Filed under: affect, Affect Theory, ambivalence, Belonging, Craziness, Detachment theory, Encounters, Mood, optimism, Theory of this Blog, writing
It is pouring with rain here right now. Outside of the window of my library study thunder and lightning soften and expand the knot of the visible world, which recedes to a background behind the rain’s thick glass. After awhile the university fades out, the possibility of which fading is one of the privileges of working at a university.
I am trying to write something other than this entry today, but something interferes with my surround of the material. The paper, called “Matter of Flatness,” is an early go at one of the scenes Detachment Theory will address, as it details how to think about non-sovereign personhood in some of its varieties of being unraveled.
The essay in question focuses on the emergence of a flat acting aesthetic among cinematically mediated queers. It involves articulating flat affect as an effect of some combination of:
bad acting (low production values); casualized emotion; underperformed response; aspirational social belonging through performances of avant-garde detachment (Warhol), Punk-style refusal (Lipstick Traces), Goth nihilism, and bohemian coolness (Gen-X); nineties-style views of dissociation/PTSD; event-related affect management; and the attenuation that comes from living as a subject organized by longing and crisis amidst other scenes of longing and crisis that avail no traction or potential for rest in their normative terms of implicit belonging.
By the end of that list you almost forget the topic: flatness. The point is that this animated mutedness forces a different approach to apprehending a person and an artwork. Knowing what it isn’t doesn’t tell you what it is, though. Gathering up all the forces necessary for explaining the scene right in front of you takes a lot of work, and the scene almost can’t bear the weight of what animates it. Of course, psychoanalytically speaking, that’s what makes it a scene.
A large part of this project’s great pleasure is in the genuine pursuit of skills for staging and mobilizing overdetermined motive. As anyone who’s studied dissociation knows, there’s a difference between being a subject who acts as though she has intention and being sovereign. People who read personhood conventionally (whether in aesthetic , ethico-political, or ordinary scenes of encounter) often forget this, as do the Deleuzians/affect theorists who mistake affective transmission and circulation for effective affective communication, a prepropositional loop of authenticity. It is as though it is still too threatening to disconnect the explicitly performed performative from the intentional, as though that break would turn personhood into a series of catastrophically failed auditions. The adverb is the rub. Here the story of how to read what made some flatness queer is the one I want to tell.
What’s the relation between the comportment of composure and a performance of personality that eschews melodrama? Normatively composure is a calm mien tilted toward the reticent, so it looks like an achievement. But in flat affect the performance of personality appears as a gesture cluster that doesn’t quite add up. The affective world it fronts is enigmatic, and the felt states might be anything–menacing, fearful, detached, deadened, distracted, shallow, genuinely light, or numb, for example.
All of this leads me to the title of this piece, “unworlding.” I have become part of a working group on “worlding” organized by Katie Stewart and Allen Shelton. I love the writing of the people in this group, and yet at our recent meetings I felt alien too, which is not unusual but which I had neither expected here nor could explain.
After all, we are all people working in a writerly way, synthesizing into a discursive consciousness encounters that find their theoretical concept in newly invented form and change how we think about what counts as an event and the relation of its case to explanation itself. All of that is aspirationally central to my work too. But what wasn’t, I think, was the presupposition that worlding is the activity of sense-making, of making sense of things.
Worlding is a concept in process. It emerged from our reading/discussions as a way of describing the activity of sensual world-making, of finding one’s sea legs in the middle of a situation and doing something to sustain it then, to make/find a rhythm of being there and moving too. A thing happened, what kind of thing is it, how can I tell a story about what I sense, how can I describe what crisped it up, and what happened next? As a writer, how can I archive and narrate all of the things I had to know in order to stay proximate to that situation, which becomes sharper and also different as I gather up the materials for it: how can I dissolve the conventional descriptions that provide the kinds of handle on a problem that paralyze apprehension and potentiality?
Let me tell you a story about x, say what I encountered and make something of it that doesn’t have a concept yet, make a world which appears immanently in the writing. Sometimes worlds are forced on you–institutionally, normatively. But the energy of the group is in tracking the energy of writing material into new habitable process-concepts.
Here, what we sense becomes a ground for finding things out. Finding things out, feeling them out, writing them out without making a narrative organized by Aristotelian arcs with their rise and fall of resolving intensities–these soundings bound us together as we encountered each other’s work. At the same time, though, I . . .
I didn’t want only to talk about making sense but want to know about transition and the unsteadiness of things in it: the loss of assurance, the whirl of the relation of competence and incompetence, the fuzzed out quality of most perception, one hand not knowing what the other is doing, what’s forgettable and diminishing, what’s charming and confusing, what relationality cannot be maintained in a middle that is impossible without being entirely defeating. Even my interest in the optimism of an attachment that makes an opening is an interest in something that becomes undone.
So there’s that. But then, there is also the the problem of autobiography. All of our ficto-critics (and many of my public feelings comrades) are autobiographers of a sort, whose writerly filter induces a driving consciousness that straddles Thoreau and Benjamin via Simmel and Marx. I don’t aspire to the autobiographical, though. But should I? For me, so far, the I is a launching pad that I want to shoot from for saturation in the absorbing concept over there, in the not-yet written world. I used to call it “impersonality” but I didn’t mean that it wasn’t personal. Yet what got me into this group, you know, was this blog and its personal voice.
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