Heidegger, Barad, and Agential Realist Responsibility

As Luigi Pellizzoni points out in a recent book, Heidegger is a difficult figure to situate within the ongoing discourse of critical posthumanism. I’ve always thought it was kind of curious that Heidegger is entirely absent from Karen Barad’s Meeting The Universe Halfway, despite the obvious thematic similarities between the two thinkers’ work. Lately I’ve been going back and reading some Heidegger to try and figure out why Barad doesn’t want to engage with him, and, maybe more to the point, how one might bridge the gap between their respective projects.
To start, let’s maybe think a bit about how human responsibility is figured for Heidegger. Here’s an interesting bit from his “Letter on Humanism”:
The human being is in thrownness. This means that the human being, as the ek-sisting counterthrow [Gegenwurf] of being, in more than the animal rationale precisely to the extent that he is less bound up with the human being conceived from subjectivity. The human being is not the lord of beings. The human being is the shepherd of being. Human beings lose nothing in this ‘less’; rather, they gain in that they attain the truth of being. They gain the essential poverty of the shepard, whose dignity consists in being called by being itself into the preservation of being’s truth” (260)
So, is this a good way of understanding Barad’s conception of human responsibility? Does what she terms our “ability to respond” figure us as a kind of “shepard” to the universe? This is obviously a tricky analogy, in that it sort of flattens out the rest of the beings that, in an agential realist account, iteratively co-constitute the universe alongside us humans as a flock of sheep, but it also captures something that I think is essential to Barad’s critique of the liberal humanist subject: Where liberal humanism more or less situates The Human as the ‘lord’ of the rest of nature (in so far as he is not so much “responsible” for it but rather a kind of arbiter of what is to be done with it), Barad’s agential realist account really emphasizes the degree to which our responsibility (literally, ability to respond) obligates us to participate in the world’s ongoing enactment in a manner that is sensitive and responsive to the others alongside whom we iteratively emerge. For both Heidegger and Barad, we can see this effort to eschew the liberal humanist justification for anthropocentric exceptionalism, while at the same time retaining a kind of unique position for “the human” on the basis of our capacity to respond or “be called”.

But Is It Any Good? Derridian Responsibility to the Other in Andy Daly’s Review

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I’ve been thinking a lot about Andy Daly’s Review over the last few days so I figured I should maybe write something about it. Specifically, I was thinking that it might serve as an instructive point of reference for talking about Derrida’s conception of Responsibility, in that it can maybe help us strip away some of the less intuitive “ontotheological” aspects of the argument and just focus right in on the relationship between the individual (in this case, Daly’s Forrest MacNeil) and the absolute and unknowable other to whom the individual feels inextricably responsible (in this case, the show Review itself).

 

For context, Review is a “mockumentary” hosted by Forrest Macneil that aims to review “life itself”. The show’s ostensible viewers submit “life experiences” (i.e., “what’s it like to get struck by lightning?” or, “what’s it like to get a divorce?”) which Forrest then attempts to experience in his own life and review on a scale of five stars. The conceit of the show, and why I think it serves as a good point of departure for talking about Derrida, is that Forrest’s absolute commitment to Review ends up completely destroying the rest of his life. Over the course of the show’s three seasons, Forrest is forced to end his marriage, put his pet to sleep, and commit a murder as a result of his sense of duty toward the review requests of strangers about whom he knows nothing. But he does all of this under the dogmatic assumption that this work is important, and that it serves the general public in some direct and indispensable way.

 

So but let’s talk a little Derrida:

 

