Note: This essay is from the anthology, The End(s) of Performance
, Peggy Phelan and Jill Lane, eds. New York University Press, 1997.
"That all our knowledge begins with experience there can be no doubt."
-- Immanuel Kant
Like Willy Loman, my mother was worth more dead than alive. Death of a Secretary. Propped up in bed at the Roswell Cancer clinic, her head circled in white gauze, she slowly explained to my brothers and me that nothing--not even death--would ever come between her and her children. This was after the first brain surgery, when she still spoke in full sentences. She had considered the investment options available to a struggling civil servant from Buffalo, she told us. Then she decided to buy not one but several large life insurance policies. She had wanted to surprise us with the money, but my mother was always lousy at surprises. We used to have to hide her birthday presents at the neighbors. Instead, she instructed her children how to spend the cash we were to receive from her dead body.
I recall my mother telling my brothers and me that we should buy health insurance, because she couldn't live with the guilt that we had somehow inherited her cancer. I don't remember much else of what she said. In an attempt to save her life, the doctors installed a shunt in my mother's brain. A shunt is a kind of straw that acts as a bridge for cerebral spinal fluid. Only after the brain shunt treatment was underway did the doctors admit that surgery, infection and steroids have been known to provoke "trauma" in the thinking patient. But not to worry, they told us. There was medicine for that. Back then, while my mother held court discussing what her death would mean, I considered it my job to collect empirical details about her faltering life: evidence of fever, slurred speech, leaking bandages. I know she wanted each of us to buy ourselves "a little something." I told her I wanted to buy a computer, a big new one. She was enthusiastic. "Get a lot of memory," she said to me, "because you will find you need it."
Do you know how Immanuel Kant's mother died? She was taking care of her best friend, who was ill. To persuade her friend to take medicine, Kant's mother first poured it into her spoon and drank it herself. She forgot, however, to clean the spoon off first. Kant's mother caught her friend's fatal disease, dying soon
after. I've always been jealous of the way Kant made meaning out of a world that killed his mother. Sometimes I think that philosophy, and certainly what we call "life," is little more than making meaning from memories. Although Kant began his Critique of Pure Reason with the statement, "all knowledge starts with experience," (1933: 41) he sure didn't think it ended there. Four hundred pages later, in the same document, Kant would write, "If appearances are things in themselves, then freedom cannot be saved." (1933: 466). For Kant, the thing that separated human life from animal existence was freedom. Ben-Ami Scharfstein summed it up this way:
If there was no freedom, the world in which Kant's mother died helping a friend.could be ultimately the real world, and.no more than brute, intolerable facts. This possibility was made the more intolerable by Kant's knowledge that his parent's dignity, which he cherished as his inheritance from them, depended on their freedom to act as they thought morally right. (223) 1
Kant inherited his parent's dignity, and used this inheritance to become a philosopher, thereby justifying his mother's sacrifice. I wish I had bought my computer for reasons as noble as those. Not that my mother would have minded the turn my life has taken. She liked technology, especially computers. She used them all day to process other people's words. The only time I remember my mother being technophobic was the morning she woke up in a sweat, announcing that she was not dying of brain cancer, but rather from the machines running her body. Dr. West, her neurosurgeon, thought she was referring to the IV lines that turned her skin purple each day, but she said, no, she meant it all: the radiation, the IVs, the part-time ventilator, and the endless MRIs. They were killing her, she explained. Then she said the words: turn them off. No one listened to her, though. How could they? She was wrong.
