ND…. hiatus hereby ended! Well, fingers crossed. I’m about to hit a period of intensive writing. I can tell this because I really and truly have to. The whole annual review process is about to begin and [sigh] it always reminds me of just how far behind I am. I’ve decided that this is the perpetual condition of writing a PhD: you make plans, deadlines, knowing that they’re probably a little aspirational, but figuring it’s good to aim for something. And then the deadline passes, the chapter’s still not written, and then by the time it is the deadline for the next one is already passed and… so on, and so on, ad infinitum et nauseum et… I don’t know what ‘slow death by thesis’ is in Latin, but ad that too.
I’m conscious, too, that being outed has massively altered what I’m writing about, and in ways I dislike. So this is an attempt to get my thesis-y stuff up here again, hopefully without too many agonising caveats, addendums, apologia et… ugh! What is it about Latin infecting me today?
This post builds on others I’ve put up, and I’m sorry if this sends you on hyperlinked flight-lines throughout my blog; writing a thesis makes it incredibly difficult to contain… well, anything! So I’ve written a fair bit here about Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, particularly in relation to “The Child’s Relation with Others”, but also applying it to other things—race, for example. My work, actually, is primarily on technologies of bodily alteration, and concepts of normalcy. At this point, though, I want to introduce another element: that of the gift. The Australian philosopher Rosalyn Diprose and her book Corporeal Generosity: On Giving with Nietzsche, Merleau-Ponty and Levinas has heavily influence my thinking here, although, as we’ll see, I have some concerns about it too.
In effect, what Diprose suggests is that the intertwining of self and other that Merleau-Ponty characterises as grounding subjectivity is in fact a process of corporeal generosity. The other gives me the ways of being which I adopt, adapt, recognise and misrecognise and embody. These gifts are never-ending; indeed, my being-in-the-world is perpetually in process, however much it might become sedimented through repetition. (I’m tempted to link to Fido the Yak here, in his semi-anxious musings on the impossibility of repetition and the resultant production of the absurd, but I fear I haven’t grasped it well enough to really engage it properly here. Nonetheless, the tango with the impossible sounds like a perfect way to spend an evening, and thus I can’t let the opportunity to point it all out to you pass by. I intend, Fido, to come back to these questions, if only because I can’t help but have misgivings about the dovetailing of Merleau-Ponty’s weighted term ‘sedimentation,’ and the difference-excising practice of recognising something as repetition. But to the gift.)
The generosity of these others is, importantly, not merely about giving me a pattern of behaviour to take on, but also a gift of difference. It is only in and through this gift of difference that I can come to recognise myself not only as a subject, but as a subject different from others. The corporeal generosity of others not only gives me ways of being-in-the-world (in echo of their comportments) but also gives me their difference, thus enabling my own, different ways of being-in-the-world. In this respect, Diprose argues, corporeal generosity is like differance (hm. If anyone knows how to acute ‘e’s in wordpress, please do let me know. I’ve been lazy up til now, but differance cries out for a touch of French figural difference!) It dwells between subject and other, providing their ‘spacing’: the space that both binds them together and separates them. Diprose’s version:
Contrary to Machan’s thesis, that only in a polity of sovereign property owners is generosity possible, Derrida’s analysis suggests that it is precisely this economy of contract and exchange between self-present individuals that makes generosity impossible. The gift is only possible if it goes unrecognised, if it is not commodified, if it is forgotten by the donor and the donee so that presence (the gift as (a) present and the presence of both the donor and donee) is deferred. (23-24)
This aporia of the gift would not matter much if it was not for the way Derrida, following Heidegger, ties the gift to the gift-event of Being: Being gives itself int he present on the condition that it is not (a) present (Derrida, 1990, 20, 27). In deference to this qualification read Derrida’s account of the gift as a version of his account of the constitution of self-identity and difference: like differance, generosity describes the operation that both constitutes identity and difference and resists the full presence of meaning, identity, and Being, so that the self is dispersed into the other. Derrida defines difference as
the systematic play of differences, of the traces of differences, of the spacing by means of which elements are related to each other. This spacing is the simultaneously active and passive… production fothe intervals without which the ‘full’ terms would not signify, would not function. (Derrida 1981, 27)
Self-identity, a manner of being, cannot be constituted without a production of an interval or a difference between the self and the other. No self-present identity, no relation to Being, is generated without this relation to the other [for reasons I’ll go into soon, I’d like to note that I would have put ‘otherness’ here rather than the other…]. (Corporeal Generosity, pp. 6-7)
So we can see here that Diprose is emphasising Levinas over Heidegger here, in testifying to the primacy (or, better, the pre-originari-ness, or anarchic-ness) of the ethical relation (the one with the other). Okay, but here comes the edge by which Diprose will articulate her critique of Derrida:
As one’s identity and social values are produced through a differentiation between the self and the otehr then the idenitty of the self is dispersed into the other. Differance, like giving-itself, describes an operation that both constitutes identity and difference and resists and disorganises the totalization or full presence of meaning, identity, or Being. It is the operation of differeance that insists on the gift: the ultimate dispersal of all identity within the event of its constitution. Giving is that which puts the circle of exchange in motion and that which exceeds and disrupts it (Derrida, 1992, 30). And this impossible structure of the gift is such that if self-present identity is claimed in being given to the other, a debt to the other is incurred. (Corp Gen, 7)
To mark my ‘debts’ here, I should point out to those who might recall it an exchange I had with FoucaultIsDead before he disappeared off the intertoobs (or into a new pseudonym, perhaps?). He suggested (if I recall correctly; I may not, so feel free, FiD, if you’re about, to correct me in comments/via the contact form), in response to my Private Law, that indebtedness is the key term by which our political and ethical investments occur. I responded that this wasn’t my understanding, and here I can finally say with sufficient context that the sense of indebtedness arises only in the recognition of the gift, and in the concommittant assertion of strict division between self and other. This is a hint towards a future post and the final discussion of my thesis, so I won’t go on about it now; I suspect that there are, actually ways of testifying to the gifts I have been given that don’t fall into the commodifying, individualising of traps of recognition. (Ms. Pepperell, this reminds me I really ought to address this with you! I have a sneaking suspicion that your distrust of Honneth and the rest of the recognition-obsessed crowd dovetails quite intriguingly with this point.)
