Cartography of Exile – draft paper on morality and geometry in Seneca, introduction

For Seneca virtue is that which creates an outside.

He takes raw material reality, cleaves it in two, marks our boundaries for us, and virtue, spirals down, a perfectly released coil of orange rind. For it is virtue that is to be found in the boundary – in the temperance, relief and definition of a world that might be ordered by the conditional statements, the syllogisms, of early Western Philosophy – virtue in the revelation of pulp and the existence of a boundary, in the limit and skin of the fruit.

Seneca was exiled in 41 AD, by the emperor Claudius, and in the “Consolation to Helvia”, the philosopher writes to his mother, arguing that his exile on Corsica, his banishment without end, is no death.

In the “Consolation”, he makes us look across a threshold. In the lift of peel from flesh, in establishing the very possibility of a threshold, he establishes the possibility of geometry, the possibility of this plane as opposed to the celestial – as long as I can look up, he says – “provided I may behold all the stars that shine at night”- he establishes the possibility of distance, which if it – distance- is marked between two points in space, becomes surmountable.

These are cartographic aspirations. As if the River Styx were to become navigable, as if it were to gain finitude, mossy with coordinates, if there is something that separates Seneca on this craggy rock of his hermitage and Rome, this distance, as all distances are, is made traversable. He’s able to look back.

This is border-play, in which limit conditions, the duty of one pursuing liberal studies “they alone can snatch you from Fortune’s grip” (pg. 62) and syllogism are what can stave off the social death of exile. Seneca elicits a boundary from the excess of human existence (moral (pg. commentary on greed run rabid), material (pg. the capacity of our stomachs and the plunder of nature), metaphysical ( pg. what limitlessness and loss there is in grief/melancholia ()), and we are made to see the possibility of our own undoing, brought very close to the loss of comprehensibility, made to see a world without the dimension required for perception, consciousness. We are met with the contingency of the very possibility of crossing over, coming back from the dead being the longest walk between Corsica and Rome.

So, in the lift of peel from flesh, we are made to see the certain possibility of dissolution in that wilderness, given that what keeps safe flesh from madness, hangs limp and illuminated by the side. This is an essay about the border. It’s about the theorization of geometry and the limit condition in Seneca’s letter, in relation to Seneca’s moral philosophy and the philosopher’s attitude towards death – about the theorization of the limit-state. I want to explore how capacity, distance, and the geometrical requirements of perception (predicated upon his understanding of distance and the space between two things) relate to the moral good in Seneca’s ethical system. It is about what morality there is in the constraints projected upon objects in space, and otherwise, the dual terror and godliness in that which exceeds measure.

Standard

The parcel will be received next week, by some young woman in Pawtucket, RI, so happy and so very far away,

I went to the post office this morning, early. I could have entered screaming because there was already screaming inside. It’s good to think of the peace of the cancellation of our screams. How elegant physics is so often! To think about if our exasperation braided themselves together, as one wave striving to collapse another, and to think on the imperturbability of that silence – So long as I stayed screaming and she stayed screaming with equal force.

I didn’t enter screaming, but I flinched. I sat down with my number and I waited. I had a green highlighter in my bag and a worn book and both of these were great comforts. The headphones, too, because the aveoli pleased for their air created such a sound under the new deal mural, I imagined the sound of the scythe on the wheat. Berkeley is strange strange strange but very good. The man breathed heavily, and I tried to find violins on the internet.

My parcel was in my bag and his, on the pew.

His parcel, bright with stickers and “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” lettering, had as its return address “Uncle Willy and Uncle James”. The parcel will be received next week, by some young woman in Rhode Island, so happy and so very far away.

All of this, the love that motivated our lost hour, was something to marvel at.

The woman at the counter was from Mississippi – “what are you doing here?”, and then, dulcet, “this is going to North Carolina?”. A slice through soft butter with a dull knife. Nothing was left of the anger, and at such a moment, I wondered about the dissipating sound waves of those screams.

I became convinced that the figures in the mural knew where – they knew where – in what darkness old scream soundwaves beat themselves out into nothingness.

All I wanted was to stay in that room -But they can’t really ever disappear, can they?- under the auspices of what godly generosity was in that mural, full of the possibility of the land and quiet earnest noise.

Standard

bloodless murders

(homo sacer, Agamben, violence against women)

 

“We are the just and upright, we maintain.

Hold out your hands if they are clean

no fury of ours will stalk you,

you will go through life unscathed.

