Thursday, July 9, 2015

Consoling Objects/Disconsoling Worlds: A Response to Gabrielle Schwab's Talk on "Apocalyptic Endgames" by Timothy Wright

For a workshop themed around the 'manufacture of happiness', there has been a surprising (but in hindsight unsurprising) tarrying with the experience of unhappiness. Unhappiness is after all the ground against which happiness becomes both legible and desirable. On days three and four of the workshop, several speakers addressed the relationship between happiness and the confrontation with death: with severe illness (Tina Sideris), with the potential of extinction in political revolution (Francoise Verges), with the prospect of dying alone and un-mourned (Anne Allison on contemporary Japan). In these situations, forms of happiness are produced from the most unpromising of contexts. In her brilliant, thought-provoking, and intricate talk 'Apocalyptic Endgames of the Mind: Ecology, Body and Affect in Samuel Beckett's Happy Days', Gabriele Schwab used Samuel Beckett's minimalist 1961 play as a 'laboratory' for exploring these themes. It is a play in which happiness and unhappiness are almost indistinguishable; in which unhappiness is seamlessly transformed into happiness. The mise-en-scene is stark: Act One opens onto a plain stage in which a woman, Winnie, is buried up to her waist in a mound of sand under a hellish sun. Her husband lives in a hole on the side of the mound and speaks little and monosyllabically. No other signs of human life are given. In Act Two, we are in the same place, but Winnie is now buried up to her neck. Despite this, Winnie somehow remains relentless upbeat. How does this happen? I want to condense Gabriele's very rich discussion on ecology -- psychic ecology as well as 'natural' -- by looking at the way she thought through the issue of adaptation, in particular the question of how one adapts to crisis. I am reminded of Shaw's famous dictum: the reasonable man changes himself to fit the world; the unreasonable man changes the world to fit himself; therefore all progress is made by unreasonable men. But Winnie's adaptation is made in the face of a world that appears utterly impervious to change, and is thus fundamentally a mode of survival. How does one adapt to a world that one cannot change? One answer is that Winnie is engaged, as Gabriele put it, in a 'self-manufactured pursuit of happiness'. The key to this manufacture of happiness is the object, which plays a peculiar role in this closed and inhospitable universe. These objects are both the physical, everyday objects Winnie removes from her handbag (a parasol, a comb, a toothbrush, a gun) and verbal or mental objects (Winnie's monologue, with its endless wry quotations from literary classics). Both words and things function as what Gabriele vividly termed 'consoling objects': consoling because they facilitate what Gabriele called -- borrowing a term from Ackbar Abbas -- Winnie's 'negative hallucination', her wish to not see things she doesn't want to see. Against the backdrop of trauma, objects allow her to protect her optimism. This works at a meta-theatrical level: the same objects reappear again and again on each night of performance as Winnie finds herself in the same space again and again, creating a sense of security and even comfort. Interesting is the way the play physically transforms affectively uncomfortable experiences into their obverse: Gabriele spoke of how, when she played the role of Winnie, she eventually grew to find the physically uncomfortable strictures of rehearsal and performance while buried to the neck consoling. One might even wonder if the play itself might function as a consoling object for the audience, a small closed world in which despair is cordoned off and managed. (Things are of course more complicated: Gabriele spoke of the way the play disrupts the audience's 'linking' with it). The consoling objects are thus more than merely outmoded consumer objects: they are objects that take on a life of their own and transform Winnie. Gabriele used this discussion of the consoling object to look at the ways in which happiness functions as an instrument of wilful blindness: a form of cruel optimism in which one survives by holding onto illusory attachments and refusing to see what is in front of one's eyes. Is happiness merely a form of blindness, an illness for which the clarity of unhappiness might constitute the antidote? In an uncanny way, the theme of objects becoming a consolation for a broken world seemed to seep into subsequent sessions. Anne Allison's talk, immediately following Gabriele's, dealt with an emergent Japanese funeral culture in which the isolated elderly Japanese purchase their own space in a funeral temple, where they can view their anticipated afterlife as an urn alongside a host of other urns - a space of sociality in death. In a similar vein she described the popularity of robot dogs for whom funerals and memorials are often conducted upon their expiration. In both cases, spaces we would expect to be occupied by a living thing were occupied by objects. It is perhaps too easy then to merely say these objects participate in the creation of negative hallucinations. A more productive way to think of the meaning of the consoling object was suggested by Kaushik, who asked whether we might think of Winnie not as a pathological subject but rather as a new form of species-being. Similarly, many responses to Anne Allison's account of new Japanese funeral practices wondered whether this was not a symptom of social atomisation but the emergence of new forms of social relation. In both cases, one might see a radical mutation in the forms of human relationships to objects, which are not merely consumed but enter into a profound relationship with human subjects. In the above examples, it is no longer clear whether the object is purely an object, or whether it has not become so bound up in our own constructions of ourselves that its objecthood is placed in doubt. Could it be the case that these 'subject-objects' are not technologies mediating, anticipating, or warding off relationships, but stand-ins for relationships themselves, something closer to a ‘bios’ than a ‘techné’, or something hovering ambiguously between the two? The question these consoling objects raise -- and it is one to which I have no answer -- is that of what a critical stance towards these consolatory forms of happiness should be. As academics we tend to take pride in exposing the rotten underbellies of the happy, in unveiling the broken world upon which happiness is erected. It is one thing to kill the joy of the self-satisfied. But who would think it moral to extinguish the fleeting joys scratched out of desperate situations, joys that ward off despair and loneliness? I was deeply moved by Anne Allison's photograph of a funeral temple where the living could see the wall of urns where their ashes would rest and find consolation in this posthumous community. I was moved both by the sadness of a world where people can only imagine community in death, and also by the joy of a genuinely beautiful space that had been created within it. What does one do with both these feelings? Timothy Wright WiSER, University of the Witwatersrand

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