Lecture 15: "Who Counts as Human? Whose Lives Count as Lives?"


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Fifteenth lecture for my students in English 165EW, "Life After the End of the World," winter 2013 at UC Santa Barbara.

Course website: http://patrickbrianmooney.nfshost.com/~patrick/ta/w13/

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Lecture 15: "Who Counts as Human? Whose Lives Count as Lives?"

  1. 1. Lecture 15: “Who counts as human? Whose lives count as lives?”* English 165EW Winter 2013 4 March 2013 “‘So I am afraid,’ Wilbourne said. ‘I wasn’t afraid then because I was in eclipse but I am awake now and I can be afraid now, thank God. Because this Anno Domini 1938 has no place in it for love. They used money against me while I was asleep because I was vulnerable in money. Then I waked up and rectified the money and I thought that I had beat Them until that night when I found out They had used respectability on me and that it was harder to beat than money. So I am vulnerable in neither money nor respectability now and so They will have to find something else to force us to conform to the pattern of human life which has now evolved to do without love—to conform, or die. […] Of course we cant beat Them; we are doomed of course, that’s why I am afraid.’” — William Faulkner, The Wild Palms, ch. 5 * Butler, p. 20
  2. 2. Judith Butler (1956–) ● Professor of rhetoric, comparative literature, and philosophy at UC Berkeley. ● Best known for her post- structuralist work in gender theory, including Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter. ● Recent work focuses on the relationship between Jewish philosophy and notions of state violence. Butler receiving the Theodor W. Adorno Prize in 2012.
  3. 3. Mourning and Melancholia ● In psychoanalytic terms, mourning refers (broadly and generally speaking) to a process in which the loss of a beloved object is acknowledged and, gradually, resolved. – For Freud (at least in his earlier thought), this process involves acknowledging the loss (by separating the ego from the lost object) and re-investing the psychic energy previously associated with it in a new object. ● Melancholia, on the other hand, is a state of continuing (and possibly intermittent) sadness caused by an inability to understand and acknowledge loss. – Melancholia is thus mourning that is unresolved because the lost object is incorporated into the ego, and the necessary process of re-integration is blocked.
  4. 4. ● … is, therefore, central to the resolution of loss. ● … necessarily involves a transformation of the sense of self, even as it seeks to preserve the construction of that understanding. “Perhaps, rather, one mourns when one accepts that by the loss one undergoes one will be changed, possibly for ever. […] I do not think, for instance, that one can invoke the Protestant ethic when it comes to loss. One cannot say, ‘Oh, I’ll go through loss this way, and that will be the result, and I’ll apply myself to the task, and I’ll endeavor to achieve the resolution of grief that is before me.’” (21) The process of grieving
  5. 5. Relational identities “It is not as if an ‘I’ exists independently over here and then simply loses a ‘you’ over there, especially if the attachment to ‘you’ is a part of what composes who ‘I’ am.” (22) “We’re undone by each other. […] This seems so clearly the case with grief, but it can be so only because it was already the case with desire.” (23) “As a mode of relation, neither gender nor sexuality is precisely a possession, but, rather, is a mode of being dispossessed, a way of being for another or by virtue of another.” (24)
  6. 6. “Although we struggle for rights over our own bodies, the very bodies for which we struggle are not quite ever only our own. The body has its invariably public dimension. Constituted as a social phenomenon in the public sphere, my body is and is not mine. Given over from the start to the world of others, it bears their imprint, is formed within the crucible of social life; only later, and with some uncertainty, do I lay claim to my body as my own, if, in fact, I ever do.” (26) “I may wish to reconstitute my ‘self’ as if it were there all along, a tacit ego with acumen from the start; but to do so would be to deny the various forms of rapture and subjection that formed the condition of my emergence as an individuated being.” (27)
  7. 7. Violence “violence is, always, an exploitation of that primary tie, that primary way in which we are, as bodies, outside ourselves and for one another.” (27) “Violence is surely a touch of the worst order, a way a primary human vulnerability to other humans is exposed in its most terrifying way, a way in which we are given over, without control, to the will of another, a way in which life itself can be expunged by the willful action of another.” (28-29) “Although I am insisting on referring to a common human vulnerability, one that emerges with life itself, I also insist that we cannot recover the source of this vulnerability: it precedes the formation of ‘I.’” (31)
  8. 8. This leads to several questions … ● How do we designate certain acts of violence as relevant, in various ways, to “us”? – For instance, as “terrorist” or as an instantiation of “righteous anger.” ● How do we grieve for these acts of “publicly directed violence”? – For whom do we grieve? – How is the allowability of grief determined? – What form does this grief take? – What tasks does it accomplish? – How does this intersect with our notion of what “human” means?
