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WHAT WILL "SUBJECT" MEAN IN THE FUTURE?

Ann Cotten: What is a subject? It’s quite a difficult term. In French, in German, in English, le sujet, the subject, das Subjekt, bears a certain ambiguity. Subject, on the one hand, originally means the subject of a sovereign monarch. At the same time, it has become the subject of a sentence in a grammatical sense. And it also has a sense of a topic, meaning that it becomes almost like an object, but its topic is not an object. There's a certain shift here, and this shiftiness has been quite important in Poststructuralist thought. But it's difficult to translate and to conserve, because it becomes quite uncertain in terms of which aspect and author it refers to. Zairong, what is your perspective on translating “subject” into Chinese? Zairong Xiang: If you ask any Chinese speaker, they will tell you that it is “主体/zhuti.” But these words are a modern invention. Let's say it's a translated subject. In classical Chinese, “subjectivity” is not an issue. The idea of the subject as you described is one that embodies many different aspects, especially as it correlates to grammatical use. The subject is responsible for the action and the predicate. This is not something that Classical philosophy –– Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddishm — is concerned with. They all have different ideas that, in one way or another, can be said to be related to the subject. But there, a subject is not really a useful equivalent — rather, I’d say it’s the idea of the self, or selfhood. AC: Touching on so many different schools of thought, the subject begins to resemble a prism, dividing perspectives into an array of concepts. Eva, you wrote that until the 18th century there was no concept of authenticity, because there was no ontology of the self, no view of the self as having asocial and individual properties demanding techniques of authentication to discover and display some buried inner truth. I know we are no longer in the 18 century, but do we really need a self? And whether needed or not, how does its production work? We are doing this work of producing the self all the time. What kind of work is it, and how much are we, ourselves, responsible for creating authenticity? How much does the media take over some of this work of producing authenticity and a concept of self? Eva Illouz: In philosophy and sociology, we have very much come to expect to put into question the very notion of a subject. Freud started the decentering of the self and Michel Foucault continued this. They ultimately put into question the very notion of humanism. But let me make the distinction between the self and the subject here. I think we always have a self. A self is the instance that coordinates action; it is the very capacity to say “I”. To have a self is, really, to simply be a human being, I don't think you can conceptualize agency or humanness without a self. It doesn't mean, at least in philosophy or anthropology, that you have a self; you need to be the author of your actions, to be the subject, for example, of humanism. For example, in some cultures, you can commit a crime and accuse a dybbuk, a spirit inside you for the crime. You are not the author of your actions. Foucault was mostly after a specific notion of the subject, especially in his claim that the subject was, in fact, crisscrossed by all kinds of legal and medical discourses — medicine, the science of sexuality, psychiatry, and the disciplinary techniques deployed by governmentality. In that sense, the subject of Foucault gets completely exploded; you can no longer really say with great certainty this “I”; this I turns out to be mainly anonymous discourses. The subject, which is a moral and legal authority, is also for Foucault a construct. I, for myself, do not see how you can defend humanism without a subject. AC: In listening to your answer, a difference melted away between an answer that I might give – I don't need a self, I only put it on when I meet other people (self as a mask) – and an answer one also might give – that one is a multiplicity of selves; that all of that is the self (self as the 1000 titties of Artemis). They may effectively converge, but they remain different ways of feeling the difference that we all inhabit while being a kind of avatar of making ourselves usable for other people. (I have been thinking about the term “fungibility” that has become important in helping to clarify, for people who don't understand it or are eager to argue around, the delimitations of the concept of appropriation. Fungibility is to make oneself or to be made useful for other people. So this is often something that is done to one, and that one just learns to conform to and may have to unlearn; conversely, people from societies that have linked identity to individualist unfolding of a so-called “free” subjectivity need to learn to make themselves more fungible for the world, to balance out the leftover Plantationocene structures. These are skills that keep fitting one all too well in the hegemony of society.) What I am trying to do here is juxtapose the presentation of a solidly tangible self as a kind of service people expect from one, with the Western modern notions of subjectivity or the subject as a kind of radically free mystical inner motor. Foucault would speak of discipline as interface here, and I am wondering about the dialectics of discipline in which a subject performing self-discipline keeps flipping between slave and master, active and passive, concave and convex states of being, and if you do it fast enough, it becomes a kind of blur – or else, the dualist, sado-maso narrative of self is just a groundless granulation. EI: The self is a very elusive category if you try to define it. But when it is violated, the self becomes very clear. Humiliation or rape put the diminished self to the forefront of consciousness. So the self may be the criss-crossing of discourses, part of it may be, as Castoriadis would put it, imaginary, but there remains some core of selfhood that we cannot fully account through Foucault, the part that says no, the part that feels and knows it has been harassed and violated and tortured. Possibly this part is beyond language and may constitute the core element of a conception of the subject that informs humanism, as a worldview that helps care for a self that would not feel invaded and violated. AC: Indeed, it is such a delicate point. What exactly has been violated then? I wouldn’t want to identify with my cunt, and say that my self has been violated just because some idiot has hurt me, and I think that is the path one must have to go when healing, obviously one still has a self, it is precisely what is hurting. There is definitely something that can be violated – I might have supposed it is the instinctive relations with the rest of the world that are devastated. On the other hand, if someone told me or was invested in physically showing me that I don’t have a self, – which actually happens a lot, though in hints and symbolic acts, a lot of the culture built to systematically repress women – I would be very indignant. But that makes the self a rather negatively defined, possibly empty or taboo space. Does that resonate with Daoism? EI: Precisely. AC: Xiang Zairong, your term “transdualism” seems to with a soft and simple move solve the problem of criticism of dualisms in the West that somehow keeps falling back into dualisms. Transdualism reminds us of the irreducible dialectic underground that we live in, out of which these serial trite dualisms keep coming up. This kind of either-or discourse demotivates many of us in our interactions with society to the point that we may sit and not even feel like saying anything, because we already hear the next dualist argumentations. Could you speak a little bit about transdualism and queer subjectivity? How does transdualist subjectivity work? Can one; does one need to be effective and affected at the same time? ZX: I have a problem with the formulation “queer subjectivity,” or “queer subject” for that matter. In my thinking, “queer” is somehow like the Dao in Daoism: that makes the unspeakable, speakable. It's the non-identitarian identification. I wouldn't say identity-queer subject is an impossibility. I'm really happy you bought up Professor Illouz’s remark that before the 18th century in the West, this self as a deep innate social and individual property didn't really exist, or it didn't exist to the extent that it demanded the techniques of authentication. If we look at the three major philosophical traditions in classical Chinese, none of them presupposes themselves with the idea of an innate, asocial, ahistorical self. If we start with Confucianism, the self needs continuous cultivation. Not something to be revealed in a clinical situation or in a thorough discovery, but something to be arrived at through this continuous cultivation. The autonomous individual in this case doesn't have much meaning, because it must exist in relationships. And there are some typical relations in the Confucian tradition where the self is cultivated: The father, son, ruler, minister, husband, wife. The Dao itself is the one that I find most interesting, and very much related to queerness: that the self is only attainable through negation. There is a story that includes a famous sentence from Zhuang Zi: “吾丧我/wu sang wo/I (wu) lost (sang) myself (wo).” If you know a bit of Chinese, the word for “I”, namely “wo” used in modern Chinese is actually the one negated in the sentence “I lost myself.” The negation is not really the I, say it's the me, the moi, the mich, which, according to the Daoists, is the phenomenological self. It’s the self that manifests itself in the others’ “I.” This is the one that needs to be negated for the “I” to be truly oneself. Now, the negation is also the negation of alienation of the “I,” the becoming “other” of the mich. Daoists will say that nonaction is the way the self could become the self: by not becoming one. The negation here is not, strips the self of external influences, and that's not at all that it intends to mean. It is not a process of authentication, precisely, but a process in which the self could become a part of the myriad things. Again, Daoism is very much concerned with the myriad things. I lost myself or I negated myself - Wu Sang Wo is from a chapter, precisely called 齐物论 or “the equality of all things.” The Buddhist self is part of the burden, or the illusion, of the phenomenological world. And so, in view of these three traditions, especially in the Confucian world, with its suffocating relationality, the Daoists’ clear sense of self-negation is the one that I might find more desirable. To answer your question about transdualism, this is necessary to set up the background through which we can take the philosophical thinking of the self in non-modern time, into contemporary rethinking of what can be done to or what we can do with the self. Transdualism is a critique of dualism, and it stems from very concrete, embodied and deeply politicized positions. I say this as a queer subject, not conforming to the Confucian rules at home; as a nonwhite person constantly interrogated at the border; as a gay Asian man interpellated