Upcoming Book–Spring 2017 Release

I’m happy to announce that my first book of philosophy, Language Parasites: Of Phorontology, will be released later this Spring from the wonderful Punctum Books. Language Parasites is a completely separate project from my dissertation, but it does consider language in similar ways.

A link to the book’s page on the Punctum website can be found here:

https://punctumbooks.com/titles/language-parasites-of-phorontology/

 

ACCUTE Panel: “Abject Objections: Things and Objects in Literary Criticism”

So I’m co-organizing a panel with Nemanja Protic at this year’s ACCUTE conference (held at Ryerson this year). Anyone who reads this and is interested in submitting a paper is welcome to send in an abstract by Nov. 1st.

The CFP: reads:


Schools of thought labeled Speculative Realism (SR) and Object Oriented Ontology (OOO) have recently honed as well as critiqued postmodernism’s conceptualizations of the relationship between (human) consciousness and (nonhuman) objects. SR and OOO have, in turn, been criticized for their often radically speculative and academic methodology divorced from concrete ethical and political concerns that include issues of class, gender, race, and sexuality. Literature (as well as comics and film) that focuses on the human body and the world of objects – including but not limited to the genres of horror, erotica and pornography, and various forms of realism – is a model locus for explorations of the value and shortcomings of ideas presented by various theories of the object. We invite participants from across disciplinary boundaries to present on any aspect of these concerns through theoretical or literary analyses, or through their intersection.

Please send required files to: sean_braune (at) hotmail (dot) com and nemanjaprotic (at) rogers (dot) com


 

The CFP can be found here: https://accute.ca/accute-conference/accute-cfp-member-organized-panels/

Up-(to)-date

This blog has had no updates for–I’m shocked to say–three years. However, time has been in short supply. In those three years I have completed my PhD at York University: I finished up my doctoral dissertation and taught a fourth year course in the Humanities department called “Fetish Appeal: Desire and Consumption.” While doing this, I published a poetry chapbook called the vitamins of an alphabet (released a few months ago by Ottawa’s spectacular above/ground press run by rob mclennan) and have been working on several writing projects.

There will be more activity here in the next little while and I have an exciting announcement to make sometime soon. Unfortunately, “soon” in this context means a matter of weeks (or maybe months at the outset…it is tough to tell right now).

However, in the meantime, Open Book: Toronto interviewed me about my poetry. The interview can be found here:

http://open-book.ca/News/Poets-in-Profile-Sean-Braune

The Gravid Uterus and Other Spheres

Fertilization. Pregnancy. Embryogenesis. Death. A gravid uterus. In 1774, Dr. William Hunter publishes The anatomy of the gravid uterus featuring drawings by Jan van Rymsdyk. In the preface, Hunter writes:

in the year 1751 the author met with the first favourable opportunity of examining the human species, what before he had been studying in brutes. A woman died suddenly, when very near the end of her pregnancy; the body was procured before any insensible putrefaction had begun; the season of the year was favourable to dissection; the injection of blood vessels proved successful; a very able painter, in this way, was found; every part was examined in the most public manner, and the truth well authenticated[…]

Hunterw_table_06

Hunter’s study is a striking anatomical analysis that features several historical emergences that I want to discuss. Deleuze and Guattari define the Body without Organs (BwO) in A Thousand Plateaus in the following way:

A body without organs is not an empty body stripped of organs, but a body upon which that which serves as organs (wolves, wolf eyes, wolf jaws?) is distributed according to crowd phenomena, in Brownian motion, in the form of molecular multiplicities. The desert is populous. Thus the body without organs is opposed less to organs as such than to the organization of the organs insofar as it composes an organism. The body without organs is not a dead body but a living body all the more alive and teeming once it has blown apart the organism and its organization. (30)

