[-empyre-] Stuffed Toys and other Fidgetables

Michael O'Rourke tranquilised_icon at yahoo.com
Thu Jun 14 14:47:57 EST 2012

Stuffed Toys and other fidgetables


I recently published an essay in Studies in
Gender and Sexuality on Lisa Baratiser’s book Maternal Encounters: The Ethics
of Interruption which I argued opens up a space for object oriented
maternities. More importantly, though, in my introduction to the issue devoted
to her book,  I asserted that she
revivifies an older notion of aesthetics. Since I mention Winnicott, stuffed
toys, and object oriented aesthetics I thought I would share a part of it here:




As I sat in Edinburgh airport wondering what to write
about the philosophical implications of Maternal
Encounters I was reminded, fittingly enough, of an anecdote from Steven
Connor’s book on magical things, Paraphernalia, which he begins with an anecdote
(itself appositely enough also set in an airport):

Waiting in Dublin
airport, in the state of tipsily philosophical bliss that is common with me in
airports, I saw a baby aged about nine months sitting at its parents’ feet. The
baby was entirely absorbed in a game that involved stretching and releasing the
strap of its mother’s handbag, while sliding the buckle up and down its length.
At one point, its mother reached down and carelessly handed it a muffin to eat.
The baby looked from the muffin to the handbag, seemingly weighing the chances
of it being able to play some useful part in its push-me-pull-you
investigation. After a couple of puzzled moments, the muffin was thrown aside
and the baby resumed its researches. I had never seen such absorption and
intentness, and have never forgotten it. The baby was simultaneously
concentrated and abandoned, utterly in and at the same time entirely out of
this world. I thought I had seen something amazing” (Connor, 2011, p 1)

One gets a “tipsily” philosophical feeling of “bliss”
on reading Baraitser’s book which is sprinkled with anecdotes like this one but
which, more importantly, moves from scenes of feeding (and other everyday
activities) to scenes of absorbed attention to objects, or rather, to the world
around mothers and their children. This anecdote decided for me that
Baraitser’s major (but by no means her only) philosophical contributions are to
three fields: aesthetics, phenomenology and deconstruction. Like the child, the
mother and the bag these three disparate philosophico-theoretical strands are
complexly entangled, become “raw materials” for “experiencing ourselves, others
and our worlds” (Baraitser, p 3). Even if these approaches cannot be “knit ...
into a quasi-methodology” (p 17), they might yet make up a tenuous series of
“constellations that we may retroactively be able to gather up into something”
(p 3). 

The subtitle of the book is, of course, the ethics and not the aesthetics of interruption. However, we might want to interrupt the
book’s very own titular aims to say that the encounters and re-encounters it
stages are as much about ordinary everday life as they are about fashioning a
“maternal ethics” (p.4). In this sense, Baraitser’s book is as much about an aesthetics
of ordinariness that matters.  As she
describes it, “I seek to articulate the potential within maternity for new
experiences, sensations, moods, sensibilities, intensities, kinetics,
tinglings, janglings, emotions, thoughts, perceptions: new coagulations of
embodied and relational modes” (p.3.  This description of her project should remind
us of an older connotation of aesthetics, going back to its eytmological and
theoretical roots. And it is this more faithful meaning we see re-vivified in
the work of Jacques Rancière who, like Baraitser, shuttles between philosophy,
theory and literature. By refusing to differentiate between these domains
Rancière and Baraitser are able to offer up a theory of the “aestheticization
of daily life” (Ranciere, 2011, p 57). Initially, as Ben Highmore points out,
the word aesthetics referred to the “messy world of sensate perception, a world
irreducible to rational meanings or ideation” (Highmore, 2011, p x) and “gestured
towards the great left-over” (p. x).  The
“liveliness of ordinary life” (p xi) for Baraitser is located in moments which
are often left out of the picture, are completely “overlooked” and she argues
that it is these stick-out scenes which are the ones we need to pay attention
to “if we are to apply ourselves theoretically” and “if we are to glimpse
something we may term maternal subjectivity” (p 3). 

 In a chapter on
hair Baraitser wonders if Luce Irigaray’s mimesis offers potential for subversive
maternal transformations (p 64-65) and in his recent book, The Politics of Literature, Rancière is indebted not to Irigaray
but rather to Eric Auerbach’s Mimesis
which he draws upon to suggest that the politics of literature is, in
Baraitser’s sense, transgressively interruptive. He terms this “literarity”, a
“radical democracy of the letter” (Rancière, 2011, p 13), an intervention into
the “carving up of space and time, the visible and the invisible, speech and
noise” (p. 4). Keeping in mind Baraitser’s stated aim which was to “articulate”
“pay attention” to  and “glimpse” new
potentials within and for maternal subjectivity it is noteworthy that for
Rancière the aesthetic regime is inherently democratic insofar as literature
grants an equivalent articulability and visibility to anyone and anything, to
the “sheer intensity of things” (Rancière, p.25), in a kind of Deleuzian
neo-materialist flat ontology (Bryant, 2011), “an endless collision of atoms
forming into and dissolving new configurations” (p. 62). Baraitser’s maternal
poetics presents its own moments of lively everdayness anecdotally: 

I describe
unexceptional incidents in which a mother crosses a street, bursts into tears
without knowing why, goes to a school play, dislikes using her child’s name,
loses the vital transitional object, watches her child having a tantrum, does
not know how to put a nappy on, fumbles with lego, waits while her stammering
child tries to speak, and navigates the urban cityscape with her buggie and
babies and bottles and bags” (p 3-4). 

