. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought

Do You Intend to Die? (I)

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 KeyThe 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.

10 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Is detachment the dark side of attachment. Is death for those who choose to die (is suicide a choice?) an example of excessive attachment to life. They can’t live this life because its in excess. And for those who write about death is detachment necessary.
I think your writing is very explanatory and I love long sentences that actually make sense. I found this post both moving and its trajectory from details, Stowe, obituaries, and suicides a really affective/effective spiral. In short=– powerfully evocative.

Comment by Sangeeta Ray

This is an extraordinary post. Difficult to respond to, not for lack of explanatory clarity, but for its, yes, affective force. And because it resonates strongly in biographical/familial terms for me. Mulled for a few days on what you’d written (unintentionally; just stayed with me), and the term failure kept floating up. Does failure have a psychic structure? I mean, it must, but I don’t know if it does in the critical literature, or what it looks like. But I’m thinking of narrative failure, and in that way, am returned to Althusser’s model of the desire-producing (and inducing) practices and effects of ideology. So, maybe it isn’t just that those who suicide cannot detach from their situations, but that their situations fail — because the ideological narratives cannot but fail? I don’t know that this leads anywhere…

Comment by Kandice

This post is immensely moving and beautiful. But I wonder whether that emotional reaction is in a way at odds with post itself.

If I understand correctly, “detachment” isn’t a failure of emotion (this dovetails with Sangeeta Ray’s lead question) but a condition for knowledge. Too much detail makes one disorganized; detaching from the conditions of disorganization allows one to find the pattern; finding the pattern is a defense mechanism that allows one to inhabit the impersonal position of someone whose relation to conditions is mediated by expertise.

My question is: To the extent that I feel pathos for this position, am I missing the point?

Comment by Jordan

Wow. Your post forces that impossible question about conditions of agency; why does crisis push some people to break and others to break out? Or, maybe not even break-out, but at least become “lateral agents” (if I read that essay as intended). Please please please keep on with this work – it is so very important!

Comment by Bianca

Hey: What’s the relationship among (a sense of) loss, and shame? This is an afterthought to my comment about failure, and generated by engaging Sedgwick in conversation with your post: when loss is differently experienced as having an impact of being rather than doing (the difference between shame and guilt), then in the former, there is no way to remain/be attached (to self)? And so, the proliferation of details as a way of trying to capture loss is a practice of reaffiliation? (Mirrored as a proliferation of questions, as in this post?!)

Comment by Kandice Chuh

Hi all! Your questions are too hard (and I am trying both to write something else and to write part 2 of this post) but let me say a few things.
1. I think, Jordan, that you’re confusing being managerial with detaching. You’re overwhelmed, you manage; you become exhausted from being overwhelmed and if you’re lucky you can take a vacation from your compelled pseudosovereignty via many different forms of lateral agency (see “Slow Death”) or self-medication; and if you’re not lucky or just tapped out, you get depressed and perhaps admit defeat, stop trying. It’s not a matter of detaching to manage things, it’s a matter of managing things *to stay in the situation* and not detach (that’s one way of thinking, for example, about eating disorders, and other habits of affect management that become addictive).
2. This leads to Kandice’s questions about failure, loss, shame. Sedgwick argues that shame is an effect of a lost relation of reciprocity with the world. The failure to repeat a sustaining relation. But that’s not the only affective atmosphere that loss/failure generate surely. One thing that’s hard about this (eg too complex for a post-response) is adjudicating the relation between a sense of failure that signifies an ongoing relation (as in Sangeets’s thought that suicide is an effect of an excessive attachment to life, which I thought made sense even though I don’t think it’s quite right, except if you mean by “life” that life has to be shaped by optimism and if it can’t be then one preserves that notion of life by withdrawing from it)and a sense of failure that is affectively experienced as a turning away, a cutting off, a successful compartmentalization. Dissociation. Dissociation will be part of the next post. In any case, so much of what we experience as failure is organized by events, what Kandice would call a failed situation, but I think the definition of situation (see “Thinking about Feeling Historical”) is that you know you’re in one but it has no shape yet, which is why it’s an especially anxiogenic genre. So it cannot fail, if it is a situation. I think the suicide loses the sense of relief in form and feels doomed to a flood of ongoingness unstructured by events (an event could set it off, the unraveling, but there is no end in sight). So here we’re talking about a lost belief that one can have an impact on the world that produces a sustaining energy that makes it worth reentering again and again; what we’re talking about is a sense of too closeness and airlessness and noise that makes it hard to feel optimistic that one could leave and return. Suicide is a tantrum by post-infants with agency. I’m sitting on the floor and not moving. I had a student, Anil Ramayya, who hanged himself a few years ago, and his stories to me on the way down about how haunted he was by the departure of the gift of form have really shaped my thought here.

I had more to say, but this was a lot, so I’ll stop. But I loved what Kandice had to say about the proliferation of details as a kind of optimism, maybe in a kind of gift economy, inducing rhythms of return. I think that’s true, but I also think of three other things just off the top of my head: one, what Adam Phillips calls the proliferation of details before a breakthrough (for Freud); and then the ways people trying to transmit an intensity can pile on descriptors; and then what I also do, the catalog as a call-and-response style call for brainstorming…And then we return to the avalanche of details as a performance of a numbed state…

thanks, looking forward…

Comment by supervalentthought

As someone who has struggled to understand ‘suicide’for some years now, I find the poles of ‘attachment-detachment’ rather useful. But then, the key question is; attachment to what and detachment to whither?
For instance, ‘shame’ certainly appears to be one of the few ‘universal’ affective antecedent for suicides. Yet, even within a small village where I did my fieldwork in India, I saw how the affective intensity of ‘shame’ was directly proportional to an individual claim of ‘status’. ‘shame’ detaches all of us,but not all ‘detached’ commit suicide.
I suspect a formulation like this could be useful; one often willingly dies for what precisely one has lived for, provided one accords it “absolute personal valuation”.

Comment by Nilotpal

[…] darknessatnoon on Apr.11, 2009, under ufuckery …………..Supervalent Thought is posting a series of ruminations on suicide. My first (of many) experiences with suicide was my […]

Pingback by Do You Intend to Die (Don’t Answer This Question)? - The Heart is an Organ that Pump Blood

[…] have been trying and it has been trying to write the second installment of this post, as it is difficult to couple the distance and transference necessary for this stage of […]

Pingback by Do you intend to die (II)? « . . . . . . . Supervalent Thought

[…] …………..Supervalent Thought is posting a series of ruminations on suicide. My first (of many) experiences with suicide was my closest friend/codependant in college. He was so out of control that we once had to lock him in a weaponless closet until he calmed down. Later my brother’s closest friend – a kid who practically grew up in my house – offed himself. His family didn’t let us know. They were Asian and ashamed. An article in Wired Magazine tipped my brother off after the funeral. […]

Pingback by Do You Intend to Die (Don’t Answer This Question)? « The Heart Is An Organ That Pump Blood

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