. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought

Another way to think about normativity.

For the last few years I’ve been writing about aspirational normativity—a concept that describes individuals’ motives for belonging to a general culture as something other than a will to power, ideology, or shallowness. Instead one can view it as an affective need or drive to feel held by the social world. To sense that one is held durably by the world is not a very high bar, just a specific one. It does not mean to feel recognized in the full range of your being. Nor does it mean merely to be acknowledged—bump into anyone on the street, act like an asshole, have a conversation with anyone, and you can feel that you have an impact without feeling especially welcome in the world. Sometimes feeling a connection is a relief from a general state of disconnection.

Instead, to feel held in this sense is to have an expectation that there will be some kind of confirming reciprocity in one’s exchanges and an experience of a confirming reciprocity that does not have to be personal or even feel good explicitly, and yet engenders satisfaction and optimism toward a better-than-survival kind of living. The expectation of good conversations or kind glances with strangers is a good example of a structure of reciprocity that is also the feeling of it. So is hearing that your taste for x is also someone else’s. But so much more than repetition of the same is involved in achieving and managing reciprocity. Finding in the world or in others what’s important to you releases you from the loneliness of your singular attachments, the attachments engendered by autonomic or instinctual moves toward the something that looks promising. Leo Bersani describes most beautifully the delicacy of such gestures toward self-extension.

But achieving an attachment that feels compelling is just one part of reciprocity: it could also be stalking! As we will see. The other part is expecting a return, in being able to be returned to, in expanding the idioms of return. The other part is the fear of return. In the project whose record of construction I’m making here, I’m writing about living with a drive to create conditions of reciprocity in a world where it cannot be presupposed—and not just because people have bad “caretaking environments” when they’re little. Reciprocity is not just in kind, a literal trade. To study it is to look for the idioms of exchange that work and what happens when they don’t. It is to look at the terms through which people make bargains with life subjectively–politically and affectively, without knowing it, often. I have been stunned in the last few years to collect a huge archive of aesthetic mediations of this situation—works that find people in a world where they can’t find a person, an intimate public, a political world, any durable conditions for sustaining optimism. And maybe they don’t want to, maybe sometimes being alone is a relief from the obligations of being durable. My claim is that this situation is both singular to individuals and increasingly sensed as a structural abandonment by general social worlds and political institutions.

Questions: What happens to the life drive when it finds no traction for its optimism? Is this why is there so much crankiness—anxious attachment disorder? Why do people feel that they won’t be heard capaciously and generously, and what are the effects of the presumption that one’s gestures will be ejected except by an intimate public? I am always shocked by the optimism that brings people back to the world one more time, to make connections with strangers that are hard to maintain with full intimates. At the same time I sense that even what Katie Stewart calls “little worlds” are desperately held on to, because to encounter the reciprocal feels rarer and more precious and more a function of stranger intimacy than of personal, face to face, biography.

Jessica Benjamin describes the affect of being held so beautifully in “What Angel Would Hear Me?: The Erotics of Transference,” (1994). Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 14: 535-557, and in Like Subjects, Love Objects. See also Christopher Bollas, The Shadow of the Object (New York: Columbia UP, 1989). I’ve written about aspirational normativity most explicitly in “Nearly Utopian, Nearly Normal: Post-Fordist Affect in La Promesse and Rosetta,” Public Culture 2007 19 (2): 273-301.

Here I extend some thoughts from the introduction to The Female Complaint. Bersani thinks crisply about self-extension in”Sociality and Sexuality,” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Summer, 2000), pp. 641-656. Eve Sedgwick’s work in “Pedagogy of Buddhism” takes off from an articulation of Silvan Tomkins’ thoughts about circuits of flow between subjects and the world and Melanie Klein’s “depressive position” to make a unrelated claim about the conditions of shame and attachment, but as usual I cavil at presuming that the experience of broken attachment is one of shame. See Touching Feeling (Duke UP, 2003). In this next project I’ll figure out how to do more than resist this closing down of affects of being cut off from a sense of reciprocal worldness.