The Derridian conception of responsibility comes out of what I guess we could call a Levinasian tradition, which basically asserts that responsibility is “the ability to respond to the other” in the broadest possible sense. For the sake of simplicity, let’s say there are fundamentally two types of responsibility: one toward a more general set of “others” (i.e. “other people”, basically), and one toward an absolute and fundamentally unknowable other (Derrida just calls this “god”). For Derrida, this conception of responsibly constitutes a kind of paradox. As he describes in The Gift Of Death, “For responsibility…demands on the one hand an accounting, a general answering-for-oneself with respect to the general and before the generality… and on the other hand, uniqueness, absolute singularity, hence non substitution, non repetition, silence, and secrecy” (62). This is essentially the same dynamic we see playing out over the course of Review. Forrest is, or at least understands himself to be, a deeply altruistic character: he is essentially sacrificing his own life for what he views to be “the public good”. He understands his own work on the show to be responding to the general other on some question of fundamental importance, and is thus absolutely committed to the show’s integrity: He can never reveal to anyone outside of the show’s crew the “secret” of the requests he is fulfilling. For this same reason, though, he ends up in a position of irresponsibility toward the actual people in his life. His behaviour is inexplicable to his friends and family, and as a result he mostly just ends up looking like an asshole.

 

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still from the legal proceedings surrounding Forrest’s divorce, during which he was reviewing “Being Batman”

 

This basic paradox constitutes the tension that Derrida wants to draw between duty to the absolute other (or what he terms “god”), and “human ethics”, or what we could just call “being a decent and functional human being”. As he observes, “[a]bsolute duty demands that one behave in an irresponsible manner (by means of treachery or betrayal), while still recognizing, confirming, and reaffirming the very thing one sacrifices, namely the order of human ethics and responsibility. In a word, ethics must be sacrificed in the name of duty” (67). So the thing toward which Forrest is exercising his absolute duty (i.e., Review) both demands his “irresponsible” behaviour toward his family and friends, but, in so doing, actually serves to affirm his love for his family, insofar as his absolute duty to Review actually constitutes a kind of sacrifice. That is to say, if Forrest didn’t actually love his family, or otherwise “feel” things about the people around him, Review could not exist as such: we would just be watching a sociopath mechanically going around and completing tasks without feeling anything. Forrest would not be “having experiences” so much as he would be “going through the motions”. It is precisely because he feels things (i.e., mostly guilt and remorse), that he is capable of reviewing “life itself”.

 

So but why does he do it? Why does Forrest destroy his life out of some vague commitment to a thing he can never truly know? Derrida has an answer for this, too: “the Other has no reason to give to us and no explanation to make, no reason to share his reasons with us. We fear and tremble because we are already in the hands of God, although free to work, but in the hands and under the gaze of God, whom we don’t see and whose will we cannot know…We fear and tremble before the inaccessible secret of a God who decides for us although we remain responsible, that is to say free to decide, to work, to assume our life and our death” (57). If we substitute in “Review” for “God” here, we can maybe get a better sense of what’s going on. For Forrest, the commitment to Review, or the ongoing process of “reviewing life itself”, has become (again, somewhat paradoxically), an affirmation of his freedom, and therefore his personhood. This is to say, for Forrest to wake up every morning and actively commit himself to the work of reviewing life experiences for strangers of whom he knows and asks nothing is to actively and explicitly affirm his commitment to being in the world, not in spite of its challenge but because of them. The gift and burden of Forrest Macneil is to see the absurdity of Life Itself as a string of loosely-connected experiences that each of us must endure and retroactively evaluate and, without hesitation, say Yes.

Ryper Ripps vs. Responsive Performativity

[republishing this here in light of some recent bullshit]

Ryder Ripps is an internet artist who I’ve been aware of, and interested in to varying degrees, for maybe four years. His work is consistently visually striking, and I generally appreciate his willingness to engage openly and seriously on things like “meme culture” and the changing nature of intellectual property. He’s overall a pretty interesting guy, seems to be my general impression. I wanted to kind of collect some thoughts I had about his work and his general online persona following a particularly jarring exchange he had on facebook with some journalist from the guardian, in relation to some ideas about performativity and why a lot of “performance art” is kind of boring now.

So, the prompt for this whole thing was a series of exchanges that Ripps had with this journalist from the Guardian, after Ripps attended some kind of young republican meet-up to watch the third U.S. presidential debate and was interviewed as if he were a Trump supporter. He offered some fairly unexciting quotes seemingly emulating the kind of rhetoric and concerns a certain portion of Trump supporters ostensibly tend to use.

