. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought


Being Alive

Contact.  I just saw the most anorexic woman I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot.  She was walking in 90 degree heat in full Gaga:  white face, red lip, yellow blonde streaks all beautifully blown out yet so sprayed that it barely touched the face it surrounded. Her face looked like an @. She was crossing the street wearing a yellow cape, black skirt, and black opaque tights over legs that could not possibly be thinner. The platform shoe gait was ungraceful, but it was haughty, and my first thought was competitive, as in, when I was anorexic I still could pass, people said, for a manic New York Jew: whereas this person really did look as though if she’d had to dodge a bike too sharply she would have snapped in two.

At Banff a group of us who liked each other turned out to have in our backgrounds the overlap of Oberlin and eating disorder, and I got the impression that the back is not too far a ground from the front for some of us. The curse of recidivism attaches to predators and eating disorders.  The revelation of that form of fort/da appeared in this group of people otherwise professionally linked when someone commented that another of us who had just walked by was surely bulimic, and the assurance with which she said this made me ask how she knew, and it was interesting.  She saw semi-circles around mouths and eyes. We were all eating at the time, which seemed to be proof of something, although it was proof of nothing.

I thought of all the things I know about the “deepest problems of modern life” that “flow from the attempt of the individual to maintain the independence and individuality of his existence against the sovereign powers of society, against the weight of the historical heritage and the external culture and technique of life,” and I thought about another kind of impact I’d been amassing as I continue to think about contact as the intensification of the encounter with non-sovereignty, so of course this series twist happened without quite being a project.  All summer I have been taking pictures of phrases that hit me and induced reveries and reorientations that made me both stupid and more alive. Continue reading



I don’t know if I could do nothing and be that cool with everything

I experimented with taking a day off. It was likely to be a failure, because it had to be an experiment, as I have no habits of leaving the desk, only habits of clawing a path back to it, which is odd because I never leave it, except when I am forced to by my job or my career, which are also what force me back, or there’s a movie to watch, but even then, if it’s at home, the “desk” comes with me like a friend, resting on the arm of the couch so I can turn to it anxiously when I hit a moment of not understanding.  Even at the gym, I work on the elliptical. I am on a plane now.  Leonardo DiCaprio’s coffee is shaking slow-mo and the people are acting as though they’re dissociating but his face is too wide, square, fat, or flat for me to cathect, which is a mimetic response.

I had begun to address my life with a flat voice. It was bad: usually I can get by with my drive to remain tethered to the potentially good event while meanwhile the infrastructure stumbles along. The causes of this sudden synthesis toward a dark plateau were, anyway, so overdetermined as to induce an affective semicolon.  The correct analysis of a symptom does not reveal, produce, point to, or give confidence about the shape of its cure, which is why so much work in the humanities limps along in the phrases that follow out the description of a problem.

Two new big classes and a paper deadline and a vast job search and the students spilling out all late into December because we ask them to be intellectuals but give them no time to do it, inculcating in the upcoming professional class a fatigue autoerotics along with a shamed and confused awareness that these labor conditions allow only tumbling down a hill and then revising it later to look like a plan, when it was only doing what you could do at the time (my epitaph) in an act of blind hope.  A cab driver today told me about all of the men he knows who beat women.  I can’t remember why, it was like a dream. We talked of how hard it is to unlearn habits of intimate violence–not just to others but to oneself–since assuming a gender requires violence and shame and competence anxieties that never leave, and people can exhaust (fade or inflate) after a while of showing up for the audition. I promise that next year will be different: I won’t try to finish a book. I will be rolling around in a beginning that has already started. Meanwhile I felt I could crack into permanent consistency, although I don’t know what that would mean, if I didn’t take a day off. Continue reading



Crossover/Combover: A performance piece (Approach 3: from ASA 2010)

(This is a very lightly revised version of the paper I tried to deliver at the American Studies Association conference as a performance piece that also riffed on the talks just given around me:  a complete failure as a performance.  Chronologically it was written after the previous two combover pieces were written, and so represents a development of the idea I’ve been serializing here.)

