IT IS A well-mannered gesture to one’s readers to offer them at the end of a book a reminder of what they are nevertheless assumed to know already for themselves through having read it. It would be reasonable for an inquiry into the modes and manners of giving way to conclude with some reassuringly inclusive statement about the substantial unity of the subject under review. Put at its simplest, this book has concerned itself with the different forms taken by what Robin Fox argues should be regarded as a drive to inhibition (1994, 79). I have wanted to show that this is more than a tendency, or even a capacity, to give way self-preservingly in the face of threat or danger. I have wanted to show that the apparent action of withdrawing from action, or giving up one’s capacity for it, is itself a complex, powerful, and purposive form of action.
In this case, however, there is a difficulty, announced in my opening chapter and scarcely resolved even at this late moment, which is that we are so unaccustomed to thinking of the ways of exercising this drive to inhibition as any kind of positive. This seems to me to be linked to the strange fact that there are few ways of designating the forms of this drive, faculty, or disposition inclusively. It seems to be the fate of the nonpositive to resist singularity and to be forced to exist in the condition of plurality and dispersal. So the chapters of this book are not to be thought of as a complete and integrated account of the workings of social inhibition. Rather, they are, as I suggested at the end of Chapter 1, an attempt to decline some of its cases, occasions, or dispositions, that is, ways of varying or adjusting position, a process that I have called modulation.
Yet, if the sign of a genuinely interesting question is the fact that it generates an open rather than an exhaustible set of instances and occasions, then, of all topics, this one might be expected to display this characteristic. For the attempt to count the ways in which giving way can manifest itself is intended not just to allow for the recognition of core or recurrent features but also to emphasize the generativity of those ways of giving way. There may not be an obvious limit to the number of modes in which giving way can come about because modularity is so intrinsic to it. Giving way can not only be discerned in different kinds of disposition; it may even be defined, and may perhaps not be definable in any other way, as the substitution of manner for the matter of fact and the letting of symbolic variability into whatever might otherwise appear to be rawly and invariantly the case. It is hard to be definitive about the nature of giving way, since definiteness is one of the things that must give way for it to happen. The way that giving way works is by giving a way for things to be. The claim and clemency of giving way therefore echo with what Wallace Stevens calls “the beauty of inflections,” which leaves him undecided whether to prefer “The blackbird whistling / Or just after” (2015, 100).
Although its concern has been with minorizing modes, of dialing down and scaling back, the book may be seen as itself describing a series of ever-expanding circles. My starting point was with discussions of some of the more implicit and small-scale kinds of human interactions involved in codes and conventions of politeness, as these are manifest in the nuances of idiom and accentuation. In the next chapter, the linguistic dispositions of politeness are amplified in the discussions of gesture and bodily disposition. The socially cohering effects of these actions are the subject of the larger-scale “cohibitions,” or collectivizing inhibitions to the fore in Chapter 4. If the discussion of the workings of apology in Chapter 5 may be regarded as in one sense a retraction from larger social structures to fix on a particular feature of local, person-to-person interactions, this is reculer pour mieux sauter, since the real point at issue in the chapter is on the telling interferences of the small and large when such actions are made to perform as part of a repertoire of grandly historical gestures of penitence and recantation, a political dramaturgy of how to undo things with words. In Chapter 6, the focus expands beyond the vicissitudes of winning and losing among the living to encompass the ways of living out the largest loss of all, the mortal loss of oneself to oneself in death. Chapter 7 widens the aperture even further to consider the dimensions of care that extend beyond intrahuman to human-animal and finally human-inhuman relations and responsibilities.
In this sense, the variability in depth of focus that characterizes the investigation of the focus depth at which the investigation has been conducted matches the duality that is a feature of giving way itself. The question of scale is always at work in the operations of giving way. The possibility of enlargement seems to be secreted in every willing inhibition, the performing on oneself of a diminishment always allows the assuming of a dilation.
