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Affect and Porosity: Ethics and Literature between Teresa Brennan and Hélène Cixous

Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry, The University of Queensland, St Lucia QLD 4072, Australia
Humanities 2019, 8(4), 160;
Received: 31 July 2019 / Revised: 7 October 2019 / Accepted: 8 October 2019 / Published: 11 October 2019
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Ethics and Literary Practice)
In her posthumously published work The Transmission of Affect, Teresa Brennan challenges the modern ego’s understanding of itself as self-contained. This illusion, she argues, is supported by what she refers to as the “foundational fantasy”. In explaining what this means, Brennan rejects a bounded sense of the self, arguing that affect (both positive and negative) circulates energetically between subjects. In patriarchal cultures, mothers (and “feminine beings”) act as repositories of projected fear, typically carrying the greater burden of the negative affects—anger, aggression, and envy. Importantly, Brennan’s work brings the question of intersubjective boundaries to the fore, arguing that these are open, and that any account of ethical relations between self and other needs to acknowledge this. Drawing on pre-modern sources, she develops a new theory of intersubjective and energetic affectivity and, in a positive vein, offers love—in the form of attention and discernment—as the positive gift of affect that can potentially circulate between bodies, infusing intersubjective relations with life. Brennan’s work on the transmission of affect offers a bold and very political philosophical intervention into early twenty-first century ethical accounts. Her exploration of the intricacies of our relational entanglements with others and the material world challenges our understanding of what it means to be a self in relation to others. In effect, her account of the transmission of affect highlights the other’s vulnerability to my affect, to my hostile projections, even as it accounts for the flow of affect in both directions. In a slightly different way, Hélène Cixous offers us an account of our relations with others that focusses on the self’s openness to the force of the other, the self’s vulnerability to the dangerous other. Here, the other is the focus of a potential threat, a potential undoing of the self. For Cixous, writing is the place of witness to the unfolding of this vulnerability or porosity between two (entre deux). While this essay focuses on Brennan’s philosophical account, and the potentially paradoxical nature of her work to produce a theory of affect, it offers a brief discussion of the ways in which Cixous’s focus on literature and writing provide a different frame for appreciating the challenge that Brennan’s work makes. It explores the important ways in which Cixous extends Brennan’s philosophical concerns to the domains of literature and writing. Throughout her work, Brennan calls for us to invent or reinvent a vocabulary for the exploration of discernment, the protective attitude of thoughtfulness that opens us to the other. Cixous’s work, I argue, embodies this call in hopeful and optimistic ways. As such, it allows us to think of literature and writing as privileged sites for the exploration of our complex intersubjective relations. View Full-Text
Keywords: Teresa Brennan; Hélène Cixous; affect; porosity; vulnerability; entre deux; ethics; philosophy; literature Teresa Brennan; Hélène Cixous; affect; porosity; vulnerability; entre deux; ethics; philosophy; literature
MDPI and ACS Style

Walker, M.B. Affect and Porosity: Ethics and Literature between Teresa Brennan and Hélène Cixous. Humanities 2019, 8, 160.

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