“After affirmation, or, being a loser. On vitalism, sacrifice, and cinders” (Paul Harrison)

GeoHumanities, Durham University, 1 (2). pp. 285-306.

What could it mean to hesitate before life? To be unwilling or unable to affirm existence? And who or what would suggest such a thing? What type of monster would embrace sadness over joy, despair over hope, failure over success? And yet this is what is proposed. This article starts from a suspicion, a suspicion that, contemporary claims to the contrary, life is not innocent, that any affirmation always contains a disavowal, and that we are, whether we like it or not, always bound up in structures of sacrifice. More formally, the claim will be that with the maturation of Nietzsche’s legacy in the humanities and social sciences, and the rise of new forms of vitalism, a new conception of life has taken root, one with far-reaching implications for thinking about politics, ethics, and existence as such; this is a rapidly unfolding onto-bio-political framework. The article offers an alternative account, one in which life is always already involved with loss, always the life of survival, always life–death.
Key-words: Affirmation, Cioran, Nietzsche, Sacrifice, Survival

For all of life’s evils come from a ‘conception of life’.
E. M. Cioran, A Short History of Decay, 1975 p.5

Only one thing matters: learning to be a loser.
E. M. Cioran, The Trouble With Being Born, 2012b p.121

1. Introduction.

What could it mean to hesitate before life? Or, less portentously, what could it mean to ask this question today, at a moment when theories of life, of vitality, and of affirmation, are in the ascendant? Indeed the affirmation of life, and the life of affirmation, form the keystone of many contemporary accounts of ontology, ethics, and politics. Affirmation is the glue that binds these accounts into a project or a program. Indicatively, we could think of the work of writers such as Jane Bennett (2001), Rosi Braidotti (2010), and William Connolly (2011), all of who espouse the necessity of and demand for – at once conceptual and dispositional, intellectual and existential – the affirmation of life. Of course, such work does not come from nowhere. The inheritance of Nietzsche, more often than not mediated via Deleuze, is key to this work’s core ontological claims concerning life qua immanence and to the espoused ethico-existential stance. The avowal of affirmation holds these moments together, a double yes – ‘yes’, ‘yes’ – forming a particular alliance between the ontological and the ethical. In Anglophone Human Geography we can witness a similar movement, sometimes overtly connected, sometimes not, in much recent work. While tempted by such affirmation, I hesitate. While sympathetic to such work and supporting many of its aspirations – for who could in all good conscience be against calls for “a less repressed, more cheerful way of engaging with the geographies of the world” (Woodyer and Geoghagon 2014 p.196)? Who would not support the need to “challenge extant habits of masterful knowing and moralistic judgement” (ibid. p.206)? Who could be opposed to “a generosity of spirit that renders the self more open to the surprise of other selves and bodies” (ibid. p.208)? And yet, I still hesitate.

I am unsure, as I suspect – call it a prey animal’s intuition – that something or someone may be getting lost in this affirmation. That for the good it promises, this affirmation contains a disavowal.

To affirm and moreover to choose to affirm, to affirm affirmation, to double it – ‘yes’, ‘yes’ – is to resolve to go forward thus, in such a manner, and to judge such an affirmation as good. It is to decide on a certain vision, concept, or thought of life, and to set-off from this decision. And yet all such decisions come at a cost. To make such a decision is necessarily to decide instead of, against, or over an other. Further, such decisions do not simply decide against one other course of action, or one figure, or one thought, but against a potentially infinite number of others. I hesitate then, over the invitation to affirm life, over the nature of this affirmation, over what is being affirmed, and what could be being forgotten therein. Indeed, as we shall see, forgetting, the necessity of forgetting, plays an important role in the work with which I am concerned. In a passage near the start of The Enchantment of Modern Life, Jane Bennett suggests the need for “controlled doses” of a “certain forgetfulness” as “ethically indispensable” (2001 p.10). This is a crucial passage, as it is precisely through such forgetting that moments of enchantment – the touchtone of her analysis – emerge as such: “Occasions during which one’s critical faculties are suspended and one is caught up in the moment can produce a kind of enjoyment – a sense of adequacy and fullness” (ibid.). It is from these moments that Bennett will weave her ethico-aesthetic account.

There is a risk here, a risk common to all philosophies of life, neo-vitalist and otherwise; the risk of forgetting dying, or of forgetting finitude, and forgetting the give and take of living. The risk that without a memory of finitude, without being haunted by “what it has lost in the past and what may be lost in the future, there would be nothing that could cause concern for justice” (HĂ€gglund 2008 p.140). Hence, Derrida asks if “absolute evil” is not the same as “absolute life, fully present life, the one that does not know death and does not want to hear about it” (1994 p.175). The threat of ‘absolute evil’ follows from an understanding of life as something which is external to and so unscathed by death, (be it metaphysically, virtually, materially, spiritually or otherwise); life as a ‘radically immanent’ force, where death and dying are framed as contingent rather than intrinsic occurrences. For Derrida, insofar as ‘absolute life’ is constituted through the exclusion of finitude it coincides with ‘absolute evil’, for if life is rendered immune to death, if life is not haunted “by what has been and what may be – there would be no reason to care about life” (HĂ€gglund 2011 p.133). Or, to return the question of the decision, there could be no decision worthy of the name, insofar as there can be no judgement of worth or value, no affirmation, outside of mortality (see Derrida 1994 p.87, 2011a).

However, resisting or deferring affirmation is not as straightforward a task as you may think. It requires a certain disposition. It requires that we are or become, if only for a moment – perhaps during a night of insomnia or over decades of despairs – useless. That we treat our ‘talents’, should we have any, with a mixture of cynicism and irony, and so maximise our incompatibilities with life. To be, or learn to be, if only for a moment, sterile, “irrelevant, eccentric, derisory” (Adorno 1974 p.151): to fail outstandingly, to learn to be a loser. To resist or defer affirmation one must find or place oneself at the limits of its economy, with what lives-on in as its waste products and in its blind-spots. Why is this necessary? In order to make affirmation’s machinations, ruses, and traps apparent. Section two discusses this unprofitable move, this move into unprofitability, in more detail, emphasising its methodological functions. Section three develops this apparently negative position by drawing on the writings of E.M. Cioran. Cioran becomes our anti-Nietzsche, an acerbic pessimist who, while accepting much of Nietzsche’s diagnosis, refuses to be taken in by the German philosopher’s tales of joy. Section four gives a brief account of exactly why it is so difficult to resist affirmation, and how the generosity and openness of affirmation is underpinned by a ruthless streak. Putting everything discussed to work, section five questions the definition of life at play in the debate so far and asks what exactly is being affirmed and what disavowed in the ‘yes’, ‘yes’ of affirmation. The suggestion is that life is always already involved with loss, just as fire requires fuel, so there is always a cost to affirmation. Section six concludes the paper, examining this ‘sacrificial structure’ via a reading of Jacques Derrida’s essay Cinders… [PDF]