"Between health and insanity lies hypochondria," Kant once wrote, and he should know. He himself once went as far as to suggest that his headaches were due to a special kind of electricity in the cloud systems--one that was also responsible for causing a cat epidemic in Vienna. Not wishing to join the ranks of the ill or the hypochondriac, I often ignore my own health. This morning I fell in my shower. The cause was a blinding pain at the base of my spine, running all the way down my leg. "Pinched sciatic nerve," my doctor tells me. "Rest, avoid stress, and stop sitting for hours at the damn computer." He realizes that this is about as useful as telling me not to think. Rationalizing that I will only check my mail, I decide sitting for a few minutes at the computer can't be all that bad. Besides, I am on deadline for Prodigy. Terrified that America Online now has the lion's share of new Internet users, Prodigy, the
Internet provider once owned by Sears and IBM, is eager to carve a new image of themselves. To do this, they've begun courting Net writers they view as "hip". Since this is the first time in my life someone has thought of me on the cutting edge of anything, I don't want to dissuade them
I was confused when Prodigy first approached me to pitch them stories about online life, politely explaining that I am really a Net enthusiast with an academic background in feminist theory. I'm not hip; I don't begin pieces with the word, "dude". Nonetheless, the folks at Prodigy have always been polite and kind, they bought one story and then another from me, and finally they asked if I had any ideas for an online column about life on the Internet. I think I know what it is they want to see, so I go for the complete sell-out, telling them I will write something called "Baud Behavior". They like the title, and now want me to justify it. I scribble the following blurb on my pad:
Baud Behavior takes its title seriously: baud refers to the speed at which data travels. Likewise, we'll take for granted that the Net is a series of rapidly changing social spaces requiring skill and finesse to navigate. More than anything, we'll discuss slipping in and out of online situations with grace, wonder, and a sense of humor. In short, rather than concentrating on being a good student of the Internet, we'll be the ones smoking in the bathrooms of cyberspace, asking you to skip school and join us.
I have no idea what any of this means, really, but I have about twenty minutes left on my deadline to email it to Prodigy. I press the red button on the power strip that starts up my beautiful Power Macintosh, courtesy of the power of my mother's death. The fan whirs, and a scratching noise gives way to the soft off-key chime of the hard drive booting up. I like to think about my computer this way, as the sum of its component parts: the CPU, the case, the RAM, the screen. Kant would have called this cataloguing the phenomena: the stuff we can see and touch. He far preferred the noumena, that which can't be sensed, but nonetheless exists, like gravity. I find phenomena comforting, myself. They make me feel more in control, reminding me of time spent cataloguing my mother's various parts for the doctors. I press my monitor's "on" button.
My eyes spill over a white surface, desktop, piece of paper, television light, operating lamp. The sunshine of my mother's nightmares. Kant had a thing about the color white. He used it to demonstrate noumena, teaching that there are some things people understand a priori, in other words, prior to understanding and analysis. 2 When a certain wavelength of light hits your retina, he argued, you see what is generally agreed upon as "white", regardless
of who you are. Unless of course, you are blind. Remembering that Goethe once described reading Kant as "walking into a well-lighted room," (in Behler, ix) I retreat into a light of my own as my monitor slowly floods with the stuff. I hate white. It reminds me of home and empty snow fields.
I am grateful that the white screen has now been replaced by a "desktop". I take my right hand (the one I have been advised against using) and click my mouse. Clicking brings icons to the screen, symbolic images of the computer's brain, kind of like medieval renderings of Christ as God's kid. Kant would have been a Macintosh user; I'm sure of it. All that pointing, clicking, and rearrangement--so many desktop symbols relating to pure concept residing in the central processing unit of the machine. In his later life Kant, convinced that an ordered world was the only one that could sustain him, became what we would today describe as an "obsessive compulsive." Legend has it that he used to organize his guests around the dinner table and forbid them to speak out of sequence. Kant's father was watchmaker, but he didn't talk about the man much. I feel the same way about my father.
Click goes the mouse, and I change the brain of my computer to the and click my modem icon. I have an inexpensive modem; some knock-off called a Magnum 14.4. The one I want is called Platinum Global Village, 38.6 baud. I try to imagine this--a modem that would contain in its hardware a silvery-platinum village, one made up of the whole damn globe. I have baud envy. Click goes my mouse again; I have dialed a telephone number. Modem screams, modem hisses, modem yells. Modem fails. Modem disconnects. Anyone who believes computers and medicine are phallic has tried neither. I dial again, and succeed. Of course I have baud envy, I realize. My computer and my telephone are bridged through my modem, like the shunt that bridges the recalcitrant portions of my mother's brain.
Most of my online friends are not particularly interested in the way I am captivated by the Internet, nor by my desire to continue the project of metaphysics into cyberspace. People rightly credit William Gibson with inventing the term "cyberspace," that word Internet users have come to love to hate, as a quick and dirty way to describe the place bridging computers and the phone lines, bigger than the hardware and software and the humans who type there. But what is cyberspace, and where is cyberspace? I know the standard explanation: the Internet is not a place at all, but rather the effect of a series of parallel computing operations, occurring simultaneously all over the world. Still, I struggle with this explanation of the no-place of cyberspace as an
embarrassing linguistic necessity. If cyberspace doesn't "exist," then how is that I happen to live there?
