By Justine Poon
The basement level of my home institution’s main library was flooded recently, resulting in the loss, I’m told, of 400,000 books including the vast majority of the philosophy books. I felt a form of grief at this event – that possible conversations had become impossible and certain ways of being and relating were lost. Some of the most interesting texts I have encountered have been in happy accidents of browsing, en route to other texts. Repetition – a theme in the 2017 LLHAA conference that Rachel Bolton highlighted through her summary of Marianne Constable’s keynote – is necessary to the development of scholarly ideas too. We may need to encounter a text many times before we are ready to read it, in the meantime collecting other spokes of knowledge, forgetting and repeating until it somehow comes together. The act of browsing a library is not one act but a process of repetition, of walking and looking, learning the different paths, settling the body into familiarity with the space and its books and all facilitated by the library’s sense of reliability.
Why build a library? The flood reminds us of what it is necessary to forget: nothing is permanent. A library builds a myth about lasting long enough until the texts contained within it are able to change the world, and that this will happen before the world physically destroys the place. It is a hope that the principle of the library as a space of ideas and serendipities will repeat enough until something different happens out of that process. Without being able to speak for others (but strongly suspecting a shared sentiment), this hope for the possibility of difference, despite it all, is also what I have found so enlivening about meeting as a group of scholars who look at law slightly askew each of the times I have attended this conference.
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These thoughts about the conditions of difference and transformation being partly built on myth, repetition and the contact of ideas were on my mind recently as I read Laurent de Sutter’s Narcocapitalism.
The book explores the ways in which certain states of being have been suppressed by a form of capitalism – narcocapitalism – that heavily deploys drugs to manage excesses of mood and feeling, including manic depression, that threaten the stability necessary for orderly production. The book performs what I find most interesting about law and humanities scholarship: a critique and genealogy of what exists and then a gesture towards ways of existing differently. The gesture here is seeded by the diagnosis of what it is that narcocapitalism suppresses – loosed selves that are uncontainable to a single, stable identity.
Ray Williams wrote often on the demonisation of the masses as a “giddy multitude” that is both a “hydra-headed monster” and a “headless multitude.” 1 The logic of narcocapitalism continues this strategy, De Sutter argues, by suppressing unstable and unpredictable beings through the regulation of spaces of unseen collective activity (night-time and nightclubs) and the regulation of people whose being fizzes out into the world without a proper sense of borders. My excess use of the “un” prefix now also suggests the deviancy and deconstruction inherent to spilling outside of the self and mixing with others. Rather than being simply a history of narcotic intervention into human psyches, De Sutter is making an argument for the political potential in the excitation of the crowd, in which he locates a negation of the nullifying properties of being fixed to one regulated and stable self. In the crowd, different and constantly changing ways of being are possible. In fact, difference and instability are the principles of the crowd – hydra-headed and headless at once, symphony and cacophony, disintegration and creation, the ontology of the crowd is the embrace of the inescapability of relations without the mediation of settled identities and statuses.
I am reminded of other recent work, much of it encountered at the LLHAA conference, including (but not limited to) Olivia Barr’s work on how law and colonialism move through each other in space, Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos’s work on spatial justice, and Christine Black’s work on Indigenous law’s ways of being that may be better able to grapple with emergent forms of artificial being. Jana Norman’s PhD project on post-human legal subjects is also shaking up the assumptions of the autonomous, rational legal subject. And of course there is the intellectual lineage of Deleuze and Guattari, Haraway, Butler, Grosz, Bennett and countless others to contend with. This work is attentive to the materiality of contact between beings and to the negotiations of how to be in a space amongst others. The question of law in all this is that law has often settled our place within space in unjust ways and that this settlement must be shaken loose.
The new world is always frustratingly hazy and philosophical gestures to ways of being that we currently do not have are necessarily vague. What would they look like? How do we get there? Is it practicable? We have to ask the questions from inside the framework that created the world that currently exists and somehow build a bridge to one that currently does not. Returning to my earlier point about building spaces and connections despite futility and impermanence, the exciting thing about this community (or crowd) of scholars is that if we think, write and do enough, repetition may catalyse into difference.
A more detailed response to Laurent de Sutter’s Narcocapitalism will be forthcoming on Justine Poon’s blog at tangleduniverse.wordpress.com