Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Nealon (week 15)


  1. I’m loving the slipperiness of where Plant Theory leaves us. Some of the questions Nealon poses at the end of the book aren’t necessarily new to our class; I feel they have lingered with us throughout the semester. Moving from Hardt & Negri into Virno, I (we) have been questioning who exactly gets to “count” within the Multitude. If we truly accept the biopolitical regime, it seems we need a more generous view of labor and life, no? For Virno, he makes it pretty clear it’s the fruits of human labor & communication that feed into the swirling General Intellect. So why aren’t non-humans included? Our human measuring stick certainly has limited the intellgiability of non-human contributions, but language is often the linchpin between these categories—from Plato/Aristotle & forward, as Nealon points out (Peters too in Marvelous Clouds for HotE). In my mind, if capitalism is particularly tied to a rhizomatic orientation, then power at the point of “life itself” brings genetic modification into focus.

    Now, I’m not an anti-GMOer on the basis of some foundational essence that’s lost when we experiment with food. But the copyright and intellectual property ramifications of biopower are astounding. “When you realize that seeds are the basis for feeding the world,” there certainly are countless reasons to be worried (113)! This move to copyright law & GMOs becomes a sort of bridge between the juridical emphasis of Agamben (which… what a nice semi-takedown & metaphorical overhaul by Nealon in Chapter 1) and the repetitious microphysics we get when following Foucault/Multituders et al.

    The effect of these interlocking systems of law, invention, & life seems to be an intense suffering or regimes that produce suffering. Scarily, this may be a suffering that follows us from the barracks to the school to the home (cue the FitBits because exercise is a bit like suffering). By keeping Butler honest, Nealon obliterates the moral high ground since plants may feel pain (or are at least comparable sacks of matter as animals) & thus deserve ethical attention.

    Two additional places I'm thinking through, as I wrap this comment up, deal with the general questions of life Nealon poses. On the one hand, I wonder if he isn't going far enough. Why shouldn't we be considering minerals & the assembled effects of AI/AL? If not now, I feel we're going to be calling out the progression of biopower for its inorganic biases sooner rather than later. On the other hand, I’m thinking through how the history of power being used by men/patriarchy against women (& queers & PoC & all those generally deemed Others) may be read through Aristotle & the tripartite soul. Regardless of where this thinking ends up, our emphasis on biopower has provided the scaffolding to even pose these questions about what "counts" as life itself.

    What we do in reaction to that expanded definition, though, is still up for debate.

  2. Chapter one helped further clarify some aspects of last week's reading on Foucault. It is clear that I need to read some 'early Foucault' (Archeology and Order of Things). Before modern sciences, knowledge was based on resemblances and the plant was privileged because we could pull the plant out and see everything about the plant. But then we shift to a form of science that makes the insides visible, or so it claims to. Human sciences can find the essence of an individual's identity in, for instance, their sexuality. We can also think about intelligence tests as making visible the hidden, inside potential of each individual. These new scientific practices make visible 'life'. As Nealon reminds us via Foucault, it was the plant that got left behind in this, not the animal.

    So if we take the insights of biopower/biopolitics seriously, then we say that power is investing all of life. There no longer appears a privileged access point for resisting power such as organizing at work, or organizing to put a favorite representative in as a president. Power is diffused throughout the social field and is thus to be resisted throughout. This isn't to say that work should no longer be resisted, but rather, that work and all of life itself becomes a practice of resistance.

    So based on the above, how are we going to think about life? Nealon seems to go through this argument about how life has been viewed in terms of accessibility to a world; that life typically has access to logos, and what animal studies response has been. But what if life was thought of as plant like? or rhizomatic? As Nealon argues, yes, power is rhizomatic, but life is not an effort to escape or cut off connections. Deleuze and Guattari seem to help us realize that life is emergence and assemblages of various entity together, not something "hidden deep be protected against the outside at all cost" (119).

    To finish up, while reading the last two chapters of this book and thinking about affect and the fold from last week, I kept remembering images from a music video. I feel that if Plant Theory were a WWE wrestler this video would be played as its intro.

