. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought


On Potentiality, #1

I have a childhood friend who is just a tiny bit younger than me but always so much younger, her skin never showing her age, her cheek marked with a birthmark so Hawthornian it seemed impossible ever to finish looking at her, my eye caught forever in the optimism of her incompleteness.

She always had her face tilted up toward the sun. Yet she had also contracted the illness destined mainly for men in my family: they could have been a contender. Smart, hilarious, winning, full of life and potentiality, energetic-depressed rather than just depressed, eloquent, almost smooth, and unsettled, unsettled so deeply that nothing, no project, could absorb them. There was rarely a career; just jobs, while the creative energy sought out just the right outlet. People defined by having potential. People whose observational intelligence takes your breath away: they’re Dorothy Parker, write the best letters to the editor, blog with perfectly formed opinions. Quipsters, they blaze hot and then enter a fallow time, until they forget somehow that they’re there and then say something revealing their brilliance, which restarts the arc of almost sustaining its energy into something like a life, but not quite.

Our story, in short, has been the story of the potentialized. It’s never too late to have optimism, right? Thwarted potential is an endtime discourse–involving deep knowledge of the time you have wasted, the relationships you have scuttled out of fear or laziness or the blithe cruelty of being unwilling to be inconvenienced. The sickening sense of knowing that you’re what gets in your own way; and the complexities of living with it when it’s not you producing the blockage, when it’s your DNA or your bank account, your lack of the architecture of confidence or your cluelessness; your rage and sorrow: structural discrimination and exploitation; your ambivalence. The world wearing you out as it wears itself out. That model of the subject-in-potential looks at achievements and intimacies as proof that one really did deserve to have lived, after all, despite everything; that model puts the agent’s will to feel undefeated in the face of the “ego’s exhaustion” at the center of the story of optimism that represents modernity’s promise to everyone.

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Looking for Mr. (W)Right

Column 2 in a series; see below.

This is how love starts: a crush. Your body intensifies, gaining and losing confidence in the presence of a person, an image, an idea, or a thing: in a crush, you have a feeling that you feel compelled to keep having. The pressure disorganizes you, opens you up to reverie, anxiety, defense, risk. You are forced into frenzies of adjustment; you feel tilted forward. Sometimes that’s enough: being mentally with your crush is all you want. Sometimes you try to repeat being near the thing that stimulates the intensities. Later, you notice the collateral damage: what you have had to put up with to have that feeling. Sometimes it’s too much, sometimes it’s not that hard to endure. What’s really hard to endure, though, is facing up to ambivalence.

In love plots and politics, popular culture has a terrible track record dealing with ambivalence. This is another thing the Jeremiah Wright story reveals. The media focuses on the negative side: aversion, disappointment. It doesn’t focus on the pull: this part of the person is great, the other not so much. It’s as though it’s idealization or nothing. Politics becomes chick flick. Ambivalence, then, is seen as evidence of failure, not as what it is: evidence of desire, attachment, longing, not just for a better world but for assurance that it’s worth staying attached to the political itself. The simple crush on having that feeling again translates politically into wanting to re-experience the feeling that made you optimistic.

Grant Farred calls this “fidelity to the political”; Antonio Gramsci called it “optimism of the will.” To give up caring, after all, is to stop resisting what’s clearly outrageous, unjust, not fair, wrong. It’s giving in to political depression. To stay close to that desire, though, one might shift to a softer optimism–I think that’s the usual thing. Just as people close their eyes when they kiss, so too there’s an impulse to close one’s eyes during the political season just to protect their optimism for a less bad politics, maybe even a good politics, enabling the chance for change that would be fundamental yet not traumatic. Change without loss; revolution without risk. We know better, because in any desire, political or otherwise, there’s always risk and the possibility of loss (of comfort, privilege, or knowing how to live). The fantasy of change that would produce flourishing without loss is a deep logic of the crush that can turn into love.

I’m writing this now for obvious reasons. In this season the cynic and the critic provide choruses of shame against my nervous system’s interest in caring about what happens in the political, in wanting something from it. Whenever Hillary Clinton opens her mouth sarcastically to demean political hope I am filled with rage, and my mouth spills out excessively with expletives. Without a desire for the political there is no democracy.

