Indifference Now, a thought experiment

I don’t have this (note the absent referent) fully worked out. Were I to attempt cleverness, I might claim that it can only exist as unfinished, denuded, a strange pairing that, nonetheless, makes a certain kind of sense. Yet with a strange persistence, strange in that the form it takes belies persistence. One presses an ache, relishing the pleasure of relief and the comfort of the ache. To feel alive might be a form of aching (not longing, and this distinction is important).

One ventures, then, into a kind of writing that enacts (it is hoped) a certain way of feeling, of being in the world—to question the fact of being as valuable, in that overly self-conscious way we might term modern or middle-class. To this, I have no real answers.

Many years ago, Leo Bersani asked us to think about the value of powerlessness. Then, and now, it remains a powerful provocation, precisely because it seems so unthinkable. It was also remarkably timely and prescient, at a time (in the later 80s) when agency seemed so fraught. In his lovely Love’s Instruments, Melvin Dixon captures the spirit of that time (even now, perhaps) when the need to act emanates from failing bodies, the urgency of ever-weakening physiologies. I still have to think through the complex relationship between testimony and agency, witness and action. (And even this deferral is part of this, shall we call it suspension.)

It has been many years since I’ve written about agency. People act. I take this as banal, even uninteresting. I am more reluctant now to ascribe meaning to such actions, or, at least, to inflate meaning in a way that distorts such action. I hasten to add that recognizing the fact of agency will always have a certain urgency, even as I question our need to conflate the conceptual and political notion of agency with any and every incident of action. But this, too, is another discussion about the perverted ways in which we think about choice and action, and our refusal to recognize their often impoverished if not bankrupt nature.

It is too possible, I think, for agency to be conflated with re-action (hence, I think, the contested term “post-colonial,” and the terrifyingly reductive notion of “writing back to empire”). I am much more interested in moments of parallel acting, not intersection.

I was recently reminded of Bersani’s work when reading Laurent Berlant’s essay “Starved,” in the latest issue of the South Atlantic Quarterly. She is interested in a certain notion of “stuckness” that characterizes the present. It is a now marked by an eroded subjectivity, one constantly undergoing attrition. As a bad student of agriculture, I tend to confuse attrition with erosion. Both, unless I’m wrong, describe wearing away over time, though erosion might be more sudden (long rains). (There might yet be a point here.) I have yet to process what it means to occupy an eroding subjectivity, which is not the same thing as a failing body, it must be said, yet is not wholly unrelated.

All of this is a preamble.

For the past few years, I have been fascinated by indifference and apathy. Both make me uncomfortable—so, of course, they are incredibly appealing. Now, I think of both less as occupying the realm of the apolitical than as embedded within the realm of the political.

But I want to take a step back from a previous position where I identified both as forms of violence. While I do think violence is a remarkably capacious category, I am not quite sure indifference and apathy always qualify as forms of violence. I do think they are more often a part of our everyday lives than we care to admit. Indeed, only a crippling self-consciousness would completely erase both. I write, of course, about that carapace of the everyday.

Increasingly, I have turned to thinking about indifference, not as a calculated response, but a way of doing that refuses to recognize the imperative to respond. I have toyed with the idea for a while, especially as a way to question what I consider the excesses of (post)colonial scholars. I think the question of indifference becomes even more pressing when we consider the realm of intimacy (a term I find more useful than sexuality). Intimate practices have no singular relation to systems of power and, quite often, seem indifferent to them.

It would be irresponsible, or conceptually careless, to identify this indifference as a form of resistance, for such a (frequent) move refuses to imagine the specific ways indifference need not be read as re-active. Indeed, indifference often confounds its historical moment, detached as it seems from the very conditions that enable it. But it strikes me that understanding the value of indifference might be very similar to understanding the value of powerlessness. Here, of course, the term “value” troubles the ideas of powerlessness and indifference but that’s another discussion.

I am trying, albeit circuitously, to understand the banality of indifference in a way that does not conflate it with the pose of aestheticism. To begin, that is, from the scene of my great grandmother’s garden, not the trail of Wilde’s cigarette. To note, also, the danger and impossibility of such thinking, especially in prose that feels strained, overly-anxious, marked repeatedly by markers, stops, a sense of “urgency” at odds with its topic.

