. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought


The Pathetic Imperative

Yesterday while driving to MLA to meet a friend whose family is slowly being worn to a nub–car accidents, drug abuse, suicide, and “natural causes” mark the meanwhile during which she’s gotten tenure, become a Buddhist, found and left lovers, considered getting another Ph.D, or writing three books, or changing jobs or buying more flats (in other words, her head’s full of noise even as her mouth sounds so clear)–a commercial came on the radio selling conscience and commitment towards foster kids.

In an age of increasing fear that new generations will fare worse than the ones that begat them, foster kids and certain populations of adoptee (bad luck if you’re born in Romania and good luck if you’re born in India) are not only being shunned as resources for family-making by the infertile but marked as populations so damaged from the get-go, so incapable of giving or receiving love, that it’s not worth cultivating individuals who hail from them. The exceptions are striking, as this segment on Romanian adoption from “Unconditional Love” attests: but the exceptions, the kids without devastating attachment disorder, can never really shake the seconds mark invisibly lasered on their foreheads. The brutal ease with which these humans are written off as unworthy of optimism slays me.

I’ve been reading lots about this problem of impaired attachment: that’s one of the research lines this blog will be tracking. A great assessment of the state of the neuropsychoanalytic literature can be found in recent work on “The Children of Duplessis,” orphans who were named mentally ill and institutionalized by the Canadian government in league with the Catholic Church (see bibliography below). Articulating neuropsychology and attachment theory, some contemporary work on these children is in its own way heartbreaking, as it tries gamely to show that not all subjects of trauma are traumatized by it, and that what happens in life can work dynamically, alleviatingly, with what didn’t happen during the child’s first 3-5 years (appropriate and reliable levels of stimulation and comfort whose absence can fundamentally change for the worse the capacities and responsivity managed by the hyppocampus and the amygdala). The plasticity of the brain works for and against the capacity to develop attachments as life goes on; the plasticity of the brain isn’t infinite, but expressed in changes to patterning, and as we know, personality is pattern, a cluster of habits, that is very hard to change and very hard to want to change.

So maybe not all traumatic events produce trauma for their addressees; perhaps all traumatized subjects don’t manifest the encounter the same way; perhaps it’s just a small percentage whose depression not just won’t but can’t respond to treatment. I can’t help but think that the widespread fear of a hardwired mental unhealth that can’t be undone, interfered with, managed, or turned toward flourishing is a symptom of some deeper knowledge people have about how uncapacious and maladaptive the world is to everyone, not just those who can’t perform the normative imperatives to produce and reproduce. I like using words like flourishing and capaciousness as a metric for what the conditions of social life ought to provide, because they seem so irrelevant to the tightening gyre that replaces the liberal/capitalist promise of building a good life with tinnily optimistic instructions for making, holding onto, and surviving the loss of a fragile one.

The commercial hit me so hard that I can’t remember it. Young kids with optimistic voices edited together in increasing density and speed said that they were foster kids (also called “waiting kids” in the literature) to whom no one has a primary commitment, that they had love to give and needs to receive it. The commercial ended with all of the young voices saying the phrase “Please don’t give up on us” with emphasis on the please and the pleading and with increased intensity that mimed, performed, and communicated anxiety.

Please don’t give up on us pleasedon’tgiveuponuspleasedon’tgiveuponuspleasedon’t…

The commercial reminded me of a belated response I had to Don’t Leave Me This Way, a great AIDS anthology I bought in the mid-1990s, one of the best ones next to Douglas Crimp’s AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism. At some point last summer I picked it up to browse and find out what I hadn’t yet learned and suddenly re-felt the anthem’s powerful disco realism about all the queer lives wasted, deemed incompetent and unworthy of intimacy and the good life, and then I started missing some individuals and the whole lot of the lost, and then, weeping, realized that the lyrics were the child’s lament about the adult world’s impaired attachments: Don’t leave me this way, I can’t survive, I can’t stay alive, without your love, don’tleavemethisway…

____________________________________________________________

Children of Duplessis CBC Archive

Wikipedia Entry on Duplessis Orphans

Perry et al, “Seven Institutionalized Children and their Adaptation in Late Adulthood: the Children of Duplessis.” Psychiatry 69 (4) 2006: 283-301.

Low and Eth, Commentary on “Seven Institutionalized Children and Their Adaptation in Late Adulthood: The Children of Duplessis.” In Psychiatry 69 (4) (Winter 2006): 314-321.



