. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought


A Barrel of Acid and a Barrel of Water, or “Things happen like this.”

I am having an amusing physical problem now–lex talionis, almost literally. My tear ducts periodically clog and swell, as though some ungrieved grief has decided to mark my head with a little deadpan realism. Of course since I think it’s funny I’m not learning the lesson I should.

Anyway, in the mornings and evenings now I put a hot compress on my eyes for 10 minutes. Then I wash them with baby shampoo (also ironic, as they promise “no more tears”!). I find the 10 minutes excruciating and useless, which is also funny and ridiculous: so I have been trying to make up productive labor for the daily episode, such as listening to films to understand the atmosphere and environment of action apart from what’s embodied in spectacle, character, and flesh.

But this morning I listened to the Fresh Air interview with Cristian Mungiu, director of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a remarkable film about a bad day during a bad period of life, Romania 1987, during the regime of Nicolai Ceausescu. People talk about it as an abortion film but Mungiu finds this thematization irritating: clearly, he thinks that the melodrama of abortion in the U.S. narrows our capacity to see what’s going on right in front of us.  His principle of realism is to track the extended present of the flat phrase “Things happen like this.”

Here is what he said about what the case of abortion stands for (along with standing for state-invested blockages to women’s sovereignty), more or less accurately transcribed.

“The suppression of abortion was the suppression of moral action, practices of decision-making, and intensified contexts of friendship, and solidarity. . . You know, whenever you have a strong enemy in front of you and you have a problem which is common for a group of people, the solidarity belonging to the period is going to be much more important. . .It’s a film about decision-making, and responsibilities in life, and freedom during that period, and compromise, and friendship and solidarity . . . The story came to me with all the details and with all the emotions, but not with the all the motivations, because people don’t know why they acted the way they acted, they just acted.They just reacted to a specific situation…It has to do with the situation, and it has to do with the kind of friendship that they were having. “

Mungiu thinks that abortion isn’t that great, either. “It is said that nearly half a million women died in the process of having illegal abortions between 1966 and ’89 but at the same time after 1990 when abortion became illegal we had a million abortions a year because people were uneducated [about ordinary birth control and self-responsibility].” He tells an amazing anecdote about cascades of irresponsibility.

“An abortionist tells a potential client about the contract she’s entering. She pays him to do the abortion. But there’s a second stage. He shows the client two barrels near the table where the procedure will take place. One has water in it, the other acid. If things go well, “in the water you’re going to wash yourself and walk back home. if things don’t, I’m going to put you in [the barrel full of acid] and bury you and no one will know.”

Continue reading



Optimism and Distension ("Something about what happens when we talk.")

I heard from two friends today who wanted to say something on the blog, but were too shy and too averse to the appearance of insiderness that the very presence of the blog as a public incitement is supposed to obviate but never really does, sigh.

One friend is like me, or was finding the likeness in me, in the way that s/he is shaken up constantly not by detachment or existential loneliness but by the optimism of attachment, the optimism that brings us back to the pleasure of self-dissolution in the zone of the intimate other’s potential to relieve one of oneself a bit. This is what we wrote about entre nous. Dehiscence: the thing we get when we talk. The other friend and I said, in reference to the earlier Sedgwick/Moon post, that we don’t want all being to be “wound dehiscence” or patterns of mourning, and we hope not and think not, because there’s always that potentiality of lightening in the suspended present that brings people back to making contact and then, having made it, wondering how to repeat that feeling, even to the point of politics (struggling for the world that sustains people rather than wears them out. All convergences happen in the stretched out, activity-activated, present).

The optimistic thing makes us actually desire being in the room with the good-enough misrecognitions. The optimsitic thing keeps us in the house with inconstant love. The optimistic thing makes us talk to strangers. It makes us abstract and hopeful when attached to the anything at all that feels not like a metaphysical foundation, but an episode of relief. The thing that makes us optimistic about distension, which Deleuze and Guattari define as “when . . . two sensations draw apart, release themselves, but so as now to be brought together by the light, the air or the void that sinks between them or into them, like a wedge that is at once so dense and so light that it extends in every direction as the distance grows, and forms a bloc that no longer needs support” (“Percept, Affect, and Concept,” 168). This describes the sense that a good conversation produces, as it feels autonomous from the conversers, like a dream that gets made between them. Continue reading



Writing Light

And how hard it is to do. I tried, in the last post, to say something about secrecy.