Perhaps the fact that I read Gibson's Neuromancer ten years later than most of my Net friends has something to do with it. For better or worse, Gibson's conception of cyberspace never required the presence of someone as saccharine as Baud Girl, my generic recipe for teen-girl rebellion served up for the men from Prodigy. This is the advantage of writing, as opposed to living, science fiction, I tell myself. Perhaps corporate Internet providers are ready for a new kind of Gibson girl; maybe they mean it when they urge me to be "edgy" in my writing. But I'm just too cowardly to take the chance of being rejected.
Gibson wrote the book I will never be cool enough to write. Nobody seems to remember that nearly everyone in Neuromancer is sick in the beginning of that book, and gets better once they enter cyberspace. First there is the protagonist, Case--a destitute man with neural damage who receives an operation to re-enter cyberspace and pull off the ultimate hack. Molly, the text's cyborg razor chick-cum-femme fatale, is the only prosthetic woman I ever heard of who didn't wind up languishing in a hospital bed. Dixie, Case's beloved buddy, comes back from the undead and lives on as a RAM construct, all through the power of the computer. Finally, the entire plot of the book turns on the unstoppable desire of a dying artificial intelligence program named Wintermute to unite with its 'brother' program, Neuromancer, in the ultimate love that dare not speak its name. 3 It's not insignificant, either, that in Gibson's cosmology, Wintermute is the AI who "thinks," while Neuromancer is the one who "feels". All of this love and rebirth occurs in the Matrix, which Gibson describes thus:
Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts, a graphic representation of data being abstracted from every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity.(51)
"The feeling of the sublime" writes Kant, "Is at once a feeling of displeasure, arising from the inadequacy of the imagination.and a simultaneously awakened pleasure." (1993:214) I like to think that Kant--a man whose greatest contribution to philosophy is his ability to draw meaning from that for which there can be no logical proof--would have been sympathetic to my view of cyberspace as sublime. In his Critique of Judgment, Kant points out that the what the sublime requires is an active mind, one traveling at a high baud rate, I might add. Kant writes: "the mind feels itself set in motion (by the sublime).this movement may be compared with a vibration, i.e. with a rapidly
alternating repulsion and attraction produced by one and the same object." (1993:215) People tell me that I selfishly and willfully misread Kant. They point out that he was a great fan of Newton, and loved nothing more than order in the world. Today, I'd wager that Kant would have been a lousy physicist, but great computer scientist. After all, it was Kant who came up with the notion of the mathematical sublime: the feeling of awe and power produced when the mind tries, and fails, to conceptualize inconceivable relations of space or size. I know that sensation.
How many parallel computers form the Net, I wonder? No answer for that. How many users exist in cyberspace? No answer for that either. Kant claims that to understand the full effect of the pyramids, a viewer ought not stand too close, nor too far away. I wonder if the same holds for the Internet. I can't go to the Matrix, so instead I break up my travels: my online "homes" include bulletin boards like Echo and the Well, academic mailing lists, Usenet groups, and requisite pornography sites on the web. I have a list of online places I need to visit today--some where I will send email, some to chat, some for sex. When I want to be anonymous, though, I go to the service that promises blandness: America Online. "Welcome! " The weatherman voice of my computer greets me. I still have to mail that pitch to Prodigy, and here I am on AOL, "doing research" and writing a much more prosaic ode to forbidden cyberspatial love than Gibson would ever write.
I point, I click, I travel to a place called The People Connection. I am hunting for boys, cyberboys, they might be old ladies or fat daddies in real life, but today I want crazy horny fourteen year old insane boys who will do exactly what I want. I call myself something really sleazy, like Full Cups. I make a room, called Big Mammaries, in deference to my mother's suggestion about how to equip my computer. I know the responses I will receive. I get the same ones every time I go on-line:
I'll play with your bib (sic) mammaries!
I play with the boys I want, ignore the boys who bore me, rub and type and rub and type and I really only want to talk about mammaries, boobs, breasts, like my mother's, like the ones on other women. I want to be a lesbian, loving my own make-believe big busted body while crazy cyber-boys send me hot messages. I laugh hysterically at the fact that the boys in my room "Obey Me!"
all applaud after I have an orgasm, that sublime 'little death' beyond sex words, one finger on the keyboard, typing yesssssssssssss.
