Monday, January 2, 2012

A Post that Doesn't Refer to Musil at all Directly (for Alex and Renee)

Irigaray says we must work to not make the other the same, to not reduce the other (implicitly also, the new, the unknown) to something we already know, possess, see, to not merely welcome the other into our world without venturing forth to discover how it might look in the other’s  world,  mind,  mind-made world. A daring proposition, to leave one’s own mind-made world to try, at least, to visit another (without hoping to become fully fluent in its languages, customs, Lebensanschauungen, but maybe to challenge our own perspectives and to see ourselves in new ways, a selfish end goal, perhaps, in any case, but one that would inspire growth rather than stagnancy).  We can also welcome the other into our worlds in a way that is not assimilation, but this would mean being open to the possibility that the other’s presence will change our world. Heisenberg’s Uncertainly principle would suggest that it is impossible to not do this, i.e., that every entry into another’s world changes it, alters it. Yet people are, I am afraid, more impervious to such shocks than scientifically observed phenomena. I can see a person’s apartment, with the gradual intrusion of signs of the lover’s presence. First it is a sock, then a picture, then some books, then there is room made in the closet. Who knows, perhaps he or she will begin to have a say in arrangements, colors, the purchase of new furniture. I have often heard people say that in order to start a new life together, a couple in question must start in a new home together, rather than have one of the pair move in to the already-decorated home of the other. Some people even go so far as to say that they should move to a new town, or a new country, so that one of the pair does not have the upper hand in establishing or creating their “new world together.” But who goes so far as to actually begin together a new mind-made world, a revaluation of unified values (if this were even favorable, let alone possible), or a new language? Well, lovers do this, but mostly unconsciously, with one or the other probably welcoming or not welcoming the other to influence the already-prevailing mores or furniture. 
But Irigaray maintains, it seems, that no matter how welcoming in a truly open way we are, the other “does not have and never will have a site there,” i.e., in our mind-made world (“mind-made world,” comes from Susan Langer, not Irigaray, by the way).  The space is necessary, “healthy,” prophylactic, and unbridgeable. The space in between the two beings, the unknown and that which cannot be articulated or maybe even understood is what Irigaray calls transcendence. It is presence, newness, not bound by what came before or by previous definition. In Irigaray, transcendence meets existentialism.  For the awareness that there is something beyond the physically measurable spurs on to wakefulness, responsibility, metastable ethics…to respond without preconceived ideas to whatever new unknown thing approaches us, not prepared ahead of time, not clichéd, not pre-decided. The two people must remain separate, but somehow must respect each other’s separateness? “The other does not have and never will have a site there.” Never.  The dream of total union smashes under these words, if they are true. You cannot move into your lover’s mind-made world and expect to have a closet there for your favorite dresses. Barthes talks about sites as well. But he wants both lovers to relinquish their sites. For both to un-define themselves, to merge in unio mystica, coincidence of opposites. Nowhere, i.e., utopia, atopic: “The other whom I love and who fascinates me is atopos. I cannot classify the other, for the other is, precisely, Unique, the singular Image which has miraculously come to correspond to the specialty of my desire...Being Atopic, the other makes language indecisive: one cannot speak of the other, about the other; every attribute is false, painful, erroneous, awkward: the other is unqualifiable (this would be the true meaning of atopos)”.  Both Barthes and Irigaray see a failure of pre-configured language to describe whatever it is that exists in the space or no-space between lovers. But while Irigaray wants, almost insistently, morally, to keep that space clear and usullied by the lovers’ attempts to merge, Barthes dreams of a love that is no place at all, or , rather, everywhere. He wants, he writes, “everything” and dreams that a merger in this no-place, utopia, atopia would be the birthplace of a new language. While Irigaray insists that the one cannot ever inhabit the site of the other, Barthes wants both lovers to give up on the idea of private property! Or, rather, he imagines a sort of wandering, cruising, constant within and without movement. He writes of the irrepressible dream of total union, the dream that “each of us be without sites: that we be able to magically substitute for each other: that the kingdom of ‘one for the other’come (‘in going together, each will think for the other’), as if we were the vocables of a new, strange language, in which it would be quite licit to use one word for another. This union would be without limits”. There is no defensiveness in this dream, no staking out of territories, no insistence on self-hood; and it certainly is more seductive than Irigaray’s abstract morality.