I don’t even care about secrecy, usually, because the scenario of exposing what’s unjustly censored has always seemed overdramatic to me, a distraction: all communication amounts to a defense, a performance of knowledge management that approximates some parts of reaching out to a thing while bracketing out others; and when information is hoarded to consolidate power, often the fact of the hoarding is overemphasized (Lies and Lying Liars, etc.) relative to the substance that was hoarded in power’s treasury (see etymology in the last post).

Think about the word “disclosure.” In the event of the revelation of the secret it just feels big because it reveals that control over history and the present has already been stolen from you (or the body politic), and thus the revelation delivers a quadruple shock (we discover and are forced to adjust to the news that we have not known a particular thing, nor known how to read the world, after all).

But I’d read an article that had excited me, and I wanted to report on how reading a thing had opened me up to a cluster of associations and bridging energies to do with my older work on the new state realism that embraces coping with terrorist secrecy by copying it and papers I’m going to write this spring countering some traditions of everyday life theorizing about encountering the present. The event of the secret, its meaning and force, is, paradoxically, how it’s shared. That was the animating revelation for me. Continue reading



Secrecy, a Hoard (med.L. secretia, a royal treasury)

Read a great and useful piece on secrecy: Shersow and Michaelson, Is Nothing Secret? Does “secret” in the title mean deliberately to dogwhistle “sacred,” and what does that suggest? Or does it point more to that other great pronouncement of ethical failure, “Have you no shame?”, a near-rhetorical question that accuses someone else of losing moral discipline or withdrawing from a commitment to normative ethical views and acts. Have you no x? You should have x. If this is a rhetorical question, you don’t even deserve to have heard it.

The shamelessness of political antinormativity: terrorism, now, has become defined as a commitment to hoard knowledge from the state of any political views and intentions. For pro-HUAC politicians the shame was secreting communist affiliations and for people like Joseph Welch (who famously accused McCarthy of shamelessness) it was McCarthy’s embodiment of the state’s equation of democratic freedom with citizen transparency. The fear of the citizen’s opacity rubbed up against the ideology of individual sovereignty. Absent somebody’s discipline by a sense of duty, somebody‘s shame was supposed to relax the contradictions, one way or another. I learned the word “dogwhistle” from Amanda Macdonald, by the way. In Australia, it refers to a connotation that’s inexplicit in an utterance but seeks to confirm solidarity with a specific kind of ideologically-defined ear/subject/being/population.

I also learned from the learned essay something I ought to have known, and shame on me. The etymology of privilege is “law of the private”–privus lege–by which we can understand here less the modern sense of privacy (the law legitimating possession of that which can be called personal) than the traditional sense (the law legitimating the sovereignty that derives from ownership). The law of the private, or privilege, points to the sovereign rights of any individual, but historically that individual was the Pope, who had ecclesiastical privilege. But knowing this history puts a new penumbra around accusations of privilege, for now they can be understood as accusations that someone or some institution has asserted a private law that self-benefits or benefits a class. It reminds that the property word title organizes a sense of an actual entitlement.

Secrecy, hoard, trust, title–this reminds me of Aristotle’s always startling revelation of how often the terms of ethical discourse derive from the economic. Maybe that’s why I’m as suspicious of ethical as of capital logics of value: I don’t trust most self-privileged guarantees of good intentionality or the normativity of most forms of reciprocity.

Meanwhile, to secret the loss of your commitment to normative ethics, to not tell the world that you have withdrawn from the normative agreement that x behavior will denote y moral state, practice, or commitment, is to assert a privacy that the state/your interlocutor can’t bear, these days. The body politic is petit objet a, and has to be beaten for it.

It’s one thing when people hoard transparency from each other: usually it is a betrayal of trust to violate the intimate’s promise to be transparent enough. These departures into opacity are inevitable, though, and anyway much secreting of alterity can actually come from motives of care, to protect the big picture of love from malign variations of mood. But that doesn’t mean that exposure will not be an event: it’s always an event to discover the alterity of the lover that was always and will always be there, and is there right now.

But the politics of who gets to secret the secrets–this is what Kim Scheppele wrote about a decade ago, and what Michaelson and Shersow are thinking about. In “The Epistemology of State Emotion” I argued that the state defends its own opacity from accusations of antinomianism by claiming that the terrorist practices of secreted secrecy force the state into mimetic overdrive. Here’s the view of The New York Times.
Michaelson and Shersow’s real aim is to explain secrecy in terms of Derridean-inflected genre theory, and to approach the Constitutional history that made the Patriot Act seem legal. Of course it should have been called the superfluous, supernumerary state secret act, since it legalized already legal suspensions of due process. Bush/Cheney were angry that they had to ask permission to do what they wanted, claiming that speed of execution in an era of rational paranoia is a priority over the boring business of supervision. But perhaps one ought to save the word “supernumerary” for its best phrase partner, “nipple.”