  9. 9. “Nations are not the same as individual psyches, but both can be described as ‘subjects,’ albeit of different orders. When the United States acts, it establishes a conception of what it means to act as an American, establishes a norm by which that subject might be known.” (Butler 41) in part, because … – “There is no ideology except by the subject and for subjects.” (Althusser 1268) – “Ideology has a material existence.” (Althusser 1265)
  10. 10. As Walter Benjamin has it … “It is no accident that the portrait was the focal point of early photography. The cult of remembrance of loved ones, absent or dead, offers a last refuge for the cult value of the picture. For the last time the aura emanates from the early photographs in the fleeting expression of a human face. This is what constitutes their melancholy, their incomparable beauty.” (“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” VII) “By close-ups of the things around us, by focusing on hidden details of familiar objects, by exploring commonplace milieus under the ingenious guidance of the camera, the film, on the one hand, extends our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives; on the other hand, it manages to assure us of an immense and unexpected field of action.” (“Work of Art,” XIII)
  11. 11. Margaret Atwood (1939–) ● Best known for her novels, including The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), The Blind Assassin (200), and Oryx and Crake (2003). ● Oryx and Crake is the first book of a trilogy, followed by The Year of the Flood (2009) and MaddAddam (August 2013). ● Atwood’s novels are often concerned with post- apocalyptic and feminist themes; she (often) works within a genre she identifies as “speculative fiction.”
  12. 12. Post-post-modern entertainment “So they’d roll a few joints and smoke them while watching the executions and the porn – the body parts moving around on the screen in slow motion, an underwater ballet of flesh and blood under stress, hard and soft joining and separating, groans and screams, close-ups of clenched eyes and clenched teeth, spurts of this or that. If you switched back and forth fast, it all came to look like the same event. Sometimes they’d have both things on at once, each on a different screen.” (86; ch. 4) “Jimmy felt burned by this look – eaten into, as if by acid. She’d [Oryx had] been so contemptuous of him. […] But for the first time, he’d felt that what they’d been doing was wrong.” (91; ch. 4)
  13. 13. What is real? “She [Sharon] was like a real mother and he [Jimmy] was like a real child.” (30; ch. 2) “Why don’t we use a real set?” Jimmy asked one day when they were doing some chess. “The old kind. With plastic men.” […] “Why?” said Crake. “Anyway, this is a real set.” “No it’s not.” “Okay, granted, but neither is plastic men.” “What?” “The real set is in your head.” (77; ch. 4) “He [Snowman] feels the need to hear a human voice – a fully human voice, like his own.” (10; ch. 1)
  14. 14. The distribution of vulnerability “Jimmy’s mother said that didn’t change the fact that she felt like a prisoner. Jimmy’s father said she didn’t understand the reality of the situation. Didn’t she want to be safe, didn’t she want her son to be safe?” (53; ch. 4) “Despite the sterile transport corridors and the high-speed bullet trains, there was always a risk when you went through the city. […] Compound people didn’t go to the cities unless they had to, and then never alone. They called the cities the pleeblands.” (27; ch. 2)
  15. 15. Long ago, in the days of knights and dragons, the kings and dukes had lived in castles, with high walls and drawbridges and slots on the ramparts so you could pour hot pitch on your enemies, said Jimmy’s father, and the Compounds were the same idea. Castles were for keeping you and your buddies nice and safe inside, and for keeping everybody else outside. “So are we the kings and dukes?” asked Jimmy. “Oh, absolutely,” said his father, laughing. (28; ch. 2)
  16. 16. Who distributes? Who decides? “Old enough, Snowman thinks as he scratches himself […]. Such a dumb concept. Old enough for what? To drink, to fuck, to know better? What fathead was in charge of making those decisions? For example, Snowman himself isn’t old enough for this, this – what can it be called? This situation.” (23; ch. 2) “This would upset Jimmy; he was confused about who should be allowed to eat what. He didn’t want to eat a pigoon, because he thought of the pigoons as creatures much like himself. Neither he nor they had a lot of say in what was going on.” (24)
  17. 17. What “situation”? “But everyone’s parents moaned on about stuff like that. Remember when you could drive anywhere? Remember when everyone lived in the pleeblands? Remember when you could fly anywhere in the world, without fear? Remember hamburger chains, always real beef, remember hot-dog stands? Remember before New York was New New York? Remember when voting mattered?” (63; ch. 4) “Crake turned up at HelthWyzer High in September or October, one of those months that used to be called autumn.” (71)
  18. 18. “You want to know everything,” said Oryx. (92) The last words of chapter 4
  19. 19. Media credits The photo of Judith Butler (slide 2) and Margaret Atwood (slide 11) have been released under a Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 3.0 Unported license by their respective creators (Wikipedia users Dontworry and Vanwaffle, respectively). Original sources: – http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons /2/21/Margaret_Atwood_Eden_Mills_Writers_F estival_2006.jpg – http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons /f/f9/Adorno-preis-2012-judith-butler-ffm- 303.jpg