Anyway, so the article gets published, Ripps finds it, screen-caps the relevant part and posts it to facebook, claiming to have “trolled” the reporter from the guardian. Its a kind of funny bit; Ripps has been an outspoken supporter of Bernie Sanders throughout the election cycle, and for people aware of him and his work, the quotes offered here are obviously disingenuous.

People really liked this joke:

Ripps himself tries to frame the whole gag as a kind of commentary on the ‘age of clickbait journalism’ , which, sure:

And so the journalist that initially wrote the piece responds, I think because Ripps calls him out on twitter, and Ripps’ quotes in the article get pulled, and they (eventually) amend a little ‘correction’ disclaimer at the bottom of the article, noting that one of the sources for the article ‘deceived’ their journalist.

Then the journalist himself posts on Facebook about this whole weird thing, basically saying he doesn’t get why this is ‘trolling’ or how Ripps has done anything to coherently criticize ‘the capitalist system’, and mostly just seems disinterested in (if somewhat bewildered by) the whole event.

So of course Ripps jumps on this thread and, in a series of increasingly infantile responses, just shits all over the journalist and the journalist’s friends. For those somewhat familiar with Ripps, this too feels kind of like a joke: he’s fucking with them, weakly name-calling, critiquing their ‘comebacks’ as dated and unoriginal. It’s pretty rough to look at, honestly, but it is definitely a kind of performance.

So the question, and the impulse behind the current writing, is who is he performing for? It’s obviously not for the journalist and his friends, who are not in on the ‘joke’. It also probably isn’t directly for his own Facebook audience, who seem to be mostly absent from the thread (most of Ripps’ comments remain ‘unliked’, except for a few of those weird passive aggressive ‘likes’ from whatever person he was attacking). What seems more likely, at least to me, based on my fairly limited knowledge of Ripps’ work, and the Internet artist community in general, is that Ripps is engaged in some kind of performance that is primarily for himself: he’s become so abstracted from his own online conduct that his online persona is some kind of long performative action, of which ‘he’ is the primary audience member and critic.

And this is the kind of weird rabbit hole of abstraction that I’d maybe like to write a little more about, both because it feels like a quintessentially modern kind of performance and because, wether or not Ripps is the best example of this kind of thing (at it really might be the case that he’s not), it’s I think a kind of widespread practice amongst people (and especially artists) whose work (and thus lives) are increasingly entangled with the internet.

Consider, for example, this Instagram-based performance piece called Excellences and Perfections, by Amalia Ulman. The Telegraph, which (in my view, egregiously) hailed this as “the first Instagram masterpiece”, summarizes the work like this:

The whole “performance” is cataloged on Ulman’s personal instagram account, such that her followers could watch this series unfold in real time. Again, the idea here is that the artist is self-consciously performing a role, rather than (unself-consciously) “living it”, and thus able to claim ownership over the resulting series of instagram posts as “an artwork”, rather than simply an account of what she was doing over the last few months. Here’s how Ulman explains “the joke”:

There’s obviously a lot going on here, but the thing I’m mostly interested in pointing out is that the only thing that makes this a piece of art, rather than just the lived experience of this woman, is that Ulman, the artist, declares herself to be distinct from Ulman, the fictionalized character of the performance: It’s not really Ulman but rather “her anti-heroine self” who is “performing” a series of stereotypical gender-specific lifestyles. What’s notable about this level of abstraction, wherein Ulman is one step removed from “her character’s” actions, is that it actually kind of weakens the impact of the statement she’s is attempting to make through the work: if “being a woman” is a performance, then wouldn’t it be more impactful to simply own these actions as her own? And perhaps more significantly, why would she choose to emulate, by way of a fictionalized “woman”, only the blandest and most well-worn stereotypes for young women? Isn’t that pretty low-hanging fruit, in terms of performativity?

