. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought

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.

Outrages proliferate around us, and Maureen Dowd writes about the cojones it takes to eat frosting, ice cream, orange juice, and drink Budweiser. James Carville crows about Hillary Clinton’s mutant testicles. When did balls become a legitimate political metric, by the way? I blame The Daily Show. In any case, let me repeat: Without a desire for the political there is no democracy. All that other stuff is noise trying to dilute our focus on the substantive material that props up the intensity of our commitment to that.

You might also want to check out Jacques Ranciere, Jose Munoz, David Graeber, or Avery Gordon on this subject. Additionally, there’s an anthology of interviews called Hope, edited by Mary Zournazi. Their politics are not identical to each other’s, nor to mine. They alike value the drive to remain attached to the political, to not confuse small victories with no victories, and they respect the havoc of desire as something that a vitalized political sphere incites and requires. To learn things, to be animated and expanded, one does not have to agree with everything in what one hears or reads. One can be ambivalent, and figure out whatever it takes next to push things toward the better good life. Do I really have to write this?

I guess this means that I am an elite. An elite, in this season, is not someone with more money than other people: the word for that is privilege. When the aspirsion “elite” is cast, it means that some incitement to normative political emotion has not produced normative moral clarity. It means that someone wanted to step back and be curious about what Wright meant when he said x, and what he meant when he said y, and to assess the confusions in it all, since no matter what political orientation someone has, people are politically incoherent. It means to want realism about how people listen to each other at church or in class: that is, not very well or consistently (sigh). I think that solidarity can be strong while being mixed. It’s not that I’m not visceral, but I also have curiosity about what’s visceral, since my intuitions are trained.

I want to know, who is orchestrating these political emotions, and to what end? But the bigger question is: how can we become educated by our political ambivalence, to make stronger and more effective demands on the political to deserve our desire for it?

7 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Your recent series of posts make me think a lot about the possible relation between anxiety as it manifests in the question of participating in the gratifying but possibly distracting activity of political journalism and the anxiety surrounding the expression of political optimism. Trying to avoid extrapolating these distinct expressions of anxiety by sacrificing their structural and experiential specificity, I am wondering about the function of reciprocity in this discussion. When I say reciprocity, I am thinking of the attempt to meet someone where they are, socially, politically, emotionally, intellectually and to create for them a version of the experience they are transmitting outward (and that you are potentially grateful for and therefore wanting to recreate/respond to).
In some sense, the anxiety about political journalism and political optimism seem to share the promise of reciprocity. At least that’s what I think of when I hear of your invitation to do more of what you did in “Against Sexual Scandal” – that is, provide an intellectually compelling and pedagogically clear version of complex material that opens up conversation to people who might otherwise not engage in having those kinds of thoughts in that kind of way. This invitation seems to me to be equally an invitation to the writer, in this case you, to be reciprocated. Did all the responses in the Nation and blogs feel like the experience of being met (in whatever sense) where you were/are? And if so, why not repeat that space of reciprocity and if not, then what is being salvaged by not doing so? Does reciprocity inhere the experience of not being fully met (Lacan?). Is it the anxiety of ‘almost’ being met or being met ‘enough’ that is also implicitly *not* really reciprocal in a way that’s desired? How can we understand reciprocity in relation to (mis)recognition? And so, does the anxiety around potential reciprocal exchange (as imagined in scenes of political journalism and political optimism) reflect the impossibility of being met in the right way or the possibility of being met and therefore having little left that is beyond/outside reciprocity.
Also, as per your comment on “irrational attachments” and Sedgwick’s response of there being no other kind, I just read a great book by Sebastian Gardner called “Irrationality & Psychoanalysis” that wonderfully explains ways of understanding the unconscious as being simultaneously strategic and yet without intent…maybe one can theorize a similar structure for desire as it relates to attachment theory?

