. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought


The Game

1. The Test

There’s a can of blueberries at the back of the shelf amid dust and flour mites or whatever it is that gets into the rice, like an old writing file where you made a deposit in the darkness of a late style. As though berries too syrupy even for ice cream and the cheesecakes your mother never got to make were just waiting around for you to be found, like that child in the game. Continue reading



A Consultation

Hi! I’ve been writing books, and so this blog, which is a research blog, after all, has been languishing.  I imagine that, starting in June. I’ll post more often to retain and retrain focus, as I will be on an extended writing-for-deadline hiatus, researching a new book, letting things in. It’s exciting to be on the verge of a porousness that’s both deliberate and can’t be intended.  In the meantime I’ve been using my blabbing time doing some interviews (listed below) and, in concert with Katie Stewart, doing some writing exercises that I’ll also post some of here.  We’ll see where that work on the ordinary goes—maybe another little co-authored book.  In January a book I’ve written with/against Lee Edelman will appear from Duke:  Sex, or the Unbearable.  I like collaboration, it’s taxing and revealing, like villanelle-writing, which is also influencing the current work. Continue reading



Affect Theory Roundtable Questions, MLA 2012 Authors: Lauren Berlant, Ann Cvetkovich, Jonathan Flatley, Neville Hoad, Heather Love, José E. Muñoz, Tavia Nyong’o

These are our questions for the MLA roundtable.  Section one takes up genealogies of affect theory; section two takes up the problem of affect in the historical present; section three takes up a variety of concerns about queer theory, sexuality, racialization, specific cases and archives, and modes of orientation that are in proximity to whatever we might call affect but in different idioms.  You can download them here.  mla roundtable 2011

745. Affecting Affect Theory is scheduled to take place at 1:45+3:00 p.m. on 08-JAN-12 in 615, WSCC; Washington State Convention Center, 800 Convention Place (Pike St. and 8th Ave.)

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Affect Theory Roundtable Questions, MLA 2012

Authors:  Lauren Berlant, Ann Cvetkovich, Jonathan Flatley, Neville Hoad, Heather Love, José E. Muñoz, Tavia Nyong’o

I. Genealogies of Affect Theory 

1.  How do we think about the different trajectories of affect theory now, especially as the Deleuzian/Massumian project/idiom has become so important to its critical circulation?  How do we think the proximity of public feelings, minor affects, psychoanalysis, Sedgwickian syncretism (Buddhism, Tomkins, Klein), and affective labor’s version of affect-as-immateriality in relation to the Spinozan tradition?  How to keep the event of affect open to maintaining the multiplicity of traditions, trajectories, tendencies, and critical tactics? Is spanning all traditions important to ways we think about addressing future problems?

2. Affect vs/alongside mood, feeling, emotion etc. What are the stakes of synthesizing these different ways of talking to our about states of the sensorium?

3.  Cavell (a great affect theorist who is not often included in the genealogies of affect theory) says that professional philosophy has been emancipated from an obligation to be therapeutic, but that it should be haunted by that very emancipation.  What about the critical work we do: what about questions of theory and utility, of reparativity, of failure?

4. In response to thoughts about genealogies and the increasing institutionalization of Deleuzian affect studies, I would like to take the chance to think in some detail about genealogies for public feelings/feel tank type affect studies. The Cavell thing got me thinking about other possibly overlooked figures. Continue reading



In the Air (1)

The fantasy of a common sense, a sense of a capacity or of something affectively general at the core of democracy, is not necessarily sentimental. But the drive to create a more capacious democratic sensorium so often tips into intimacy’s sentimental vernacular that its placeholder status as conceptual magnet, not origin or experience, is very hard to discipline–and the drive to discipline it is the source of so much social theory. The local occasion of this post is the Theatre Oobleck production of There Is a Happiness That Morning Is. The  play, riffing on Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, was classic Oobleck:  noisy, vital, and entirely intentional.  There wasn’t a supervalent moment in it, which was an achievement of sorts, since it is about love and fucking and freedom and  lyric poetry and death, and how they shape profound scenes of self-encounter that reveal enigmas of suffering and impaired autonomy at the heart of ordinary intimacy. But it was unsatisfying, because it aimed to be too satisfying: the writing overdramatized every emotion, including disbelief, as though to color within the lines must amount to blackening an entire page. In this it was exemplary of so much aesthetic and theoretical work that works over the emotions, attempting to drown out the affects and to claim that when we are authentic we feel one known thing at a time.

The problem of writing about this play is that any substantive discussion of it will make it more wonderful than any minute of seeing it. This is what critical engagement does: it adds value through staging interest that’s been magnetized to a form. It converts the event of form into a situation. In reading with a thing a transitional environment emerges that changes what attention can attend to. The encounter makes change prehensible, resonating toward a leavening sense of a concept whose potentiality is virtually affirmed even if the encounter itself fails to have much afterlife. But what I am trying to do is to think about the downsides of potentiality modes when they are tethered to a simplifying desire for emotions already normatively held in common to provide a foundation for (aesthetic or political) transformation.

