. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought


After Eve, in honor of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

On February 25, 2010, a small symposium gathered at Duke University to honor Eve Sedgwick.  There were four formal speakers—me, Tyler Curtain, Maurice Wallace, and Robyn Wiegman—and then many other testifiers and memorialists.  We were all listeners.  It was a moving and interesting night. As there were no plans by the event sponsors to publish the talks, the participants thought they’d like some record of their part in it to be part of a publicly held history not only of Eve, but of many overlapping affectional and discourse worlds.  We decided to publish them here and put out the word.  After the jump, After Eve…

after eve

Tyler Curtain: Remarks for Duke’s “After Eve, in honor of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick”

It was very frustrating. I was trying to explain to customer service at Dell — or was it Microsoft — what the long string of error messages meant — and they weren’t understanding what was going on with their own software, and really couldn’t tell me why, but hold on just a minute longer, they’d find a supervisor, and who was I again?  Eve had a white Ikea Poang chair as her desk chair. The monitor for her computer sat up on a blond wood Ikea desk. Her office was in the back right of the 1950s ranch house on Montgomery Street, just off of Cornwallis in Durham. The walls of the office were white. The windows in the room ran along the top of the walls — a mid-century modern-ish allowance of light into the cool space. I was in her white chair. Eve was next to me in a large robe and her gold, round glasses, following the conversation from my half of frustration.  The customer service representative asked me again — who are you? And I said to her on the phone, My name is EVE.  I AM EVE.  Eve um  Sedgwick. The CSR said, let me check the paperwork and he put me on hold.

That’s great! Oh that’s great! Eve said. Oh I love that. Hal does that. Oh you know what I love about Hal? He helps me with my computer, and he just tells them that he’s me. I am Hal and he’s me. It’s very French.

I had on Eve’s breasts. They were heavy and hurt my back and shoulders. I am pretty sure that they had been hanging in the closet. It’s difficult to recall, though. They may have been on a chair. “They’re hot,” she said. “I don’t like wearing them much. They hurt my back, as well. I wear them when I want to put on something with a neckline, or when I want to fill out a blouse. Mostly, though, I don’t want to wear them at all.” Eve had said about her friend Michael Lynch that “it is as if we were both the man in the iron mask; different men in the same iron mask” (“White Glasses,” 257). “Uncanny effects,” she notes. “effects as of the frame; as of the mask: effects of focal length.” The breasts were heavy against my chest—hours of that would be unbearable, hot. They cut into my shoulders. I didn’t say anything that I recall. It is a complex, heavy thing, to take on the task to bear witness. I struggled out of Eve’s breasts. I had on Eve’s hair. I took that off too. The lipstick was unevenly applied. I had on her pair of white glasses.

In preparing this morning to give these remarks, it popped into my head that I should send them to Eve. That took the air out of my lungs; my chest tightens to think that she’s not there. Facebook reminds me to make a connection. She appears on AOL Instant Messenger from time to time. After Eve? She’ll be dead a year in just under two months. But that ferocious voice on the page isn’t silent. She is there / not there: the uncanny is momentarily upsetting, jarring; the uncanny is deeply comforting. For a few moments I think that I should pretend that she’s in New York City and we haven’t emailed in while, but I’ll do that tomorrow. Right now I’m finding the right words. Bearing witness is a difficult thing. It sits heavy against my chest.

One night near 10 PM, it was probably around 1996, I was driving back to my place in Durham.  I was heading back home from an evening at Eve and Michael Moon’s. There had been some get-together? A movie, I think. Eve wasn’t there. She had another commitment. We were all there in the house without Eve. The house on Montgomery, large, warm, and open, felt like something of a hippie commune. Any of the people in this room today could have been there, many of the people had been or would be during those years, and a few of you might have been there that night. I really don’t remember. I do remember driving back in the dark. Durham at night in the mid 90s was a very dark place. There were few lights on the side streets — and whole stretches of road, even near campus, were pitch black at night. The main stretch of University was dark. That is still true today. The trees canopy the road, making a tunnel.  I made a right off of Academy, onto University, into the pitch black. After five years in Baltimore, the darkness of Durham disconcerted me.  That, too, is still true today.  It may sound strange, but the circle of light made by just my car’s headlights seems too small for such a large dark.  I hit the brights, and that brought up the edges of the trees.  My lights weren’t on very long though. I clicked them back down because a car was coming in the opposite direction.  I couldn’t see the car, only bright lights, which the driver brought down so that I could see. We rounded the crest at the same time.

