On Accidents (Part Two): The Social Ontology of Judith Butler and Pieter Bruegel I

A few weeks ago, I tried using AMC’s Breaking Bad to concretize and critique Catherine Malabou’s Ontology of the Accident. I did so in an effort to develop ideas of my own and to meditate on linkages between random texts on my post-graduation reading list and the work of my doctoral dissertation (which, in a sense, investigates “the accident” in Anglo-American literary modernism).

Malabou’s ontology piqued my interest and yet disappointed me insofar as it relegated its analysis to an a-social psyche. I objected (using Breaking Bad as my exemplary text) that this starting point failed to address what I consider fundamental to the ontological structure of accidents: namely, a social (or environmental or interferential) component. Put crudely, a violent accident does not, as Malabou claims, mark an absolute rupture between a self and the symbolic reference points of its past life. (Or, if it does so, it only does so from a single experiential perspective and so is not, by definition, “absolute.”) Accidents are extensive, I argued; they do not simply happen to a self. They do not simply happen to me. They occur, rather, within a whole network of relations, many of which I am completely unaware. Contra Malabou, I claim that accidents disclose an unbreakable and sometimes painful continuity and contiguity between whatever changes or ruptures they might occasion and the overlapping milieux affected by such changes. “Even if one considers,” I wrote,

Alzheimer’s disease, which my grandmother is currently battling, this accident of neurophysiology does not simply concern the one who battles it. Its reach exceeds my grandmother’s brain and touches those with whom her life is interwoven: my grandfather, my mother, my aunts, my uncles, her friends, as well as a whole history of clinical research. In short, the symbolic reference points of her life remain in the very network that, though irrevocably altered, continues to support her and her life. Moreover, it is […] the fact that, even though she can no longer perceive or love me as her grandson, I am still her grandson […] that makes the accident all the more plastic, all the more destructive, all the more painful, all the more explosive and expansive.

Despite my objections to her otherwise brilliant ontology, Malabou does help me pose a question: How might my radical vulnerability to accidents enable me to re-think or to re-learn a substantively democratic ethics and politics? Judith Butler’s Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (2004), Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (2010), and Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism (2012) take up versions of this question insofar as they aim to conceptualize bodily and psychical vulnerability outside of a strictly individualist, subjectivist, or even objectivist ontology. In her introduction to Frames of War, she writes:

Judith Butler's Frames of War: What Is Life Grievable?[…] I want to argue that if we are to make broader social and political claims about rights of protection and entitlements to persistence and flourishing, we will first have to be supported by a new bodily ontology, one that implies the rethinking of precariousness, vulnerability, injurability, interdependency, exposure, bodily persistence, desire, work, and the claims of language and social belonging.

To refer to “ontology” in this regard is not to lay claim to a description of fundamental structures of being that are distinct from any and all social and political organization. On the contrary, none of these terms exist outside of their political organization and interpretation. The “being” of the body to which this ontology refers is one that is always given over to others, to norms, to social and political organizations that have developed historically in order to maximize precariousness for some and minimize precariousness for others. It is not possible first to define the ontology of the body [or of the psyche or of the individual, for that matter,] and then to refer to the social significations the body assumes. [I take this to be Malabou’s procedure.] Rather, to be a body is to be exposed to social crafting and form, and that is what makes the ontology of the body a social ontology.

— pp. 2-3 (bolded brackets mine)

My fundamental vulnerability and injurability, according to Butler, marks my body as a processual body. My body extends itself, in other words, socially and virtually. It touches and has the potentiality to touch (and be touched by) bodies and things, exposing itself to possibilities I can neither completely enumerate nor fully articulate. In this sense, my body is ontologically and excessively response-able to others and, more disturbingly, to an outside, that is, as Deleuze puts it, to “the opening of a future where nothing ends because nothing has started, but everything changes.”