There is, I would argue, finally, a strange temporality to indifference, to the extent that it is recognizable only within a specific moment precisely by its refusal to live in the moment and thus, paradoxically, to inhabit fully the moment. Here, I use “refusal” wrongly, but this might be the conceptual mistake that thinking about indifference demands. Is indifference linked to an attrition in subjectivity? Is it a sort of contemporary and necessary numbness that enables, may perhaps even be foundational to the social? Is it related to but irreducible to attrition? If related to attrition, might indifference be a symptom of the now, a sign of what some might term privatization? How to distinguish between a form of indifference that might be symptomatic and one that insists on its ahistoricitiy? (That this insistence on ahistoricity might itself be symptomatic is another issue.)

Of course, indifference rarely if ever insists on anything. Its strange charm lies precisely in its flatness, its doing without considering. Yet, such flatness, from one perspective, does not indicate an absence of richness. And it is the richness of indifference that draws me in.

2 thoughts on “Indifference Now, a thought experiment

  1. Is indifference so easily mapped onto “aestheticism,” or is it rather, as Kant suggested and as was exemplified by Pater, disinterest, which is a different though analogous issue/problem? In fact, Paterian aestheticism constitutively involves engagement with temporality, with the nowtime of lived experience. Its presentness marks its ephemerality, as opposed to the prior aesthetic positions which attempt to bracket off the life from the work, as in Platonism and neo-Platonism. Perhaps if you would say more about your grandmother’s garden and how this relates to the attrition of subjectivity in indifference as regards aestheticism, it’d be clearer to me, because right now it’s a bit hazy and abstract, which I acknowledge to be my problem, but I am curious about this.

  2. As you can probably tell, this is more a groping toward something than an argument. A few notes (to myself mostly, but hopefully some sort of answer).

    Many thanks for trying to think through and along with me. I considered this one of the most confusing and painful pieces of prose I’ve composed in a long time.

    1. I think the word “conflate” is a good one to think about in terms of indifference and aestheticism, precisely because it refuses what I often think is the easier notion of “mapping onto.” Having said that, the backstory to this incomplete formulation is my frustration at having queer histories (at least histories of queer aestheticism) begin with Pater and Wilde, figures who seem to guarantee one’s queer aesthete credentials.

    2. I must confess, it’s been about 4 years since I read Pater, so I’m relying on a leaky memory. It seems to me there’s something to the oxford aesthetes that reeks of indifference as a calculated strategy, in their turn to the past, for example (I might change my mind after reading Heather Love). Pater’s infamous call to burn brightly before dying out seems to capture this, as, I think, does some of his work in Marius. But I’m not willing to stake anything on this. I’d have to think quite a bit about the presentness of Paterian aestheticism, in part because I think it occupies a weirder temporality, a presencing remarkable for its detachment and, yes, indifference, in fact, reliant on such detachment for its presencing. But, as I said, it’s been some time.

    3. Tell me a little more (when you have time) on the distinction you see between indifference and disinterest. Is it that one is more deliberate, more calculated? Here might be a good place to invoke Levinas’s “face,” no? I’ve noticed you teach and think quite a bit about Kant. I must confess, I’m only the least bit familiar with his work on aesthetics and much more at home with his writings on cosmopolitanism (the tent I sometimes inhabit).

    4. To your last question, I have no real answer. I’m working with, I think, two (or more) ideas of indifference. One is more directly related to attrition and forms as a kind of scar tissue (I prefer carapace) in response to the present. This is what I take from Berlant. It is, I think, a paradoxical form of indifference to the extent that it emanates from an inhabited and lived now, and is, as such, a kind of response or symptom.

    The other kind of indifference has what might be termed a racial-colonial history to it. I think, for instance, of the travel writers and novelists who commented on the blank, inscrutable faces of native peoples. Might we read such mask-like faces, and descriptions of them, through and as useful types of indifference? How might this alternate styling and stylization provide what might be considered a method for reading? I’m getting even more hopelessly abstract now. But, I’ve found, such projects take time. I’m patient.

    5. Finally, to return to my first point, I want to think about indifference especially in terms of intimate practices. We might consider, for example, how barebacking might be considered an indifferent practice, willfully neglectful to the demands imposed from without. That’s a bad example. Another, more useful example might be how diasporic authors use intimacy in their works, ignoring the political and cultural demands of their moment (Claude McKay’s Banjo and Banana Bottom are exemplary in this regard). The novels, or elements of them, seem to phase in and out of political action. This is what McKay termed being a “bad nationalist,” I think. I’m sure I’ll have a smarter answer when I start working on the book. (It’s happening.)

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