Symptomatology: IV. Strange Agency
An old friend writes from Spain to remind me that bodily knowledge is always knowledge of beauty. Do we think cancer makes us uglier? Is this the power that it holds over us? Is this why it shames us?
When we look at an object and wonder aloud whether or not it “is art” we really mean to say, “Is it beautiful?” Criticism of the kind that I both practice and teach typically suspends these questions, declining matters of beauty and value. I seek, instead, to interrogate what my objects do, how they act when I interact with them. In the classroom, I encourage students who ask me about value by asking about “art” to rethink their premises. Art, I propose, is nothing more and nothing less than what we set in a frame.
This smallest of definitions is not, I hope, as glib as it first seems. To frame an object is to remove it from the everyday. The frame, as Jacques Derrida posits, is like a DMZ, simultaneously belonging and not belonging to both the work and the wall on which it hangs. Yet where it partakes of both domains, it allows no exchange between them. Frames, then, are the markers of difference as such. They exist to show us that works of art do not belong to our world, our life. Art’s ways, frames tell us, are not our own.
Cancer too is something set aside. While the cells that make it up are our own, their relentless multiplication transforms them something other, something alien. Its fatality is its frame, a looming menace that promises to foreclose the growth of both invader and host. While it would be dangerous to aestheticize cancer, it may be the case that cancer shares certain properties with aesthetic objects. If so, it is certainly not in Kantian terms, where that which we deem beautiful can have no bearing on our lives. Cancer is other, monstrously other, but it affects us all the same.
No, cancer is not disinterested; it approaches aesthetics only through its power to upset. Viktor Shlovsky, oddly anticipating Wittgenstein, argued in 1917 that art serves primarily to jolt us out of our ordinary way of doing things. Imagine walking through a dark room, one you pass cross every night. You know your path so well that you never turn on the lights. Tonight, however, someone has moved the ottoman and you stumble over it, banging your toe and bruising your knee. The pain of unexpected discovery shocks us, but it also forces us to rethink the way we move through the world. This, Shlovsky holds, is what art does: By estranging us from everyday experience it contests the habitual, returning actions that have become unconscious to the thinking mind.
The body comes to know itself in pain, and in pain it begins to learn what it can do. With this knowledge comes the awareness – however subtle – that the body is made up of bodies, bodies that act on and with one another. In the absence of my thyroid, my countless small bodies will rearrange themselves around the void. They will find new paths of their own, new ways of mourning in the face of a new loss.
I, for my own part, have already begun to do so. Cancer has upset me, yes, but in upsetting it gives me back my own small power – not power over but power to. I write these words longhand in a teal notebook I had earmarked for poetry, a notebook long left empty. My own habits once inclined me toward stillness and silence. How strange that seems now.
The final symptom of cancer is not death, but action, conscious action.
-Washington, DC, June 23rd-26th, 2014