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Credibility and Incredibility

My recent work is about resistance to change, but tracks optimism, I think, because its persistence points to a glitch in the subject’s commitment to repeat that cluster of habits she recognizes as “her” personality. A glitch, as I say in my newest chapter, is an interruption amidst a transition. Ever since that Nation episode (see entry below) I’ve been torn, torn, torn. Do I want to write more like that? I’ve had an offer to do more. So part of my brain has been phrasing whatever I think in the idiom of the memorable, the pithy, and the visceral. I am having terrible polemicist envy.

If I were to do the journalism, I would want to be thinking about recasting what the good life might come to mean in the face of the bad life facing us down, the shocking, ordinary overpresence of violence in and toward bodies politic, and the increasing scarcity of nature-as-resource. I would want to be imagining how to produce a pragmatic world for an imaginary that sustains a better image of social reciprocity, a version of the kinship of care without the xenophobia of so much easily imagined belonging. And to produce a greater attachment to the kind of economic justice that would make the rich poorer, and the poor more secure.

All of that’s not yet in my vernacular skill set, however. Work is always in regress before it’s in progress. But, in that register, I can say something uncynical about political affectivity–that is, about normativity and its others, about how viscera are trained, bodies calibrated, vigilance honed, mixed feelings managed, toward remaining fluid in and making sense of a world that is both crumbling and enduring, full of obstacles and lubricants, as people make ways to live on in it.

I may follow this with versions of two columns that might or might not end up there.

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A Barrel of Acid and a Barrel of Water, or “Things happen like this.”

I am having an amusing physical problem now–lex talionis, almost literally. My tear ducts periodically clog and swell, as though some ungrieved grief has decided to mark my head with a little deadpan realism. Of course since I think it’s funny I’m not learning the lesson I should.

Anyway, in the mornings and evenings now I put a hot compress on my eyes for 10 minutes. Then I wash them with baby shampoo (also ironic, as they promise “no more tears”!). I find the 10 minutes excruciating and useless, which is also funny and ridiculous: so I have been trying to make up productive labor for the daily episode, such as listening to films to understand the atmosphere and environment of action apart from what’s embodied in spectacle, character, and flesh.

But this morning I listened to the Fresh Air interview with Cristian Mungiu, director of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a remarkable film about a bad day during a bad period of life, Romania 1987, during the regime of Nicolai Ceausescu. People talk about it as an abortion film but Mungiu finds this thematization irritating: clearly, he thinks that the melodrama of abortion in the U.S. narrows our capacity to see what’s going on right in front of us.  His principle of realism is to track the extended present of the flat phrase “Things happen like this.”

Here is what he said about what the case of abortion stands for (along with standing for state-invested blockages to women’s sovereignty), more or less accurately transcribed.

“The suppression of abortion was the suppression of moral action, practices of decision-making, and intensified contexts of friendship, and solidarity. . . You know, whenever you have a strong enemy in front of you and you have a problem which is common for a group of people, the solidarity belonging to the period is going to be much more important. . .It’s a film about decision-making, and responsibilities in life, and freedom during that period, and compromise, and friendship and solidarity . . . The story came to me with all the details and with all the emotions, but not with the all the motivations, because people don’t know why they acted the way they acted, they just acted.They just reacted to a specific situation…It has to do with the situation, and it has to do with the kind of friendship that they were having. “

Mungiu thinks that abortion isn’t that great, either. “It is said that nearly half a million women died in the process of having illegal abortions between 1966 and ’89 but at the same time after 1990 when abortion became illegal we had a million abortions a year because people were uneducated [about ordinary birth control and self-responsibility].” He tells an amazing anecdote about cascades of irresponsibility.

“An abortionist tells a potential client about the contract she’s entering. She pays him to do the abortion. But there’s a second stage. He shows the client two barrels near the table where the procedure will take place. One has water in it, the other acid. If things go well, “in the water you’re going to wash yourself and walk back home. if things don’t, I’m going to put you in [the barrel full of acid] and bury you and no one will know.”

