The following is a transcript of “Critical Conversation” no. 10, which was recorded on June 29, 2021. The discussion between Isabella Guanzini (Catholic Private University, Linz, Austria) and Kieryn Wurts (University of Bonn) concerns the former’s book Tenderness: A Philosophy of Soft Power. Further details.
Carl Raschke: Welcome, I’m Carl Raschke and this is Critical Conversation 10 and today we have two very interesting guests with us who are dealing with a topic that’s probably a little different from what we’ve dealt with so far, but when I read the book (Tenerezza: La rivoluzione del potere gentile) I could I couldn’t help being excited and thinking that we need a critical conversation about this. Particularly because we’ve had a lot of different guests talking about different aspects of neoliberalism.
Now, I know Isabella’s book is not about neoliberalism per se, but she does use the word and she coined a very interesting term—cosmo-capitalism. In many ways it was my choice of words of putting neoliberalism in the catch because she’s bringing in Lacanian psychoanalysis to look at what we might call the whole sort of affect field of what it means to be in a neoliberal society right now, with all the tensions and all the angst and all the other negative things that go along with it. This should be something that relates to all of us in our everyday lives. Isabella will go first and then Kieryn second.
Isabella Guanzini: Good evening or good morning. I’ve never spoken on Tenderness in English and I’m very pleased that it is now out there in the English-speaking world. the topic has perhaps been there unconsciously for a long time without having sedimented itself into a concrete category, into an image, into a word. But over time it has become clear that the social atmosphere, especially in the big cities, was increasing increasingly petrifying. Although we live in the most flexible of societies ever, where all that is solid melts into air, we sometimes feel like life around us is getting harder to the point of paralysis.
And, although the earth has long undergone a process of global warming, there is often the perception that among humans the temperature is almost polar in the scarcity of symbols, in the desolate lack of passion, and in the slow exhaustion of desire. As the Italian author Italo Calvino said in his Harvard lessons, “at certain moments I felt the entire world was turning into stone: a slow petrification, more or less advanced depending on people and places but one that spared no aspect of life. It was as if no one could escape the inexorable stare of Medusa.”
And, of course, the image of a gradual turning into stone of things and people brings up us back to the harshness of many situations in our present. We can imagine the city as a body and at present currents of cold and warm feelings circulate in the urban veins. On the one hand we are witnessing the spread of cold passions often characterized by a cynical spirit of achievement and fundamental indifference to others. There are post-political and disaffected trends, a mixture of apathy and determination, a cool attitude that operates as a chilling device for any participatory instincts and passion for the common.
It is the paradoxical condition of the metropolitan spirit, whose psychic economy internalizes, assimilates, and mirrors the strategies of the market. Here the ideal ego of the performance subject emerges who oscillates between hyperactivity and exhaustion, enthusiasm and depression, coldness and excitement. In the 1970s Jacques Lacan showed that the capitalist discourse necessarily affects the way we deal with desire and suffering, shaping the way we relate to others.
The capitalist discourse exalts the lawless freedom of markets and the logic of consumption at the expense of all forms of bonding. The uncontained dimension of the neoliberal drive left the subjects at the mercy of the imperative of jouissance, of the limitless enjoyment. So, enjoy yourself has become a political factor which revolves around the production and consumption of objects. And, for this reason, Lacan defined the capitalist discourse as the discourse of the non-rapport, of the non-relationship, because a society which turns around libidinal enjoyment connects subjects with objects and not with other subjects.
So, the performance and goal-oriented subject is in any case often too tired to perceive the other, to touch the other gently. Fatigue makes nervous, aggressive, and suspicious. It is without any tenderness. In his Essay on Tiredness the Austrian author, Peter Handke calls it “divisive tenderness” because of its separating and isolating effects. The hyperactive and exhausted subjects are speechless and blind in their private tiredness. It is not “our tiredness but mine over there and yours over there,” Handke writes.
Such a fatigue destroys any proximity and even language itself, it makes us cold and insensitive. So, on the one hand there are these cold passions and on the other end we find an ambivalent current of hot passions, nationalistic tendency, anger, aggressiveness, frustration, contempt, revolt, indignation generating real identifications but always ready to spill over into a rhetoric of fear or into the populist drift of anti-politics.
Some authors have already spoken of a society of resentment in which particles of unnecessary intolerance, hostility, and hatred are spreading through the urban and virtual atmosphere, permeating our cities and in our time of democratic crisis passions seem to be deconstructing the common instead of being occasions for its regeneration. There is no doubt that the pandemic has radicalized this ambivalent play of cold and warm feelings which have circulated in the last year within a desert like a social landscape in which the heaviness, opacity, and inertia of the world have suddenly been discovered.
And at a time when the inexorable gaze of Gorgon seems to be slowly petrifying the life of things and people something or someone capable of interrupting this hardening process is needed and it’s it is a political question that invokes forces of sensibility and reason capable of shaping new forms of communities and ethical values. It could sound very naive and even pathetic, but it seems to me that today the only hero capable of cutting of cutting off medusa’s head is tenderness.
However, today one must ask whether a narrativity of tenderness is still possible at all. Talking about tenderness today seems almost provocative. It immediately sounds sentimental and rhetorical, absolutely apolitical and after the tragedies of the 20th century and in the face of the ecological apocalypses and within the complex challenges of hyper-modern cities it appears powerless, inoffensive, and even insignificant.
Roland Barthes would say that this word has even become obscene. I quote an historical inversion, “it is no longer the sexual that is indecent, it is the sentimental.” In any case for many people, achievers, winners tenderness corresponds to an unforgivable weakness of the mind comparable to a wrong posture. Where tenderness perceives our vulnerability and puts the ego at risk it even represents a threat.
And nowadays one could even object, not without irony: how can tenderness be a hero of our time when the body is exposed to contagion and deprived of physical and sensitive contact? So, how could it be possible to speak about an original touchability of the human being precisely in the time of untouchability? How can one offer a discourse of tenderness as a counterpoint to the capitalist discourse when one is afraid of the closeness of the other?
Taking into account all these questions and possible criticisms I have to speak about tenderness almost without naming it. So, I don’t speak about intimacy or intra-family relations. I have to cross, first of all, the delicate balance of contemporary metropolises, open to an infinite number of possible worlds, and at the same time ready to explode for a little thing. This is how I came to understand that tenderness is what is missing when life is reduced to an uninterrupted productive device that does not tolerate flaws, impossibility, and limitation.
