Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Until the Day You Die I'll Always Admit You Were Right

I'd like to spend some time talking about the metaphor of space. Freud spacializes the psyche--the "interiority" of the subject is divided into three "zones": the "ego" "super-ego" and "id" and further divided into the conscious mind and unconscious mind. Of course, this is a metaphor. There is only the body, and its spaces. But we also say "personal space" which is less clear, more amorphous, especially since it relies upon a meaning derived from traditional Liberal political economy. Personal space, as it were, is conceptualized in terms of property rights: the skin is simply a stone wall that separates property lines. But we know much better than that. Personal space--an idea that, I admit, I have used somewhat freely, without first gaining entry onto its domain, access to its resources, permission to play with its meanings--an idea that I need to appropriate, to possess at some point, to make properly my own--... Speaking of personal space forces the question, then, With what propriety will I expropriate this notion. Is it possible to appropriate ethically? Or are words, unlike humans, freely floating things that can be grabbed, bended, contorted, destroyed without fear? This can't be right. What of the metaphor of personal space? How is that words can puncture whatever imagined membrane of protection we fancy we are outfitted with, our "thick skins" those of us who are "thin skinned" seem to lack? As is we have been rubbed raw, and rather than build up callouses we just have sores.

But what of the metaphor of personal space? What is this space? Traditional Liberal political, under the influence of the increasing weight of capitalistic exchange, conceptualized "personal space" as "private space," banishing to the four walls of one's home the appearance of this space. Personal space became coextensive with _privacy_, the right to have a literal space that cannot be intruded upon. The other side of this banishment was to inadvertently paint the public space, the res publica, as a space of danger. To be sure, the political space, the "polis," _is_ a dangerous space, but in no distinct way: the world remains contingent, unpredictable, and unstable despite pretenses to have found a space liberated of these fundamental conditions of human existence. The point here is that the consequence of literalizing the metaphor of personal space into an actual domain--the private sphere--we committed an almost irrecoverable violence against the notion of "personal space."

But what _is_ the metaphor of "personal space" trying to get at? Certainly it is present in public and in private--lovers can cross boundaries in the bedroom just as strangers can extend an intimate respect on an El platform. We may be well served to look at a political conception of the inviolability of "personal space": Ancient Rome. Livy documents, in the early history of the Roman republic, the legally instituted interdiction against bodily harm: it was one of the greatest offenses to strike the body of a fellow citizen. There were, however, exceptions to this rule. A consul, the forerunner to the Caesars, was flanked by 6 guards who carried fasces, sticks lashed together to make a thick rod with which they could beat citizens who threatened the safety of the Consul. Under states of emergency, during war or civil unrest, axe-heads would be attached to these fasces allowing the guards to kill fellow citizens. From this latin word, "fasces," we get "fascist"--the right of a Consul/Dictator to decide the right of death on the basis of his authority alone--thus Hobbes says of the Leviathan, that his decisions are based not on truth but authority.

A second example from Rome, however, comes to mind: debtors were no longer considered full citizens and they could be arrested and physically abused by their creditors. No doubt Nietzsche thinks of this institution, and its predecessors, when he speaks of the pleasure of violating the debtors body in "On The Genealogy of Morals". With this second example, however, we get closer to the enigmatic idea of "personal space" insofar as the Romans saw a link of some sort between the inviolability of the physical body and material goods or monies. That is, if we take the Romans to see the body as inviolable, a "space" that cannot be intruded upon except under certain circumstances, then how is it that one of these circumstances that seemingly nullifies the sanctity of that inviolability concerns things, matter, property? It is possible that, with Locke, we can see the body as itself the first piece of property that is appropriated and made properly one's own. This then enables one to say, for instance, that my goods, my worldly possessions, are just further extensions of myself, of my appropriating capacity: to steal or damage my property, to trespass against the walls that demarcate my land, these acts are of the same kind as a physical assault. The difficulty with this line of reasoning lies in the perverse reversal that occurs under capitalism wherein the value of the laborer diminishes in proportion to the increase in value of the object (Marx). That is, whereas once the body vouched for the value of objects, now it is objects that vouch for the value of the body, and with terrible consequences.