But show us the guilty – one like this

who hides his reeking hands,

and up from the outraged dead we rise,

witness bound to avenge their blood

we rise in flames against him to the end!”

(Lines 310 -320 ) The chorus of the Furies in Eumenides , Aeshchylus, trans. Robert Fagles.

 

If blood is no evidence, then justice is no guide, and we proliferate within an order which we have yet to come to know.

 

On May 23rd, 2014, Rodger Elliot took up arms against women. Women were hunted as a class of people, as a subgroup, made particular by their collective deserving to be killed. Elliot killed men. Elliot killed men for their perceived dominion over women.

 

In the deluge that followed, one is easily lost. (Orestes, acquitted?  “Look, not a stain on the hands that touch your idol”. (Line 459) Orestes to Athena in Eumenides, Aeshchylus, trans. Robert Fagles.)

 

(“Can a son spill his mother’s blood on the ground  then settle into his father’s halls in Argos? Where are the public altars he can use? 

 

CAN THE KINSMEN’S HOLY WATER TOUCH HIS HANDS?”  (Lines 661-662) in Eumenides, Aeshchylus, trans. Robert Fagles. 

– The Furies to whoever of the court will listen)

 

We are speechless before whoever will listen, Apollo, Orestes, the digital tempest. Lost in the great welter of myths and analytics – the stuff of two centuries of (modern) sociological, psychological and political inquiry – a repository of rubble and constructs – our premier conceptual instruments inevitably lie next to those we wished to render obsolete. They lie next to each other, coterminous. Depressingly and in fact, they are known to us by their stark similarity, their structural homology.

 

If one were to extricate one concept from the next, and if one were to then set these – our denuded archetypes and theoretical devices – on the wall, and if they were placed separately,  they would be revealed as they are: no arms to speak of, no guardians against chaos.

 

Our quarry’s slipped from our nets, 

 

Our quarry’s lost and gone” (Line 148) in Eumenides , Aeshchylus, trans. Robert Fagles. The Furies, upon waking.

 

 

Events like the Isla Vista murders, the massacre at the École Polytechnique, 1989-  and others – there are so many others – there are others every day – take the crystalline and exquisite questions of the academy and break them.  On the floor of a tiled room where the disciplines reconcile with themselves, there are – there can be found in the aftermath – a carpet of irreducible fragments.

 

“Answer count for count, charge for charge, First tell us, did you kill your mother?” The furies to Orestes at his trial for matricide (Line 593) in Eumenides, trans. Robert Fagles.

 

“I killed her. There’s no denying that.”  (Line 594) Orestes’ response. Eumenides , trans. Robert Fagles.

 

 

There is no explaining violence against women. In this context, when speaking of this violence – this unpunishable violence – staggering in past evidence of endlessness – ‘to explain’ is, inevitably, to exculpate Orestes again and again. To ‘explain’ does not only cheapen the blood on the ground, it is to – CULTURE! PSYCHODRAMA! WESTERN EXCESS! MASCULINITY! WHITENESS! GUNS! GUNS! GUNS! – contribute to the ever-amplifying din, distracting from the only work that can be done. Explanations, in this case, as they are often, are barbiturates, designed to stupefy and to silence. (Culture is gossamer stuff – no less real in its difficulty to understand – but, if an argument posits ‘culture’, at the center and culture is, seemingly, up there in the ether, there is no recourse. There is no action. One is left staring upwards at the very gods you seek to overthrow.)

 

Some arguments inscribe his actions, his words, his hatred, into a given sphere of meanings – disordered narcissism, sexism, racism, capitalism – and in naming these undercurrents, in highlighting their virulence, such arguments point the way forward. It remains that there are other questions to be asking.

 

There is a charge towards the end of “Precarious Life”: the Humanities, if the discipline has a future, must “return us to the human where we do not expect to find it, in its frailty, and at the limits of its capacity to make sense .” To situate humanness within understanding, to, in essence, be returned to what we are, to stumble upon ourselves even and especially in the wake of the Isla Vista killings, the questions that itch are more primary. These questions bear on ontological concerns and how bloodshed differs from the crushing of an alabaster breast.

