. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought


Today I ran without music. When I run this way my head boils out, matter shooting everywhere like water on hot oil. Phrases reach me and mostly move away before I can trap and extend them into actual thoughts. Bracketed matter calls for its due.  Anger nudges wonder aside and has its own road rage. Connections appear and fade and I get excited and amnesiac. I mourn people and wonder how so and so is doing. I think about sex (but then I always stumble). I move between flat apprehension and hooking up well enough with the thought that I can sometimes get back home in time and make some notes.

The hardest thing is to brainstorm with oneself. Brainstorming is the skill I use in classrooms to get everyone in counterpoint, if not in sync, but it’s different to coordinate minds that work at different speeds in order to make some material commonly held. Brainstorming is my genre of jouissance in collegiality and friendship too, the work of staying in the conversation in real time that takes place when everyone’s alive enough to focus and then unfocus– to riff. The work of tracking oneself, though, when the ordinary compartmentalization breaks down enough to interrupt a habit of mind, requires a different rhythm of and skill for attentiveness. This general thought is the magnetizing rod for all of the non-sovereign unraveled, deflated, erupted, dispersed, and recessive material that will become Detachment Theory.

Someone encountering me mid-brainstorm might suggest cultivating a practice of mindfulness.  That practice suggests a spreading out of focus toward a gentler absorptive apprehension, a calmness with what’s in front of an inner sense that lets in the world around it. Or we could turn to Bollas’s phrase, “evenly hovering attention,” to describe the best way to take in what’s spinning around. Someone else might suggest that this intense burst of material is really about working through a blockage.  I have always resisted the deliberateness of the concept of “working through” and think of it with greater derision than it deserves. The concept of working through is too attached to a formal notion of event. So, no doubt my resistance to “working through” is an attachment to an event that I am protecting from being important. But…

But the kind of free dissociation I began by describing is like dream material that appears like fireflies at the wrong time of day. When the brain breaks out into ten songs at once it’s as though I’m going on someone else’s joyride. It’s like when your brain can’t shut up when you’re trying to sleep. Only going running with my brain, I’m not trying to sleep, or trying to organize anything, just trying to witness and remember the matter of dehiscence.

I began wondering about this: if this material is made up of the neural offshoots that make dreams, are these affective memories?  Sometimes it sure seems like that. But what would saying that entail methodologically for thinking about nonsovereign ideation?  I crawl around my archive.

I love psychoanalysis, but I don’t fetishize narrative memory. Thinking about the symptom as sublimated or masked memory is more interesting; and more still are the uncanny performances that enact memorial affect without memorial content. I love phenomenology but I don’t believe that the senses are mainly the past’s mystic writing pad (see Bergson, Matter and Memory). They are also making happenings that have not yet taken form as events. That’s my queer theory commitment speaking, too, which trains me always to see form as a placeholder that might partly express a promiscuous or incoherent desire or a desire whose scene has not yet been built. Sometimes memory is doing some work, what Heather Love and Carolyn Steedman would think of as the sexual past’s unfinished business emerging in the present of an identity that negotiates life as the shadow of delegated, tangled desire. But that’s just one vector. Each of these sentences must entail some future reading.

Now that I think of it, I actually wrote a book about memory: The Anatomy of National Fantasy sees nationality as an effect of what the law does to develop mnemotechnologies, technologies of memory that people are trained to take in intimately for forming what feel like fundamental attachments, and what happens when official memory comes into contact with what develops in the everyday through other kinds of being-structuring identification. With its official prosthetic memories, the nation can only aspire to saturate the scene of collective sociality that it never fully controls (props to Allison Landsberg). But the kinds of commitment one builds with intimates–friends, neighbors, strangers–are not only about the was, the will have been, or the disciplines of ideology.  They’re also surprising, not just sublimating. All focus presumes an unfocus for which we need to develop peripheral vision: or peripheral attention.

