Blue and Lead

On Mel Y. Chen’s Toxic Inanimacies in conversation with Maggie Nelson’s Bluets

1.

Lead, as a material representative of toxicity, teeters on both the sides of life and nonlife. It straddles “the literal bounds of bodies, in ways that introduce a certain complexity to the presumption of integrity of either lifely or deathly subjects” (Chen 279). I think about Mel’s consideration of toxicity the same way the poet Maggie Nelson considers the colour blue. In Bluets, Nelson animates blue in a similar way in which Mel animates lead. Nelson refracts life through blue, as Mel refracts life through toxicity. My associations between the two also come from their shared philosophical undertone, the use of poetic language, the autobiographical elements, and their decision to write about two subjects which share a diffuse and permeable characteristic – they are in things, they exist within things, but are barely considered in the meticulous, molecular way that Mel and Nelson do. I especially think about the future implications of considering life on the level of its foundations – what changes when we think of life through the atom.

2.

Through this method of thought, sharing pain becomes an act of generosity.

In Fragment 104, Nelson writes, “I do not feel my friend’s pain, but when I intentionally cause her pain I wince as if I hurt somewhere, and I do. […] She says, ‘if anyone knows this pain besides me, it is you.’ This is generous, for to be close to her pain has always felt like a privilege to me, even though pain could be defined as that which we typically aim to avoid. Perhaps this is because she remains so generous within hers.”

Does this operate within the same logic and affect as when Mel proposes “toxicity propels, not repels, queer loves” (Chen 281)? I understand the same surface level associations that people make with “toxicity as pain”, not “toxicity as gratitude.” But both writers invite new understandings of previously damned concepts. Toxicity propels, produces, gives birth to spaces in which queer loves are able to exist and thrive beyond normative understandings of love. These new understandings are harder to grasp, but are infinitely rewarding when done so.

Mel talks about having love for a couch. This couch, an inanimate body whose arms and back were responsible for the soothing and comforting that any other animate body could not have given in a particular toxic moment. In the throes of dizzying poisoning, Mel finds the needed stillness that the couch offered.

Pain operates in an analogous way. Nelson acknowledges the way in which her friend’s pain translates into a generosity previously articulated through different ways. Ever since her friend’s accident, her friend now embodies a new existence which is now inextricably bound with dependence – quadriparalysis requires a wheelchair and a caretaker. Though this dependence has given her a different aura ­­— one of an oracle, a figure upon which people come to willingly. Now, pain becomes a language upon which their ever-evolving friendship rests. In another book, The Argonauts, Nelson refers to Barthes’ description of how “the subject who utters the phrase ‘I love you’ is like the ‘Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name. Just as the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase, ‘I love you,’ its meaning must be renewed by each use, as the ‘very task of love and language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.” In this sense, life has changed some aspects of sociality between Nelson and her friend. It now necessitates different forms of love that need to make sense within life as it is now.

This too extends to how Mel engages with toxicity as something that propels. Through an illustrative account of hypersensitivity and the shutting down of the body, Mel describes the ways in which the condition has forced Mel to find creative ways to survive, finding aid through objects that most people do not consider as solace. When one’s subjectivity is (dis)regarded through codes of normativity and intersecting forces of oppression, one begins to look for new ways to navigate life in a way that moves beyond undesired conditions – finding ways to replace the ship’s parts.

3.

Nelson writes: “159. A good many have figured God as light, but a good many have also figured him as darkness.  She recalls the idea of a “Divine Darkness,” which must be separated from other forms of darkness, such as the darkness of sin or the darkness of the soul. I relate this idea of Divine Darkness to previous articulations of both toxin and blue as having two contradictory forces within them – life and death. Both toxin and blue can be sources of profound hope, but also of uncertainty. I am thinking about the widespread use of “toxic” as a surrogate for “abusive.” Pop psychology is often guilty of this place-holding. It does speak to larger questions of love, which Mel aptly reminds us is worthy of theoretical consideration.

4.

