CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
|A Resistance to Theory
Part 1 of 2
She stood outside the lecture hall examining the poster. The image was murky, perhaps a tattooed human face, perhaps a tribal mask. Under the title of the talk, Professor Farinelli had included this bio in small print:
My writing has focused on developing a critical theory that would support an ethnography of the postanthropologic otherwise. My recent work examines the hegemony of the predeceased in late liberal settler colonies from the perspective of the politics of embodiment, eroticism, and narrative form. My ethnographic analysis is illuminated by a critical assignation with the traditions of American pragmatism and continental theories of immanence and intimacy.Seldom had Yvette felt such excitement. And yet her hands did not shake. It had been raining outside the library, a cold November drizzle. Momentarily she laid her right palm against the polished surface of the wall and laid her forehead there too. She caught a glimpse of a blurry reflection before she turned away. “Immanence,” she whispered. “Eminence. Imminence.” The words themselves were interchangeable, designed for a purpose not limited to comprehension. Even she, defeated as she’d been by stuff like this, could see the beauty of that purpose if you let your mind go.
Crowell Concert Hall, 4 p.m., November 19th—here she was. The text promised a manifestation of great power. She could only hope she’d come prepared. Combing her left hand through her wet, stringy hair, she pulled open the double doors and took her seat.
Yvette knew she would have to be careful. She had purposely come late. She had already achieved a limited celebrity because of the disruptions she had caused, not here, but in colleges and lectures elsewhere on the East Coast. Once she had taken the train down from Boston to New York, hoping to confront Slavoj Žižek, the Slovenian cultural theorist, in the quadrangle at Columbia University, to express her admiration or else maybe kill him. But at the last moment she had paused, irresolute, struck dumb by what he’d said about false consciousness.
It wasn’t so easy, distinguishing the postanthropologic from the predeceased. Sometimes the evidence was mixed. Now she unbuttoned her raincoat in the cavernous, uncrowded room. She had chosen a seat near the back, next to the aisle, in case she had to escape. Attempting to project a sense of confidence, she spread her knees apart while she examined the bald head of the man in front of her. She could hear the speaker at the podium below her in the stepped well. Momentarily she closed her eyes, not yet ready to look. In preparation, she listened only to the sound of Professor Farinelli’s voice, seductive and low. She did not listen to the words, not yet. Instead, and in order to provide a sense of contrast, she found herself remembering one of her favorite quotations from Judith Butler, a printed text, as it happened, which she now recomposed in a separate mental theater, analogous to this one:
… Gay identities work neither to copy nor emulate heterosexuality, but rather, to expose heterosexuality as an incessant and panicked imitation of its own naturalized idealization. That heterosexuality is always in the act of elaborating itself is evidence that it is perpetually at risk, that it knows its own possibility of becoming undone …Lately, this passage had become her rubric, her touchstone, her flaming sword to separate the false from the true. How beautiful it had appeared to her the first time she had read it, sitting by herself in Mugar Library! Each word was like a boat slipping gradually from shore, now caught in the current, now away. How lovely to see those painters broken, first to relentless denotation, and then—the restraint subtler and softer, but for that reason more oppressive—to connotation also; the ropes strain one by one, and then they snap. Geniuses like Butler—living, breathing women—had created a whole language of experience that drifted alongside us without touching us at any point. “… Gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original …”—not just gender, but language also worked that way.
Yvette opened her eyes. She glanced at her confederate on the other side of the hall, a man close to her own age or a little younger. He lolled back in his seat, his left foot, shod in a heavy boot, twitching on the dark carpet. Like her, he wore a long raincoat. He smiled or grimaced, it was hard to tell.
She’d contacted him on Craigslist when she was still in Boston, and then met him at a coffee shop called Klekolo, on Court Street. They’d barely said two words. Then he’d preceded her up the hill. Less of a celebrity, he’d been here from the beginning.
He smiled or grimaced and then turned his head. At the wooden podium perhaps sixty feet away, Professor Farinelli paused in midphrase, a pen or a pencil in her right hand. Yvette had looked her up on the Wesleyan website, and had been grimly unsurprised to see there was no photograph. Now she assembled her impression: red fingernails, red lipstick, the ghost of a smile—a pretty woman with shining copper hair and pale skin, so very pale. Yvette felt a tingling sensation along her scalp. The trick was to spot the fakes, the imitations, the weeds that grew among the flowers, searching for safety from the gardener.
