Part III: The Scent and the Missing Body

Geraldine Jorge
“To wonder if the world is real is to fail to understand what one is saying, since the world is not a sum of things that one could always cast into doubt, but precisely the inexhaustible reservoir from which things are drawn.”1

Into the absence of scent and sense flow representations–inanimate concepts flow like hydrogen sulfide through the cavity of a missing body–

Computation, reaching towards infinitude, has only troubled this further by increasing the flow of representations to a dizzying effect. Fact-check “sources” must themselves be fact-checked. The epistemic onus posed by the distance between the subject and “objective” truth begins, paradoxically, to resemble Achilles’ impossible foot-race with the tortoise.2

“Every removal of distance on the earth brings with it an increasing distancing of the human being from the earth, thus estranging the human being from it…Modern technology de-terrestrializes human life.”3

Those who think they can keep up will be outrun to exhaustion. The estrangement bewilders–“It is too complicated to form an opinion one way or another”–and when pressured at last to do something, the subject reacts rather than acts.

Deleuze and Guattari’s pre-imperial, tribal, social body could at least trace its inscriptions back onto the earth–tattoos, sacral4 geography, the immanence of those not currently living or present.5 This pre-imperial social body (or “socius”) perhaps coincides with Byung-Chul Han’s concept of mythical time, which takes the metaphorical form of an image.

Just as images allow the eye free movement between and around fixed points of interest, myths allowed for a rich range of understandings regarding oneself and one’s community in relation to universally-given, centuries-old mythical figures and archetypes. In comparison, post-imperial history took the form of a two-dimensional line, directing the viewer’s eye forward in a single direction.6

The contemporary breakdown of a single, consensual, consensus reality has restored the third dimension, albeit without the anchoring nonpareils of mythic time. We are free to connect the dots any which way, although–as Merleau-Ponty suggests–the shape of our understanding will ultimately be influenced by our particular embodiment, whether we are conscious of it or not.

“In all revolutions there are some members of the privileged class who join the revolutionary class, and some oppressed individuals who remain loyal to the privileged class. And every nation has its traitors. This is because nation or class are neither fatalities that subjugate the individual from the outside, nor for that matter values that he posits from within. They are, rather, modes of coexistence that solicit him.”7

Like different languages, each mode of coexistence implies its own understanding and re-presentation–of the world, of time, of history, of the excess of being.8 Identities branch from identities reactively and antagonistically, each offering a particular and often plausible interpretation of history.9 Even the well-intentioned designation “people of conscience”–”conscience” being a qualifier–merely names, in practice, another identity, a particular group of individuals sharing particular experiences conditioned largely or in part by the specifics and similarities of their embodiments.

We must consider our own points-of-view, writes Merleau-Ponty, as a consequence of how we are thrown into the world (i.e., how we find ourselves in it) and how that matters to us, instead of as any epistemically preponderant marker of objective reality.10

Ultimately, the solicitations of institutions and revolutions alike are solicitations of bodies towards ways of coexisting. We evolve because we’ve survived. We evolve to bear witness.11 Every language is an attunement that has been centuries and countless bodies in the making–yet ironically, the age of the Gutenberg printing press allowed the vernacular only the Bible.

Towards a truly unhinged autonomy, perhaps a new epistemic basis altogether is required: one which is not arbitrary and easily exploited by power; one which does not require re-presentation by a mediating institution; yet one which is nevertheless accessible to and inclusive of all.

In The Scent of Time, Byung-Chul Han designates reflection–vita contemplativa–as a necessary counterpart to work–vita activa–the latter of which is too often mere reaction in the absence or weakness of the former. Reflective lingering, argues Han, is necessary if we are to regain a sustainable sense of orientation–what Han calls the scent of time.

“Whoever is not capable of stopping and pausing has no access to what is altogether different. Experience transforms.”12

Han then quotes later Heidegger:

“To undergo an experience with something–be it a thing, a person, or a god–means that this something befalls us, strikes us, comes over us, overwhelms and transforms us.”13

If we allow the tortoise, trailing infinitude, its lead, what settles into the space between where it is and where we are? What suddenly strikes or comes over us? What new narratives take scent and sense? Narration requires distinction and selection.14

“Work, ultimately, aims at domination and assimilation. It destroys the distance to things. The contemplative gaze, by contrast, goes easy on them, letting them be in their own space or radiance…Contemplation without violence, the source of all the joy of truth, presupposes that he who contemplates does not absorb the object into himself.”15

To what extent do works, that is, “finished” pieces of art or writing, dominate or assimilate?16I pause in reflection before what I am writing, knowing there is no right move, but so many–infinitely many–wrong ones.17

In this third and final posting, I have been especially and intentionally abstruse. What I hope to suggest, despite (or perhaps even merely “alongside”) the epistemic monopoly of “objective” truth and fact, is something truly novel and radical–yet I worry due to its delicate nature and the gaucheness of my own hand, that any overworking will quickly yield the opposite effect. My previous posts, if I have been successful, will have hopefully illuminated and re-presented possibilities for existing both in our own bodies as well as within composite bodies with others. My hope is that, in light of these wanderings, we might remember to allow experience–and our experience of others–to transform us in the radical way Han described, towards a sort of “continual conceptual rebellion”–not just creatively, but socially and hermeneutically as well (i.e., in how we interpret the world, our own and collective history).

“[Leslie Scalapino’s work] was a manifestation of what she termed ‘continual conceptual rebellion.’ ‘Continual conceptual rebellion’ is a means of outrunning the forces that would re-form (conventionalize) one. If you stay in one place too long, you’ll be taken over–either by your own fixating ideas or by those of others. To survive one must always be outrunning what she called ‘the destruction of the world.”18

As with forensic method–for such a method seems apropos in the hollow of a missing consensual consensus reality–perhaps the scent and sense of a body is an apt place to start. We will begin with the recovery of our own bodies and thus our own forgotten or repressed truths, but ultimately our investigation must culminate with the recovery of the body of the other, as well as that of the collective body.

What if every song sung was like a literary autopsy All my songs are literary autopsies!19

1. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, translated by Donald A. Landes (London: Routledge, 2012) 360. 2. See Zeno’s paradoxes regarding infinity: 3. Byung-Chul Han, The Scent of Time, translated by Daniel Steuer (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017) 20. 4. “Sacral” also in the sense of “spinal” 5. 6. This is the shape of “manifest destiny” and other teleologies of “progress”. 7. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 380. 8. See previous post, “Part II: The Stringfellow Hypothesis.” 9. Isn’t all history interpretation? 10. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 366. This isn’t to argue that there is nothing like objective truth–on the contrary I believe Merleau-Ponty would agree that it is precisely by considering others’ points-of-view that we can hope to arrive closer to it. 11. See previous post, “Part I: The Image of Necessity.” 12. Han, The Scent of Time, 104. 13. Ibid. 14. Ibid., 26. 15. Ibid., 76. 16. When is a work really “finished”? How often is the draft versus finalized status determined by factors external to the work and artist? 17. See previous post, “Part I: The Image of Necessity.” 18. Tom Cheetham quotes the late Lyn Hejinian in his book All the World an Icon: Henry Corbin and the Angelic Function of Beings. 19. Excerpts from spoken word poetry performed by Lydia Lunch during her 2023 tour.

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