Although it defies definition, I interpret tenderness as a way of perceiving and of knowing, as the ability to perceive a particular kind of science, namely the science of vulnerability and fragility. For tenderness, in my view, does not simply name the experience of a vague sense of empathy or closeness. It is about a fundamental mode of feeling that expresses an elemental perception of the finitude of all things.
During the pandemic we have definitely achieved a new knowledge and/or awareness of our shared vulnerability, and in this sense this category is now experiencing a new readability and intelligibility because today we are confronted with the pure exposure of life. What I am calling for, Martin Nussbaum states is a society of citizens who admit that they are needy and vulnerable. Tenderness reminds us precisely of the contingency and exposure of our existence and in this sense, I would speak of a tenderness of the finitude.
The time has come today when we must have the courage to throw away our masks and images of the ego so that our bare reality, namely our insuperable finitude can be recognized. Therefore, we have to disarm ourselves, which is precisely a sign of strength and not a weakness, and this tender renunciation of power is the only power that can be recognized, as the Apostle Paul argues in his letters, which intensifies care and not abandonment. So, it’s the non-nihilistic side of this perception of contingency.
And, I would like to quote some verses of an Italian poet Mariangela Gaultieri which, in my opinion, enter the symbolic landscape of tenderness without too much rhetoric—”be gentle with me. be kind. / Little is the time we have left. Then / we will be trails of pure light. / And nostalgic / of the human. The way we now / or infinity.” So, these the gestures of tenderness correspond here not only to a reconciliation with the body of the other but also to a very deep time consciousness.
So, this time consciousness, which is not simply predetermined but involves a free choice and a learning process, is capable of generating a more intense form of attention and a new perception of the presence of the other and of the contingency of this presence. It challenges our perceptiveness and invites us to a new form of presence in the world which intensifies closeness, hospitality, and compassion. For every event could be an opportunity to give meaning to our experience, to change the often obtuse and self-centered default setting of our immediate relationship to the world.
So, tenderness operates at the level of elementary relationships which, nevertheless, have a political meaning because they are what shape the spirit of a society, as Georg Simmel has shown exemplary. In a second more constructive part of the book I try to indicate some possible places of tenderness which are in a certain way always available in the contemporary urban context. I would like to consider now two of these spaces of tenderness which could also represent two critical categories and experiences against the capitalist and post-capitalist melancholy discourse.
The first is the Jewish shabbat which represents, in a certain way, the paradigm of every feast and is one of the gifts that the ancient people of Israel gave to humanity. On shabbat, as it’s established in the Jewish tradition, or on, Sunday as it is used in the Christian tradition, time stops, decompresses, and takes a breath to then begin again. In this sense the imperative of rest represents a law that contains in itself an element of tenderness because it protects us from excessive weariness.
Human beings do not coincide with their functions, with their undertakings, with their performances, with their social routines and inoperative time is needed in which the question about the meaning of action and work becomes possible. Again, it is a time in which work becomes art, step becomes dance, information becomes poetry, objects become signs, and clothes become our symbolic second skin. We make another use of work and things which empties the utilitarian and functional character to manifest the invaluable and priceless trait. So, shabbat—as a symbol of the rest, of the interruption, of time and work.
The second element is play. Play, like celebration, is also a practice that frees an activity from its original use and context, rendering its productive and purpose-bound aspects inoperative. A cat catching a ball of wool as if it were a mouse transfigures its predatory instinct making it a festive ritual. Children playing with plastic weapons, with toy cars, with masks and disguises of all kinds reproduce the actions, words, and gestures of war and work, of exchange and power transforming their symbolic force into a parody, deactivating their threatening element.
And in their mutation into toys, these devices of power lose their sacred aura and their trait of domination to become devices of dream and fun in the magical theater of the infantile imagination. For this reason, children and animals give humanity the gift of a new use of things which redeems it from a rigid world in which everything already has its place, its function, its position. In any case, it is the uncertainty of reality that triggers the children’s certainty that another world is possible.
Without uncertainty there is no play. In a certain, pre-established world there is no ease or tenderness, no free space for movement but a series of predetermined rules and functions that must be followed and fulfilled. So, children teach us what makes us free. Precisely remaining in contact with our powerlessness and non-knowledge, which reveals the truth of our finiteness.
Tenderness is a decision against the arrogance that wants to reduce us to perform as machines. Now we need a more human urban landscape, a new encounter with others and tenderness is a gentle power. We need to intervene in the ambivalent circuit of passions and to prevent the division, racism, suspicion, distrust, and immunization from having the last word today, because affections are like imprints that people leave on each other and every imprint is essential to build a new and more human togetherness. Thank you very much for your attention.
Carl Raschke: thank you very much, Isabella. I want to just read quickly a quote from the book, from the German text, which I’ve translated to English. I think it’s a very captivating quote and gets a lot of what you just said across. It says, “the revolution of tenderness is a form of dissonance against the colonization of the world, through the prevailing order of Western political rationality, through the financial logic of the markets, the consumer ideology, and the ideology of the nihilistic exploitation of everything that exists” (22).
What you say, you use one phrase that I think that even for people who maybe aren’t familiar with Lacan, maybe aren’t familiar with some of theological resources you use in there, it will really resonate. When I read this, I thought of Hannah Arendt, too, by the way. That phrase is—I can’t remember what the German word is you actually—connective power. Basically, tenderness is connective power when everything is being digitized, binarized, split up emphasized particularly through social media.
There is this sense of constant tension that comes because of this binarization of everything. We’ve got to fight for this, we’ve got to react to this and that sort of thing, this kind of reactivity, against that tenerezza (tenderness) is a soft power that, in a sense, is real power, almost in the Christian sense, maybe we would call it the power of weakness that you have in the gospel. That’s my reading. It’s a real power, it’s not an analog of power. But now Kieryn.
Kieryn Wurts: Okay, thank you both Carl and Isabella for the invitation. I’m really honored to be able to respond to Tenderness: The Revolution of Soft Power. And I’m also quite thrilled that Isabella mentioned both shabbat, because I was quite keen on that section of her book and medusa. That was an unexpected resonance that I think will come up soon.
