Thesis 2. On Be/holding

Be/holding is the bearing of the burden of resistance that the advenience of an appearance introduces. To be/hold does not suggest a passive viewership: it designates an active participation in the curatorial handling of an appearance’s ingression. To be/hold is to look, but it is also a holding up to view, or a handling as a view, of that which bodies forth: it is to look but also to hold an appearance in regard. Be/holding thus regards an absorptive attention to the world that is a basic concern for an aesthetics of politics.

WE ARE ACCUSTOMED to those disenchantments that associate the terms “beholding,” “absorption,” and “spectatorship” with a condition of subjugation imposed by societies of the spectacle. The spectator is subjugated to a kind of imagistic power akin to a burning bush whose influence illumines and designates a moral code. In many accounts of the aesthetics of politics that desire to expose the lie of the image, the structure and shape of spectatorship remains at the level of propagandistic indoctrination so that all appearances operate like a Madison Avenue advertisement; as if, once again, all appearances exist and work within a unitary and universal structure of interest. This mode of handling the image was first discovered by the Byzantine iconoclasts who disseminated a fear of the image’s collusive effects.[1] Today, such handlings are also carriers of an inegalitarian pedagogy, rigidly partitioned between those who can know (i.e., the critic) and those who cannot know (i.e., the audience) the truth of the image.

But as Machiavelli advised long ago, political actors have always been handlers of appearances, partaking in an appearance’s advenience. The advenience of the appearance thus resists this iconoclastic line of disenchantment. It is no doubt true that we live in a time besieged by appearances; it is equally true that we always have lived in such times. The proliferation of appearances, like the proliferation of words, is a feature of political life in general; and the alarmist response that wants to halt the flow of images and words, as well as the improper intermingling of words with images, is as prolific and enduring as the practices of image circulation themselves.

In contrast, the diacritical slash we insert in the word be/holding wants to signal a pluralized sense of spectatorship as at once a “regarding,” a “bearing,” and a “tending to.” Here we are reminded of Robert Warshow’s ruminations (writing in 1954) on going to the movies: “I go to the movies for the same reason that the ‘others’ go: because I am attracted to Humphrey Bogart or Shelley Winters or Greta Garbo; because I require the absorbing immediacy of the screen; because in some way I take all that nonsense seriously.”[2]

A be/holding is a curatorial mood that tends to the ways in which the multitudinous practices endured for bearing the frictions of an advenience are taken seriously (see “Thesis 7: On Interface”). It is not merely a looking, then, but a holding up to view, or the supporting of a view—as a frame supports the canvas or a screen supports a film projection. It is basic to the idea of democratic citizenship that individuals are said to have views. But this is a misnomer; a view is not something you have, it is something you bear for others to be/hold.

Hence the structure of interface that emerges with the advenience of an appearance: As we have already suggested, an advenience is an intangibility unavailable to our indexical impulses. We might conclude that we cannot hold an advenience; and yet we be/hold it, we attend to it. We bear the burden of a prurience that an advenience provokes: the prurience of at once wanting to make our sense of conviction of the appearance explicit, and not having at our disposal a shared structure of interest (or a consensus) that we might access as the source for confirming a shared appeal. In short, our be/holding an advenience is not the same as possessing an insight about its truth or meaning.

Be/holding does not mark a possession but rather an intangible hapticity, a dispossession. There is no concrete validity here because neither the be/holder, nor the maker, nor the object holds the power to dictate a mode of subjectivity appropriate to an advenience. Indeed, it cannot, because the instant of advenience is not determined by any necessary cause or relation. To be absorbed by the advenience of an appearance is thus precisely not to be “taken in” (or duped) by the image. Rather, the experience of an absorptive be/holding affords an interval in subjectivity that emerges at the instant of advenience. An advenience thus does not presuppose a voyeur; rather, it commends acts of regard, or practices of handling (see “Thesis 5: On Handling”). An aesthetics of politics thus takes aesthetic experience as relevant to political life because our microcultural practices of interface with aesthetic objects source our “practices of governance” of one another.[3] To the extent that we are all advening appearances to one another, the manners, attitudes, and forms of handling we enlist to be/hold appearances is of central concern to our understandings of the forces of collectivity that make a political handling-with-others at once thinkable and possible.

As advening appearances to one another, we are all partial luminosities. This means that the be/holder is not directed by any specific form of subjectivity, nor determined by any one picture of humanness. Be/holding is not a subject position assigned by the appearance forcing itself on me, and advenience is not a force of imposition. But it is an effrontery. Indeed, the dislocation of subjectivity ushered by an advenience makes any figuration of the subject impossible. We cannot know in advance the shape, disposition, or nature of a be/holder because the principle of nonnecessity that structures the emergence of an advenience denies us the capacity of predicting what human subjectivity will be like. Objects can be be/holders as much as people can; and people can be adveniences as much as objects can. There is a fundamental indistinction here between human and nonhuman.[4] Simply put, the be/holder is not human, but a human something; and as a something, the be/holder has no privileged stance, or stake, or access to the advenience. The be/holder is not he or she that knows the advenience and thus can speak its truth. Rather, the be/holder is an indeterminate emergence that arises at the interval of the advenience’s ingression. We might say this: the be/holder and the advenience are becomings emergent from the event of interface.

The punctuality of an advenience procures a suspension of subjectivity whose resistance we handle through our practices of be/holding. Rather than being a disenchanted term of collusion, therefore, be/holding regards an indeterminate posture of attention one holds vis-à-vis a world that advenes. To be concerned with be/holding is thus to invite a curatorial mood into our political reflections by giving emphasis to the capacity for an active spectatorship that views and handles a point of view, that interfaces with it, bears it, and brings it into view—or projects it—for others to be/hold. The experience of be/holding discomposes our sensibilities and compels a reconfiguration of our affinities—not only with ourselves and the world, but also between ourselves and others. The diverse practices of be/holding are thus a central site of reflection for an aesthetics of politics.