I guess what I’m getting at is that performativity for its own sake is not only boring, but also unproductive. Both Ripps (as as the “dumb camo hat”-wearing Trump supporter, and later, online troll) and Ulman (as the “L.A. ‘It Girl’”), are self-consciously “performing” roles that are stereotypical (and thus easily recognizable as “performances”) only to step back and go, “look at me performing, everything is performing, isn’t that interesting”. The overall impact of this, rather than somehow presenting a “nuanced critique” of the dominant social structures that encourage this kind of normative performance (i.e., what Ripps refers to as “the capitalist system”), seems to simply reaffirm the hopelessness of these struggles, wherein the artist takes a position of comfortable detachment, and, rather than trying to consider alternatives to the stereotypical performative roles offered by our advanced capitalist social structures (i.e., what Rosi Braidotti calls “epistemological nomadism”), simply shrug at it: “we’re fucked, isn’t that funny?”

And this is maybe the root of the problem: Judith Butler published Gender Trouble over 25 years ago. We know that social roles (gendered, political, etc.) are performative. You’re not saying anything interesting by doing work that just highlights this performativity and essentially posits that because all of our conduct is performative and mediated by normative social structures, we might as well just “troll” others or otherwise exploit our awareness of this fact from a position of cool, detached nihilism. Its the artistic equivalent of this classic meme™:

It’s instructive to note that much of Butler’s recent work is focused on moving beyond normative performative roles into modes of being that are more responsive to the rest of the world. In Frames of War, Butler examines how the normative social structures of Western society mediate which bodies can be seen to matter: “These categories, conventions and norms that prepare or establish a subject for recognition, that induce a subject of this kind, precede and make possible the act of recognition itself…the point, however, will be to ask how such norms operate to produce certain subjects as ‘recognizable’ persons and to make others decidedly more difficult to recognize” (5–6). Rather than wallowing in the shallows of normative, culturally-mediated performativity, Butler goes on to advocate active responsiveness to the world, such that those who the dominant structures of power deem “unrecognizable” (or, what she’s previously termed “unmournable bodies”) can be fully recognized and engaged with.

And this is basically the point: living with a strong sense of performativity is important. it demonstrates an awareness to how our being is iteratively constructed in the world. What’s more important, though, is that that sense of being is tethered, at least peripherally, to the others with which you are entangled. To be a “troll”, to perform a disregard for others (i.e., others who are not the embodiment of ‘the capitalist system’ or whatever, but are just some people trying to to their damn jobs) is to foreclose on the kind of responsive engagement that an awareness to the performativity of being ought to catalyze. It’s not enough to recognize that everything (including your ‘self’) is a construct, the next step, if you want to see yourself as someone coherently criticizing “the capitalist system”, is to use that understanding to foster a more responsive sense of being, to become alongside the entangled others that “the capitalist system” encourages us to ignore.

Joan Didion’s Magical Thinking, a little more on Morton

something about how, in The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion is able (both retrospectively and in the act of writing itself) able to bring this very strict ‘liberal humanist’ approach to the decidedly irrational process of grieving. In interrogating her moments of “magical thinking” (will John need his shoes?), Didion positions herself as a thoroughly reasonable observer: she consults the relevant medical and psychological texts and peer-reviewed journals, seeks the insight of professionals, etc. The timeline, which she meticulously stitches together though the hospital’s report, her building’s doorman’s log, and her own personal journals, is underscored by her belief that a rigid reconstruction of the events of the evening of her husband’s death might, somehow, help bring him back.
Does this “reasoned” approach, and the paradoxical discontinuity it inevitably yields, help or impede the grieving process? She does seem to experience something like what Tim Morton would call the aeolian, but it’s unclear whether this confrontation with “the void” pulls her free from any kind of break with her “cynically reasonable” personhood (to borrow again from the Mortonian lexicon).
I’ve been thinking a lot about Morton lately, this whole idea of “cynical reason” deconstructed by “romantic irony,” that the neoliberal subject can only be challenged through a confrontation with the irrational (or, I guess more specifically, a confrontation with the paradoxical position of being both narrator and part of the narrative frame). And Didion’s Magical Thinking seems to function as a case against this. The irrational paradoxes of grief yield only a desire for return to the normalcy of cynical reason.
One could suggest that the context is different, Morton seems to be focused specifically on environmentalist poetics, where Didion is working through the loss of a loved one. But this loss is environmental, at least in Morton’s broad conception of environment. To put it a little crudely: Didion is looking to resolve a tension between herself and her new environment. But she gets there not through accepting the romantic irony of her situation but rather the opposite. She adapts through rational inquiry, though reasoned interpretation of her experience.
What I’m asking is maybe this: does the irrational, or a confrontation with the irrational, serve only as an impetus for a re-interrogation (or like, a “re-reasoning”) of one’s relationship to one’s environment (in the broad Mortonian sense)? And if so, do we end up any further away from the calculating neoliberal subject that such a confrontation with irrationality is meant to challenge in the first place? How else do we explain our environment to ourselves?