I couldn’t see the car. I couldn’t make out the driver. But my headlights caught two perfect gold circles in the dark. They flashed — and passed — and University was dark. That one moment, a flash really, made me so very happy. I drove back to my house and she drove home to join the rest.

25 February 2010

Tyler as Eve (1)

(Tyler Curtain)

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Thinking About Eve

February 25, 2010

Robyn Wiegman, Literature and Women’s Studies

I met Eve Sedgwick on a bridge in Chicago in the early 90s. Past sundown, with the bridge lit up in holiday white and a fierce wind numbing whatever flesh was unclothed. My friend Tom Yingling, who I knew then was dying, saw her in the distance. “That’s Eve,” he whispered. She was the only woman coming toward us in a group of three—much shorter than the others, covered entirely in coat. I had seen Eve Sedgwick before, once, at a conference at Yale University in 1989 when her session erupted in contested dialogue about her sexuality, about her identificatory proximity to her queer objects of study, and her relation to knowing “them,” which was posited as a knowing of “us.” That was Eve at a different distance—at a table at the front of a regular classroom, with an amazingly soft, almost ethereal voice, softer still in the raucous space in which the authority of her person was being called to question for the very authority she was taken to exert over a field that had finally found itself at Yale. It was ugly, but it was an ugliness that was not two-faced, was not the routine of a professionalism we more often inhabit: at the very least, people were saying to Eve exactly what they had begun to say about her.

The Eve on the bridge was risking much less walking across it than the Eve at Yale, no matter the fact that we too would pull her out of her privacy, for introductions and reunion, pretending all the while to ourselves that a brief chat on a bridge at the MLA was not an intrusion, not a grasp at her emerging fame, not a desire to be close to whatever she was close to. That was because we were, then, like now, already after Eve—after her in the sense of trying to find a way to be connected to her because she had gotten so far ahead of most of us. The “us” I am speaking of here is not the us of a social or personal intimacy. Like many people, I was never Eve’s friend, nor her student, nor a colleague. I arrived at Duke after Eve; I became friends with some of her friends after they had been transformed by their relation to her. Even my first therapist in Durham had already belonged to Eve.

I talked to Eve twice, I think, after that meeting on the bridge. When Tom died in 1992, she helped me secure a contract for his work at Duke University Press and encouraged me to use his personal writing—his poems and letters—and not simply his academic work, as a way to represent and mourn him. That book didn’t arrive into print until 1997, right around the time that the genocidal emergency of AIDS in the US was downgraded and people started to imagine living with positivity. What had been struggled for in the earliest activisms around AIDS—the political category of the PLWA—the Person Living With Aids—had become part of the medicalization of the disease, such that for the first time it could be approached, depicted, and medically inhabited, in conception if not in actuality, as a chronic illness. That transition is still incomplete, of course, and for many a mere fantasy, just as the global situation of AIDS is unmappable onto its trajectory in the US.

But the point here is that by the time the Yingling book came out in 1997, a year after Gary in Your Pocket, which Sedgwick edited to memorialize the very talented and never published Gary Fisher, AIDS was on its way to being post-ed: not forgotten per se, but situated as part of “an age” and hence as an epidemic whose end had become imaginable. While it is true to say, as many have said, that this imaginability allowed public political attention to leap quickly—indeed too quickly—over the continuing emergency in the lives of many, thereby redoubling the violence that accompanied AIDS as a discourse of social life, it also brought a certain hope and a new kind of mourning. Hope: that the present would be the scene of a collective out living, such that the why me? of the one with AIDS and the why me? of the one who would survive it could be united by a different community-generating question. And a new kind of mourning: for everything—everyone—who had not lived to feel the texture, the psychic density, the grip of possibility that the normalizing of AIDS as a chronic disease had offered to deliver.

I use the word normalizing on purpose here, because it is a strange feature of our present that the routes that queer theory would take after Eve would turn their political gaze increasingly against normalization of every kind, becoming less and less exacting about what kinds of norms a despised community can and cannot live without, and why the choices are never its alone. In this, queer theory could be said to have forgotten, well before Sedgwick’s departure, precisely what is most clear about her work, that one must be vigilant about rendering tenderness: toward others to be sure and toward the self, but more crucially toward the ways that the world is inadequate to what we need from it and hence that the work of living is always a negotiation between the possible and the intractable, which is to say between the incommensurabilities of desire and the world in which our desire must nonetheless live. That is why, in her work, fantasy is crucial, as is affect and self-disclosure and identification: all compounded in their complexity by the density of language, which I read as an aching desire for words to deliver us from the very impoverishment Sedgwick uses them to express.