So, in Tenderness: The Revolution of Soft Power Isabella Guanzini contends that tenderness is an affect that girl bosses, wolves of wall street, and all manner of achievement or career-oriented people feel the need to defend themselves against. Tenderness is inefficient, irrational unpredictable, incompatible with the objectives of so-called serious people or rational actors.
Further, tenderness is often embarrassing, either because it calls upon some manner of kitsch or sentimentality or, insofar as true tenderness might awaken shame in the subject, tenderness implicates us in the fallible and impolite realities of our bodies. it is in this sense that tenderness is often something to be avoided.
Guanzini theorizes the contemporary urban subject as l’homme blasé, the blasé or jaded man, as one who struggles to experience affect as anything other than affectation. In tenderness l’homme blasé is understood primarily as a product of the urban environment. One becomes blasé, that is detached from, unimpressed with, or indifferent to one’s environment in part as a defense mechanism against constant overstimulation.
The dual principles of urban life, according to Guanzini, involve (1) sensory overload and (2) extreme rationalization. The metropolis, while ostensibly offering nearly unlimited opportunity for human connection, frequently and paradoxically affects a state of alienated anonymity. The urban subject distances herself from her context as a form of protection against distraction, discomfort, or pain. To react with attentiveness, sensitivity, or tenderness to everything one is confronted with within an urban environment would quickly lead to utter exhaustion.
One filters experiences in order to survive, but this is only part of the story. This defense mechanism, combined with extreme rationalization, leads to what Guanzini terms die Betäubung des Geistes (the numbing of the spirit) which relies on a century-old antagonism between rationality and emotion traceable to the enlightenment and stoic traditions, among others. Feeling is understood as the opposite of thought. Tenderness is irrational, decadent, fanciful, potentially dangerous.
Of course, this binary of emotion and rationality constitutes a significant thought error, a fortuitous misunderstanding of both what rationality is and what emotion is for. Guanzini rightly diagnoses the rejection of tenderness as a function of fear. Tenderness, insofar as it relates to vulnerability—and I’d like to state the German word for vulnerability here, verletzlichkeit, which you can translate to just hurt-ability—calls into question and presents a genuine threat to the ego ideal of the capitalist achiever.
Guanzini describes a marketing of tenderness in which imitations of tenderness are reflected back at us through mass media and advertising. In its sophistication the contemporary media landscape has become much more ambiguous than a straightforward attempt to sell goods and services by manipulating affect. The line between product and consumer is blurred through the ethic of self-optimization.
Further tenderness, so often in its derivative forms of sentimentality or kitsch, is often enough itself the product. Consider how many times in a day one is implored to buy or consume an affect more than a product, an insurance plan buys a sense of security for your family, university tuition or gym membership buys one a spot in a community. In japan it’s possible to rent a cuddle buddy or a boyfriend for a day, someone who will touch you and be kind to you in exchange for money.
It is well established that in the realm of realm of social media you are the product. Both one’s creative output and the record of one’s activity is fed into big data in order to discover, ever more precisely, which affects sell. Disturbingly, but not fully unsurprisingly, app developers have recently come up with a dating app simulator, that is an app with an interface just like tinder, bumble, or grinder, in which one does not chat and flirt with actual people but with AI simulations.
In many cases it is perhaps more accurate to say that we live in an affect economy rather than in an information economy. Following the principles of supply and demand, we can infer that the market on tenderness is indeed being cornered. There’s a felt need for tenderness, indicating an acute lack of it. If this were not the case, these products would not sell. If Marx spoke of labor alienation, Guanzini theorizes what we might term affect alienation. We are alienated from our tenderness and very few remain exempt from this alienation, even when the story of how we got here is complex and even when the lack of tenderness presents differently for different people.
It is possible to understand our contemporary media culture as a mode of postmodern pietas, as the locus or focal point of a contemporary theologia sibilas. In his Kingdom and the Glory, Georgio Agamben indeed locates contemporary expressions of political theology in mass media as a transformation of an older politics of acclamation. In some sense the exchange of goods and services has been transformed into the cultural imaginary. Projected fears and desires, cultural myths, public piety, stories of virtue and vice are now all played out in the marketplace where advertisement, entertainment, news, and art become less and less distinguishable.
Indeed, the story of neoliberalism could be rendered as the story of how the marketplace is encroached upon the entire polis. The theater, the temple, the parliament, and the private home are no longer their own separate spheres but are permeated by the mores and objectives once limited to the marketplace. An advertisement no longer sells you a product it sells you an affect and subjectifies you as product.
The contemporary l’homme blasé to which Guanzini refers is an overdetermined subjectivity, influenced by stoic and enlightenment ideals, capitalist imperatives of rational self-interest and productivity, and the socio-emotional imperatives of urban life. The cool distance of metropolitan subjectivity dates at least to the industrial revolution, a phenomenon which Guanzini aptly documents through references to Robert Musil’s Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man Without Qualities) or Georg Simmel’s 1903 Die Großstädte und das Geistesleben (The City and Spiritual Life).
Well these realities are not new and the cultural forces which formed l’homme blasé extend far beyond our immediate landscape of mass media and pop culture. I still do want to take a short dive into pop culture as a means of illustration. I find fitness advertising to express particularly pointedly the ego ideals of the late capitalist worker or subject, especially in their preoccupation with the ethic of self-optimization.
So, with that I think I’m going to share the first video that’s happened on critical conversations. I’ll share my screen and we’ll watch a couple of YouTube videos. They are advertisements from a brand called Gymshark.
So, that’s the first one and we’ll go to the second one. These are very gendered advertisements so prepare yourselves.
So, there’s a lot going on here and I’ll remind us that l’homme blasé is not essentially or exclusively a fitness junkie. But in these Gymshark advertisements we encounter a gendered expression of contemporary ego ideals. The first male targeted ad expresses the desire for legacy and tradition and posits physical discipline is the road to recognition on a historic or mythic register. It plays upon a desire for a warrior ethic often understood as lacking in post-industrial life.
It promises that fitness will transform you into the gods and the heroes of old and further expresses a wish for self-objectification. In this case quite literally the desire to turn to stone, to take one’s place next to Michelangelo’s David in the Galleria dell’accademia for posterity to admire. Both a desire for tradition and a desire to turn to stone.
