Reconstruction 9.2 (2009)

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David Willis, Dorsality: Thinking Back through Technology and Politics, University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, 2008.

The first thing that David Willis does in Dorsality is win, perhaps for good, the race backwards to decide when we first became posthuman, which is in effect to become technological. If Bernard Stiegler ably undoes Katherine Hayles’ mid-20th century definition of the posthuman by associating it with humans’ exteriorization in general, even such “basic” exteriorizations as the use of tools, then Willis does him one better by describing the very essence of movement, of corticality, as inherently technological and posthuman. What is to be gained by this move? Firstly, it grants Willis the opportunity to describe the experience of “the technological” as myriad relations to the rear involving the loss of “human” control that has been associated with a generalized automatism. Secondly, the move allows Willis to turn through an impressive array of writers and philosophers in order to explore the affect of being technological, an affect which Willis continually, straining the limits of synonyms, insists is dorsal in nature.
So what does it mean for us to be what we are, to be dorsal? For Willis it is the chance associated with automatism, “the dorsal chance, the dorsal as the chance of what cannot be foreseen, the surprise or accident that appears, at least, to come from out of range or outside the field of vision” (7). The affect of the dorsal is synonymous with our relation to the accidents associated with automatism. We feel it as if it came from behind, although it can come from anywhere. In this sense, there is a utopian dimension to dorsality which nevertheless involves the risk that is the event as described variously by Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Derrida. Nevertheless, its universality means that our dorsal relationship to technology is something that we all feel even if certain writers seem to have a privileged relationship to articulate various elements of this relationship. The groupings of writers/texts/figures named in each of the chapters not only suggests Willis’s own interpretive linkages as such but also an attempt, in the book itself, to simulate the unlikely twisting characteristic of dorsality: 1) Heidegger, Althusser, Levinas; 2) Homer, Joyce, Broch; 3) Exodus, Freud, Rimbaud; 4) Schmitt, Derrida; 5) Balázs, Benjamin, Sade; 6) Nietzsche, The Wanderer and his Shadow.

Perhaps the best way to convey the strength of Willis’s use of dorsal twisting in this book is to call attention to the most unlikely members of the groupings in question. For instance, while Heidegger’s conceptualization of Dasein and Levinas’s theorization of the ethical encounter seem, in some ways, naturally linked to one another if not to dorsality as such, we are turned suddenly toward Althusser as the surprise figure whose concern with ideology as the way in which a subject is “interpellated” in the social order would seem less openly concerned with unpredictability. But when one switches focus to the metaphor of interpellation as a “hailing,” then, in Althusser’s own words, directionality as such is thrown into question where “ideology must be conceived of as a mass of sendings or a flow of representations whose force consists precisely in the fact that they are not perfectly destined, just as they are not centrally disseminated” (qtd. in Willis 40). Likewise, Freud’s abiding interest in Moses justifies the pairing of his work with Exodus, but the relationship with Rimbaud is harder to justify, indeed must occur through the trope (and Willis constantly reminds us of this word’s association with turning) of “a line drawn in the ocean.” Where and how does one draw a line in the ocean, and to what purpose? One is constantly doing so, confounding direction and temporality: “The countercurrent followed by ‘Le bateau ivre’ is inscribed explicitly as a renunciation of Europe, at least in the sense of a journeying beyond it. The drunken boat makes a willful regression (in Freud’s terms) and couches it in the terms of a progression” (119). This sort of movement not only makes the ultimate signification of Rimbaud’s post-poetic life in Africa undecidable from a biographical point of view, but also leads to larger questions about positioning oneself at all. Drawing political lines is necessarily drawing lines in the ocean where “the Europe and the reading of Europe (and of political and nationalist aspirations in general) . . . that seek[s] to define and discriminate” must always return to “confound itself” (127).

Thus, Willis’s attempt to write dorsality becomes utopian when it is a search for the impossibility of an anchored geopolitical space as such, since geopolitics in the form of definable nation states must inevitably take on violent forms. In this sense, even and especially the Marquis de Sade can take on a liberating dorsality when viewed not in traditional terms, but as a co-conspirator in a Benjaminian “darkroom.” For Willis, Sade is in league with Benjamin to the extent that both oppose the fascist camera “that allows [the mass] to see itself in close-up, face-to-face” and instead involve themselves in an unmappable torsion that, ultimately, is about futurity. Benjamin’s “angel of history” turned toward the past but flying into the future is likewise an image of Sade’s ultimate “perversity”: “If there is in Sade a revelation of what was previously unknown, it is no more than his pointing to the existence of the apparatus itself, the dark place or darkroom itself, the space of inversion behind what we see with perfect reproductive clarity” (194). This apparatus, however, just so happens to be the apparatus of revolution, albeit one that we can do no more than point to—perhaps prepare ourselves for.

This preparation for revolution would necessarily have some relationship, as all revolutions do, to a sense of friendship and camaraderie. But we can only approach this friendship or attune ourselves for it by passing through/around/as Nietzsche’s shadow and Derrida’s “generalized teletechnology” (137). Derrida’s Politics of Friendship thereby is one that leaves us “twisting and turning between love and friendship” (140) and ultimately opening ourselves to the possibility of abandonment: “[F]riendship involves turning one’s back. The ultimate friend, in this sense, is the one we permit to leave us” (142). The ultimate friend is a shadow who can always leave us yet is in the last instance indistinguishable from us. The ultimate politics leaves us free to wander through the death of God as an perpetually unresolved, “permanent challenge for thought” (231), a permanent revolution or turning.


Sade---the darkroom---friendship/Derrida---the Nietzschean shadow


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