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Secrecy, a Hoard (med.L. secretia, a royal treasury)

Read a great and useful piece on secrecy: Shersow and Michaelson, Is Nothing Secret? Does “secret” in the title mean deliberately to dogwhistle “sacred,” and what does that suggest? Or does it point more to that other great pronouncement of ethical failure, “Have you no shame?”, a near-rhetorical question that accuses someone else of losing moral discipline or withdrawing from a commitment to normative ethical views and acts. Have you no x? You should have x. If this is a rhetorical question, you don’t even deserve to have heard it.

The shamelessness of political antinormativity: terrorism, now, has become defined as a commitment to hoard knowledge from the state of any political views and intentions. For pro-HUAC politicians the shame was secreting communist affiliations and for people like Joseph Welch (who famously accused McCarthy of shamelessness) it was McCarthy’s embodiment of the state’s equation of democratic freedom with citizen transparency. The fear of the citizen’s opacity rubbed up against the ideology of individual sovereignty. Absent somebody’s discipline by a sense of duty, somebody‘s shame was supposed to relax the contradictions, one way or another. I learned the word “dogwhistle” from Amanda Macdonald, by the way. In Australia, it refers to a connotation that’s inexplicit in an utterance but seeks to confirm solidarity with a specific kind of ideologically-defined ear/subject/being/population.

I also learned from the learned essay something I ought to have known, and shame on me. The etymology of privilege is “law of the private”–privus lege–by which we can understand here less the modern sense of privacy (the law legitimating possession of that which can be called personal) than the traditional sense (the law legitimating the sovereignty that derives from ownership). The law of the private, or privilege, points to the sovereign rights of any individual, but historically that individual was the Pope, who had ecclesiastical privilege. But knowing this history puts a new penumbra around accusations of privilege, for now they can be understood as accusations that someone or some institution has asserted a private law that self-benefits or benefits a class. It reminds that the property word title organizes a sense of an actual entitlement.

Secrecy, hoard, trust, title–this reminds me of Aristotle’s always startling revelation of how often the terms of ethical discourse derive from the economic. Maybe that’s why I’m as suspicious of ethical as of capital logics of value: I don’t trust most self-privileged guarantees of good intentionality or the normativity of most forms of reciprocity.

Meanwhile, to secret the loss of your commitment to normative ethics, to not tell the world that you have withdrawn from the normative agreement that x behavior will denote y moral state, practice, or commitment, is to assert a privacy that the state/your interlocutor can’t bear, these days. The body politic is petit objet a, and has to be beaten for it.

It’s one thing when people hoard transparency from each other: usually it is a betrayal of trust to violate the intimate’s promise to be transparent enough. These departures into opacity are inevitable, though, and anyway much secreting of alterity can actually come from motives of care, to protect the big picture of love from malign variations of mood. But that doesn’t mean that exposure will not be an event: it’s always an event to discover the alterity of the lover that was always and will always be there, and is there right now.

But the politics of who gets to secret the secrets–this is what Kim Scheppele wrote about a decade ago, and what Michaelson and Shersow are thinking about. In “The Epistemology of State Emotion” I argued that the state defends its own opacity from accusations of antinomianism by claiming that the terrorist practices of secreted secrecy force the state into mimetic overdrive. Here’s the view of The New York Times.
Michaelson and Shersow’s real aim is to explain secrecy in terms of Derridean-inflected genre theory, and to approach the Constitutional history that made the Patriot Act seem legal. Of course it should have been called the superfluous, supernumerary state secret act, since it legalized already legal suspensions of due process. Bush/Cheney were angry that they had to ask permission to do what they wanted, claiming that speed of execution in an era of rational paranoia is a priority over the boring business of supervision. But perhaps one ought to save the word “supernumerary” for its best phrase partner, “nipple.”