But, it may be objected, and may have been objected throughout the reading of this book (and if so, I must thank my readers for their courtesy in persisting this far), that possibility is not actuality, and the actuality of giving way remains, as it has been in most human times and most human places, the negative and thoroughly wretched experience of force and subjugation, against which the only remedy is empowerment and the generalization of agency. If this is the case, then the proponents of agency have little to complain of, for the assertion of agency, marching always arm in arm with the agency of assertion, remains everywhere in the ascendant. The unquestionability of the value of agency makes it difficult to see all the comportments I have been considering in this book as anything other than enforced or defeated passivity. Not to agree to the universal injunction to activism, not to assent to assertion, is, we seem to be warned, to perpetrate on oneself the ultimate felo de se, in the withering wrong of self-subjugation or self-silencing. I suggested at the beginning of this book that such universal bearing of arms, and the inevitably consequent view of human relations as nothing other than this kind of war of every kind of agency against every other, could be regarded as the generalization into a universal principle of the kind of phallic assertion and patterns of aggression previously identified exclusively with male behavior.
That kind of thinking would make it easy to see the arguments I have assembled here for the assertion of nonassertion, in the arts and actions of modulation, withdrawal, and standing aside, as essentially female, with female experience as a rich reservoir of such possibilities. If, as Peter Sloterdijk counsels, the path of civilization is the only one that remains open, that may seem to point to the active cultivation of self-limitation as an essentially female disposition and to amount to an assertion of the need for cooperative female values to replace male ones. Such a view would have the virtue of a kind of clarity, even if the cultivation of the instincts and actions of self-limit as distinctively female virtues is unlikely to recommend itself to many feminists, given that it seems to require assent to all the many ways in which girls and women have historically been pressured to limit their own potential and ambition in order to leave the way rampagingly clear for males to fulfill theirs. If females have developed, or been encouraged to assume, certain kinds of expertise in these areas, becoming skilled, as we are often urged to believe, in the other-directed skills of caring and cooperation, it is becoming clear how very easily these dispositions can be reassigned or simply abandoned. It would not be hard, however, to point to the many ways in which boys and men have been encouraged to form their ideas of themselves through modes of inhibition and restraint, albeit often exercised for the purpose of self-fulfillment rather than to allow for the fulfillment of others. This is not to say that feminists, and others, would not be glad to see statutes of self-limitation applied in many more areas of male behavior.
In any case, the question of whether women or men have more resources with regard to the capacity for standing aside, and whether the values of giving way and standing back are congenitally female or must necessarily remain so, should not really have much bearing here, since this book is not intended as an assertion of the values of self-limit against the values of aggressive self-augmentation, in any kind of militant irenism. It has been written as and intended to be not so much an urging to action as an invitation to attention, in the recognition of all the many different forms of inhibitive routines, rituals, and behaviors that seem irresistibly to arise in human social arrangements. I hope I have managed sufficiently to insist that the arts of inhibition are not in fact the opposite of action but rather the modulation of action and, therefore, the action of modulation. If I have not succeeded, I think it will have to be allowed that it is not for want of trying.
Gender arrangements, which so often seem to depend on the formalized distribution of activity and passivity, as though they were opposites, and perhaps in order to ensure that they remain so, seem often to be the expression of these systems of inhibition or modulation. But I think it would be unwise to come to rest on gender arrangements as their occasioning cause or governing frame, and therefore to assume that inhibition exists in order to secure gender differences rather than that gender differences fulfill an accessory if powerful function in accomplishing the work of inhibition. Gender may be regarded as one of the most prominent ways of effecting the work of modulation. That is, it may modulate or give a variable form and form of variation to the abstract work of modulation itself. Theorists of gender and activists concerned with challenging and changing the distributions of activity and passivity are understandably less concerned with the grammar of these social relations than with the local conditions of their enactment. But the striking transformability of those relations is an indication that gender relations, though apparently ubiquitous and everywhere dominant, are ultimately only a local and contingent vehicle of that grammar of dynamisms. Naturally enough, to say that something is not all important is very far from saying it has no importance at all. This is why gender relations feature throughout this book as an unignorable part of the staging of relations of aggression and submission, even though gender has not been presented, any more than any other systems of unequal dominion, exercised through class, wealth, the thing we persist in calling “race,” or beauty, as the ultimately containing frame or determining instance of these dynamisms. If the growth of civilization, which has already helped make us the only species in which the young routinely know their grandparents, continues to extend the average age of humans, we may well start to see the standoff between aggression and its modulations not primarily in terms of male and female but in terms of young and old.
