. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought


Do You Intend to Die (IV)?

I know that only some of the writing on this blog is accessible and useful.  Research is like that, sometimes providing big clarities that open things up memorably, sometimes stacking more material between you and having a minimal handle on a problem. This is the last note for this series, because I have other writing to do, and other problems of approach and address to layer into this detachment project, still very much in its nascence. Explanation does not dissolve what’s incomprehensible about a thing.  At least for me, writing makes a vestibular system, a scene around which to move to get the contours of what’s hard about a thing.  Maybe a given instance achieves genuinely transformative recontextualization, and the problem looks significantly different after the analysis; usually it just outlines the body.

I’ve been thinking about aspects of this series seriously since last summer, when I heard a story that just blew me away.  But a friend told me emphatically that it didn’t belong on this blog, and instead should find a home in an autobiography that I have no plans to write. 

Now it is possible to fold it in. Because of intensifications in the crisis ordinary that have happened in the meanwhile, it now appears propped up among many cases, at the same time as I mean for its airing here to transform the taxonomy within which those cases have gained some clarity in the past few posts.

We have been talking about two kinds of detachment from life: detaching from life absolutely, and also detaching from what counts as life, from a particular way of imagining adding up to something or mattering.  These are only sometimes the same process. “Detaching from life absolutely” tends toward the suicidal, from the literalization of the death drive to the achievement of a negative affective state, for example in aspirations to become numb, cool, dispassionate, flat, dissociated, defeated, a machine, normotic–whatever it takes to feel invulnerable to surprise.  More on semi-detached performativity in future posts.

But giving up on a deeply sustaining idea of life as such or the good life in particular can be shattering and life-affirming at the same time.  You can’t know in advance whether you will want a feeling of negative liberty (freedom from) to be sustained indefinitely in the absence of maps. Stumbling around a landscape in the dark raises adrenalin that can tilt both toward thrill and threat. The economic crisis multiplies dramas of adjustment that register the cost of being in synch with crisis and out of synch too.  Depression, both chemical and political, can have the same effect, producing the prisonhouse or the lightness of not caring; or the freedom or vertigo from detaching and seeing multiple horizons; or the excited scanning or dark melancholy that might saturate everywhere when desire no longer has an object to give living on a discrete shape.

But all of this description overdramatizes the state of being in the world not knowing how to live. It represses those coasting moments where one just gets by or takes things in. The numb, cool, dispassionate, flat, dissociated, defeated, normotic list above points us to the part of microadjustment that takes place as a bodily response, as proprioception, as mood, as a shadow in an episode, as coping, and not necessarily or usually in a causal chain or in consciousness or as an expressive symptom that can be read as a message.  The activity of tightening and fraying the binding to life or life imaginary: these oscillations add up and subtract up too, but detailing how is part of my project here.

So here’s the frame-shifting story that gives this series its name. I was to be in Melbourne last summer giving some talks, and my mother said to me, “Oh, your cousin is going to be in Australia too, maybe you can see each other!” Because I can be bratty-pedantic, I responded, “Australia’s pretty big, Mom, I doubt it,” but actually he was to be in Melbourne when I was.

It won’t be hard for you to imagine my cousin, but we’ve decided that I can’t say his name, to protect his family.  If you’re public you get stalkers. He’s much more famous than I’ll ever be, has sold many more books than I ever will, and has an impressive video presence on the web.  Here is my version of his story, which I have permission from him to tell as long as I think it will help someone, so that’s the version you’re getting.

My family is from Philadelphia, one of those cities that people stay in across generations, though we’re all gone now. But when I was growing up the extended family had “Cousin’s Clubs” to which hundreds of people would come.  This cousin is two or three years younger than me, but when we were growing up he seemed much much younger, partly because he was so irritatingly exuberant.  We always had to perform for our families at the Cousin’s Clubs, and one kid after another was brought out to play the guitar, sing, or recite, and early on he became an amazing magician and thrilled the family, those “children of all ages” around whom I “loitered with intent to mope” until I left home for good. How ever was a baby born so borscht belt?  Cuz was a stand-up comic before he could stand up:  he always had this “take my wife please” rhythm and there was always a drum in the air beating out the space between the joke and laughter.

