Schizoanalysis opens up new alliances (approximations) in the uneasy overlaps of neurodiversity and black life.
“What can we learn through an aesthetics of black sociality about other ways of undercommoning?”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Erin Manning. Manning is Professor in the Faculty of Fine Arts at Concordia University. Her book is For a Pragmatics of the Useless.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Erin Manning: For a Pragmatics of the Useless commits to two interoperative problems. The first is that of “the representation of the useful,” or the ubiquitous notion of value/productivity. The concept of value that undergirds capital, and in the same gesture whiteness and neurotypicality, is confronted with a schizoeconomics. Schizoecomics comes from the important practice of schizoanalysis, in my mind the most generative engagement with neurodiversity – a true practice for living differently with difference. Schizoanalysis is a mode of therapeutic/political engagement proposed by Felix Guattari and Jean Oury in the context of the La Borde clinic. It is an offshoot of institutional psychotherapy, a practice often associated with Frantz Fanon, whose work in many ways has echoes of schizoanalysis (both Fanon and Oury/Guattari were influenced by François Tosquelles). The book proposes schizoanalysis as up to this task because of its commitment to attune to practices that (re)condition experience. The schizz of schizoanalysis is an interruptive cut that creates the conditions for a reconfiguration of the field. Schizoanalysis schizzes the field, opening it to new resonances. This is how For a Pragmatics of the Useless engages with the current political and social climate – by exploring how practice opens up new alliances (approximations) in the uneasy overlaps of neurodiversity and black life. In doing so, the book underscores the deeply embedded neurotypicality through which whiteness finds expression, exploring the effects of this in the university and in everyday systemic racism and ableism.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
The ways in which neurotypicality moves through our environments are often backgrounded by a more identitarian frame. What I mean by this is that it can be easy to overlook the ways in which neurotypicality structures an environment, even when the environment is one that systemically refuses racism, or sexism. What are the practices in the environment that support neurotypical modes of functioning, neurotypical modalities of knowing?
Do you foreground language over other modes of engagement? Do you sit in circles, privileging frontality? What modes of “passing” have become ubiquitous in that context?
Do you emphasize self-mastery over relation? Are norms reimposed and policed?
“What modes of “passing” have become ubiquitous?
In the context of whiteness, is there an emphasis on the “ally” and if so, what is presupposed in that embodiment? What modes of value are at work? What else can be learned about value from the ways in which we value each other? How does usefulness represent itself? Is there a preestablished criterion of what’s useful or meaningful rather than a continual open process of rethinking? Are there practices for that rethinking/renegotiation?
Philosophically, is there an opening toward the speculative? What conditions might be put in place to explore the radical edges of the pragmatic? Do we too quickly assume we know the shape of our environments? What practices could be set in place to encounter the shape of existence differently?
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
For a Pragmatics of the Useless is full of questions. It ends on a proposition that in every sense of the word could be considered a failure: SenseLab worked for several years to create an altereconomy that has yet to come to fruition. In that process there have been heartaches and much confusion. Perhaps we can unlearn success?
The opposite of the pragmatics of the useless is the representation of the useful. This is important because we might otherwise believe you could have a pragmatics of the useful. The useful is never alive at the experimental level. The useful is value sedimented. Its form is always based on preexisting categories, honed into existence through a neurotypical/white frame. It’s always a brittle imposition on existence. A pragmatics of the useless is a call for a revaluing of value that doesn’t seek to hold value down, to make it count, to give it property and propriety. In this sense, a pragmatics of the useless must always be a failure, a refusal of what institutionalizes, of any fundamental settling-in-place, of any ideology or system. The value of the useless is in the probing of experimentally incipient functions. It is a value activated in the event of practice, in experimentation, a valuation invented in the mix. This mode of valuation does not evaluate from the outside, does not impose criteria. It questions, pushes, pulls, orients, always in the concern for how an event shapes existence.
