Friday, July 10, 2015

Ackbar Abbas Wonders, “What Do We Do Now?” by Rachel Greenspan

Riffing on Raymond Carver’s short story collection, Abbas’s synthesizing reflections on this year’s JWTC lectures poses the question, What do we talk about when we talk about happiness? His opening preoccupation is with the slipperiness of happiness as an object of analysis: like a black hole, he argues, it is only perceptible in the effects it produces. More than an affect or feeling, beyond the social or individual values it represents, the “happiness effect” must be investigated in its indirect consequences. If we take seriously the conditions of possibility widely assumed to produce happiness (love, fame, good health, etc.), how can we attend to the ways in which happiness is manufactured—that is, “forged” in both its generative and counterfeit senses? Furthermore, how does the liberal conception of happiness as a human right obscure, undermine, or underestimate what Abbas calls the “politics of disappointment” in its material and libidinal forms? The assertion of happiness as a human right is evident as early as the U.S. Declaration of Independence, a document whose language links happiness to freedom and democracy, but also to radical individualism. For Abbas, this logic extends to the pervasive idea that the depressed subject loses her subjectivity and is encouraged to exploit her “democratic right to take drugs to overcome unhappiness.” Turning to Paracelsus, the so-called father of toxicology, Abbas reminds us that medicine is a materialist, not an essentialist science. In other words, “everything can be toxic depending on the amount you take.” No substance is inherently good or bad for the body; happiness, too, can be toxic in its excess. Consider, as Abbas does, the self-defeating pleasure of consumption, which inevitably frustrates the consumer. He doubts that Imelda Marcos’s 3,001 pair of shoes bring her satisfaction beyond a fleeting fetishistic enjoyment. Though Abbas’s point about the circular, self-replicating logic of desire and its capture within capitalist forms of consumption is well taken here, his reference to the singular case of Imelda Marcos gives me pause. Why shoes? And why 3,001? Is it possible to hold together a critique of commodity fetishism (and the grossly asymmetrical, curiously gendered, regimes of power and wealth for which the shoes come to stand in this example) with an analysis of the individual enjoyments at once shaped by, and in excess of, social, political, and economic forces? I’m reminded of Joan Copjec’s brilliant essay, “The Sartorial Superego,” in which she examines the relationship between the colonial gaze as an exploitative technology of knowledge production and the specificity of French psychiatrist G. G. de Clerambault’s fetish for the drapery of North African fabric. Abbas moves in a different direction, advocating for a theory of happiness that will work actively to transform society. Thinking with and against François Vergès about “the promise of happiness” as a tool for revolutionary struggle, Abbas argues for a politics of disappointment, rather than a politics of hope. He claims that struggle grounded in hope disappears when that object of that hope fails to materialize. For him, “a politics of disappointment persists,” insofar as the political subject acts even without the prospect of its goals being realized. It is a politics that endures without hope, without guarantee. This structure is also at work in the erotics of disappointment Abbas articulates through the films of Wong Kar-wai. In Chungking Express, Happy Together, and In the Mood for Love, the romantic couple begins in a state of unhappiness, but turns that disappointment itself into a (re)source of the erotic. Thinking with David Goldberg and Jenna Ng’s lecture on the algorithmic, Abbas argues, “Disappointment isn’t the end of the whole structure,” but rather the means of generating a “counter-algorithm” that produces a kind of happiness through structures of deferral and disappointment, rather than hope. Pursuing the relationship Wong Kar-wai’s films illuminate between disappointment, failure, and art, Abbas takes Adorno’s claim, “Art is a promise of happiness,” as a provocation to assess what kinds of art can transform society and not just collude or retire from it. For Adorno, as for Abbas, failure is the only ethical means of producing art. In other words, Abbas locates the promise of happiness in the ethical principle of failure, which is not the opposite of success, but calls success into question through an ambivalent notion of happiness. Such a project calls for the emergence of a new type of artist, one like Samuel Beckett, who Abbas calls a “de-creative genius,…the great exemplar of art as failure, which is not the same as failed art.” He responds to Gabriele Schwab’s lecture by describing Beckett’s project as an effort to expose language itself as a mode of failure by preventing words from producing meaning. Ultimately, for Abbas, the art of failure requires energy, effort, and courage, generating the conditions of possibility for a transformation of the human outside the logics of humanism, and the production of happiness without hope. Rachel Greenspan Duke University