual, devised with a series of symbolic, legal, and economic blockages and frontiers, etc.

More broadly speaking, immunity may be considered as a form of porous, and thus not militaristic, or cleanly bounded protection against the outside. This can be illustrated in the writings of Peter Sloterdijk on “spheres,” which he defines as protective and life-enhancing structures. Immunity, then, is provided through a careful mediation of impersonal antagonisms and untamed forces, of barbarism, lethal environments, threats and dangers. Arts, science, religion, techniques, group cohesion, culture or social organizations (the state, for example), among others, all display immunological qualities, insofar as they contribute to the crafting of spaces that enable a certain nurturing of life. Immunity can in Sloterdijk’s sense be considered as a life-dispensing distance from what is unbearable in the world. However, immunity may also wind up negating life instead of protecting it. This negation is, above all, a negation of the naturally exposed character of existence – an exposure that comes, it is true, with a certain amount of risk. Just think of the proliferation of walls and blockades that are constantly being erected against things that seem to threaten biological and social identity – externalities ranging from human migrations to microbial health threats. Ultimately, our contemporary intolerance of risk can be understood as an intolerance to what is constitutive of life itself: our being in common. The extreme form of this intolerance is that of autoimmunity, when the body attacks its own.   (VD)

Works Cited

Roberto Esposito, Timothy Campbell, and Anna Paparcone, 2006. “Interview.” Diacritics 36 (2)  :49-56.

Roberto Esposito, 2013. Terms of the Political: Community, Immunity, Biopolitics. Tr. Rhiannon Noel Welch. New York: Fordham University Press.

Anne Marie Moulin, 2012. “Immunology, a Dubious Ally of Anthropology? A Comment on David Napier’s “Nonself Help: How Immunology Might Reframe the Enlightenment”.”  Cultural Anthropology 27(1): 153-61.

David A. Napier, 2012. “Nonself Help: How Immunology Might Reframe the Enlightenment,” Cultural Anthropology 27 (1): 122-37.

Arthur M. Silverstein, and Noel R Rose, 1997. “On the Mystique of the Immunological Self.” Immunological Reviews 159: 197-206.

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