How can someone love perfume aisles and find them pleasurable, therapeutic? How is it that so much of desire and attraction are inextricably bound to smell and consumption (luxury perfumes, aromatherapy, unique mixes of essential oils for “ultrasonic diffusers”) when it can have a mortal effect on many people? What changes when something that gives life[1] can also subject others to death?

In Fragment 181, Nelson writes, “Pharmakon means drug, but as Jacques Derrida and others have pointed out, the word in Greek famously refuses to designate whether poison or cure. It holds both in the bowl. In the dialogues, Plato uses the word to refer to everything from an illness, its cause, its cure, a recipe, a charm, a substance, a spell, artificial colour, and paint.” The same logic applies to the designation of toxicity as a doubly-voiced phenomenon, equally capable of propagating and inhabiting life in a way that’s purposefully vague. The implications of this are potentially threatening, especially beyond the realm of the personal. Structurally, we must understand that policies and rights are often blanketed under the same benevolent guise – “The law is there to protect us” or “Trans rights are human rights.” But suffice it to say that the polysemous nature of things can sharply change how one person experiences life, especially in relation to, or against, our own experiences of life which we may be reluctant to question. One possible way is to feel settled in ambiguity. To accept that certain phenomena – whether lead, or blue – are ultimately shaped through dominant discourses that give life to some and withhold it from others. If only on a personal level, to understand that things are not as they are according to what we know, and to feel comfortable in this and not betrayed.

 

 

[1] Or something that elevates life. After all, fragrance can be a treat for the senses, much like how eating good food directly speaks to pleasure, and by extension, hedonism.

Excerpts from “A Lover’s Discourse” by Roland Barthes

Talking

déclaration / declaration

The amorous subject’s propensity to talk copiously, with repressed feeling, to the loved being, about his love for that being, for himself, for them: the declaration does not bear upon the avowal of love, but upon the endlessly glossed form of the amorous relation.

1.      Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire. The emotion derives from a double contact: on the one hand, a whole activity of discourse discreetly, indirectly focuses upon a single signified, which is “I desire you,” and releases, nourishes, ramifies it to the point of explosion (language experiences orgasm upon touching itself); on the other hand, I enwrap the other in my words, I caress, brush against, talk up this contact, I extend myself to make the commentary to which I submit the relation endure.

[…]
—-

“Adorable!”

adorable / adorable

Not managing to name the specialty of his desire for the loved being, the amorous subject falls back on this rather stupid word: adorable!

[…]

3.     I encounter millions of bodies in my life; of these millions, I may desire some hundreds; but of these hundreds, I love only one. The other with whom I am in love designates for me the specialty of my desire. This choice, so rigorous that it retains only the Unique, (Lacan) constitutes, it is said, the difference between the analytical transference and the amorous transference; one is universal, the other specific. It has taken many accidents, (Proust) many surprising coincidences (and perhaps many efforts), for me to find the Image which, out of a thousand, suits my desire. Herein a great enigma, to which I shall never possess the key: Why is it that I desire So-and-so? Why is it that I desire So-and-so lastingly, longingly? Is it the whole of So-and-so I desire (a silhouette, a shape, a mood)? And, in that case, what is it in this loved body which has the vocation of a fetish for me? What perhaps incredibly tenuous portion—what accident? The way a nail is cut, a tooth broken slightly aslant, a lock of hair, a way of spreading the fingers while talking, while smoking? About all these folds of the body, I want to say that they are adorableAdorable means: this is my desire, insofar as it is unique: “That’s it! That’s it exactly (which I love!” Yet the more I experience the specialty of my desire, the less I can give it a name; to the precision of the target corresponds a wavering of the name; what is characteristic of desire, proper to desire, can produce only an impropriety of the utterance. Of this failure of language, there remains only one trace: the word “adorable” (the right translation of “adorable” would be the Latin ipse: it is the self, himself, herself, in person.)

