Current Research Projects
In 2011 I won a SSHRC research grant for my latest book project, now called Anaesthetics of Existence: Essays on Experience in its Absence. This research has taken a number of twists and turns away from the original project description, although it remains centrally concerned with how bodily needs and practices are worked into governance–both of the self, and of the polity.
I once attended a conference on the implications of Foucault’s philosophy for ethics and the body. Fogged with lack of sleep and the nervous exhaustion that comes from sitting in neon-lit rooms and trying for hours to focus on read-aloud presentations, I heard one speaker repeatedly talk of “anaesthetics of existence.” I dozily turned this mysterious phrase over in my head, wondering what it could mean, and how it fit with the rest of the paper, which seemed more workaday than the idiom implied. Eventually, of course, I realized that the speaker was talking too fast, running together her words, and actually saying “an aesthetics of existence,” a phrase that Foucault and his interpreters often used and that made perfect sense of the rest. Lots of people have written about Foucault’s later emphasis on living life as art, and the centrality to that endeavour of a certain critical ethos, including in one’s relation to oneself. In the book I had just finished at the time I had myself explored examples of ethically fraught self-transformations one might undertake—changing sex, losing weight, having cosmetic surgery—as having ambiguous relationships both to conformity and to transgression. They are also (although I didn’t quite say this) projects of the self that require a lot of hard work and provoke a lot of anxiety about one’s relation to (that much-loved term of social science art) agency.
The idea of “anaesthetics of existence” stuck with me. What might that be? Perhaps it’s a way of being in the world that evades the constant demand for agential conduct, and sticks a finger up at the political assumption that one’s actions must accumulate to form a coherent self with the right kind of life project. How do we in fact cope with the demands of a speeded-up, sensorily challenging environment, in which expectations about what we will get done (and what that doing says about us) are rising? What is the potential of a politics that resists these demands? So thoroughly have we been colonized by an economic logic of building human capital and increasing productivity and “growth” that it can be hard to see how we are ensnared by this logic. There are lots of good books already about neoliberalism and its discontents, and my focus is more specific. The term “aesthetic” derives from the Greek aisthetikos, which means “feeling” or “sense.” We see this original meaning more clearly in contemporary English when we consider its negation: anaesthetic, the absence of sensation. This book starts from the question of how it feels to be subject to the practical demands of economic and political worlds whose realities are so far away from their self-image.
To ask about feeling is also to ask about the experience of the subject. Part of my interest in “experience,” was initially interest in seeing whether a critical phenomenological method could live alongside a genealogy of any particular experience. Or, seeing whether there was really any political point trying to distil the essentials of human consciousness using the first-personal perspective, when that perspective was so likely to be a very contingent product of history. What does anyone telling their own aesthetic story—even in a philosophical voice—really teach us about politics? At the same time as it takes up the aesthetics of experience, then, this book takes up this epistemic debate and through example welds phenomenology and Foucauldian political theory as the methodological backbone of the essays.
What are the examples? Even as I was interested in writing politicized phenomenology I found myself struggling to describe certain “lived experiences” for reasons I couldn’t quite work out. Everyone is writing about temporality and a speeded-up world, but no one has a good philosophical account of sitting on the sofa binge-watching TV and drinking wine as the antidote; it’s a sort of blank space, a non-experience. Feminism has brought us lots of birth stories, but why are they all so formulaic and uninformative about how delivering a baby feels? There is a whole genre now of rape memoir, but how to capture the significance to lived experience of being sexually assaulted while one is unconscious and thus, in a sense, absent from the scene? Herein lies the anaesthetics these essays seek to describe. This book is thus concerned with a deeper and more difficult question: how can we think both personally and politically about those things that happen to us that somehow elude the term “experience”? And, to return to my first question, how are those elusive undergoings also disconnected from a tacit understanding of agency as action undertaken by an aesthetic subject?
In the body of the book I try to figure out how to talk about experience both phenomenologically and politically, with an emphasis on experiences that don’t quite seem to count as such. Chapters 2 and 3 are paired, and make the case that contemporary work cultures demand a form of productivity that is associated with personal effectiveness and agency. I argue that the everyday use of certain “drugs” (I include alcohol, marijuana, sugar—deliberately tendentiously) induces a temporality I call “anaesthetic time.” I offer a phenomenology of anaesthetic time, introducing some observations about the marketing of cheap wine to mothers and the importance of a good night’s sleep. In Chapters 4 and 5 I turn to other categories of experience that are highly gendered and notoriously difficult to represent: sexual violence and childbirth. Specifically, chapter 4 asks what is distinctively damaging about being raped while unconscious. It offers a creative phenomenological answer that is firmly situated in the context of the sexist and racist hyper-exposure of some bodies, and of contemporary social media. The last essay is the most personal, and takes on the challenge of offering a birth story—my own story of giving birth to my son at home—that is both phenomenologically specific and sensitive to the political conditions of its own possibility.
Taken together, these essays invite the reader to think about the politics of experience from new vantage points: how can we think first-personally and systemically? How can things that happen that slip past us, scarcely recognizable as “experience” at all, be brought into political conversation? What makes an experience inarticulable or unintelligible, and how can it be redeemed? And, amid these questions, how might we find a deflated, post-neoliberal subject who is politically justified in pulling back from asserting their own autonomy, even when the achievement of “autonomy” seems to come at such a high price? Anaesthetics of Existence pulls from phenomenology, Foucault studies, political theory, sociology, and cultural studies to answer these questions through lively and engaging examples. It will be completed in 2016.
My next project will be a series of essays on sleep. Stay tuned.