. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought

On Passivity: Not otherwise specified

Slowly, I aspirate from myself the choking wave of obligations that the 2009-2010 term induced:  never have I had a time of such incessant institutional demand, and as I breathe through the final tsunami of papers, my mind volleys, “How did it get to be this way?” and “I still don’t know how to live.” I don’t know how to fix it or even to fake fix it. Then, a few minutes ago, as if on some mysterious cue, an old Jewish New Yorker wearing a Mets cap and jeans that hang loosely off him walks in the cafe door and intones, “Oi am still in juniah high school when I am neah a beautiful woman, Oi am seventy-noine but insoide I am nointeen” over and over, at first loud, then louder. Save me from the inutility of a time when all I have left for contact with the world is a loud voice that even the wind doesn’t want.  Apostrophe’s poetic tradition is grand, but to be forced into an apostrophic life is a bitch.

At least blogging is . . . quiet.

I turn to the New York Times article on “eating disorders not otherwise specified,” usually known by its acronym Ednos. Ednos describes eating disorders that invent non-normative forms. They’re far more disordered than the conventional ones that at least imitate a known symptom cluster. When it came out, the Times description of disorganized eating induced me to gather up some thinking I’d been doing around my Ordinariness seminar about the place of passivity in ordinary subjectivity.  I’ve been trying to write this post since January, dig?

In the seminar passivity emerged as a register for describing the myriad ways in which the aesthetic represents subjects delegating their agency to a form or norm of being in the world, a delegation that induces the kind of state I’ve been gathering up here under the umbrella of “non-sovereign subjectivity.”  Zizek calls this kind of delegation interpassivity. It is a beautiful concept, but it could be much more beautiful.  As so compulsively often, he uses it to describe how persons refuse to become genuinely politically rational.  Interpassivity describes the relation of disavowal in which one hands off one’s affect to a media form or other persons, thus producing room for disowning and managing one’s own intensities.  His point is that much of what passes for interactivity is really interpassivity.

His version of it is a coarse measure. The idea of an affective hand-off does not at all necessarily perform or denote a lack of self-knowledge. Interpassivity may describe relationality itself; it may be synonymous with extimacy; but it might describe many other kinds of more finely-grained sociability too, or it might be a compulsive formal performance of a tethering to life, the most minimal attachment; it might well give the lie to sovereign agency without needing to lie. What is the subject doing when it seeks a form or norm as foundation for coasting, cruising, or moving with heavily lidded eyes through the world? Is the very activity of being the same thing as agency? Or are there particular features of the sentience of the subject that count to Zizek as genuine activity, as opposed to what he sees as a kind of sneak or trick that people play when they hand off their complexity to form? Is all object-oriented activity passivity, a kind of submission to form’s fantasmatic auto-continuity?  Once you start thinking about it it’s a vortex, and so exciting. In the seminar we kept seeing the aesthetic mediation of being as the aspiration of characters to a form they could ride in and that therefore allowed them space not only for aggression and reflexivity but half-consciousness, bare sentience, habitude, projective regression, and a surfacy incoherence, among other things.  Anything to maintain one’s story, which is never not threatening to fray.

For years I organized myself emotionally by becoming impossible one way or another, overfocusing, the way addicts do, on having one defining habit, one defining appetite–academics will often call this “having a project.”  I sought incessantly the one thing that I could rely on to produce an affective infrastructure. It was feral, the way  I threw myself over to the dream of one:  one object, one project, one style of askesis, one style of aphanasis, one overpresent pleasure, one secret life, but the gesture toward making a rhythm to ride on never worked, and I came to think I didn’t want the discipline of it, or maybe I was fundamentally incompetent to fidelity to any form.

It was false to think that one orienting habit could organize the rest: one just miscasts the rest of the noise as an inconvenient intrusion. At some point, after another lapse in compliance to my self-organization occurred, or maybe after reading Winnicott or Pema Chodron, it just dawned on me that I had many inclinations waiting for attention in the wings, pulses that I tried to disavow in the medium of a toxic consistency. Then the project of being reliable while maintaining loosely quilted leanings that have to be herded emerged.  (The medical literature discusses this problem under the heading “compliance.” I read much related material for “Slow Death,” and it changed fundamentally my view of the tendency of agency to seek passivity.)

Understanding formal modes of self-organization as expressions of the desire to be passive to form seems promising to me: but, as with shame, what passivity actually looks like is not always what it will seem. What this line of thought will mean for my pursuit of varieties of non-sovereign being and experience remains to be seen, but if unraveling is one version of what non-sovereignty looks like another version might involve an aspirational  hyperfidelity to form, or what looks like will, passivity’s putative opposite.

8 Comments so far
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brief reaction, really, but i’m excited to see the bone structure & direction of this new project.

Comment by michelle

Welcome back.

Comment by ian

I love your work! Personally, I don’t desire being passive to form so much as I realize the banausic (employable) exigencies of being pliable and obedient in that way. What I desire is to desire it for desiring its sake, not for employment’s sake. I gather that employers and institutions of form indoctrination are already on to this — see “casual Fridays.” Alas, employer-sanctioned freedom still constitutes form. I guess I’m also passive to form, then, because I desire to be considered part of a community. In any case, thanks for getting my synapses all worked up.

Comment by Sandy

I don’t know about inter-passivity as a beautiful concept: I think there is too much thinking predicated on adding inter or intra to something that it is not usually added to and thinking that’s a concept. These terms then circulate in a way that takes the place of thinking (‘intra-action’ would be another case in point).