LACAN: “It is not everyday that you encounter what is so constituted as to give you precisely the image of your desire.”
PROUST: Scene of the specialty of desire: Jupien and Charlus meet in the courtyard of the Hôtel de Guermantes (at the beginning of Cities of the Plain.)

4.     Adorable is the futile vestige of a fatigue—the fatigue of language itself. From word to word, I struggle to put “into other words” the ipseity of my Image, to express improperly the propriety of my desire: a journey at whose end my final philosophy can only be to recognize—and to practice—tautology. The adorable is what is adorable. Or again: I adore you because you are adorable, I love you because I love you. What thereby closes off the lover’s language is the very thing which has instituted it: fascination. For to describe fascination can never, in the last analysis, exceed this utterance: “I am fascinated.” Having attained the end of language, where it can merely repeat its last word like a scratched record, I intoxicate myself upon its affirmation: is not tautology that preposterous state in which are to be found, all values being confounded, the glorious end of the logical operation (Nietzsche), the obscenity of stupidity, and the explosion of the Nietzschean yes?

p0stm0dernism

The critic Fredric Jameson defines late capitalism or postmodernism as an era of “new depthlessness, which finds its prolongation both in contemporary theory and in a whole new culture of the image” (14). The image as a primary category in defining the logic of late capitalism functions as Debord’s foundation on the spectacle. This is the world of the “autonomous image” (2) where images mediate social relationships between people; and this mediation is called the spectacle (4). The spectacle permeates daily life insofar as it obscures the distinction between the real and the imaginary:

The spectacle cannot be set in abstract opposition to concrete social activity, for the dichotomy between reality and image will survive on either side of any such distinction. Thus the spectacle, though it turns reality on its head, is itself a product of real activity. Likewise, lived reality suffers the material assaults of the spectacle’s mechanisms of contemplation, incorporating the spectacular order and lending that order positive support. (8)

Debord details the fusion of reality into spectacle, and spectacle into reality where one cannot be separated from the other. Through its autonomy, the intangible image assumes the substance of tangible reality. Images transform into beings since “the spectacle’s job is to cause a world that is no longer directly perceptible to be seen via different specialized mediations” (18). Sensory experiences are skewed along with this inability to perceive. The sense experience of sight has been elevated to the sense experience of touch, the “most abstract of senses and the most easily deceived” (18). However, Debord argues that this skewing of senses does not entail the clear perceptibility of the spectacle; rather, considering its deceptive nature, the spectacle remains immune and inaccessible from any true perception. As “the opposite of dialogue,” the spectacle is by definition immune from human activity; wherever representation takes on an independent existence, the spectacle reestablishes its rule (18). In this amalgamation of real and imaginary, which rendered the spectacle hidden from plain sight, an illusion of a unified society appears.

The image of the blissful unification of society through consumption suspends disbelief with regard to the reality of division only until the next disillusionment occurs in the sphere of actual consumption. Each and every new product is supposed to offer a dramatic shortcut to the long awaited promised land of total consumption. (69)

The paradox that underlies this notion of the spectacle as a unifying entity comes from the fact that this function primarily came from the “perfect separation” of society; where, “the world at once present and absent which the spectacle makes visible is the world of the commodity dominating all that is lived” (37). Debord writes, “the phenomenon of separation is part and parcel of the unity of the world, of a global social praxis that has split up into reality on the one hand and image on the other” (7). Debord owes the origins of the spectacle in the world’s “loss of unity” during the massive expansion of production in the modern period (29). Because all individualized work has been abstracted and fragmented (i.e. alienation) in a global scale, the spectacle has successfully divided the world into two parts: first, the unseen world of exploitative production and all its oppressive conditions, and second, the “Self-representation to the world, and is superior to the world” (29). The second division championed by the spectacle, reigns; where the true relations of production are suppressed to favor an image of it. It allows for the “estrangement of men among themselves and vis-à-vis their global product” (37). This produces a one-way relationship between spectacle and spectator; maintaining a separation through an act of wholeness.
A similar idea is brought forth by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in the essay “Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” Adorno and Horkheimer argue for the homogeneity of all mass media–including film, radio, journalism, and photography–which mimic the occupants of cities as inhabitants of work and leisure as “living cells crystallized into homogenous, well-organized complexes.”