daily into blunt rejection in the impressively racist gay mainstream in the West, where I spent almost 14 years of my adult life, and, paradoxically, where I enjoy the most sexual promiscuity with my brothers of all colors over the whole world. AC: What do you think about saying “queering” instead of “queer.” So not an adjective or predicate, but as a process – but also taking verbing as a simple, memelike way of making a concept more fluid – breaking the rules of English style along the way. The problem is in einai - I found that claiming to be queer feels like a stiff kind of identity, but queering has come to mean accepting the strangeness and changes in relationships, and in selves that are defined in relationships. ZX: I'm not sure. I avoid using the formulation of “queering”. It strikes me as borderline a colonizing gesture. The whole methodology of Queer Ancient Ways and transdualism has a lot to do with language. I think finding a shortcut word might not be the right approach. Let's, rather, play with language, and occasionally not make sense. The idea behind both projects is not that I suggest that we should (or that I could) queer ancient texts, but through the maneuver of language and reading, texts can manifest as resources to rethink contemporary issues related to queerness. It's not a gesture that we make something that is not queer, queer. But an insistence that, outside of hetero, modern coloniality, many things are “queer” in their own right. AC: Eva Illouz, your research concerns the commodification of emotion. Sometimes you have focused on specific phenomena such as dating apps. It is obviously a complex question how the valuation of emotionality or of relationships is appropriated and commodified by capitalism. At the same time, affect has been handled as the seat of individuality, as our biological liveliness, as something to be cherished and valued against the economic machinery framed in machinic metaphors (which is a little outdated). One can recognize this as another dualist failure. But how do we narratively get out of it, do you see ways in which we can escape being used and commodified in this way? Or do you see it as a necessity, and the economic description as the description of everything that happens in the world, which is, of course, a way of reading Marx. Marxists narrative is dialectical. Because you attack kitsch, your narratives are sometimes hard, which is important. I don't want to fall back into naïveté by inhabiting queer bubbles. But a cynical view seeing only the economization as the effective truth would make me a little bit depressed and take away all my inner power. What inner power? In a conversation with Hibino Saki, she mentioned that for her, identity is something that seeps out osmotically, like tea diffuses into warm water. This image made me remember that when the European word “nature” was translated into Japanese, the translation word chosen was 自然、meaning, a “spontaneous” coming-about of something, which can almost reach the nuance of taking things for granted. This idea of nature as a kind of sprout respects what we don’t know without defining it as something unknowable, and thus, it seems to me, keeps its generative power alive. In English, we often try to get away from our nature or second nature, and there is also good reason to try and get away from the simplistic dualistic assumptions associated with the term, but I also get the feeling that we need this term, a kind of wild card as a counter-weight or gap in the labyrinth. So, to come back to your narratives of economization of emotionality: how pessimistic are you? And if I may add a concrete practical question: Supposing we cannot “get away”, but must rather keep navigating in a subversive way, what are your tips on how to do this? EI: A Capitalist subjectivity, innately makes it very difficult to answer , because authenticity is constituted as an ideal for the self from Jean-Jacques Rousseau onward. He speaks about nature as the corruption that society and civilization have exercised on mankind, and how everything was so much better in the state of nature, which is not only descriptive, but also moral. There is a very central view that becomes a key topic of Western modern thought, which is that society is bad and corrupts some kind of pure nature in us. When this idea emerges, so were all kinds of practices in order to recuperate, so to speak, this authentic self, ranging from going to a very exotic touristic destination to yoga and meditation. The more exotic, the tougher the sleep; the more authentic it is. Yoga, meditation are supposed to put you back in touch with your body. Therapy, or tantric sex, are supposed to help you unearth what you have repressed from yourself and so on. If you consider the hippie movement, which was, in many ways, the rejection of all that consumer society was supposed to be about, it’s caught in this very same paradox. It uses the music industry. It uses the fashion industry. The hippie style would become highly commodified signs that you belong to a liberated group. The hippie movement itself is caught within this impossible gesture of both affirming its freedom, emancipation, and authenticity from consumer culture and capitalism — while simultaneously using it and being in it. The gay movement, in many ways, came about thanks to consumer boycotts. It came about through the possibility of meeting in clubs and discotheques that were outside of mainstream leisure venues, but which were consumer venues. So to go back to your question, can we invent? Can we go beyond this? There are empirical examples of people who now voluntarily