Comment by juliet

I find I cannot think without occasionally surfacing into silence from the ocean of noise I am constantly immersed in. It’s cyclical. Readreadreadreadread. Pause. Writewritewritewrite. Pause. Drinkdrinkdrinkdrink. Pause. (Did I just say that? Perhaps “socialize” would be a less revealing way to put it.) It’s in the pauses that the thinking happens, as all the little bits in my mind sift, arrange, sort themselves into useful patterns, and little connections spark to life.

Might it not be that we hand off our thinking to others because the clamor they make while we’re “interacting” drowns out our capacity for thought? They provide us with the illusion that we’re acting. But as long as they prohibit us from doing that very thing that any true political action requires to occur–a brief moment of forethought–it remains a only a seductive promise.

Comment by Q.

the subject is negative, hegelian for zizek. this is why he is a lacanian, no? there is a subject for z, but that subject is neither sovereign nor does s/he have “agency”. i think, at least as it is presented in this post, there are some fundamental inconsistencies of how you read zizek: subject=sovereignty=agency. to be sure, the subject is not sovereign in zizek. this does not elide the belief that the subject is still responsible. this reality, however unfortunate for us, does not negate responsibility, and dare i say, a need for discipline. i think that, as compulsively as zizek may ( or may not) critique the subject for failing to grasp what she cannot know, i think the academic left (at least a large faction of it) can be said to just as compulsively make apologies or exceptions for our ineptitude in acting like rational political subjects. which is why z is incessantly reiterating something along the lines of: thus, so nothing will ever change. drive.

Comment by Jay

I was reading the final chapter of David Foster Wallace’s “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” when you posted this and was struck by ways you both tell stories of locating non-sovereign being where you suspect it least or where it most resembles its “putative opposite.”

Wallace’s narrator is retelling the story of someone else’s violent encounter with a psychotic (through a ‘soul-connection’ with her perpetrator, the woman transformed her rape into a moment of shared grief and helplessness and avoided murder). Interested in explaining that “literally killing instead of merely running is the killer’s psychotically literal way of resolving the conflict between his need for connection and his terror of being in any way connected,” DFW’s narrator suggests that the psychotic is not “substantively different from a man sizing up an attractive girl and approaching her and artfully deploying just the right rhetoric and pushing the right buttons to induce her to come home with him, never once saying anything or touching her in any way that isn’t completely gentle and pleasurable and seemingly respectful, leading her gently and respectfully to his satin-sheeted bed and in the light of the moon making exquisitely attentive love to her and making her come over and over until she’s quote begging for mercy and is totally under his emotional control and feels that she and he must be deeply and unseverably connected for the evening to have been this perfect and mutually respectful and fulfilling and then lighting her cigarettes and engaging in an hour or two of pseudo-intimate postcoital chitchat in his wrecked bed and seeming very close and content when what he really wants is to be in some absolutely antipodal spot from wherever she id from now on and thinking about how to give her a special disconnected telephone number and never contacting her again. And that an all too obvious part of the reason for his cold and mercenary and maybe somewhat victimizing behavior is that the potential profundity of the very connection he has worked so hard to make her feel terrifies him” (304). For DFW’s narrator, the “either feed or be food” (303) psychic structure is what the psychotic and hyperattentive lover have in common and all that distinguishes them is the varieties of ways they’ll victimize in order to achieve “an absolutely antipodal spot” in relation to the other.

Although both your post and DFW’s narrator draw attention to scenes of desiring passivity where a kind of hyper-activity or extreme relationality is the form that desire for passivity takes, it seems to me that you are, contra DFW, less interested in exposing hyperactivity’s subterranean psychosis than suggesting that what is in fact psychotic is the structure of choosing to inhabit an “either feed or be fed” relation to subjectivity.
You telegraph a realization of the differences between living as “toxic consistency” vs. “loosely quilted leanings” but I wonder whether this conceptualization of one’s psychic options doesn’t risk replicating the terms you seek to undo since (with DFW and then against him) you’re demonstrating that even if hyper-relationality is actually kind of defensive (“antipodal”) there are many positions that can be inhabited/occupied in the space of one’s encounter with self/other and that therefore, even if “hyperfidelity to form” is a version rather than alternative to expressions of non-sovereignty, being hyperactively consistent or diffuse in the face of form are not always or necessarily opposites but rather different ways of negotiating one’s needs, attachments, disappointments. (I am thinking a lot here of the distinction you draw, in your interview on “shame/broken circuit” between the structure of a defense and the ‘experience’ of it).

Lastly, I’m interested in the “impossibility” that figures throughout this post. Not only the writing of it that’s been impossible because of an impossible year but also the description of having been self-organized in order to be “impossible in one way or another.” I think for DFW’s narrator, the psychotic and the lover are distinguished only by the degree to which they inflict others with the burden of their sense of what’s impossible. Your characterization of the ‘impossible’ however seems instead to think about the very foundations of this ‘impossibility’ – rather than trying to establish ways of being better or less ‘impossible,’ I wonder whether you’re describing the theoretical/experiential impossibility of finding something other than the psychotic’s choices?

Comment by ashtor

‘One overpresent pleasure’ is such an apposite allusion! (I now have multiple affective repetitions being traced in my mind). ‘It was false to think that one orienting habit could organize the rest’, which is the one fault in Zizek’s notion of interpassivity, no? I argree that this elides what seems to be your suggestion that being impossible is (maybe/possibly) linked with becoming possible, or that one acts as a chemical enhancer for the other.

Comment by tyke

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