body entropy

I am sitting at my desk. This seems worth noting, momentous, because it means I’m sitting still. Stillness is anything but—it brings a too strong sense of body of which every nerve feels. In stillness I am covered in delicate cilia responsive to every vibration wave particle. The realization of stillness ruptures. I try to spend each day in a blur of non-consciousness, refusing to be still. Sleep is still. Quiet is still. Alone is still. Work is still. The realization of stillness brings panic.

I can inventory the last month in miles put on my car, hairs fallen from head, coffee cup rings, and the learned topography of packages in the twenty four hour grocery. But I can’t account.

Perpetual motion takes its toll. Raw nerves, eyes that water, a body that aches, a mysterious rash in the shape of a Christmas tree, electric migraines, blackouts. An inventory of body that refuses the account of embodiment.

I am sitting at my desk, but my leg shakes and my fingernails dig their way into my palms and my jaw cracks.

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calling (up) my mother

Tomorrow is the start of the third year in my doctoral program. Typically, I am raw nerves mixed with a hollow stomach, pacing practicing introductions to the class I teach, and excited anxious energy resolute. Today I feel numb. It’s been a month since my mother passed. These days have gone without my noticing. They feel like stagnation. Like separation. They marked the thirtieth wedding anniversary of my parents and my return to Syracuse (after my mother has died). But a return suggests some sort of routine, a coming back into. These days (that feel as if only a blink and like the nonplace and nontime sitting beside her bed for) have drained me as I try to reimmerse myself. And I find myself questioning displacement: if I feel more empty, I will continue buoyant, listless, surface. I can’t bury myself in work if I don’t exist embodied on ground. (How can I submerge if I can’t come down?)

I just stopped myself from calling my mother’s phone to talk to her about school tomorrow. I can’t hear her, so I listen to her over and over in this short video my dad recorded of her at home. I don’t know the origins of this saying. Except that it is her. She said this to my brother and I every time we stepped out the front door, at the end of every phone conversation, and by text every morning. “Be good. If you can’t be good, be rotten and tell me about it.” I can’t think of a better capture of her: her smile, her playful nature, her absolute and open love and support.

This is the first part of my life that I can’t call for her support. But I call it up.

eye see: five diagrams of Graphis for Rhetsy

Recently, Collin circulated an invitation through Rhetsy (“A handcrafted gift basket of rhetorical miscellany, delivered promptly to your inbox on a weekly basis”) to share lists of fives—what people have been reading, hearing, watching, playing, waiting for, etc. in anticipation/dread of the new school year. Naturally, I’ve thought about trying to construct a unique list to the point of overthinking: total deconstruction. Lists I had started: five items I habitually buy that inadvertently lead to only eating tacos; five of my favorite objects from Tender Buttons; my five favorite female electronic music composersand five songs from Brian Eno’s Small Craft on a Milk Sea that make the perfect score/narrative to an rpg.

But for me, the start of the school year makes me think about how I think. The materiality of my thinking is still something I’m learning about and working to accept. Throughout my schooling, I have gotten feedback on being “spacey”, slow witted, and difficult to follow in the manifestations of my work/thinking and of my body/gestures [I have vivid memory of a professor making me speak while my hands were clasped underneath the table, looking directly in their stooped face, as they repeated “you’re giving us nothing to follow // you’re not making sense”]. I rely heavily on media/material juxtaposition and invocation; the use of referent, the act of movement. I think in exploded diagrams and in between associations. I can’t make eye contact when talking because I need to see to follow. It’s only recently that I realized it’s okay that I process in layers and associations and traces through diagrams. Each time I visit my dad I learn more about myself through him by way of looking at his hand drawn maps for directions; his diagrams of the placement of parts in cars he’s working on; and his illustrations of concepts like how joints in woodworking are fitted. From him, I realize I shouldn’t be surprised that I want to wallpaper my apartment in butcher paper and that I love visualizations.

One of my favorite collections of visualizations is a 1974 book titled Graphis Diagrams. Founded in 1944 to celebrate/promote communication design, this collection is the165th (special) issue of Graphis, edited by founder Walter Herdeg, The Artist in the Service of Science (almost as good a title to possess as Professor of Nonhumanities). In his foreword, Herdeg explains that the purpose of the book is

to show the designer how abstract facts or functions which cannot be simply depicted like natural objects may be given visual expression by suitable graphic transformation. It also reviews the means of visualizing physical and technical processes which are not perceptible to the eye.