The gravid uterus paintings are not pictures of the BwO in the strict sense – the images are concrete and stable forms, rejecting the plurality of Deleuzoguattarian lines of flight. Body? Organ? The gravid uterus is a unique instantiation of the body: the death of a multiplicity or the mother and child as one, forever. The gravid uterus depicts a moment trapped in time: the cycle of eros and thanatos (life and death) collapsed within a moment of symbiotic existence. The gravid uterus is an eventuality that some of us pass through or overcome; however, the moment remains a causative event or potential virtual pathway dearly avoided (childbirth remains the sixth most common cause of death for women aged 20-34 in the United States). The gravid uterus depicts a holistic experience of shared existence, but it also – perhaps more nihilistically – shows the parasitic nature of human life. We all begin inside another being (Peter Sloterdijk calls the womb one of the first “bubbles” that we move through in our “being-in-spheres” [46]). Despite the fact that Deleuze and Guattari specify that the BwO is a “living body” their original definition is thanatocratic:

The body without organs is the model of death. As the authors of horror stories have understood so well, it is not death that serves as the model for catatonia, it is catatonic schizophrenia that gives its model to death. Zero intensity. The death model appears when the body without organs repels the organs and lays them aside: no mouth, no tongue, no teeth – to the point of self-mutilation, to the point of suicide. Yet there is no real opposition between the body without organs and the organs as partial objects; the only real opposition is to the molar organism that is their common enemy [….] Hence it is absurd to speak of a death desire that would presumably be in qualitative opposition to the life desires. Death is not desired, there is only death that desires, by virtue of the body without organs or the immobile motor, and there is also life that desires, by virtue of the working organs. (Anti-Oedipus 329)

The gravid uterus may be the photograph of an “immobile motor” – a picture of frozen desire that depicts a structural moment of human subjectivity and reality modeled on bubbles and spheres (as Sloterdijk contends). Even if subjectivity and reality are Deleuzoguattarian assemblages, they are nonetheless bubbly, foamy, fuzzy. The gravid uterus may be an example of Kristevan abjection in that it is an image that arrests and terrifies. Sylvia Plath’s poetry may be useful here: her poetry describes a mother who survives Hunter’s anatomical dissection. Consider Plath’s “Edge”:

The woman is perfected.
Her dead
Body wears the smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity
Flows in the scrolls of her toga,
Her bare
Feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over.
Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,
One at each little
Pitcher of milk, now empty.
She has folded
Them back into her body as petals
Of a rose close when the garden
Stiffens and odors bleed
From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.
The moon has nothing to be sad about,
Staring from her hood of bone.
She is used to this sort of thing.
Her blacks crackle and drag.

Damien Hirst repeatedly returns to themes of pregnancy and the gravid uterus. In 2005 Hirst finishes his statue The Virgin Mother (a 33-foot bronze work).

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The statue can be seen as the female version of Hymn (1999-2005), an anatomical representation of the male body.

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However, the The Virgin Mother’s stance is inspired by Edgar Degas’s Little Dancer of Fourteen Years (c. 1881).

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Hirst discusses the relation between The Virgin Mother and Degas’s work in the following way: “It is kind of naughty; she shouldn’t really be pregnant. I wanted a feeling of that. Anyone who is pregnant looks old enough, that’s the problem.” I am not quite sure what the “problem” is that he is referring to; however, The Virgin Mother is a striking piece and, I argue, should be seen in relation to William Hunter’s work on the gravid uterus and Jan van Rymsdyk’s etchings. There is a very important difference between Hunter’s work and Hirst’s: The Virgin Mother is alive. Hirst’s statue is an interstitial piece situated inbetween life and death demonstrating a yet again fractured, cut, and dissected female body. Phallogocentric culture is obsessed with anatomized and dissected representations of the female form. Why is Hirst’s male version of The Virgin Mother not dissected, but only skinned?

