On a conversation, recently

I found a friend in a coffee shop reading Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s collaborative collection of essays. They were quick to point me in the essay “The University and the Undercommons” to this passage:

What the beyond of teaching is really about is not finishing oneself, not passing, not completing; it’s about allowing subjectivity to be unlawfully overcome by others, a radical passion and passivity such that one becomes unfit for subjection, because one does not possess the kind of agency that can hold the regulatory forces of subjecthood, and one cannot initiate the auto-interpellative torque that biopower subjection requires and rewards.

This stunned me. Especially in our conversations (this friend and I’s perpetual experimentation with the same question, which is perhaps the only question, the question that poses the new, the answer to which we will become if we only articulate the question, which we can only do if we already are &c) which twist and tangle through questions of subjectivity and resistance, especially the gaps, forgetting, and lapses in a self which we can exploit further to fragment. We tried to situate this radical passivity that is not passivity as a lack of activity or submission in relation to an authority which certainly inscribes such passivity as acquiescence to command, and so misinterprets this passivity precisely by forgetting its passion. We tried to understand it.

  • First in Don Quixote’s first adventure. Out of the blue, a scream. A master is whipping a servant. Don Q. asks why. The master as all masters do has an explanation which functions more as a belated justification than description. The servant lost some sheep. The servant refutes this. Don Q. orders the master to pay the lost wages with perfumed bills. The master assents so our knight leaves this master to beat the servant with twice the violence than before. The question is how does the first beating differ from the second. One answer is that the second beating decisively proves that the master had no justification to beat the servant, that there is no justification for any beating, and that all beating derives from the anxiety that authority is illegitimate. All justification for punishment comes after the fact. All punishment is a response to an act that proves the illegitimacy of authority and all punishment is the very enacting of this illegitimacy. Passivity displays this violence and provokes it (so that the servant when he returns to the story is certainly pissed). Passivity becomes the body that …
  • Second in Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. Passivity becomes the body that delimits power in the same gesture that intimates the beyond. The woman dreams of meat and blood and violence. She then refrains from eating meat and blood and violence. She refuses to participate in the patriarchal economy of misogyny. For the men in her life this is unacceptable. They encode her refusal as an assent. They confuse her passivity with obedience. The violence they doubly inflict on her is contradictory. The normal violence that is legitimated by everyday assent seeps into its own excess when this assent becomes non-relational, becomes a radical passivity that is not in relation to an activity but is its own passion and escape. The men are infuriated when beyond an assent to violence that might normalize violence in certain quanta of I deserve this, there is no answer nor resistance. When they whip you and you answer, they see your answer as legitimation and they might stop. When they whip you and you do not answer, you refuse to answer and you refuse their violence, they reveal their illegitimacy, the become enraged, they become excessive. She becomes a plant. She becomes vegetal. She ingests the sun. Passivity becomes the face that …
  • Then Levinas where passivity becomes the light that comes from beyond the face. A double injunction: Kill me / Do not kill me. The other incites violence at the moment it commands you not to kill, a command which exceeds your strength to kill. A contradiction between an ontology and phenomenology of alterity. The other if the other is at all is feebleness (faiblesse is such a pretty word), but a feebleness whose mode of appearance is a force. The feebleness says kill me but the force of its appearing exceeds my strength to kill in and as a command not to kill. But Levinas founds the self in its transcendence, that is in its desire to return to itself as a staying the same. Levinas needs the other in order to introduce transcendence. I am chained to myself and I need to escape in order to become myself. The other is this escape. The other introduces this transcendence into the self. Do not kill me because you need me for the beyond yourself that you incorporate as your transcendence? Kill me because nevertheless this void that I introduce into the heart of your being is immeasurable, exceeds trespass and return?

A passivity that disrupts the identification between self and same, an identification that even persists – strangely – in Levinas’ radical ontology of alterity. A passivity that locates the beyond here in its futurity. A passivity that refuses its transcription into lack and locates in its openness a future that it refuses to collapse.

That’s the lesson of Bartleby right? I prefer not to. Not to what? Not to prefer.

The office of dead letters. Preserving possibility. Preferring to cultivate a future as possibility.

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