George Kress, of Winder GA

The Minneapolis Airport today was stacked so deep with returning travelers that the security lines backed up across the walkway into the connecting building. I left my people at the curb in a rush with barely a kiss, though we were hours early: it was lucky, too, that I’d been anxious. In front of me an older white couple–a very large man and a smaller woman, random gray hair and a henna flip–were joking about the weather in Minnesota. I asked where they were from and we were off. It was one of those real conversations where so much gets said but it’s all in the shadow of the threat of a break should any of us stumble into the wrong tone. After the pressure to keep it going lifts it’s hard to remember what the event was, apart from the dodged bullets.

An encounter like this is an opening, but what kind? Does it eat its tail or does it matter, diluting what would otherwise be a future aversion to that kind of stranger? Once someone I met on an airplane googled me a decade later to say that he was still praying for me. Another time I got an email years later from a woman whose depression I helped lift by talking about class and loneliness and being educated out, then recommending Carolyn Steedman. On the way to Australia last year, I was adopted by an anesthesiologist from Sidney named Ian, a tiny man. He was a competitive ballroom dancer whose heart had just been broken by a golddigger, and who thought he might die from it–he’d even consulted cardiologists about it. He was traveling to competitions rather than dying–that’s what he said. He had invited me to be his guest in the Admiral’s Club because I helped him to find our gate. While there I got an email from a friend whose husband had just dumped her and she was in a heap: I reported this to him and told him I thought about love for a living, and out came the story about his broken heart and his friends not understanding how he could love this woman with all her aliveness, and I could give him that, patience with his need to be near her life drive, and with the difficulty of detaching from his optimism, compromised as its object might be. He had been a widower; she made him feel effective. Eventually she started internet dating on the sly. I always fancy that a remembered encounter might rezone the imaginary a bit. On the other hand there’s that post-adrenalin amnesia.

Minnesota led to Colorado Springs which led to Atlanta, which isn’t as good as Colorado Springs (but it was great because “the snow comes down hard and the next day it’s gone”). Snow and ice led to global warming (“they” have “agendas” to create crisis); faux global warming crisis led to faux health crises like Alzheimer’s (there were always “loonies,” what’s the big deal?). I sort of concurred, musing that the rhetoric of crisis is often used to describe long-term conditions. But I mentioned that as usual the poor would suffer from it all much worse , and talked about Jim’s cancer, the incredible labor and expense of it all, and how haunted I am at every minute imagining what would have happened if he were poor and/or alone, as surely I and so many are and will be.

At that point the conversation became more possible. Health care in Atlanta is in crisis for the poor: recently only one hospital was left to take care of the uninsured, and almost went out of business. It’s losing 11 million dollars a month. The state stepped in, now there’s equal opportunity immiseration for the institutions. The wife suggests that meanwhile, the poor keep not buying insurance. Me: well, why blame the poor for not buying insurance they can’t afford? Why should the rich live longer than the poor? She says, “Exactly.” He says “That’s the way it’s always been,” but before I could jump in to say that the endurance of injustice isn’t a good argument for it, he said: “I went to two tours in ‘Nam and I tell my kids, don’t talk to me about the poor till you’ve lived with them, lived on a half a cup of rice and some beans for three days.” I have to admit that he seemed to grow taller to me as he told this story–but we were turning a corner, and I was bending to get my bags too.

We talk about global misery, Asia and the Southern Hemispheres. He moves onto politics. “I tell my friends, get used to it, Hillary’s going to be the next president, Madam President, and that’s the way it should be because look at the difference between Bill and Bush, when Bill was in office we all made money and Bush is bankrupting us all.” He said, “the way I see it, the middle class pays for everything. With a Republican, we give all our money to the rich; with a Democrat, we give all our money to the poor. And a rich man never opened a door for me.” I laughed in delight and said I’d tell that to my students when I was trying to teach them about class, and later he gave me his card so I could quote him by name: George Kress, of Winder GA.

At some point, because this is all a blur, I asked if he had a problem with Hillary (since I do, politically) and he said, I don’t have a problem with women taking charge, and his wife grins, play pushes at him, and says, that’s right you don’t, because you took care of your brothers and sisters and you learned some things, and I said, what did you learn? “My father died when I was 14,” he said. His father cut aluminum sheet for walls and roofs and put George to work when he was six years old: “six years old with cut legs and crawling into places the men couldn’t go, it’s not right.” And “I told my children what do you want, to be down there sweating or using your heads?” And his wife says, “We have five college graduates.” I said, so you didn’t build the business for your kids to take over? George: “Hell, no!”