I can't see any bodies here, online. Yet words, seemingly attached to bodies in some way, fly past me on this screen. In n-talk (real-time writing) I watch as the cursor key moves back to correct spelling errors of others, transfixed. In the file libraries, there are back-posts from writers who have died. I can read them. This is not to say that the computer defeats death, any more than the library does. Nevertheless, here, in this place that does not defeat death but is itself deathless, that looks like the television and yet is not, where I am playing a part in a drama somewhere, well perhaps not my body, but, nonetheless "me" --where are the bodies?
Kant might call this state of a "bodiless body" an experience of the dynamic sublime. For Kant, there were two ways to think of the sublime: as magnitude (which he associated with mathematics) and as dominion (which he associated with dynamics as described by Newton.) However, the sublime describes something more complex than size or quality: the trick of the sublime, is that it keeps us in awe of phenomenon while it simultaneously separates and lifts us above that which we contemplate. This is why Kant wrote, for instance, that we consider nature dynamically sublime precisely when it is understood as might that has no dominion over us. (1993:217) In order for something to be sublime, the person who contemplates it must have no fear. Fear is the province of superstition, suggests Kant, while sublime religious experiences are linked to something else entirely. For this reason, you can't experience something as sublime if you aren't already hallucinating yourself more powerful than it in some way. For Kant, awe and terror are not the same thing.
The television in her room blares, the sound up too loud, as if brain surgery has rendered her deaf. Dr. West thinks it is good to have the television on, and often asks my mother about it, noting her responses in his chart. "Television helps the patients re-orient to reality after surgery," he says. CNN is on. Suddenly I remember that strange news slogan: "Give us 22 minutes; we'll give you the world." According to Jacques Derrida, the mathematical sublime announces itself through narrative. "Does not (the colossal)," he asks, "already call itself, with a narrative voice, the colossal?" (142) In other words, This is CNN. Yugoslavia is burning. Anonymous raped Bosnian women weep. "War itself," writes Kant, "provided it is conducted with order and a sacred respect for the rights of civilians, has something of the sublime in it." Clearly Kant and I watch different wars.
"They say he raped them that night," begins the article, "Rape in Cyberspace," by Village Voice writer Julian Dibbell. 4 It describes a cyber-rape, a wholly textual event that happened on an on-line system called a MOO (multi-user object oriented system.) This MOO divides itself into "rooms" where people chat as different personae. Many people online called Dibbell's article an hysterical piece of writing that belittled "real rape." They argued that if a person feels raped online, she or he can simply log off or hang up the phone. Sure, cyberspace fosters communities, people agreed, but not "real" communities with real bodies and real rules. Several people suggested that Dibbell "get a life" for even suggesting as much.
In cyber-rape, a textual body (a character) performs on-screen to push the erotic imagination of a real body (the typist at the end of a terminal.) For this reason, cyber-rape is closer to rape fantasy, than it is to "real" rape. Both of these types of rapes, far from being "real," serve rather as perfect examples of the aesthetic sublime--the realm in which the mind fantasies itself body-less, paradoxically by calling up and then destroying its own body. Strangely, in the classical sense, the sublime itself works on its spectators as a type of rape fantasy. Look at Derrida's description:
(The sublime) throws you down while elevating you at the same time, since you can take it in view without taking it in your hand, without comprehending it, and since you can see it without seeing it completely. But not without pleasure, with a sublime pleasing-oneself-in-it. (139)
It is precisely the moment when the human mind begins to rape itself for pleasure ("mind-fucking") that the space of ethics and government is reached. How does this happen? In his Critique of Judgement, Kant's answer is this: when I am experiencing the sublime, I am at my most human, and therefore at my most ethical, humbled and empowered by that which is beyond me. In one of his only snappy lines from the Critique of Practical Reason, he writes, "Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily they are reflected on: the starry heaven above me and the moral law within me."