Comment by ashtor

Great post. You’re right that the anxieties are related. A few responses:
1. I like how in your version of reciprocity the evidence of its functioning isn’t in a literalizing practice (you give me what I give you) but the transmission of some mimetic economy of experience (here’s an affective or emotional experience like what you’ve given me). But I also think most reciprocity doesn’t function that way. That model is too hypervigilant, organized by the genre of the act, and modeled on [child-parent] dyads. Lydia Davis’s The End of the Story is a great performance of the need to develop a more expansive view of the practice of the reciprocal—I write about the nightmare of recalibrating reciprocity in her work a bit in chapter 1 of The Female Complaint.
2. Most reciprocity is in a formal call and response relation where what one gets back is not in the register of what one gives out, let alone in the register of a deep, substantive recognition, as you suggest in your Lacanian reference. The formal fact of getting back feels like evidence of having had an impact on the world that confirms one’s existence (which is why little kids act out negatively to get love, because the formal fact of response has the formal property that love should provide, an environment-suffusing reliable activity of recognition that one mattered). This is the hardest thing to learn about the intimacies one needs for survival, I think, that they’re not about economies of like affective experience but about the sense generated by formal evidence of impact.
3. This is why people stay in relationships that don’t feel like pleasure or the holding sense of love, because (among other things) those relationships still register the evidence of impact, which is the foundation for being able to endure in the world optimistically. It is hard to measure all of this in terms of the singular event or the totality of the relationship to a person or an environment, so one is stuck managing the muddled middle and wishing one could call it intention.
4. In attachment one demands that one’s intimates return to the scene where one’s impact will be registered at best generously, and therefore where dependence can be felt not as loss or being dominated but as an intimate collaboration (or, to be precise, an extimate collaboration that feels intimate). One’s demands for others’ “reciprocity” (performance of the evidence of your impact, of you having been imagined and felt) have nothing to do with one’s sense of obligation to act reciprocally to them, either. When I write I want to have impact on an idea, more than on people. I want to feel the potentiality of opening up that I can then use to connect to persons, to make worlds. But that optimism comes later.
5. My anxieties about being a journalist of political emotion have little to do with reciprocity, therefore. As Roland Barthes writes, people are partial, inconstant readers and listeners at best, but they’re interesting and enlivening precisely because of how surprising it is where they take what you put out. (This is why teaching is so interesting.)
6. I think my anxieties have to do with the problem you also mention, of translation. To have something to translate, one must have had time to work out a thought, an argument, evidence, an explanation, testing. To me that means that you have to have had time to think, to posit, to take it back, to wonder about things. I don’t always know what I think. And I don’t want only to resolve that problem in some projected out normative form. I cringe when I write “we,” when I participate in the efficient projection of generality. One has to do that a lot in political journalism; also, “they” and “some people” and etc. There’s an ethics to generalizing, that haunts me, as it should. The rhythms of political journalism force one to make quick decisions about the state of things, with little empirical but the senses to go on, because one is living in the crisis economy of the fragile now that (phantasmatically) might be reshaped if we say the right things.
7. I’ll read the book on irrationality. Thanks for the cite!! I think it’s absolutely right to say that affect has aims without intentions and part of the plan of Detachment Theory is to think about that.

Comment by supervalentthought

I love this piece! I hope the truncated, weak rhymes of these couplets will suggest the curtailement of aspiration that accompanies my political depression at this point in the campaign season.

The System Works!

A few months into the race
& McCain is building his base;
Clinton’s numbers, never high
are lower than when she cried
& Obama’s are down to where
In New Hampshire, hers were.
In other words, the donkey’s been
Hobbled–let the race begin!

Comment by Matthias

Great posting. “Optimism of the will” from Gramsci happens to be exactly what I need to think about this morning. Thank you!

Comment by cathy davidson

This is wonderful stuff. It’s funny. Earlier I was reading, rereading, Jean-Luc Nancy (“Hegel: the Restlessness of the Negative”); when I looked here your posts especially interested me because of their relevance to something I’m working on about sexual infatuation and “impossible” love.

The politics was secondary insofar as this did not feed my own work. Whereas much of what you said “the crush” feeds my project and sent me off to productive 2nd and 3rd and 4th thoughts.

“When one does not love the impossible, one does not love anything,” Antonio Porchia said. But is this, however lovely a thought, in real life rather too ideal?

Comment by Ignacio

‘Kamikaze girls’ by monogatary offers a wonderful
alternative answer to the political chick flick…

Comment by elena

[…] Berlant, “Looking For Mr. (W)right“  (via […]

Pingback by JinxNixon

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: