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 someeternal 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
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."
Eleni Stecopoulos is the author of Visceral Poetics (ON Contemporary Practice, 2015), Daphnephoria (Compline, 2012), and Armies of Compassion (Palm Press, 2010). She curated an award-winning series on “The Poetics of Healing” for the Poetry Center at San Francisco State University, hosting writers, artists, health practitioners, scholars, and activists in performance and conversation, and she is finishing a related book called “Dreaming in the Fault Zone.”Her writing is published in venues such as Harriet, Encyclopedia, ecopoetics, Open Space (SFMOMA), Supple Science: A Robert Kocik Primer (ON Contemporary Practice, 2013), and Somatic Engagement: The Politics and Publics of Embodiment (Chain Links, 2011). She appears in George Quasha’s video work poetry is (Speaking Portraits). Stecopoulos has taught at Bard College, in the Naropa Summer Writing Program, and in the MFA programs at San Francisco State and the University of San Francisco. She lives in Berkeley and co-teaches a workshop with the dance poet and movement educator Margit Galanter.
david wolach is founding editor of Wheelhouse Magazine & Press and has been an active participant in Nonsite Collective. wolach is the author of Hospitalogy, from Tarpaulin Sky Press, as well as Occultations (Black Radish Books, 2010), Prefab Eulogies Volume 1: Nothings Houses (BlazeVox, 2010), and book alter(ed) (Ungovernable Press, 2009). A former union organizer and installation artist, wolach’s work often begins as site-specific and interactive performance and ends up as shaped, written language. Critical work can be found in Aufgabe, P-Queue, Jacket, Jacket2 and Sibila: Poesia y Cultura. wolach is professor of poetry, poetics, and queer & cultural theory at The Evergreen State College, and visiting professor in Bard College’s Workshop In Language & Thinking.
And also this week:
Nate Mackey - September 30, 6-7:30 at UW Seattle, Communications Bldg 120. He will be talking on Precarity and Breath—the first discursive lecture he has written to deliver he says—in the last ten years. Don't miss it!
UW Bothell’s Fall Convergence Conference, Thursday evening, October 1, at 7:00 (reception at 6:00) in North Creek Event Center. The next day on Friday 1-7 in the afternoon a whole host of interesting people and events. http://www.uwb.edu/mfa/program-events/fall-convergence
Another conflicting reading. Sorry Gregory! Shannon, Eunsong 은송, & Gregory Laynor: October 3, Sat, 7 PM at Gallery 1412, 18th Ave. Seattle, WA