Thesis 5. On Handling

We be/hold an advenience by handling it. But to handle something is not the same as using it. The handling proposed by an aesthetics of politics regards microcultural practices of arrangement and disposition. In this respect, an aesthetics of politics proposes that our handling of the advenience of an appearance projects our handling of one another. Another term we might use to indicate our handling of one another is practices of governance.

OUR ENGAGEMENT WITH THE WORLD of appearances involves a handling that regards the abilities of peoples, things, and events to interact and interface with those aspectual somethings that strike. The world is replete with practices of handling: the leaf handles the parasite, the concierge handles the package, the wind handles the spore, the painter handles the brush, the factory worker handles the minimum wage, the algorithm handles the data, the camera handles the film, the beholder handles the appearance, and (most importantly) vice versa: the brush handles the painter like the keyboard handles the writer; the film handles the camera like the ink handles the pen; the spore handles the wind like the string handles the guitar. Handling is a microcultural practice that expresses the persistence of incipient trajectories of awareness and immersion. A central contention of an aesthetics of politics, therefore, regards the handling of adveniences and how such handlings mutually inflect our handling of one another. Rather than an epistemological handling that commands an argumentative dogmatism vis-à-vis one’s political engagements with others, an aesthetics of politics commends a curatorial regard for our handlings of the adveniences of appearances.

Our practices of handling make explicit the political question of certainty: what is it that we want to remonstrate when we be/hold an advenience? But to be fair to our microcultural practices of handling, we must resist the epistemic urge to associate one’s interface with objects with the specification of an object’s identity or function. An act of handling is less a skill or a techne than an occurrence. A handling arises from what the philosopher Martin Heidegger refers to as our “concernful dealings” with the world and those things, peoples, and events that populate it.[1] Thus a dealing, or a handling (both these words are translations of Heidegger’s Umgang) is not a cognitive activity, though this does not mean it is unreflective either. Rather, a handling regards our abilities to engage objects beyond our interest in them. Heidegger’s insistence on handling wants to resist the urge to reduce one’s dispositions to the world in terms of interest. One does not handle something because one is interested in it, or because it is useful. The microcultural practices of handling that speak to our curatorial attentions to the world regard that which moves in and through one’s be/holdings.

Let’s invoke an example from an activity most of us partake in when reading: that of highlighting, or underlining—that is, the practice and act of indexing—what we sense as relevant in a work. What is it that compels us to underline the passage we do underline when we underline a passage in a book? What is it about that sentence, or phrase, or utterance that we wish to emphasize when underscoring a notable passage? The rendering remarkable through highlighting is a handling. When marking a passage we remark to ourselves (or others) “pay attention to this; be impressed by it, as I have been impressed.” By marking our absorptions, we render the passage remarkable. The highlighted passage becomes something that stands out, an appearance that advenes and impresses on our curatorial attentions.

We can give many interested answers as to why the passage does stand out, or ought to. It may be the thesis of an essay, or a particularly useful formulation of a problem, or the infamous “what’s at stake” conclusion of an argument. But all these explanations merely suggest that we bear a capacity for remarking that allows us to exact a passage of note. And to say this is merely to say that our curatorial dispositions render us appraisers. Any other reader can and might underline any other passage for any other reason; the content of the passage does not count as evidence for one’s emphasis because that content may change whenever we read a work anew. And if you want an example, just go back to a book you’ve read more than once and see if the passages you underlined then are the same as the ones you underlined a few years later, or would underline today.

What this suggests is that the sole source of purpose for work is not its informational value: it is not the bearer of intention (whether authorial or otherwise). There is nothing in the text that tells me that I must highlight this passage here, or that part of the text there, or the passage on the next page. A passage strikes me and I highlight it for a million reasons; but the work itself does not instruct on the value and site of its own interest. The inconstancy of the work is such that it is not interested in accounting for its use. Hence the force behind Heidegger’s own insistence that “no matter how sharply we just look [Nur-noch-hinsehen] at the ‘outward appearance’ [“Aussehen”] of Things in whatever form it takes, we cannot discover anything ready-to-hand. If we look at Things just ‘theoretically,’ we cannot get along without understanding ready-to-hand. But when we deal with them by using them and manipulating them, this activity is not a blind one; it has its own kind of sight, by which our manipulation is guided and from which it acquires its specific Thingly character.”[2] In other words, handling invokes a be/holding that is not myopic in its orientation toward interest or use.

Rather, the kind of attention we are calling be/holding arises at the moment when the interest of an object is disrupted or interrupted, like Heidegger’s famous broken hammer. The terms he uses to refer to this disruption are “conspicuousness,” “obtrusiveness,” and “obstinacy.” Each of these terms refers to an interruption in one’s relation to an object, where one feels helpless toward the object because it is somehow out of joint and no longer available in the manner to which one is accustomed. “The tool,” he says, “turns out to be damaged or the material unusable.”[3] We are absorbed by the object’s broken handling, at which point an entire universe opens itself up to us. Handling exists within a universe of disinterest and our concernful awareness arises from the interface with disinterested things; this is because once disinterested, they are freed from purposiveness.

Think back to the highlighting example and how the underscored passage breaks the presupposed totality of the work; and now think of how anxious many of us feel about marking a book for the first time, or about that first scuff on a brand new pair of shoes. We are anxious of disrupting its newness by marking it because once a part is underscored, the object no longer feels like a unity. There now are marks that parse it. We might put the matter this way: our concernful attention to the advenience of a passage that is remarkable in a piece of writing underscores the partiality of the work and makes available to our attentions aspects that would otherwise go unremarked if the work were a presupposed totality. As a part, the highlighted passage is a site of absorption: it just stands out and draws us in in such a way that any appeal to a specific interest in the work seems unreliable or, indeed, unnecessary. Or rather, our attention to that which stands out in a work is not justifiable in terms of necessity, causality, or function. That we may then make use of an underscored passage—for professional purposes, to give comfort to our woes, or to provide evidence for a developing argument—does not deny the fact that at the moment of its incipient advenience, it remains disinterested.

It is in this sense that we understand handling as active rather than passive, as a political activity of be/holding as well as a microcultural practice of interface that extracts us from the conventional logic of interest. The practices of handling we attend to in an aesthetics of politics procure an instance of disinterest that monstrously disfigures our conventions of attachment, as well as our habits of living (i.e., in the case of our example, we can no longer read the work in the same way after highlighting the text). At a very basic but fundamental level, the advenience of disinterest regards the ingression of a mode of monstrance that strikes at us and affords an attention to the appearance of things—not, that is, to explain them, but rather to concern ourselves with them. In this regard, a handling’s disinterest bespeaks a curatorial absorption with the world.