Handle With Care
At a moment when public support for care cannot be assumed to have social value, close attention should be paid to the particulars of affective labor that are the (im)material support of care. Tracing a deliberately false etymology of the term “precarity,” a reading of six “scenes” of care considers how it might be possible to reframe the question of deathcare through an ethical practice of “intimate distance,” and to enable the vital “as if” labor of imagining support for a good death.
Review 56.4 (Winter 2012): 123–37.
Preliminary Version of Handle with Care written for Public Feelings Salon with Lauren Berlant and Response from Berlant, Event on April 12, 2011 and Responses published on December 19, 2012, Barnard Center for Research on Women
The Imperative Mood
“Now! Visual Culture” is the exclamation of practice in the imperative
mood. It’s the punctuating “bang”
of affect as creative social and political force. The exclamation point was once known as the screamer and the
gasper—affective responses that recall scenes of public protest and violent
state reactions across the globe. From the Tahrir Square chants to the resonant
calls of “Occupy,” the imperative mood is everywhere, and it is catching. In a “now!” moment marked by profound precarity and
shaken by economic, social, and environmental crises, what can the
imperative mood do? How might we move off from the marching orders we are
given? First presented at “Now! Visual Culture,” the first conference of
the newly formed International Association for Visual Culture (NYU, May 2012) as a lighting talk
response to the question “What is visual culture now?,” I developed this piece
further to address the question of the lasting significance of W.J.T.
Mitchell’s concept of “images at war” or the agency of images in and amidst
violent conflict. This essay offers three
flagrantly absurd tactics in the counter-imperative mood. Each takes a melancholic turn (to dead
media, to the ruined and abandoned production sites of modernity, and to
seemingly outmoded tools and furnishings of daily life), a turning back that is
also a pressing forward against the temporality of the now. In so re-turning they point to the
extent to which this imperative “now!” is enacted in spaces “pre-occupied” by
the ghosts and specters of not just failures and the forgotten, but the
still-stirring promises their recycling re-habitation may yet reactivate.
“The Imperative Mood” (#8, June 18, 2012), For the special issue of Nomadikon (the online blog of the Bergen Center of Visual Culture, Norway) on “Image Wars.”
Epilogue: Landscape in, around, and under the Performative
This epilogue to the dossier on “Feminist Landscapes” asserts that, like the performative and its periperformative vicinities, landscape matters (and is volatile, fascinating, and queer in the ways it matters and performs). The 10+ theses that follow set landscape in motion as a verb in, around, and under the performative, which means that they do much, if not most, of their volatile, even alchemical, work (in aspect, mood, modality, voice) in what Eve Sedgwick theorized as the periperformative's neck of the woods. Each thesis inflects the verb “to landscape” by conjugating a conceptually significant verb form with a complex instance of landscape in the performative by a contemporary woman artist actively engaged with landscaping. These landscaping performatives and periperformatives do their work through diverse assemblages of media and technique. But this is not a turn from landscaping to its representation understood as some sort of second-order remove from the real dirt and raking muck in the scaping of land. Ultimately, these 10+ theses develop the vital alchemy of what it means for feminist theory and practice to put landscape into serious play as a transformatively shaping multi-tense verb.
“Epilogue: Landscape in, around, and under the Performative,” Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory 21.1 (2011), 97–116.