But what do these ontological claims have to do with accidentality? The concepts which Butler enjoins us to re-think — “precariousness, vulnerability, injurability, interdependency, exposure,” etc., etc. — do not just correspond to relations between known and knowable selves. They do not just correspond to the relation between a self and the institutions that shape and re-distribute the sensed value that some lives have over and against the invisible or inaudible value of other lives. Additionally, these categories and qualities collectively disclose an unnerving corporeality. If, as Butler claims, the most fundamental feature of a living body is its relational precarity and exposure to others and/or to the systems in which it is embedded, then I feel compelled to add a further point, namely that no agent is required in order to harm, alter, or enrich this body. The precarity of the body exposes it, more radically, to accidents, i.e., to unforeseen and potentially transformative convergences of bodies and forces (human and non-human, organic and non-organic, intentional and non-intentional). In short, my living body is not ultimately vulnerable to the will of others or the techniques of institutions. Rather, all lives are exposed to innumerable elements and essences, which combine, dissipate, re-combine, and affect these lives in ways that can be only imperfectly or partially foreseen or forestalled.

Michel Foucault’s 1977-1978 lectures Security, Territory, Population (2004, trans. 2007) teach us that accidentality has been a concern of governing and ruling bodies for quite some time (contemporaneous with the rise of “populations”). States, institutions, and social norms create grids of intelligibility whereby some lives come to appear more precarious than others, that is, in need of greater security than others. (For a recent example of this power tactic, one need only note the invisibility of “the poor” during the 2012 Presidential Campaign. To Obama supporters, the “middle class” was the most precarious social body. To Romney supporters, “job creators” were the most precarious, in need of tax breaks and fewer regulations.) Invisible and inaudible lives — though ontologically no less precarious than secured, recognized lives — are nevertheless more exposed to the risk of accidents, far more open to random and unacknowledged violences, diseases, famines, injustices. In her preface to Precarious Life, Butler develops the political and unethical effects of making security against “others” and against “accidents” a primary governmental and social concern. The social ontology she intimates here (and develops later in Frames of War) slowly connects thematics of grief, mourning, violence, and vulnerability in an attempt to move away from the historical concern with security to a more risky ethics of potential disturbance. Beginning with an abstract, hypothetical event of injury, Butler writes,

Judith Butler's Precarious LifeOne insight that injury affords is that there are others out there on whom my life depends, people I do not know and may never know. This fundamental dependency on anonymous others is not a condition that I can will away. No security measure will foreclose this dependency; no violent act of sovereignty will rid the world of this fact. What this means, concretely, will vary across the globe. There are ways of distributing vulnerability, differential forms of allocation that make some populations more subject to arbitrary violence [and other accidental effects] than others. But in that order of things, it would not be possible to maintain that the US has greater security problems than some of the more contested and vulnerable nations and peoples of the world. To be injured means that one has the chance to reflect upon injury, to find out the mechanisms of its distribution, to find out who else suffers from permeable borders, unexpected violence, dispossession, and fear, and in what ways. If national sovereignty is challenged, that does not mean it must be shored up at all costs, if that results in suspending civil liberties and suppressing political dissent. Rather, the dislocation from First World privilege, however temporary, offers a chance to start to imagine a world in which that violence might be minimized, in which an inevitable interdependency becomes acknowledged as the basis for global political community. I confess to not knowing how to theorize that interdependency. I would suggest, however, that both our political and ethical responsibilities are rooted in the recognition that radical forms of self-sufficiency and unbridled sovereignty are, by definition, disrupted by the larger global processes of which they are a part, that no final control can be secured, and that final control is not, cannot be, an ultimate value.

— pp. xii-xiii

I do not want to bore you with commentary (especially since I find Butler’s words so striking and moving without further analysis), but I feel compelled to point something out. At one and the same time, precarity is precisely that which Butler wishes us to fight against — insofar as we might come to recognize and to better protect bodies and lives that have, up to now, been invisible — and that which grounds the very possibility of recognizing an “other” life.  Paradoxically, it is a shared, though never quite equal precarity, that can form new, more ethical relations between others. Precarity and exposure to violence and to accidents, in short, is simulaneously that which secures the possibility of my undoing and the possibility of my learning how to see, how to hear, and how — potentially — to admire, to love, and to mourn other lives. Later in Precarious Life, Butler attempts to develop this line of thought further. She writes,

When we lose certain people, or when we are dispossessed from a place, or a community, we may simply feel that we are undergoing something temporary, that mourning will be over and some restoration of prior order will be achieved. But maybe when we undergo what we do, something about who we are is revealed, something that delineates the ties we have to others, that shows us that these ties constitute what we are, ties or bonds that compose us. It is not as if an “I” exists independently over here and then simply loses a “you” over there, especially if the attachment to “you” is part of what composes who “I” am. If I lose you, under these conditions, then I not only mourn the loss, but I become inscrutable to myself. Who “am” I, without you? When we lose some of these ties by which we are constituted, we do not know who we are or what to do. On one level, I think I have lost “you” only to discover that “I” have gone missing as well. At another level, perhaps what I have lost ‘”in” you, that for which I have no ready vocabulary, is a relationality that is composed neither exclusively of myself nor you, but is to be conceived as the tie by which those terms are differentiated and related […] Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.