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Nonetheless, The Virgin Mother is a representation of a living gravid uterus – a liminal instance of becoming aesthetically frozen by an obsessive and anatomizing male gaze. While Degas’s statue incites controversy when first shown, Hirst’s The Virgin Mother is more shocking because of his chosen title. The piece refers to Mother Mary and her Nazarene progeny and suggests a heretical line-of-thought: what if Mother Mary died in childbirth? What if the only record of Christ’s existence on earth was a gravid uterus engraving in a William Hunter-esque manuscript?

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In October of 2012 Hirst assembles a 67-foot statue called Verity in Ilfracombe, Devon. The statue is a variation on The Virgin Mother. Where The Virgin Mother suggests a variety of heretical theological significations, Verity is an homage to Justice – containing a sword (held aloft) and scales. Verity coming from veritas meaning “truth” is, like The Virgin Mother, a statue of becoming and hope: the birth of a symbol (such as a messiah or Truth). On the one hand, the statues represent the tradition of the gravid uterus, but on the other, they are instances of anatomical and aesthetic development – a sort of womb X-ray that views the birth of symbolic-becoming. Despite the highly material nature of the statues (they are bronze after all), they are highly abstract incarnations of symbols and signifiers – temporary sites of collapsed lines of flight, frozen in time.

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The last historical emergence of this theme that I want to mention is the The Reclining Pregnant Woman from Gunther von Hagens’s Body Worlds or Körperwelten exhibit. Von Hagens is the inventor of the technique of human preservation called “plastination.” Von Hagens invented plastination in 1977 and has since founded the Institute for Plastination in Heidelberg (in 1993). One of many plastinated bodies that von Hagens exhibits in Body Worlds is a plastinate woman whose womb is exposed. Body Worlds has always attracted controversy – including the methods by which von Hagens acquires the corpses – however, in the case of The Reclining Pregnant Woman von Hagens poses her in an intentionally controversial pose that he claims is meant to suggest a “pornographic cliche.” Von Hagens’s piece is akin to a plastinate and pregnant version of Alexandre Cabanel’s Naissance de Venus (1863) …

Reclining Woman Pregnant USE

From Hunter to Hirst and from Hirst to von Hagens, the image of the gravid uterus proliferates in history as a site of birth, gestation, and death. The gravid uterus is a site of frozen potential incorporated into an institutionalized obsession with the anatomization of the female body. The gravid uterus is not a Deleuzoguattarian BwO, but something else. Deleuze and Guattari partly define the BwO as an egg; Sloterdijk finds that every womb is a bubble or a composite sphere within other spheres. The gravid uterus is something outside of philosophical body or subject-models. A child inside an environment; an environment that is another being. Change. Flux. Liminality. Sloterdijk writes:

the womb is the first of the series

of contexts

containers

whatever one is in

a room

a space

a time

a relationship

a mood (313)

Fallenness and Kerry Skarbakka

Kerry Skarbakka’s photographic series “The Struggle to Right Oneself” is a depiction of falling.

http://www.slate.com/blogs/behold/2013/01/23/kerry_skarbakka_struggle_to_right_oneself_captured_moments_of_suspended.html?wpisrc=obinsite

Skarbakka 1

In the series, Skarbakka falls – in the shower, from buildings, mountains, cliffs, sewage pipes, trees, ladders, stairs – in dramatic moments that would assuredly end in death. Skarbakka explicitly refers to Heidegger’s theory of “fallenness,” but his series is also reminiscent of the earlier existentialism of Kierkegaard, particularly in Kierkegaard’s concept of the “leap of faith” or “leap to faith.” When did everything shift from a leap of faith to fallenness? What is the philosophical transition here?

James Joyce’s Finnegan in Finnegans Wake falls off a ladder while drunk. The Fall of Lucifer to the Fall of Man. Falls and falling proliferate in myth, culture, and history. Even in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne’s father asks: “why do we fall Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”

Both Heidegger’s Fallenness and Kierkegaard’s leap are moments of both acceptance and surrender. For Heidegger, fallenness is the experience of Dasein losing coherency of self in the They (Das Man): a complete absorption in the world. Kierkegaard’s leap to faith is an acceptance of the contradictory paradoxes at work in Christianity, but both manifest as events of surrender.

