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Theoretical Explorations Module XVIII

Oct '23



Are ‘the untouchable’ and ‘the touchable’ mutually exclusive?

Does touching the untouchable make the untouchable touchable?

Does ‘untouching’ the touchable render the touchable untouchable?

Who or what touches or doesn’t touch?

Who or what is touched or untouched?

Can we touch others without being touched?

Can others touch us and remain untouched?

The course will pursue this dizzying vortex of questions around ‘untouchability’, both analytically and historically, towards ethical, political, and aesthetic ends.

We’ll begin with an analysis of ‘untouchable’ as belonging to that species of language Freud called ‘primal words’, signifiers that carry a double, antithetical meaning (for instance, ‘to cleave’ means at once ‘to separate’ and ‘to join’). In signifying someone or something as untouchable, we’ll see that what conveys is not simply a compromise, an addition of opposites – ‘untouchable’ + ‘touchable’ – but a surprise, eventful ‘flesh’ that is neither untouchable nor touchable. To ‘flesh out’ this remainder, the very ground of universal subjectivity, we’ll benefit from a ‘dialectical materialist’ approach, a method that has guided a constellation of revolutionary thinkers across distant times and spaces: Plato (Parmenides), Hegel, Marx, Freud and Lacan via the Slovenian School (Mladen Dolar and Slavoj Žižek), Ambedkar and Badiou by way of India’s ‘untouchable research programme’ (Soumyabrata Choudhury and his comrades).

All the while, the course will foreground the ethical, political, and aesthetic stakes of our dialectical materialist analysis of untouchable. We’ll use our approach to critique liberalism’s stunted drive to ‘touch, lick, and finger everything’, as well as a Bataille-inspired contemporary arts trend towards ‘abject’ and ‘formless’ visuality, a misplaced effort to render everyone and everything untouchable. These critiques will allow us to see how ‘dialectical materialism’ grounds truly emancipatory ethics, politics, and art.

About the professor

Rohit Goel

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