exile themselves in the French countryside, creating communes of self-sustained agriculture, but that exists only in the margins. I don't think we're going to see droves of people going back to the countryside and cultivating their own vegetables, voluntarily giving up on consumption. I think we should actually stand in this difficulty, as opposed to trying to resolve it or find a solution to it. I think the point is to stand the difficulty and take full account of it. Consumer capitalism works so powerfully precisely through its capacity to constitute the inner space of the self, so that consumer capitalism is not experienced as something alienating and foreign. It is experience precisely that which enables me to have a voice, to be an I, to be a subject, opposing the so-called external forces which want me to be something I am not. That is the difficulty we should discuss, as opposed to trying to transcend it. ZX: What do you think about romantic anti-capitalism? As a gesture, and as its problematic history with the political right and even extremism. It is a racist project in some manifestation. EI: What do you mean by romantic anti-capitalism? Athe end of the 19th century, there were movements that wanted to go back to nature; which emphasized the body. Is that what you have in mind? ZX: Yeah, It has different resurgences, this emphasis on nature… AC: You were just mentioning Rousseau, no? Wouldn’t Rousseauism be an example for the antirationalist Romantic backlash against the Enlightenment rhetoric of progress? Also, there is a massive agrarhistorical aspect, agrarian industry was exploding in the 18th century, when the a counter movement to this rationalization came with arguments of nature, idylls, breastfeeding, but speaking of pastoral, sheep colonies could be extremely destructive of local small agriculture, so could one say there was simply a parallax between the individualist, consumer experience of nature, and nature as a stand-in argument for perhaps instinctual skepticism against fast improvement ideas, which were productively conflated? EI: On this point, I think I'm completely Marxist. Marx had zero patience or capacity to romanticize the pastoral, pre-capitalist past. I think it's “a letter of short text” even speaks about the idiocy of village life, and you really have to read The Communist Manifesto to be amazed by the deep admiration that Marx has for capitalism and for the enormous creative powers. We're not talking creative powers that capitalism unleashes. Marx was entirely and thoroughly aware that capitalism is, in a way, an immense force for the good of humanity. He has no desire whatsoever to go back to the past. Some of the movements you’re referring to want to go back to the past, posing an ideal, “pure” Gemeinschaft. Gemeinschaften of this kind have always been places that discriminated against strangers and women. I, like Marx, have absolutely no romanticization of these communities. Although we can probably criticize the idea of progress, we can decelerate, we can limit growth, we can do all of these things — I don't think, for the moment, I have the imagination to see how, in the next ten years, how we overcome capitalism at all. This is a diagnosis of the present. It doesn't say anything about what will happen along the line. To go back to our topic of critique, for me, the question is how to criticize an economic system that encompasses the totality of being, and that has redefined intimacy. The most intimate relationship we may have to ourselves — not only to others, but to ourselves. It's this intimate way that capitalism has launched itself into our interiority, which I find maddening and very difficult to overcome or criticize. AC: It is difficult. It will probably remain difficult. But it seems all the more important to do what you do so beautifully - to analyze what is happening, reframe the narratives of what is happening, and to to make ourselves more articulate in our self observation and our environments. You make the point of how we embody and realize market dynamics in our very self-assessments, in the way we manifest ourselves in media, in material that reflects global production chains, global transportation chains. Are there ways to see this as a connection, also to the pain of others along the production and supply chain, rather than focussing on how we are gulped by “the machine”? While appreciating a level-headed, grim analysis, it seems, especially looking at each new generation, quite essential not to jettison the romantic fantasies, for what they're worth — if I hear of a shepherd going viral, then it certainly plays on such fantasies, but it could be the bridge that pops the bubble of privileged resignation. There's usually a reason why people have longings, even if their longings are for an image of something that has never existed in that form; that is a ghost born of absence. EI: These romantic fantasies accompany consumer capitalism from the start. If you think of tourism, which was the fastest growing industry after World War Two, tourism is such a commodity. You’re supposed to consume nature, you're supposed to consume yourself. You're supposed to consume an authentic culture, the authentic other. You're supposed to meet the other. All of these things are actually embedded in that industry. It contains this utopia; consumerism contained from the outside. AC: Let’s connect this, again, to criticism. How can we do criticism without completely negating the liveliness that gives birth to such affects? That does have seeds of anarchic energy in them; not to overcome, but to slip through and undermine systems of control and systems