Faceless book

Today I introduced Facebook to someone older than me and had a long conversation about what the point of networking amongst “friends” is. The person was so skeptical because to her stranger and distance-shaped intimacies are diminished forms of real intimacy. To her, real intimacy is a relation that requires the fortitude and porousness of a serious, emotionally-laden, accretion of mutual experience. Her intimacies are spaces of permission not only for recognition but for the right to be seriously inconvenient, to demand, and to need. It presumes face to faceness, but even more profoundly, flesh to fleshness. But on Facebook one can always skim, or not log in.

My version of this distinction is different of course, and sees more overlap than difference among types of attachment. The stretched-out intimacies are important and really matter, but they are more shaped by the phantasmatic dimension of recognition and reciprocity–it is easier to hide inattention, disagreement, disparity, aversion. On the other hand it’s easier to focus on what’s great in that genre of intimacy and to let the other stuff not matter. There’s less likely collateral damage in mediated or stranger intimacies. While the more conventional kinds of intimacy foreground the immediate and the demanding, are more atmospheric and singular, enable others’ memories to have the ethical density of knowledge about one that is truer than what one carries around, and involve many more opportunities for losing one’s bearings. The latter takes off from a Cavellian thought about love–love as returning to the scene of coordinating lives, synchronizing being–but synchrony can be spread more capaciously and meaningfully amongst a variety of attachments. Still, I think all kinds of emotional dependency and sustenance can flourish amongst people who only meet each other at one or a few points on the grid of the field of their life.

Thinking about yesterday’s reciprocity entry, I said to her that one point of Facebook is to inhabit the social as a place of play, of having a light impact, of being ordinary, of being acknowledged, of echoing and noodling, where the bar for reciprocity is so low that anyone could perform it by clicking. It’s a place where clicking is a sign that someone has paid attention and where dropping a line can build toward making a life. You know someone has imagined you today, checked in. You’re not an isolate. Trying to accommodate to my positive explanation, she said, I guess it’s like when churches organize prayer circles for impaired strangers, sending out love into the spirit world–it can’t hurt, but is it deep? Me: people value different evidence of having had an impact and of mattering to the world they’re imagining belonging to, and who can say what’s deep from outside of the transference? But I realized that I may be incoherent about this, and of course this problem, of figuring out how to talk about ways of being that are simultaneously openings and defenses, is central to this project. When people talk about modes of belonging they talk about desire but less so about defense.

I sense that Facebook is about calibrating the difficulty of knowing the importance of the ordinary event. People are trying there to eventalize the mood, the inclination, the thing that just happened–the episodic nature of existence. So and so is in a mood right now. So and so likes this kind of thing right now; and just went here and there. This is how they felt about it. It’s not in the idiom of the great encounter or the great passion, it’s the lightness and play of the poke. There’s always a potential but not a demand for more.

Here is how so and so has shown up to life. Can you show up too, for a sec?

How can the “episodic now” become an event? Little mediated worlds produced by kinetic reciprocity enable accretion to become event without the drama of a disturbance. The disturbance is the exception. And that’s what makes stranger intimacy a relief from the other kind, which tips you over.



Another way to think about normativity.

For the last few years I’ve been writing about aspirational normativity—a concept that describes individuals’ motives for belonging to a general culture as something other than a will to power, ideology, or shallowness. Instead one can view it as an affective need or drive to feel held by the social world. To sense that one is held durably by the world is not a very high bar, just a specific one. It does not mean to feel recognized in the full range of your being. Nor does it mean merely to be acknowledged—bump into anyone on the street, act like an asshole, have a conversation with anyone, and you can feel that you have an impact without feeling especially welcome in the world. Sometimes feeling a connection is a relief from a general state of disconnection.

Instead, to feel held in this sense is to have an expectation that there will be some kind of confirming reciprocity in one’s exchanges and an experience of a confirming reciprocity that does not have to be personal or even feel good explicitly, and yet engenders satisfaction and optimism toward a better-than-survival kind of living. The expectation of good conversations or kind glances with strangers is a good example of a structure of reciprocity that is also the feeling of it. So is hearing that your taste for x is also someone else’s. But so much more than repetition of the same is involved in achieving and managing reciprocity. Finding in the world or in others what’s important to you releases you from the loneliness of your singular attachments, the attachments engendered by autonomic or instinctual moves toward the something that looks promising. Leo Bersani describes most beautifully the delicacy of such gestures toward self-extension.