pg. 22-23

This is precisely what I attempted to articulate a few weeks ago in my reading of Breaking Bad and in the example of my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s. This, I claim, is precisely why there can be no effective theory of accidentality — just as there can be no effectively ontology of the body — that is not radically social or environmental or interferential or relational.

And then there’s this:

The body implies mortality, vulnerability, agency: the skin and the flesh expose us to the gaze of others, but also to touch, and to violence, and bodies put us at risk of becoming the agency and instrument of all these as well. Although we struggle for rights over our own bodies, the very bodies for which we struggle are not quite ever only our own. The body has its invariably public dimension. Constituted as a social phenomenon in the public sphere, my body is and is not mine. Given over from the start to the world of others, it bears their imprint, is formed within the crucible of social life; only later, and with some uncertainty, do I lay claim to my body as my own, if, in fact, I ever do. Indeed, if I deny that prior to the formation of my “will,” my body related me to others whom I did not choose to have in proximity to myself, if I build a notion of “autonomy” on the basis of the denial of this sphere of a primary and unwilled physical proximity with others, then am I denying the social conditions of my embodiment in the name of autonomy?

— Butler, Precarious Life, pg. 26

And, lastly, this:

Mindfulness of this vulnerability can become the basis of claims for non-military political solutions, just as denial of this vulnerability through a fantasy of mastery (an institutionalized fantasy of mastery) can fuel the instruments of war. We cannot, however, will away this vulnerability. We must attend to it, even abide by it, as we begin to think about what politics might be implied by staying with the thought of corporeal vulnerability itself, a situation in which we can be vanquished or lose others. Is there something to be learned about the geopolitical distribution of corporeal vulnerability from our own brief and devastating exposure to this condition? […]

I am referring to violence, vulnerability, and mourning, but there is a more general conception of the human with which I am trying to work here, one in which we are, from the start, given over to the other, one in which we are, from the start, even prior to individuation itself and, by virtue of bodily requirements, given over to some set of primary others: this conception means that we are vulnerable to those we are too young to know and to judge and, hence, vulnerable to violence; but also vulnerable to another range of touch, a range that includes the eradication of our being at the one end, and the physical support for our lives at the other.

Although I am insisting on referring to a common human vulnerability, one that emerges with life itself, I also insist that we cannot recover the source of this vulnerability: it precedes the formation of “I.” This is a condition, a condition of being laid bare from the start and with which we cannot argue. I mean, we can argue with it, but we are perhaps foolish, if not dangerous, when we do.

Ibid., pp. 29, 31

I have slipped into quoting and citing — rather than reading — Butler, and yet the activity of passage selection and juxtaposition does compel a reading to come (even if I cannot yet offer it here). Things continue to be messy, a bit out of my reach . . .

Still, I wish to end with something a little more concrete. Consider Pieter Bruegel’s famous painting, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (1555-1558), to which W.H. Auden refers in his poems “Musée des Beaux Arts”:

Pieter Bruegel's Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (1555-58)

 I have always been struck with, as Auden puts it,

[…] how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Auden emphasizes the mundanity of this event — which is radically random and accidental to the ploughman and to the ship — and yet it is possible to see something else here. In short, it is possible to see the invisibility of Icarus’s suffering. It is possible that the painting teaches a kind of ethical paranoia or sensitivity to the invisible: to what suffering am I blind? has someone just fallen in the deadly waters that surround me? if so, why did I not see this falling body? why can I not see it drowning? how is it that I could not feel it passing me by or thrashing about? can I learn to mourn it? might I learn to save it? or to save others before they fall? to risk falling into these waters myself if it means peace and mutual affection? how much is my security — my crops, my cargo, my wellbeing — worth to me? is it worth blindness to those “white legs disappearing into the green”?

Whether or not the ploughman notices Icarus’s dying, they both move through the same frame, and their precarity — their radical vulnerability to accidents — nevertheless connects them.

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