Sedgwick’s language: so thick the reader is quite literally wading through it, caught or caught off guard by its hallucinating undertow. Her writing evokes as much, if not more so than it argues. And always it is contradiction that galvanizes her–between what people say and what they do, what they hope for and how they live, what they theorize and what they feel, what is done to them and what they do to themselves and to others. Take the opening paragraphs of Epistemology of the Closet where she establishes the framing contradictions that the book explores: between a minoritizing and universalizing view of homo/heterosexual definition on the one hand and between a gender-separatist and cross-gender view of sexual object choice on the other. The purpose of this book is not to adjudicate between the two poles of either of these contradictions, she tells us on page 2, for . . . no epistemological grounding now exists from which to do so. Instead, I am trying to make the strongest possible introductory case for a hypothesis about the centrality for this nominally marginal, conceptually intractable set of definitional issues to the important knowledges and understandings of twentieth-century Western culture as a whole. The significance of these contradictions arise, then, in their dual role as the productive scene of homophobic power and the locus of anti-homophobic negotiations. As she discusses it, to make claims for gay specificity as an identity always risks reinscribing its difference outside the purview of the heterosexual injunction it underscores and helps to elide, while claims for the universal reach of homosexuality as a condition for sexuality’s modern formation as a whole risks muting the specific violences by which phobic power performs, extends, and applauds its own reach. By taking up the elastic and unpredictable ways in which homophobic power operates, Sedgwick does not seek better theory or analytic resolution, nor does she rely on critique as the next best thing to managed living; to be sure, she writes to live, which is why I speak today of her writing in the present tense, in terms of what it is and does, not what it was or what it did. But her work repeatedly defers any pretense of mastery over her subject, a deferral that is crucial to understanding not only her foundational contribution to what would be called “queer theory” but the pedagogical challenge of learning from her.

Let’s return now to the scene at Yale, where Eve’s identification as a fat woman who loved gay men was taken as a political as well as a professional threat. I must confess, because speaking of Eve demands it, that I was conflicted about the prominence of gay men in the unfolding of sexuality studies in those years: even as my closest friend grew increasingly ill such that AIDS hit home in ways Sedgwick had already experienced exponentially; even as her book, Between Men, had been central to my dissertation in the late 1980s because it had taught me how to read the asymmetry of homosociality in patriarchal social orders as a precursor for my own investment in charting the racialized nexus of masculine bonds in the U.S. While I had some hint of how the scene of interracial male bonding was serving in my own work as a means to identify with the women of color whose feminism had brought me to the topic of race and masculinity in the first place, I had no idea how to deploy that identification as a central part of my inquiry. Instead I feared it: feared attending to the way that black male bodies were part of a project of routing my affinities away from whiteness and the potent compact across sexual difference that comprises white racial formation and undermines feminism at every turn; feared the implications of my own identifications in a history in which white women’s alliance with black men–real or imagined, loving or not–had gotten them killed; feared, then, the charge and the challenge of the very triangle I had staged in studying black masculinity as a vehicle for answering black feminism’s anti-separatist lesbian call.

It was easier then and I must say it would be easier now simply to concern myself with the question of the legibility of the lesbian in Sedgwick’s work or sexuality studies in general where the authority of my claim to the category could mediate much of the difficulty of trying to think about the actual and at times awful explosiveness of political alliances or the dissatisfaction that can accompany our identifications, or the shame and confusion that can follow the errant itineraries of desire–that is, all the ways in which who we are and what we want and what we feel and what moves us or makes us are not adequate to the self performance we seek. Yes, my we here is voiced in the universal of a modern western academic subject, variously racialized, classed, gendered, and sexualized who lives in a professional culture where the cultivation of self-performance is one of the most incessant activities we are all taught to do and where it may be rare for people to admit it, but it is nonetheless a ubiquitous banality to affirm that few of us ever gets to hold for very long the self-image of the political subject we might most want others to think us to be.