Farinelli was one of the weeds. She would have to be uprooted before she and her kind had choked the entire bed, the entire field. Yvette had been sure walking in. Now she was doubly sure.
Yvette was a graduate student at BU. Her thesis adviser in the months before her death had trained her in the tiny differences between the Butlers and Kristevas of the world, say, and these bitter simulations. She held clutched in her left hand the program for the conference, sodden from the rain. It contained the description that had seduced her here, in a car this time, from her empty Somerville apartment:
Is the posthuman a further evolution of humanity, or have human beings always been posthuman? If so, as evidence increasingly suggests, in which sense? What are the implications of gender, race, class, and sex, among other categories, for the new, embodied constitution of posthumanity? And in both practical and political terms, what is the essential difference between the posthuman, the transhuman, the antihuman, and the cyborg?Food for thought. How insidious, how vicious, was Farinelli’s use of the word “evidence”! And now this, from her pretty, lipsticked mouth, as she achieved the peroration of her introductory address: “The difficulty of life’s embodiment as a possible interpolation between disciplinary discourse and actual political practice offers itself as a matter of strident urgency. What this conference aims to advance, however, is not a notion of life already encapsulated in its dense social network, nor life as an established, already articulated political manifestation. We are attracted by life as such, caught in a more basic network of ganglia and capillaries, and brought thereby to its radical existence and pure is-ness, one that permeates, challenges, and ultimately escapes the hegemonic order that strives to embody it. Yet our attraction feeds on and desires to control much wider debates. Recent work has already begun to interrogate the limits of biology, posing a series of questions regarding the distinctness of natural life over artificially created life or even so-called death. Especially after I emphatically discard any claims to the superiority of the first of these overlapping states, what follows is a return to life’s pure potentiality and its political implications either as material or immaterial presence, or animate or inanimate force.”
Yvette found herself staring at the speaker’s mouth, the bruised, pillowy lips, the clever teeth. “Oh, I’ve got you,” she murmured to herself. “I’ve got you.”
Reflexively she took her pulse, a habit she had gotten into. Then she reached into the inside pocket of her raincoat where she kept Professor Larsen’s stiletto. Always at these moments of decision, she imagined herself balanced as if upon a granite ridge, high in the air under a harsh yet forgiving sun, an abyss of formlessness on either side. Propelled in her choices by those soft, insistent rays, nevertheless she felt a moment of relaxation, perhaps the only moment in this entire anxious week. Almost without paying attention, she found herself aware of the young man sitting beside her, a student, she guessed, one of the few in the hall. Most of the attendees were at least in their thirties, and she saw a number of gray heads. This one—dark hair, glasses—was cute in a nerdy way, and she appreciated the intensity with which he listened to this fiend from the frozen pit of hell. As always with her kind, Farinelli was speaking in a kind of code, which meant one thing to her minions and something else to stooges like this boy, desperate for understanding and vulnerable for that reason.
“… The embodiment of life sets up each confrontation as a unique case in our hopeless attempt to reach justice. This afternoon I’ve tried to excavate the aesthetic politics of life and death as a methodological intervention into the apparatuses and possibilities of nonhegemonic practice. In addition, I’ve tried to suggest how violence and control produce aspects of resistance, located in our individual reactions to the powers reshaping the living world. I’ve tried to isolate some safeholds that the diverse forms of posthumanity will occupy to flourish and survive, in resistance to the structures and procedures of surveillance and control. Through a discussion of mutual interrogation (or indeed, an interrogation of discussion practices), I aim to see a new style of human and posthuman eroticism as integral to a deconstruction of hegemonic power. This new style calls for a dissolution of the subject and the emergence of a hybrid, nonsovereign being. Now let us allow new practices of self-fashioning, self-identification, or else an inner experience of this new eroticism to show the way.”
By “sovereign,” perhaps she meant, in Butler’s terms, the incessant and panicked imitation that created the ideal: actual, real things, in other words—for a moment Yvette felt, or imagined she felt, the throb of her pulse above the collarbone. From her own safehold of relaxation on the granite ridge, the sky above her bright and blue enough to cause her nose to bleed, Yvette saw the speaker glance up toward her. The Q&A was about to start. She groped again for the stiletto.