Ambient Poetics in Timothy Morton’s Ecology Without Nature

Some notes on the first chapter of Morton’s Ecology Without Nature :
Ecomemesis is the rhetorical device through which the narrative frame is both identified (the “as I write this…”) and, in some sense, exceeded (the description of what’s “happening” as I write). Morton makes a distinction between “strong” and “weak” ecomimesis: “strong ecomemesis” is the explicit reference to one’s environment (he opens the chapter with three consecutive examples of “strong ecomimesis”, where he describes where he is as he writes). Weak ecomimesis, conversely, occurs whenever “writing evokes an environment”, such that, while the author does not explicitly say “here I am writing next to this tree”, a description of a tree effectively suggests exactly this kind of situatedness: it implicitly places the author in the world. In both cases, the idea is that, in suggesting the world rhetorically, the author gives a glimpse of the larger ideological impulses that inform his conception of “the environment”. As Morton describes, ecomimesis is “a pressure point, crystallizing a vast and complex ideological network of beliefs, practices, and processes in and around the idea of a natural world” (33).
Morton gives an outline of what he calls the “most salient features” of “ambient poetics”, or the rhetorical device through which ecomimesis is imparted. Here’s just roughly what those parts are about:
Rendering: “Rendering is technically what visual- and sonic-effects artists do to a film to generate a more or less consistent sense of atmosphere or world…The idea is that we obtain an immediate world, a directly perceived reality beyond our understanding. When ecomimesis renders an environment, it is implicitly saying: ‘this environment is real; do not think that there is an aesthetic framework here’ “ (35). It’s the basis of a kind of agreement between the author and audience, the suspension of disbelief through which even those who orient themselves by way of a strict post-enlightenment rationality (what Morton calls “cynical reason”) can still basically get on-board with what they implicitly understand to be fictions. It is “immersive yet humorous and ironical in a way that is, in Schiller’s language, sentimental rather than naive” (36). He later circles back on this idea when discussing re-mark, and the ways in which this irony can be exploited to unsettle the boundary between “art” and “non-art”.
The Medial: To do with the actual medium of the communication: “medial writing, for instance, highlights the page on which the words were written, or the graphics out of which they were composed” (37).  He doesn’t explicitly reference McLuhan here but his insistence that “contact becomes content” is pretty much just “the medium is the message”.
The Timbral: It’s “about the sound in its physicality, rather than about its symbolic meaning” (39). The emphasis here has to do with embodiment, I think. Every communication implies its source. He points to Heidegger, who “affirms that we never hear sound in the abstract. Instead, we hear the way things (a very rich word for Heidegger) sound, in almost every active sense of the verb” (40).
The Aeolian: In contrast to the timbral, the aeolian “ensures that ambient poetics establishes a sense of processes continuing without a subject or an author. The Aeolian has no obvious source” (41). This is primarily an unsettling, anxious feature of ambient poetics, because (as suggested by ‘the timbral’) we generally want to know the source of a given sound. As Morton points out, “[m]ost ecomimesis wants to reassure us that the source is merely obscure—we should open our ears and eyes more. But this obscurity is always underwritten by a more threatening void, since this very void is what gives ecomimesis its devine intensity, its admonishing tone of ‘Shh! Listen!’ “(43). The idea, I think, is that the Aeolian speaks to the fundamental unknowability of our environment, and while we might want to conduct ourselves with “cynical reason”, we still intuitively recognize (and are afraid of) the absolute alterity of nature.
Tone: This one is pretty vague, but I think that’s a conscious choice on Morton’s part: “Tone accounts materially for that slippery word atmosphere…Tone is useful because it ambiguously refers both to the body and to the environment. For ‘the body’ (as it is often called in contemporary art and theory) is the environment, in the conventional, vulgar cartesian sense. ‘We inhabit the body’ like a person living in a house. Environmental art makes us aware of our ears, just as much as it makes us aware of atmosphere” (43-44).
Re-Mark: re-mark, borrowed from Derrida, seems to have to do with how ambient poetics signals the cut between foreground and background. This is really the root of Morton’s conception of “ambient poetics”. Morton writes, “[t]he re-mark is the fundamental poreterty of ambience, its basic gesture…It is a special mark (or a series of them) that makes us aware that we are in the presence of (significant) marks…A re-mark differentiates between space and place” (48-49). The real tricky thing, here, is this idea of “significance”, I think, because it seems to suggest a kind of quasi-unique ontological status for works of ambient poetics, or maybe even “art” more generally, in negotiating how the ecological is articulated (and I say “quasi-“ because Morton kind of hedges on this claim later by saying “none of this is to claim that inside and outside ‘really’ exist” (54)). So it’s a kind of paradox: ambient poetics works, for Morton, because it is both a rigid binary (i.e., something either is or is not an art object, as dictated by a “re-mark”), and occupies a kind of liminal space between the two (he points to “the common suburban lawn” (50) as a kind of ambient poetics, insofar as it is both kind of inside and kind of outside).
 Ambient poetics can be understood as a kind of collapsing of art into non-art (or, more generally, a collapsing of a binary between inside and outside). It’s this moment of collapse, the “fleeting, dissolving presence” (51), that Morton is most interested in, because it’s these moments that suggest the artifice (the not-really-existing) of the whole binary. It’s the moment of Romantic irony wherein both author and audience realize that they are not observers of a flat and static ecology, but rather are themselves a part of the ecological. This dissolution, I think, is for Morton the “point” of ecological writing in general. As he posits, “Ecological writing wants to undo habitual distinctions between nature and ourselves. It is supposed not just to describe, but also to provide a working model for a dissolving of the difference between subject and object…If we could not merely figure out but actually experience the fact that we were embedded in our world, then we would be less likely to destroy it” (63-64).

