Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Achille's Talk on "Happiness in the Age of Animism" by William Brinkman-Clark

As the opening act of the 2015 JWTC, Achille Mbembe’s lecture on his work – in progress – about happiness began with a metaphor: contemporary thinking of happiness – in the words of Achille – resembles an “architecture of corridors that never intersect”. So before taking on the question of “how” to be happy, an inquiry that modernity reduces to what appears as an easy decision on what corridor to take (and, of course, follow through), this year’s workshop offers the opportunity to take a moment and think about happiness itself.
We use the word happiness it would seem, on a daily basis, and yet, the varied ways in which this signifier is displaced offers a kind of clue on it’s malleability; as an “inalienable right”, happiness as presented by the American Declaration of Independence suggests that it is something to be pursued, and therefore, something that can be “obtained”. This liberal idea of happiness grants “it” some sort of metaphysical essence that can be procured… if so, can it also be lost? Romantic love, we were reminded, can promise happiness through the finding of one’s “soulmate”; happiness then, would be a sort of fulfillment – through (an)other – of a constitutive void; Internet dating can systematize said fulfillment and guarantee that, whichever “part” you pick to “complete” this entity of happiness, will be the “correct” choice. If one can “find” happiness, what does it look like? If I can achieve happiness, am I done after I do? Can I buy happiness? What does it cost? Achille’s brief description of contemporary notions of happiness seem to hit the nail on the head, and with it, open up the discussion for the next 10 days: Happiness, it seems, has assumed the form – in one way or the other – of work; and work these days, is best done with the mediation of experts.
What I mean when I say that this idea really opens up the discussion is that, when Achille talks about “the form happiness assumes today”, it reminds us of how necessary it is turn away from all the metaphysical specters projected when “happiness” is thought of as something “pure”, to renounce nostalgia or longing for something lost (which maybe, was never had), and to properly historicize and contextualize happiness: it has a time, a place. There is a historical repetition of the concept happiness, yes, but always different. Hence, happiness can only be, for us, modern happiness (or postmodern, take your sides) in the times of a capitalistic regime of production. would mean that happiness is, nothing more, or nothing less, than a relational value; that is, that happiness must be thought of in the context of the possibility of its potential infinite equivalency, happiness as a part of capital’s quest for universal equivalency. Does this mean that there are no other contemporary forms of happiness? No; but I do think that they remain inaccessible to us in the same way Borges’ Chinese Encyclopedia is.
However, this still would not tackle the phenomenological aspect of happiness and life: its part in “living”, where it would seem to be closer to the condition of a category (not in the Kantian sense, as a transcendental structure of understanding, but more along the lines of Blumenberg’s description of category: an attempt to explain basic or fundamental life experiences in the world) as much as we can theorize about out ability to measure and compare happiness we don't feel about it that way…at least not entirely. Happiness then, as a category, mediates something immediate, a sort of affectation whose materiality can only exist in the flesh, but can only be attempted to reconstruct and explain through language. What I find interesting about this approach is that it would again bring us back to a certain historicity; this time of the categories that constitute any regime of historicity, to borrow François Hartog’s term.
How can we reconcile happiness as a subjective affection, only partially objectified through language, and happiness as a value that appears so objectified that it has attained a sort of universal equivalency? As challenging as it may seem, this contradiction appears as central if we are to tackle the subject of happiness: It is through the contradictions modernity creates that we can intervene it’s architecture and perhaps, make two corridors intersect.

William Brinkman-Clark

Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City.

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