All of this is to say that when I open Epistemology of the Closet to find the twin contradictions that will concern Sedgwick in the book that now founds a field, I cannot help but read in her elaboration across the introduction her interpellation into the pedagogy of Yale–but it is an interpellation with a twist, in part because in Sedgwick’s hands, she turns that interpellation into a tender gift. In the final pages of the chapter, she turns to the question of her identificatory investments, dismissing outright the issue of whether she or anyone has the right to work on a topic and insisting instead on the specificity of her own person in the project. Realistically, what brings me to this work can hardly be that I am a woman, or a feminist, but that I am this particular one (59). In refusing to back away from being called to account in her specificity for her investments in a constructivist, universalizing, and gender-integrationist gay theory, as she called it, in this book that births queer theory without giving it a name, Sedgwick takes on the accusation that had come to follow her, knowing that the satisfaction anyone will find in her answer is not hers to control. What, then, would make a good answer to implicit questions about someone is strong group-identification across politically charged boundaries, whether of gender, of class, of race, of sexuality, of nation? It could never be a version of But everyone should be able to make this identification. . . . If the ethical prescription is explanatory at all–and I have doubts about that–it is anything but a full explanation. (59-60). Sedgwick’s way of posing a fuller answer is to recall a graduate seminar in gay and lesbian literature that fractured on the impossibility of the women’s ability to cohere into any intelligibility as a group, in ways that were painful and for which no resolution was found in the course. Each woman in the class possessed (or might, rather, feel we were possessed by) an ability to make one of more of the other women radically and excruciatingly doubt the authority of her own self-definition as a woman; as a feminist; and as the positional subject of a particular sexuality (61).

The chapter ends, in other words, with several new triangles, the first being Sedgwick, her female students, and the men in the class; the second being Sedgwick, her female readers, and the gay male subjects that populate her text and define its most powerful attachments. To the extent that her female readers are also lesbian ones—and it is this that I hear in the charged language of the classroom where the positional subject of a sexuality (meaning heterosexuality) is put under stress–it becomes possible, even necessary, to learn to read The Epistemology of the Closet again, against the accusation that has shaped a great deal of its critical and distinctly lesbian-critical reception. For it seems to me now, twenty years since Yale, that the book’s address emerges from within the deep erotic lineages of the triangle that Sedgwick taught us to explore, as precisely a response to the interpellation of Yale, if not also an exercise in its inhabitation. If, in her words, it is not only identifications across definitional lines that can evoke or support or even require complex and particular narrative explanation . . . the same is equally true of any person=s identification with her or his own gender, class, race, sexuality, nation, the point is not finally that these itineraries of identification live apart or separate from one another but rather that their interaction, their diffuse and powerful intersections, their hesitations and deferrals are complexly interwoven—indeed there is no epistemological grounding from which to adjudicate them. To identify is not always to repudiate. If it has taken me this long to learn how to hear Sedgwick’s address to me, as a woman, as a lesbian, and as a feminist, it is not simply because I refused to listen. It is more true to say that the price of hearing was too high–and may be still too high, as the risk of trying to account for the ways that identifications across differences are refracted, congealed, disrupted, confirmed, overwhelmed, doubted, rebuked, or celebrated in relation to those that seek their solidities and possibilities on the ever shifting grounds of sameness requires not just a daunting project of re-reading nearly everything, but of cultivating the ability to render to one another that most tender gift Sedgwick gives us: to want academic study to become most interested in what makes us find ourselves implicated in the lives of others, which is a far cry from serving as the space within which we demonstrate, in deafening repetition, that our allegiances are in the right place.

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Maurice Wallace, “I Got a Feeling”

The brilliance of Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity isn’t exclusively between its covers. From the first, its handsome title cast a quiet sorcellerie on me. It wasn’t just the delightful transmogrifications of its meaning that Touching Feeling seems to undergo with every new glance at, or iteration of, its perfectly protean title that my childish fancies cannot resist—I have imagined six discretely different significations accruing to Touching Feeling. But Touching Feeling may signify nothing so profound as its own power to actually “do things with words,” enact performative utterances, that is, which J. L. Austin could not have conceived objects uttering, performing, doing. For all the tactile and affective algebra recommending those ideations coursing arterially through Touching Feeling—affect, pedagogy, performativity, activism, queer theory, mortality—Touching Feeling, is beneath everything else, a seduction, the book-as-object performing allure by a title which speaks sotto voce the book’s own personative desire to touch and be touched, to feel by feeling its otherwise unrealized ontology. Even from the shelf, Touching Feeling is seductive. Even browsing or searching another title, it never fails to echo the book’s desire in Toni Morrison’s Jazz (“If I were able I’d say it, Say make me, remake me. . . . because look, look. Look where your hands are. Now.”). My own hands touching, feeling. My thumb now pressing, now releasing pages in fits and starts, I can no more resist Eve’s arresting genius, essay after essay, than her collection’s talismanic title.

