Steven Connor, Giving Way: Thoughts on Unappreciated Dispositions. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2019. 248 pp.
Review by Mohammad Mehdi Kimiagari
22 January 2020
As someone who has closely followed Giorgio Agamben’s works, I could sense at a glance that im-potentiality plays a pivotal role in Steven Connor’s Giving Way: Thoughts on Unappreciated Dispositions. Shedding light on a common ground, Connor reveals his interest in Agamben in the very first chapter: “The capacity Agamben calls ‘impotential,’ translating Aristotle’s adynamia, does not mean impotence, or lack of a power, but the power, so to speak, to lack or hold back” (p. 4). Connor keeps coming back to Agamben’s works, albeit not in every chapter, to examine what he calls “the performances of nonperformance.” Following the Agambenian thread, Connor argues that “humility, resignation, mercy, and remission . . . need to be seen as ways of withdrawing from action that nevertheless in themselves constitute positive actions—practices or delicate disciplines of stylized existence” (p. 4). Throughout the book, this is the approach that hauntingly underpins Connor’s arguments and impressive textual analyses as he deep dives into seemingly negative qualities such as reticence, shyness, detachment, humility, abstinence, and repression. His aim, as he declares, is in line with what he titled CP––“cultural phenomenology"––in the late 1990s, when he called for paying heed to the very “embodiedness of experience” and “the affective, somatic dimensions of cultural experience."1
Connor’s examination of the word “agency” intimates its complicatedness, which has been starkly sidelined by cultural politics’ preoccupation with the “affirmative” and the “knowing” (p. 9). In the final analysis, agency, for Connor, holds its power as long as it has not lapsed into execution. Agency, in his words, “can have potency as the potential for action only as long as it is not in fact the potential for action” (p. 9). In an enthralling discussion of posture, gesture, and gesticulation in the third chapter, Connor proposes his own reading of gesture in essential relation to giving way. He develops an idea of gesture that does not center on––it may even contradict––the positive power of gesture to aid learning and thought. Connor’s view is that gesture, even when it is pointing the way, is giving way––that is to say, bodily gestures serve as “abstracted” and “attenuated” actions to signal an invitation to the receiver, “an invitation that co-constitution of human cognitive systems makes it very hard to resist, to ‘complete’ the gesture” (p. 90). Simply put, Connor situates gesture in an inchoate context to argue that when we consider gesture tethered to what it might represent, it almost always remains truncated.
Connor’s book, in my opinion, would be spellbinding for scholars working in performance studies as a field that endlessly frames, reframes and unframes its scope and dispositions by finding and giving way. As a person who easily blushes and has been an outsider in school, I can write with confidence that I was profoundly moved by Connor’s personal, perceptive and graceful style of thinking. Giving Way serves as a beacon of hope in the harsh competitiveness of a neoliberal world in which people cannot not do. One should note, however, that this book is not a spiritual manifesto for submission and humility, nor is it a text to justify passivity in the face of all the discriminations generated by capitalism. “Giving way,” as Connor himself claims, “is as various and pervasive as it is because it is neither the opposite of power nor its simple abdication but rather its necessary modulation” (p. 32).
1 Steven Connor, “CP: Or, A Few Don’ts by a Cultural Phenomenologist,” Parallax 5, no. 2 (1999): 18.