. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought


Unworlding II

The rain was still torrential when I left the library to make my way to  the far northwest side of Chicago:  through the windscreen the traffic was in a slow chaos, cars shuddering from the beating wind and barely moving forward, the flooding streets outlining once again the urban infrastructure crumbling in real time. Potholes, puddles, and spray pounced out into sight as if the out there were a video game full of menacing threats to survival and not also ordinary life.

In the middle of all that a well-placed Shell station on Hollywood was processing a lot of traffic.  In the back right hand corner of the pumping area, though, a man stood just watching the cars. His gray and white cardigan and black cargo pants were becoming just dark with rain. He was tall, no longer young.  He seemed to have no relation to a car or the cars or to becoming soaked.  He was standing there just looking without watching.  It was easier to suss out what wasn’t happening than what was. I wanted to get out of the car and ask him something but couldn’t figure out the mechanics. Or the ethics.

Then things cleared up and moved on and so did the hard day of wondering about those scenarios of the ordinary that are predictable by now and yet feel immoveable too because their accumulation–as data, as exempla, as anecdote–does not lead to clarity, let alone transformation via something made live when the phenomenon turns trope. I’ve been reading a lot lately about gesture–David McNeill’s work particularly, in relation to the work on composure I’m working through in Cruel Optimism. McNeill writes fantastic sentences about, for example, the mouth sometimes being a “third hand” participating in the dynamic process in which speech and gesture extend each other’s habitation of “the house of being” in meaning. But he also asks, if gestures are crucial to the imagery of meaning, then what if gestures are withheld? But he hasn’t much of an answer for that, because he, like the phenomenologists who influence his work, is interested in the orientation of the subject toward action, and often action is a pretty literally imagined thing indeed. Something someone does.

But this day we encountered an activity of embodied performance that threatens any impulse to project an action. The man in the corner:  was he doing, or not doing? His stillness could be anything, but also nothing, a still life, a precise movement just going nowhere, or an adjustment. This precision might be repose, pose, distraction, inaction, paralysis.  I want to avoid a romantic projection of sovereignty onto the subject to enable the encounter with animated suspension not to have to be converted into an extensive gesture or an exemplum of worldmaking processes. To take the potentiality of that impact undoes the presumption that the ongoingness of things is the making or building of actions toward meanings.

This scene returned me too, to a favorite Adam Phillips essay, “On Composure,” which I usually use as a self-help piece for colleagues and students who identify with the mental space between consciousness and action but don’t have much access to the skill of composure, that allows keeping it together to be controlling the rhythm or pacing of being in the world and not just something sadistic, defensive, or defeated.  This time when I reread it, I was startled to find its rumination on the ego in particular as a composure machine that makes it “safe to have an excited body.”

The opening of Phillips’ essay is actually pretty incoherent.  Composure is “something we lose but tend not to find”; but it’s also “a preemptive strike–a kind of machine inside the ghost–against this fundamental disarray” that comes from the drives’ attack on the ego. But his temporal speculativeness works for me, because it outlines again the impasse of being in the destabilized present as a space of adjustment or activity without, necessarily, action in any accretive sense.  You breathe on the windscreen, it fogs up, you know?  Clearing it off with your hands just spreads the oil. So the expanding archive of the damage the world absorbs breathes a little deeper and voices break-up on the phone line again but it doesn’t need to mean anything.

My dean confided to me a plan to landscape a labyrinth on campus so that when people walk in it they’ll concentrate on not falling and forget what it was that actually decomposed them a second ago–she calls it Zen and I get the point:  take a deep breath and keep things in scale. But not all things should be just let go. We can learn a lot when the decomposition is slow.


5 Comments so far
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Great post. In Phillips’ reading of Winnicott, “ ‘the intellectual’ is always retaliating, always backing a grudge.” It seems that in this reading “the intellectual” is aware that the prospect of fulfillment (what use to be called communion) threatens to leave an empty space where one’s old self use to be. So the need for others is rendered with snark, anyone we might need is an “obnoxious stranger” because hell is not “other people” but “one’s need for other people.” So you didn’t get out of the car?

Comment by Laz Lima

I’m not sure why you went to the other part of Phillips’ groove there, about intellectuals as mild sadists. In any case, though, that wasn’t my relation to this scene: I didn’t know what the man was doing or wasn’t doing, and I didn’t want to project my guessing on it or judgment of it at the same time as I wanted to protect him from becoming wetter. The tableaux vivant in real time produces a strange encounter, and yet it’s an ordinary encounter with the enigma of the other’s stillness, a stillness we (intellectuals? paranoids?) can’t bear if the only way we can think about people is as actors who are acting in the right now of our anxiety. If I’d been out of the car already, and not in traffic, I would have approached him, though, with my umbrella.

Comment by supervalentthought

Wow! I am in a rush on the way to a meeting but compelled to write…I am writing on an insident that puzzled me…during the anti-g20 demonstrations a police officer without any reason larched on Ian Tomlison who was walking home and hit him. Tomlison died of internal bleeding/heart attack. The officer only recognised himself on seing a video played on television taken by a US banker who happened to be in London on the day….The police officer at that point collapsed..and was rushed to hospital with a heart attack…In thinking about this…I am thinking about the two ‘gestures’ of the police…the repetive lashing and his breathlessness…I reading Brecht, Agamben, Varo, and there is something at the moment that is convincing me of the pure mediality of gesture…as a gag…and I am trying to learn something from this…and thus bracket out for a moment all the legal ramifications that involve Ian Tomlison’s death…

Comment by e

“The officer only recognised himself on seing a video played on television taken by a US banker who happened to be in London on the day….The police officer at that point collapsed..and was rushed to hospital with a heart attack…”
This is astonishing and perfect: I’d go to the Reading Rodney King volume and look there at the great analyses(like Ruthie Gilmore’s) of the film there, the opposite of here. Here it’s about the gesture but it’s also about the subject as a back formation of his activity. As an actor at g20 he was POLICE as pure force (recent parallax issue on force might be relevant) but as spectator he’s ethical agent with room to have been otherwise and he had no capacity to deal with the noncoherence of those positions. Amazing.

Comment by supervalentthought

Berlant: “McNeill writes fantastic sentences about, for example, the mouth sometimes being a “third hand” participating in the dynamic process in which speech and gesture extend each other’s habitation of “the house of being” in meaning. But he also asks, if gestures are crucial to the imagery of meaning, then what if gestures are withheld? But he hasn’t much of an answer for that, because he, like the phenomenologists who influence his work, is interested in the orientation of the subject toward action, and often action is a pretty literally imagined thing indeed. Something someone does.”

I came across a quote from George Eliot’s “Daniel Deronda” that, although focusing on the difference between feeling vs. action rather than the relation of gesture to action to feeling, nevertheless echoed, to me, some of what you are saying here.

“She had the charm, and those who feared her were also fond of her; the fear and the fondness being perhaps both heightened by what may be called the iridescence of her character – the play of various, nay, contrary tendencies. For Macbeth’s rhetoric about the impossibility of being many opposite things in the same moment, referred to the clumsy necessities of action and not to the subtler possibilities of feeling. We cannot speak a loyal word and be meanly silent, we cannot kill and not kill in the same moment; but a moment is room wide enough for the loyal and mean desire, for the outlash of a murderous thought and the sharp backward stroke of repentance.”

Comment by ashtor




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