Continue reading



Other people’s optimism
May 6, 2008, 4:19 pm
Filed under: affect, Belonging, emotion, Love, Ordinariness, Politics, writing | Tags: , , , ,

(Column 1 in a series; the Long version; experiment in political journalism; see “Credibility and Incredibility” below)

Sometime in fading recent memory, it seems that we were debating about “hope.” Has hope’s moment passed? How did the Yes We Can moment come to feel so long ago, a shadow second before all the bowling and cake and bitterness? Can you even remember the beginning of this sentence? If you’re thinking, as you read this, “Oh, “Yes We Can” was so February!” that’s because political time moves with the rising and falling intensities of scandal and speculation.

But it’s also because other people’s optimism is so often felt as a threat. Optimism? I’m serious. Get me out of here! We are taught to respect our own pain, and to respond compassionately to that of others. We have a word for taking pleasure in other people’s pain: schadenfreude. But there’s no word for the anxiety that arises from other people’s optimism.

Why is that? Did Hillary Clinton’s deflationary anti-aesthetics–as in Mario Cuomo’s “You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose”–burst the hope bubble? (Apparently not.) Was her disrespect for the mereness of “just words” actually effective in its dismissal of desire for the political? Did the skies open up not with hope, but with shame? Was it an accident that the appearance of organized collective inspiration suddenly got widely equated with the threat of fascism and the shallowness of rock star celebrity?

Continue reading



Dissolving into…

My friend Katie wrote me that she was struck by the relation of optimism to humor in this blog. After yesterday I’d say to the humors, as I was steamy, then, with optimism drain–blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm, acidic energy generated by my frustrated desire to have a whole thought amidst institutional avalanches of need, demand, passive aggression, aggression, and obligation. Some things just won’t just flake away through inattention.

But mainly, I was so bollixed up by all I wanted and failed to say in the last entry that I hadn’t even gotten to say what I’d been thinking about that very thing: that is, humor, laughter, the comic, and their relation to the psychoanalytic and political interests of this project’s aim to understand problems of detaching from normative, durable, reliable forms of life. Laughter is a form of dissolution that would seem to indicate an attachment to a situation that generates pleasure. But not always, maybe not even usually.

Here’s a start toward another research thread. Even a suggestion of the comic puts me in a good mood. Thanks, Katie! (Katie even thinks that maybe these should be called The Optimism Papers, although that wouldn’t predict, say, the chapter on torture. On the other hand, torturing is the state’s ridiculous optimism about controlling the real, isn’t it? And yet, there are questions of tone: the structure and affect of optimism aren’t identical, and being precise about those divergences matters.)

All throughout writing The Female Complaint comedy haunted me, comedy as a subordinated subculture’s or overwhelmed individual’s lubricant for being in the room with and figuring out how to survive what’s presently overwhelming about the real. But I could only talk about the comic as an intensity, an extremity on the other side of melodramatic heightening, as in the Dorothy Parker chapter: “Listen, I can’t even get my dog to stay down. Do I look to you like someone who could overthrow the government?” This couplet cracks me up. But even Parker claims that comedy isn’t a weapon, but a failing shield. It’s hard for me not to feel all mixed up around Parker’s humor, sensing the fear and defense that radiates in the atmosphere of her sharp observation. But sometimes comedy is just a cigar, or whatever: delight, unmixed relief to be stretching out without a sense of wearing out.

People dissolve into laughter and into tears, among other things, I’d been thinking: the dissolution of bodily composure was always part of this research (Losing It and Unraveling were other early handles for this project) . Last Thursday I realized that Detachment Theory had to start with thinking about laughing. Maybe that would be the chapter on Lamb’s She’s Come Undone and Ellman’s Doctors and Nurses. But there’s so much in the archive for this book that could be about comedies of dissolution that are not merely Rabelaisian inversion.

In the Affect Publics reading group this week we read Bergson’s Laughter and Baudelaire’s “The Essence of Laughter.” Neither of these attended enough to ambivalent laughter, because I’m most interested in the knot that undoes someone’s sense of formal control in an enduring way, not just as an involuntary pulse. But Bergson’s interest in adjustment as the scene or situation of laughter seems a perfect referent for that part of this project. He writes that inelasticity and inflexibility on display produce laughter, as the subject being laughed at can’t adjust to his situation: he talks about the comic spectacle of “something mechanical encrusted on the living.” Bergson’s sense that the comic is produced by inelasticity where we would expect or even need to see adaptation works well with John Limon‘s great prediction: “the appeal of comedy may be traced to its imposition of geometrical perfectionism on compounded liminality.” Limon ends up talking about queer precision.

As I was reading I kept thinking about dissolving into tears/laughter, where the bodily fact one always faces in laughter involves watching someone live through this, exerting control and letting go, tipping over and getting back up. When getting back up happens, I mean.