Perhaps I am being ridiculous for noticing, at this late date, that Kant leaves out women in his discussion of the starry stars and the moral law, and excludes all but the most noble of savages from the sublime. Maybe I am confabulating when I say that it is mostly women and savages who have been the ones raped in order to create the justice of the modern nation state. Western nations, white peoples and men are sublime, argues Kant. You could, I suppose, call me
hysterical for pointing out that Julian Dibbell spends only two pages out of twelve describing the actual cyber-rape upon which his article is based, and the bulk of his piece describing the "new rules" by which the cyberspace in question re-defines itself to make itself more "civilized". This story is as old as the Orestia: The state, in its zeal to pleasure and punish its citizenry, makes a woman's physical assault into the stuff of law. 5 Thus, material rape turns into rape fantasy--it has to, because rape as violence hardly contains the sublime dimension necessary to move it into the space of ethics. By moving material rape into rape fantasy, the state effectively ignores and locks out the very female bodies it claims to save, for the sake of the nation.
Within Kant's construction of a moral world, of what use is particularity, more specifically female particularity? Where does the body go? Please don't misunderstand me--I am not completely sold on the body, a priori. My mother's organs were actively being reprogrammed with steroids, antibiotics and radiation therapy, her skin was punctured by thick IVs and long incisions from surgery. Where was her "real" body in this? Nevertheless, when the horrific, mundane realities of rape are sublimated into the stuff of law (blood tests, testimonies, DNA tests, Rape Trauma Syndrome) can we say with certainty that we know what "real" rape even is? You wouldn't know it, reading Kant, but for some of us, sublimation has its bad days.
The insurance agents arrive in her room, and speak over my mother, IVs in her arms and white gauze around her head.
"Hey!" yells my mother. "No one has to talk about insurance! I am covered, because I have Agent Orange"
"Agent Orange. I got it in the war. I flew over southeast Asia, once, and got it."
Okay, mom, I say. Haldol, the doctors say. Haldol is a drug that will stop the confabulation and the night screams, the ones that happen when she dreams she is blinded by radiation bombs and sunshine.
Like the sublime, my mother's madness was architectonic, if anyone cared to look. Take, for instance, her veteran's story. My mother was a veteran civil servant of the Veterans Administration Hospital of Buffalo, where she was a $17,000 a year secretary for too many years, processing the lives of dying and angry men who stupidly went to Korea and Vietnam to fight race wars, only to find themselves homeless, ostracized, and stripped of the whiteness they had
fought so hard to believe in. "Comparing the statesman with the general," writes Kant, "the verdict for aesthetic judgement is for the latter. " (221) But none of this was in her medical chart, and so no one knew what to think of her particular brand of sublimation, the one in which she contracted Agent Orange for America. Judging her madness a brand of genius was out of the question, at Roswell Institute.
At a certain time during her suffering, my mother began to ask to see a Catholic priest. She wasn't interested in going to mass, or in speaking with him at all--in fact, whenever he did try to speak with her about her life, she told him that a celibate man could have no clue about her, and to shut up, already. All she wanted, each and every day, was the sacrament of the Eucharist. My mother had never been a particularly religious person, and now she dutifully stuck her tongue out, eyes closed, breathing steady, jumping a little in her wheelchair when the wafer finally touched her tongue. Even after she became convinced that the hospital staff was salting all her food, and the wafer made her choke, hold her throat, and whisper to me in terror and confusion, "salty", she continued to ask for communion. "How come you want to have communion these days, Momma?" I asked her, once. She was silent for a minute, and then she said, "I am using the body of Christ for spare parts."
Perhaps my mother and I have all of this God stuff wrong. Maybe our thinking has been warped by too much CNN coverage, too many sequences of nameless raped Bosnian women, women who never speak, women whose faces "give us the world" forced upon my insane dying mother and me to prove that we both can successfully engage "reality". Reality often kicks the sublime in the teeth. No one knew this like Kant. Of all people, he knew that logical proofs for the existence of God were facile. There was no reason he ought to believe in God, and yet he couldn't do otherwise. Likewise, there was no reason to believe his mother ought to have died sacrificing her life for the love of her friend, and yet he couldn't believe otherwise. Faith, he answered his critics, steps in where logic is insufficient. But faith, like cyberspace, only exists as a result of performance.