Returning to Touching Feeling in recent days, I have paused more than once, the book laid agape on my knee, to marvel at the fierce independence of Eve’s thought, at how deftly historical this text is, at the gift of Eve’s X-ray epistemic vision. I keep marveling. To rent out a warm room in one’s mind to thoughts of one’s own mortality, as Eve bravely does in Touching Feeling, demands a singular chutzpah I would not have guessed the gentle Eve capable of except I read this book. Like Eve, Touching Feeling is fearless. It is beholden to no one—not Derrida, not Butler, not Austin, not Miller, each of whom is, by turns, ally and antagonist in this collection. Touching Feeling is prophetic in the best sense of that word. Which is to say audacious, stubborn, serious, big-voiced, impudent but never pretentious. Touching Feeling is sober. And not just sober but sobering, lest the sharp edges of queer theory, or performance studies, or even the New Historicism grow dull with reductively reparative habituations and self-congratulating inattention to metacritical matters.

Touching Feeling makes me nostalgic for the essay again—for the essay as a genre apart from the article as institutional capital or commodity. I don’t mean to mystify the essay or pretend to its institutional or materialist transcendence. But I can’t shake my intuition that there’s a meditative function in the essay, where a teleology of proof or truth claims is a lesser concern than what we might call, imperfectly of course, the politics of reconsideration. In any case, Touching Feeling is no accidental constellation of loose, occasional matter. From its frontispiece photograph of autistic textile artist Judith Scott, to its conceptual resistance to the linearity customarily obtaining in the book-length monograph, Touching Feeling reflects nothing so much as Eve’s designs on the dead ends of marriage, of black and queer bodies conscripted into treasonous liberalisms, of paranoid reading practices, of death’s nothingness.

Let me close by touching briefly on three of the book’s five chapters. Each one is vitally important to the work I do, and the vision I have for its potential meaningfulness to me and those who’ll see, read, or hear its trials. I, too, am eschewing lockstep linearity. “Paranoid Reading, Reparative Reading, Or , You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is About You” is chapter four of Touching Feeling. The first version of it appears as the introduction to critical collection Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction where I first read it. It warns us against the kind of paranoid reading practices that presume (or impose) a prior irreducible frame (sexual difference, the phallus, whiteness, carcerality, the repressive function) and makes any possibility of the introduction of any new frame always already a subordinate or supplemental one. Paranoid reading always already knows what this or that is about and seeks to expose or surface what the paranoid reader knows is hidden from plain view. “Subversive and demystifying parody, suspicious archaeologies of the present, the detection of hidden patterns of violence and their exposure: as I have been arguing, these infinitely doable and teachable protocols of unveiling have become the common currency of cultural and historicist studies…The trouble with [this] is [the] diminished ability to respond to [political] changes” that may produce a power that his not only not hidden, but is depends precisely upon its spectacularity for its preservation. Under political change of this sort, what’s a paranoid to do?

“Around the Performative: Periperformative Vicinities in Nineteenth-Century Narrative,” chapter 2 in Touching Feeling is similarly astounding, a tour de force of American and continental cultural history and performance theory. It casts Eve’s eagle eyes on J. L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words observing, with unparalleled keenness, the manner in which the exemplary iterations of what Austin calls “performative utterances”—Austin’s first and most influential example of which, “I do,” has the effect of “installing monogamous heterosexual dyadic church- and state-sanctioned marriage at the definitional center of an entire philosophical edifice,” Eve writes. Austin, Eve observers, places marriage at a definitional center the performative utterance and traces the prehistory of marriage’s performative power in the spectacle of auction-block “buying, selling…claiming, [and] advertising for” the sale of slaves, marriage’s most enduring analogue in the Victorian novel. “I have been supposing,” Eve writes,

that during the time of slavery, and for an uncircumscribable time after its abolition probably extending beyond the present, the cluster of ostentatiously potent linguistic acts that have been grouped loosely, since J. L. Austin, under the rubric of ‘performatives’ (or performative speech acts that perform or presume to do something in their very iteration: I promise, I dare, I applaud…) must be understood continuously in relation to the exemplary instance of slavery. They must be understood in this way at least as much as they are understood already by philosophers, linguists, and gender theorists in relation to the exemplary instances of courtship/marriage and of juridical acts in a general sense. (90)

I admit to the possibility that my awe at these lines may be a function of the very practices of paranoid reading Eve has warned against, my having developed a very healthy (or unhealthy) hermeneutics of suspicion around the black slavery’s at once defining and diffuse function in the meaning and development of modernity. Still, even if I avoid the paranoid impulse, few I think (my colleague Jennifer Brody, notwithstanding) would imagine how direly diaspora studies may yet need the Victorian novel, and what Victorianists and performance studies have to discover about the black and heteronormative underside of their disciplinary and sub-disciplinary formations.