Dissolving can take on so many forms of bodily action: for example, bending over in laughter. I knew a woman once who was so stiff that her laughter looked like a threat to her bodily integrity: we were all actually scared when she laughed, we wanted it to go away, because we were afraid that in the aftermath she would just be broken, a stick dissolved into splinters.

She was a teacher of ours. Actually, now that I think about it, I’ve had two depressive teachers like this, whose laughter wasn’t a relief but a release of something the person really could not contain but could not survive the release of. The other one would shake side to side like a possessed metronome. Both were high composure, high WASP, very controlling women: one suicide, one now debilitated, mentally alive when she is, but not pedagogically, professionally, or personally too functional. She can laugh at ducks, and occasionally at talks.



The Pathetic Imperative

Yesterday while driving to MLA to meet a friend whose family is slowly being worn to a nub–car accidents, drug abuse, suicide, and “natural causes” mark the meanwhile during which she’s gotten tenure, become a Buddhist, found and left lovers, considered getting another Ph.D, or writing three books, or changing jobs or buying more flats (in other words, her head’s full of noise even as her mouth sounds so clear)–a commercial came on the radio selling conscience and commitment towards foster kids.

In an age of increasing fear that new generations will fare worse than the ones that begat them, foster kids and certain populations of adoptee (bad luck if you’re born in Romania and good luck if you’re born in India) are not only being shunned as resources for family-making by the infertile but marked as populations so damaged from the get-go, so incapable of giving or receiving love, that it’s not worth cultivating individuals who hail from them. The exceptions are striking, as this segment on Romanian adoption from “Unconditional Love” attests: but the exceptions, the kids without devastating attachment disorder, can never really shake the seconds mark invisibly lasered on their foreheads. The brutal ease with which these humans are written off as unworthy of optimism slays me.

I’ve been reading lots about this problem of impaired attachment: that’s one of the research lines this blog will be tracking. A great assessment of the state of the neuropsychoanalytic literature can be found in recent work on “The Children of Duplessis,” orphans who were named mentally ill and institutionalized by the Canadian government in league with the Catholic Church (see bibliography below). Articulating neuropsychology and attachment theory, some contemporary work on these children is in its own way heartbreaking, as it tries gamely to show that not all subjects of trauma are traumatized by it, and that what happens in life can work dynamically, alleviatingly, with what didn’t happen during the child’s first 3-5 years (appropriate and reliable levels of stimulation and comfort whose absence can fundamentally change for the worse the capacities and responsivity managed by the hyppocampus and the amygdala). The plasticity of the brain works for and against the capacity to develop attachments as life goes on; the plasticity of the brain isn’t infinite, but expressed in changes to patterning, and as we know, personality is pattern, a cluster of habits, that is very hard to change and very hard to want to change.

So maybe not all traumatic events produce trauma for their addressees; perhaps all traumatized subjects don’t manifest the encounter the same way; perhaps it’s just a small percentage whose depression not just won’t but can’t respond to treatment. I can’t help but think that the widespread fear of a hardwired mental unhealth that can’t be undone, interfered with, managed, or turned toward flourishing is a symptom of some deeper knowledge people have about how uncapacious and maladaptive the world is to everyone, not just those who can’t perform the normative imperatives to produce and reproduce. I like using words like flourishing and capaciousness as a metric for what the conditions of social life ought to provide, because they seem so irrelevant to the tightening gyre that replaces the liberal/capitalist promise of building a good life with tinnily optimistic instructions for making, holding onto, and surviving the loss of a fragile one.

The commercial hit me so hard that I can’t remember it. Young kids with optimistic voices edited together in increasing density and speed said that they were foster kids (also called “waiting kids” in the literature) to whom no one has a primary commitment, that they had love to give and needs to receive it. The commercial ended with all of the young voices saying the phrase “Please don’t give up on us” with emphasis on the please and the pleading and with increased intensity that mimed, performed, and communicated anxiety.

Please don’t give up on us pleasedon’tgiveuponuspleasedon’tgiveuponuspleasedon’t…

The commercial reminded me of a belated response I had to Don’t Leave Me This Way, a great AIDS anthology I bought in the mid-1990s, one of the best ones next to Douglas Crimp’s AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism. At some point last summer I picked it up to browse and find out what I hadn’t yet learned and suddenly re-felt the anthem’s powerful disco realism about all the queer lives wasted, deemed incompetent and unworthy of intimacy and the good life, and then I started missing some individuals and the whole lot of the lost, and then, weeping, realized that the lyrics were the child’s lament about the adult world’s impaired attachments: Don’t leave me this way, I can’t survive, I can’t stay alive, without your love, don’tleavemethisway…

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Children of Duplessis CBC Archive

Wikipedia Entry on Duplessis Orphans

Perry et al, “Seven Institutionalized Children and their Adaptation in Late Adulthood: the Children of Duplessis.” Psychiatry 69 (4) 2006: 283-301.

Low and Eth, Commentary on “Seven Institutionalized Children and Their Adaptation in Late Adulthood: The Children of Duplessis.” In Psychiatry 69 (4) (Winter 2006): 314-321.




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