So I didn’t like him that much, because you couldn’t have a real conversation with him: he was always too aspirational (trying to make you laugh or to be impressed or in awe of the spectacle).  He was hilarious and explained things well, but it wasn’t relaxing to be with him. Cuz left home at 14 to be a magician on cruise ships.  Occasionally I would hear about him–the vast money he was making, his move out West, his apprenticeships with magicians, surgeons, and pop culture businessmen like Tony Robbins.  Periodically we would talk on the phone, especially when he was beginning to turn his magic-related knowledge about what fools people into corporate-related knowledge about what binds people together.  He began to help businesspeople understand how capitalist subjectivity works affectively.  Part of what that entailed was teaching the people who took his classes how to get out of their own way, so that they could fulfill their potential.

In other words, we were deeply alike, but our audiences, styles, and aims remained starkly divergent.  I’d see him on CNN explaining how sales were all about microaffective transactions between people more than about the qualities of the product, and I’d have to laugh at the fun-house mirror effect of it, because I was sure that we had both trained ourselves to understand–to develop knowledge and language for–what we really couldn’t understand about the childhood environment we had both left earlier than our ages should have allowed.

I’m leaving a lot unsaid here, obviously. The point is that I grew a lot of abstract affection for him during the decades between conversations because, without knowing anything really, I understood the affective environment in which he operated. He became a motivational speaker and trainer of entrepreneurs who had only their mouths from which to create worlds, who had no institutional or inherited ballast or cultural capital, and who could rely on no help from anyone but the people to whom they might be able to connect now. All they needed were knowledge and skills about connecting, transmitting confidence, and sustaining reciprocity.

So I wrote him an email detailing what his mother had told my mother about our travels.  He sent me back a video email:  Hey, Lauren, it’s Cuz, great to be in touch.  I thought it was funny, so I sent him back a video email, which I’d never previously tried to do–Hey Cuz, Long time no see!.  But it turns out that video email is pretty much all he sends–for him, it’s all about the gaze and vocal tenor, and the exchange of what’s tender in the human in real time.  He is a kind of amazing.

On the day after I gave my master class on affect theory, we arranged to meet at the hotel in Melbourne where he was giving his master class, training and critiquing other financial-motivational speakers.  I met him in the hotel lobby surrounded by his agent and some people from the previous day’s training, who wouldn’t stop talking to him, because he’d given them a way of having confidence in skills for making human contact they hadn’t known they had.

We sat down finally to breakfast, and I said something like, so do you like your life, are you happy you’ve made these choices, is all of this traveling and being away from all those children you’ve had working for you?  Many astonishing stories tumbled out–in the middle of which was this one.

He has three children, two girls and a boy.  They’re all named after precious commodities: name brands–say, like Mercedes–and natural resources–say, like Goldie.  At some point the girls started acting weirdly, and dissociated from their formerly happy ways of being in the world.  “Mercedes,” the oldest, stopped eating.  “Goldie” went very quiet. Cuz and his wife interrogated them:  nothing, nothing, nothing. Denial.  Finally, the youngest admitted to being molested by a family employee. “Mercedes” refused to admit anything, but continued not eating.  She reached a stage about two weeks away from hospitalization, he thought. Cuz and I then talked about my later-life anorexia and I mentioned that I had always thought that it was wrong to say that the subject of anorexia wanted to die, that the very act of controlling the world while never being in control enough was a way of staying in life, staying focused and formally together while so much else seemed so close to crumbling. 

At this point he starts to cry, so I do too, and we’re both a little confused about that, and then he says something like: “So finally my wife let me try this tactic, although she didn’t think it would work.  I sat down with ‘Mercedes’.”  Cuz is a big young-looking guy, a kind of overstuffed 15 year old, and he looms over me, but softly, putting his arm around me and gazing in my face as he recreates his encounter with his daughter.  “I said to her: ‘Mercedes,’ do you intend to die?  Because, if you intend to die, I’ll pull the other children out of school and we’ll take a trip around the world, so that at least you’ll have had some experiences before you die. What do you think, would you like that? If you don’t intend to die, then we have to do something else about this.”