 

(“The blood sleeps, it is fading on my hands, the stain of mother’s murder, washing clean”  (Line 279) in Eumenides , Aeshchylus, trans. Robert Fagles. Orestes at Athena’s temple )

 

 

The Homo Sacer is the figure that can be killed but never sacrificed. (71)

 

As offered by Giorgio Agamben, as a vagary of Roman law, “homo sacer belongs to God in the form of unsacrificeability and is included in the community in the form of being able to be killed” (82). The homo sacer exercises membership in political life to the extent that it can be cleanly excised from it.

 

The homo sacer persists – when she does – in the interstitial space that blurs homicide and sacrifice (82) “a zone of indistinction” (83) between the ritualized killing of a votive offering and murder (82).

 

The killing of the homo sacer is sanctioned by law and to kill her is unpunishable. Her formal relationship to juridical order is involuted – it literally folds back upon itself – existing within the penumbra of the law, she is forever banned, always and forever inside and outside of its the sovereign’s limitless protection.

 

Agamben employs the homo sacer as a fact of bare life – not metaphor – as a cipher, to make sense of the originary political structure of sovereignty, (sovereignty) as responsible for structuring the aporias that today plague metaphysics.

 

Though he steps lightly, the subject of his book is less sovereignty, less the sacred-profane paradox, than it is Being, and it’s true, his goal is to save Being from us, or more precisely, the Heidiggerian task of salvaging Being from thinking being, to think Being beyond the form of relation to beings. He draws a parallel to Heidigger’s discussion of the problem of Seinsverlassenheit, or the Being’s abandonment of a world that we are indebted to Being in the first order for revealing:

 

Agamben: “What is at issue in this abandonment is not something (Being) that dismisses and discharges something else (the being). On the contrary: here Being is nothing other than the being’s being abandoned and remitted to itself; here Being is nothing other than the ban of the being. (59)

 

Being, as an activity, becomes the damned activity of not seeking Being when it won’t be found. Tantalus, veiny arms taught, yearning and falling before the fruit trees, but now, Tantalus aware of hunger but unaware of fruit; moreover, in the abandonment, it becomes impossible, as noted by S.L. Bartky as published in Inquiry, to distinguish between Being and beings (82 2008) . We are benighted:

 

(The crisis of the age is a forgetting of Being, or more specifically, a forgetting of the mystery or secret of Being, which is the ontological difference between Being and beings i.e. between the concrete revelation of a world and the conditions which make possible any revelation whatsoever) S. L. Bartky

 

Some kind of blind awareness of light elsewhere.

 

“Girls and mothers, dress our Furies now in blood-red robes.” (Line 1039) in Eumenides , Aeshchylus, trans. Robert Fagles. Athena to the women of Athens.

 

Agamben wrangles with this metaphysical horizon in the context of modern political life, and specifically within its juridical order. Like language (Agamben 50) , the laws of any given sovereign presuppose themselves in the unutterable, in what is anterior to law,  which is in this case bare life. Hobbes construed ‘bare life’ as the state of nature, the ghost of which mellifluously whispers  it’s awareness under the coding of every statute, for it is bare life, which constitutes the modern political order, and us, shackled within it.

 

Agamben: “In Western politics, bare life has the peculiar privilege of being that whose exclusion founds the city of men”.

 

Bare life, in this way is the exception that never was. The laws of the sovereign are before, beyond and behind you, even when they weren’t. Even when your city was a pile of scree on the Palatine hill. The law is fortified, it is sustained by what preceded the city and by what now stalks the woods, the encroaching woods beyond the gates:

 

“What happened and is still happening before our eyes is that “juridically empty” space of the state of exception ( in which law is in force in the figure of its own dissolution, and in which everything that the the sovereign deemed de facto necessary could happen) has transgressed its spatiotemporal boundaries and now, overflowing outside them is starting to coincide with the normal order, in which everything again becomes possible.” (38)

 

Manifest in any given number of police states over the last two centuries, the “juridically empty” space that constitutes sovereign power is a space of horrific and unqualified violence. The state of exception, through which sovereignty is forever becoming – elastically constituting and reconstituting – in its subjugation of all bare life, renders bare life susceptible to its violence.

 

Under Roman law, all men (all those who could) took shelter under the aegis of the law; thus, they were consecrated, homo sacri – that  originary exception in which human life is included in the political order in being exposed to an unconditional capacity to be killed” (85). Agamben refers to this making-precarious, making-killable but also making-sacred (cannot be sacrificed), which occurs in effect though not in name, as the payment levied for participation in political life (90).