I do not much dwell in memory.  I don’t remember fun times in the past to assure myself that life has been worth it, and I don’t try to learn from the crap times to become a better person. I very rarely hold grudges. I don’t act ethically because eventually the present will be a memory of which I want to be proud. I don’t believe that a backward glance produces better wisdom than trying to capture what’s around me; nor that the pedagogy of the past provides a prophylactic against impulsive or the usual stupidity.  Sometimes it does. Sometimes it’s a bog. Usually memory takes the form of a question I’m holding open, a question that humbles me. I have never been nostalgic for what’s fading, faded, lost just because it once had an impact. Memory is material for making openings, not scrapbooks. Because to me what’s important is the presence of what I know, and everything I know is in a different temporal arc from everything else I know. Memory is the name for one temporal arc in knowledge, but not more sanctified. I am thinking ahead of myself here, I realize.

When I began this entry I thought it was on brainstorming, and brainstorming was to provide a part two of thinking about mood as lag, as the atavism of the unconscious and the nervous system that keeps you from the present:  mood was the past reducing you to the affective trace of history. This entry was to take up Joan’s suggestion from the last post to think with the Heideggarian thought about mood as both memory and the projection of sensemaking that saturates the atmosphere.  But I got distracted, because I was brainstorming with myself and need still to gather it all back up to make a nice form for knowledge.  But the problem is still unraveling, shooting off its mouth: and I am writing a paper on something else,what was it? Oh: happiness.

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Oh: happiness. Your brainstorm here remind me of another storm, not of history or its angel, but of happiness and its angel.

Walter Benjamin (who liked Bergson’s Matter and Memory but wrestled with it in parts [see his Baudelaire essay], and who never ran with music but did like to sit too close to the bands when at clubs) has this second angel, what Gershom Scholem called ‘a personal angel’ that represented the secret self and ‘whose name nevertheless remains hidden’… I love this bit from Benjamin (which struck me as I read your words above):

“… On that road to the future along which he [Benjamin’s ‘personal angel’] came, and which he knows so well that he can traverse it without turning around. He wants happiness — that is to say, the conflict in which the rapture of the unique, the [‘once only’] new, as yet unlived is combined with that bliss of the ‘once more,’ the having again, the lived. This is why he can hope for the new in no way except on the way of the return home, when he takes a new human being along with him.”

Anyway, there was resonance for me with your words and Benjamin’s second angel …

Comment by Greg

That’s fantastic. But where can I find it? Do you have a cite, or a pdf?

Comment by supervalentthought

That’s the thing. I still haven’t unpacked all of my files (which were a tangle already) after a house move last fall. I was quoting a footnote from my own essay ‘Banality for Cultural Studies’ since I can find my own writing! But key references are, I think: Gershom Scholem’s _On Jews and Judaism in Crisis: Selected Essays_’ and ‘Agesilaus Santander (Second Version) in the 2nd volume of Benjamin’s collected writings 1927-1934 on Belknap/Harvard Press, pp.714-715 (though an earlier translation in a Gary Smith collection on Benjamin is the one I prefer).

Comment by Greg

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Hi! Just to pick up one tiny thread here, I’m very struck by your saying that you’re interested in “the presence of what you know” rather than, for example, the fading afterimage of past intimacies or once-living thoughts. I’ve often heard you talk about “thoughts” in a way that eg empiricist sociologists don’t, and I’m wondering, how would you characterize the relation between “knowledge” and “thought” in this piece? To my maybe overly durkheimian ear, ‘knowledge’ sounds like the social precipitate of thinking, the representation of an already-had (or maybe still in process but provisionally codified) thought that is impersonal and circulates beyond us, whereas thinking sounds like, you know, not a thing but an ongoing process that happens mentally and sometimes produces (legitimated) “knowledge” and sometimes doesn’t. As if knowledge were social, and thingish, and thought were processual, and individual. But I don’t think that’s the distinction that you’d go by in this piece and I’m interested to see how you’re tacitly remapping the relation between these terms.