Anyway, to return to Diprose’s critique of Derrida. The traditional conception of generosity is what she’s using Derrida to critique here, but it’s also what prompts her concerns with his theory:
Understanding generosity in terms of Derrida’s analysis of the impossibility of the gift helps locate the parsimony endorsed by other accounts such as Machan’s. Machan’s claim that individual sovereignty and property ownership come before gnerosity overlooks the possibility that in claiming freedom and property as one’s own, soemthing has already been taken from other. The generosity of the individual property owner who gives his or her acquisitions, which is the only generosity that Machan recognises, is built on the generosity of others that Machan would rather forget… (Corp Gen, 8)
Here we see the element of economic critique that threads through Diprose’s concerns. It is, of course, the observation that in order for a profit to be made, workers need to be paid less than their work is actually worth. Here we can see an echo of Brown’s pointing out of the tolerance embodied by many of those disadvantaged, who, willingly or not, give stability to the economy through the gift of their tolerance of their own exploitation. Diprose puts it this way, though:
In suggesting that generosity is infected with a selective forgetting, I have already added to Derrida’s analyses of the impossibility of the gift, at least by insisting on a different emphasis. By tying the gift to its radical forgetting and its operation to the deferral of self-present identity, Derrida’s account may help expose the individualism and parsimony of Machan’s and One Nation’s [that’s a ultra-racist, ultra-right-wing party that has managed to do some pretty nasty stuff to the political spectrum in Australia, for those who don’t know] positions, but it also invites interpretations of his work that are no more concerned with social justice than Machan or One Nation seem to be. Critiques of individualism and the metaphysics of presence can and have lead [sic] to (postmodern [I want to add, in the pejorative sense, here, given that I have issues some ungenerous definitions of postmodern]) claims, although not by Derrida, of the death of individual sovereignty in faor of the dispersal of identity and meaning. Emphasising the way that the gift does its work only by being forgotten and then throught he dispersal of presence overlooks how, in practice, the generosity and the gifts of some (property owner, men, wage earners, whites) tend to be recognised and remembered more often than the generosity and gifts of others (the landless, women, the unemployed, indigenous peoples, and immigrants).It is the systematic, asymmetrical forgetting of the gift, where only the generosity of the privileged is memorialized, that social inequities and injustice are based. In attending to the connection between generosity and social justie, which is the aim of all the analyses in this book, it is necessary to shift the emphasis away from, while keeping in mind the aporia of the gift to… address the question of the systematic but asymmetrical forgetting of the gift that allows the generosity of the forgotten and the parsimony of the memorialized to constitute hierarchical relations of domination within economies of contract and exchange. (Corp Gen, 8-9)
Okay, so here we have a sense of what memorialising and forgetting are: they are the economic, social and political engagements with the gift, the ways of making present that which cannot be made present without being utterly changed. This is the point that Levinasians the world over continually struggle with: how do the ethical and the political interact? If ethics always comes before politics, does this mean that ethics can only shape politics (as Levinas claims it should) whilst politics can never shape ethics? Obviously, Diprose takes Derrida’s (and others’, such as Bernasconi’s) position with regard this matter, and in a convincing way. There are particular ethical relations and gifts that are continually recognised, continually marked as generous, and thus function as a key part of the privilege attached to the donor (generosity becomes a mark of privilege, here.) On the other hand, there are gifts that are rarely, if ever, recognised as gifts. This might leave them being gifts, but it also means, for example, that the gifts traditionally been given by women in (say) the sustenance of the body politic through the maintenance of the home and thus the well-being of the worker, and in the (re)production of new workers of course (raised with good, generous work ethics) remains unrecognised, irrelevant. Although this ensures that these gifts remain gifts, challenging (however quietly) the self-presence of identity, it also means that these gifts can never figure in the economic or political sphere, and thus the privilege of being recognised as generous is denied women; after all, this generosity is merely who they are, naturally. (I’m actually (not quite) resisting the urge to poke Sinthome at this point, given his recent post on properties, by-products, individuals, naturalisation and (is this unfair?) essences). On the other hand, privilege attaches to recognised generosity: the philanthropist (to pick a banal and obvious example) who gives money to an institution has his/her generosity recognised, and the gift becomes a kind of commodity, offered (however much they may not seek return) in exchange for the increase in his/her privilege. Which of course enables the recognition of them as generous personages, and thus enables the recognition of whatever else they (or, significantly, other subjects identified as ‘the same as’ them) ‘give’. This is how the ethical and the political are intertwined: only some gifts are recognised, and this recognition in turn enables some subjects as generous contributors to the being of others… and thus are injustices produced and reproduced…
To come in this series: the forgetting required in order to memorialise, memorialising and forgetting in the flesh, body modification, my concerns about the consequences of Diprose’s position, responsible comportments and, hopefully, eventually, some consideration of the significance of why tolerance of others is irresponsible, where the tolerance of otherness is key… tantalising? Well, it is for me 😉 Maybe, one day, I’ll actually be able to make the point that I want to ‘finish’ my thesis on…. hey, I can dream!