Here’s a bit of what Michaelson and Shersow have to say:

In any case, a secret evidently can—or must—be shared by more than one; and yet, to remain faithful in any sense to its own concept, it cannot be shared by every one. . . . In those cases that are called, in English, “open secrets,” and in French, “les secrets de Polichinelle,” only the sharing of the secret is secret, not the secret itself; and even such sharing remains always suspended just this side of a necessary limit which it may always encounter in, for example, the voice of a child proclaiming an emperor’s nakedness. Are these problems of number and limit (as such phrases and examples seem perhaps to indicate) the source of the faintly comic note that seems to play, as we shall see, around the whole idea of the secret, even in its most serious (and secretive) political form? We will also suggest that this question of the secret is a kind of ghostly double of the question of democracy itself, to which it remains inescapably linked by exigencies at once practical and theoretical. Democracy and the secret pose a sort of double problem whose two sides can be denoted in French by the single phrase plus un (cf. Derrida, Politics 101). How many can share a secret? The secret replies, so to speak: this many, but no more. And how many [End Page 125] can join in a democracy?

This passage calls up Jodi Dean/Zizek’s argument too: that democracy produces an evidentiary crisis. Who has the information that organizes life? The enmeshing of “openness” with democracy, equality and freedom requires suspicion on all sides, and a play between the sovereignty and injustice of kept secrets, open secrets, fetishes of transparency on all sides, and a suspicion that things are never equal, which they aren’t. Intellectuals can fetishize the circulation of knowledge, as though knowing all equals an even playing field. But rather than be cyncial about it, let’s turn to Ranciere’s work, where democracy is a desire and a process of opening and claiming that refuses the norm/law of class privilege, and it’s not the same thing as openness or equality, which is a measure in a moment. Secrecy might be anti-democratic, a treasury or hoard of value, but transparency is a fantasy horizon that does not guarantee or constitute democracy. We know that and yet the impotence of the truth and the seduction of the wish remains, that a sense of openness equals openness of access to power, resources, and indeed privilege, with all the unimpeded mobility of impact its etymology suggests.

Below I’m starting a new genre for riffing, for keeping suggestive connections alive. Interruption is my stylistic ethics: to self-interrupt, to force openings in my own habit of self-tracking and self-regard, to be idiomatically non-monogamous, as you would predict. Adultery, fantasy, philandering, swerve (I read an article today about adultery, where the commentators kept saying “she got her swerve, he got his”).

Side effects: Secrecy may dissolve or engender solidarity, paranoia, and love. Its genre is the stage whisper. Secrecy may induce constant surprise at leakage. Be prepared, ask your doctor. It can perform coercive binding, as when, after information is “shared,” the speaker says, “You mustn’t say a word about this,” as though by listening you had already consented to pretend not to have heard or been changed by the event of the dirt. It may induce pervasive skepticism about the meaning of gifts and of love. It may make one long for stupefied and stupefying defenses against any assurance at all. See extimacy. See also political depression. Unimaginative and thrilling inversions can develop, too, as in: retaliatory acts of openness, disloyalty to that open secret which shields privilege from experiencing its own fragility, compulsive uncaring frankness, or gossip (the sublation of once-hoarded information to pseudo and then actual performative authorlessness). Hearing commentary on you that open with phrases like “people say” may lead to an adrenalin rush, the sensation of being tipped over, and generalized hate or love, depending. People who are cruelly made to discover that they have been out of the loop, discourse fellowship, or sentimental holding chamber of insiderness may go crazy on you: do not open up the treasury while driving a vehicle. Secrecy may cause more hoarding, more secrecy, more informational auto-poesis or lying. It may cause diarrheas of deniability, falsely innocent assertions of not having known, not having been on the inside, and not having had a will to the death of the other from whom x was kept and who could not therefore understand or shape the condition of their lives. Refusals to protect the secrecy of the open secret dissolve the assurance of others, and may create a will to saturate all sensual fields not in kind but with acts of reason or pseudo-openness that really amount to an ungiving turned-away back. Sinthomo-epistemology may induce vomiting. I thought some of this during a meeting at school a few weeks ago. Why bother going to the gym when I’m getting so much exercise rolling my eyes while keeping my face straight? Composure uses up glucose. Writing keeps me from flying off into the air from all that fluttering.




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