Filed under: affect, Affect Theory, Attachment, Belonging, class, Craziness, Detachment theory, economy, emotion, optimism, Ordinariness, Politics, potentiality, Theory of this Blog, trauma, writing
Oh oh oh oh oh.
It’s time for financial crisis suicide watch, motivated for me neither by schadenfreude nor easy (narcissistic or empathic) identification. Nor is it a return of the pathological public sphere in which the public measures itself as life against traumas too proximate to block. It’s about punctuating crisis time and the leakage of the recent past and near future into an elongated present in which people lose confidence, and become very quiet waiting to see how things turn out next, and next, and next. People wander around in a heightened attentiveness to what’s out of control, gathering up happenings and seeing how they unfold, how to adjust. These dramas of adjustment, well, I’m enacting one now, aren’t I?
It is hard to appreciate the dead. I obsessed over the short obituaries for the 9-11 dead, even though my eyes kept draining down the page as I tried to focus and remember something. I may teach them next year: the students will end with them, and begin the course reading their ancestor, The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. No book in history is read less well than The Key. The Key is unbearable.
You begin quickly to want Stowe to shut up and stop moralizing. The Key is a defensive book, which explains some of its difficulty: because white people didn’t believe Stowe about something (that slaves had souls, or that slaves were tortured so systematically and extremely). So she had to name names, places, times, clothes, houses, streets, smells, signs, sources. Lots of the record was already public, lots word of mouth: but the facts of all white people’s white supremacy could not be taken in by the people who were benefiting from feeling distant from their immediacy.
Ordinary, not very powerful, whites needed defenses against the ethical bleed that happens when they discover that their saturation in the details of the now, the reproduction of life in the present, does not tell the whole story about enjoyment and inequality. People love inequality, really, the perpetuation of privilege by some system over there. Adam Phillips even argues that people on the sour end of inequality are attached to it too, in that they like knowing where they are in a pecking order. Bob Altemeyer makes a similar claim. But few would avow this, because it would make them seem like bad people.
Stowe catalogues the damage to life that few whites honored–slave courage that didn’t produce events that kept producing events, African survival that was a wonder but had not yet added up to interfering with all of the kinds of white profit that slavery generated. Yet when I assign The Key no one remembers a thing that they read. It’s an amnesia machine. Students remember an atmosphere, and they bring their numbness to class.
Why am I talking about this?
Avalanches of detail induce stupidity, the blankness before things can make sense, the moment before that which is disorganized becomes organized and mobile in speech, thought, on the page, in the world. This is what it means to be crashing, to be living amidst a crash, while being conscious nonetheless. Disorganized stuff, no form to predict endurance, no scale for measuring the world’s impacts and their resonance. Dryer lint without the possibility of its becoming, once again, clothes.
So, suicide watch. Critical theorists love singularity but what to do with the details? In the last two months, two people I know killed themselves; the past few weeks, many people I don’t know were reported to have killed themselves. Time to collect the bodies, I thought. I had the urge to create symptoms from all of them, to write a book that would make a pattern about what’s impossible in contemporary life. That’s how I manage things, isn’t it? I see a pattern, I ask why, then I find out what happened, describe, and conceptualize, to relieve myself of the feeling of too closeness that makes certain stories and objects a mute-making threat and to produce scaffolds that can hold the event just so, so we (ok, I) can see it, walk around it, and move it somewhere else collectively. But it’s not right to rush to take these deaths on pretending that their likeness is substantive just because they happened at the same time. We don’t know enough about this time yet; what we know is what people do to continue keeping on, when they can.
The fiduciary suicides were events in the world because they’re deemed auto-exemplary, illustrations of the unfolding meaning of the economic crisis that is becoming an atmosphere of social precarity that no one can disavow. Some people with power, covered in shame, cannot face the world with the face they have now lost. My personal suicides, on the other hand, might not have been examples of anything globally dramatic in the current historical moment, who knows? Anyone can be made exemplary, while also being singular beings trapped in life. Artists, as it happens, their precarity was affective more than economic, organized by a feeling of drowning in the impossibility of consequences, in lives whose joys were brief interruptions from the disorganization of being that constant panic produces. No way out. That’s what they all shared: not the end of optimism, but no end in sight of a pattern of being overwhelmed. No future horizon of flatness or self-forgetting. They were there with their noise. They lost the capacity for relief from it in absorption, coasting, and numbness.
That much I know. They couldn’t detach from their situations. They couldn’t tread water. They could not shut their minds up or down. They gave out. I don’t want to numb with the details. This is a problem of method, ethics, storytelling.
I remind you, near its first anniversary, that this a blog about a project called Detachment Theory, as well as a blog about learning how to write with less convolution or rhetorical blockage, more visceral and explanatory impact. (I’m failing at the latter. This might just mean shorter sentences. I love stretching things out.) Unraveling after detaching can move you somewhere or keep you somewhere in a forever that might be unbearable in prospect. How to understand which losses can mobilize the adrenaline that stimulates the creativity that makes it possible to imagine the better lived life toward which the practical agent can then move in real time? Which losses roll the window up between drowning and breathing? Can we learn something from these cases about the political and affective work of reorganizing a sensorium that fails to keep its shape?
Parts 2 and 3 to come report on some more research and tell another story.
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