Amitava [Kumar] originally called this panel “The Message Chain.” Its idea was to ask some scholars who see themselves as writers, how, for them, a particular space becomes a “locale” for writing, an event that requires not just attention and consideration but a decision to write outside of the usual academic idiom or medium. This was to be a panel about crossing over, not into death, but toward a bigger life for writing. A spatial impact becomes-event in this view when it induces a communicative actionwriting, teaching, and performing–you know, the kinds of things that our careers are made from, although few of us would admit to having the career as our ambition. But that is because ambition is one of the obscene affects of capitalist culture. It’s hard not to think about it, though, when someone asks you to talk about “crossover” writing: when you’re crossing over it’s because your ambition isn’t hiding in a repetition but in sincerity, in the desire to do something for an audience whose relation to reading is unprofessional or outside of the norms our professions perform.

It would not be too strong to say that the capitalist subject is distinguished by its education in judging ambition.

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Combover (Approach 2)

Us living as we do, upside down…

Another try: I’ve been arguing that a person is a loosely-knotted cluster of impulses, reflections, apprehensions and prehensions moving through ordinary time (imagine a net with head, hands and feet), and not, ontologically, an extreme solidity of form constantly under threat of dissolution by the fragile infrastuctures for maintaining fantasy. The latter is best exemplified by the iconic image of the combover subject. The subject of the combover stands in front of the mirror just so, to appear as a person with a full head (of hair/ideas of the world). Harsh lighting, back views, nothing inconvenient is bearable in order for the put-together headshot to appear.  No one else can be fully in the room, there can be no active relationality: if someone else, or an audience, is there, everyone huddles under the open secret that protects the combover subject from being exposed socially confronting the knowledge that the world can see the seams, the lacks, and the pathos of desire, effort, and failure.

Who isn’t the combover subject? No-one. The combover subject literalizes the plaint of ordinary subjectivity to be allowed to proceed in its incoherence and contradictions. The very fantasy of a subject bound to itself as a solid structure is itself material for a combover. Even a philosophical skeptic like Cavell, at home with the failure of language to be adequate to its situation and its desire, finds satisfaction in style; and even a depressive realist like me, who sees her failure to be idealizable as confirmation of her good sense, takes comfort in encountering a version of herself that will not be surprised by delight but by being the recognizable thing she has come to trust, the thump and the stumble.

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Combover (Approach 1)

I sat in at another conference recently, hearing lots of promising work, including a paper by Leo Bersani called “Illegitimacy” that pursues his current project, to understand what the Cartesian attempt to elevate thought over bodies, attachments, appetites, and sociality itself has wrought and what new social relations might be developed alternatively and in proximity to it. He has three models on offer these days for not reproducing the kinds of compensatory fantasy that allow one to feel autonomous, adequate to oneself, and separate/superior to the [enigmatic] other: one, a radically negative abandonment of the normative world, a project of becoming unnamable, illegitimate, and nonviable (he associates this with Edelman’s No Future); two, a sweet Bollasian affective sociality that focuses on effecting attachment in a way that does not require a full revelation of being; three, the Socratic model of impersonal narcissism that Bersani developed from Homos to Intimacies, involving the lover’s loving not just his own likeness seen in the lover (the Greek anteros  or “backlove”) but also loving in the beloved a virtual form of universal individuation that at once gives the lover narcissistic satisfaction but also, motivated by love, induces the lover to foster the beloved’s becoming more like himself.

These three models for sidestepping the bubble of ego inflation do not cohere:  they invoke different models of an alternative formalism that might be found in relationality. But all of them counter in specific ways what Leo calls normative personhood’s murderous drives to eliminate alterity.  In a fine theorist, non-coherence is never a failure, but an expression of an experimentality I love: the feeling out of a problem in real time, even in the mode of a propositional definiteness, is what makes theory intimate, when it is. In Epistemology of the Closet, Eve called such liveness to the whole body work of conceptual transformation the “pincers movement”:  one theory-driven claw forward, another claw lagging, such that movement keeps happening across a field made from scratches that don’t add up quite to an even plane. 

