. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought


Under My Thumb (Passivity 3)

You find yourself untethered.  Your lover/children have just left and you’re alone.  Your pet/partner has died.  School is over.  You’re on vacation. You’re wandering around streets, a mall, your flat.  You are trying to stay awake in a cafe. You are in the limo on the way to the airport in a strange city. The calories you eat are absentminded, yet there’s a faint arousal or hunger.

Under my thumb
Her eyes are just kept to herself

Your head is staging a conversation with someone who has insulted you. You’re saying that you don’t care.  In your head your voice is smooth and warm.  In the fantasy the insulter is moved that you act as though they still deserve attachment, engagement, and idealizaton, and you do love x about them, so it is not false, but the extra kick you receive in seeming not to let the insult get to you makes the fact of it inflate into something impressive, like courage. Then you listen to the stream of self-policing that accompanies you on your walk, and you imagine confessing, look, I finally have a secret to confess!

My mind flashes to my father as these scenarios collect. I think of my colleague who recites the emails in which she was told that she has no right, no standing to critique what her male colleague loves. I think of another colleague’s monologue about how women who don’t have SHIT can still at least beat men with arguments, and I thank god that I don’t leak out my wishes as facts. But here I am, humbled. Anger induces us all to write in whatever idiom we can pick off.

I am continuing here the discussion of passivity’s promiscuity of form introduced in the last few posts.

There are threads in the ordinary that scroll out as uninteresting times, the times that don’t count and go uncounted and unaccounted for:  a killer stabs 67 times but remembers only 2, when we mince garlic we remember a field of action and not how many rocks of the blade, I am at my desk innumerable hours doing what since just the letter P dropped out and got to stay, and there are no consequences to those states that exercise the range of emotions one has, states that are folded so deeply into the activity of being sentient that they dissolve the distinction between what’s mental, enacted, and encountered. In having a drink, taking a nap, going for a run, surfing, spacing, fuming, talking, one is exposed to the uncanny danger of who one is, and it is these aleatoric, roll of the dice states that often host what falls under the radar when someone asks you how your day was, if you’re lucky enough to have anyone around curious enough about you to ask.

I learned the importance of exercising my short term affective memory at Twin Oaks.  It was a utopian discipline to remember what never was an event. At the end of the day we would all find someone to tell the day to, and to listen to.  Sometimes one would have sex with the person one had found to engage events with, because just one liked them so much for the lightness and patience of the exchange; sometimes it closed with a hug, or a mock ritual bow. You didn’t have to know the person you found, it was a ritual like the other cleansing closures before bed. It helped to seal things off to try to remember what happened, and it was always shocking to witness in one’s own story how much had already virtually passed from memory, leaving the affective traces unmoored from their origins, like stains of a certain transparency and age.

Lydia Davis writes often about people who have lost a beloved object that they might never have owned either, and their drive to find substitutes now so that they can sustain optimism for repeating that feeling again. Her figures have psychic pill boxes into which they distribute anger, hate, love, desire, resentment, amnesia, memory, explanation, and justification to clear the space for continuing to believe in intelligence. They are always so clear at the moment but amidst the syntax of tracking themselves they just add up to a heap of states that are only sometimes moods (states that they sense). They are often reduced to cultivating a fantasy of what a good event is to stand in for having a good life, without which they feel like a mess but in which they feel like wood.  They fall in love on the phone, or looking across a table. They are looking for forms of absorption to hold them, to enable life as a loose attunement, what Shaviro calls beauty, to rest in, a reliable thing that one can only create in exposure to a conversation with another that isn’t foreclosed by form. Her figures are dying to be passive while remaining alive enough to enjoy feeling almost active. They are trying to sustain a state.

I have been thinking about “having a life” as the noise you create around yourself.  Certain normative objects organize that noise, so that one can leave and come home, be ambivalent, and so on, without experiencing the day every day as a chaotic mess:  affect finds its forms of rest and excitation, as Sedgwick would say, you can hear them through the wall like a noisy neighbor, but maybe today I’m just not being able to keep out the howling sound waves from my sadly disintegrating neighbor upstairs. The point is that to talk about the work of affect in experiences of non-sovereignty, really to see events as what make scenes in the middle of which one discovers oneself, one has to peel away distraction by the pride forms to be with the noise, the scramble, the ranginess of the tone-events and self-incoherence that get carried around.  One might strive for coherence but, realist that I am, I strive to attend to the whole range of states and, having let in what is already in, stay a little interested in the dirty unconscious, with its mess of what’s active, incautious, assured, unreconciled, embarrassing, stupid and unresigned. It is easier to be generous that way:  not in the sense of Bersanian “impersonality” or Butlerian Levinasianism, because the drama is prior to that, not so other-directed, and indeed not much of a drama at all, but a gestural response to the uncanny destructiveness with which usually we learn to aspire to meet our noise, a destructiveness that looks like mature self-discipline. 

