2015-16 Pembroke Research Seminar, "Fatigue"

November 12, 2014

The 2015-16 Pembroke Research Seminar will be lead by Joan Copjec, Professor of Modern Culture and Media.  The seminar will explore the historical emergence of fatigue across a number of fields: military history; psychoanalysis; philosophy; neuroscience; social and political theory and history; art, film, and literature; capitalist ideology.


In Sicily, in 1943, Lieutenant General George S. Patton had to be disciplined for two infamous slapping incidents in which he struck soldiers across the face on learning that they had been placed in evacuation hospitals not for wounds sustained by enemy fire, but because they suffered from “battle fatigue.” The latter had, by World War Two, replaced “shell shock” as the preferred term for what Freud conceived as war neuroses: traumatic effects of battle that appeared to have no direct physical cause. While the World War One term, “shell shock,” still retained some link to an external source, “battle fatigue” effectively cut it, immersing the illness in the sufferer who now appeared to be also its agent. No doubt Patton’s slaps were aimed at soldiers he perceived as malingerers who had trumped up an illness to get out of the work of war.

Taken prisoner by the Nazis in 1940 and placed in a forced labor camp, Levinas, who had grown increasingly disaffected with the philosophy of Heidegger, particularly with the latter’s “virile” conception of being-toward-death, began to write what is perhaps the most compelling philosophical reflection on fatigue to date. These would later be developed and published in two books, Existence and Existents and Time and the Other.

In the mid-1940s films unlike any that preceded them started to come out not only from the independent “B-hives,” but also from major U.S. studios; they later acquired the name, film noir. While some still dispute the films’ status as a genre and argue over the list of their specific features, one could put forward a strong argument that indolence, insomnia, and somnambulance – in short, fatigue – defined the mood, narratives and structure of the films.

The 2015–2016 Pembroke seminar will explore the historical emergence of fatigue across a number of fields: military history, psychoanalysis, philosophy, neuroscience, social and political history and theory, art, film and literature, capitalist ideology. These explorations will sketch an alternative, unofficial history of modernism, seen from its “underside,” though this is not to suggest that fatigue is a negative notion. For, it is the positive dimension of fatigue that has been most neglected. Part of our project will inevitably touch on debates stirred by the foundation of psychoanalysis: debates about trauma, the relations between physical and psychical causality, outside and inside, and the bearing of pleasure on our conception of reality. Ideally, however, our will alter the terms of earlier discussions radically since we will take into account not only current debates between neuro- and other physical sciences and psychoanalysis (regarding phenomena such as neuroplasticity and “affect brain,” for example) and calls for a more object-centered philosophical orientation, but also because the under-examined conceptual history of fatigue provides opportunities fundamentally to rethink basic assumptions. Some questions we may want to address are the following:

1) Fatigue is a phenomenon of the body, not primarily of the psyche or mind. Levinas’s distaste for Heidegger’s notion of being-toward-death led him to privilege the living body in its relations to fatigue and effort.

Does the body conceived through fatigue replace the psyche as the site of trauma or enlarge our notion of the psychic? In what way does fatigue redefine the body? During the American Civil War, injuries to which no specific physical cause could be found were grouped under the category “effort syndrome.” What are the ways in which the relation between fatigue and effort has been conceived? Maine de Biran’s notion of effort, for example, seems quite different from that of Levinas. Why did effort emerge in the nineteenth century as such an important notion? What effect does fatigue have on notions of freedom and will? Does the Levinasian conception of fatigue successfully challenge Heidegger’s ontology? What is the relation between Heidegger’s boredom and Levinas’ fatigue?

2) A phenomenon of the body, fatigue is also intimately related to time. Deleuze, for example, put it this way, “For us moderns, there is time in the body. Ours is a fragile body, always fatigued. To place fatigue in the body is to make the body incorporate time.” In what way does fatigue open onto a theory of time; or: what sort of conception of time emerges from fatigue? While modernity is characterized primarily in terms of speed, a counter tendency focuses on modernity’s dead times: boredom (again), dawdling, breakdowns. What makes these “fatigued times” specifically modern?

3) The enemy of capital, of workers’ productivity, fatigue is, according to the logic of capitalism, something to be eliminated. Anson Rabinbach’s The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue, and the Origins of Modernity and Jonathan Crary’s 24/7 are two of the notable chronicles of capitalism’s antipathy to fatigue and its dream of an indefatigable body that would not require sleep. Can the psychoanalytic definition of dreams as functions of the desire for sleep be rethought in this light as refractory to the logic of capital? Can the drive itself, in its fundamental definition as non-adaptive, be re-elaborated through the notion of exhaustion?  Arbeitmach Frei, official motto of the Nazis and unofficial motto of capitalism, has not fulfilled its promise to make work – the work of war, the work of capitalist workers -- pay out as freedom. The widely felt betrayal has led thinkers in Italy and France to propose positive notions of “unworking,” of “inoperability” as counters to the false promise of labor. How can these notions be buttressed or rethought by exposing the notion of fatigue to which they retain a not so secret connection?  What, if anything, do attempts to describe a “kenosis of community” owe to the concept of fatigue?

4) Art, literature, and film fatigue. The seminar will run a parallel film series in which various “fatigue films” will be screened regularly. A partial list would include: films by Rene Claire, including the charming, Paris qui Dort  (1924), along with his films that lampoon Taylorism;  The Big Sleep (Hawks, 1946); Insomnia (Nolan, 2002); I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (Tsai Mind Liang, 2006); a complete list would include films from many other countries.  The time and motion studies of Marey figure prominently in the conceptual history of fatigue and thus introduce film easily into the discussions. But the seminar also welcomes participants who would like to explore the themes of fatigue, exhaustion, indolence, insomnia in art and literature as well.