. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought


On Potentiality, #1

I have a childhood friend who is just a tiny bit younger than me but always so much younger, her skin never showing her age, her cheek marked with a birthmark so Hawthornian it seemed impossible ever to finish looking at her, my eye caught forever in the optimism of her incompleteness.

She always had her face tilted up toward the sun. Yet she had also contracted the illness destined mainly for men in my family: they could have been a contender. Smart, hilarious, winning, full of life and potentiality, energetic-depressed rather than just depressed, eloquent, almost smooth, and unsettled, unsettled so deeply that nothing, no project, could absorb them. There was rarely a career; just jobs, while the creative energy sought out just the right outlet. People defined by having potential. People whose observational intelligence takes your breath away: they’re Dorothy Parker, write the best letters to the editor, blog with perfectly formed opinions. Quipsters, they blaze hot and then enter a fallow time, until they forget somehow that they’re there and then say something revealing their brilliance, which restarts the arc of almost sustaining its energy into something like a life, but not quite.

Our story, in short, has been the story of the potentialized. It’s never too late to have optimism, right? Thwarted potential is an endtime discourse–involving deep knowledge of the time you have wasted, the relationships you have scuttled out of fear or laziness or the blithe cruelty of being unwilling to be inconvenienced. The sickening sense of knowing that you’re what gets in your own way; and the complexities of living with it when it’s not you producing the blockage, when it’s your DNA or your bank account, your lack of the architecture of confidence or your cluelessness; your rage and sorrow: structural discrimination and exploitation; your ambivalence. The world wearing you out as it wears itself out. That model of the subject-in-potential looks at achievements and intimacies as proof that one really did deserve to have lived, after all, despite everything; that model puts the agent’s will to feel undefeated in the face of the “ego’s exhaustion” at the center of the story of optimism that represents modernity’s promise to everyone.

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From my mouth to your ear…

The inevitable Sex and the City post, belatedly. I forgot about the film the minute after I saw it, but if you write a book called The Female Complaint people ask you all the time whether you saw the latest chick flick, and whether something other than the predictably condescending thing can be said about it. Here’s what I wrote the night I saw it, raw. More on Intimacies soon.

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Leo Bersani and Adam Phillips’ new book Intimacies opens with this hilarious sentence: “Psychoanalysis is about what two people can say to each other if they agree not to have sex” (1). This is the funniest thing I have ever read.

The difference between Intimacies and Sex and the City is that the women in the film are not in psychoanalysis. But, as they are not having sex with each other, they can simulate the freedom to talk about sex where it isn’t. It’s a good thing that they have each other, too, as they are incapable of talking about sex with their lovers. But ladies, this is a problem.

If any of these women had ever even walked by feminism on the sidewalk they would have learned that one of the points of sexual liberation was to put your mouth where your mouth is. Sex talk was to be part of sex, part of sex pedagogy, part of allowing fantasy and desire to produce creativity and improvisation in the now of the event. Sexual liberation culture gave skills and permission for not just resorting to reenacting the default expectation out of fear that sex talk would make sex disappear.

But in this cinematic romantic world, the reigning fantasy is that sex and love ought to go without saying. Love objects are supposed to be like purchased objects, which in this film give instant radiant satisfaction and harbor no enigmas. But where love is concerned, the problem is that lovers are not objects, but subjects. Discussion is a fall from grace. Discussion is a sign that something is off. It puts you in the room with what’s too achingly human.

These women are so frightened of what’s uncontrollable and uncomfortable about sex that, rather than to talk well about it to lovers, they prefer to laugh and complain to each other about it. At one point, they even have to use the word “coloring” for “sex,” ostensibly to protect a little girl from hearing that it’s not about fantasy and play after all–but really, of course, to protect themselves from the embarrassing fact that they desire romance to corral sex into being something simple. Here’s Carrie’s description of Big’s sexual prowess, I kid you not: “he colors outside of the lines.”

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