In another text everyone loves to hate, Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capital, Frederic Jameson speaks of a newfangled sublime--a sublime that is not about God but about technology, and specifically about communications technology. Arguing that in post capitalist society, our sublime "Other" is "no longer Nature at all. but something else which we must now identify", Jameson suggests that our experience of technology as sublime is "a figure for something else"--
Yet technology may well serve as adequate shorthand to designate that enormous properly human and anti-natural power of dead human labor stored up in our machinery--an alienated power.which turns back on and against us in unrecognizable forms.(35)
Jameson traces the roots of the technological sublime not to God, but to the source from which First World communications technology flows: the feminized, subaltern economies of the "Third World". Though they sound pompous, his words ring in my ears like newscasts from CNN:
You don't want to have to think about Third World women every time you pull yourself up to your word processor, or all the other lower-class people with their lower-class lives when you decide to use or consume your other luxury products: it would be like having voices inside your head; indeed it violates the intimate space of your privacy and your extended body. (315)
I must say, I have problems with the argument that the "Third World" exists
solely to prop up a metaphysic of digital communications. Nevertheless, when Jameson calls the technological sublem an hysterical sublime, I think he may just be on to something. Where modernist writers satisfied themselves as thinking through technology as salvation or destruction, Jameson argues that postmodern thinkers lose that luxury: the technological implant is complete, we are cyborgs, the voices are in our heads. Jameson's warning is important: if you consider the politics implicit in the performance of the sublime for too long, you can go mad, or at least become hysterical. It happened to my mother and me.
Of course Kant would object to Jameson, my mother, and myself arguing that all of us misunderstand the sublime entirely. Kant would say that God and technology don't mesh. Likewise, he argued, although women can themselves be sublime objects, they just can't themselves experience sublimity as subjects. In some ways, a technological sublime, performed within the psychic structures of women, with all its political baggage and internal chatter would seem too close to madness for Kant. After all, this was the man who once wrote:
To eavesdrop on ourselves when our thoughts occur in our mind unbidden and spontaneously.is to overturn the natural order of the cognitive powers.If this is not already a form of mental illness, it leads to it and to the lunatic asylum (in Scharfstein, 223)
I think the word "hysterical" has at least two meanings. One is etiologically linked to disease, or at least, dis-ease; the other definition is the one I hear in
my uninvolved father's response to my worries about funding my mothers medical care: Oh, don't be so hysterical. In other words, the condition of my mother. Hysterical: diseased and dismissed. I gave my mother a set of rosary beads near the end of her life. She gave them back to me. "Fuck the Virgin Mary, Theresa" she told me, laughed, and went to sleep.
Oh yes, my mother and I are hysterical. My mother cracked herself up. When Jameson allies the technological hysterical sublime with camp, he cracks me up. Yes, the place I know as "cyberspace" began as ARPANET, as much a part of the military-industrial complex as Eisenhower's Army-issue boots. But that genealogy grows more and more campy as I stage my cybersexing, my community-building and my fiction writing there. Tragedy is sublime, said Kant, comedy beautiful. Camp is not of tragedy exactly, not of comedy in a clearly self-evident way. Which is my mother's need to use Jesus for spare parts, or my faux-lesbian cybersex with mystery straight boys? Tragedy or comedy, or neither?
I think of camp as a politics of space--a performance that marks this space as mine, not yours, never yours. Unless you suspend disbelief, and enter my theatre on my terms. Unless you ally yourself with my pain. Don't misunderstand me: I am not advocating experiencing the technological sublime--or by extension, camp--as a full time day job. But I do believe it as a useful way to make faith out of performance. It gives me something to believe in, when I have spent a significant portion of my life (and not by choice) disbelieving the activities other theatres not of my own making: hospitals and battlefields come to mind. You may understand my dual obsessions with my computer and my mother as stupid, pointless, facile, not entertaining, exclusive, histrionic. I understand performance as home. My country.
Using Jesus like an old automobile, for spare parts, and resisting the rape of spaces by sexing cyberspace--these certainly would not be Kantian strategies for getting through life and death. "I hardly believe the fair sex is capable of principles" Kant once wrote. (1991:81) I have no doubt that the campy sublime of my mother and I would smack a little too much of madness and bad free verse, things Kant hated. Nonetheless, Kant's struggle, my mother's, and my own are not all that different. We have all been trying to make meaning out of bodies that sliding into memory.
Kant struggled for a long time before he figured out a way to demonstrate the non-existent existence (what he called supersensible) value of faith. He just couldn't stop thinking about how to connect those two famous phrases, "the
starry skies above me" and the "moral law within me." He finally realized in his Third Critique that the way was through a detailed analysis of the dynamics of "awe".