But achieving an attachment that feels compelling is just one part of reciprocity: it could also be stalking! As we will see. The other part is expecting a return, in being able to be returned to, in expanding the idioms of return. The other part is the fear of return. In the project whose record of construction I’m making here, I’m writing about living with a drive to create conditions of reciprocity in a world where it cannot be presupposed—and not just because people have bad “caretaking environments” when they’re little. Reciprocity is not just in kind, a literal trade. To study it is to look for the idioms of exchange that work and what happens when they don’t. It is to look at the terms through which people make bargains with life subjectively–politically and affectively, without knowing it, often. I have been stunned in the last few years to collect a huge archive of aesthetic mediations of this situation—works that find people in a world where they can’t find a person, an intimate public, a political world, any durable conditions for sustaining optimism. And maybe they don’t want to, maybe sometimes being alone is a relief from the obligations of being durable. My claim is that this situation is both singular to individuals and increasingly sensed as a structural abandonment by general social worlds and political institutions.

Questions: What happens to the life drive when it finds no traction for its optimism? Is this why is there so much crankiness—anxious attachment disorder? Why do people feel that they won’t be heard capaciously and generously, and what are the effects of the presumption that one’s gestures will be ejected except by an intimate public? I am always shocked by the optimism that brings people back to the world one more time, to make connections with strangers that are hard to maintain with full intimates. At the same time I sense that even what Katie Stewart calls “little worlds” are desperately held on to, because to encounter the reciprocal feels rarer and more precious and more a function of stranger intimacy than of personal, face to face, biography.


Jessica Benjamin describes the affect of being held so beautifully in “What Angel Would Hear Me?: The Erotics of Transference,” (1994). Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 14: 535-557, and in Like Subjects, Love Objects. See also Christopher Bollas, The Shadow of the Object (New York: Columbia UP, 1989). I’ve written about aspirational normativity most explicitly in “Nearly Utopian, Nearly Normal: Post-Fordist Affect in La Promesse and Rosetta,” Public Culture 2007 19 (2): 273-301.

Here I extend some thoughts from the introduction to The Female Complaint. Bersani thinks crisply about self-extension in”Sociality and Sexuality,” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Summer, 2000), pp. 641-656. Eve Sedgwick’s work in “Pedagogy of Buddhism” takes off from an articulation of Silvan Tomkins’ thoughts about circuits of flow between subjects and the world and Melanie Klein’s “depressive position” to make a unrelated claim about the conditions of shame and attachment, but as usual I cavil at presuming that the experience of broken attachment is one of shame. See Touching Feeling (Duke UP, 2003). In this next project I’ll figure out how to do more than resist this closing down of affects of being cut off from a sense of reciprocal worldness.



The experience that made me start this blog.

I was in a Walgreens last night, on the way to picking up dinner for the cancer family I’m staying with, the family of my partner, and the whole experience of it is so noisy aurally and emotionally that my hypervigilance feels both sharp and dull. The father needed a stress ball to squeeze, to raise his blood pressure, which is scarily low. Orthostatic hypotension, qu’est-ce que c’est? You stand up, your blood rushes to your feet, the rest of you crumbles or tumbles. The man in front of us in line was arguing with the cashier about whether he was allowed to use a credit card to buy a phone card. The cashier was a very tall, deep-voiced African-American man–eloquent, ironic, combative, and really patient. He wore a black vest and shirt with a small American flag decal. The argument flustered both men, and the consumer left without his card or his receipt. The aggrieved cashier saw this and panicked, and ran out of the store after the man. We heard him get outside and whistle quite loudly, the kind of whistle that you know requires your fingers. When he returned, I gave props to his volume, and asked him how he learned to do that, as I’d spent my childhood trying to and faking it, and my adulthood not trying it. He told us a story about elementary school. He said, he had a math teacher who insulted and shamed him. One day she was using him as an example, and he just put his fingers in his mouth and blew.



Supervalent Thought

Think about a phrase that resonates. A supervalent thought is a thought whose meaning resides not only in its explicit phrasing, but in the atmosphere of intensity it releases that points beyond the phrase, to a domain of the unsaid. A supervalent thought produces an atmosphere in the world, makes an opening in the potential for apprehension, consciousness, and experience.

It’s a concept from Freud’s Dora. Freud uses it to describe an expressed thought (I don’t love you) that covers up a concealed thought that is its opposite (I love you). But I think the spirit of the concept is that in the penumbra a concept generates all kinds of contradictions can be magnetized to induce an impact beyond what’s explicit or what’s normative.

 




Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 534 other followers