Robert E. Knoll Lecture Review: Donald Pease

Image: "Underwater City"

Donald Pease of Dartmouth College presented the Robert E. Knoll lecture on March 15, 2016. During his prefatory remarks, Department Chair Marco Abel reminded the crowd assembled for the well-attended event that the Knoll lecture is historically one of the premier events in the Department of English. Indeed, Dr. Pease’s remarkable presentation, “Between the Camp and the Commons: Bio-Political Alter-Geographies in Douglass and Melville,” succeeded in engaging the large crowd in the Bailey Library. The lively Question and Answer session that followed the lecture took the event to the two-hour mark. Dr. Pease’s lecture was first-rate and first-class.

After Dr. Abel’s opening remarks, Dr. Roland Végső described the importance of Dr. Pease to the larger academic community. Paraphrasing Hannah Arendt’s belief that the act of thinking is a voluntary withdrawal from the world, Dr. Végső described Dr. Pease’s ability to connect and support other scholars. Dr. Pease, he said, has a gift for turning thinking into an act of community. In his presence, thinking becomes a communal event. Dr. Pease is the author of several books and numerous articles. Additionally, he is the editor for the New Americanist book series and an authority on Dr. Seuss. To quote Dr. Végső, Dr. Pease is “an academic and a genuine mentor; he is a speaker and a listener.” The audience was also reminded that Dr. Pease’s academic style is full-tilt. His style of argumentation, though accessible, is aggressive and intricate in its construction. What follows is our attempt to summarize the main points of his lecture. We hope people will let us know what we might have missed or short-changed.

At the outset, Pease proposed the term commoning practices as a way of thinking about the role that two nineteenth-century American authors, Frederick Douglass and Herman Melville, played in tapping into a vein of political thought that would ultimately be framed by theorist Michel Foucault and later directly addressed by Giorgio Agamben. Specifically, Pease is interested in Agamben’s arguments about the state of exception, a concept popularized by Carl Schmitt and that justifies the suspension of the rule of law in order to preserve that law. For Agamben, the camps—the notorious death camps of Nazi Germany being the prime example—represent the ultimate manifestation of power. In these places, human life becomes bare; in other words, it is stripped of any and all political force. In the camp, a space is created where power has before it pure biological life without any mediation—where the state of exception has become the rule. This bare life, or Homo Sacer as termed by Agamben, experiences the full force of the law.

Situated in alignment, in juxtaposition, and in contrast to the camp is the theoretical space of the commons. As Pease explained, a renewed interest in the commons has emerged within the field of American literature due to a recent spate of publications. He uncovered the latest track of arguments on this topic. French philosopher Michel Foucault first mentioned bio-politics in a 1976 lecture. In this moment, Foucault treats bio-power as a relatively new form of power. Agamben, on the other hand, looks further into history. He identifies the aforementioned Homo Sacer in ancient Rome as the original cultic core of sovereign power. The sovereign constitutes itself through the identification of the Homo Sacer. There must be some “other” against which the sovereign asserts power. The bare life of the Homo Sacer, a life without any political constitution, remains forever in contrast to the total political power of the sovereign, even when sovereign power becomes dispersed into a more generalized state apparatus.

The state of exception, which can be considered the suspension of the law, can also be considered conversely as a general strike, the time that the sheer potentiality can be realized affectively by Homo Sacer and through which access to the commons can be attained. Here, Dr. Pease transitioned to the concept of the commons as argued by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in their celebrated Empire trilogy. For Hardt and Negri, bio-politics can be construed as a positive, unlike Foucault’s understanding of the concept as the techniques that regulate populations. Bio-power is no longer the site of the control of populations. It is about the creation of new forms of life. But how, then, do we rearticulate the relation between life and power? Hardt and Negri designate the commons as a place where this happens. It is the space for the habitation and production of the multitude, which is the real productive force of social power.