Grammar can be a somewhat intimidating word, but if a grammar may be said to have a point, even a grammar of human comportments, it is not primarily to constrain possibilities but to release them. The rules of a game are ultimately what permit it to be played. We should not assume that if modesty, deference, and self-restraint have indeed been used to implant obedience, credulity, and servility or thereby to create and sustain relations of human misery and subordination, as they assuredly have, that this is all they have ever been used for or the only use they could ever have.
At the same time, and demurring from the apparently regnant assumption among readers of academic books that only absolute and greedily reductive claims can have any reckonable force, I would prefer not to have fathered on me the suggestion that the inhibitive drive or the capacity to give way provides everything we need to dispose of want, danger, injustice, and violence. One reader of a version of this book objected, in the face of what he or she took to be its urging, as a governing political principle and objective, of courtesy and consideration, that such milksop values are of little use in standing up to tyranny. After all, my reader scolded me, we can be sure that many imperialists and Nazis had exquisite manners. This is a variation of the showstopping also-sprach-Hitler gambit, which proclaims that the sentiments voiced by one’s opponent are just what the Nazis would have said, at which point no further rational discussion is possible. But no such general claims for the omnipotence of the impotential will be found by a fair-minded reader of this book. Be it known that I am not suggesting that a “return” to civility will save us. Since this aims to be primarily a work of description rather than a campaign of redemption, I am not suggesting that anything will necessarily save us, in the grandiose sense of redeeming us or delivering us whole.
But there may be a more modulated, vernacular understanding of saving that has less to do with the perilous drive to salvation than with the pragmatic aim of keeping safe and holding back. For it does seem that, although human beings, young, old, male, female, are unlikely any time soon to give up their attachment to striving and thymotic self-assertion, they are nevertheless going to have to recognize, perhaps for the first time in their history, that, if they are to have any further history to be looked back on, and if there is to be anyone to perform the retrospect, getting bigger can no longer be regarded as identical with staying in being. If we are serious about developing a flipped version of the trick evoked in my opening pages, in “being forward in going backward” with regard to environmental degradation, thereby effecting an astonishing and historically unprecedented reversal in our dispositions toward ourselves and the world, it may turn out to be helpful to recognize that we are not entirely without resources in that immoderate undertaking.
All beings defend themselves against the contingencies of their environment and attempt to ensure their survival through reproduction. In all other organisms of which we have knowledge, this involves carving or transacting a habitat, an island of negentropic exception from a more general and more threatening environment. For most of their history, human beings have been subject to this law of habitat that decrees one can live only in one place or one kind of place. Human beings, like saxifrage, termites, swallows, and beavers, have always needed spaces of apartness—caves, houses, cities, localized habitats—within which to shelter and survive. But human beings have gradually lost their agoraphobia, making themselves an exception from the law of exception in the natural world by borrowing from it the principle of portable immunology, first of all by means of clothes, and the supplies and equipment we carry with us, and then within the artificial environments of ships, cars, trains, and airplanes, encapsulated spaces that allow us to traverse the seas, skies, and even space itself while never leaving home. Human beings have become ectopic, epidemic. In part this is because human beings have also constructed virtual spaces, of communication and information, that constitute new forms of immunity and shelter. I need razor and toothbrush when I travel, but a large proportion of my remaining personal and professional needs are supplied by the eduroam computing network that coddles me wherever I go. The two words that summarize this development are the words that first became familiar during the 1970s: “Mission Control.” The sending out, or physical emission, of humans to unimaginable distances was governed by a fragile web of transmissions that made it possible to exist in previously uninhabitable habitats.
Spaces of apartness become and bring about temporal differentials: the hibernating bear slows time within its den. So to occupy all of space means to occupy all of time, or to inhabit different times at the same time. But under conditions of total occupation, it no longer makes any sense to speak of occupancy. Total occupation becomes a kind of exposure, to limit in every direction. Under such circumstances, the power to control one’s environment becomes the responsibility to maintain it. Human beings need to be the caretakers of time. That is, human beings must take charge of historical time in order precisely to abolish irreversibility. Never again can there be a Never Again.
