Saturday, June 13, 2009

Instead of an Afterward

for What Is an Apparatus? and Other Essays

No light; but rather darkness visible
--John Milton, Paradise Lost

The by now agreed upon English rendition of Foucault’s “dispositif” as “apparatus” is one of those fortunate choices that gains in translation an aspect of the original term still hidden from view. Think, for example, about the “Apparat” from Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” and especially about the uncharacteristically happy ending of this fable, where the operator of the torture machine is being subjected to his own device. Soon after the apparatus is set to inscribe with precise little needles the sentence “Be Just” onto the flesh of the executioner, the mechanism goes out of control, destroying itself while brutally killing its long time operator. In an early gloss on this parable, Agamben suggests that Kafka’s apparatus stands for language itself. He claims that “the ultimate sense of the commandment ‘Be Just.’ Nonetheless, precisely the sense of this commandment is what the machine of language is absolutely incapable of understanding.” Twenty years later, “What is an Apparatus?” elaborates on the same idea, now calling language “the most ancient of apparatuses -- one in which thousands and thousands of years ago a primate inadvertently let himself be captured, probably without realizing the consequences that he was about to face.” but the idea that language can be conceived as an apparatus dates back to Freud’s first book, On Aphasia, where he speaks explicitly and consistently about “the speech apparatus” as the exclusive field of his investigation. This is a clever move that enabled Freud to treat language as a sort of a complex machine that can break down from time to time in a thousand different ways, thus leading to aphasia, this partial or colossal loss of the capacity to produce or understand language, this array of speech impairments. Given Agamben’s call for a relentless fight, or a hand-to-hand struggle, with the apparatuses in which our life is captured, it could be helpful to follow the strategies embedded in Freud’s analysis. For example, Freud is already interested at this early stage in what we call today a “Freudian slip:” this fleeting breakdown of the speech apparatus. One way to cope with our oppressive apparatuses is therefore to notice their pathologies in everyday life, their blemishes or blunders, which might signal deeper or broader vulnerabilities still hidden from sight.

The method of comprehending a function by observing its dysfunction is also instrumental in approaching Agamben’s second essay in this book, “The Friend.” At its core you will find an exegesis on “the ontological basis of Aristotle’s theory of friendship,” which begins with the latter’s curious and seemingly unimpressive observation that “he who sees senses that he is seeing, he who hears senses that he is hearing, he who walks senses that he is walking.” What happens, however, when you lose this sensation of being, this sixth sense or “inner touch” (as Daniel Heller-Roazen calls it)? Neurophysiologists call the sense of one’s own body “proprioception.” You have a sense of the external world and a sense of your internal world, but people rarely think about the perception of their own selves. Oliver Sacks explains the idea of proprioception by saying: “If a man has lost a leg or an eye, he knows he has lost a leg or an eye; but if he has lost a self--himself--he cannot know it, because he is no longer there to know it.” The perception of our own being is arguably the most important sensation that we have, but precisely because of its simplicity and familiarity it usually escapes our attention. This is what stands behind Sacks’ story about Christina, “The Disembodied Lady,” who overnight had to face the horror of no longer sensing her body as her own. She was not paralyzed: after three months she re-learned how to walk, but she could no longer sense that she was walking. This condition is not as abnormal as it may sound, since babies also have virtually no proprioception. Christina’s uniqueness lies in her ability to use language and share her experience (or its lack thereof) with other people, thus offering us a rare window into Agamben’s main idea in his essay: that friendship is the shared sensation of being. Sacks compares Christina’s case with one of the characters from Wittgenstein’s On Certainty who doubts the existence of his own body. Wittgenstein famously objects anyone who would raise his hand and utter a sentence like, “I know that this is my hand,” which the philosopher takes to be neither true nor false, but merely nonsensical. There is, however, at least one person in the world towards whom Wittgenstein would probably make an exception. As counter intuitive as it may sound, for Christina, the woman who could not sense that she exists, saying, “I know that this is my hand” would make perfect, painful, sense.

Similarly, the guiding question in Agamben final essay, “What is the Contemporary?” calls forth a particular experience that cannot be expressed, that dissipates at the moment in which one utters the words, “I am at this moment contemporary” (which is like saying, “I am fashionable,” or “I am cool”--the moment you say it, you lose what you thought that you have). Nevertheless, one way to sense, so to speak, contemporariness, can be found in Agamben’s passages dedicated to the sensation of darkness, where he claims that to be contemporary is to be able to perceive this darkness. “Light,” as he comments elsewhere, “is only the coming to itself of the dark.” There seems to be little hope in his philosophy that light really has the capacity to enlighten. A light can only flicker, like a distant star, and the darkness that surrounds it is not meant to understand it. In fact, even the heavenly “total darkness” that we see at night is considered as “the testimony of a time in which the stars did not yet shine.” Even Arendt’s Gnostic faith in the power of singular bright “men in dark times” to ever more slightly make a difference in this world does not seem to play the same role in his thought. That said, it is also clear that Agamben is possessed by an exigency, a demand to which he cannot not answer: it is difficult to miss (though many still do) that in all his writings he tries to bear witness to a certain light, or at least a glimmer. If you ever tried to catch fireflies with your hand on a hot summer night, you may have experienced this curious philosophical comportment. As a contemporary, Agamben operates within what may be called a “dialectic of endarkenment,” by which I mean a perpetual attempt “to perceive, in the darkness of the present, this light that strives to reach us but cannot.”

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