 

And now, according to Agamben, by virtue of ‘natural rights’, morsels of right, which are parceled, doled out by whichever – often democratic – nomos presides, all – all citizens – often ‘inalienably’, participate in their own divestment. In his protection under the law, every subject is also stripped of what might have protected him from “an unconditional subjection to a power of death” (90).  His wilderness is forever lost to him, though (now) it was never his.

 

It may be that, proliferating within this specific political order, all life is bare life and all life – all life under the sovereign – exists precariously under the threat of sovereign violence, but women do not live and they do die on margins of even this order.

 

“There is no clearer way to say that the first foundation of political life is a life that may be killed which is politicized through its very capacity to be killed” (89).

 

Its very capacity – its limitless capacity, is what gives this figure – is what gives her her dimensions, her form for her future, and ultimately, for her use. Within this violence – this sempiternal violence –   how many elegies? how many? And the incantations still resound somewhere – Within this violence, sovereign power recognizes itself. Violence against women and sovereign violence are like kinds; moreover, they are fractals of the same order. Violence against women is mimetic of if not the same as the violence of the nation state, and if this is a war, it doesn’t have a name. The examples are so legion and so sickening, they’re not worth listing here. I speak of the instances when the deaths of women are no deaths to speak of.

 

“I will cast my lot for you. No mother gave me birth. 

 

Yes, with all my heart, I am my father’s child. I cannot set more store by the woman’s death  – she killed her husband guardian of their house. 

 

Even if the vote is equal, Orestes wins” – The verdict offered by Athena (Lines 750-756) in Eumenides , Aeshchylus, trans. Robert Fagles.

 

Even if the vote is equal.

 

Women, by their very being alive, lead political lives as such, Walking memento moris and with stigmata tattooed over fleshy tissue where blood does run, forced to bitterly wonder: how does one comport oneself – oneself, one’s status “unconditional subjection to the power of death” as homo sacriamong the living? praying that some sovereign does not toss them into darkness, on this day, during this long night?

 

“The watchman must stand guard upon the heart.

It helps, at times to suffer into truth

Is there a man who knows no fear

in the brightness of his heart, or a man’s city, both are one,

 

that still reveres the rights?” (Lines 531 – 535) in Eumenides , Aeshchylus, trans. Robert Fagles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Standard

Friends outside the photo show

Tunis, 2011.

Friends outside the photo show

Image

the witness and pedro, los olvidados

To watch the final scene of Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados is to descry a body, there, amongst the garbage.

Somewhere on the cliffside of Mexican hinterlands, with the landfill falling falling, there is – one might find – a body.

We watch, and whether because of the dark clouds of an antipathetic sky or because of the delicate grain of the film or because of the moral aporia into which our understanding of the scene slips (why…), it becomes difficult, distinguishing the body from the refuse.

But though it eludes us, in the foreground of the final, cliff-side shot, there is a body, yes, and what would be the trappings of its funeral. There is detritus, the crinkly stuff of embalmment shrouds. There are tin cans and papers – these, the cenotaphic scraps of the body’s final resting place.

The flailing, limp limbs, the bobbing head of a body falling, indistinguishable from the junk of its surroundings, disabuse us, watching, of any Manichaean notions13 that remain – for the human body is here garbage.

This is a film of love, that demands love, or so Andre Bazin contends. Bazin submits that in its tender, ‘surgical’14 dismemberment of the ‘metaphysical reality’15 of human cruelty, Los Olvidados lays bare, the human condition, and in doing so, the film lays bare the ‘greatness’, the ‘force’16 of humankind. Supposedly, the film is premised upon trust17, trusting in man, even as Buñuel trusts in the certainty of man’s cruelty.

But perhaps the love of Los Olvidados can be construed in another manner. Perhaps it is the ease with which the spectator might re-animate the corpse tumbling with the rubbish. It is an Orphean whimsy. Pedro is brutalized at the end of the film, death arrives in its final moments. The spectator could just as easily imagine Pedro scampering back up the hill as she could imagine the body-of-Pedro falling with the rot of the landfill. Perhaps the essence of love in Los Olvidados : the awareness that this body emptied out of subjectivity by rod and el Jaibo, was once Pedro, not simply the body- of-Pedro, but Pedro, laughing, running, purloining.

Here, the love is testimony, the act of bearing witness, the awareness that this body bears a relationship to this boy. It is the grafting of corpse to anima, to the virtual image of Pedro, very much alive and grinning within our imagination, that only follows understanding of the event that rent the one from the other.

Standard

Cromer

Cromer

Image