This essay theorizes the ethical potential of photography or what I call “pyrography” by enacting a version of care for death in attending closely to a sort of rehearsal for the deathbed in French photographer and writer Hervé Guibert’s photo-novel Suzanne and Louise first published by Gallimard in 1980, the same year as Roland Barthes’s famous essay on photography, Camera Lucida. The essay develops the transformative ethical possibilities of and queer political potentialities of pyrography by reading Guibert’s project with his two elderly aunts in relation to the work of two of Guibert’s intimates: Michel Foucault’s “The Social Triumph of the Sexual Will” and Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida and Mourning Diary. In Mourning Diary, Barthes describes the plan for Camera Lucida as an ephemeral monument to his dead mother whose loss he calls, following the last work of psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott: “the catastrophe that has already occurred.” Through its own writing with fire of the death we fear that has already occurred and that we cannot access directly, photography may most effectively enable the kind of “as if” work or projective imaginative enactment for which Winnicott calls. This essay develops the concept of the photographic pyre or pyrographies to demonstrate the power of a kind of photographic act, a facture of and with the flammable not of and about the past but for the present and future, as a practice of making volatile structures for feeling with the taboo scenes of the conjunction of old age, desire, and death that create spaces not just for mourning the losses that have actually happened but spaces in which one might begin to imagine and transact with care the losses and the letting go yet to come. Pyrographies, I am suggesting, may trade in the illusions of presence and give us the catastrophe that has already occurred in palpable form to enable us to negotiate shame and fear but also desire toward the seemingly impossible: the good death.
“Pyrographies,” Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory 22.1 (March 2012): 109-31.
Chimerical Figurations at the Monstrous Edges of Species
While the results of transplantation are figured, even in medical discourse, as monstrous hybrids or chimerical combinations of human, plant, and animal, from the early beginnings of modernity in the eighteenth century, the action or process of figuration has also been conceived as the fantastic power to commingle, reshape, and materialize potent and often category and order-defying combinations, transgressing the bounds of species. Nathan Bailey’s 1730 Dictionarium Brittanicum: or a more compleat universal etymological dictionary, for example, defines figuration as chimerical vision, a means of not merely ambiguating form but also transforming and re-forming at the edges of species. This essay’s method matches its subject in assembling into promiscuous contact a set of protean, unstable, and even monstrous figurations from the current experiments with stem cell transplantation to La Méttrie’s l’homme-plante, the hydra of Abraham Trembley’s cutting operations on this animal that was understood to resemble and behave like a rhizomorphic plant, the very first live human transplants performed by John Hunter with human teeth, and early modern the slave plantation system.
I enlist these radical experiments in materializing figuration to think about the colonial history of the dangers and possibilities of transplantation for a queered environmental discourse. In thinking in and with these charged figurations, I engage not only Foucault’s understanding of the new forms of biopower in the micro-technics for the making and reconstitution of life but also Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s collaborative conceptualization of the power of aesthetic figures elaborated in What is Philosophy? (1991) as sensations, affects that radically alter both subject and matter toward a “nonhuman becoming,” (173) “a becoming animal, plant, molecular, becoming zero,” (169) envisioned, in an embrace of virtual possibility, as bringing forth from chaos the shadow of the people or as yet incompletely conceived entities—complex, protean assemblages--to come.
Arguing that the current imaginary of transplantation has not merely a mythological but also a colonial history, this essay extends my work on the way in which colonial transplants remade the Caribbean and relayed to radically alter the metropolis, work which I began in my book Sowing Empire: Landscape and Colonization. If contemporary discourses and practices of transplantation and the present use of the name "chimera" to designate transplant subjects do, indeed, have, as I lay out in this essay (and the larger project of which it forms a small part), a colonial history of race, sex, environmental preservationism, and landscaping and, as the early modern relocation and (cross)breeding of human bodies, animals, and plants suggest, the current discourses and representations of transplantation are deeply imbricated with colonial taxonomies of race, gender, and sex, with colonial hierarchies of what is "human" and what counts as "culture," and with early modern practices of what Michel Foucault called "biopower" (particularly, the production of power through efforts to control reproduction in all its forms), then I propose that we have something to learn and even to hope from the protean ontological possibilities of monstrous, chimerical, or “queer nature” and the new indeterminate figurations and subjects to come after the protectionism of “endangered species” and in creative agonistic contact with the colonial history of its before.
“Chimerical Figurations at the Monstrous Edges of Species,” Environmental Criticism for the 21st-Century, eds. Ken Hiltner, Stephanie Lemenager, and Theresa Shewry (London: Routledge Press, 2011), 61–83.