At this point he says to me, “Why are we crying?”  I say that my best guess is that if anyone had ever talked to us like that when we were little, not only granting us our perspective on the world but organizing the world around the way we understood things, we wouldn’t have had to become what we have become, people who go around helping other people find a way to use their particular minds to make themselves and the world they’re in more possible.  If anyone had ever talked to us like that, well–actually, people did talk to us like that, later, otherwise we couldn’t have known that our knowledge was anything.  We had teachers–the kind who wanted us genuinely to develop our own set of skills to become who we were, not who they were. Such relations don’t work for everyone, but they worked for us.

This returns us to the question at the end of the last post: would the Lupoes have survived and even flourished if people had treated them with epistemological respect even while not giving them what they wanted and needed for life to go on the way it was?  How does the habitation of an affective environment that would foment a sense of mattering produce the time/space for adjustment to what the conditions of mattering are, including an adjustment that refuses adjustment, that produces a politics of imagining mattering–“intending to live”–differently?  What is the relation between flourishing materially and the will to affective reciprocity?

For most of my life it wasn’t clear to me that living was better than not being alive, but I wasn’t interested in not being alive, just in attending to what it is that people have to do to stay afloat.  Staying alive was a given, but staying afloat wasn’t. People need skills for that, and supports for that.  The crisis of crumbling institutions of intimacy and durable consistency in the US at the present moment has something to do with a perceived loss of the relation of event to effect, so that it is harder and harder to know what it means materially to effectuate an intention to live, to float.  My cousin was asking his daughter to state an intention that she didn’t yet have, because that was the only way he could help her imagine mattering in the world. I am trying to learn what else there is to learn from that astonishing exchange.


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[...] writing like this, it would have seemed much worse. Instead, it feels like another reminder to pay attention to [...]

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This powerful post is linked in my mind with an episode of “House,” entitled “Control” about a 30-something intelligent, beautiful, successful pharmaceutical company CEO whose unexplained assortment of symptoms finally leads “House” to uncover a long history of bulimia that she induces by poisoning herself with IPECAC. When “House” discovers the link between her current heart failure and history of self-destructive behavior, he confronts her with the following choice: either he inform the emergency transplant committee of her psychiatric condition (which he warns, makes her a very bad risk for a new organ) or she reassures him that she is worth lying for, and therefore necessarily jeopardizing his medical license for. She begins to cry and get defensive about the childhood pain of watching her mother die of cancer and how difficult it can be to stay in control before “House,” gesticulating angrily with his cain, suddenly exclaims/yells, “enough with the hiding. I’m asking if you want to live? I want to know if your life is worth saving because I don’t know whether or not it is – and you can’t even answer that!” and as he says this he turns to exit. She grabs his sleeve and holding on to it says, through tears, “please, I don’t want to die.”
What strikes me here in relation to “do you intend to die” is the way that touching (House) and tone (Cuz) function to say something about staying in-life by, as it were, calling on gestures outside of language to get around the question rather than answering it via language.
As your post points out, “Cuz” pays a lot of attention to the affective transmission of voice/tone/rhythm – which is another structure of relating outside the sometimes coarse contours of language. When you said that “if anyone had ever talked to us like that-” it reminded me that although I mostly locate (my) transformative exchanges in the resonance of words, those words are the most powerful when they are also echoes of my emotional habitat. I think that perhaps part of what is so striking about the question “do you intend to die?” is the intimacy of talking about wanting. To me, part of what makes that question heartbreaking is the desire it grants the child. In this way, is it different from the experience (mine was in high school) of crumbling when a knowing teacher says, “how are you?” both because of the overwhelming implications of a “you” and the proximity to someone who looked at “you” while they asked? I realize that by focusing on the address here I am ignoring what was so powerful about the question itself. But I cannot help thinking about the way that “staying afloat” might be, you say, about “granting epistemological respect” and how this practice might engender its own lexicon of affect outside language.
I think that is what brings me to “House’s” patient relying on primal grasping to be a ‘good-enough’ desire for living, that enacts the only access she can muster to protest acquiescence to dying. Grabbing a sleeve is one way of expressing something about a relation to living like being touched by the tone of another’s intimate question but rather than a lesser version of desire for life or an enfeebled protest against dying, I am thinking of both of these episodes, frozen before they are rounded up to the nearest intentionality, as the very moments of being granted “staying afloat” as a possibility.