Skarbakka 2

Skarbakka’s photography is hopeful, depicting a moment of surrender: will this fall end in death? Or will the subject end up flying? When does falling become flying – if only for a moment? Terminal velocity. I look at Skarbakka’s photography and regard him as a profoundly humanist photographer who celebrates the almost forgotten dreaminess of childhood – the age-old belief that, despite all odds, we will be the ones to fly.

The theological leap is a leap of faith while the political leap results in falleness. Perhaps, “falleness” is the residue of Heideggerian politics – despite Heidegger’s membership in the Nazi party he has remained a figure of renown in the humanities and academia, the reason being that politics seem remarkably absent from his philosophy – however, what if the only remnant of the political is an implied politics. If inclusion in the They is a “falleness” and not a “leap to faith,” then this suggests that there is something profoundly anxiety-producing about the They. Using the term “falleness” suggests that inclusion in the They results in the loss of one’s own subjective integrity, a fear-inducing experience of ego death in which the They overcomes the self. Fascism is, historically, a political response to the fear of others or otherness – perhaps inclusion in the They should be transfigured through a Kierkegaardian lens rather than a Heideggerian one.

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Shapes of Philosophy (1)

Deleuze and Guattari argue for a convincing model of philosophy – philosophy as topology – in What is Philosophy?. They see philosophy as a virtual modeling site: an entirely contingent realm or dimension in which chaos proliferates and a plane or various planes of immanence concretize. The plane or planes of immanence similarly contain upon them emergent philosophical properties that Deleuze and Guattari call “concepts.” Every philosopher has her or his own plane of immanence and concepts. Every plane of immanence is a sieve stretched out across chaos – chaos being presumably a world of the Ding an sich – and the concepts are used to describe the chaotic structures that people the plane.

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The plane of immanence alters depending on the philosopher: Kant’s plane of immanence is different from Hegel’s, which is different from Plato’s, which is different from Nicholas of Cusa’s. Every plane of immanence situates itself – literally sites itself – as a problematic upon and within chaos, and this problematic is then “solved” or “queried” by concepts. Philosophy is concerned with the creation of concepts and in this sense every philosophy becomes its own independent world with its own logic. For Badiou’s Logics of Worlds (the sequel to Being and Event), he moves beyond the delimiting mathematical formalism of Being and Event – that privileged Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory – and begins to describe the various ontologies and worlds that are describable by mathematics (including Grothendieck’s topos theory). Different mathematics literally describe different worlds. 

            In “Immanence: a Life,” Deleuze argues that a plane of immanence is a “transcendental field.” The plane of immanence is literally a mathematical state space into which certain shapes and topoi are graphed and formed – each graph is akin to a philosophical concept in that its purpose is to address an underlying problematic. Broadly speaking, philosophy becomes the questioning of a certain shape’s pragmatism: is this shape useful or not? I’ve been working on a series of projects for a few years now that addresses the various shapes of philosophy, seeing some of these shapes in different philosophers from the Cartesian cogito, to the Leibnizian monad, to Sloterdijk’s bubble and sphere. In each instance the selected shape must have something intuitive in it – I mean “intuitive” in a Kantian sense – the shape must be immanent to the problem at hand.

Cyborg Traces: D.N.A. Sculptures

Jacques Derrida’s theory of the trace is poststructuralist and non-materialist; i.e., he conceives of “the trace” as something operative within language in which the meaning of any sentence or phrase is constructed retroactively, suggesting that “meaning” is never the present substance of language, but something produced in the future, after any phrase has been completed. The trace resists the logocentrism or “pure presence” of any text and offers a retroactive critique of any phrase, meaning that after a phrase or sentence is spoken or read “meaning” is mapped overtop of it backwards, in a sense critiquing the presentation of text. The “critique” – being the result of reading, listening, or communicating – is provided after the text has been traced. The childhood game of broken telephone is reliant on the destruction or cutting of any trace, resulting in amusing interpretations or “critiques” of the original phrase. If the trace cannot be completed then meaning is similarly never completed, leaving a text prone to dyssyntaxias, parataxis, and general ruptures in language.