of valorization. How do critique and respect affect at the same time? And in the light of commodification, I wonder if affect is perhaps not the best-chosen word. That's the question I want to arrive at, but to to pass back to Zairong Xiang. What would you choose rather than affect? To give a name to the impulse, or vital energy, something that we might carry with us, which is able to do mischief in the capitalist world - while staying with Eva’s sad truth that we will not be able to “overcome” it because it lives in us like those famous bacteria? ZX: Desire. This is the second part that I didn't arrive at regarding transdualism. On the one hand, transdualism is very much grounded in the embodied experience. Most cultures experience dualism as something that structures sexism, colonialism, and all that oppresses us. But at the same time, this awareness that everything is entangled. Everything is entangled philosophically, but is also entangled through capitalism. I see no hope in secessionist strategies. I think this romantic anti-capitalism is the darker kind of a successionist strategy. There is a different exclusionary politics that pretends we can still find a little island, or, for lack of a better word, colony, for whatever affiliation that we might find outside of this system — call it capitalism, or climate change, a product of capitalist modernity and coloniality. I do not want to become a safe fortress. The Daoists ask us to begin with self-negation. Transdualism does not want to pretend that we can critique dualism in the sense that we very often find formulated by this methodology seeking to move beyond dualism. Going beyond and with each movement of critique of dualism, precisely reproduce a dualistic gesture. Transdualism wants to stay with the trouble and see if we can find through classical traditions —not only in Chinese, but amidst the very rich reservoir of cultures outside of modern coloniality, ways that think of dualistic operations without pretending we can overcome it. Words like “overcoming” and “going beyond” all have a dualistic operation that reproduces the very thing that is under attack. One figure in Daoism that I find useful, and this is intimately linked to desire, is the word tong translated into English as pervasion, os or penetrability, influenced by Daoist dialectics. Like communication, penetrability looks very much like how capitalism works. On the other hand, you have indifference or stubbornness or rigidity, where I think desire works both ways. It's very rigid. We all know we don't love everyone. We might love everyone, but we don't necessarily find everyone sexually attractive. This is the rigidity or stubbornness of desire. These desires, the desire to be pervasive, to connect and so on. If we think about psychoanalysis, desire is almost a blind force, one that traverses so many things — stratification, reification. EI: I’m very suspicious of desire as a force from which our redemption can come, because if there is one thing that has been thoroughly, totally colonized, it is precisely desire. Desire is not a blind and irruptive force. Take the famous erotic novel Histoire d’O which describes the masochism of a French woman to the point where she consents to her own death by a group of men. It is impossible not to do a feminist reading and to ask why desire of abjection is female and why the desire to torture is male? I take a very simple example to illustrate that desire feeds itself on scripts and images, which not in a vacuum. They are taken from somewhere. Pornography for example formats desire. Consumer culture has made desire central to its dynamic. I mean, take desire out of the economy, the economy collapses. Our economy is libidinal. It is an erotic and desiring economy. This economy relies entirely on an economy of desire. AC: But then we could use the negative desire that consists in refusal, or the desire not to. EI: I believe in gestures of resistance that emerge in an irruptive, explosive way. For example, just today 1,200 workers and employees walked out of Twitter. I don't think it's a real, planned gesture; it has no ideology behind it. It's just an act of refusal, not resistance proper but refusal. It is saying “no” to the conditions which a bully like Elon Musk was trying to impose. It’s an act in which people feel, to make it full circle with what was said before, violated. Their self feels violated and says simply “No.” “No” here is not an act of resistance to a system, or to an ideology. But a punctual act of affirmation of the integrity of the self. AC: The fact that people were suddenly supposed to pay to legitimize their identity on Twitter, that is a completely perverse “solution”, though I think that is only the most well-known issue. What interests me is the transience of the media that we have been flocking to, but that in precisely these neophiliac media playgrounds, ultraconservative bullshit discourses have become fashionable. I can only see it as a kind of mannerism. There is something moving about an ephemerous hyperobject, like the burning blimp at the beginning of the 20th century. Witnessing Twitter’s swift decay, we feel the transience of ourselves as well. Now, one of the affects that businesses prey upon is repressed fear. I think desire is a counter-force to that, by the way, and so much awful sex comes about from people confusing their fears with their desires, but that aside. It is out of fear that one becomes addicted to things, freezing in a fear of change, and businesses are very skilled in creating addictions. A lot of money is also made by shuffling people’s panic-like need of hedonic moments