Comment by ashtor

Hi Lauren,
I am glad the Fonagy et al., mentalization, affect-regulation stuff is useful; I am loving your proper unfolding of it all here.
Some thoughts, with the aim of somehow partially keeping up (disorganised):

I wonder how to deal with the part of this important concept of visibility that is too big, and perhaps a kind of big Other, (self-)prophecy _masquerading_ as proof in movement (not a still ideal image), and paradoxically something that as soon as it is invoked as ‘the problem’ risks becoming understood as a lost americanist(?) project… (or what the ficto-critical novel arguably does and doesn’t solve). hopefully that shorthand makes sense.

Your posts on care made me think about the structuring of the time of care as versus the time of life, and the disjuncture that exists between the discourses on, and thus required felt experience of, both. (i.e. How ridiculous this is.) Fear that the time of care diverges too much from the apparently essential too-closeness of life time. i.e. You (only) stop (i.e. once), you die. Relatedly, it seems to me that those of us both close to _and_ far from ‘care’ can be overwhelmed by the idea of it, only because it is quite structurally set up to be a diverged ending from capital. What this has to do with the instant on/off charge of timely care vs death.

If I am understanding this collection of posts, this wonderful concept of “epistemological respect” (!), which no amount of otherwise-soothing [insert whatever] can replace (yes!!!!), seems entirely dependent on a workable and bearable and formally identifiable self-consciousness-in-historicity. The problem being that the “self” and “historicity” parts of this conjunction (precisely _when_ conjuncted in this way) can be taken at their most conservative?

Here, the one that doesn’t know quite what they need from consciousness and world, must show at least the outline of a normative but specifically epistemological (self)respect in order to really receive the necessary “real thing” as a kind of possible transport system. The loop of that – as social trading for mentalizing solutions. The extra stressors here of managing this disordered trading, on top of everything else.

Some precarious hope that mentalization can be taught, relearned – which to me seems to go very much against prevailing discourses that focus on the formalism of trauma. But of course you have to know a) what it is b) that you can’t do it c) that you maybe should be able to (deserve to), before you can go looking for this competency needed.

…Chris Kraus says that what the anorexic has and achieves is an acute biochemical control over the feeling of her own subjectivity – the ability to accentuate subjectivity _as_ power. Something like that. Which I take to be some kind of visibility felt (_only_ felt) as the inside of the mind’s skin…maybe.

Comment by Rachel

My computer is acting up, so pardon if I’ve posted this a few times. Thank you for this post and your intellectual generosity. I am feeling like you and your germanic prose are keeping me afloat for these/my moments of only semi-precarious living and loss. And I am grateful. As a daily cryer. As a person ready to dissolve and interested in what that might mean. Staying alive is one thing, but living the good life is, indeed, another. The moment you identify with your cousin when you both seek to acknowledge and make happen other people’s lives, feelings, experiences, to become students and teachers, to gain in losing, seems like one way we can envision a way into the future, a way beyond easy declarations of new found solidarity and the impassivity of the political still life and endless adaptation. It does not depend on an old sense of the new, a beginning, but on being here now.

Comment by kwail

“Do you intend to die?” is really *the* moment, isn’t it? The question itself turns, opens that “affective reciprocity,” perhaps ironically, through a kind of negative affirmation. It reminds me of my TV obsession, which I’ve been trying to figure out why I’m so fascinated with–A & E’s Intervention. For some odd reason, I take comfort in this episodes formulaic approach–culturally and affectively I wonder what the audience gets out of it. I don’t think just distanced pity, or over-identification with the addict. I think one might be comforted by the narrative knowledge that everything is leading up to the question–“Will you take this gift?” The “gift” being rehab, but it’s much more than that, really. It’s the question itself……

Anyway, I won’t go on to much and potentially embarrass myself. Just felt the need to respond to these wonderful posts.