Baraitser’s anecdotes, which Rancière would call
“literature” seek to endow  “mute” life
(Rancière 2012) with its own speech, moving towards a world which is not
people- or human-centered but rather reads the “laws of a world in the body of
mundane things” (Rancière, 2011, p. 21). Ben Highmore’s recent book Ordinary Lives: Studies in the Everyday
has similarly democratizing aims to Baraitser’s and in his studies of objects,
food and work he discovers that “the cultural world is an ecology of optimism
and pessimism, of pleasure and pain, and it makes communal subjects of us all”(2011,
p xii). The anecdotes in Maternal Encounters,
the attentions given over to the seemingly mundane events which syncopate daily
life, work towards uncovering a similar, but even more generously
imagined,  ecology: 

By thinking through
these experiences, something we might call maternal subjectivity may
emerge—characterized not by fluidity, hybridity or flow, but by physical
viscosity, heightened sentience, a renewed awareness of objects, of one’s own
emotional range and emotional points of weakness, an engagement with the built
environment and street furniture, a renewed temporal awareness where the
present is elongated and the past and future no longer felt to be so tangible,
an a renewed sense of oneself as a speaking subject. The mother emerges from
these investigations not only as a subject of interruption, encumbered,
viscous, impeded, but also re-sensitized to sound, smell, emotions, sentient
awareness, language, love” (P. 4).


This writing of the “phenomenology of motherhood” (p
23) which is on the look out for that which “sticks out” (p 23) shares
Highmore’s concern that it is often everyday life which gets “remaindered”
(Highmore, p xii). By straddling the anecdotal and the philosophical Baraitser
finds “one place where everyday life becomes more and more vivid—literature” (Highmore,
 p.xii) and where“the minor and major
disturbances of life [are] set against and within a world of day-to-day habits,
routines and collective sentiments” (Highmore, p xii). This renewed
understanding of aesthetics (and the politics of literature) unveils new “forms
of beauty” which are, in De Certeauian fashion, set against the “sometimes
bland consistency of everyday life” (Highmore, p xii). And these everyday forms
of beauty are “more sustainable, more precarious and more world-enlarging” (Highmore,
p xiii). 

In foregrounding this older version of aesthetics in
order to re-enchant (Bennett, 2001) ordinary life Baraitser and Highmore value
“the ability to call forth an experience through (sometimes exorbitant) description”
(p xiii), a “tricky balancing act” (Baraitser, p. 9) in between and across
literature and theory.  And this should
call to mind Derrida’s description of deconstruction in Of Grammatology (the one text by him which is referenced in Maternal Encounters):

The movements of
deconstruction do not destroy structures from the outside. They are not
possible and effective, nor can they take accurate aim, except by inhabiting
those structures. Inhabiting them in a
certain way, because one always inhabits, and all the more so when one does
not suspect it (Derrida, 1974, p. 24)

Deconstruction inhabits, it involves itself in “getting
in among things” (Highmore, p. xiii) and watching for the singularities of
ordinary existence.  Anecdotal writing
for Baraitser is excessive, supplemental, exorbitant, and yet it allows her “to
begin” (p. 14). She explains that this exorbitance is “related to exteriority,
exits, departures, attempts to get out of ruts” (Baraitser, p 16) and we might
call this, after Peggy Kamuf, a“habitography” (Kamuf, 2011, 94), or better
still, an inhabitography. Kamuf
writes that: 

inhabits, in a certain way. It is within structures that it shakes up and
deconstructs from inside, which nevertheless opens to some outside.
Deconstruction is a way of inhabiting structures that turns them inside out or
upside down, like an uncanny guest who displaces all the host’s property. This
figure of habitation, inhabitation seems to have been called up here by some
resistance to thinking about deconstruction’s strategic aims and actions in such
domestic or familiar terms (p36)

Inhabitography, anecdotal theory is like a child upending
everything, playing a push-me pull-you game. And it in turn, returns us to
childhood. It is not often noticed but in Of
Grammatology, when he talks about good and bad writing, Derrida privileges
psychoanalysis and the work of Melanie Klein in particular:

A certain privilege
should be given to research of the psychoanalytic type. In as much as it
touches the originary constitution of objectivity and of the value of the
object—the constitution of good and bad objects as categories that do not
allow themselves to be derived from a theoretical
formal ontology and from a science of the objectivity of the object in
general—psychoanalysis is not a simple regional science... Here I am quite
obviously thinking of researches of the type undertaken by Melanie Klein. An
example of it may be found in the essay on “The
Role of the School in the Libidinal Development of the Child” (Derrida,
1974, 88) 

