What are “Exiled Capacities”?
Much of the time, my mind churns out the same predictable responses to things. If I tried to draw a circle around what I think about most of the time it would have a pretty small circumference. But there are times, more often now, when I am no longer perceiving the world through my thoughts, but through a different aperture that is open to the world, open to receive the mystery of perception and relationship. Perhaps this is touching on what Vanessa Machado de Oliveira is pointing to when she refers to ‘’accessing exiled capacities.”
What are these exiled capacities? I see them as different forms of perception and ways of relating to the world. It is possible to have an experience of this through psychedelics to an extent, but it will only be that – an experience, and mostly in the context of our own dilated subjectivity. Awakening to these other capacities is of course an experience, but these capacities are not about us, or for us. They emerge out of a fundamentally different relationship with the world. Although I’ve had life-changing spiritual experiences myself, it’s been a deeper embrace of the tangible mortality of our life-world that has opened this up for me.
Vanessa speaks about how the Australian Aborigines believe that we don’t only have five, but rather ninety-nine senses. In other words, they are infinite. Perhaps ‘sense’ is not an adequate enough word to describe these capacities, since they are inherent to a different form of consciousness, but I cannot think of another. She refers to this consciousness as a bigger metabolism, in which there is no separation between man and nature, between us and the world. This is a perspective inherent to Indigenous thinking, but even within Western thought it is there. For example, Martin Heidegger’s philosophy is concerned with a similar irruption in our relationship to the world, where the non-representable Being of beings, emerges into ‘unconcealment’.
So, how is it that these capacities have become exiled or in Heideggerian terms, ‘concealed’ to us? Vanessa suggests it is because of the feedback loops of our current system, and the kind of collective consciousness this has created. Something Daniel Pinchbeck calls “consensus trance”. We have been programmed to see and think through our mind and a set of ideas, in which we represent the world, rather than be in direct relationship with it. And deeper than that, the ontology of this relationship to the world has its roots in a separation that it is fair to say, is both historically and at the level of being, violence itself.
Although Karen Barad’s work is not as overtly connected to the historical/colonial violence of our epistemological roots in the West, the physicist and feminist writer has come to similar conclusions through her study of quantum mechanics. Barad believes that the larger and ‘posthumanist’ implications of the Austrian physicist/philosopher Niels Bohr’s understanding of quantum mechanics, that “we are part of that nature that we seek to understand”, were cut short by his “unexamined humanist commitments”, which allowed the human to remain at the centre of the universe. However, for Barad herself, the larger philosophical implications of Bohr’s understanding of quantum mechanics calls into question the entire tradition of Western metaphysics; the belief that the world is populated with individual things with their own independent properties.
The Payoff of Pleasure
So how has our collective mindset “numbed” us to these other capacities? For Vanessa, it’s because ‘making sense’ in modernity, important as this is, has come to override all the other senses. The result is, we can only sense now what makes sense in meaning, meaning that is indexed through language. The world then becomes a thing to be known. “The only ontology we have is grounded in certainties, in which being gets reduced to knowing, and life gets reduced to meaning”. Barad makes a similar point when she refers to the way in which we have separated meaning and matter into different categories, rather than allowing “their integral aspects to emerge” and inform each other; in which knowing becomes part of being.
Here Vanessa makes the critical point that as well as being caught in the collective consciousness of our current system, we also derive pleasure from it. For in the consciousness of being separate, we may be numbed to these other capacities, but the payoff is that we derive pleasure and relief from this separation. As long as this is the case, she argues, there is no incentive to step out of it into something unknown and fundamentally unfathomable. This is a fascinating point that demands some reflection. It tells us so much about our world and ourselves, and the existential nature of the challenge we face.
Intra-Action and Responsibility
Vanessa and Barad converge in particular on the fact that because there is no separation between us and the world, we are responsible for all of it. So, there is an inherent ethical obligation here, not because anyone has told us so, but simply because we are part of the whole and therefore not separate from any of it. It is this recognition itself, they both suggest in different ways, that compels us to go against our own self-interest.
For Vanessa, this bigger metabolism is by its nature, unknowable. And “it interpolates us in different ways”. For we are not a fixed entity interacting with a separate world. Rather it is what Barad calls an “intra-action” which involves a constant reconfiguration of what we understand as ourselves and the world.
Some years ago, I wrote in a different context:
Subjectivity and objectivity, if we allow them to be, are fluid, dynamic formations, reservoirs for questioning and creative emergence in a context of both difference and wholeness, in which understanding is never static, but endlessly self-revealing.
How to respond emerges out of the intra-action itself. As Vanessa points out, it is not about acting in a predefined way, but about being present and ready. Dialogue and collective decision making are a natural part of this understanding in the recognition that no one has the answers to every question. In a collective enquiry of this nature, the emphasis is on deep listening and allowing the dynamic of intra-action to emerge and intra-act with us.
As an Indian friend of mine once said to me, this is not about humility, it’s just about reality. You know, but you know that you don’t know. This allows the space for other possibilities. As Barad writes: “Ethics is…not about the right response to a radically exterior/ized other, but about responsibility and accountability for the lively relationalities of becoming of which we are a part”. And in a world of ten thousands things where does this begin and end?
Awakening to our exiled capacities and the greater metabolism of which they are a part, just may be foundational as a response to the crisis that modernity has become. Without it, in attempting to determine the way forward, will we not miss so much of what is already there to guide us and convince us to act? If we are willing to embrace this unfathomable mystery for what it is, then the world and our place in it stretches out indefinitely through time and space, as well as confronting us with the acute immediacy of the present and all the challenges and responsibilities this represents. In this entangled intra-activity in which knowing is inseparable from being, lies the potential for the continual renewal of life in which perhaps death itself is only an inherent part.
With thanks to Andra Kins for the paintings of Gaypalini Wanambi and Leah Nampijipa Sampson.