Comment by kristine

In response to “kristine’s” post about “do you intend to die?” as “the moment” which happens through a kind of “negative affirmation.” I similarly found myself thinking about the role of nonverbal affective communications in these moments, such as “tone” in the story of “Cuz” and his daughter and “touch” in an episode of “House.” There is an episode of “House,” where a young, successful, beautiful, intelligent suicidal woman is confronted with the news of her heart’s imminent failure and the unlikelihood of her receiving a new donor organ because of her bulimia. When confronted with this news by Dr. House and expected (by him) to perform the drama of the desire to live, which in this case would really be a defense of the right to continue living, she starts crying and becomes autobiographical. Shouting impatiently,”enough with the games!” and “stop hiding,” House finally says, “I’m asking you if you want to live or die and you can’t even answer that?!” and heads in frustration toward the door. Before he has left, she grabs his arm and says, through tears, “I don’t want to die.”
I wonder whether there is a relationship between the way “do you intend to die?” gets asked (in Cuz) & answered (in House) that points to how gestures of relating (tone/touch) activate what is formally unique about “staying afloat”?

Comment by ashtor

I realized something yesterday. When I moved to new york (a year ago), I was initially mystified by the urgency & real zeal with which people grabbed seats on the subway. It didn’t seem to matter if they were barely seated, leaning on a neighbor, toppled, etc. And then it hit me that maybe sitting is sometimes just about being fatigued by verticality, staying afloat as momentarily ceding responsibility for gravity?

Comment by Ashtor

Gila–perfect exemplarity. I think you’re totally right. I was surprised by the staying alive/staying afloat distinction and it turns out to describe a lot, I think about the kinds of agency that move through time without necessarily worlding or building something. If you add “Slow Death” to that the subway scene looks like this: people exhausted by the forced (partial) sovereignty of getting through the day are sinking from the weight of that sovereignty or (at the end of the day) exhausted by its depletion, and need a seat cushion as a floatation device.

Comment by supervalentthought

hey Lauren,
Been reading Madame de Stael’s /Reflections on Suicide/ and I think you might find it interesting with regard to your current project and archive…

Comment by gerard

Hey Gerard, Say More! What resonance or not are you reflecting on? Hope all’s well for you btw. LB

Comment by supervalentthought

I was reading and came accross this from Hannah Arendt regarding Brecht…I think it connects to ‘staying afloat’…A bit long but will quote it…

‘…when he feels the flood rising, he does not glance longingly backward, as no one did more beautifully than Rilke in his later work, but appeals to those who will emerge from it, and this appeal to the future-to posterity-has nothing to do with ‘progress’. What set him apart was that he realized how deadly ridiculous it would be to measure the flood of events with the yardstick of individual aspirations-to meet, for instance, the international catastrophe of unemployement with a desire to make a carreer ad with reflections on one’s own success and failure, or to contront the catastrophe of the war with the ideal of a well-wounded personality, or to go into exile, as so many colleagues did, with complaints about lost fame or a broken up life. There is not a shred of sentimentality left in Brecht’s beautiful and beautifully precise definition of a refugee…’ a messenger of ill tidings’. A messenger’s message, of course, does not concern himself. It was not merely their own misfortunes that the refugees carried with them from land to land, from continent to continent-‘changing their countries more than their shoes’-but the great misfortune of the whole world. If most of them were inclined to forget their message even before they learned that no one loves the bearer of ill tidings-well, hasn’t this always been the trouble with messengers?’
Arendt Men in Dark times, ‘Bertolt Brecht’ p225-6

Comment by e

I’m just a poet blogger who visited you simply because another blogger referenced your “Intimate Publics” as proof of her intellectual inferiority. Like her, I feel overwhelmed. But I have to say that the act of touching, grasping a sleeve, draping an arm around a shoulder, strikes me as a form of communication that transcends all other forms. My mother, suffering from end-stage Alzheimer’s disease, can no longer engage with the world at large. But when I take her hand, she grips mine. That gesture says everything I need or want to say.

Comment by Chris

Yes, you were responding to ways that touch interferes with the distance that has to be traveled by any kind of storytelling, yes. But in most of my environments the touch has to be withheld (“professionalism”) and so when I talk about teaching I use a rhetoric pointing to the ways discussion makes a holding environment (from Christopher Bollas, etc.) for connecting up the people in the room (Juliana Spahr, *This Connection of Everyone with Lungs* is trying for something like that too)…

Comment by supervalentthought

critical theory cured my eating disorder.

Comment by margaret




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