This is the final scene from Todd Haynes’ film SAFE. In it, the character Carol, (Julianne Moore) enters the windowless igloo-like cabin that has been assigned to her, at a New Age recovery centre somewhere in the southern California desert. Suddenly drawn to the small mirror on the wall opposite her bed, she approaches it and while looking into the mirror, and says, in a nearly inaudible hushed tone, “I love you.” Shot from the point of view that we take to be occupied by the mirror, and which is the point of view that we as viewers are now made to assume, it is as though Carol is no longer professing her love to her mirror reflection and thus to herself, but (or perhaps also) to some unidentified and invisible other who inhabits the space outside of the frame, and towards which her gaze is directed. This could be any one of us as viewers, or more simply and expansively, it is an alterity that Carol (and each us) is in rapport with as the singularities that we are amongst other singularities.
Leo Bersani discusses this scene in his recent book, Thoughts and Things, specifically in terms of a certain “unnamed passion” that is presented here, and that Haynes and Moore ask us as viewers to reckon with. This scene, and Bersani’s reading of it, are also featured in my current paper/talk on “The Commerce of Anonymity.” There, I argue that an impersonal and anonymous commerce or compearance is staged here at the end of the film, in which through this “unnamed passion” that is also the passion and pleasure of not naming and of going unnamed, the self is opened up to as yet unknown encounters with yet-to-be-known others.
The “you” of Carol’s “I love you” is the “you” that each of us is in the anonymous commerce of our sociality. The decision that we are left with is the decision to sustain a love that is legitimate to the extent that it operates without the safety and security provided by the legitimizing authority of the name. Love—and therefore friendship and even more broadly the commerce of encounters with strangers, passersby, and other anonymous others—is thus redefined as that which finds its legitimacy in the de-legitimzing pleasures, risks and affects of that unnamed passion that is anonymity.
With this quotation from Georges Bataille’s text “Torture” (from his book Inner Experience, 1943), Jean-Luc Nancy opened his keynote address (via Skype) to the international colloquium on “Aisthesis and the Common: Reconfiguring the Public Sphere,” organized by Media@McGill and held at the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal, on March 18-19, 2016.
More than one
As one of the defining principles of Nancy’s philosophy, meaning (or sense) means “more than one.” More than one person, thing, body (i.e singularity) that, each in their multiplicity, is always in rapport with other singularities: sending out and sending back differential gestures, voices, perceptions and (hence) senses. In turn, the notion that there exists something (or someone) that is absolutely unique, is—accordingly so—meaningless. This even applies to that purportedly unique and one-of-a-kind entity named “God.” There is no such thing as “only one being,” and if there were such a thing, it would be, as Nancy put it, “dissolved in its singleness.” So, for there to be some thing, there must be more than one thing, given that being means rapport and thus being is always and only ever being-with. The question is not why is there something rather than nothing, but more precisely, why are there somethings (in the plural), such that there is no one thing.
Implicitly drawing from Maurice Blanchot, Nancy pointed out that even the notions of being alone and of solitude precisely entail being without someone else; and that it is this being-with as being-with-out, that comes to define the singularity of each existing thing. When one feels oneself to be alone, one senses that solitude as distinct from others (and thus in rapport with others), and thus also in rapport with one’s own singularity defined as always in rapport with. God is not alone, and he created the world because of his insufficiency that exceeded himself.
Meaning or sense is always in rapport or relation to itself, because sense itself is always self-separated (i.e. divided and hence never a single whole entity or substance). It is from out of this separation that sense makes sense 0r meaning, when sense—now in terms of feeling or sensation— feels or senses itself. A feeling or sense that is possible, precisely because separation is the condition in which such a rapport between can happen. Yet this feeling of sense feeling itself, is not an infinite and closed relation to itself, but in its separation, remains open and exposed to the outside. It is in this way, that Nancy speaks of a certain auto-affection and auto-mimesis of sense. Yet that is, nonetheless, never the fact or production of a sameness of meaning, simply because sense is always divided and shared, amongst and between multiple singularities.
Here is where Nancy’s deconstruction of the autonomous self or subject, as that which is always self-affected in its exposure with the other—with the outside—lines up with my own argument regarding auto-eroticism as its own pleasurable and desirous rapport with the outside and with others. Relation with the outside, as the relation that defines existence as always being-with (and with-out) is the relation to self that comes to define that self as not even a self (in the sense of a coherent, stable entity) but as a singularity.
As Nancy then went on to say, “singularity is the unity of a separation.” It is a unity that derives its sense (meaning) of self from its self-separation and division. Here he turned to the example of unicellular reproduction or scissiparity, in which it is out of originary separation that a “self” is born.
When it comes to the notion and the expression common sense, Nancy argued that this has been, in part, a matter of philosophy’s pushback against what it has deemed and denigrated as ordinary and banal and hence not worthy of philosophical reflection. In this way, common sense has been a negative for philosophy. At the same time, that which does not simply reproduce common sense, in the forms that have caused philosophy so much anxiety and fear, is art and aesthetics. Meaning that art is the re-directing of the ordinary, the banal, or the given. It is the praxis of finding that which is distinct in the common and ordinary—at the outer edge, and along its opening to the outside.
Nancy then turned to Aristotle, for whom common sense was not a vague sensibility but consisted of common sensibles: movement, rest, figure, size, number, and unity. These are those sensible qualities that are common to each and every thing, in its singularity as that thing there (i.e. in the specificity of its presence). Along with the common sensibles, there are the five senses of perception, that are non-continuous and always fleeting, as they incessantly move to- and towards things. Opposite this, as Nancy emphasized, a constant continuous sensation is the very definition of torture.
If what is common are the common sensibles of things, then we access the commons and have a sense (aisthesis) of the common through our sensible access and relations to the common sensibilities of things. This sense of the common is shared with, at, and in proximity to things, the latter of which come to function as rendezvous or meeting points. In order to articulate the connections between these (often readymade) things, aisthesis and aesthetics, Nancy drew upon the example of Duchamp’s readymade, and the latter’s own designation of such things as more encounters and points of rendezvous, than as autonomous works of art.
Impressions on the Edges
Like the Duchampian readymade, art is the possibility of distinction that is drawn out from out of a continuum, and this is precisely what is meant by art’s ex-pression. Literally taken to mean: the outside (ex) pressing on and up against or alongside. Art’s expression is the impression of the outside that it temporarily impresses upon us and other things in the world, in the form of sense and meaning.
It is this that is common to us in our shared exposure to the outside; and it is art that offers us a sense of this rapport, sense and meaning as that which is without definitive end, completion, resolution, or satisfaction. Meaning that art offers us the pleasure of being-with and in rapport, that does not demand or seek or establish an end, but instead affirms that right on the immeasurable edge of things, is the opening to the outside, not beyond. It is along these edges, that, I argue, a sense of the common happens.