. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought


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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what I am about to write will probably make no sense…but here it is…an impulsive prompt…
A friend of mine had rented a theater in Amsterdam to have her script (consisted of a debate that she recorded of dutch, politicians,cultural figures etc., on free speech) to be read flatly by people…friends mostly. She was to video it. She had a moderator as the original script had. The readers as were reading flatly their voices were getting more heated, animated by the script. The moderator made an impromptu intervention. Asked the panel and audience to take a breath. All obeyed. The reading assumed a flatness… A transitional breath.

the ‘I”we’ then was caught between to quote an old favourite of mine the ‘not there and the not yet’…this is an old fashioned formulation that I am using…but it is still unworldly…in transit..

Comment by e

my students just had an assignment where they had to write a “mythology” a la roland barthes; the goal of the paper was to attend to and inhabit barthes’ (ahem) critical perspective *stylistically,* and to experience what it means to engage style as method. your description of “the I” as absorbed, present through an under-narrated intimacy with an object rather than as a self-described and self-designating position, seems precisely barthesian to me (and that’s how i experience your writing anyway, p.s.). the refracted immediacy of an “I” looking through objects taken to be both real and partial is far from an autobiographical aesthetic, but seems well-suited for a reparative criticism that registers its longing for the unwritten by holding its shape or shadow–its approximations maybe–close (needless to say, the assignment produced a lot of paranoia, but also some terrific moments of solubility). your post makes me think that barthesian impersonality is/feels/sounds so personal because it makes closeness, proximity, the condition of its relation to an object which, at the same time, is understood to be close to many other objects and subjects, (hyper?)-mobile but capable of taking pause.

Comment by anahid j.

In his essay, “Dead Mother, Dead Child” (“The Dead Mother: The Work of Andre Green, Ed. Kohon, G. 1999) Bollas discusses the case of a patient, Antonio, who mystifies & infuriates him by echoing his every phrase/question during one psychoanalytic session. In an attempt to make sense of this behavior, Bollas realizes that understanding Antonio hinges on accurately conceptualizing the difference between people who “feel they are mutationally changed rather than psycho-developmentally evolved” and treating Antonio, (whom he diagnoses as the former) accordingly. Bollas explains:
“It is important to bear in mind a difference between mutational and developmental change. The individual who is altered by trauma transforms this deficit into the structure of a wish and henceforth seeks dramatic events as the medium of self transformation. The person who has simply evolved, disseminating the idiom through its choices of objects, gets on with the quiet aspects of this rather remarkable unravelling. Such an individual finds the peace, solitude, contemplativeness, quiet urgency, conflictual density, and subtle shifting of an analysis almost like a true home for the psyche-soma, while the mutational soul finds its atmosphere Arcadian and therefore frustrating” (100).
I am thinking about the possible relation between Bollas’ categories of “mutational” vs. “developmental” change and your distinction in this post between the intellectual activity of “worlding” vs. “unraveling.” Specifically, I think Bollas’ descriptive account of the “developmental” process captures a little of what “worlding” might elide which is attention to what the experience of inhabiting & shedding objects/idioms feels like rather than what cogency it necessarily produces. Continuous with the project of your “worlding” group, to “using what we sense as grounds for finding things out,” I am struck by Bollas’ characterization of “development” as “quiet” and “remarkable unravelling.” What does “quiet” have to do with “unravelling”? This seems to me related to what you here describe as a desire for critical attunement to the “transition and unsteadiness” of sensory experience?
Also, I wonder about how and why “flatness” was the starting point for thinking about different forms of experiencing change/trauma/events & what you beautifully call “varieties of being unravelled” in both your post and Bollas’ essay? Is there something about confronting “flatness” that produces alternative angles of observation – the “quiet…of a remarkable unravelling” (Bollas), or the “interest in something that becomes undone” (Berlant)?

Comment by ashtor

[…] forces of academic worlds, a practice of social and intellectual (re)production, an act of worlding that yields a cosmos where there are landscapes of ideas and concepts, immaterial “schools of […]

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Please could you tell me where I could find a copy of the “Matter of Flatness”essay?

Its a wonderful blog, cant wait to read the book.

Comment by Chloe Thorne

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