Here’s a bit of what Michaelson and Shersow have to say:

In any case, a secret evidently can—or must—be shared by more than one; and yet, to remain faithful in any sense to its own concept, it cannot be shared by every one. . . . In those cases that are called, in English, “open secrets,” and in French, “les secrets de Polichinelle,” only the sharing of the secret is secret, not the secret itself; and even such sharing remains always suspended just this side of a necessary limit which it may always encounter in, for example, the voice of a child proclaiming an emperor’s nakedness. Are these problems of number and limit (as such phrases and examples seem perhaps to indicate) the source of the faintly comic note that seems to play, as we shall see, around the whole idea of the secret, even in its most serious (and secretive) political form? We will also suggest that this question of the secret is a kind of ghostly double of the question of democracy itself, to which it remains inescapably linked by exigencies at once practical and theoretical. Democracy and the secret pose a sort of double problem whose two sides can be denoted in French by the single phrase plus un (cf. Derrida, Politics 101). How many can share a secret? The secret replies, so to speak: this many, but no more. And how many [End Page 125] can join in a democracy?

This passage calls up Jodi Dean/Zizek’s argument too: that democracy produces an evidentiary crisis. Who has the information that organizes life? The enmeshing of “openness” with democracy, equality and freedom requires suspicion on all sides, and a play between the sovereignty and injustice of kept secrets, open secrets, fetishes of transparency on all sides, and a suspicion that things are never equal, which they aren’t. Intellectuals can fetishize the circulation of knowledge, as though knowing all equals an even playing field. But rather than be cyncial about it, let’s turn to Ranciere’s work, where democracy is a desire and a process of opening and claiming that refuses the norm/law of class privilege, and it’s not the same thing as openness or equality, which is a measure in a moment. Secrecy might be anti-democratic, a treasury or hoard of value, but transparency is a fantasy horizon that does not guarantee or constitute democracy. We know that and yet the impotence of the truth and the seduction of the wish remains, that a sense of openness equals openness of access to power, resources, and indeed privilege, with all the unimpeded mobility of impact its etymology suggests.

Below I’m starting a new genre for riffing, for keeping suggestive connections alive. Interruption is my stylistic ethics: to self-interrupt, to force openings in my own habit of self-tracking and self-regard, to be idiomatically non-monogamous, as you would predict. Adultery, fantasy, philandering, swerve (I read an article today about adultery, where the commentators kept saying “she got her swerve, he got his”).

Side effects: Secrecy may dissolve or engender solidarity, paranoia, and love. Its genre is the stage whisper. Secrecy may induce constant surprise at leakage. Be prepared, ask your doctor. It can perform coercive binding, as when, after information is “shared,” the speaker says, “You mustn’t say a word about this,” as though by listening you had already consented to pretend not to have heard or been changed by the event of the dirt. It may induce pervasive skepticism about the meaning of gifts and of love. It may make one long for stupefied and stupefying defenses against any assurance at all. See extimacy. See also political depression. Unimaginative and thrilling inversions can develop, too, as in: retaliatory acts of openness, disloyalty to that open secret which shields privilege from experiencing its own fragility, compulsive uncaring frankness, or gossip (the sublation of once-hoarded information to pseudo and then actual performative authorlessness). Hearing commentary on you that open with phrases like “people say” may lead to an adrenalin rush, the sensation of being tipped over, and generalized hate or love, depending. People who are cruelly made to discover that they have been out of the loop, discourse fellowship, or sentimental holding chamber of insiderness may go crazy on you: do not open up the treasury while driving a vehicle. Secrecy may cause more hoarding, more secrecy, more informational auto-poesis or lying. It may cause diarrheas of deniability, falsely innocent assertions of not having known, not having been on the inside, and not having had a will to the death of the other from whom x was kept and who could not therefore understand or shape the condition of their lives. Refusals to protect the secrecy of the open secret dissolve the assurance of others, and may create a will to saturate all sensual fields not in kind but with acts of reason or pseudo-openness that really amount to an ungiving turned-away back. Sinthomo-epistemology may induce vomiting. I thought some of this during a meeting at school a few weeks ago. Why bother going to the gym when I’m getting so much exercise rolling my eyes while keeping my face straight? Composure uses up glucose. Writing keeps me from flying off into the air from all that fluttering.




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