Cruel Mysticism: The Construction of the Spiritual Consumer in Eat Pray Love

(from a talk I did in I think 2015 on travel writing(?))

It’s a weirdly affecting experience to browse the Amazon reviews for Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love. For many people, this book has obviously been extremely meaningful: many reviewers refer to Gilbert as “Liz”, and expound the virtues of her extremely personal narrative, which, as one reviewer instructively suggests, leaves one feeling “inspired, entertained, and hopeful”. Indeed, this sense of unimpeded inspiration and hope seems to be one of the central appeals of the book, as another reviewer suggests that this memoir functions as proof that “one can live one’s life in an ever expanding circle of vitality and joy”. So, with that in mind, this morning I’d like to examine how Gilbert uses this sense of personal inspiration throughout Eat Pray Love to subtly endorse individualist consumerism as a vehicle for spiritual fulfilment.

From the outset of the narrative, it is clear that Gilbert’s primary objective is to establish a sense of trust and complicity between the narrator and her readers, such that when she introduces the reason for her unhappiness, readers are encouraged to consider her situation in relation to their own. Note, for example, the bland generalities she employs to describe her discontent at the opening of the narrative: “I was supposed to want to have a baby. My husband and I…had built our entire life around the common expectation that after the doddering old age of thirty…I would have grown weary of traveling and would be happy to live in a big, busy household full of children and homemade quilts, with a garden in the backyard and cozy stew bubbling on the stovetop” (10). In this way, Gilbert aims squarely at the hidden fears of other middle aged women who find themselves disinterested in the heteronormative American Dream, and invites them to reflect on exactly why the normative family unit is an unfulfilling imposition on their agency as individuals.