The advertisement geared at women lacks the weighty faux-traditional aesthetics but is similarly all about self-objectification. By being fit, or at least by wearing the proper fitness clothes, the woman becomes a public object of admiration, fascination, lust, and envy. Notable is that neither the woman nor the man in the respective advertisements speaks or interacts with another person—the woman to some degree through a blasé smile and a high five.
Guanzini writes—I’m translating—”the blasé urban subject lives at a constant safe distance from others and has internalized assimilated and reflects a psyche of market mechanisms. She instinctively seeks free trade zones where lovelessness and disinterest reign. The blasé urban subject is the modern cool type, trendy and fascinating and simultaneously aloof and distant. The cool type discovers products and trends which can elevate their own social image such that their number of followers and likes grows without ever awakening the present impression that he himself must follow or like anyone.”
In both ads we witness a desire for both admiration and invulnerability, to be seen and not heard. Something like a desire to turn to stone which, I argue is essential to the ego ideal of the blasé urban subject. Neither the man or woman in the ad speak or truly react to their surroundings. This fantasy of complete invulnerability expresses a desire to not be a self, to become a being who no longer speaks or interacts with the world around her—or if she does it is a fully mechanized reaction like a blithe high five, a carefree and distant positive affect, plastic happiness, good vibes only.
Guanzini’s account of l’homme blasé bears, I think, many similarities to Charles Taylor’s buffered self. The buffered sense of self is a product of enlightenment disenchantment, the rejection of a cosmos of spirits, mysticism, or magic forces in favor of an understanding of our world as a mechanistic place governed by precise and unchanging laws—as above so below, as within so without. Both the economic and emotional worlds are understood to be ordered by similar principles.
The buffered self considers himself to be disciplined in his pursuit of rational economic self-interest. He undergoes an operation in the emotional sphere which mirrors the disenchantment of the cosmos. I quote Taylor here, a bit at length:
The buffered self is the agent who no longer fears demons, spirits, magic forces. More radically, these no longer impinge; they don’t exist for him; whatever threat or other meaning they proffer doesn’t ‘get to’ him. Now the disengaged rational agent carries out an analogous operation on desire. Of course, our desires still impinge, as de facto inclinations. But they are deprived of any higher meaning or aura. They are just de facto solicitations … This agent is in itself super-buffered. He is not only not “got at” by auras and spirits, he is also utterly unmoved by the aura of desire. In a mechanistic universe and in a field of functionally understood passions there is no more ontological room for such an aura, there’s nothing it could correspond to. [Tenderness] is just a disturbing supercharged feeling which somehow grips us until we can come to our senses and take on our full buffered identity. (135-36)
It is precisely the promise of a buffered identity being sold in these Gym shark advertisements—efficient, productive, attractive, blithe, distant, untouchable. But why would we desire to not be touched? Why would one desire to become a statue? Why is a state of being holy without tenderness so desirable? Taylor’s buffered self is motivated deeply by the promise of invulnerability.
Guanzini also points to this illusion of invulnerability in her criticism of our zeitgeist in its denial of death and of a future. I quote her, “it is a culture that believes that it can make a tabula rasa of its past, and of the future a scorched earth politics.” She invokes Nietzsche’s last man in her critique, and I will also quote Nietzsche to make the last man more present for us:
“What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?”—thus asks the last human being, blinking. Then the earth has become small, and on it hops the last human being, who makes everything small. His kind is as ineradicable, like the flea beetle; the last human being lives the longest. “We have invented happiness”—say the last human beings, blinking … One still works for work is a form of entertainment. But one sees to it that the entertainment is not a strain … No shepherd and one herd! Each wants the same, each is the same, and whoever feels differently goes voluntarily into the insane asylum. “Formerly the whole world was insane”—the finest ones say, blinking. One is clever and knows everything that has happened … People still quarrel but they reconcile quickly—otherwise it is bad for the stomach. One has one’s little pleasures for the day and one’s little pleasures for the night: but one honors health. “We’ve invented happiness” say the last human beings, and they blink.” (10)
Guanzini’s answer to l’homme blasé is a post-romantic return to tenderness, the promotion of an emotional or spiritual education, of sorts, an antidote to the anesthetization of the spirit, the numbing of the spirit. For her a newly won emotional sensitivity or tenderness has not only aesthetic but ethical and political implications. Indeed, it cannot be affected by simply some solipsistic exercise of inner purification. She calls for renewed, embodied sociality.
In her ninth chapter, “Shabbat in the Global Village” she understands the politics of rest in
recuperation not as bourgeois luxury but as Grundrecht, as fundamental right. She trades self-care for nuanced and sensitive community care. Indeed, we see the marks of the romantic movement on her thought. In tenderness one senses an aesthetic sensibility of return to nature and a return to pleasure, a reverence for childhood and the radical potential of play, and even a recurring mystical sensibility.
Guanzini acknowledges that tenderness is a difficult thing to talk about, in no small part due to the steady assault on our desires achieved by our mass media environment. She defines tenderness as the non-nihilistic and deconstructive side of the awareness of finitude. I’ll continue to quote her, “reality shows itself in its fluctuation between stability and uncertainty, between permanence and provisionality, between reserve and abandon, presence and absence. For this we need tenderness because tenderness does not want to capture the transitory nature of being into a rigid form.
Guanzini’s tenderness is perhaps akin to a being unto death. There’s an element of courage in it, in facing up to our finitude and all that has been and could be lost, and not immediately seeking to numb oneself in the face of it. And, unlike Heidegger’s being unto death, it is not simply about my own death. Guanzini recognizes the implication of all of our deaths and births into one another.
Tenderness does not hide from the death of the other and the last chapters of her work, dealing the murderous implications of our numbing economy as it plays out in the ongoing refugee crisis, tenderness, at the end, cannot be bought and sold. It is perhaps for that reason that it seems to be so lost upon us. Thank you.
Carl Raschke: Thank you, very much. So, we’re going to let Isabella add
anything to this, if she wants to respond.
Isabella Guanzini: Thank you, very much, for your response. You focus on the figure of l’homme blasé and his power to shape the spirit of the city.And we can stress, also, the power, or the counterpower, of tenderness which has the responsibility to reveal the illusion of a model of civilization based on an eminently monetary mentality and utilitarian approach to the world, which has exhausted not only the subjects but also the world of nature. So, you insist on the human landscape that the l’homme blasé, the achievers, or the winner shape, but I want to stress, also, the liberation potential of tenderness in relationship with the life world of nature.