If by thought we include everything that happens in thinking, all the tumult of mental action that you describe everywhere between running to teaching, then I get the sense that in this piece you cast knowledge as having a kind of valuable *presence* that thought broadly speaking lacks, because, you’re saying, one’s thoughts are prone to slide into registers of the unproductive, the half-absent, the fleeting, the retrospective hazards of nostalgia, all these things that interfere with those temporal arcs by which knowledge can lead to a future or at least to a fully attentive presence. Here knowledge travels on temporal arcs that may have their own small coherences but that don’t add up to the overall scattered temporality or incoherence of thinking at large. And here the social is something other than the repository of finished thoughts that get codified and externalized as ‘knowledge’; I guess if anything sociality figures here as the default case of (classroom) intellectual exchange, and solitary brainstorming is really more like an extension of this default intersubjective case, where the other — whose thoughts one is facilitating — happens to be oneself. So thinking is not a secret moment of internality that later yields externalizable knowledge, but is rather a scene where the effervescence of collective knowledge-making gets internalized and the self struggles to focus on the attendant blur? Is that approximately what it is for “bracketed matter to call for its due”? Doesn’t feel like a very good gloss, but I’ve been writing lately about how futures are internal to knowledge-making and so that part of this post really resonates. Are you going to elaborate more on “nonsovereign ideation”? It would be great to hear more about knowledge and power and the politics of thinking on this account of things…

Comment by eli

Wow, Eli, I am still working on the comments from my last post but this is so great I wanted to say something here, at least a little. Nonsovereign ideation is a central scene of this whole project! (Although I guess I’ve been focusing not just on ideation but on the affect of lost sovereignty, which is a different thing.) See the “Looking for Mr. Wright” previous post, for ex. But you may want to separate the sexual (or limerence) from the thoughtful. Anyway, basically, I think you’re right about the thought/knowledge distinction here. What I mean by “knowing” is what Bollas talks about in the “unthought known.” (Which is slightly different than what Rumsfeld talked about as the “unknown known” but not as different as DR would wish.) So you’re right that the distinction of your first paragraph isn’t the one I’d go for and my interest is in thinking as the activity of tracking and elaborating. Then, the known isn’t a controlled space of finished thought at all, but the calmer reflective space of being in the room with all that material that can never be organized fully but requires a form to move it somewhere. The form might be rhizomatic or it might be a program: that depends on the aim and force of the opening you’re trying to create and the social costs of that opening (which is a way of talking about the knowledge-power relation).
Ok, back to my paper. I have been reading Kristen Ross’s book on 68 and wondering what you thought of it, btw. What I would do if I were writing on how futures are internal to knowledge-making is to detail the future, figure out whether what’s being pointed to is way *over there*, immanent, or imminent. Merci.

Comment by supervalentthought

Hi Super V,

I learned about your website at a great birthday party last night in Hyde Park. Was talking to a very cool woman (“L”), and she might have been your alter ego. She said something about not being able to write really well, and we all pretty much dismissed that since there is some big evidence to the contrary.

Your above post has some real gems, both in ideas and some memorable lines. “When the brain breaks out into ten songs at once it’s as though I’m going on someone else’s joyride.” That is delightful. And I love the idea that ethical behavior is not something to put up on the wall like a trophy. I think ethical behavior (most events to the contrary) is available to us because it comes to us naturally. It’s what large brained mammals do on their good days.

The memory part of this post is fascinating. “Memory is material for making openings, not scrapbooks.” As Omar might say on “The Wire”: Indeed. Or “…usually memory takes the form of a question I’m holding open, a question that humbles me.” I admire people who can put memory in a place where it doesn’t interfere with “…the presence of what I know.”

It reminds me of part of my conversation with L. She was talking about a recent workout where she nailed a big round number on the leg press machine, and then said that the next day it hurt so much she couldn’t believe it. And we both agreed, well, shit that never happened when we were young. Oh, well….

But what if a memory is like that soreness, that lactic acid that comes on its own terms in its own time, and takes its sweet time before the micro torn muscle fibers repair themselves. And we’re surrounded, meantime by all the All Americans who say, “Suck it up, work it out.” (As in no quarter given, none accepted.)

And there’s the frightening Irish form of memory, the O’Neill kind that dovetails tightly with the whole Catholic “veil of tears” ordeal. All the Popes of my lifetime have been busy constructing that veil out of fucking titanium, and they want all the world to share it.