In this sense, Gilbert offers a valuable and easily-accessible first-hand account of what Lauren Berlant would call “cruel optimism”, or, the phenomenon in which “something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing” (1). For Berlant, Liz Gilbert’s anxiety would be understood as the disconcerting tension between her attachment to the pursuit of what she has been lead to believe is the “good life”, and her aversion to the normative domestic role of women within that life (i.e., rearing children, tending a garden, making stew). And this tension is really the crucial thing, as it activates Gilbert — and therefore, her trusting readers — to an awareness of the cruelty of their attachments. As Berlant goes on to argue, “if the cruelty of an attachment is experienced by someone…even in a subtle fashion, the fear is that the loss of the promising object/scene itself will defeat the capacity to have any hope about anything” (24). This is to say, the sudden revelation of the paradoxical cruelty of one’s attachments also reveals the precarity of one’s being-in-life, as the subject is forced to find new objects toward which she can orient herself, or else risks a complete loss of attachment to anything and becomes disillusioned with the world as a whole. Thus, an awareness of the cruelty of one’s attachments is both a risk and an opportunity, wherein one’s normative attachments are productively disturbed and the potential to locate new and more fulfilling attachments is activated.

But this is where Berlant and Gilbert’s projects diverge. Where Berlant explicitly lays out the roots of cruel optimism in the reductive logic of consumer capitalism and goes on pursue more productive modes of “being in life without wanting the world”, Gilbert subtly re-inscribes her briefly disillusioned reader back within the logic of consumer capitalism. For Gilbert, the language of female empowerment is employed only so far as to encourage her trusting reader that self-interested consumption is actually a viable method of rebelling against the oppressive norms of their patriarchal society. Thus, when Gilbert goes on to allow herself to “express little baby-step wants” (23), she’s simultaneously granting a kind of permission to her reader as well: her admissions that “I want to go to a Yoga Class”, or “I want to buy myself a new pencil box” (23) are rendered not as fairly straightforward impulses toward consumerism, but as very real personal victories against a society that demands female selflessness. When she first sees the photograph of David’s “spiritual teacher”, she writes, “My heart skipped a beat and then flat-out tripped over itself and fell on its face. Then my heart stood up, brushed itself off, took a deep breath and announced: ‘I want a spiritual teacher’ ” (25). While there is obviously nothing particularly radical about this statement, it’s framed to suggest a new “spiritually active” mode of being in the world. Gilbert’s “heart” heroically brushes itself off from the imposition of selflessness and demands a new set of “spiritual”, or self-interested consumer goods toward which she can orient herself. Thus, the entirety of the narrative that follows, despite what appear to be very real moments of “spirituality”, are always already couched within the logic of personal consumption. This new “spiritual” mode of being is predicated on a slight shift from the normative domestic consumerism that Gilbert defiantly eschews, into the superficially distinct mode of empowering self-interest.

Indeed, the whole text of Eat Pray Love is self-consciously presented as an artifact of consumerism, as the spiritual journey that Gilbert enjoys is entirely enabled by a $200,000 publisher’s advance. As Gilbert describes: “I can actually afford to do this because of a staggering personal miracle: in advance, my publisher has purchased the book I shall write about my travels” (35). Personal miracle or not, the advance reminds us that this text and the “spiritual content” it contains are already products that have been purchased, and will be sold. Thus, to buy into its message of self-empowering spirituality is to confirm the legitimacy of the mechanisms that enabled its production. Again, this does not undermine the very real spiritual experiences that Gilbert describes: spending one fifth of a million dollars and a year abroad to explicitly indulge in self-discovery would doubtlessly be a very transformative experience. But by explicitly embedding that experience within the logic of consumption, Gilbert is subtly reaffirming the ostensibly irrefutable centrality of consumerism as the mediator of human experience: Thus, her trusting reader, who deeply identifies with Liz Gilbert’s disillusionment in the cruelly optimistic “good life fantasy” of house, husband, children, and domestic duties, is seduced by an even greater consumer fantasy of spiritual fulfilment: as Ruth Williams succinctly describes, “the EPL brand purports to allow women to ‘buy’ a piece of Gilbert’s spiritual journey” (615), which, of course, presupposes that spiritual fulfilment is something that can be purchased at all.