If you want, we can also repeat this image of the Medusa, and I can say, as Michel Foucault affirms, where there is power there is also resistance. Tenderness is a form of resistance to the present dominant logic of hardness, of efficiency at all costs, of self-exploitation, of the systematic removal of finiteness. So, tenderness is a counter power because she touches the raw nerve of neoliberal society.
That is the removal, or the refusal, of the perception of our finitude, of our dependence on the other and that is precisely the element which this figure of the cool subject refuses. And I think we can start with this consideration then we can go on to answer the questions.
Carl Raschke: I wanted to insert a question here, I think. It’s one of the three questions that Kieryn sent us over email, but it’s also a question that raises what I think is one of the most interesting aspects of the book. In some ways, you are offering both an ethic of personal redemption, in which our soul—I’m going to use traditional language—is being captivated by the neoliberal machine, but at the same time this is not a form of hearth and home where we have to retreat into a private sphere. There’s a very profound political dimension of this but it’s not quite as well as articulated as the critique, in many respects.
In English, the term tenderness usually implies intimacy or personal care, but the subtitle of your book suggests a philosophy of—the word here is sanft, which can mean soft or tender—soft power. Now soft power is a term, and that’s how I translated it, that has come into play particularly in discussions of international diplomacy and also the very nature of neoliberalism itself, where power is through persuasion, power is always in the background, power is, you might say, something that is not naked or brutal, it’s not forced but power is, in some ways, appropriation and expropriation.
In other words, soft power is having influence over others without them even realizing that you’re taking control of their lives. So, the very notion of sanfte kraft implies, at least to me, because of the political implication of that term in English, this kind of soft power. So, my question is or what would that look like? In some ways this goes back to Christianity, which you
quote Pope Francis, you talk about various forms of resistance, which Kieryn has summarized a lot of those.
So, I guess the question is how exactly does tenderness become political, how does it both become personal and political, and can it be a mass movement to take on neoliberalism? That’s the question I got all the time in my book about neoliberalism. How do how do we resist it. And, of course, at the end of the book I mentioned Emmanuel Levinas, but I didn’t really go into that, that wasn’t the point of the book. The book was critique. But what does this resistance with what you call soft power look like? And I’ll address this to either Kieryn or Isabella, whoever would like to answer the question.
Kieryn Wurts: I have a hot take, but I would like to hear what Isabella has to say about that. You asked, can tenderness be a mass movement to take on neoliberalism? After reading this text and considering it, I think I would answer against that. I think any attempt to systematize tenderness—and I would like to hear Isabella’s take on this—would already turn it into kitsch or sentimentality.
I think you can systematize and mass produce affect, I don’t know if tenderness can do that and I think you get that from Isabella’s book. It’s about particularity and the particularity of a person. And that’s where tenderness kind of comes from. And if you separate that out and try to reproduce it, it just becomes another thing in the bag of affects. So, to make a mass movement, I mean you could, but I think it would be impotent and it just by being a product it would make itself impotent. That’s my hot take, but someone can say something else.
Isabella Guanzini: I think that tenderness deals, above all, with the possibility of soft power in terms of a new poetics of relations. So, in this sense, it is a messianic counter power. It operates or it expresses a special sensitivity for the signs that come from the fragility of life and it is not a question of sovereign power that emanates from above and is exercised downwards. But it’s a diffuse power that operates, or that takes place, at the level of the everyday relationships, capable of generating, of really generating, many effects in society in the forms of culture or of knowledge, for example.
And, in regard to this, I would like to refer to one of the most important francophone thinkers of our times, namely Édouard Glissant, who speaks of a poetics of relationships against the threat of a uniformed world dominated by financial markets as well as the biopolitical maps of new colonialism. Glissant proposed his whole world where humanity is multiple and fragile, rooted and open, in harmony and in errantry. And I think his poetics of relation, both aesthetic and political, aims to show that identity is necessarily constructed in relation and not in opposition to others.
In this sense, I think it could create, or generate, a new symbolic order in our time of stark identifications, nationalism, and so on. So, here, the recognition of the other is not a moral obligation but the possibility to perceive the difference of the other. It is an aesthetic experience and it is a question of sensitivity and of sensibility towards the signs that come from the fragility of life. And a second element that is important for me in this poetics of relation, it is the element of opacity.
So, we have the right to opacity, not to be fully understood by the other and not to fully understand the other, to stress the possibility to be different, to be plural, to live our opacity in freedom and in compassion. In this sense the discourse of tenderness could generate a new encounter with the other and with the world. And, if you like, we could talk, later, on the dialect between revolution and tenderness, between struggle and tenderness, which is very important for me.
Carl Raschke: I would like to get to that. We have a question now from Philip Goodchild. I’ll read the question, this is a question about Isabella and Kieryn: “given your very valuable description of petrification as a product of capitalism, (1) are there particular factors which lead to increasing petrification in recent time, (2) if such factors are idealizing the removal of tenderness, vulnerability, and finitude then what is the raw nerve that tenderness can touch to overcome petrification?
Isabella Guanzini: I think there is a very important element which deals with this petrification of people and all things, and I think that this element deals with the removal of death. So, maybe we should start to ignore less that the fact that sooner or later we have to die. The systematic cultural removal of death is what prevents the possibility of what I have called the tenderness of the finitude, of the perception of our contingency, and of the contingency of the other.
And the poet I have quoted, Mariangela Gaultieri, reminds us that every event could be a possibility to give meaning to our experience and to our relationship with the other, because life is short, and we are all contingent and weak. I think it is a question that deals also with the education of the younger generation.
Carl Raschke: Kieryn, you do you have anything you want to say to answer that?
Kieryn Wurts: Just that I agree. I really responded to what Isabella said about the poetics of tenderness as a politics—not opposed to a politics. I think a lot of what this text and her project is about is pulling us out of abstraction from our environment, because as soon as you’re in the abstraction you’re out of tenderness and whatever emancipatory potential it has. And, of course, that abstraction is indeed denying death as well denying, finitude, pretending as if we’re eternal, machines even.
