Filed under: affect, Affect Theory, Attachment, Belonging, class, Detachment theory, economy, emotion, Encounters, Love, optimism, Ordinariness, Politics, potentiality, psychoanalysis, sexuality, supervalent_thought, Theory of this Blog, trauma, writing
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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