Taking the example of a critic who says, "this rose is beautiful. " Kant argued that what this phrase actually means, "this rose ought to be beautiful for all"--else why regard him a critic? He then demonstrated that the statement, "the pyramids are sublime" does not, and cannot mean, "the pyramids are sublime for me," for reasons that are not dissimilar from why a doctor is not expected to say "the patient is dead, to me", but rather, "the patient is dead." When the critic (one with taste) speaks, it is as if beauty, or sublimity moves though his body and toward the object in question. Once Kant figured this out, he argued that this mechanism is precisely how judgement moves from the particular to the universal. Way before J.L Austin or Performance Studies departments, Kant argued that embedded in the linguistic performative "I believe" is the corresponding indictment, "you ought."
Finally, he claimed, he had found his "bridge" between knowledge and morals: aesthetics. Kant then turned his attention to morality, arguing that the categorical imperative is precisely that which evokes an "ought" eluding all reason. The realm of "ought", whether in aesthetics or in morality, is the realm of disinterest. For Kant, a painting of an apple that makes you hungry for apples means you can't judge its value as Art. Likewise, a religious faith based on fear and a hope of salvation is merely superstition. Faith, then must be disinterested, and acquired through awe, the mind's contemplation outside the sensible realm. Where philosophy had gone wrong, he realized, was searching for God through science, when faith, like genius, has always been the province of art. For a man who never once mentions Goethe, and thought listening to Mendelssohn was like hearing an "infernal moan," finding aesthetics as the bridge between the concrete and the supersensible must have been a shock indeed.
Kant argued that the universal cannot be reduced to its constituent parts. Although the sublime begins with bodily details, it can't go back there. But my mother's question remains: how do you experience the sublime when your body simply is not consonant with that of a white Western male? The sublime cannot employ the parergon, orders Kant. I use the body of Christ for spare parts, answers my mother. I cannot recall my mother's body outside the frame of her hospital bed, and no matter what Dr. Freud counsels, I find it hard to think of rape fantasy separate from other kinds of rape. This is why mother's advice,
gleaned from my memories of her, is the best inheritance I have, better even than her money. It imparts its own categorical imperative.
My mother's last act of moral artistry took the form of a banquet. She said that there would be many people there I needed to meet, and that I would have to wear something wonderful, maybe the black sequined dress from her closet. "You are going to have to buy yourself a slip to wear with that," she laughed, "because it is really tight. You are going to look like one shiny black seal in that dress!" When the insurance people came back, my mother insisted that they, too, be at the party. She would wake up from a nap, and see me sitting, watching her. Taking my hand she would say, "Okay, that's enough. Go get ready for the party." One time in frustration, she narrated to me a list of names and phone numbers of people who were going to be at this party. I called the numbers, and every one was right. Many were numbers of people my mother knew in high school. Of course none of them knew about the party. Of course there was no sequined dress at my mother's house for me to wear. I looked.
One day my mother fell asleep. From then on, she only woke up from time to time, to smile, or cry. Except for one afternoon, when my brother walked into her room and saw her sitting upright in bed. "What are you doing, Momma?" he asked. "I am trying to die," she answered. "It is hard."
She was right. Technology did kill her. She died of the multiple operations, not the tumor in her brain. And yet even in death, my mother couldn't catch a break. That most sublime moment was something she had to struggle to achieve, finally demanding that the doctors leave her alone and stop trying to save her, and that my brothers move her to a state sponsored hospice, where the nurses were concerned more about the living and let dead people die, already.
Rousseau, a great influence on Kant wrote, "Man is free, and yet is everywhere in chains." Yet it was in choosing to respond to the "ought" in life, Kant argued, that the human subject can elude, at least temporarily, the chains of servitude, illness, death. For Kant, God was a performance of faith--one that (as Julia Kristeva would say much later of the theatre), "cannot take (a) place." Kant used the sublime to get to God. Loving Kant, but loving my mother more, I use Kant's body of philosophy for my own ends--stripping his notions of performance out, trying to make meaning of my own memories. The place in which I make meaning is cyberspace. I'm no longer embarrassed to say that this process is metaphysical for me. Like Kant, I also know that what I am saying is hysterical, illogical and unproveable. As far as I am concerned, what cyberspace knows is this: although performing can end, performance cannot.
Performance pre-dates the arrival and departure of the bodies living, loving and dying on its stages.