The conspicuous unity of macrocosm and microcosm confronts human beings with a model of their culture: the false identity of universal and particular. All mass culture under monopoly is identical […] (95)

The idea of an illusory unified whole in the spectacular world of images, also referred to as “the culture industry,” is a filter where all things and all experiences must pass through. Using the moviegoer (the spectator as it were) as the example, Adorno and Horkheimer write, “The familiar experience of the moviegoer, who perceives the street outside as a continuation of the film he has just left, because the film seeks strictly to reproduce the world of everyday perception, has become the guideline of production” (99). The world of the cinema and the world outside of it begin to have a seamless conjugation; just as what Debord says of the spectacle blurring the distinctions between the real and the imaginary. An extension of the homogeneity of real and imaginary is the ambiguity between art and commodity. The rise of mechanized production saw the sacrifice of quality for speed.

The cheapness of mass produced luxury articles, and its complement, universal fraud, are changing the commodity character of art itself. That character is not new: it is the fact that art now dutifully admits to being a commodity, abjures its autonomy and proudly takes its place among consumer goods, that has the charm of novelty. (127)

The amalgamation of art with commodification, that is, the interspersing of art with fetishism and equating it with mere exchange value and use value, results in an “amusement industry” where the spectator and consumer of the artwork becomes the ideology whose institutions he or she cannot escape (128). The arguments for “art for art’s sake,” purposiveness without purposes, are almost oxymoronic insofar as the very purpose of art is to find its place in, and be dictated by, the market. The art-as-commodity then “defrauds human beings in advancing the liberation from the principle of utility which it is supposed to bring about;” that art, as soon as it started going through the process of commodification, has started to be deceived into the passivity customary in the process of consumption. Following the logic of Adorno and Horkheimer, art has become assimilated into the homogeneity of the mass media and all its superficial iterations.

Today works of art, suitably packaged like political slogans, are pressed on a reluctant public at reduced prices by the culture industry; they are opened up for popular enjoyment like parks. However, the erosion of their genuine commodity character does not mean that they would be abolished in the life of a free society but that the last barrier to their debasement as cultural assets has now been removed. The abolition of educational privilege by disposing of culture at bargain prices does not admit the masses to the preserves from which they were formerly excluded but, under the existing social conditions, contributes to the decay of education and the progress of barbaric incoherence. (130)

The deception inherent in the culture industry and its method of mass production, which entails easier accessibility in obtaining goods (luxury or otherwise),lies in the notion of accessibility to goods as analogous to accessibility to bourgeois privilege and culture. The culture of late capitalism encourages dilettantism, where “surface knowledge,” reflecting the equally superficial treatment of goods and commodities (i.e. perfectly identical produtcts via machinery as opposed to the artisanal craftsmanship whose handiwork supply ‘originality’ to each product). However, the fraud lies in the relinquishing of expertise (or rather, an appearance of relinquishment) as means of elevating the dilettantes to the level of the real learned, the real keepers of knowledge–the bourgeoisie. Mass media, while giving the appearance of a unified society who are able to partake in the same products, who are able to share in the same information (for “nothing is expensive anymore” (130) ), furthers class stratification not merely through the material, but through the cultural. All consumers, as vessels of ideology, are able to access the material; but what becomes more significant is the process of reification–the transformation of social relations into fetishes and signifiers. The cementing of bourgeois superiority becomes two-fold: first, through profit (material) and the second and more insidious, through taste (the cultural), which they themselves dictate and provide for the masses to consume. As the culture industry becomes a vehicle for profit, all of its modes become advertisements.

