Nextness and its Discontents


It is ironic that a man who spent years relearning how to speak excluded speech entirely from the technique he developed as a result. Alexander Technique employs touch and internally directed language — langue as the French woud say — but explicitly draws back from any procedure in which the spoken word could be actively investigated. The closest Alexander came to integrating the directions with parole was in a procedure that employed, literally, a whispered “ah.” No intonation, no signifier, no syntax, just the barest appearance of voice conceivable, so as not to distract from the means-whereby an action is undertaken.

I am going to propose a theoretical point at which this line might be crossed while retaining the philosophical advances of the technique, not to institute a new procedure, but rather to come to a better understanding of what is at stake for speech, and for exposition in general, to qualify as realistic.

Our gaze in the mirror revealed that the attempt to organize speech initiates a “withdrawal for others,” such that the meaning to be conveyed and the means of conveying it no longer coincide. To experience language solely at the surface of things, where meaning and means are one, is babble. There is, however, one utterance that begins on the surface of being without being able to remain there.

It has often been remarked that the infant’s call of “mama” conforms morphologically to the action that the infant performs while nursing. The shapes formed by the vocal cavity in making the sound “mama”(or any of its many variants that elude typography) are the very same as those made for rooting and sucking. This perfect onomonopoeia, if I may put it that way, earns our attention because it is effectively “for an other” without involving withdrawal. “Mama” serves as both the call and the kinesethetic action that the call precedes. The child begins nursing by forming the sound and simply continues after the sound has produced the breast (or its substitute: in terms of morphology, it does not matter if the child nurses on a bottle).

Now, from the perspective of Alexander Technique, to voice “ma” is only incrementally more taxing than it is to whisper “ah” — but what a world of difference! The utterance “mama” retains a meaning for an adult that appears quite distant from any exploration of kinesthetic use. Indeed, it would be possible from this observation alone to articulate an intersection between the Alexander Technique and existing psychological traditions, at the threshold where “mama” shifts from utterance to reference.

Be that as it may, the interesting distinction for the ontologist is that the utterance “mama” does change into a reference. Why should this be so? That the morphological unity of utterance and action is temporary does not suffice to explain it. The same could be said, after all, for many animals.

I submit that the difference for humans (though not necessarily only humans) is that we are weaned without having developed the wherewithal to survive. For whatever reason — and here I concur with Meillassoux that the reason is ultimately no reason at all, a random event — the moment of weaning provokes a crisis for which the reflexes are not prepared. It is into this gap, between the objectless utterance of “mama” and physical maturation, that the homo sapien is cast.

(Note: While the present discussion does not depend on it, I subscribe to the theory, based on empirical evidence, that the crisis of weaning stems from an early-stage morphology of the vocal cavity that makes it difficult to swallow without choking.)

When the object corresponding to the utterance “mama” fails to materialize, and reflexes (let us say instincts in general) do not appear to save the day, the child is confronted with a crisis in the form of the question, “What is next?” Moreover, the question itself takes the form of “nextness,” insofar as it is introduced by the very fact of a gap. The event and its content are the same, which is precisely what makes it a crisis. There is only one pre-existing resolution: to utter “mama” again, yet this is what the infant should not do if it is to survive.

The incest taboo would seem to arise directly from this problem. Whatever the next utterance after “mama” should be, whatever the next object should materialize instead of the breast, this pairing emerges as a signifier and signified that, together, signify both “nextness” as such and “do not return to nursing.” Insofar as nextness constitutes the basic structure of exposition, and therefore of labor, including the labor of language, we begin to see why the totem is so often described as the bringer of language and culture. We also begin to see why its advent is untraceable: one is already declaring nextness before deciding to do so.

The resemblance of this passage —  mama to nextness, chora to sequence — to Badiou’s count-as-one, which derives the ordinals from an inconsistent multiple, is quite striking. That this has anything to do with speculative realism, however, is due more to the correlationist claim, which identifies nextness as bound within a circle. The progression is well-known by now. Heidegger’s embrace of the circular launched a tradition in which authenticity was found in the radical nextness of Being toward death. Subsequent philosophies demolished authenticity while retaining the circle, the text outside of which there is nothing. But we have seen that there is something outside the text: it is possible to forego the correlation of thought to telos and so to release the reflexes to their own relations (or lack of them). Moreover, we have identified a technique that, rather than radicalizing nextness as finitude, affirms the ability not to respond to nextness in its presented form.

By “as such,” we mean under any conditions in which gravity prevails, or, to be more scientifically precise, in which mass prevails. We affirm an engagement between thought and mass that is independent of the crisis of nextness. The Alexandrian directions can be invoked in any situation where, as Badiou has reduced it, there are bodies and there is language, with the result that the hermeneutic circle is broken.

It would interesting to compare Morton’s ethical stance on the hyperobject with the engagement of gravity as given here. Where there is thought and mass, a constant can be derived (strangely, a constant concerning Newtonian laws and the axial position of the head) that delivers an ethos: one can be at home with matter.

If a home is a place to which one can always return, we may therefore posit home as a thought — not the Cartesian thought of being, which subjects all extension to doubt, but a thought of mass, which in its constant allows mass to take on its own relations, or lack of them, and so proceeds from a fundamental attitude of trust.

A corollary that immediately follows is that an engagement with gravity is distinct from the crisis of weaning. The earth, to put a finer point on it, is not our mother. Our mothers have names and individual mortalities. We may have lost what was “mama” in our mothers to abjection, but we have not lost our home — nor the women who bore us — to abjection. The generalization does not hold. The earth does not disappear, as the unity of “mama” does. Ecological impoverishment is just as possible as is ecological bounty.

Of course, nextness does not vanish for all that, either. It is a matter of evidence that the startle pattern proper cannot be inhibited. One cannot choose to be unaffected by a thunderclap or a gunshot at close range. It is thus always possible to induce a startle in the name of nextness, and to do so on a chronic basis. This limit yields a political dimension to the Alexander Technique, Althusser’s interpellation being an exemplar, and rhetoric in general the custom. The point obtains for any imperative. A suspended state of emergency in the body politic corresponds to a protracted startle in the political subject. Closer to the present discussion, any philosophy invoking urgency will function in the same way, quite apart from the soundness of its argument.

As we have seen, this is not the only way to proceed. More to the point, it is not a realistic approach. The nature of the problem has shifted, however. We are no longer concened solely with the thought of mass, but also with the contingency of this thought.

It is formally impossible, owing to the principle of non-contradiction, to remove the lien of contingency from the Alexandrian directions. Such a restriction has long been understood by its practitioners, to the extent that they will advise that the directions not be frequently given, so as to avoid any surreptitious enlisting of them toward an end. The directions are meant to be delivered without any urgency of nextness attached.

What then, we might ask, does our investigation tell us about the politics of our investigation? What political expression might there be for an ethos of thought and mass that remains free of determining its own nextness? What, for that matter, preserves the directions?

With these questions, we have left our original inquiry into the Alexander Technique and broached the terrain of political exposition, into which, as with the directive to inhibit a directive, we might hope to introduce a sign that arrives independent of exposition as such. Our success, should it come, will amount to locating a sign of the real.

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