Staying Alive_Cover_Front_WebStaying Alive: A Survival Manual for the Liberal Arts

by L.O. Aranye Fradenburg

Edited by Eileen A. Joy

Brooklyn, NY: punctum books, 2013. 372 pages, illus. ISBN-13: 978-0615906508. OPEN-ACCESS e-book and $19.00 [€17.00/£15.00] in print: paperbound/5 X 8 in.

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Staying Alive: A Survival Manual for the Liberal Arts fiercely defends the liberal arts in and from an age of neoliberal capital and techno-corporatization run amok, arguing that the public university’s purpose is not vocational training, but rather the cultivation of what Fradenburg calls “artfulness,” including the art of making knowledge. In addition to sustained critical and creative thinking, the humanities develop the mind’s capacities for real-time improvisational communication and interpretation, without which we can neither thrive nor survive. Humanist pedagogy and research use play, experimentation and intersubjective exchange to foster forms of artfulness critical to the future of our species. From perception to reality-testing to concept-formation and logic, the arts and humanities teach us to see, hear and respond more keenly, and to imagine, or “model,” new futures and possibilities. Innovation of all kinds, technological or artistic, depends on the enhancement of the skills proper to staying alive.

Bringing together psychoanalysis, neuroscience, animal behavioral research, biology & evolutionary theory, and premodern literarature (from Virgil to Chaucer to Shakespeare), Fradenburg offers a bracing polemic against the technocrats of higher education and a vibrant new vision for the humanities as both living art and new life science. Contrary to recent polemics that simply urge the humanities to become more scientistic or technology-focused, to demonstrate their utility or even trophy their uselessness, Staying Alive does something remarkably different: it argues for the humanism of a new scientific paradigm based on complexity theory and holistic and ecological approaches to knowledge-making.  It urges us to take the further step of realizing not only that we can promote and enhance neuroplastic connectivity and social-emotional cognition, but also that the humanities have always already been doing so. “Nature always exceeds itself in its expressivity” — which is to say that living is itself an art, and artfulness is necessary for living: for adaptation and innovation, for forging rich and varied relationships with other minds, bodies and things, and thus, for thriving — whether in the boardroom or the art gallery, the biology lab or the recording studio, the alley or the playground, the book or the dream.

Staying Alive contains companion essays by Donna Beth Ellard (Rice University), Ruth Evans (Saint Louis University), Eileen A. Joy (BABEL Working Group), Julie Orlemanski (University of Chicago), Daniel C. Remein (New York University), and Michael D. Snediker (University of Houston).


Figure 1. Ellen Kooi, Nauerna — ladder (2010)


. . . there has been no voice within premodern studies [like Aranye Fradenburg’s] more insistent on the subject of the ways in which disciplinarity, desire, enjoyment, work, groupification, and care of the self intersect in always risky (and even melancholy), yet necessary and productive fashion, and with the ways in which aesthetics, signifying, intersubjectivity (intimate and extimate), and self- and world-building are importantly enmeshed. Fradenburg’s work has never been just about medieval studies, although it may appear as such to some — rather, it has always concerned itself with living and enduring, with creaturely attachments to meaning-making as a form of thriving and flourishing, as well as with the ways in which institutional and disciplinary life (university life) are bound up with desires that are “unaccountable” and “always on the move,” despite all of the attempts of the university’s managerial technocrats (and methodologically uptight scholars) to say otherwise. Fradenburg insists that we can never fully know ourselves (personally or institutionally), and therefore unknowing becomes (has to become) an important component of what we do in here.

~Eileen A. Joy, “Preface: Hands Off Our Jouissance: The Collaborative Risk of a Shared Disorganization”