But he has left out the monster who eats up the other, the He who is so large that there is no room for the other to speak, feel, utter, be in any way not in accordance to the rule of the stronger. Is the stronger in love he who loves less? Or she or he (feminized by this loving, according to Barthes) who loves more? I always said, she who loves most wins; but that is wishful thinking, or a form of special pleading, for she who loves more may have the victory of being able to love, of passion, of feeling intensely, but it is a pyrrhic victory, surely, lonely and cold, and the result of answering to an either/or proposition: either I play your way or don’t play at all; either I sacrifice myself or have no love at all. Do we have to renounce relating to have relation? And is all discourse on love, a Irigaray suggests,  someone else’s discourse, not to be trusted, outmoded, suspicious? Does existence really always precede essence. Not always. Irigaray is understandably on the defensive, against the myth of the fulfilling other, against the dream of an other who will make us whole. Against the myth of complete understanding. What then is this love of her title? The Way to Love? I haven’t finished the book yet, so maybe there will be an answer in the end!?  Ultimately, however, she seems nihilistic in her transcendental silence and in her belief in the impossibility of loving the other, of even being informed, influenced by what others in the past have felt, said, done? Are we all then so mutterseelenallein? Or is there some connection? Shared experience? Myths, literature, stories…Barthes is enmeshed in stories and utterances of others, is not afraid of influence.  No anxiety of influence, for he is a lover, i.e., feminized. Yet still a man. 
For the woman, who has been drowned by the voice of the master, covers her ears, is tired of hearing only His story, wants some space to develop and speak hers. Barthes would have the lover relinquish gain, profit, calculations. Irigaray suggests that the woman, who has so long done this, needs to defend herself by thinking of her own interests. A dangerous and ironic proposition.  In order to create relating, the woman who is tired of always being in His world (He for whom everything is a reflection of Himself, solipsistic He)…But are we not all, to some extent, able only to see the world through our selves? This mind-made world?. But she, more than He, is tired of always assimilating herself to His reality. Defensively  the woman starts calculating profit and loss, capitalist system (Barthes says that the lover—who is feminized—does not do this, the lover expends, spends, extravagantly): who gave more and who sacrificed more…all in the interest of relating in a way that avoids this sort of thinking. Is it to be a temporary stage, a leveling of the playing field, so to speak? Or are we to forever be calculating in this way? 
The idea that relating to the other, that listening, and attempting to know the other might expand, rather than contract the man’s world, that he might gain something immeasurable at the cost of his absolute power and monologuing voice is a materialistic argument, even if what he would gain is spiritual, for spirit, i.e., love, is not something one can count.  Any opening to love involves the risk or loss…to let the other in, the chaotic, dangerous, distracting other. One only begins to do this if there is a consciousness of something lacking. In self, in the world.  One has to acknowledge a lack, a problem. Is there a problem with how things are now, in one’s life, in the world? If so, one has much to gain, and less to lose. If all is well, why take such a chance? If one has all one needs, why risk disturbance? The man thinks all is well,  that there is no problem, even in a relationship where the woman repeatedly tells him and shows him that she is not happy, even in a world where there are unavoidable signs of extreme distress. He is fine, thus all is well, no problem.  He doesn’t have a problem with the relationship, so there is no problem. Classic Narcissism. The problem is the woman, to him. She is always making a fuss. Always trying to make him see something that would only spoil his fun, always crying, always overflowing. For are not most men haters of women?  How can men be happy if women are not? Is that a special trait they have developed evolutionarily? To deny our palpable distress by calling it hysterical? So we attempt to make our demands known, assert our perspective, even if we have to do it Lysistrata style, by denying them the one thing that will make them notice us or value us (sex). To clear the slate, cleanse the palate, make the man aware that he can see nothing but himself, and that he might actually gain something (there, profit/loss again) by letting the woman in? This is reminiscent of environmental battles, of the need to convince the practical populace that their property taxes will be raised by developing a condominium in the woods, since they can’t understand any other reason to obstruct such a development. One speaks in their language, language of money, of gain and loss, to convince them to preserve something incalculable, something immeasurably important. Is this not a ruse?! And yet our natural instinct, our method of not keeping track, of giving and giving and giving,  overflowing without keeping count seems only to have raised spoiled and entitled narcissists. What now? How to not lose love in the attempt to have love be real. Carol Gilligan points out this paradox in her Birth of Pleasure, the way that women consistently relinquish what they know to be real relating in order to not lose their relationships with men who want things their way, on their time, at their level of passion, exploration, intensity, those men who want to be in relationships that are not relationships, who want what they want when they want it and not any other time. Who want us to be there for them when they are in a crisis or feeling low but who suddenly feel put upon if asked to respond to our feelings.