All of the figures in today’s post are women. I wonder how much of the states of rage in this post’s laboratory are formations of a peculiar impossibility, and what that implies for the difference between being in a mood and getting into a state.  Working on this post (since February) I have realized that “a state” constitutes another whole layer of analysis here, quite distinct from a mood, an affect, a feeling.  I keep thinking of the phrase “ready to rumble.”


3 Comments so far
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“I thank god that I don’t leak out my wishes as facts” — nice.

Comment by Tom Perrin

I’m wondering about the role of the other in making it possible to eventalize the sensations and impressions that are otherwise inaccessible. Specifically, I’m thinking of the story you tell in this post of “finding someone to tell your day to” as a method of developing and “exercising short term affective memory.” The experience of making an event that results in things like sex or a bow seems potentially connected to a desire to stay in proximity to what’s been eventalized or else to be distracted from it by producing another event, this time interrelationally and in the present. I don’t mean either of these possibilities to be pathologizing, but rather to think about the function of the other in one’s experience of passivity.
There’s an interesting passage on the last page of Michael Chabon’s “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” where the male narrator tries to work out the distinction between his homo vs. heterosexual object attachments:
“I have often thought, since, that I know I loved Cleveland and Arthur, because they changed me; I know that Arthur lies behind the kindly, absent distance I maintain from other people, that behind each sudden, shocking breach of it lies Cleveland; I have from them my vocabulary, my dress, my love of idle talk. I find in myself no ready trace of Phlox, however; no habit, hobby, fashion, or phrase, and for a long time I wondered if I had loved her or not. But as I have found that I may fall completely in love with a man – kiss, weep, give gifts – I have also discovered the trace a woman leaves, that Phlox left, and it is better than a man’s…Cleveland is dead, Arthur is now, I believe, in Majorca. But because I can find them so easily in myself, I no longer…I no longer need them. One can learn, for instance, to father oneself. But I can never learn to be a world, as Phlox was a world, with her own flora and physics, atmosphere and birds. I am left…with a glittering sock and a memory, a garbled account of my visit to her planet, uncertain of what transpired there and of why precisely I couldn’t stay” (295).
For Chabon, the difference between homo/hetero maps onto a distinction between what can and cannot be internalized and although this idea belongs more properly to the territory of queer theory and psychoanalysis, there could be a way that it helps conceptualize the ratio of passivity to internalization suggested in the scene at Twin Oaks. This is to say that the impersonality of the exchange is what makes it possible to have/narrate an event that never was one because people that aren’t identifiable to you (recognizable, digestible as distinct parts that resonate, etc) are the only objects whole and other enough to fall into/upon, to lose oneself in/with/around. I worry that I’m saying the only people you can be passive with are the ones you don’t know when what I’m trying to get at instead is a question about the varieties of non-recognition so that impersonality isn’t only annihilating or exhilarating but the condition for a certain kind of intimacy. Perhaps this is what you mean when you say “”having a life” as the noise you create around yourself” and “forms that enable life as a loose attachment.” But then why the move to, as it were, consecrate the intimacy by turning the eventalization of non-events into an event? Even if the post-narrative exchanges are undramatic, light, etc., the process of doing something (with another) afterward seems like it retroactively absorbs the narration of non-events into a more familiar/conventional scene of sharing. But perhaps I misunderstand the experiences you describe?
Lastly, for what it’s worth – I’m not sure the association you had in mind with “ready to rumble” but I wonder if it points in the direction of linking experiences of passivity to desire for action?

Comment by ashtor

I don’t see where you thought that it was doing this: “But then why the move to, as it were, consecrate the intimacy by turning the eventalization of non-events into an event?” The point of “ready to rumble” was that this is what living is, not an action beyond it, if you think about rumbling as in the rumble seat, the seat of vibration.

Comment by supervalentthought




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