But what did she imagine she would do with it? Surely to display it would invite a premature dissolution of the subject. Or was it only useful as a source of comfort, a masturbatory practice of self-fashioning, self-identification, or else an inner experience of … eroticism? The dialectic was troubling, and now, on the high ridge, suddenly she felt the rocks shift underfoot. While she was listening she had kept Butler in mind, using her as a model to compare and distinguish the imitation and the true. She had murmured and remurmured the quotation, a revolving and self-sustaining mantra: “… a panicked imitation of its own naturalized idealization. That heterosexuality is always in the act of elaborating itself is evidence …”
But—evidence, evidence: Surely Butler’s use of the word “evidence” was as problematical as Farinelli’s! Upon first reading, Yvette had found herself obscurely touched, as if evidence could be a type of aspiration. But now, unbalanced over the rock precipice, she felt a vertigo of doubt. Perhaps she had been wrong! From that small crack in the text, new problems now emerged.
Perhaps Farinelli and Butler held other things in common. Yvette’s mentor and adviser had once explained to her the difference between profound and superficial truth: We recognize the deepest accuracy of a statement only if its opposite is just as accurate. “Man is born chained,” in Professor Larsen’s example, “yet everywhere he is now free—just as verifiable, depending on what you think of the umbilical cord.” Then she had gone further and reversed the customary valorization: “Profound truth is for suckers, or else people who don’t give a damn.” Of course she’d been drunk when she said this, and of course she had paid for her insight a week later, alone in a Cleveland hotel room. Cornered by her enemies, she had denied them the satisfaction, finally, of sucking her dry.
But with a sudden lurch of fear, Yvette realized that the Butler quote was also full of profound truth. She’d been fooled—gulled like a rube, as Professor Larsen might have said—by what she’d imagined was its separate language of dissociation, a kind of poetry, she’d thought, like certain stanzas of Bob Dylan, the Talking Heads, or John Ashbery. But now, with a fascinated horror, she saw she could negate or contradict each one of Butler’s phrases with no loss of meaning … That homosexuality is always in the act of elaborating itself is evidence that it is perpetually at risk—even better! The sentence even scanned as if yearning that way.
“I see you are beginning to understand,” remarked a soft, supple voice inside her head. Yvette peered backward over her shoulder and observed a shrouded figure at the top of the aisle, now blocking the exit. She scanned the other side and saw other figures massing there. Was it possible she was alone here, alone among the posthuman? The bald man in front of her turned his head, gave her a look—he was much younger than she’d anticipated, or at least he looked younger. There were no lenses in his wire spectacles. Elsewhere she saw the gray heads turn to look at her, revealing unlined faces, indeterminate ages, feral smiles. And even the fellow from Craigslist, perhaps Farinelli had hired him to tempt Yvette into revealing herself, so that posthumanity might gather her in.
She refused to look at him. Too charitably perhaps, she had imagined a remnant of compassion in the bone-pulverizing density of the lecture segment she’d just heard. She’d imagined an attempt to limit casualties by boring the civilians from the room. Only the lost causes had stayed, the addicted, like this kid on her left hand, nervous, raising his finger. He wanted to ask a question. “Don’t expose yourself,” she murmured.
Then she rose from her seat, pushed back her still-wet hair. If this conference had been designed to lure her and exclude everyone else—or almost everybody—because of the concrete difficulties of its subject matter, then she would give them a show. If she were alone in this room—or almost alone—then she would demonstrate the superiority of natural life to the last of her ability, to the end. She would demonstrate the power of the real. And she would protect this addled student. “Put your hand down,” she told him. “For God’s sake put it down.”