Finally, a word about “Pedagogy of Buddhism.” The briefest word of all, perhaps. That word installs Eve as herself as guru. When I started graduate school in 1990, Eve Sedgwick was already the public Eve Sedgwick. Between Men was already published, neologizing, I think, “the homosocial.” Epistemology of the Closet, to which my own dissertation owed a great debt, was a year or two in the offing. From 1990 to 1995, then, I set about to learn what I could from Eve. And, indeed, I learned many things from her, things about nondualistic thought in gender theory, things about speech acts, things about spatiality in language. In the process, I suppose I got to know Eve—less well than some, I concede, but I did come to know Eve just the same. Looking back on the Eve I got to know, reading Touching Feeling one more time, I see now, after Eve, that I knew a good deal less about Eve’s manner then than I imagined I did. As she reminds us “Pedagogy of Buddhism” the guru is careful to note a difference obtaining between knowing something and realizing something: “To go from knowing something to realizing it…is…a densely processual undertaking that can require years of lifetimes.” After Eve, I am as confident as I ever was that I came to learn vital things of Eve Sedgwick., but I cannot pretend today to have altogether realized what I imagine I learned. To recognize this lack has been a curious blessing and the great gift of Eve to me. I esteem this book. Touching Feeling is scripture.

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Lauren Berlant
The Pedagogies of “Pedagogy of Buddhism”

In my memory of this essay it opens with a story about a cat who brings a dead mouse to its owner, to teach the owner how to be a cat, which is to say, to see in the play of life a process of death that involves the same gestures of recognition and pedagogy, and then the owner points at the moon but the cat looks at the finger and sniffs, in a situation comedy of non-transmission that makes failed teaching into the joy of pure immanence and the optimism for another encounter.  I could have sworn, further, that the story of the rhythm of the pointing, the sniffing, and the event of a failed mediation or communication that engendered a scene of learning was related to a discussion of Melanie Klein and the depressive position, the rhythm of return to the potential for repairing  the constantly broken relation between the finger and the moon, the subject and the world.  But that must have been some other essay or a filing error in my head, because “Pedagogy of Buddhism” is the story of an amateur’s learning not to adjust to death or Buddhism but to recognize that she was already in a Buddhist-infused tradition of experiencing the as suchness of things, the self-evidence of knowledge about living that transmits itself amidst the usual ego noise that accompanies dramas of interpretation.

Because the teaching of “Pedagogy of Buddhism” had been so affecting to me, I had said I would talk about it at this event honoring Eve (they had asked us to choose a particular work to discuss, and I am nothing if not obedient).  It turns out that I misremembered  nearly everything about the essay, which doesn’t mean I didn’t learn from it.  What follows explains how what the essay teaches about inarticulate teaching and the difficulty of engendering an image of learning as something other than information absorption was performed in my bad learning, incorrect memory, and yet powerfully faithful attachment to the essay’s promise to be gracious at the slowness of a genuinely transformative learning.

I.  Teaching is hard

I chose “Pedagogy of Buddhism” as my totem animal, my link to Eve, because the last extended time I spent with Eve in Amsterdam she taught me something by telling me something.  She told me how she gets people in class to remember not each other, but each other’s names.  She would have each member of the class say their name and their totem animal: person A would say my name is x and my animal is y; person B would say, my name is z, my totem animal is b, and A’s name is x, totem animal y; and the group would then spend substantial class time going around extending and repeating the chain of associated memory until everyone knew something about everyone else, their name and the thing they could think of at the time, the animal blurt that either expressed their orientation to the world, or not.  Many of you will know that she utilized Panda.  I ported this technique back to my classes and my students found it hilarious, but ultimately cared little about knowing each other’s names or animals, preferring to read theory.  I, on the other hand, can now only remember the animal associations and not the students’ names.  I remembered this essay because of the cats.  My totem animal was roadkill.