What would a materialist or posthumanist trace look like? The artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg scours the ground of urban spaces and collects the human residue she finds there: cigarette butts, chewing gum, fingernails, etc.

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She takes this collection of human jetsam and maps the genetic material left on each of these objects in order to derive computer-simulated pictures of the original smoker, gum-chewer, etc.

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Her project offers an inverse mind-body problem: she begins with the object and from the object tries to discover the human beings who have, to use Graham Harman’s phrase from object-oriented ontology, withdrawn into the background. Technically, there should be no access to these shadow beings who once chewed gum or smoked a cigarette; however, genetic material offers a retroactive trace and can create cyborg photographs – imaginary reconstructions of the now missing human based on genetic information that suggests gender, ethnicity, facial morphology, etc.

http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/artscience/2013/05/creepy-or-cool-portraits-derived-from-the-dna-in-hair-and-gum-found-in-public-places/

Dewey-Hagborg’s website: http://deweyhagborg.com

Like the trace of the human leftover from the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki – in which the blackened “shadows” of human beings can still be seen burnt into the concrete walls of buildings, figures frozen in a perpetual state of atomic apocalypse as eternal pictures of an unfathomable horror – Dewey-Hagborg finds the trace of the human in urban modernity, effectively taking a picture of someone whose presence is not present. By becoming a posthuman photographer of ghosts, her project suggests an uncanny photography of a nihilistic abyss; however, the abyss does manage to “look back” and demonstrate the inevitability of any complete absence or closure. The Face is privy to its own eternal return (Nietzsche) in the posthuman photograph. Another way to put this is to say that Dewey-Hagborg discovers the writing encoded on objects – the genetic writing – and manages from that writing-as-signifier to create a signified representation. 

Bacteriaesthetics

Death is emergent, arising from the body. Humans live within a complex ecosystem, with various societies functioning at a variety of different scales of existence. Bacteria and viruses are some of the smallest living structures and societies (defined as “living” from a human perspective). What is the Dasein of a bacterium or a virus? Heidegger’s Dasein is essentially a spatializing category, literally meaning “Being-there” – situating something within a space and a time. Bacteria are complex structures featuring symmetrical and asymmetrical components and particularities: a flagellum here, various pili there. Bacteria and viruses are agential structures, living within their own scale while commuting in various transit highways of immune systems, airflows, surfaces, environments, bodies, trees, soil.

The artist Luke Jerram (with the assistance of glass blower Kim George) creates beautiful glass constructions of deadly (to humans) bacteria, magnifying bacteria over a million times their natural size.     

http://www.lukejerram.com/glass/

Jerram claims that spectators viewing his exhibition are sometimes afraid of touching the sculptures, as if they are afraid of becoming infected.

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Hypochondriacs run in fear. Jerram creates an art of bacteriaesthetics: pulling bacteria and viruses from their marginalized positions in the world and placing them on pedestals, lit from below and creating prisms of spectra. Jerram celebrates a bacterial Dasein, enlarging the fearful, the invisible (to human eyesight), and the unknown while making it beautiful. Such symmetry is fearful, but it is not Blakean; conceptualized instead as the very structure or vision of humanity’s mortality and inherent fragility. The fragility of the human is refracted back through the fragility of glass. 

