“Sundays / of rain.”
Vitruvius presenting De Architectura to Augustus. From Vitruvius on Archtitecture by Thomas Gordon Smith, 1864
From Evening Will Come:
Julie Carr: And how about happiness?
Lisa Robertson: Well, I’m not sure that pleasure and happiness are always necessarily aligned, but at an earlier period of my life I might have thought that was so.
Happiness is something that Ruskin talks about a lot in The Seven Lamps of Architecture, and in various essays on architecture. He talks about one of the goals of architecture as being happiness. I think this probably comes from his readings of Vitruvius—and Vitruvius’s claim that architecture ought to first of all be commodious—commodious not necessarily meaning “big,” but commodious in the sense of architectural form being a space for human conviviality, exploration, and well-being. Those were all ideas that I found interesting to talk and think about.
I don’t think I’ve been that aware of poets or literary critics talking about happiness as a criteria. Especially in contemporary leftist avant-garde practices there’s been such a kind of pedanticism about what literary texts ought to achieve politically, and often that has to do with breaking down pleasure, foreclosing identificatory pleasure, which is seen as ideologically complicit. I’m giving a kind of caricature of a theory, but from a Brechtian perspective, say, the breaking down of an observer/reader identificatory participation in a text or a narrative tends to be looked at as being politically efficient, as a way to block or problematize normative political narratives.
JC: As if pleasure is always necessarily aligned with power…
LR: Sure. But in feminist film criticism in the early 80s there was a reconsideration of that repudiation of pleasure and identification. Theresa De Lauretis and Laura Mulvey were two critics I was reading in the late 80s. In Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema Laura Mulvey looks at Douglas Sirk and the Hollywood “Women’s Picture” and reclaims narrative and identification from the point of view of a specifically female embodied politics, which centered on pleasure as the source of political agency. That film criticism, which was circulating quite intensively in the feminist visual art circles in Vancouver in the 80s and early 90s, was what I really grabbed on to, and from there the movement into Judith Butler’s early work, Gender Trouble. She’s talking about gender as a self-fashioning that can be claimed, chosen, rather than as an imposed power over. Self-fashioning becomes a decisive reshaping of gendered experience. And what was also coming up critically in that same era was Stephen Greenblatt’s early work in Renaissance studies, Renaissance Self Fashioning and Joel Fineman’s Shakespeare’s Perjured Eye. Renaissance studies was really exploding around the New Historicism in the early 90s and I was reading all of that with a great deal of pleasure, so thinking of all of those sorts of self-fashioning pleasure-positions…
JC: You were talking about Foucault earlier, and it makes me think of his “What is Enlightenment?” where he talks very specifically about the politics of self-fashioning. The ability to look at the self as an object of art, something that can be made, that is always being remade, would lead naturally to the ability to see the institutions that make up the self also as available for rethinking or remaking. This is a very hopeful essay written toward the end of his life. He seems to be referencing the gay liberation movement specifically, but the argument is definitely translatable into any liberatory politics.
LR: Yes. In the past few months I’ve been reading a historian of ancient philosophy who was a colleague of Foucault’s, a guy named Pierre Hadot. Much of Hadot’s work is about the Epicurean and the early Atomist philosophers (the Hellenist school). His thesis is that for these philosophers, philosophy was not conceived as or intended to be a discourse; it was a quotidian practice upon the self. The only reason to embark on a life of philosophical practice was to transform the self, and here the self is not considered in a closed, personal 19th or 20th century sense, but in an open social sense. Subjectivity is radically pliable and receptive to collective practices. Of course one of the main thrusts of Epicurus’s philosophy is to learn how not be afraid of death, how to expand the experience of the present into a plenitude that is not organized around an end-thinking or a fearfulness but around an open embrace of embodiment. Not necessarily excess. Actually not excess. One of Hadot’s books is called Philosophy as a Way of Life. I learned about this relationship between Foucault and Hadot in part through Denise Riley, the British poet and philosopher, and in part through the historian of late Classicism, Peter Brown, who is also looking at philosophy as a practice rather than a discourse.
JC: There’s a stanza I like a lot from the poem “A Hotel”: “I believe my critique of devastation began with delight / now what surprises me are the folds of political desire / their fragile nobility. Sundays / of rain.” This seems to speak to the relationship between political agency or urgency and pleasure. But now as we are talking, pleasure starts to sound like it’s own little thing, like we have pleasure over here and then we have life, but instead we can think of pleasure as a life, a life that is enjoying itself.
LR: Yeah, a life that is affirming life.
JC: Now I feel we’ve already begun to answer this question, but I’ll ask you to consider it anyway. What is Utopia? [Laughter] You’ve been using that word at least as far back as I’ve been reading you. It’s in every book, I think.
LR: I used to prefer the term Dystopia because, I don’t know, it seemed less soft or something.
LR: Yeah. How can I put this? My idea of Utopia is not that it’s an elsewhere, a non-situated elsewhere to strive towards, nor that it’s contained only within an imaginative projection. Utopia could be instead considered almost in phenomenological terms as a sensed present.
I have the feeling that political transformation has to be situated in what we are already in the midst of experiencing. The repudiation of the present, of sensing and of relationship, which is the present, is uninteresting and flattened out. There’s a plenitude of unrepresented agency already existent. The present is materially infinite.
JC: Does this have anything to do in your thinking with Walter Benjamin’s—with Jewish Messianism’s—idea of “now-time”?
LR: I’m not familiar with that aspect of Benjamin.
JC: You know that phrase from his Theses on History: “every moment is a strait gate through which the Messiah might enter” – so it’s that idea that the present moment is or could be the Messianic arrival.