More to the point, there is something else at play in the Roman linkage of debt and emergency as the two outstanding examples of the legalized permissibility of physical harm, of the violation of personal space. (There is, of course, a third example, which I exclude from the scope of this investigation, namely the paternal right to execute his son.) The nexus, I think, might be found in the shared feature of _the promise_. When Nietzsche starts his 2nd Essay of the "Genealogy" he begins by remarking at the bizarre task nature set for itself to "breed an animal with the right to make promises." He then goes on to make the now famous argument about the etymological intimacy between debt (schulden) and guilt (schuld) as the origin of our moralized "bad conscience". At the same time, Arendt attributes to the Romans the most profound appreciation for the political import of promises in the form of treaties with neighboring cities. It seems as though what debt is on the inter-personal level war is on the inter/intra-national level: a violation of a promise.

There is a certain appeal to thinking about personal space in terms of a promise, as a "space" that only exists in metaphor itself--the membrane of protection that cloaks my skin is nothing more or less that the good will of others not to break a promise--implicit in our sharing a literal space--the legally bounded space of the res publica or the agreed-upon privacy of the private home. The failure of those well-meaning Liberal political economists lies precisely in trying to literalize a metaphor and in so doing elide the fluidity of "personal space," articulated differently in different contexts, but which, only only by its existence, offers the hope of a moments respite, of sanctuary, and trust. Nietzsche has a beautiful aphorism that captures the true "crime" of breaking a promise, of stealing, of assaulting me when he speaks of the lie: "What offends is not that you lied to me, but that I can no longer trust you." Personal space is nothing more or less than the ability to trust another, and oddly, it exists in inverse relation to trust: the greater the trust the less need for a robust personal space, whereas the less trust there is between people the more urgent the need to assert a space in-between, a buffer as it were.
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As always, these reflections issue forth from an event that moves on a personal register. My therapy, as it were, is my ability to write these, as my German friend calls them, "Gedankenskitzzen"--thought-
sketches. To, oddly, expose myself by inviting you, dear readers, into my personal space so that we can think these things over. Half of the time I need to pretend no one reads these in order to be able to perform such theoretical explorations, the other half of the time I write to or for a specific reader, a phantasy reader, surely, but a specific reader nonetheless. Tonights reader is J.'s room-mate, and J. The former for his utter inability to respect personal space, to acknowledge boundaries, to exploit the uneasiness that ensues--this time culminating in the possible theft (he would say "borrowing") of J.'s bike and, perhaps, $300. And the latter because, as he negotiates this nonsense at home he had not recoiled from me. Last night we shared yet another moment of rather intense intimacy, wherein I was able to share the sort of personal revelation that leaves you wholly exposed and terrified. It's funny because when I told him this dark, dirty secret he started to cry. I felt so angry, so enraged--as if all over again, for the first time: this event, the facts of which I shared, still causes pain, from beyond the grave, 10 years dead. Amazing how even the idea of violations of boundaries can hurt. And so badly, too.

It's also amazing how things like that can bring people closer together. I think there is something quite profound to Butler's concept of "precarity"--of human existence conditioned by radical precariousness. We are all so fucking vulnerable. J. has been so instructive--but that word itself is a misnomer: he never assumes the pretensions of being an instructor. Rather, with him I suddenly realize the true power of Aristotle's insistence: you will know a virtuous man when you see him. Aristotle is clear: he will not declare himself, he will not accept platitudes: he simply will act with the excellence of a virtuoso: he will move with grace, think lyrically, see against a profoundly expansive horizon, speak simply. J. has challenged me on almost every register of my consolidated persona, tugging at the strings I cannot weave into the narrative "I" but which I swirl around my fingers as if with an anxious tic. He unravels me, but not maliciously. He gathers the string in his hand, spools it around his wrist, drawing me in. He says, "what you were has lost all shape and meaning: here: begin again." He extends his hand to me, I reach out. My skin touches the fiber of my being.

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