Thursday, August 07, 2014


Recall the relations of facticity, figurality, and fetishism that have preoccupied our course. Think of the different relations posited between poiesis and theoria (think how differently Barthes and Haraway talk about Myth, for example). Think of the turns of critical theory, from the post-philosophical threshold figures of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, to the postwar turn to biopolitics in Arendt, Fanon, and Foucault, to the later turn we discern in Haraway, Butler, Gilroy, Latour, and Spivak. Think about the problems and promises of the crisis of digital finance and vacuous "open" networks and environmental catastrophe: what planetary futurity is emerging out of the ruins of white racist patriarchal global extractive industrial corporate-militarism?

The following is from "Planetarity," Chapter Three of Death of a Discipline by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, published in 2003 by the Columbia University Press and based on the Wellek Library Lectures in Critical Theory she delivered in May 2000. The following excerpts amount to just a few pages from a much longer text and are divided (by me) into numbered theses -- most of them shorn of the context of close textual readings that give them their specific vitality -- but each one of which comments in this form on key themes from our course.


The meaning of the figure is undecidable, and yet we must attempt to dis-figure it, read the logic of the metaphor. We know that the figure can and will be literalized in yet other ways. All around us is the clamor for the rational destruction of the figure, the demand for not clarity but immediate comprehensibility by the ideological average. This destroys the force of literature as a cultural good… [T]o learn to read is to learn to dis-figure the undecidable figure into a responsible literality, again and again. It is my belief that initiation into cultural explanation is… a training in reading.


I propose the planet to overwrite the globe. Globalization is the imposition of the same system of exchange everywhere. In the gridwork of electronic capital, we achieve that abstract ball covered in latitudes and longitudes, cut by virtual lines, once the equator and the tropics and so on, now drawn by the requirements of Geographical Information Systems. To talk planet-talk by way of unexamined environmentalism, referring to an undivided "natural" space rather than a differentiated political space, can work in the interest of this globalization… The globe is on our computers. No one lives there. It allows us to think we can aim to control it. The planet is in the species of alterity, belonging to another… and yet we inhabit it, on loan…. When I invoke the planet I think of the effort required to figure the (im)possibility of this undrived intuition.


To be human is to be intended toward the other. W provide for ourselves transcendental figurations of… this animating gift: mother, nation, god, nature. These are names of alterity, some more radical than others. Planet-thought opens up to embrace an inexhaustible taxonomy of such names… If we imagine ourselves as… planetary creatures rather than global entities, alterity remains underived from us; it is not our dialectical negation, it contains us as much as it flings us away… We must persistently educate ourselves into this peculiar mindset.


One will have to look out for what Raymond Williams calls the preemergent around the corner, suppressed by a specifically metropolitan moment that emphasizes the uneven and asymmetrical global digital divide. The "preemergent" leads us toward a "structure of feeling." … But thinking of institutional attitudes to be fostered by pedagogy, we do not need to tap those modes, we need only remember them. The altered attitudes toward language learning, areas versus nation-states, figure versus rational expectations… can no doubt be plotted as a "structure of feeling," if that is the language we prefer. The scenario that I am constructing would suggest that the dominant figuring of "prehistory" as cyberpresent or science fiction adventure would interfere with the emergence of the figuration of an undecidable planetary alterity.


The country… is not simply the prenational as opposed to the national. It is also the… mass of the national, to which the blood rushes first and that becomes continuous with the exchange of the Earth. The Earth is the paranational image that can substitute for international and can perhaps provide, today, a displaced site for the imagination of planetarity. The choice of the blood rushing back as the first move, the description of the rural as a specifically national mass, and the inclusion of the trade-related word "redistribution" … seeks to undo the contradiction between the national and the rural.


Just as socialism at its best would persistently and repeatedly wrench capital away frm capitalism, so must the new Comparative Literature persistently and repeatedly undermine and undo the definitive tendency of the dominant to appropriate the emergent… Training in such persistent and repetitive gestures comes, necessarily, in the classroom… This is not an easy "positional skepticism of postmodernist literary and cultural studies," but something to worked through in the interest of yoking the humanities, however distantly, with however few guarantees, to a just world… If we want to compete with the hard "science"(s) and the social sciences at their hardest as "human science," we have already lost, as one loses institutional competition. In the arena of humanities as the uncoercive rearrangement of desire, he who wins loses.


In this era of global capital triumphant, to keep responsibility alive in the reading and teaching of the textual is at first sight impractical. It is, however, the right of the textual to be so responsible, responsive, answerable. The "planet" is, here, as perhaps always, a catachresis for inscribing collective responsibility as right. Its alterity, determining experience, is mysterious and discontinuous -- an experience of the impossible. It is such collectivities that must be opened up with the question "How many are we?" when cultural origin is detranscendentalized into fiction -- the toughest task in the diaspora.


Allyn Benintendi said...

I find "Three" to be similar to Judith Butler's argument that our identities are composed of relations with others. It reminds me of her concept of dispossession, that it might be better to imagine ourselves as just beings that do, rather than as beings that are. I am intrigued by the concept of imagining ourselves as "planetary creatures rather than global entities," because again it reminds me of yesterday's discussion about identity and Butler's theory.

Angela Jiang said...

"Two" proposes that humans look past globalization and to embrace the physical, natural space of our planet and our relations with each other. This reminded me Daniel Quinn's philosophical novel, Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit and it's take on dividing cultures into two groups, Takers and Leavers. Takers are members of the dominant culture, which sees humans as rulers of the world, whose destiny is to grow without check and dominate first the planet, then the universe, through technological innovations. Leavers are members of tribal cultures that live in sync with the planet. Globalization is the product of Takers culture, and to disregard the differentiated political space that we Takers have created for ourselves is to say we should disregard the belief that humans are the destined rulers and guardians of Mother Earth, and digress back into a nomadic lifestyle, "belonging to another" instead of controlling another.

Sydney Rock said...

On thesis one:
I find it really interesting that Spivak wants to “dis-figure” the figure rather than, perhaps, deconstruct it (or rationally destruct it, as she writes). Perhaps “dis-figuring” something necessitates its literalization in ways that render the term more responsible for the needs of those living. If the meaning is undecidable and we must dis-figure it, perhaps we must decide—not in a way that is whole or totalizing, but in a way that accounts for the necessity of a “responsible literality” that takes into account the safety that can come from the literal as well as its need to always be refigured, dis-figured, and re-literalized differently. We must dis-figure the undecidable “again and again,” deciding in a way that is never final and that will always be open to further dis-figuration.