Carl Raschke: so, I’m interested in two things. I want to get to the dialectic that you mentioned later, but I want to ask about the kind of theological themes that are woven through this. And one thing I was going to mention is, in a book which you published with some of your colleagues a number of years ago in German—which is in English now, also—In Praise of Mortality, which The Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory just published about a week ago, this whole question of finitude—which has sort of been lost since, I might say the 50s and 60s, which was also the high-water mark of Lacan—Lacan was a great thinker of finitude, along with Heidegger and of course Christianity in a concrete sense, which, of course, is manifest in the very symbol of the cross—is dealt with in terms of the garden and the loss of paradise and this sense of vulnerability and tangibility that goes along with it.
In some ways living in this vulnerable fragile world we live in, but also striving and becoming a neurotic if not as chaotic society because we can’t come to terms with finitude. So, I’d like to maybe ask this of Isabella and Kieryn if you want to offer some observations which might kind of fill in the Blanks, here. I know there are theological resources, you quoted from Pope Francis, but I know there are also predecessors to this kind of theology, of this kind of philosophy of tenderness that are theological or deeply rooted in the Christian tradition. And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about those because we haven’t really discussed that yet.
Isabella Guanzini: I want to say that the theological tradition didn’t help me so much in my reflection on tenderness. The Bible, on the other hand, contains narratives of pure tenderness in both the Old and New Testaments. So, philosophically, I refer above all to Spinoza and to his understanding of affection and to his understanding of the power of affection in parts three and four of his Ethics. And, theologically, I refer above all to The Bible, not to theological thinking.
Just think of the figure of Jesus and the new testament and, above all, about his encounters with women. In my book on tenderness there is a chapter which described a scene from the Gospel of Luke, in which Jesus is in the home of a pharisee and a woman comes and begins to spread oil on his feet. The woman almost writes on the body of Jesus with oil and tears. She did so despite the scandalized looks of the pharisees who knew she was a sinful woman who was not allowed to be there and to approach a religious man. And Jesus interrupts this prejudice, interrupts this mentality, this legal mentality, and allows her gesture.
It’s a very physical, a very almost erotic scene in which tenderness seems not to be something that dissolves in the air. It’s not something romantic but it’s like a balm that permeates the body, that insists on the body and leaves an imprint. It’s still an affection. And I think there’s this scene in the context of the Jewish mentality of that time has a very strong political meaning.
So, Jesus wanted to begin a new symbolic order within religion. He wanted to transform religion into something that deals with affection, with emotion, with life in itself. And we can find many scenes in the gospels and by the Apostle Paul which testify to this power of affection and this counter-power of tenderness in a context which does not accept the vulnerability and the uncertainty of the law. So, everything is petrifying, in a sense, in this context and Jesus makes this world looks more flexible, tender I would say.
Carl Raschke: Kieryn, did you want to add anything?
Kieryn Wurts: Honestly, that reading from the Gospel of Luke, of the of the woman anointing and washing Jesus with oil, I thought, in the book, the surprise of that moment was captured very well—just the surprise of someone approaching you, a stranger, and washing your feet with their hair, with oil. I think if someone’s struggling to get this idea of tenderness, I think that’s a good thing to think, the surprise of something like that happening and how that affects you and how that’s different from discourse.
I, actually, have a question for Isabella, if I can pose it. It’s just that the closing three portraits in your book, including the reading of the Aenaid and the founding of Rome and its connection to the ongoing contemporary refugee crisis, especially in Europe I was wondering if you could elaborate shortly on this section and maybe talk to us, if we could talk about, what are the ethical stakes of our capacity or our incapacity for tenderness?
Isabella Guanzini: Thank you, for this question about the Aeneid because the Virgilian Aeneid is one of the great narratives of European civilization to which we have to return in times of crisis. Aeneas is a fugitive, a refugee, a foreigner who has lost everything. He’s a hero fleeing from his land, from his city in flames, leading a small group of Trojans in search of a new future. And Aeneas is the symbol of a warrior, of a very strong man, a figure of strength, and of power.
And I wanted to stress a scene within this book in which Aeneas takes off his armor and takes on the body of his blind, old and sick father. So, they have to flee the city in flame and Aeneas discovers a new way to be human. In this moment he learns that being human or being a man means taking care of the fragility of the other and not only winning a battle. So, it is a new model of humanity which deals with piety that, for me, represents the Roman, the ancient Roma translation of tenderness.
And I think that this scene could teach us something about our times because all boats and in all trains, in all despair and in hope and emotion, for every old man saved in extremes, or in the children taken by the hand, or in every woman that gets lost along the way there are always the flames of Troy and there is always the unknown Aeneas and we have to return to this text, to this book, to this narration even if, perhaps, we miss the pietas of a new Virgil.
So, we don’t have at present the possibility to narrate, to describe, to bring to expression the suffering and the desperation, in the language of epic, of poetry, and of Virgil. But I think they could help. So, this book could help us to look at this history, to this event with another approach.
Kieryn Wurts: When I read that section this founding of Rome founded by a refugee who was fleeing war, fleeing troy, fleeing just further south and the parallels of course it has with the past five to seven years since the Syrian and other refugee crises, of course it’s considered a founding story of Europe and it also contests whatever kind of xenophobic rhetoric which would make a fortress of Europe, or a fortress of any kind of nation state, and I thought that was quite powerful.
And then with this tenderness question, I thought when I read that immediately of the story from a few years ago of Carola Rackete. She was a German sea captain who was criminally charged for docking a ship with refugees on it, bringing refugees to the shore, saving them their lives from drowning because it had become illegal to save someone who was drowning in the
Mediterranean who didn’t have papers. So, this hit Europe hard. I think it was two summers ago when this this came out.
But I think it’s a good picture of what indifference the lack of tenderness can do to a culture, to a society, because it was big news, but it wasn’t that big of news.
Carl Raschke: Which raises the question, which is interesting me. There’s two dimensions of this, one is Isabella when you talked about the symbolic order. And, in some ways, we’re seeing a transformation, a mutation of the symbolic order. We’ve already witnessed it in the kind of micro-abstraction of everything or micro-commodification of everything that’s going on, where everything is about an exchange and we’re exchanging not just products but affects.