The introduction, written by co-founder, senior vice president and creative director of Corporate Annual Reports, Inc. Leslie A. Segal, provides an interesting conversation about the synthesis of art and science in diagrams on the points of elegance, sincerity, complexity, and morality. My favorite pieces of the introduction:

In art as in science, a deceptively elegant statement may have value as a technical exercise; but as communication it is worse than no statement at all.

&

A bar chart is nothing but the skeleton of a story until the designer decides that it’s a message that should be shouted or whispered, or giggled, or just admitted.

Of the 177 diagram filled pages, it is difficult to choose only five, but here are the five diagrams that always give me pause when flipping through:

front cover

front cover

the graphic visualization of abstract data

one

experimental digital map of Africa, layer one

experimental digital map of Africa, layer one

experimental digital map of Africa, layer two

experimental digital map of Africa, layer two

Experimental digital map of Africa. It consists of four transparent sheets…and one basic outline map of the continent. Taking as the centre the basic latitude and longitude, mesh patterns were spread out in all directions at intervals of 150 km, and the data which were previously prepared were indicated at the intersections of the meshes. This made it possible to discover constantly what changes were undergone by each of the sheets at the same point under the same conditions.

two

perceptibility of color

perceptibility of color

Diagram from an article on colour perception…The dots represent the degree of perceptibility of certain colours on a given background colour.

three

development of a thunderstorm

development of a thunderstorm

Three stages in the development of a thunderstorm: 1. Thermal imbalance in a thunderhead. 2. Build-up of electrical tension. 3. Equilibrium restored.

four

the particle belt of Jupiter

the particle belt of Jupiter

Diagram of a cut-out view into the invisible belt of charged particles that embrace the planet Jupiter. The planet itself is sectioned to show that Jupiter’s temperature rises towards the centre (indicated by colour) and also to show that it may have no detectable solid surface inside its atmosphere. The difference between the axis of rotation and the magnetic axis is also indicated.

five

the human circulatory system

the human circulatory system

Pictorial flow diagram explaining the functions of the human circulatory system.

These are a few of many visualizations that make me curious to see. That make me embrace what I used to understand of myself as “scatterbrain”. That make me think of my dad’s Post-It schematics and what my grandfather would design from the daily statistics he collects from newspapers if he had his own computer. That make me question vision, sensation, and how I know.

vibrancy to violence

I want to remember her laugh and not the sound of her teeth cracking.

(I readied myself for her passing but not for her dying.)

///

The law of the conservation of mass requires that during any reaction in a closed system, the total mass of the reactants or starting materials must be equal to the mass of the products. The vibrancy of her living had to be equal to the violence of her dying.

(I told myself as she slipped in and out of seizures (seven). As I tried to keep her molars from cracking. As I tried to remove dried blood from her lip.)

///

In the moment, I was the only one in the living room. The hospice nurse had come early after a fitful sleepless night (three). Limbs bent back at angles acute lay soft. Breathing of her own volition calm shallow rhythms.

The law of conservation of mass implies that mass can neither be created nor destroyed, although it may be rearranged in space, or the entities associated with it may be changed in form. I told her she is not her body. That she would be redistributed equal to her serenity.

(I told myself as she ceased in this form with soft breath.  As I felt the air around me move.)

sorting the entanglement of assemblages and networks

I was fortunate enough to participate in the RSA Summer Institute, taking the New Materialisms workshop with Thomas Rickert and Byron Hawk. The company and conversation were extremely generative, both for my own developing project(s) and bringing new perspective to theory in the readings. We read/discussed the following readings under the concept headings of new materialism, agencies, things, networks, movement, and politics:

  • Introduction of New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics // eds. Diana Coole and Samantha Frost
  • “The Agency of Assemblages” // Jane Bennett
  • “The Thing” // Martin Heidegger
  • “Object Lessons” // John Law and Vicky Singleton
  • “Against Space” of Being Alive // Tim Ingold
  • “On Touching—The Inhuman That Therefore I Am” // Karen Barad
  • “Ontological politics. A word and some questions” // Annemarie Mol
  • Interview with Karen Barad // eds. Rick Dolphijn and Iris van der Tuin’s New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies

While I furiously tried to scribble/transcribe everything that was said, a note that I did make was beginning to hear a difference between network and assemblage (ecology and entanglement for another day/another post)—and when I say hear a difference, I mean I heard it in the language that was being used to talk about them (they themselves working as sort of conceptual metaphors that animate). While I know the concepts are different, I have not been able to really note what makes them differently able in their descriptive power (I’m resisting saying the difference is affect, but there’s some thing there—an opening on / in to…). I’m drawing primarily from the conversation we had about Jane Bennett’s “The Agency of Assemblages”. This is a mess(h).

While I am trying to sort out two concepts/terms, I begin with want of more explanation the descriptive difference in material as compared to object. I’m not sure what impact the distinction would have fit within the larger categories of human and nonhuman (and inhuman), but I wonder how something like Levi Bryant’s quasi-objects, which are neither quite natural nor quite social (see his post on Of Quasi-Objects and the Construction of Collectives) but draw people together into relations with other humans, as well as nonhumans. I think my fixation on these terms at the time being is to understand if use of material or object influences whether one concept is invoked over another—network, assemblage, ecology, entanglement…

Comparing, or rather trying to untangle, networks and assemblages, isn’t as simple as looking across/between two definitions. Both assemblages and networks introduce the concept of actants as entities and forces to move away from anthropomorphic constructs of agency (and Bennett specifically invokes Bruno Latour to frame her use of actant). Jane Bennett advances agency of actants alone to the capacities agency has in groupings, or assemblages “of somatic, technological, cultural, and atmospheric elements” (447). Bennett draws from Deleuze and Guattari to construct assemblage, describing the force field of the assemblage as “a milieu”, “‘Thus the living thing…has an exterior milieu of materials, an interior milieu of composing elements and composed substance, an intermediary milieu of membranes and limits, and an annexed milieu of energy sources and actions-perceptions'” (461). She aligns assemblages with a materialist ontology, which she describes as a kind of vitalism or enchanted materialism.

Within this materialism, the world is figured as neither mechanistic nor teleological but rather as alive with movement and with a certain power of expression; by power of expression I mean the ability of bodies to become otherwise than they are, to press out of their current configuration and enter into new compositions of self as well as new alliances and rivalries. (447)

Bennett explains that the active power of assemblages is “concealed under the rubric of (social) structures, (cultural) contexts, (religious) settings, (economic) climates, or (environmental) conditions” (455). Bennett’s work in “The Agency of Assemblages” is to detach ethics from human constructed moralism in order to produce guides to action appropriate to a world of vital, crosscutting forces (464). With a nod to the Nicene Creed (“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.”) Bennett states “I believe in one Nature, vibrant and Overflowing, material and energetic, maker of all that is, seen and unseen. I believe that this ‘pluriverse’ is continually doing things, things that bear upon us…as forces upon material beings. I believe that this ‘generative mobility’ resists full translation and exceeds our comprehensive grasp. I believe that to experience materiality as vital and animated is to enrich the quality of human life” (448). She explains that “there was never a time when human agency was anything other than an interfolding network of humanity and nonhumanity” (463).

An assemblage is an interfolding network?

The way Bennett uses the concepts of pluriverse and vital materialism, I think of constant actant activity affecting and being affected and I question how the assemblage is noted/boundaried if it is an interfolding of exterior, interior, intermediary, and annexed milieu. How do assemblages come into being? I find myself thinking about it as a poesis (from Kathleen Stewart) from fog (what does affect look like? fields? layers? static?), but again, I think this is coloured in part by Bennett’s writing, which I think is beautifully constructed. For networks, or at least actor networks, there is no pre-existing activity system either; it is established through thick description in media res, as Latour explains. And even though I know networks aren’t static in structure, it is hard to disassociate from the structural history of network as lines of connectivity. In Reassembling the Social, Latour sets out to reconstruct social because:

  • problems arise when “social” begins to mean a type of material (wooden, economical, biological, organizational)—trying to stand for two different things: a material from other materials and a movement during a process of assembling
  • Latour wants to show why “social” cannot be construed as a material or domain and to dispute providing a social explanation to a state of affairs
  • “social” is not a homogeneous thing (5) but a trail of heterogeneous associations between elements (5)