But being me, I would foreground non-coherence as a principle of being rather than a cumulative effect of serial finitude:  I never thought that the subject ought to be seen as in one state.

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On Passivity: Not otherwise specified

Slowly, I aspirate from myself the choking wave of obligations that the 2009-2010 term induced:  never have I had a time of such incessant institutional demand, and as I breathe through the final tsunami of papers, my mind volleys, “How did it get to be this way?” and “I still don’t know how to live.” I don’t know how to fix it or even to fake fix it. Then, a few minutes ago, as if on some mysterious cue, an old Jewish New Yorker wearing a Mets cap and jeans that hang loosely off him walks in the cafe door and intones, “Oi am still in juniah high school when I am neah a beautiful woman, Oi am seventy-noine but insoide I am nointeen” over and over, at first loud, then louder. Save me from the inutility of a time when all I have left for contact with the world is a loud voice that even the wind doesn’t want.  Apostrophe’s poetic tradition is grand, but to be forced into an apostrophic life is a bitch.

At least blogging is . . . quiet.

I turn to the New York Times article on “eating disorders not otherwise specified,” usually known by its acronym Ednos. Ednos describes eating disorders that invent non-normative forms. They’re far more disordered than the conventional ones that at least imitate a known symptom cluster. When it came out, the Times description of disorganized eating induced me to gather up some thinking I’d been doing around my Ordinariness seminar about the place of passivity in ordinary subjectivity.  I’ve been trying to write this post since January, dig?

In the seminar passivity emerged as a register for describing the myriad ways in which the aesthetic represents subjects delegating their agency to a form or norm of being in the world, a delegation that induces the kind of state I’ve been gathering up here under the umbrella of “non-sovereign subjectivity.”  Zizek calls this kind of delegation interpassivity. It is a beautiful concept, but it could be much more beautiful.  As so compulsively often, he uses it to describe how persons refuse to become genuinely politically rational.  Interpassivity describes the relation of disavowal in which one hands off one’s affect to a media form or other persons, thus producing room for disowning and managing one’s own intensities.  His point is that much of what passes for interactivity is really interpassivity. Continue reading



A Teaching (III)

The days were long and the weeks were short during the term that has ended, the rhythms of which extend like a membrane across the late weeks’ email exchanges and hastily arranged furtive-seeming encounters with student beings suddenly stunned and muddled in the face of writing something now.  In the middle of all that I left to give a talk, and talked with my hosts about another scene of the university ordinary that I find baffling:collegiality. On this trip I asked a former colleague to tell me how she maintains such grace when the relation of structural to affective dynamics so often induces a mess involving lots of disavowal of aggression and vulnerability. She said that there’s no helping it, collegial mistrust is structural, and therefore so are abreaction and dysfunction. But I swear it isn’t:  only inequality is structural. The rest is an ineducation for which we are constantly paying intuition.

The day I returned, though, the fog lifted for a minute.  My friend Sarah Schulman visited town to do a reading and promote her two new books.  Her confidence in her truths thrusts me back into myself constantly, as I tend to think of multiple explanations for problems for which she has found genuinely beautiful clarities. I have only been in the same bodily space as Sarah four times in the last two decades: but each time has had an impact because she moves me, she too is constantly knocking her head against the wall of her objects so that they might move a little and she too always seems a little surprised that the optimistic returns leave her bruised and frayed. But she enjoys her victories.  She is not afraid of the return, more afraid of not having the encounter than of having it. Me too. And yet, there is the question of resilience.

I can’t remember what we talked about at dinner, except that I felt like I was the child learning moral lessons and she the impatient teacher calling a thing a thing and telling my noise of “what if” speculative pleasure to shut the fuck up. She didn’t really do that, but as things unfolded my sense grew that my capacities are also defenses. As we were leaving, she asked me what I wanted out of life, and I said, at the moment I am trying to learn how to write.  She said, do you have 20 minutes?  I could teach you to write in 20 minutes.  I started laughing, but she was serious.  So we sat in the car outside The Knickerbocker Hotel and she taught me how to write.  Here is a picture of what she drew.

sarah s

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