Thus, unlike Berlant, who envisions a mode of being beyond “The Good Life fantasy” in which “one would achieve both mental health and a commitment to equality [by embracing] precarity as the condition of being and belonging” (194), Gilbert simply expands what “the good life fantasy” entails: she affirms the inherent value of the heteronormative relationship and its accompanying set of consumer goods, and then appends the additional fantasy of spiritual fulfilment through self-indulgent consumption, a fantasy which the marketplace is eager to accommodate.

Some Thoughts on Grafton Tanner’s Babbling Corpse

I spent the afternoon yesterday reading through Grafton Tanner’s Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts. It’s a fun book! It’s some of the best writing I’ve seen on how the internet actually feels right now: disjointed, ephemeral, endlessly complex and yet somehow still fundamentally shallow.

One of the main arguements of the book, as I see it, is this idea that late capitalism has more or less forced the drive for innovation in art to atrophy, such that what we’re left with is a bunch of mass-produced consumer art that just mines the aesthetics of the past and sells them back to us (i.e., contemporary radio pop is mostly the same rehashed ideas over and over again, comicbook superheroes have re-emerged as an acceptable form of entertainment for adults, star wars is back, etc.). Thus, artistic innovation, marginal as it is, takes on a new form as well: it responds to late capitalism’s slick marauding of the past with some past-maurading of its own, but rather than turning old art into the polished new products, it seeks to transform earlier artifacts of consummerism into warped and uncanny versions of themselves.

The main example of this, for Tanner, is vaporwave, which, as he suggests, “take the fit, smiling, white-teethed mask off Muzak and replaces it with a more sinister face — the dead stare of unfettered capitalism” (41). For Tanner, vaporwave is the quintessential genre of late capitalism, as it employs capitalism’s own tricks and repurposes them for its own end (i.e., endless repetition, rehashed asthetics, shallow gestures toward broader concepts or themes). Tanner’s discussion of vaporwave’s relationship with consummerism is really illuminating and gave me a lot to think about.

What I wanted to draw attention to, though, is Tanner’s suggestion that Vaporwave actually manages to escape the endless cycle of production and consumption that characterizes late capitalism. He writes, “for the most part, there is a product we cannot consume in the virtual plaza, and that is vaporwave itself. Vaporwave is the sound of the virtual plaza reframed and thrown back at us in an attempt to reveal for us capital’s stronghold on our existence, but its method of production and distribution lies totally outside the financial transactions that occur in the plaza” (45). At first glance, this is a fair point: vaporwave is usually produced by individuals in their spare time, usually distributed for free on bandcamp or youtube.

But what’s worth considering, I think, is that what vaporwave is offering extends beyond the artifacts it produces. Vaporwave can also be understood as an aesthetic (or, “a e s t h e t i c 美的”, if you will), by virtue of which it is inherently available to be appropriated by the same late consummer capitalist culture that it is critiquing. In this sense, vaporwave producers are actually just performing the free creative labour in a process that is always already capitalism. While the novelty of the genre might feel subversive now, it‘s not particularly difficult to imagine a vaporwave soundalike scoring a make-up commercial or something (btw, has this already happened?). Consider how quickly vaporwave’s spiritual precursor chillwave transitioned from the Hot New Thing into a sort of punchline once some mainstream blogs got a hold of it (note as well that the longest lasting artifact of chillwave is probably Washed Out’s Gary Low-sampling “Feel It All Around”, which is now best known as the theme music for IFC’s Portlandia).

My point is basically this: while I agree with Tanner that vaporwave does serve as an interesting example of how art can continue to respond to the impositions of late capitalism in genuinely surprising ways, I remain sceptical as to wether it provides a model for actually transcending the late capitalist ethos in any sustainable way. The best we can hope for, maybe, is that, as late capitalism continues to mine our cultural past in an increasingly invasive and grotesque manner, art will responsively become weirder and more difficult to translate into a marketable product.

Btw, you can buy Babbling Corpse here at Zero Books.