It turns out that I had no memory at all of this essay as a whole, just its totem animal.  “Pedagogy of Buddhism” begins and ends with cats.  In the beginning, it tells a story that does not turn out to be an allegory.  In this story she discovers that the longheld human fantasy that animals bring the gift of death into the house as a sacrificial homage to their humans oversanctifies the humans; that the cat, it seems, brings its victims in to begin the human’s training in becoming-cat. It flips death toward us so that we can too learn to break life’s neck bloodlessly and be in the room with death.   It offers us a skill-set for contemplative consciousness and embodiment. Eve goes on to argue that this knowledge shock opened up for her how powerfully all teaching is like this, a “near miss pedagogy” in which the enigmatic signifier circulates so that one is always submitting to a fantasy of transmission, of being taught and teaching, while confronting, over and over, that we have no idea whether what we have made available, the mouse we have brought, is being received as an opportunity at all, whether for skill-building, as gift, a solid truth, or as an obstacle to a real exchange with the beings in the room who come to be taught but on terms that only become apparent after so much pseudo-exchange is revealed as such. She also worries that what she teaches, what she models, might be an object lesson in what not to be; that students might submit to the space she takes up not mimetically, but aversively, hoping not to copy her model in their future modeling. Needless to say, teaching is not just an invitation to copying, and knowledge is not an expertly killed mouse.  It is a discipline in paying attention and engendering better skills for modes of explanation that don’t re-murder the mouse but, in asking what it exemplifies, make a transformative context for it.

The first cats of “Pedagogy of Buddhism,” then, represent an embodied knowledge transfer that resonates with the kinds of call and response and opening and submission and fugitive communication that undoes not only students but the teachers who are present to the exchange.  The pedagogy in Eve’s work is never to become a strong theorist who wants to wipe out the other’s knowledge or to adjudicate representations but to be a weak theorist who takes in the material she encounters and excavates as a teaching that induces further movement, the movement of making texture, writing, kibbitzing, the pincers movement of the person who has to learn and unlearn almost at the same time and does it in public.  That was another thing she taught me–not to hoard my thought until I’d had it ten times.  She told me to have my thought in real time, in public.  It doesn’t become transformative of anything unless it circulates, she said, if you can bear it.  She said in an interview once that she learned from Melanie Klein that humans cannot bear ambivalence, and although I disagree with that–because that’s the purpose of fantasy, to make ambivalence bearable–I knew what she meant, that circulation makes ambivalence bearable, because shared.

So when I read her, I think, even though she repudiates feminism often as that which closes down relationality and thought and circulates shame and loss, feminist pedagogy was always, to me, about being impacted not only by ideas but about a creativity in communicative form that brought into contact incommensurate knowledges that cracked assurance but opened up the possibility that a set of near-strangers might together see new textures in the constantly recombining forms, might see new forms emerge in the shadows of practice. What isn’t periperformative? It was Eve who queered this sexual/pedagogical orientation for me, which is why I chose “Pedagogy of Buddhism” to talk about, not because I understand it, but because both queerness and teaching reframe the relation of teaching, learning, expertise, and the deference that comes from respect, from being with respect to, or oriented, or tending toward a practice that keeps us in relation to a world (through object/scenes of whatever kind).

Last week I taught Fred Moten and Stephano Harney’s “The University and the Undercommons” because I wanted my students to consider whether the fantasy of “the commons” as the space of democracy might not be self-evidently the best metaphor or fantasy, and on the way encountered its assessment of the place of teaching in the transformation of the world into less cramping social relations. Moten and Harney talk about the rhythm of  the pedagogical transaction in almost a Sedgwickian way, so I thought it would be ok to cite it here, because reading its account of the passivity of learning resonates with “Pedagogy of Buddhism” in a way that extends its teaching.  They write that  teaching is

the hole in the fence where labor enters . . . . To enter this space is to inhabit the ruptural and enraptured disclosure of the commons that fugitive enlightenment enacts, the criminal, matricidal, queer, in the cistern, on the stroll of the stolen life, the life stolen by enlightenment and stolen back, where the commons give refuge, where the refuge gives commons. What the beyond of teaching is really about is not finishing oneself, not passing, not completing; it’s about allowing subjectivity to be unlawfully overcome by others, a radical passion and passivity such that one becomes unfit for subjection, because one does not possess the kind of agency that can hold the regulatory forces of subjecthood, and one cannot initiate the auto-interpellative torque that biopower subjection requires and rewards.

There is a lot to say about these sentences, but one thing is that a Sedgwickian teaching hits one like this: it requires becoming undone in proximity to one’s object and yet in that undoing one is no longer subjected to one’s ego or one’s world, and thus both may become more possible (less impossible).