with the winter-informed hoarding culture of the global north. Such behavior patterns were translated into abstract moralisms in the missionary narrative of colonialism, and I think a strong factor in the perpetuation of the colonial structures is that these stupid little principles of hoarding, i.e. wanting more and more, are conceptually confounded with desire. Scrolling and similar addictive devices have been mining this consciously for the past 70 or 80 years. But if you make the diagnosis that capitalism has rhizomatically infested our very hearts and souls, isn’t it necessary to reframe narratives of emotion so that we can even understand our own multifarious selves in other terms, for example by being more literate about the difference between a desire for a person – which is the desire for something unknown to happen, Nietzsche's amor fati – and the desire that thinks it is a desire for satisfaction and which might just be a desire for being un-here, an escapist, illusory, basically depressed longing for complete other, for utopia, which can so easily be tricked and messed with by flashing icons. But I think I have drifted away from the point you were going to make about the Twitter walkout. EI: I think the people at Twitter weren’t reacting so much to the paywall, but to the demand by Elon Musk that they've now become “hardcore.” He put it like that – “hardcore” workers, which is a nice way to say that you have no life anymore except for the company. That’s what he meant by that, and I find it an extremely violent way to demand an appropriation of the soul and the body of these workers. I think there are two forms of resistance. One of them is the eruptive one, the one you don't plan. The one in which you say, enough is enough; . I don't believe this anymore, and this violates my elf. I called this an act of refusal, which may or may not be punctual. There are such moments of pure affect that pierce the wall of organized ideas. The other one goes back to this theme of critique. We cannot dismantle this enormous house that's called capitalism. What we can do as scholars and critics is connect dots, provide the right language, show the ways in which language is manipulated to fog consciousness, and then we also need to prioritize, choose where it hurts most, and actually do the enormous work of changing frames of intelligibility. I think affect follows intelligibility. If you show the lies and spuriousness of certain modes of intelligibility, you do something to disturb the system. For example, Michael Sandel shows that meritocracy, which is the chief discourse promising reward for one’s work and talent, actually does not work. People with similar talents get very vastly different rewards. Furthermore, this discourse justifies privilege. If you are successful, rich and healthy it must be because you deserve it. Showing how meritocracy becomes a system justifying privilege makes a hole into a system of intelligibility and plausibility. That's what the work of critique can do. Critique cannot plan the first moment of resistance, where all those alternative ways of explaining the social world will sink in, and will make the voice of the master no longer acceptable. That's what I was trying to say. At some point, the voice of the master becomes unacceptable; unintelligible. For me, critique is doing this work of changing and shifting modes of intelligibility that make you doubt, mock, oppose what you are being told to believe. AC: Indeed, indeed, well put. And intelligibility, the ability to read the air, can keep us at bay, where non-understanding can be connected to an affectual flare-up, but the affectual flare-up can also arise from understanding, realization. Reframing capitalism as an entanglement means seeing both versions at the same time. It's “the man,” the master, and it's also we; it consists of us and what we are doing all the time. This diffused self, consisting of knowledge —remote knowledge, knowledge of things we've never seen with our own eyes before — is absolutely necessary to situate our actions in such a virtual way. Would that be the trans- in the sense of permeability, and not misunderstood as trans- in the sense of going beyond something on a timeline or overcoming something once and for all? Xiang Zairong, could you maybe go back to the trans critique and the entanglement narrative of capitalism to suggest how that could work, how transcritique can help to coordinate the myriad contradictory fragments of remote world knowledge, feeling, and personal experience? ZX: I'm very inspired by what Eva just said: “changing the frame of intelligibility,” which I think creates this situation in which the first moment of resistance could happen, but it is often not planned. I'd like to think about a moment prior to that, or outside of that, outside even the otherwise overdetermined concept of transdualism (which often thinks in planetary terms). This is what I call radical indifference. Radical indifference cannot be described, it cannot be planned. It exists in moments, later on and through critique, could take a form of resistance. In China, you often see middle-aged women — some recently retired — gather together and dance in public squares as a form of exercise and socializing. Some would be carrying a bag: a Louis Vuitton knockoff, for example. Not an exact copy, but it can be recognized. A bad anthropologist who would say, “Wow, look, capitalism is everywhere, right? It creates the desire for the brand, even for the middle-aged ladies of the square.” But through a closer interview with them, you start to realize that they didn't buy the bag because it is