      All morning I have been struggling between the dream of total union( Barthes' insistence in the last pages, of the truth of the delusion of love, in the truth of what he calls the lure) and the reality (?) of misinterpretation, of the impossibility of merger, or knowing, possessing the lover. I have two phrases atop my page: 1. Keeping the space between the lover and the other. 2. Dream of the total union. In the passage on "I-love-you,” he says also that this phrase is "socially irresponsible" because it "suppresses explanations, adjustments, degrees, scruples". We can be very clear-headed and "healthy" and reasonable and say that this "I-love-you" means nothing, is a lie, is a feint, is a very fleeting feeling, is many things to many people at many times...we can say that language fails us, that it is a language we didn't make and that it is hopelessly entrenched in received ideas; we can tell ourselves that the dream of total union is nothing but a heaven that distracts us from real relating, from our work, from seeing the other in his or her non-mythic separateness, from seeing the other as anything outside of our fantasy...we can say this with Irigaray, in an attempt to stake out our separate territory and affirm our separateness in the face of total immersion and self-sacrifice, et cetera, but there is something powerful in Barthes' oscillation between an exposure of very reasonable doubt, clarity, self-knowledge and a belief in love in all its madness, because of its madness. This "I-love-you," as an action, "affirms itself as a force—against other forces..the thousand forces of the world, which are, all of them, disparaging forces (science, doxa, reality, reason, etc.)...". So where are we now? We want clarity, honesty, responsibility; but we also want to take risks, abandon careful calculation of profit and gain, sacrifice and other petty book-keeping. We want to be seen, known, understood, heard. But we want mystery, passion, desire, longing. We know at least, what we don't want: ambivalent people who do not want to participate in the messy dangerous experiment of being human. We don't want people who do not dare to expose themselves to pain, to shocks, to surprise, to unknowing and the possibility of being known. We do not want half-hearted, luke-warm people, who only want to play by their own self-protecting rules. I guess this could be said in a positive way: we want to bravely discover together. We want to tangle and untangle. We have a will to love, a will to grow, a will to be challenged and to challenge. We want. And we will risk losing everything to possess what is, of course, only an icicle melting in our hands.
    Irigaray, like de Beauvoir, would do away with the myth, the essence of woman..and replace it with..with a moral reasonableness? A fairness? Disguised as freedom. Is not fairness a tool of the weak, used to artificially level the game? Do we need this? Can one long to be possessed while simultaneously being aware of one’s ultimate freedom? What would we give up for real relating? This question is raised by both Barthes and Irigaray. Would we give up myth, fantasy, delusion, romanticization, belief in the moment of ecstasy, the belief in merger and oneness, a belief even in love? Would we give up the ecstasy of longing, of once-in-a-world throwing it all away for one true/delusional moment of passion, jealousy, and madness, would we have to give up passion for a “healthy” relationship wherein the one saw the other as he or she really is? Do we really want to know and be known, at the risk of losing crystallizing fantasy?
One answer to this is that there is no fixed “who I really am” or “who you really are”.  The masks we choose also reveal our many faces; our longings, our fantasies, our projections are part of us, and part of a shared mythic heritage, which does not mean we cannot make up new myths, and create new masks in the process of exposing, revealing, searching. We must be open to new information, experiences, that don’t fit in with the already grooved ruts in our brains, we must work to be able to see and hear things, sounds, words, images, ideas that we have not heard before.  Existence precedes essence. We must welcome specific newnesses, like  a new person, a new type of loving, a new form of art, a new sense,  that don’t fit into expectations, to abstracted categories. But we still want to value these categories, archetypes, simplified correspondences of shared experience and shared descriptions or reality. Essence precedes existence.  These traces of past lovers and thinkers are the sputtering sparks of humanity’s shared attempts. And, as my friend Dharman Rice always used to say, the mistakes of history have been the cause of some of the most meaningful ideas.  So, as he also always says, sin bravely! By which I believe he means, dare to make mistakes, do it bravely, with passion, with wakefulness.


  1. "Irigaray suggests that the woman, who has so long done this, needs to defend herself by thinking of her own interests. A dangerous and ironic proposition."

    I will not act as those who have hurt me, to save myself from being hurt. My interests are to love, expend, give; one day, I hope, I may find an other who can give back, and we will relinquish the territories and profits of our worlds.

    Love, Renee