The Irregularity of Beckett’s Murphy

Samuel Beckett’s Murphy, his first novel, is a celebration of irregularity. After Murphy’s death at the novel’s end, Neary says: “Life is all rather irregular” (271 Grove Ed.). Murphy is the novel of a becoming-object: Murphy’s progression through the book is one of objectification. He begins as an empty slate, autistically rocking on a rocking chair that he is tied onto. Murphy’s one joy in life is tying himself to a rocking chair in order to become the rocking chair: on the one hand, Murphy embraces catatonia and on the other, he rocks in order to negate any semblance of “Murphy.” Murphy’s attempt to transform himself into a catatonic object leads him to work at the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat – an insane asylum in Dublin where he studies schizophrenic patients, attempting to learn their secrets. Throughout the novel, Murphy plays chess with Mr. Endon, a schizophrenic who must always play as the white pieces, and the two of them – Murphy as orderly and Mr. Endon as inmate – take turns playing games in which the pieces seem to move of their own accord (they each take their turn when the other isn’t looking). After Mr. Endon beats Murphy, Murphy falls into a catatonic state before Endon escapes his cell and begins randomly turning on and off the lights of other patient’s cells. The symbolic defeat of laying down his king is a sign of Murphy’s own status as a becoming-object: his focus is on constricting the movements of the body and limiting the potential of any agential impulse or energetic twitch of flesh. The body is something to be feared in Murphy, while the mind is something irregular and chaotic – functioning of its own accord in disharmony with its insistent shell. Murphy’s story of emergence concludes when, by the novel’s end, he has become a collection of dust and ash, his cremated remains poured onto the floor of a grimy Dublin bar:

Some hours later Cooper took the packet of ash [Murphy’s remains] from his pocket, where earlier in the evening he had put it for greater security, and threw it angrily at a man who had given him great offence. It bounced, burst, off the wall on to the floor, where at once it became the object of much dribbling, passing, trapping, shooting, punching, heading and even some recognition from the gentleman’s code. By closing time the body, mind and soul of Murphy were freely distributed over the floor of the saloon ; and before another dayspring greyened the earth had been swept away with the sand, the beer, the butts, the glass, the matches, the spits, the vomit. (275)      

Murphy’s story is the tale of a becoming-object – object-oriented ontology has a lot to do with Murphy’s trajectory towards a pile of dust and ash – in which Murphy chooses his inherent embodiment and objectivity because of his fear of the irregularity of life. Murphy chooses behavior that is constricted: tying himself to a rocking-chair, the regimented game of chess, the routine of his work as an orderly – Murphy is phobic of irregularity and he is the inmate of regularity. What Beckett demonstrates in Murphy is the extent to which irregularity rules life: identities, constructions of the mind, social interaction, and language itself are each irregular systems.

Murphy is a forgotten pile of ash released onto the object-covered (vomit, finished cigarettes, stale beer) floor of the bar: his gravestone is as locatable as the gravesite of the Marquis de Sade who famously wanted to be buried with these following stipulations from his last will and testament: “Once the grave has been filled, it shall be sown over with acorns so that all traces of my tomb may disappear from the face of the earth, just as I hope all traces of my memory will be erased from the memories of men, with the exception of those few who kindly continued to love me until the last moments, and of whom I take a pleasant memory to the grave.” Embracing an eliminative nihilism, both Murphy and the Marquis de Sade fulfill Heidegger’s promise that Dasein is necessarily a Sein zum Tode (Being-towards-death) or Sein zum Ende (Being-towards-the-end), where the traces of Dasein are erased from the earth, dictating the limits of any morphogenetic emergence as demarcated from the outset by entropy or the slow disintegration of intensities.

Beckett’s oeuvre is typically about “nothing” – a profound linguistic nihilism – that culminates in his later minimalist works such as Nohow on, but already by the time of Waiting for Godot, Vladimir and Estragon are trapped in the materialist abyss of their own bodies, seemingly locked within the gravitational event horizon of a lone tree. Beckett’s world proliferates with objects and what is terrifying about his oeuvre is that his work sees the “human” as an empty expanse in itself, an object that is paradoxically more empty than the vomit covered floor or the dying tree. Beckett is a posthumanist writer and an excavator of intensities, seeing intensities not in agential subjects, but in energetic objects.