All eyes were upon her, even her own eyes, from the high stone ridge where she looked down. She saw as they did a dark-haired woman, untall, unthin, unlovely, naturally superior, perhaps, but in no other way. She reached into the breast pocket of her raincoat, and heard a suppressed hiss from the bald man looking up at her from the seat in front. But she removed a pocket handkerchief and used it to blot her cheeks. As she’d suspected, her mascara had dissolved a bit—she’d seen it from above. She blotted her lips now, too. “Thank you for a very interesting talk,” she said, replacing the handkerchief in another pocket. “I couldn’t help thinking, as you spoke, of what Butler says about performativity. I wonder if you’d care to comment on how the act of being human might also be considered performative, as she says, a kind of imitation for which there is no original, and which produces the notion of the original as a consequence of the imitation. Do you think that’s so? By contrast, you could also argue that these other types you mention, posthuman, transhuman, antihuman, have no significance except as imitations of ordinary human beings. In which case—imitations of imitations—what is their ontological status? I omit cyborgs from my consideration, because, as specifically technological hybrids they seem to me to be in a different category. Even as metaphors, they represent a weakness in the entire conceptual framework of this conference …”
“Fuck me,” groaned the Craigslist man. “You don’t even want to know about their goddamned cyborgs. Metaphors—shit,” he said, kicking his leg even farther out into the aisle, freeing the holster strapped to his right thigh, now for a fraction of a moment visible in the vent of his coat.
So he was on her side, after all! No doubt it was the purest hubris (against which her adviser had persistently warned her) for Yvette to have imagined that all this—the posters, the conference—had been conceived and designed just to lure her …
Her nonquestion dwindled to a close. At the bottom of the hall, Farinelli made a gesture with her pen. “It is interesting that you should mention,” she began, while at the same time the soft voice inside Yvette’s throbbing skull provided subtext: “You little piece of shit …”
She didn’t have to turn her head to imagine the tall figure at the top of the aisle pulling the scarf from her face. She didn’t have to imagine the handsome, potentially transhuman features of Judith Butler, the Maxine Elliot Professor of Rhetoric at Berkeley. Feeling stronger now, buttressed by the presence, perhaps, of others like her in the hall, she spoke up again: “As some of you may know, I am writing my dissertation on Kristeva’s theory of abjection …”
She listened to another deflating hiss from the bald man in front of her. She studied his mouth, his perfect teeth. Again she felt a sudden vertigo. Was it also hubris for her to imagine, on the other side of the hall, at the top of the other aisle, a second figure pulling the shawl from her face to reveal the ageless, pallid flesh of the distinguished Franco-Bulgarian philosopher that she had named? She didn’t glance that way. Instead she spouted some contemptuous nonsense that conflated the pre- and postavant-garde, not even bothering to make sense. Two could play at that game. Actually, any number could play.
But as she spoke, she listened to the voice inside her head, as insidious as if it were her own chafing conscience or self-doubt. “Ah, yes, I am aware of you. I can feel your heart knocking in your chest, the blood pulsing at your temples. I was the keynote speaker at the Cleveland symposium. And I was with your dissertation adviser at the last, Larsen—that was her name. A second-rate scholar, I’m afraid. I had not seen so much blood.”
“Enough,” said the speaker at the podium. She dropped her pen, and it rolled a little way across the floor. She made a fist of her left hand, drawing the red nails inward. “Ms. Daume,” she continued, “we are all aware of how difficult it has been for you since Karen Larsen’s death. Believe me, you were not the only one of us affected—always it is a terrible thing, when a mentor and a friend decides to end her own life. That does not give you the right to …”
Someone had come down the aisle from the top of the hall and now stood at Yvette’s elbow. “Ma’am,” he said, a campus policeman, surreptitiously summoned, perhaps, when she’d stood up. She looked behind her, where she had imagined Julia Kristeva at the top of the hall. Another policeman approached from that side; oh, it was true, these philosophers could manifest in many forms. But on the other hand, how foolish now it seemed to her, to think these world-famous scholars might have travelled all this way to lay a trap for her. She had been squeezing the hilt of the stiletto in the inside pocket of her overcoat; now she released it, raised her hands, spread her palms, and allowed campus security to escort her up the stairs, out the double doors, and down into the barren, twilit courtyard. From her high granite ridge, polished smooth by the wind, she looked down on her own bedraggled head, where she stood, a minute later, at the corner of Court Street, in tears.
CONTINUE TO PART II.
Paul Park is the author of twelve novels in a variety of genres, as well as a volume of short stories. He lives in North Adams, Massachusetts, where he teaches writing and literature at Williams College. He is developing a resistance to theories of all kinds.