This represents the compounding of expedition and inhibition on the very largest scale. Remote sensing of forest growth, sea levels and currents, and animal movements are required in order to ensure the continuing noninterference of humans with their environments. In one sense, the creation of what, since the 1970s, has increasingly been known as sustainability, in economics, architecture, and energy use, is focused on the ambition of continuing to be able to make use of what we call a renewable resource. But the earlier history of the word, from Latin sub- + tenire, thus uphold or underpin, implies the sustenance that sustains us. Michel Serres’s formulation, that “we end up depending on that which has recently ended up depending on us” (2008a, 177; my translation), captures the percolation of positions that implicates the subject’s care for itself in the care for its objects.
In a sense the era of sustainability has been anticipated in a necessity that had become a familiar, but unnoticed part of social life since the industrial revolutions of the seventeenth century onward. Technology comes into being as a means of labor saving, a way of economizing on effort and thereby increasing human power. But there was always a secret cost, which has become ever more unignorable over the centuries. For every item of equipment deteriorates or malfunctions. When the fabricator of an object is also its user, the blunting of a blade or the slackening of a bowstring can quickly be made good. But as technologies become more complex and specialized, the skills of maintenance and repair become more remote and specialized. It was not perhaps until the late nineteenth century that maintenance became an extended, permanent necessity: the tinker’s van grew into the Maintenance Department, and later the “administration.”
Nowadays, when our technologies are black boxes made up of black boxes connected together, nobody knows how to mend any of the most important pieces of electronic equipment, such as cars, computers, and televisions, on which we depend. Repair consists simply of sending away for a replacement component. “Mission Control” now means something like the process of intensive care, the process of maintaining a continuous state of remission from the state of collapse or disrepair. T. S. Eliot evokes something like this condition in his blending of the theological and the medical in East Coker:
The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere. (1969, 181)
The advent of ongoing prevention, in such a dispensation, is not only better than cure; it displaces the very idea of it.
Peter Sloterdijk has unfolded in the final volume of his Spheres trilogy the great paradox of what T. W. Adorno following Max Weber called, with horror, the “administered world.” Modernity, Sloterdijk writes, is to be understood not as secularization, imperialism, the cult of progress, the abandonment of traditional forms of privilege, or any of the other candidate definitions previously advanced, but as the extension of the principle of “explicitation” (2004, 87; my translation). The modern world is a world in which what had previously been implicit has to become explicit, as everything is subject to the imperative of design and therefore modifiability: not just consumer goods, but different aspects of the physical environment and, through more and more means of monitoring, the body itself. Chris Otter has shown that the development of technologies of artificial light, through gas and then electricity, not only made it possible to extend the possibilities of inspection, for example, into underground sewers, but also created new necessities for the continuous care of infrastructure, through metering, monitoring, and maintenance. If a literal work of bringing to light was essential to the extension to the project of nineteenth-century social and statistical surveillance, it also created the necessity for what Otter calls the “government of the eye,” or sociotechnical ophthalmology. Maintenance became “a permanent and large-scale endeavor” (Otter 2008, 146). Infrastructure, a word that enters English in the 1920s, is the making and, more important, the keeping conscious of the unconscious. The three great conflicts of the twentieth century, the First, Second and Cold Wars, were all won by efficiency rather than force, by the side that was best able to mobilize its entire population to maximize economic output, so much so that the Cold War could be won through economic mobilization alone. Rosalind Franklin, who did so much in her photographic work literally to bring the structure of DNA to light, began her scientific career during the war investigating the porosity of coal (Maddox 2002, 83–84).
“O, I have ta’en / Too little care of this,” says King Lear on the heath, confronted with the evidence of human wretchedness (Shakespeare 1997, 273), and the demand for government to exercise government over every aspect of its citizens’ lives, not least in keeping them safe from the state itself, is maintained at a maximum. The twin demands of the media are first that nothing should be neglected, so that a government minister must be personally aware of every single sentence and statistic that is communicated in her department, lest she be guilty of not knowing about something said or done “on her watch,” and second that the chokehold of self-serving administrators and bureaucracy be kept to a minimum.
