notes to agata bielik-robson’s “Bad Timing: The Subject as a Work of Time”

The article discusses the human condition vs. human nature. The former is preferred to the latter because human nature occludes the mechanisms by which one develops character. Character is described as a defensive strategy against the vicissitudes of fate which are foundational to defining the human condition.

The world is seen as hostile and trauma-inducing and so we develop our character as a means of transforming these wounds into sources of strength. The world is characterized as being in a reciprocal exchange with people such that we give the world the “rare gift of meaning” without which it would be “nothing but a pure flux of forces and events.” (88) The world is nothing without the anthropomorphic meaning imposed upon it through the human being’s traumatic metabolic process.

In discussing Heidegger’s concept of Ereignis the author laments that the etymological equivalent is missing in English, stating that the equivalent only holds in “Germanic and Slavonic languages which register the link between ‘giving’ and ‘happening.'” (81) The author then points us to the Polish verb przydażyč “which signifies an event, suggests that whatever happens is automatically a gift and, similarly, the German es gibt or  das Schicksal, which represent fate as that which is ‘sent’ or ‘given.'” (81) But here the author misses the two crucial words which in English would do exactly the work being asked of it. These two words, of course, being “present” and “happening.”

We call, in English, what is currently happening “the present” which is the same term for a gift that is given. The word “happening” is an adjective formed of the Old English and Scandinavian root word hap meaning “fate.” Thus, the gift of our fate, what is happening, is pre-sent by factors beyond our control. This gift of the prevalent conditions, the facts of our being-here, is a reciprocal affair. We exchange this gift of character-formed-by-fate in the manner Heraclitus describes in his psyche-daimon equation. Psyche is that medium without which we cannot exist just as fish without water. In both cases it is the medium that allows for us to develop as individuated beings in this habitat, one of the earliest meanings of ethos.

Quoting Simone Weil on The Illiad we begin to get this integrity bias in a strong way. Without questioning Weil’s wording the author tacitly accepts that Homer, et al. thought that “Force is what makes everybody who surrenders to it a thing. When it overwhelms a man completely, it makes him a thing in the most literal sense, for it changes him into a dead body.” Weil seems to be slightly mistaken here in so far that the Homeric world, and likely through to Plato’s time, was characterized by exactly this lack of volition. The gods made Achilles a great warrior, all the persons discussed in the Illiad and the Odyssey are marked by a lack of will, being merely play things for the gods. This was Heraclitus’ primary contention with the people of his world (anthropoi) and seems to have spent his life expounding upon the need for people to learn to understand the depth of meaning (logos) present and possible in their speaking and thinking (psyche). Further problematic for Weil (and unfortunately not considered by the author) is that to be dead in Homeric telling was to be in a state without psyche and then on to the Underworld as a shade. But what Weil really fails in doing is to understand, literally, what it means to be a thing.

By maintaining the psychoanalytically-informed position that subjectivity is the result of a metabolizing of trauma the author implicitly privileges a notion that the human being possesses an innate and should-be inviolate quality/essence which is the psyche. When the psyche is impinged upon there is a traumatic wounding. This is uncontroversial for those that follow psychoanalytic thought, but I am not one of those folks (not that I am wholly against psychoanalysis mind you). I do disagree in the main with the idea that we are all born with an innate individuating quality other than our obvious presence as “not-that-over-there.” The author describes the traumatic metabolism process as being uncomfortably-close with thingness (a term not explicitly defined) as such, “a man can become a subject only if he first becomes a thing, that is, an object of the blind powers of contingency.” Both Weil and the author fail to apprehend the simple profundity of their terms: a “thing” (þing) originally meant in English a gathering place and this meaning continues to find life in Scandinavia where the parliamentary bodies still meet in the Thing.

The word still survives in English today as “husting” probably derived from “house thing” the place where the pavilion erected by the King in a courtyard where his courtiers could meet (as opposed to the folkmoot which was an assembly of everyone else that was not a follower of the monarch). Husting (in American English it’s equivalent is the stump as in “stump speech” the place on which a candidate for public office gives their position before an audience) has developed in a similar manner to the term “republic” which comes from res publica which is literally a public thing. Following this discussion of a thing as an assembling we can understand subjectivity as a process of incorporation in the face of the unpredictable arisings of the conditions prevalent in our times.

I disagree with the author’s vision of character development as “made in haste on the basis of few, usually unforgettably strong, fragmentary experiences.” It seems to me quite the opposite case is true: that our character is developed in mundane, pedestrian fashion and often without intention. Character in this manner is very much like ethos, it is our habitual ways of being in the world. Our habitat is where our habit’s at. Ethos in this sense is our habitual locus of being, which begins to sound very similar to describing þing-ness.

To remain with the character as defensive strategy, whose aim is “to create enough stability for the psyche to stay alive in the world of incessant flux” is too lame a reading. Thinking of the psyche as too hastily built and poorly-prepared (in passim) presupposes that the psyche is internal ans ought to be inviolate. It disregards interrelatedness. If we accept interrelatedness then the threat is not to our inviolate self but that we will unhinge the reciprocity of the social medium. The author states, “Character is never a winning strategy: it is nothing more than just a defence.” But in Heraclitus we get a very different sense of psychic action, where one’s character (ethos) is a diagnostic tool for one’s psyche and the means by which we understand our fate (daimon).

Heraclitus’ call to careful attention paid to one’s interactions with the world and one’s habitual modes of operating in the world makes sense in that milieu. The Ancient Greek notion of freedom couldn’t be understood without freedom being exercised in the agora amongst one’s peers. The idea of an independent autonomous freedom as being implied in the author’s article was simply unknowable. Heraclitus is reminding us that we are only able to develop psyche and thus know daimon through our ethos, our habituating in our habitats with others. This is in sharp contrast to the author’s suspicion that were the psyche left alone, “undisturbed by the world, it would never form itself into any kind of organized ‘psychical reality.'” (85)

The author holds that fate is a “strange” gift:

unwanted, imposed, forced upon the subject which has to defend itself against its overwhelming influence. Before it is understood as a gift, it is first perceived as a sheer force; the self organizes itself defensively as character and does everything to repress the sense of deep ontological dependence which haunts its badly timed relation with the world from the very beginning. (86)

Fate as a gift is somewhat problematic in this formation though because we don’t know that it is fate we are dealing with until after the fact. This “bad timing” in comprehending one’s position in the world of larger happenings is in this manner the same problem facing revolutionaries, as Arendt “On Revolution” points out: revolutionaries must give over to History to know whether or not they are villains or protagonists. We only know our fate as spectators, not as agents.

We are told that meaning is belated understanding that gives sense to reality and has a therapeutic effect (87). But what about appropriating and apprehending? These in-the-thin-of-it, to use Massumi’s phrase, decisions that constitute “who we are”—that form the basis of our relationships with the identity-forming relations we have with neighbors, colleagues, friends, students, parents, and lovers—are they too hastily shaped?


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