Neuromancer-esque fantasies of the sublime aside, I can't live in the realm of the metaphysical. A girl's gotta eat. I have deadlines. I have stories to tell. I have a body, with a lot of memory. I have a computer, with a lot of memory. I type, I surf, I sex, and I live some of my time in cyberspace in a state of sublimity and anonymity. Then I cry, I come, I laugh and I time-waste my body, framed by a chair that lacks proper support. If I can meet this deadline for Baud Behavior, I have to go to a party for one of my computer groups. I am going to meet many of the people I only have spoken to online. None of them will know I have had sex, or confessed, or cried or laughed with their textual bodies, until I tell them. Perhaps, I tell myself, I can really be anonymous, unlike my mother, whose chart was passed around the hospital twenty times over, or the weeping women in Bosnia who continue to decorate American television screens namelessly. I know now that you first need to have an identity in order to have the luxury of forsaking it. For this reason, anonymity and invisibility are hardly identical, regardless of what Wired magazine believes.
I wonder how I will feel about meeting everyone. I know I will be disappointed to some degree, the way I was when it was pointed out to me that by all accounts Immanuel Kant was a bitter misogynist who would have despised me for mixing his biography up with his philosophical motivations. Frankly, if all knowledge begins with experience then I am glad I never met the man. But Kant only lives on in books, my mother only lives on in my memories, and I have to leave the house from time to time, so I consider this party. I wonder how much I will tell them about myself. I wonder how different they will seem, "real". I wonder if I will wind up having sex with any of them later, online. I do know one thing. I am going to wear a sequined dress. One that makes me look like a shiny black seal.
Thanks to Jill Lane, Peggy Phelan, Misha Iampolski and Tom Igoe.
1. The details of Kant's life are ones I have taken from the account of Ben-Ami Scharfstein in The Philosophers: Their Lives and the Nature of Their Thought.
Scharfstein consults a series of biographies on Kant for his insightful text, recommending most highly L.E. Borowski, R.B. Jachmann & C. Wasianski, Immanuel Kant: Sein in Darstellungen von Zietgenossen
, ed. Felix Gross. Berlin: DeutscheBibliothek, 1912.
2. All hail the Internet.The translation of Critique of Judgement
I am using is by James Creed Meredith, from the German Library series. It is availble via gopher at:gopher://gopher.vt.edu:10010/02/107/2 .The translation of Critique of Pure Reason
I am using is by Norman Smith Kemp. It, too, is downloadable in its entirety, complete with a search engine that scans the text for any word you wish to trace: Finally, for more information on Kant than anyone could possibly need, point your web browser to: .
3. I am grateful to Matt Ehrlich for his observations regarding the homosexual desire of Wintermute and Neuromancer in his essay, "Turing, My Love".
4. Dibbell's article is available on the web. Point your browser to: ftp://parcftp.xerox.com/pub/MOO/papers/VillageVoice.txt
5. The first time I came across this argument, it was being made by Sue-Ellen Case in her book, Performing Feminisms.
Behler, Ernst, Ed. 1993. Immanuel Kant: Collected Philosophical Writings.
New York, Continuum Publishing
Case, Sue-Ellen. 1988. Feminism and Theatre.
New York : Methuen.
Derrida, Jacques. 1987. Truth in Painting.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Dibbell, Julian,1994. "A Rape in Cyberspace; Or How an Evil Clown, a Haitian Trickster Spirit, Two Wizards, and a Cast of Dozens Turned a Database into a Society." Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture,
Ed. Mark Dery. Durham: Duke University Press.
Ehrlich, Matthew. 1996. "Turing, My Love." Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory
. Vol. 9, No. 1, Issue 17.
Gibson, William. 1984. Neuromancer.
New York: Ace Books.
Jameson, Frederick. 1992. Postmodernism: or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.
.Duke University Press.
Kant, Immanuel. 1933. Critique of Pure Reason.
Kemp, Norman Smith, trans. London: MacMillan.
----. 1993. Critique of Judgement (Meredith, J.C., trans.) in Immanuel Kant: Collected Philosophical Writings.
New York, Continuum Publishing. 129-238
-----. 1991. Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime.
Goldthwait, John, trans. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Kristeva, Julia. "Theatre Does Not Take (a) Place"
Scarfstein, Ben-Ami. 1980. The Philosophers: Their Lives and the Nature of Their Thought.
New York: Oxford University Press.
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