A much more well remembered phrase, that “the future (avenir) can only be anticipated in the
form of an absolute danger” (1974, p. 5) should be reconsidered in the light of
Derrida’s approving remarks on the ability of psychoanalysis to transgress its
own limits. Because, in that we find an admission that Derrida himself did not
know where he was going and, more crucially, that “good writing” should not
anticipate. Derrida, like Highmore and Baraitser, has an eye for the liveliness
of objects. He quotes Rousseau saying that “eyes, accustomed to the same sights
[objets] since infancy, began to see
with increased pleasure. The heart is moved by these novel objects” (Derrida
citing Rousseau, 1974 p. 262) and this should take us to a footnote on Klein
where he cites her saying that these kinds of sightings are “still active in
the phantasies of every individual child” (1974, 334 n37). It is in these
active “phantasies”where people come together and surprizing things start to
happen and this should take us to another footnote, this time in Maternal Encounters, on Steven Connor’s
notion of “becoming unaccomodated”:

There are some
similarities between Connor’s ‘becoming unaccommodated’, Cléments ‘syncope’ and
Freud’s notion of the uncanny in that they all hold the potential for
experiencing the self-made-strange ... Connor writes: ‘One ought sometimes to
be able not to be able to describe
what one is doing, just as we could do with getting better at not being good at
what we do’. In other words, we would do well to seek out and engage with
experiences of becoming unaccommodated, rather than finding ways of bolstering
against its effects (Baraitser, p 161 n.8)

Becoming unaccommodated sounds a lot like Derridean
inhabitation. And it is also about an experiencing of excess and amazement.
What Connor finds “amazing” in the anecdote with which I was allowed to begin
is that we  “usually think of things such
as bags—as just there, inert, without will or consciousness” (p 2). Objects are
“thrust up” against us and are seen to have “no part of us” (p 2). However,
Connor’s book “is about a different kind of object, or one experienced in a
different kind of way, that, like the enigmatic bag under such intent
investigation in the airport, seems to escape its own finitude, its dourly
objectish being-there, to go beyond, or spill to the side of, what it merely is
or does” (p 2) For Connor, objects are “invested with powers”, a kind of
thingly magic and are not just “docile things” (p 2) and we should be thinking
here of all Baraitser’s maternal “stuff” (p 122) and the various objects and
equipment with which the mother’s body is surrounded and encumbered.  Connor calls this stuff “paraphernalia” (p.
11) and as with Baraitser’s tools, toys, artefacts and “fidgetables” (Connor, p. 4) he sees things as actants with
affordances and views us as being in an“oddly intimate relation to objects” (p.
4). By “affordances” he means that “they are not merely externally loaded with
associations and connotations, but that we find ourselves implicated in, or
apprephended by, them. We act in accordance with the affordances of objects (p.
3).  If Baraitser is avowedly “escaping
abjection[ ab-iacere]” (p 7), then
Connor  shows us that she is also
insistently escaping ob-jection [ob-iacere]
the idea that objects are pushed up against us, standing apart and away from
us. Just as Connor finds this reciprocal relation “oddly intimate” Baraitser
describes it as “oddly generative” (p 150). 

 Baraitser draws
on Winnicot’s theories of transitional objects as she thinks about the way
mothers and children experience the world and admits that only he “stops long
enough to think about old rabbits with chewed up ears, scraps of cloth, wool,
string and songs” (p 132). Babies especially, for Winnicot, apprehend the world
“in small doses” (cited in Highmore, p. 150). The world and the bodies within
it (the mother’s and the child’s) are for Winnicot understood as a “series of
connected and disconnected objects” (Highmore, p. 150) and subjects “negotiate
their affective environment and extend themselves from a world of control,
outwards towards a larger sense of the environment” (Highmore, p. 150). This
“becoming unaccommodated” makes way for contact with the new, the unfamiliar, the
foreign as the child (and mother) gradually opens up to the world. This intricate
relationship between the self and the world is rendered as a complex
entanglement. If aesthetics formerly meant an interest in creaturely life and
entanglements (Barad 2007) then Maternal
Encounters ambitiously tells a story “ of disjunctive, sticky entanglements
and dissociations” (Freeman, 2010, p. 70). And the messiest thing about this
book is the way it exorbitantly risks the “actual meeting of bodies with other
bodies and with objects” (Freeman, p. xxi), and “experimentation with our
bodies and those of others, with affiliation, and with new practices of hoping,
demanding, and otherwise making claims on the future” (Freeman, p. xxi).  In interesting  itself in the precariously sensate
connectivity of things and in making claims on that which is “generative” and
“unexpected” (Baraitser, P. 23) in these encounters between bodies and the
world of things,  Maternal Encounters gives us a surprising account of ordinary
aesthetics which is really, in the end,  anything
but ordinary. 
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