  3. First, elated to see a Porno for Pyros reference in Nealon's book--we will, indeed, "make great pets." Second, I read Nealon's attraction to Foucaultian thinking (beyond the economic-pragmatist standpoint of relevant contemporary conversations) as an ability to mine and mobilize a conception of power which is 'both everywhere and no where' at once. I really like his account of Foucault's stance on "life" and the originary depths of where we might locate the animal within Foucault's conception of human life. He suggests that Foucault has been misunderstood as excluding animals from his conception of Biopolitics, which, personally, I agree with Nealon, in that this critique of Foucault is fine, but a little unproductive (or reductive)--and he's quick to point out that he doesn't exactly admire the move of simply taking-up where one philosopher was doing good work but just didn't go far enough--I'm not either, and Nealon has a different motivation for continuing no (or extending) Foucault's Biopolitics first through the animal and then on down to plant life. He locates the animal being as somewhat 'hidden' within our understanding of the 'human'--that Foucault conceptualized the animal being at the 'hidden' center of "life" at the original moment of its inception. (He also, at about this same time in the reading, makes some claims which I can't tell are all-serious--particularly the Frank O'Hara poem, which seems to quaintly and nostalgically and a bit reductively link the non-human animal back to an inclusion within the animus circle.) I think its interesting too, that Nealon points out that in Foucault, plants were not greeted with this same inclusion as animals particularly because of a belief in their lack of a 'hidden'-ness--that they were apparent as a surface, as opposed to animals. By extension, he comes down (clearly) on a hard-line with Foucault and Agamben, even to the point of flogging Agamben a little, and sides with Foucault because he believes it accounts for (in my reading) a type of 'hidden'-ness in power that biopower accounts for, which sovereign power does not--and ultimately, Nealon's positivism rests with Foucault, not out of a pure optimism, but out of a reading of power that operates by being mainly elusive--everywhere and operating on all surfaces, but not in plain sight (which is why the inclusion of plant-life within the scope of biopower seems like an easy step, or an unexplored given--that of course power operates at this level, even if institutional knowledges don't make that so transparent to us.)

  4. For me, one of the more compelling tactics of the book was that by the end of the D&G chapter, the entire reason to believe or act was tied to a kind of selfishness. The question of suffering was mentioned briefly but mostly glossed over in favor of asserting that our individual existence is inseparable from so many other kinds of life. Unlike the end of Before the Law, there is a less damning and (I think) more constructive approach to recontextualizing ourselves within our environment.

    For some reason I was thinking of people traveling on an airplane. Airplanes, though we are assured they’re safer than cars, still puts the traveler in a precarious situation--mainly of being beholden to two human pilots and a jumble of mechanical parts as the only thing between life and death. Because this situation is so precarious (and vulnerable), we are willing, as people who would like to move about the world quite quickly, to do just about anything that is asked of us in order to insure our place on the plane and enjoy a ride without incident.

    We do everything required of us by the TSA (including sometimes having our private parts manipulated!) and we only bring along what we are told is acceptable. For the most part we sit quietly, not talking, suppressing our outward personalities for long periods of time. No one wants to be the talker on the plane, trapping strangers in a one-sided conversation. Some of us even suppress our need to “pass gas.” We only travel to the areas of the plane we are allowed to go--to our assigned seat or to the bathroom at the appropriate times. We don’t wander into the pilot’s cabin. We don’t attempt to steer the plane. We store our belongs where we’re told to store them. And on and on and on.

    I think we act this way precisely because we know that if we don’t, the plane might never make it to the destination that we want to get to, and furthermore, anything that goes wrong could end in our own death. Unfortunately human suffering is not the most compelling way to advocate for drastic changes in behavior (do we feel sorry for or annoyed by the baby who is crying because her eyes are popping for the very first time?). But if we think of our territory or whatever as a precarious situation, suddenly each of our own actions take on new meanings, and most of us are intelligent enough to know why these specific and regimented movements are necessary. First and foremost for survival, and secondly for what little comfort is available to us on the journey.

    1. -Obviously I meant EARS popping, not eyes. I have been on a plane before, I swear. I don't think it's like the end of Total Recall or something.

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