Dr. Pease then referred to Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, who has recently argued that theatrical performance becomes a commoning practice that presents relations of mutual belonging. He also explained the “part of no part,” a concept developed by Jacques Rancière which offers the means whereby the second iteration of the people can emerge as an alternative constituent power that is the life force of commoning practices. Theatrical practices of the “part of the no part” allow for a visibility of the multitude that does not have access to state sovereign power. The common emerges in the empty place of the subject of rights, which allows rights to be taken up by the figure of the “part of no part.” In this moment, rights are claimed by those who have no access to those rights.

Pease then moved to a discussion of Frederick Douglass, particularly his autobiographical narrative My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), which dramatizes the staging of an impossible bio-political subject. In 1841, Douglass was invited to speak at an anti-slavery meeting. Throughout his recollection of the event, Douglass observes the impossibility of recalling his experience as a slave without being recalled into slave geography. In other words, he found it impossible to find a pre-existing subject position. Douglass discusses a fading-out of consciousness, a feeling he struggled to communicate. It is the structure of this feeling that transforms the meaning of his experience. Douglass dis-identified with the bio-political subject—the abolitionists. Freedom’s other—slavery—cleared the ground for an understanding of what freedom is not. The meaning and guarantee of white freedom and equality depended on the presence of the slave. By incarnating, or making visible, freedom’s invisibility, slavery defined the bio-political visibility of freedom. Slavery allowed freedom insofar as it constituted the precondition for its social and discursive practice. At the very moment that Douglass was asked to speak, he was divided into the fugitive slave being asked to speak and the fugitive slave who could not recreate being a slave without returning to the position of slave. This rupture, between an invitation to speak and the corporeal experience of slavery, tethered Douglass to the extreme underside of American freedom. This rupture also proved to be the drive that compelled Douglass to write his narrative. In writing, he represented a people not allowed to speak for themselves—who had no part in the American bio-political order. An alternative subject space was opened in which he was able to improvise.

Image retrieved from

Speaking on the 4th of July, Douglass spoke as a part of the people he addressed, but he never departed from the common human experience. He has no right to speak in the name of rights because he is not a citizen, but he is calling for a change in the order that validates citizenship; he is speaking from a space between. He embodies the impossible position, speaking about the rights he lacks to an audience that has those rights. He always spoke about a people to come; in fact he agitated as a people to come. He was an embodiment and annunciator and in that way generated a commoning practice.

Pease then turned to a notable fictional character who represents, similarly to Frederick Douglass, the staging of an impossible bio-political relationship. Pip, an African-American youth in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), is left in the water as the whaling boat that he has been assigned to assist leaves him in the ocean for an extended period of time. Upon his return, his crewmates discover that he has transitioned into an altered state, which some consider to be madness. Pease argues that when Pip is left in the water, he becomes a life that is not needed for labor and could also not be consumed. Therefore, in this moment he becomes bare life. To elaborate, Pip becomes Derrida’s complete witness who cannot witness. Ishmael, therefore, witnesses the complete witness. Pip cannot tell what he saw because what he saw cannot be processed in speech; there is no filtering ego. Pip’s witness is witnessed by Ishmael, the secondary witness. In a sense, Pip’s complete witness prevents him from returning from his death. He is always a drowned man that, like Ahab’s detached leg, cannot be returned.

After this moment, it is Ahab’s relationship with Pip that proves to be crucial. Ahab derives his rhetorical power in part by being able both to enter the conversation and to control the rules of that conversation. (In this, he can be construed as a sort of proto-Trump.) Not only does Pip escape this influence, he almost breaks Ahab’s will as Pip embodies the excess plentitude that Ahab cannot rule, the real of the social order or the non-symbolizable thing in the social order. This bodily plentitude is the death drive; Pip is the Homo Sacer. He bears witness to a site of a virtual global commons, persisting and insisting in Ahab’s sovereign domain. When Pip offers to be a surrogate for Ahab’s missing leg, he is offering to make Ahab a part of the nothing that is Pip’s existence. Pip as bare life speaks to Ahab as sovereign, the embodiment of the state of exception—the camp—becoming the commons. And in speaking at the site of justice to come, Pip is performing the act of forgiving the man, the sovereign, who will ultimately be responsible for his and everyone’s murder.

#19thcentury #biopowerbiopolitics #danfroid #robertlipscomb #dillonrockrohr

Recent Posts