. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought

Dissolving into…

My friend Katie wrote me that she was struck by the relation of optimism to humor in this blog. After yesterday I’d say to the humors, as I was steamy, then, with optimism drain–blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm, acidic energy generated by my frustrated desire to have a whole thought amidst institutional avalanches of need, demand, passive aggression, aggression, and obligation. Some things just won’t just flake away through inattention.

But mainly, I was so bollixed up by all I wanted and failed to say in the last entry that I hadn’t even gotten to say what I’d been thinking about that very thing: that is, humor, laughter, the comic, and their relation to the psychoanalytic and political interests of this project’s aim to understand problems of detaching from normative, durable, reliable forms of life. Laughter is a form of dissolution that would seem to indicate an attachment to a situation that generates pleasure. But not always, maybe not even usually.

Here’s a start toward another research thread. Even a suggestion of the comic puts me in a good mood. Thanks, Katie! (Katie even thinks that maybe these should be called The Optimism Papers, although that wouldn’t predict, say, the chapter on torture. On the other hand, torturing is the state’s ridiculous optimism about controlling the real, isn’t it? And yet, there are questions of tone: the structure and affect of optimism aren’t identical, and being precise about those divergences matters.)

All throughout writing The Female Complaint comedy haunted me, comedy as a subordinated subculture’s or overwhelmed individual’s lubricant for being in the room with and figuring out how to survive what’s presently overwhelming about the real. But I could only talk about the comic as an intensity, an extremity on the other side of melodramatic heightening, as in the Dorothy Parker chapter: “Listen, I can’t even get my dog to stay down. Do I look to you like someone who could overthrow the government?” This couplet cracks me up. But even Parker claims that comedy isn’t a weapon, but a failing shield. It’s hard for me not to feel all mixed up around Parker’s humor, sensing the fear and defense that radiates in the atmosphere of her sharp observation. But sometimes comedy is just a cigar, or whatever: delight, unmixed relief to be stretching out without a sense of wearing out.

People dissolve into laughter and into tears, among other things, I’d been thinking: the dissolution of bodily composure was always part of this research (Losing It and Unraveling were other early handles for this project) . Last Thursday I realized that Detachment Theory had to start with thinking about laughing. Maybe that would be the chapter on Lamb’s She’s Come Undone and Ellman’s Doctors and Nurses. But there’s so much in the archive for this book that could be about comedies of dissolution that are not merely Rabelaisian inversion.

In the Affect Publics reading group this week we read Bergson’s Laughter and Baudelaire’s “The Essence of Laughter.” Neither of these attended enough to ambivalent laughter, because I’m most interested in the knot that undoes someone’s sense of formal control in an enduring way, not just as an involuntary pulse. But Bergson’s interest in adjustment as the scene or situation of laughter seems a perfect referent for that part of this project. He writes that inelasticity and inflexibility on display produce laughter, as the subject being laughed at can’t adjust to his situation: he talks about the comic spectacle of “something mechanical encrusted on the living.” Bergson’s sense that the comic is produced by inelasticity where we would expect or even need to see adaptation works well with John Limon‘s great prediction: “the appeal of comedy may be traced to its imposition of geometrical perfectionism on compounded liminality.” Limon ends up talking about queer precision.

As I was reading I kept thinking about dissolving into tears/laughter, where the bodily fact one always faces in laughter involves watching someone live through this, exerting control and letting go, tipping over and getting back up. When getting back up happens, I mean.

Dissolving can take on so many forms of bodily action: for example, bending over in laughter. I knew a woman once who was so stiff that her laughter looked like a threat to her bodily integrity: we were all actually scared when she laughed, we wanted it to go away, because we were afraid that in the aftermath she would just be broken, a stick dissolved into splinters.

She was a teacher of ours. Actually, now that I think about it, I’ve had two depressive teachers like this, whose laughter wasn’t a relief but a release of something the person really could not contain but could not survive the release of. The other one would shake side to side like a possessed metronome. Both were high composure, high WASP, very controlling women: one suicide, one now debilitated, mentally alive when she is, but not pedagogically, professionally, or personally too functional. She can laugh at ducks, and occasionally at talks.

The Life drive
January 15, 2008, 7:03 am
Filed under: Affect Theory, Detachment theory, Love, psychoanalysis, Theory of this Blog, writing

Mood, a shallow, shadowy rancidity interrupted by adrenalin when needed. Cheery! Fakeness actually works. I started this post right before school started on Jan 7. These first three sentences summarize what’s to follow.


A few posts ago, I asked, “What happens to the life drive when it finds no traction for its optimism?” I learned about the life drive from an essay conversation on trauma between Peggy Phelan and Cathy Caruth, a beautiful thing. (Cultural Values 5, 1 (January 2001): 7-27). Caruth talks about fort/da not just as Freud’s symbolization of the traumatized subject’s attempt to experience affectively what she does not actually have, mastery over loss (the child’s father is away at war; the mother is out of the room). To Caruth, the child’s game with controlling and losing control of the top also demonstrates a drive to sustain life in the face of death. To face and to turn away from death is not to disavow anything, or to drown out contingency and vulnerability with the noise of play and presence, but to become two-faced. To face and turn away from death (vulnerability, contingency, the thinning out of fantasy) makes possible living on without guarantees.

Indeed the main consolation the life drive provides the traumatized subject is its assurance that there are no guarantees, since she otherwise feels bound by the guarantee of the repetition of her impossibility. The life drive offers the possibility of repetition’s interruption (however low the bar–as mere variation, for example, a vacation), of a surprise, an unpredicted affect, within trauma. This suggests the possibility in advance that the subject might, sometime, be detached from the imaginable field of experience now clotted with the desperately predictable activity of affect management.

And yet. Talking to my lonely friends on New Year’s Eve, I was reminded to stay aware that there’s a corollary question to do with another optimism of which traumatic repetition itself can be a ground, shaped by resignation and its corollaries–treading water, not stopping, being around, being homeless, drowning, being detached not as a relation but an enduring condition, the numb whatever of a humming defense. As we know, sometimes a defense represents the last stand of sphincteral control over personality’s mirage of intention.

A few of the people I talked to on New Year’s week were lonely. But they embrace their refusal of optimism about becoming otherwise. One is chronically ill, and has gotten quite fat and short of breath. The other is chronically depressed, and has been digging a hole to nest in righteously. The former’s life shuttles between depression and spectacle. She only overcomes when she’s going to be on display–a high school reunion, a family celebration—events for which she can prepare to be fabulous, and to hold the gaze and center stage.

Until now, anyway: now, she’s giving up even that inclination to interrupt her depression, isolation, and mentalized life. She’s post-fakeness. She says that she has accepted herself, by which she means she embraces expressing her cruelty and disappointment. She tells me that as a feminist I ought to be against fakeness. What I say is that her survival matters: her fakeness produced for her reminders of what the life drive felt like, a grandiosity that relaxed her enough to provide some time for the other pleasures, involving looking around and being curious about things, and being interested in what she saw and, frankly, telling me about it. The reports from her intelligence were always interesting. They didn’t amount to confidence or self-love or trust of others or the world, so it wasn’t everything. But her attentiveness drew her along through life, made the performance of observational intelligence seem like a good, a contribution to things, a call that could get responses.

I’ll talk about the other friend in some other post. But I’ve been thinking about Peter Kramer’s Against Depression, and his rage at the romance of depression that confuses the disease with authenticity and the subject’s dissolution with creativity: and I see this not only in the adolescent and intellectual embrace of depression as higher intelligence and realer realism but also in a massive disrespect for optimism as something that’s somehow unethical.


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