This goes back, of course, to the book that came out in the 1960s by Daniel Bell. He was the one who really invented the term consumer capitalism, where we’re not selling material products anymore, we’re selling experiences, we’re selling emotions, we’re selling affects. Now, interestingly, 20 years ago I co-taught this course for business students at the University of Denver with a historian. We got into the history of advertising and one of the things that really struck me at the time was how when advertising started out as an effort to really, in a sense—of course, they’re always citing the research of Freud, which is a little bit tenuous—sell the emotion associated with the product.
One of the earliest advertisements of the 1920s is this woman looking out the window longingly and very anxiously and her husband is comforting her and telling her that it’s okay, he’ll be okay, he’ll be accepted in society because he uses soap. It was an ad for soap. So, in other words, it wasn’t really about soap it was about affect and about social values and positioning yourself in society, and so forth.
There is a graduate of the Religious Studies program at the University of Denver who was my student years ago and he’s now one of the most important advertising moguls in the world. He is head of one of the biggest world advertising agencies and I had lunch with him, saw him after all these years, about five years ago. We had a very nice lunch by the river in Chicago and he was telling me in a sense that the whole world of advertising isn’t about what you’re eating or what you’re drinking or what you’re putting on your skin or what you’re driving. It’s about basically how you feel about yourself when you’re driving or eating or so forth.
In a sense this is, therefore, not directed at making you feel special, it’s about making you feel anxious, which is what advertising has always been about, that lack something, that you don’t have something and the only way that you can have a positive emotion is to have this thing
which really isn’t a thing, it’s an emotion. In some ways, this is what digital media has done to us. It’s about creating multiple masks—we’re always wearing masks.
And I think this whole question of masking and unmasking that’s been going on with the pandemic—I don’t want to get into it—seems like a bit of a straightforward political issue but it’s not because I think there’s a lot of psychology involved in it, as well. Because we live in a society in which we don’t recognize ourselves anymore. We are the man without qualities. And how this comes about, how this process happens, I think, is what Isabella is trying to get across in this book.
The first chapter is called “How’s the Water?” and it’s about a story—I can’t remember what country or culture of the fable comes from—about two two fish that are in the water and this older fish says, “well, how’s the water?” and the younger fish are just swimming around and all of a sudden it’s like, “huh, what’s that question about?” they don’t even realize the water in which they’re swimming is everything they are.
So, in other words, it was a question that meant nothing to them because they have been so absorbed in this particular environment. In this environment of what we call cosmo-capitalistic, micro-commodification, micromanagement by what we might call our neoliberal overseers, is what I talk about in my book Neoliberalism and Political Theology about how we and the elites, the knowledge producers, are in a sense helping to create and contribute, through our very discourse, these abstractions which in a sense demolish the symbolic orders that we’re working with.
So, the question is, maybe this is a revolution of new symbols. Lacan basically said that—this is kind of crude—most of the time we live within the symbolic orders. When we encounter the real the real encounters us. It’s when there’s a break, when there’s a lapse, when there’s a kind of revelation of some sort. So, what we’re really talking about is the very discourse we use, particularly in academia.
Increasingly, we set the discourse. We tell people how they should feel and how they should think. Look at the ways in which what were considered esoteric academic exchanges or arguments are now all part of public controversy, particularly in this country over critical theory and critical race theory. We have the power to set the course and also to set the affects.
But the affects are based on abstractions that have lost their imminence, have lost their tenderness, so to speak. So, this gets to my final question then, which is very straightforward. Are we talking about a 21st century version of agape when we talk about tenderness? Or are we talking about something that’s even more?
Isabella Guanzini: Thank you. Firstly, I want to thank you for the quotation of Wallace. I love this this passage, and I want to say something about it if I may. Because, with Wallace I want to say that the fundamental duty, the fundamental task, the fundamental responsibility of culture and, in particular, of humanistic culture and I can say the duty of the discourse of culture, should consist precisely in making us conscious of our freedom to transform, in everyday life, in the elementary situations of everyday life, the essentially egocentric or the self-centered modes of our encounter with the world and with the other.
So, the culture should help us to transform, to touch, and to criticize our default setting to encounter the word and the other. And this implies also a sentimental education of our perceptions and attitudes. So, in affection could be learned. A language of affection could be learned. We have to do a discourse, in this sense, of affection, of a postmodern agape, or a discourse of tenderness to interrupt this model of performance, this model of gold bonded, of gold centered action.
And it’s a duty of the culture. And I think we have to reread, or to read, the Ethics of Spinoza because he understood the power of affection which could lead to tyranny or to freedom. So, we don’t know how a body functions, we don’t know how an effect can function, and we become free, we reach our freedom when we are able to have a map of our affection. We have to analyze our affection.
Also, the philosopher Gilles Deleuze, who is a great interpret of Spinoza, thinks that we don’t know anything about the causes of our affection, we don’t analyze our affection and, therefore, we live in the confusion and in the inadequacy of a life left to chance or too easily exposed to melancholy or to tyranny. In this sense, what can a body do, what are our affections, do you we have a language for our affection? Our education is obsessed by cognitive maps. I think we have to develop and to promote emotional maps, as well, in the sense of Spinoza, not in a rhetorical and sentimental way.
Carl Raschke: Great. We have a question now from John Edwards.
John Edwards: Yeah, this is just making me think of a topic that has come up working in academia about the students who come out of academia understanding a necessity to somehow express a coldness or a remove or that being an academic somehow requires this of people. And I was asking, is that a product of the way we teach or is that a penetration of capitalistic culture into academia? What are your thoughts around this?
Carl Raschke: Yeah, I mean, the question is, in a sense, about the loss of emotional intelligence, a term that’s been around for a long time. We claim to be teaching everything in academia from critical thinking to anti-racism but, in the process, are we desensitizing people to their innate emotional intelligence, especially with everything being so politicized and confrontational these days. It’s not just social media, academia itself has had these tendencies.
So, I guess we’re kind of crossing international lines, here, because different kind of educational experiences among different peoples, different cultures, are different. But I don’t know to what degree are we responsible for this. I gave a lecture four years ago, when I was working on my manuscript, Neoliberalism and Political Theology, and somebody in the audience said, “well can you give me an example of what a neoliberal is?” And I said, “you’re looking at one.” He said, “what?” I said, “yeah, I’m a neoliberal, I’m an academic.”