Culture is a paradoxical commodity. It is so completely subject to the law of exchange that it is no longer exchange; it is so blindly equated with use that it can no longer be used. For this reason it merges with the advertisement. Its motives are economic enough. That life could continue without the whole culture industry is too certain; the satiation and apathy it generates among consumers are too great. Advertising is its elixir of life. But because its product ceaselessly reduces the pleasure it promises as a commodity to that mere promise; it finally coincides with the advertisement it needs on account of its own inability to please. (131)

Almost aware of its own deceptive nature, the advertisement is an enticement and a convincing of the ‘goodness’ in each commodity. As Adorno and Horkheimer note earlier, “The culture industry perpetually cheats its consumers of what it perpetually promises. The promissory note which, with its plots and staging, it draws on pleasure is endlessly prolonged; the promise, which is actually all the spectacle consists of, is illusory” (104). Mass media as remaining in a perpetual state of advertisement is at once deceptive and ubiquitous in all its forms; and what furthers its affectivity is its empty benevolence masking as authentic promise. The homogeneity in the culture industry which allows for the idea on the harmony between producer and consumer–that the elite and the masses read, write, watch, see, hear, consume the same things to form an undivided society with equal participation–contradict the very mechanisms that define class struggle, creating instead its own naturalized version of society, not as the culture industry, but the world as it is.

The culture industry champions the perceived “naturalness” between cultural product and everyday existence (101), a notion that becomes more effective in its insidiousness. Its creation of a lexicon, the transmission of ideas through a unique vocabulary and syntax, allows for the industry to control the entirety of media from what is explicit and implicit, to what is forbidden and tolerated (101). “Tempo and dynamism” represent the movement of the culture industry; where “nothing is allowed to stay as it was, everything must be endlessly in motion” (106). The motion of the culture industry is repetition; here, the culture industry’s totality has merged into the irreconcilable elements of culture, art, and amusement as having an “intrinsic” purpose where none really exists (as the essay notes, “the truth is that [the culture industry] is nothing but business used as ideology to legitimize the trash they intentionally produce (95). The commodification of culture, art, amusement–this commodification-of-everything¬–allows for the repression of the masses. “The culture industry does not sublimate: it represses” (111). This repression allows for the passivity of the consumer-spectator:

The spectator must need no thoughts of his own: the product–prescribes each reaction, not through any actual coherence–which collapses once exposed to thought–but through signals. Any logical connection presupposing mental capacity is scrupulously avoided. Developments are to emerge from the directly preceding situation, not from the idea of the whole. (109)

Echoing Debord’s idea on the one-way relationship from spectacle to spectator, Adorno and Horkheimer argue for the idea of the spectators’ pacification through presenting the totality of life in a manner that does not allow for any real response. “To offer them something and to withhold it is one and the same” (113). The culture industry is the end-all of wishes and desires; it creates reality in such a way that “all needs should be presented to individuals as capable of fulfillment by the culture industry, they should be set up in advance that individuals experience themselves through their needs only as eternal consumers, as the culture industry’s object” (113). Take, for example, the idea of “chance,” that is, the fortune or misfortune of the individual (117). Adorno and Horkheimer assert the correspondence between “chance” and “planning” in the context of late capitalism, especially in instances where one particular individual is given the illusion of a transformed life by “chance.” They write:

Chance itself is planned; not in the sense that it will affect this or that particular individual but in that people believe in its control. For the planners it serves as an alibi, giving the impression that the web of transactions and measures into which life has been transformed still leaves room for spontaneous, immediate relationships between human beings. Such freedom is symbolized in the various media of the culture industry by the arbitrary selection of average cases. (117)

Paradigmatic of this is the selection of the “lucky competition winner” held by newspaper or magazines; and coincidentally the winner always happens to be an average, “everyman” with a nine-to-five day job; the vessel through which the “powerlessness of everyone” is reflected (117). Another vessel for this powerlessness is the figure of the film star (112). The film star epitomizes the false unification of the universal and the particular; as a ubiquitous figure, the film star “with whom one is supposed to fall in love, is, from the start, a copy of himself” (112). Debord makes an equivalent distinction with the figure of the celebrity, the spectacular concentration of a living human being (60). The celebrity is the agent of the spectacle, put on stage as a star, and is the opposite of the individual, embodying the normalization of “power and vacations, decision and consumption” (60) representing the varied types of “global” life styles endemic to the spectacle. The film star, or celebrity, as image and embodiment of the banalization logic of late capitalism furthers the commodification of not merely objects, but subjects (i.e. not merely things, but people) as well.

