January 28, 2006

Research Group Meeting: Aislinn O’ Donnell (UCD) – ‘Shame and the Possibilities of Life’

‘Human rights say nothing about the immanent modes of existence of people provided with rights. Nor is it only in extreme situations described by Primo Levi that we experience the shame of being human. We also experience it in insignificant conditions, before the propagation of these modes of existence and thought-for-the-market, and before the values, ideals and opinions of our time. The ignominy of the possibilities of life that we are offered appears from within. We do not feel ourselves outside our time but continue to undergo shameful compromises with it. The feeling of shame is one of philosophy's most powerful motifs. We are not responsible for the victims but responsible before them.’ (D&G, What is Philosophy?, p. 108)

Aislinn O’ Donnell’s fascinating paper considered the question of “shame” in Deleuze & Guattari’s work, evident from the above quotation taken from the ‘Geophilosophy’ chapter of What is Philosophy?, specifically the ‘shame of being human’. Throughout the paper she was concerned with considering whether their particular conception of shame (as a visceral affect) can assist us in understanding their conception of otherness. Aislinn argued that such a specific consideration of ‘shame’ was undertaken within a much broader concern with Deleuze & Guattari’s resistance to capitalism and the question of why we should respond to the suffering human other.
Thus, the purpose of her paper was to try and think the shame of being human and to reflect on its relation (or non-relation) to Deleuze & Guattari’s concept of the ‘other person’, to their rejection of cliché and their resistance to capitalism.

The paper began by providing a brief overview of some of the ways the notion of ‘shame’ has been thought within the history of philosophy, including Spinoza, Kant, Scheler, Arendt, Nussbaum & Tomkins. This was followed by an outline of Deleuze’s concept of the other person in The Logic of Sense and in Deleuze & Guattari’s What is Philosophy?. Aislinn managed to suggest some fascinating relations between the ideas contained within these texts and those found within Emmanuel Levinas’s philosophy. Her account of Levinas’ Ethics of alterity drew upon certain illuminating formulations of Levinas within the work of the Latin American philosopher Enrique Dussel. She then moved to addressing the specific question of the treatment of ‘shame’ in Deleuze & Guattari’s What is Philosophy?, and asking what a ‘shame of being human’ involves and why becoming-revolutionary is an appropriate response to such ‘shame’. She suggested that whilst the first chapters of What is Philosophy? contain a notion of the ‘other person’ as a type of example to elucidate their understanding of the ‘concept’, there is a wider instructive purpose. These chapters, she argued, have strong Bergsonian and Spinozist overtones, specifically in relation to their understanding of planes of immanence in terms of thought-being and in their initial descriptions of the plane of immanence which strongly resembles Bergson’s analytic description of experience as pure perception in Matter and Memory. For Bergson, pure perception is a field of survey of absolute pure consciousness prior to any subject-object. Rather than taking up Bergson’s pragmatic account of the way in which the indetermination of the brain creates a zone of possible action that filters perception, Deleuze & Guattari use the idea of the ‘Other person’ (an a priori ‘Other’) that restructures the perceptual field in order to give an account of the co-genesis of subject and object, self and other. This ‘Other’ is not an individuated or concrete other, but is solely understood as an expression of a ‘possible world’. The other person interrupts us and restructures our field of perception.

Deleuze & Guattari’s problem is not the solipsistic one of the problem of other selves; selves are emergent, relational and interbound. Their problem concerns modes of existence, and Aislinn argued that this was the reason why ‘shame’ is so interesting as it offers a visceral ought, (a visceral affect) bound up with our beliefs, desires, and values, but also indicating an immanent vocation of humans – to strive to create possibilities for life and thought, in particular amongst those complex being with whom we identify. With Deleuze & Guattari’s work there is an awareness of how the singularity of the Other person is annihilated in different ways – through clichés, through capitalism, through the death camps, through consumerist society – that precipitates ‘shame’. The final part of her paper considered the question of shame in relation to resisting these features of contemporary life and thought.

‘Shame of being human’, Aislinn suggested, is not premised upon an identification with the other but a commitment to the singularisation of life. The ‘shame of being human’ operates within Deleuze & Guattari's work as a critical principle – it operates as an immanent evaluation and appraisal of a mode of existence, of complicity in suffering and of the diminishment of life’s immanent possibility for creation without appeal to a fixed ideal for humanity. Drawing at times from Arendt, Aislinn considered the question of ‘shame’ as a critical affect in Deleuze & Guattrai, and the troubling question of why we increasingly don’t feel shame:

‘Utopia does not split off from infinite movement: etymologically it stands for absolute deterritorialisation but always at the critical point at which it is connected with the present milieu, and especially with the forces stifled by this milieu.’ (D&G, What is Philosophy?, p. 108)

Aislinn argues that perception is, as Bergson showed, far from innocent – we choose not to see, we choose to be blind. It is in this respect that shame can be the catalyst to precipitate change as it makes us sensible to dimensions of a situation and ourselves that previously were ignored or accepted, as it can disrupt the narcissistic, habitual and self-absorbed tendencies of selves. Shame is a critical and disruptive affect. Shame is not simply a subjective disposition or experience but registers the intolerable nature of a mode of existence and as such can become both critical and creative. Shame has the capacity to be positive and productive – it creates sensitivity to the richness of the present, to the forgotten histories, excluded others, silenced voices, unrealised worlds as well as to the real potentials of a situation. It ruptures the complacency of our own experience and draws to light the limits of our sensibility. Disparateness and rupture operate on both ontological and experiential registers as rendering a given situation or mode of existence meta-stable and generating real potentials that require the invention of other modes of existence that effect a qualitative transformation of existence. The pre-individual dimensions of the human reveal our singularity, but the possibility for cultivating processes of singularisation of life are foreclosed by cliché, banality, and intolerable modes of existence.

The visceral experience of shame is not one of sublime failure and a sense of our supersensible vocation, but a sense of the diminishment of life, a failure of our sensibility, a failure to respond and to cultivate different kinds of relations, to question ourselves and our complicity in the compromises of our time. Shame as ‘critical affect’. Singularisation is not atomisation but the capacity to weave and create different possibilities and expressions of life. This is, Aislinn concluded, the restoration of immanence.

There followed a lively and engaged discussion which pursued many of the provocations for thought initiated within this excellent paper.

A full audio podcast of Aislinn’s paper together with the subsequent group discussion will be posted on the Project website within the next few days.


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