. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought

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.

I feel very mixed about them, but they’re about feeling mixed, so I guess I’ll take the risk in public. They feel trivial. They are trying to explain some small politically intense moments in the present political situation. I am also about to write some redactions of my Critical Inquiry pieces on the case as event and on the obesity epidemic for more nonacademic audiences too. This seems to be the season of shorter sentences and of starting out where other people are, in a rhetoric that nudges. Maybe I’ll post those things too, in a few weeks; these developments seem so strange to me, and I need to make some decisions about the register in which my work appears, and then re-take control once my school-year obligations are fulfilled. I am so anxious about this that when my cat woke me at five this morning (sneezing on my face, his new form of aubade), I couldn’t get back to sleep.

But another thing that Eve Sedgwick taught me is to have ideas in public, in real time; not to hoard, but to revise by way of conversation and incited response. It’s not clear that political journalism is the best use of my time, though, my limited time for reading, thinking, and writing. Since March I have been researching constantly this next project!–but you wouldn’t know it, because everything has been speedy and fleeting. There’s been little capture time for remembering the clarity I can sometimes weed out amidst the noise of the work-for-others that I also do (e.g. teaching, editing, reviewing books and essays, reading tenure cases, etc.).


I thought I’d close by telling you about another encounter I had recently, and as the encounter archive is backed up with eye-opening episodes, more to come in that register too, as skill-building toward anecdotal exemplification is also part of this blog’s writing project.

It’s mid-April, the transitional season, a week beginning in snow and ending triumphant in the sun. I returned home from my wild U. Vermont residency in time to attend a party for my haircutter, Meseret Mahlum, who cuts at 57th Street Hair Salon. It was such a wonderful thing, a surprise for her and a really interesting experiment in strangers meeting each other simply because they were patrons of a place, a person, and a scene. I heart Meseret, and I must not be alone. Seventy or eighty people came! Drinking, shmoozing, being curious: it was great.

I was conversing happily with a lawyer who works with troubled juveniles. An acquaintance of hers came up to us and joined in, and we got deep into thinking about what it means to try to convince violent kids to become nonviolent. The lawyer pointed out that these kids have never enjoyed an institutional margin of error, a margin of permission to fuck up, the ways privileged children and adults regularly do.

Then the newer interlocutor turns to me and says, I am so glad to meet you after hearing about you all these years! I say, Oh! Do we have friends in common? No, she says. I’m also a psychiatric social worker, and I’ve had students of yours as clients, along with many others from your department.

I fold into myself. I say, Oh. I don’t know what to say to that. I’m not always that bad. She says, don’t be defensive, they respect you and trust you but fear you, and I tell them, Lauren Berlant is just like my husband! You’re frank and you kick ass.

I stay folded in. Later, as we leave, she says, again, I’m so glad finally to attach a face to the name, after all these years. I remain a bobblehead. Later still, in an email, she says, I’m so glad to meet you after hearing about you after all these years.

I’m dumbfounded for sixty reasons. None have to do with surprise at the content of what she says. She says, you have no idea how bad the other ones are, I have heard some stories. My body takes the hits not just of her phrases but of the phrases I’m not saying back.

4 Comments so far
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An additional coolness factor in your thinking about “political journalism” is that it’s also a way to think about academic writing–in terms that might be much more generative than the ones produced by academic anti-intellectualism. Like, you will find out how you value various imaginations of audience, woo hoo! How cool is that!

As for being the subject of someone’s (plural), or some part of someone’s (plural) therapy, why is it such a trip? You made something happen for someone, and they attached that something to you. I think that means you exist…

Comment by Mandor

Maybe! But I don’t think that discovering the relation between my attachment to my concepts and to my phrases and my imaginary audience justifies adding noise to the wall of noise that constitutes the political in its own insane real time. I read a bunch of articles this morning originating from Joan Walsh on Salon about the ways people are talking about fucking during this election cycle. It made me sick not only because sex is so much more interesting than the metric it provides for people but because the ways we can imagine each other in public (MSM) are so ridiculous, and not in the good sense.

As for the woman at the party, I wasn’t surprised to discover I exist as a force in my students’ minds, I was surprised (but this is a longer conversation) that she was so unprofessional. The violation of so many kinds of privacy was shocking to me, and on behalf of what? Some efficiently engineered faux intimacy? Or a moment of alpha activity where she showed me that she had my number? And that’s just the start of it.

Comment by supervalentthought

We need more noise–always more noise–never less noise. The way you get to better noise is only through more noise. Pretty much how I think about hope too…

Comment by Mandor

Yes, of course you’re right. At the same time, why. When I talk in department meetings, my aim is to provide phrases that manage something difficult, and to create precedent for future clarities even if I’m going to lose this time (which I usually do, sigh). As in all discussions, most of what gets said is noise, because new clarities come out of an emerging stream within the noise that becomes a line of thought. That’s different than the imaginary problem-solving impact that an opinion column fancies that it could have. One hopes to be quoted, which is proof of the impact. Yet when I read political columns what often strikes me is the imbalance between analysis and performative desires. The execrable Maureen Dowd, for example: she sacrifices her actually existing analytic intelligence for a ticker registering who has the phallus now. She’s like a one woman State of the American Phallus index. It makes me so angry that it dilutes my own belief in my own clarities, and makes me want to retreat into what the feeltank calls the “Slow Response Network” where I can sit awhile in the incoherent mess of political attachment.

Eve Sedgwick said this great thing to me last week, that makes me laugh every time I think about it. I said something about “irrational attachment.” She said, isn’t that redundant? I’ve been thinking about this a lot. She’s totally right. At the same time, I was pointing toward something related to the concept of supervalent thought itself. I’m going to have to work that out. Meanwhile, though, I have an irrational attachment to not becoming unfocused as a scholar, getting involved in lots of small opinion projects that don’t help me develop the next phase of things. So that’s what’s worrying me about punditry.

Comment by supervalentthought

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