Monday, October 5, 2015

Infection: what poets celebrate as "presence"

I've been trying to think through the philosopher Isabelle Stengers' use of the term "infection" (in her book on Whitehead) in relation to poetic practice.

Our experience is infected by objects (or "others in oneself") that our bodies register, perceive and/or interact with, that is, not just by what we are conscious of. An infection means that this interaction endures, that the interaction was successful in some way.

Here's the main citation from Stengers: 

"'Infection' is the term Whitehead chooses to designate, in a generic way, what the poets celebrate as "presence." Celebration refers to the fact that it is a poet's experience that is infected by [Stengers' strange example:] [a] gloomy and ancient mountain," -- i.e., that which is an enduring object (as opposed to some eternal object, like what is conjured by the word blue, that whitehead says "haunts time like a spirit.").  "'Infection' must be understood, not without humor, in a neutral sense" (i.e., infection is speculative -- it doesn’t try to control consequences), "designating the success constituted by all endurance in a changing world.... This infectious holding-together is not a fusion but a valorization, a determinate shaping, conferring a value -- that is, a role -- on what is prehended." 

In other words, 'infection' is about what has got a hold on us. The efficacy of the hold is a kind of endurance -- which is separate and apart from how – once public – a work of art finds 'a life of its own,' i.e., from how a work of art becomes a vehicle or vector for infecting others.  Let's not confuse this with marketing. I don’t want to translate this in a way that would emphasize how public ideas (or works of art) are only alive to the extent that they infect others (or continue to infect me).

The celebration “as” presence is enacted in the unfolding or creation of a poem. Maybe there is a way to relate this to Spinoza's famous statement that 'we don't know what a body can do'.

As a poet might say: “the words write me as much as I write them.”

What Stengers actually says is that speculative thought should infect questions raised by living societies with hesitations and uncertainties.  For Whitehead,  “everything is sociology...   Whitehead can no more tell us what a society is than Spinoza could say what a body is capable of.  In both cases 'we don't know.' We only know that the two opposite extremes 'my body belongs to me' and 'I belong to my society' are somewhat misleading simplifications." (325)

For living societies, everything happens in the non-occupied spaces – on the level of the interstices – between bodies and environment.  Between the power to affect and the power to be affected.

In a way, this is an argument (not inconsistent with Foucault) that (quoting Stengers again) “power is not primarily repressive, but inciting, arousing interest, questions and knowledge. This, indeed, is how infection in Whitehead’s sense could be defined: not by imposition of a role but by the incitement, reflected in multiple and various ways, to take up and prolong that role.  In the generic sense, nothing imposes anything, for there is no authority that has, in itself, the power to impose. All ‘social power,’ unless it is purely and simply repressive (which is a rare and unstable case), designates first and foremost a dynamics of infection.”  (160)

So my hope is that we can attune to the dynamics of infection, and this can incite us to hesitate and think and question. 

p.s.  Stengers again: "The reader will have intuited that Whitehead is no critic of power as such: a nature in which nothing succeeded in infecting anything else would not be a nature, and the possibility of maintaining any kind of nostalgia toward a "powerless" society implies in itself an incalculable number of "social achievements."

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