Our habitual skepticism, . . . coupled with the narrowness of our training, has a downside: exacerbation of the feeling of not-mattering that seems now to afflict creaturely subjectivity all over the world. All life matters, because of its rarity, variety, and uniqueness; I share the materials, experiential and otherwise, that make me what I am with a multitude of things and creatures, but “I” am an unrepeatable combination thereof; “I” am something that will never come again, at least in this universe. I love the idea that I am made and remade by astonishing flurries of cooperative multicellular activity. I would not trade my brilliantly complex, loyal and hardworking immune system for surgical knowledge (if I had to, which thankfully I don’t), nor my amazing brain, which I love just because it is a brain, and because I am so lucky to have one, for a computer, nor my nervous system, not even the soles of my feet, nor my pheromonal receptivity, for anything at all; prosthetics are brilliant achievements, but we should not allow their value to eclipse the really quite unbelievable achievement that is the human brain/ mind/body. Take the measure of, take pleasure and pride in, what an astonishing being you are. However much education or money you do or don’t have, however well or badly treated, you are a finely-wrought, irreplaceable, brilliant achievement of eons and eons of transformations in “vibrant matter” — Jane Bennett’s felicitous phrase.

~L.O. Aranye Fradenburg, “Driving Education: A Crash Course”

Like Pynchon’s Red district graffiti [in Gravity’s Rainbow], the communications of activist-academic reflexivity constitute an archive that is both monumental and ephemeral, that feels alternately neighborly and anonymous. They help form the malleable architecture of our intellectual and professional habitus. These texts link together collectives that may be irreducibly vulnerable because their unity derives not from military discipline, not from pursuit of “profit” or “security,” but from something closer to caritas and eros. “an army of lovers can be beaten” — but will it be? If defeat is possible — or is likely, or snapping at our heels — then we have a responsibility to evaluate how best to help stave it off, cheat death, shift the tactics, transform the terrain.

~Julie Orlemanski, “Any Army of Lovers”

Venture capitalists almost by definition respect the difficulty of prediction and the productivity of broadcast investment; there is a reason why they have been so important to the knowledge industries specifically. But they also seem to misunderstand completely how minds work, if their current fixation on online education is any indication, and they appear to be ignorant of the highly uneven history of scientific discovery. The new paradigm keeps very uneasy company with intelligent design, top-down management, and the apocalyptic fantasy of (the O/other’s) accountability — for example, the rage to quantify educational outcomes. Instead, it affirms the creativity inherent in matter, for which chaos, drift, causal parity and contingency are just as significant as codes, templates, and five-year plans. It affirms the existence of realities that far exceed us; but at the same time it acknowledges that our knowledge of those realities is artifactual — something we make together, and no less powerful for that. It encourages (the study of) real-time process, experimentation, and “becoming,” and recognizes the role of the observer to be an integral (neither intrusive nor obstructive) part of discovery. In short, scientism is in flight, and plasticity and complexity may well be the biggest challenge fundamentalisms of all kinds — including invariant code worship — have ever faced.

~L.O. Aranye Fradenburg, “Living the Liberal Arts: An Argument for Embodied Learning Communities”

If we can talk about even the most seemingly theologically-charged medieval literature as having non-representational and non-expressive functions (even if that literature also inevitably succumbs to certain semiotic and representational logics), then certainly, we can and indeed need to think about a poetics of thriving in more adventurous and less abstracting terms. This is to say, too, that Fradenburg’s commitment to thriving also convinces me of the potential perniciousness of a “taste” (on the part of certain schools of criticism) for evaporating pleasurable or even relaxed affects or sensations from the poetics of poems or art-objects of any kind — or from critical readings and critical theorizing. Such devotedly paranoid analysis, wholly abstracted from any concrete therapeutic function, is gnostic in its aims and can only read poesy as purely a symptom of the Death Drive or of Capital. In either case, one does disservice to actual therapeutic practices (and analysts and patients), to an artifact’s texture, or to actual material labor struggles (including most especially those of adjunct and other precarious academic labor), by abstracting from the particular forces and feelings of the co-makings in question.

~Daniel C. Remein, “Human-Tongued Basilisks”

Living is artful. J. Z. Young points out that art “has the most central of biological functions, ‘of insisting that life be worthwhile, which, after all, is the final guarantee of its continuance.” And there are few species for which “worthwhile” has no social dimension whatsoever. For us, sociality is paramount. Expression acknowledges the “relational field” of “the Øther”—Lacan calls it a “ceding” (of imaginary sovereignty). “I am always a cedable object, . . . an object of exchange.” Ceding is adaptation: I am aware of the world around (and in) me, and if I want to live (well), I must realize that my power over my environment has its limits.  “If I want to live” is the key:  I cede because I want to make a deal; I need something I don’t have, someone else has got it, I need to get it out of them. Again, expression acknowledges the “relational field” of “the Øther”: when I act out, I act out. I open, unfurl my best feathers, because I want you to notice me. This is the import of Foghorn Leghorn: “For — I say, fortunately, I always carry a spare set of feathers.”