And then there’s all the forms of institutional memory, which you allude to in your posts. I am reading “The Given Day,” by Dennis Lehane. He wrote “Mystic River,” and multiple episodes of “The Wire.” I just started it, and at the beginning Babe Ruth (yeah, that Babe Ruth) ends up playing some baseball with a team of African American professional ball players he sees
having a game next to where the Babe’s train has stopped for a few hours. All is going well until some of the other white players start to come by and things immediately go downhill from there. Lehane writes this about one of the white ball players: “Big hands, though, a flattened nose and axe-head shoulders, the man all hard boxy angles. Had eyes Luther had seen before in the white poor–spent his whole life eating rage in place of food. Developed a taste for it he wouldn’t lose no matter how regular he ate for the rest of his life.” That reminds me a bit of some of the political meetings we have witnessed about “health care.” (All concerned about that health care. Yeah, right.)

That’s a good argument for putting memory into perspective, which you are really putting out there. Lehane is a helluva writer, and so are you Super V. Be well,

Bill D.

Comment by Bill Doyle

After reading the post, I began to comment before reading the comments already posted, and now I am hesitant and hope that I’m not repeating Eli’s questions. But I think there’s enough nuance that I’m still not sure of the answer.

Basically, I’m curious about the distinction between not the activity or process going on in your head while running – ‘thought,’ as Eli put it – but between the stuff itself (maybe ‘affective memory’) and the nationalist affects you’re thinking of in relation to The Anatomy of Fantasy. In other words, what is the difference between the ‘materiality’ of the affects popping up during a run and the ‘materiality’ of national narratives that are more easily discerned as social, external, or whatever upon reflection?

For me, I’m sort of curious, I suppose, about the ways in which I sometimes think about national fantasy and national ideology as sort of contained sentiments that get plugged into us, and though I recognize that we don’t always realize how messy those affects are, at some fundamental level I imagine the ability to distinguish them from whatever else is floating around in my interior, affective thought. As if I can distinguish Bush’s story from ‘my own.’ Again with Eli, I don’t imagine you would note this distinction quite this way, particularly when I’ve oversimplified to distinguish only two types of affect, but I think you get my essential point.

I’ve just begun Teresa Brennan’s “The Transmission of Affect,” and can’t help but still be hesitant about the absolute production of affect across the board, particularly when thinking about the kind of unrelenting, unimaginable, and uncontainable affects you’re perhaps talking about that pop up when you go running. I’d even be ok, I suppose, with an acknowledgment that there are some affects whose origin and purpose we don’t know, as long as I didn’t have to agree that we could determine the origin and purpose (or at least the ‘nature’) of every single affect. When affects are produced that aren’t only contrary to the state or other discourses, but contrary to those contrary to the state, somewhere in left field, as it were – are they always wholly predetermined and produced? Is constructivism really that capacious?

Comment by matt

Matt, I don’t think your rendition of Brennan is what she says. She’s not saying that we can always find the origin of every affect.But she does make a claim about the foundational fantasy, which is a structure more than an origin. The main thing is that we are trained to invest what’s enduring in life in ideologemes (the Anatomy of National Fantasy part but also everything I’ve ever thought about heteronormativity and normativity as such) but that the practices of attachment that constitute the thick space of the ordinary make things up too, shifting the ideologemes but also producing their own folds of being in the world, some of which become reliable (scenes of investment and intensity that you can return to or that begin to “color your moods.”).

Comment by supervalentthought

found you on Elizabeth Hanscom’s site, your intro pulled me into Brainstorm and now my head hurts, I will follow your blog, thank you for writing and remembering

Comment by dianne gross-giese

[…] I’ve always been a casual fan. Convention life isn’t for me. Sweaty people dressed in garbage bags breathing my air and crowding into my space. I remember when Buffy the Vampire Slayer was winding down – I’d found Buffy’s abhorrence of eternal return fascinating – my interest was so apparent that someone I never even talk to – my mother – thought to send me a copy of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy: Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale which I never got around to reading. It was  a moment when “shippers” were writing their homoerotic fanfiction and posting it to the net. In the abstract (by which I mean “sort of thinking about it, but not”) it was all really interesting, except I could never bring myself to actually read the stuff. I was fascinated in the kind of way in which fascinated means talking about it but not really paying attention to what you’re really talking about (relatedly, Supervalent Thought just posted a smart entry on brainstorming that gets to the root of what brainstorming can do for you). […]

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[…] you,” catch you off guard, at a later time. The posts also depict my unfinished thinking with Lauren Berlant, Edward Said, Paul Gilroy, and Raymond Williams. The links embedded in each post are citations […]

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