a knockoff of Louis Uuitton; they might have never heard of such a thing. She bought it simply because it's the bag that is available, for example; or it is bigger than the Burberry bag next to it, or it looks more useful in that situation. This irreverent moment constitutes a form of a very weak resistance to this system of brand and commodification as it related to class, taste, and all of these issues we can continue to talk about. The other example is from a film called And Spring Comes. In this film, a smalltown music teacher is an opera aficionado, and she really wants to go to Beijing to become an opera singer. One day, she travels to Beijing and buys a ticket from a scalper and then goes to see an opera. She comes back to her village and her neighbor, a younger woman, is brushing her teeth outside of the dormitory — a very humble setting. The younger woman asks, “Professor, where did you go?” And this soprano wannabe is very proud, and says, “I went to Beijing, because the Central Opera Company is trying to transfer me to their work unit as their soprano. They invited me to watch Tosca!” The younger woman stops brushing her teeth, and asks, “To-sha?” Tosca sounds like “to-sha” which in Chinese means “strip what?” - she heard the word Tosca as to mean to take off one’s clothes. So, the carefully conceived lie of the soprano wannabe, together with this sublime pursuit of love and freedom planned in Tosca by Puccini, collapse at this moment. Of course, the younger woman didn't intend this indifference or irreverence at all; this might be a “change of the framework of intelligibility” albeit from a position of ignorance. So it cannot be planned, and it cannot come from the hierarchical, more powerful position. It always comes from the lowly position. This is what I come to term “radical indifference.” When we think about critique, subject, or resistance, there stands a Subject that really needs to be rethought. With the help of different sources — Daoism and Apophatic theology for example; the super subject of the male colonizer; the theological concept of God as the one who created as if out of nothingness; this phallic subject that creates things as if from nowhere; the rich feminist critique of social reproduction —is another example of the critique of the ex nihilo Subject. The subject standing at the center of resistance also needs to be resolved, or, let's say, decolonized. AC: I’m wondering about simultaneously framing ourselves as a naive subject – one that may be taken over by a very personal, singular affect or, more frequently, something that is in the air, crowd affects and the like, so: more like a medium than an agent – and as a knowledgeable, controlling kind of subject, gathering as much information as we can and understanding what's breaking us. Where the agency may lie in coincidentally being where you are, or by a little nuance you give to what you logically are compelled to do. Do you think it's possible to carry such multiple subjective functionalities at the same time, or would continual shifts be a better way to describe it, or is there something else that you’re getting at? ZX: This is precisely the project of Daoism: how to cultivate; how to actively withdraw. The paradox stays there: how can I both withdraw and be active? “Chinese thought” is extremely popular with management courses. It's not a coincidence. It's not a coincidence that the managerial capitalist class finds these ways of thinking very useful. EI: Many good ideas have been used by various types of capitalist management since the 1930s. Does their use of these ideas invalidate them? For example, take the current obsession with positive thinking; this idea that you really need to reinterpret what happens to you, taking your faith into your hands to develop those very positive thoughts in which you do not feel crushed by anything, and you feel maximum power. What do you do with these ideas once you know that these are the same ideas that are very congenial to the neoliberal conception of subjectivity? Ideas in which the subject has to be responsible for performance, well-being, and, in other words, absolving the Organization, the Corporation, or the State from responsibility. In a way, you could say, “Well, yes, isn't this what Stoicism is about,” and many forms of spirituality. This is what they are about. On the one hand, they are about teaching us how to look at our interior selves and finding the resources to cope with the cruel, mean, stupid world. But then these are also the very tools that are used by management of late. What do we do with that? ZX: I don't think it invalidates or matters who uses it. The idea wouldn't be invalidated if a manager, a management course, or the managerial class adopts it, appropriates it. The problem comes when these ideas are used to precisely hide or wash away the cruelty behind the system. Daoism alone cannot be the solution. AC: If we harness our natural or unnatural senses of language, and of depth, and of the complexity of concepts; if we just trust this feeling and don't even begin to believe the shallow bullshit that is served to us – I think we could help each other cultivate the confidence to go that way with the power of desire. We're safe through networks of respectful, attentive relations, including the internet, and in this diffusive way we can keep each other in reach of some kind of safety. Thanks for converging here with your thoughts and minds and ears. Let’s keep listening, and please stay well on all sides of the globe.


First published in Art of the Working Class [March 6th 2023]

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