QED II, part three: Not (quite) easily done

QED II: Not (Quite) Easily Done

West Hollywood, California

The third Q.E.D. II event of 2013 featured one of Les Figues’s earliest authors, Jennifer Calkins, in conversation with Amanda Ackerman and Anne DeMarkin. Teresa Carmody, the press’s cofounder, moderated. This final panel focused on the challenge of demonstrating things “as they are.” Calkins’s curatorial statement emphasized the distance between perception and the world, and the way in which “our intersections with the past, with the plants, with the nonhuman animals, are not about anything but our own speech,” a concept which was troubled throughout the evening’s readings and conversations.

Calkins read from a short piece of seemingly dystopian fiction that acknowledged its own existence as problematic, commenting on people’s love of an apocalypse. Suggestions of “warmer seas” and animal losses coupled with a zombie narrative of contagion as manifestation of anxiety about infectious disease. Perhaps, the speaker muses, the “point of dystopias is to render everything obsolete.” In the end, though, it “wasn’t dystopia … now we are among the sad crowd of positive feedback.” Humanity has “surpassed its want.” The sickness of the planet and of people is paralleled by the speaker’s own love-sickness for a man of unknown relationship who has died in a sanitarium. No one is named. Photos of a burned-out landscape flashed behind Calkins’s head.

The decidedly end-stopped tenor of Calkins was contested by Amanda Ackerman’s meditation on collaborative writing, “I Did Not Write This By Myself.” Reflecting on Kafka’s statement that he needed to write alone, Ackerman contemplates the impossibility of such a thing, turning to sources as divergent as Deleuze and Robert Louis Stevenson (the latter, it turns out, believed that little people he called “Brownies” wrote his stories). While she agrees with Deleuze that “the body is a nonlinear assemblage of heterogeneous parts,” she thinks “some organs and liquids are more creative and talkative.” Rejecting the term “hybridity” — which suggests “one pure element intermingling with another” — Ackerman highlights “Biopoesis” as an alternative, the “recognition that we’re not alone … writing as and with nature.”

Collaborations with the nonhuman are much simpler, according to this formula, than we make them. In order to begin, we simply “introduce ourselves.” This is not to say that every agent will speak back, or will speak the same language. Nonhuman speaking subjects will have modes of relating that defy the symbolic order — trees and mushrooms, for example, arboreal and rhizomatic systems, live in coevolution with each other despite their seemingly different ways of being. Ackerman imagines a planetary future not limited by our previous understandings of the human and nonhuman, one that doesn’t end with a scorched-earth scenario.

We returned to themes of loss with Anne DeMarkin’s reading from “After Life,” a story generated by the redaction of pieces of text from a story the author was previously dissatisfied with. Dialogue was often absented, and DeMarkin projected the artifact of the partly blacked-out pages on the wall behind her. The story enacts a stubborn refusal to demonstrate. A woman driving on a bridge late at night wakes up from a seizure, half-remembering a moment in which she might have caused another’s death. The “After Life” of the story is not life after death, though, but “life after that moment.” She looks for ways to redeem herself. Dragging a raccoon’s body from the bridge into the forest, she marks its grave; she attends the woman’s funeral, but the grave marker is destroyed, and it is clear that any attempt at repair will always fall short. “First the world,” she says, “is this way, then it’s not.”

DeMarkin’s story echoed Calkins’s in its hinging on a point from which there is no return — what we often call the “tipping point” in relation to climate change. Each writer spoke of her work as being about some sense of disintegration or loss, and the paradoxical notion that despite having passed the tipping point there might be repair of some kind. In the case of Anne’s story, taking apart and re-pairing the words in a story she thought was hopeless formally enacts such an impasse. In this sense, her project connects with Ackerman’s in that they both attempt to liberate the voice from predetermined sign-systems. For Amanda, this might mean going outside of “human” language entirely, and Anne’s effacement of the text “liberates words from their semantic relations and grounds them in an independent agency.” Here, human language is given distance from the human.

The question of whether the human can experience something other became central to the conversation as we discussed the possibility of other-than-human languages. Ackerman’s frustration with phenomenology as the primary lens for thinking through the ecological is coupled with a sense that epistemological frameworks have “drilled” the notion into us that communication with the nonhuman must be anywhere from difficult to impossible. Vanessa Place (from the audience) argued that object-oriented ontology and affect constitute a contradiction in terms, because we’re always importing our affect, and are thus stuck imagining a language we don’t have a language for. Ackerman countered that languages can be learned, while Calkins talked about her work as an animal behaviorist, in which she “hits a wall” in relation to perception in trying to understand birds.

The series terminated, then, with the question of how we relate perception and evidence. The gap between the two might be said to approximate the “gaps and silences” that made up queer time for Matias Viegener in the first Q.E.D. this year. What speculative future, as discussed in regard to the idea of gender in the second event, might open up here? Alas, we seem to have returned to the question of what Quentin Meillassoux posits as the problem of “correlationism,” or the problem of contemporary philosophy after Kant, the insistence that “we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other.”[1] This year’s series of events, each in its own way, troubled this apparent division. 

[1] Quentin Meillasoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, trans. Ray Brassier (New York: Continuum, 2008), 13.