Perhaps all empires are condemned to decay into administration. Every blitzkrieg of the lightning-fast race across empty and unresisting territory must be followed by the laying of cables, the putting down of resistance, the installation of civil servants, the building of new churches, or modification of the old. As the invading soldier Lieutenant Tonder in John Steinbeck’s The Moon Is Down (1942) moans hysterically: “Conquest after conquest, deeper and deeper into molasses. . . . Flies capture two hundred miles of new flypaper” (1995, 68). Every invasion is a similarly glorious victory for Flykind. Revolutions and invasions are defeated not by resistance or counterrevolutions but by the autoresistance of implementation. The desire for Lebensraum is always a lust to escape reflexivity: we may feel we assert or establish ourselves as we advance into empty space, or a space we evacuate by our very advance, but in fact we find ourselves longing to escape the ordure of things, the stale latrines of self-habituation. Wherever there is settlement, there is the problem of waste disposal, hence the periodic spasms of resurgent nomadism, of which the most recent is the prospect of colonizing voyages to other planets to escape the self-poisoning of the earth. Rather than cleaning up, we have always assumed, we can clear out.
But the alternative to an administered world in the dominative Adornian sense is a religious and medical sense of ministering, a word that, in Latin, matches the twin sense of caring: ministrare means to manage, govern, direct, but also, via the swivel of having charge of, that is, being charged with a charge, means to attend, wait on, or serve. The word minister is formed as the minor form of magister, a master, and connects with a family of words signifying minority, diminution, and diminishment, for example, Greek μειόω, to lessen, and Sanskrit mī-, minā-, to reduce, diminish, destroy, as enlargements of two Indo-European roots, mei- and men-, indicating smallness (Ernout and Meillet 2001, 405).
But pending the development of plausible ways of finding alternative interstellar habitats for human beings and the various other terrene organisms we would need to take with us, it looks as though the only alternative may be a radically modified relation to our planet. Michel Serres offers an unusually positive and expansive view of this relation in his Hominescence (2001). The second section of the book begins by describing the dramatic decline in the human involvement with agriculture, which Serres, himself the product of a rural upbringing in the Garonne region of Southwest France, sees as the most dramatic event of recent human history. He reads this development as the replacement of one kind of shared home—that of the domestication of animals, in which human beings brought certain species in from the condition of wildness—to a second, shared habitat, in which human technology and knowledge create a kind of global home of knowledge, encompassing—and having responsibility for—all species. Being in charge of must change to being charged with. Serres calls this new interspecific collective body the Biosoma (2001, 106). He argues that, while the relation with other animals has always been at the root of human knowledge, glossing “conscience” as “knowledge-with” (127), now in the “second domestication” (115), human beings will take into protective custody all the species of the earth: “Technologies and the extension of the town will affect all wild species, situated between extinction and protection by the second wave of captivity as the universe has recently become the farm of knowledge” (115). With this “codomestication” (153), which is inevitably also a kind of “code-domestication,” in which technology and technique effect a blending and coproduction of senses and faculties, the human will become, in a term that Serres borrows from genomic biology, totipotent, able to turn and be turned to anything.
This means that, in a certain sense, we have gone beyond the condition of habitation, as this has traditionally been understood, meaning the necessity of belonging to a particular place, habitat, or niche. We are in the process, Serres believes, of constructing a global new domain that is the integral of all particular niches, taking us decisively beyond the Heideggerian necessity of “being-there” that has always attached to embodied creatures. Such an expansion will disturb our traditional understanding of the subjects and objects of knowledge, even to the point of making us the mediators of a kind of “autocomprehension” of the world by itself (Serres 2001, 153).
But this huge enlargement of possibility creates anxiety, and the desire for disavowal:
We hide ourselves from this totipotence, because it implies, not just a theodicy, but an anthropodicy, meaning the appearance before a tribunal of the one responsible, henceforth the human, for all the ills of the earth. For we have deposited this power in our own body, our own intelligence and our own capacities along with the atom bomb, genetic engineering, and population explosion, in short our integration into the becoming of the world. In producing or receiving totipotence, our metamorphic destiny converges today with omniresponsibility. (Serres 2001, 164)
A prospect like this may appear nightmarishly dystopian, compared with what seems like the alternative option of human self-limitation, a dramatic pulling back and stepping aside from human colonization of the earth. This latter option has been given articulation and encouragement by E. O. Wilson (2016), in his “half-earth” proposal that human beings resolve to vacate and give over to nonhuman species half of the available space of the earth by land and sea. Wilson’s proposal, which is in fact given encouragement by the irresistible push to urban dwelling that is leading to the depopulation of rural landscapes in many parts of the world, has the rapturous attraction of all radicality, in its suggestion that the complex and diversified problem of diversity destruction requires and will respond to a simple and dramatic solution, a drastic and world-historical No applied to the catastrophic and aggrandizing Yes of human domination of the planet.