 

In asserting the role of the written word, Debord traces its history to the emergence of political power as coinciding with the first signs of dissolution of the bonds of kinship (131). Writing then became a “purposeful succession of events, a mechanism of the transmission of power.”

The ruler’s chief weapon was the written word, which now attained its full autonomous reality as mediation between consciousness. This independence, however, was indistinguishable from the general independence of a separate power as the mediation whereby society was constituted. With writing came a consciousness no longer conveyed and transmitted solely within the immediate relationships of the living–an impersonal memory that was the administration of society. (131)

Writing is a form of political mediation, concurrent with the idea of spectacle. What comes to mind then are the contemporary forms of writing which specifically aim to transmit the political sphere to the public sphere. Jurgen Habermas defines the public sphere as the space where events and occasions are open to all (1). He details the many iterations of “public” where it turns into “publicity,” “publish,” “publicize,” “public opinion,” and “informed public” (2). The creation of mass media, however, changes the meaning of the public entirely. Of this transformation, he says, “[while the realm of mass media] originally [had] a function of public opinion, it has become an attribute of whatever attracts public opinion: public relations and efforts recently baptized “publicity work” are aimed at producing such publicity” (2). The transformation of society under mass media has also transformed the category of publicity. Furthered under the era of mass media is the rise of new commercial relationships: the “traffic in commodities and news” (15) in the beginnings of capitalism. The development of this traffic in news and the traffic in commodities showed a similar pattern: the great trade cities of commodities became at the same time centers for traffic in news (16) up to the degree that the exchange of commodities and of news became continuous. However, the news at this time were limited to “insiders”–merchants, urban and court chanceries–who preferred that the news served only the needs and interests of the administration. The beginnings of “news” then were circulated only to those who were allowed the published information. The process of commodification then transformed the “public” idea of newspapers into one that served the interests of private interests instead (16). Once a tool for socio-political debate, newspapers, like commodities, began fragmenting the public sphere into the relationality of an authority to his subjects.

The relation between authorities and subjects took on a peculiar character as a result of mercantilist policies, policies formally oriented to the maintenance of an active balance trade. (18)

As opposed to mere transmission of political events, news became an ideological tool, promoting the “maintenance of an active balance trade,” of an idyllic society that promotes fair correspondence between merchant and buyer; producer and consumer. However, the development of the printing press in the later stages of early capitalism reproduces more accurately the model of the press we have today. The first journals in the strict sense, ironically called “political journals,” appeared weekly at first, and daily as early as the middle of the seventeenth century. In those days private correspondence contained detailed and current news about Imperial Diets, wars, harvests, taxes, transports of precious metals, and of course, reports on foreign trade. Only a trickle of this stream of reports passed through into printed journals. The recipients of the private correspondence had no interest in their contents becoming public. […] It was essentially news from abroad, of the court, and of the less important commercial events that passed through the sieve of merchants’ unofficial information. (20-21)

Habermas notes that the privileged class who had direct correspondence with “real news” had no desire to disclose their information to the lower class merchants; however, the two had mutual use for each other where the merchants’ assumed a “dependence of public reporting upon the [elite’s] private exchange of news (21). Perpetuated in this public reporting, in addition to “less important commercial events” were the following:

Traditional “news” items from the repertoire of the broadsheets were also perpetuated–the miracle cures and thunderstorms, the murders, pestilences, and burnings. Thus, the information that became public was constituted of residual elements of what was actually available; nevertheless, it requires explanation why at this particular time they were distributed and made generally accessible, made public at all. (21)