SenseLab, which makes up roughly half of the book, could be described as a history of pragmatically useless failures. Practice is not about finding the way – but about exploring other ways. It’s full of uneasiness. Whitehead speaks of the aesthetic in its strongest form (Beauty) as discord. Discord privileges dissonance. What if we attuned more to the dissonance, to the differential in what I call the “approximation of proximity”? What if we were less certain of what makes a difference?
The useless is hard. Nothing in my experience prepared me for it. Perhaps this is what I unlearn as I write and practice: how to be useful.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
I learn so much from Felix Guattari. I love that his practices overlap – he engages philosophically, politically, therapeutically. La Borde is a beacon for other modes of therapeutic intervention. Today, it has lost some of the edge Guattari brought to it, but his writings (however obtuse some of them are!) do give me a sense that the schizoanalytic can be practiced today in the context of emergent collectivity. Friedrich Nietzsche is always with me: “was that life? Well then, once more!” I am also deeply influenced by Alfred North Whitehead whose process philosophy turns the world on its head, refuting the human as central pivot. With Whitehead comes the rest of process philosophy – Gilles Deleuze, Brian Massumi, Isabelle Stengers, Henri Bergson, William James, Gilbert Simondon, Baruch Spinoza. Impossible to think without them! Saidiya Hartman, Fred Moten, Stefano Harney also accompany my thinking wherever I go. What I love about Fred and Stefano’s work is how it touches the nerve of sociality, activating the concept in ways that refute neurotypicality (and whiteness). Saidiya is fearless! Her work carries such deep, intense voicings, bringing alive those ways of thinking that we need to rehearse, together.
“The schizoanalytic can be practiced today in the context of emergent collectivity.”
Amongst the autistics from whom I learn – Melanie Yergeau for her incredible humor and her politics of refusal, Mel Baggs for the clarity of thought around the limits of language, Adam Wolfond (and Estee Klar) for their commitment to practices that allow for other ways of knowing, Tito Mukhopadhyay and DJ Savarese for their incisive poetry. I am also accompanied by DeafBlind poet John Lee Clark, whose pivotal concept of distantism has turned me toward ProTactile and all it makes thinkable (including the impossibility of speaking alone). As an artist, I am moved, always, by Lygia Clark, whose work really is a call to practice. And Cecilia Vicuña, whose engagement with materials has a feel like no other. And Catherine de Zegher, as a curator who really works with artists to bring out what most processually moves across their work. There are many others, but I want to end with Edouard Glissant whose thinking has accompanied for the past two decades. It is my strongest wish to live up to the consent not to be a single being.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
The book turns on a refrain – “black life is neurodiverse life,” and it is through this refrain that new worlds might be imagined. What other modes of existence might be possible should we take seriously that there is no adjacency of black life with neurotypicality, and that whiteness is neurotypical through and through? How is experience changed when we foreground the sideways sociality of neurodiversity? What can we learn through an aesthetics of black sociality about other ways of undercommoning?
I often think about Gilles Deleuze’s notion of “belief in the world,” a deeply Nietzschean proposition (“was that life? Well then, once more!”) that speaks to the world’s potential for change. For a Pragmatics of the Useless sees Black Studies as a site where this question particularly resounds and asks how black study challenges us to rethink belief in the world from a perspective of the earth, an ethico-aesthetic orientation, a poetics of relation.
“Black life is neurodiverse life.”
A belief in the world requires a worlding. The central question of the book – “how else can we live?” – is a radically empirical one. That is to say, it composes pragmatically and speculatively at once. “How else can we live” is not about the future. It’s about the ways in which an excess on itself of living accompanies us. It is about how worldings expose us to the more-than of our-selves. It is about a concept of relation that refuses to reduce itself to interaction, relation as the quality of existence that makes us but that cannot be reduced to us. This is how I understand an aesthetics of black sociality, a mode of existence neurodiverse in its appetite for minor sociality, for more-than human modes of existence. New worlds germinate here, in the interstices where relation exceeds the sum of our parts.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA, and an Affiliate Scholar at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, where he directs the Race, Bioethics, and Public Health Project. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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