The strange thing about this proposal is that its attractiveness participates in the very logic of abandonment that is available only to a nomad able to move away from the space she has contaminated. In the half-earth proposal, instead of moving elsewhere, into free space, one moves back, away from space. Its strength lies in the proposition that time can be turned backward and, as long as we are able to let be and leave well alone, “nature” will regenerate itself. But the logic is still that everything can be left behind, even if the abandonment is now one of prudent retreat rather than reckless advance.
The idea also has the powerful perversity of the principle that the very difficulty of making small improvements may seem to make it easier to effect a complete transformation—so, rather than, following Aristotle, qui peut le plus peut le moins (1939, 108–9), one might cling to the hope, seemingly against hope, that qui ne peut pas le moins, peut tout. Thus, the addict who resists the day-by-day reduction of his dose, telling himself that such puny half-measures come nowhere near the heroic finality of total abstinence that he knows is necessary.
But the alternatives of reform and revolutionary abandonment may not in fact be such stark alternatives as they seem. In Joseph Conrad’s novel Under Western Eyes, the young student Razumov, who has betrayed a revolutionary fellow-student to the authorities, is being interviewed by the policeman Councillor Mikulin, who suspects him of involvement in the crime. Razumov is determined to try to get back to his quiet, studious life:
Razumov, with an impatient wave of his hand, went on headlong, “But, really, I must claim the right to be done once for all with that man. And in order to accomplish this I shall take the liberty. . . .”
Razumov on his side of the table bowed slightly to the seated bureaucrat.
“. . . To retire—simply to retire,” he finished with great resolution.
He walked to the door, thinking, “Now he must show his hand. He must ring and have me arrested before I am out of the building, or he must let me go. And either way. . . .”
An unhurried voice said—
“Kirylo Sidorovitch.” Razumov at the door turned his head.
“To retire,” he repeated.
“Where to?” asked Councillor Mikulin softly. (2008b, 73–74)
The point, for us, as for Razumov, is that there is no more free space, either outside or inside, either to retreat into or to allow us to accelerate away from trouble.
Retreats in any case, and as every military commander knows, must be orderly, and surrenders and divorces can be as costly and complex as the conflicts they bring to an end. Victory too often brings one to the brink of ruin, as Pyrrhus realized after routing the Romans at Asculum but losing six times as many men as the enemy in the process, prompting the remark “Another victory like that and we’re done for” (Plutarch 1920, 417). A withdrawal such as the one Wilson proposes, and indeed any measures at all that might be large and sustained enough to result in a restoration of human-natural equilibrium, will require a globally coordinated mobilization of resources, technical, economic, political, computational, mediatic, and emotional, the like of which no previous conflict has ever achieved or needed. Many habitats will need to be repaired, as well as simply set aside (Maser 2009, 142–77), and even those that can simply be sequestered will need to be maintained, ensuring that human beings remain vigilantly present at their absence. Wherever we move, we must move out.
How do we nerve and instruct ourselves for this paradoxical task of sauter pour mieux reculer? Humans have an absurd and insatiable appetite for self-sacrifice: How do we bend that into the work of renouncing the lust for sacrifice in favor of rationally self-sustaining self-government? Such an enterprise will require a convergence and coordination of the two drives that have heretofore merely been kept in intricate uneasy balance: the drive shared with every other organism on the planet to maintain its existence through the principle of propagation in whatever direction it is possible, subject only to the limits imposed by its habitat; and the drive to mitigate that aggressive drive in order to maximize and maintain the social life that is necessary for human survival. In order to have a chance of being effective, the drive to a condition of global civility must be maintained as purposively and even aggressively as the drive for conquest and overcoming of adverse circumstances. We must inhibit ourselves as uninhibitedly as we have emancipated ourselves from necessity. There may at the very least be some utility in a confident awareness of the active power of holding back we possess, a power over power that is the only thing that makes civility or civilization possible for creatures as aggressive and appetitively ambitious as we show no signs of ceasing to be. Our best hope is that we will be able to extend what has historically been our greatest achievement, the deflection of our illimitable will-to-power into the power of limit.