Latour’s networks describe relating to a group as an ongoing process of fragile, controversial, and ever shifting ties (28) that starts with the controversy, not the group interested (because he’s working from a sociology of science studies frame); this allows for groupings based not on social aggregate but elements (human and nonhuman actants) present in controversies (31). Latour’s networks are not fixed, nor are they singular, but I find myself wanting a similar description of vital materialism in Latour’s ontology—is Latour’s ontology a pluriverse too? I wonder if this has something to do with the association of networks with systems/systematically and symmetrical relationships, or the need of the human to establish/do the work of articulating through description. Latour provides a gloss of the social:

  • the question of the social emerges when the ties in which one is entangled begin to unravel
  • the social is further detected through the surprising movements from one association to another
  • those movements can be suspended or resumed
  • when they are suspended, the social is bound together with already accepted participants (social actors who are members of a society)
  • when the movement is resumed, it traces social as associations through non-social entities which might later participate
  • if pursued systemically, the tracing may end up in a shared definition of the common world (collective)
  • but if there are not procedures to render it common, it may fail to be assembled
  • sociology is best defined as a discipline where participants explicitly engage in the reassembling of the collective

Like Bennett, Latour’s project is a political one (even though his work is often described as lacking politics, and I think, unfairly). Reassembling the Social ends with a conclusion that is a question that opens onto itself (and interfolding?): “From Society to Collective—Can the Social be Reassembled?” as a search for political relevance. Latour states “Once the task of exploring the multiplicity of agencies is completed, another question can be raised: What are the assemblies of those assemblages?” (260) And follows/ends with this statement:

In a time of so many crises in what it means to belong, the task of cohabitation should no longer be simplified too much. So many other entities are now knocking on the door of our collectives. Is it absurd to want to retool our disciplines to become sensitive again to the noise they make and to try to find a place for them? (262)

Which I find resonance with in Bennett’s closing paragraph:

These claims need more flesh and even then remain contestable. Other actants, enmeshed in other assemblages, will surely offer different diagnoses of the political and its problems. It is ultimately a matter of political judgment what is more needed today: should we acknowledge the distributive quality of agency in order to address the power of human-nonhuman assemblages and to resist a politics of blame? Or should we persist with a strategic understatement of material agency in the hope of enhancing the accountability of specific humans? (464)

I’m still a mess(h) over trying to delineate these concepts. What is the difference between a collective (Latour) and collectivity (Bennett)? What is the difference between cohabitating with nonhumans as humans (Latour) and existing in a living grouping (ad hoc, circumstantial) whose coherence coexists with energies and countercultures that exceed and confound it (Bennett)?

 

[cut clutter] //

//

[and I can’t make you understand why it is that I can look at my hands for hours and not lose a moment]

//

[I watched them fall asleep on the couch, my mother’s legs across my father’s lap (hyperreal). Such distant intimacy felt as though I was looking at a hologram depicting mundane life of the past (a work of daily art). My museum shrine home.]

//

[Friday my shower timed with the mounting afternoon thunderstorm. I tilted the angle of my head until the sound of water cascading had the same sound as rain hitting the roof as I lie in bed listening at the ceiling.]

//

[I met my parents in a Love’s truck stop parking lot outside of Toledo on my drive from Madison to Syracuse. As my dad transferred my cats from their truck to my car, I talked to my mom. It was the first time I saw her wearing a headscarf. A few days earlier she sent a photo my grandmother took in the hallway—the juxtaposition of her small frame with the doorframe, her smile with surfacing sickness. I stood in front of her thinking of that photo. She was smiling. She hugged me; as she stepped back the wind caught her scarf, blowing it off her head and across the parking lot. She started to cry covering the top of her head. The distant back lighting of fluorescent bulbs in the dark and the tight shot of her face made by my proximity made the moment feel cinematic.]

//

my mother materiality

my mother’s hair is falling out. she collects it in handfuls, remarking each one before laying it tenderly in the small trashcan beside her bed. i looked in there, it gathering her. i cried each night on my visit home at pieces of her lost, mourning the her that is lessening. but she is everywhere in the house: loose strands, used syringes, imprints of her form on pillows, and the rhythm of the bodies around her.