II.  Masters and Students

In “Pedagogy of Buddhism” there are masters and students but everyone is a learner:  Mahayana Buddhism takes as an ideal refusing to differentiate between the ones who have practiced longer and the new ones, because it’s not what you know in some relation of the institution and the hoard but how you practice.  Alongside  Eve invokes Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster too, with its claim that adaptation is the destructive discipline of the academy, while recognition affirms learning as the object of study (166).  “In Buddhist pedagogical thought,” she writes, “the apparent tautology of learning what you already know does not seem to constitute a paradox, not an impasse, nor a scandal.  It is not even a problem.  If anything it is a deliberate and defining practice.”  To go from knowing something to realizing it is a densely processual undertaking that can require years or lifetimes.  Which is why I find comic that I did not remember this essay at the moment when they asked me to choose something that mattered to me, as it takes me a long time to let something in, to cut the hole in myself into which that thing I encountered can take root.  The relation of encounter to realization to recognition is central to much of Eve’s work, not just the Buddhist work:  the whole of “White Glasses,” for example, which I teach, and thus what I really should have chosen for this exercise, is about discovering why she had chosen and been chosen for a particular friendship with Michael Lynch, adopting, adapting, and longing for proximity to his orientation toward the world, her glasses next to his, his friendship as a teaching in being oriented toward living and dying and being in sync, which is Cavell’s definition of love, and no kidding.

III.  Inarticulate Teaching

Then there is the essay’s second cat.

“Whenever I want my cat to look at something instructive–a full moon, say, or a photograph of herself–a predictable choreography ensues.  I point at the thing I want her to look at, and she, roused to curiosity, fixes her attention on the top of my extended index finger and begins to explore it with delicate sniffs.  Every time this scene of failed pedagogy gets enacted (and it’s frequent because I am no better at learning not to point than my cat is at learning not to sniff) the two of us are caught in a pedagogical problematic that has fascinated teachers of Buddhism since Sakyamuni.”  Sakyamuni, fyi, is deemed the founder of Buddhism, the supreme Buddha (Sammāsambuddha), dated around 4 to 500 years BCE.

I note that Eve gives very little historical context in this essay, making girls run to various archives to begin to become an amateur.  Eve’s point with this anecdote is not just to distract us with an aesthetic of cuteness or the realism of the adorable ordinary.  It is to begin a discussion about the teaching of emptiness, about how difficult it is to see that the power of reference is not in its tethering to the world but in its indicative nature, its pointing to a thing that is a percept that leads to the intensities of  a recognition that passes across language the way origami extends an understanding of form into an immanent folding, not a present unfolding.  Buddhism loosened up Eve’s tethering to herself, to chronological time, to a project of being consistent to who she was, by providing for her a way to be agnostic about whether one had to reproduce what she calls one’s own “predictable choreography.”

IV.  Cheese

Once we discovered that we’d be landing in a small airport at the same time to pick up connecting flights. So we met at the food court for lunch.  It was after her first round of chemo.  As I entered she was already laying in heartily to a double bacon cheeseburger and fries.  I tend toward the ascetic, but I am always scavenging for relief from my “predictable choreography” by imagining what it might do to assume the form of other people’s guesses at living.  But still:  at that time I was sure that if I’d had cancer, I would defend against future shame and vulnerability by adopting an astringent regime of eating the right diet and doing the right things and becoming pure for the future in reparation for the past.  I said, I guess you’re not doing that, and she said no, she thought her health would flourish more if she had fidelity to her pleasures.  I loved her for this, and I am still learning it.


6 Comments so far
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How marvelous, Lauren! So glad the event has another digital life, you all were fittingly fabulous. And you didn’t mention your lecture before though readers with amazing eyesight can read about it on the image of the poster above.

Comment by ara wilson

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This post was mentioned on Twitter by dukepress: RT @fhi_duke: After Eve: Lauren Berlant, Tyler Curtain, Robyn Wiegman, & Maurice Wallace on Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick http://tr.im/SnLT

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Your site seriously messes me up, every time. The Eve tribute (Eve is a major influence on my own site) is an excellent slice of Why. Thanks! Or not!

Comment by OhCrapIHaveACrushOnSarahPalin

Your lecture here at Duke was great, and this was an excellent tribute to Sedgwick.

Comment by Ali Mian

[...] a useful bridge between these two thoughts (the touch; the material being touched) is to draw on Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who suggests in her book Touching Feeling that looking at things beside each other eliminates the [...]

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[...] how does it, or can it be, related to what Tompkins refers to as ‘being touched’? To draw on Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who suggests in her book Touching Feeling that looking at things beside each other eliminates the position of duality or hierarchy, a way of [...]

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