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.