We deal in abstractions, we commodify abstractions. The fact that you can have—this is nothing against Southern Baptists, per se—the Southern Baptist Convention read these raucous debates about post-modernism back in the 1990s, which nobody ever really understood, can now have these raucous, violent debates which have gotten into legislation being passed over critical race theory, which they don’t understand either, is an example, I think, of what we’re talking about.
Are we polluting the atmosphere with the way we teach ideas? Should we be teaching these ideas within a more imminent frame, should there be more tenderness, or should they be more contextualized? Should they be tenderized more, I guess I should say?
Kieryn Wurts: I think, in regard to this question of, is it capitalism or is it academia, that capitalism or marketing just preys upon what’s already going on in the subject. So, Carl talked about this, it’s meant to make you anxious, to buy things. So, this attraction of invulnerability, I think, is really important, this un-hurtability. If there’s affect or cold removal, I think there’s a simple psychological answer for this, that is that people don’t want to be seen and don’t want to be heard and so they hide behind various distancing affects.
I’ve heard stories from friends who went through the French educational system and also even Russia’s—and I think you can’t really compare these—where if you got something wrong, from grade school on, you were punished. And that’s present in any kind of educational system, this disciplinary thing. Foucault documents that. But, of course, when people are cold or distant, to some degree, they’re trying to avoid social punishment.
So, how do we do that to each other and why do we do that to each other? I’m not one to advocate like a pure peace or something, that everyone can be nice all the time, but I think something about this tenderness is, just as Isabella said, developing a language for our affect, for our emotions, for that kind of way of interacting with people.
Jean Baudrillard, I think, is also a great prophet of the dystopian cyberpunk world that we’re rolling into, and in his text, Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?, there’s kind of this mode of escapism, that he’s getting at, into technology from the body, from the self. You can tell jokes about uploading yourself into the cloud and be terrified of these crazy thinkers like Nick Land, but that’s kind of the question. How are we trying to replace the body with a new technology?
This kind of robo-fetishization. Which seems silly but it is a question, and one that we’re getting at. Using technology to escape the body and the affect and the emotion and to become invulnerable, I think, is more what’s going on and capitalism is just the motor of that or the fuel. It’s not like you can blame some abstract capital for that. We produce capital.
Carl Raschke: Okay, so we’ve got about ten minutes here. Sandy Dixon just raised a question. So, Sandy would you like to jump in here?
Sandy Dixon: Thanks for the opportunity and thank you for this wonderful discussion and this marvelous book. I’m going to be dusting off my German and seeing what I can learn, here. My question is about how the close relational, interpersonal tenderness has its political effects. I can generate possibilities for how that could happen, but I’m wondering what you think, Dr Guanzini, and what sorts of ideas Kieryn has picked up in her study of your work.
Isabella Guanzini: Thank you. I think that authentic democratic struggles are forces of construction of the social that never cease to weave social ties, to create flaws in the stasis and cracks in the compact rigidity of powers. And I think that each person has the secret power to increase or decrease the force of these ties within the human space in which he or she lives. So, every event is an opportunity to give sense or to give meaning to our experience. And I think it’s a very political issue.
So, at the level of everyday life but the everyday life is the place of politics not only in the sense of a sovereign power but in the sense of a power that a microphysics of power, as Michel Foucault states, which takes place in our everyday life. And I think we have forgotten this political power of the elementary relationships and of this poetics of relationship. politics or power is something that has an effect. And I think that affections are imprints we will leave on each other, and every imprint as the power to transform our symbolic order. That was my point on the topic of tenderness.
Carl Raschke: I think the question is can politics become poetic and is there an indwelling poetics of politics itself. In an ironic sense, I think you can go back and read Aristotle and say there is. I think you can read a lot of, especially what’s been written in the latest scholarship on Paul—the same ancient world—a kind of politics of poetics. We don’t look at Paul anymore simply as a theologian, particularly if you read this book by this scholar named Jennings, it’s called Outlaw Justice.
Basically, Paul is about justice, it’s about turning the political ideals of the Roman Empire upside down. So, maybe we need a new Paul here, or a Paula. So, I think this is a this is a really fruitful question. In some ways there is no broad answer. It’s about the everyday, it’s about the true imminence, in a Deleuzian sense. It’s about how we live a life, it’s a life, it’s about not a life world but the life that constitutes life. I know, Isabella, you wanted to say something about the dialectic and we never got back to that.
Isabella Guanzini: Yeah, it was the starting point of my reflection on tenderness, because Pope Francis, during his trip in 2015 to Cuba, spoke about tenderness and this quote is very important for me: “generation after generation, day after day, we are invited to leave the revolution of tenderness.” And, I’ve tried to understand this sort of oxymoron, so tenderness and revolution, tenderness and struggle. And I think that this oxymoron has a very important meaning for my understanding of tenderness because we could refer to the philosophy of history of Walter Benjamin better understand this dialectic.
Because Walter Benjamin affirms that revolutionary action is made possible precisely by the ability to recover, to bring to expression, or to realization forgotten or removed elements or the symbols of our tradition. So, something that has remained deactivated, something that that has remained inactive, which reveals today an urgent character. I think that the tenderness is
this element together with Christian agape or Christian love, and so on.
It’s a dialectic of recovery and redemption. What has not been allowed to exist, insists in our present to redeem our presence. So, tenderness represents, for me, the great removed that insists in our time to redeem it. What we should have done and did not do, what has remained buried or threatened or even mocked in the past presses on the present as a symptom, longing to finally take shape in history. And I like to think of tenderness as this this pressure, this great removed that wants to be expressed or to be realized in our present of disillusionment.
Carl Raschke: Great, thank you. Kieryn, do you have anything you wanted to say?
Kieryn Wurts: I’m so glad that we closed in this way and Isabella, her reflections just now, reminded me of that from the apostle Paul, II Corinthians, this quizzical and paradoxical statement, “my power is made perfect in weakness.” And you can read that as kitsch, my God, I’ve read it as kitsch, but I think if you take a look at the question, in our avoidance of what we call weakness are we actually avoiding a kind of power. Is weakness power? This dialectic. I think, that phrase kind of gets at the dialect, and Dr. Guanzini’s, as well as Pope Francis’s reflections on tenderness.