~L.O. Aranye Fradenburg, “Breathing with Lacan’s Seminar X: Expression and Emergence”

In our sensual engagement with respiratory mechanisms, breath is both eroticized and charged with desire. We taste the other’s breath in kissing. CPR is the “kiss of life.” We respond with emotion when we hear the sudden intake of breath, the sigh, the sound of panting, heavy breathing, rasping breath, the death rattle, a laboring woman’s butterfly breathing. We feel warm breath fluttering and the swoosh of snorting on our skin. We see with relief the chest rising and falling, the feather held to the lips trembling. We smell, with disgust or delight, bad breath, garlic breath, sweet breath, the Cook’s breath that “ful soure stynketh” (Chaucer, The Manciple’s Prologue, IX.32). And what do we make of the fact that respiratory rate is one of the vital signs of life, and yet in triage is almost never measured accurately? That we need better instruments? That we need better methods of auscultation and observation? Or that poor inter-ob-server agreement argues for an element of desire in the interaction: a residue that distorts the measurement? As Fradenburg argues, air “has an ‘a’ quality”: it is like the remainder around which the drive moves.

~Ruth Evans, “The Object Breath”

When we “reach out and touch someone,” we draw on the multimodal capacity that allows us to link touch to voice and communication. This is thriving, and it is part of living process. As the Darwinist Alfred Russel Wallace contended, “the popular idea” of the “struggle for existence” as “entailing misery and pain on the animal world is the very reverse of the truth. What it really brings about, is the maximum of life and the enjoyment of life.” Creatures do not live bare lives, if they can possibly help it. The concept “bare life” is, as Agamben argues, a political fantasy, related to the figure of “the least body of the condemned man.” It is a means of discipline, and ought to clarify for us the profound deprivation and constraint that putatively laissez-faire capitalism of the twenty-first century sort has in mind for us and our fellow creatures. We must continue to prize the freedom to make meaning and beauty, to show ourselves and thereby announce, herald, and insist upon the indisputable fact of our common aliveness.

L.O. Aranye Fradenburg, “Life’s Reach: Territory, Display, Ekphrasis”

Ekphrastic scholarship joins together a researcher and a research community via an acknowledgement of shared description, desire, and sociability. It is the act of reflecting upon moments of individual vulnerability, mutual co-operation, and uninhibited expression, to name only a few of its modalities. It is a post-factum narrative that recounts one’s scholarly self in kindred spirit with others and, in so doing, asks implicitly how the production of knowledge facilitates togetherness. Ekphrastic scholarship reminds us that the role of research is not to exclude ourselves from the communities we live and work in, but to more fully integrate ourselves within them. A much more capacious definition of living emerges here, one that draws no distinctions between academic work and life, academic works and lives.

~Donna Beth Ellard, “Ekphrastic Beowulf: Defying Death and Staying Alive in the Academy”

The cute object—as opposed to the good object or bad object—sometimes asks that we treat it as though it were something like an infant. Sometimes like an infant, it seems to communicate a message of desire whose content we can only begin to guess. Why are you barking, what do you want, talk to me: as often, it is difficult to distinguish what cuteness tries to communicate from what we imagine it’s communicating (hence the frequency with which the communication of a cute creature ends up being superseded by cuteness-as-communique). That the cute object’s wish for love is inseparable from our own amorous fantasies suggests a network of affective risk and ex-perimentation along the lines of Winnicott’s theorization of transitional objects. More than this, the Winnicottian blur of both transitional objects and good-enough mothers suspends the self-shatteringly brittle agon that arises in the fiction of psychical discreteness. If this blur makes possible the kind of inter-relational, inter-generic, inter-disciplinary work in which the best versions of the Humanities are invested, as Fradenburg argues more than convincingly here in this book, it also cozens us into the possibility of the blurring as its own counter-intuitive discipline.

~Michael D. Snediker, “Fuzzy Logic”

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