. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought

“We are starving, how about a potato?” (Passivity 2)

The number of things you can not pay attention to now is diminishing. Pluming beneath the visible water draws out attention the way an earthquake makes the ordinary sway not just before your eyes but in the surround, ungrounding and expanding the senses.  The sheer increase in accurate metaphors for marking disintegration is one way to track it: the sticky surface of the metaphor-that-works helps to keep in focus the expanding archive of the splintered, the broken, the frayed and the fraying stressed out structure of involvement. Language can hold things loosely clustered together in a kind of technical way and one can navigate the present by playing pick-up-sticks with the accumulated phrases.

First, the surging number of  natural disasters and atmospheric tendencies induced the sense that the weather, after all, might be industry’s fault: and this problem looked like it had a remedy, too, if only the stentorian paralysis of the political world would be interrupted by a rush of sovereign courage; or if only the administrative branch could sneakily make regulations according to a realism that it’s difficult for lawmakers to admit in its revelation of how bad the lived real had been allowed to get.

Then the crumbling physical infrastructure of the built environment from Bhopal and Chernoble and Three Mile Island seemed linked to the massive proliferation of potholes, sinkholes, train wrecks, exploding pipes, and collapsing bridges across the industrial world. In these the present became increasingly apparent in the serial shock of always yet one more crisis of a connectivity dream so extensively realized that its upkeep seemed unnecessary and could, in any case, be deferred.  After the era of expanding public works, the public infrastructures came affectively to resemble  bodies whose health seemed solid and could be taken for granted. You know the internal monologue: I was healthy until I got sick, my mouth was fine until I awoke with that toothache, if only there had been a convincing sign, I would have dodged x disaster–but no, I had the bad luck not to have things go my way, and it’s my own damn fault, but really, things don’t always happen, and worrying about this thing too was just too much on top of everything else.

Public health describes all the crisis now, the built and the embodied world having lost significant amounts of bone density and enamel. Sheer age is partly the culprit, but also neoliberal ambitions to shrink the state.  So, bracketing its significant role as employer, bank, and consumer, the state’s public face is now shaped by episodes of sovereign failure played as future success:  the reparative rhetoric of crisis response. When the neoliberal state neglects its bridges and the body’s owner puts off that visit to the doctor or that workout or that promise to stay hydrated or to drink a little less or to call someone who really deserves a call it doesn’t usually create immediate effects. One can live without much planning. One can become lulled into the inattention that the ordinary depends on, inhaling the basic predictability that’s part of life’s sweetness.  And then something stark happens, like the oil tsunami, a bad weather front, or a sudden cracking sound in the road, and we stand in wonder in front of all that could have been prevented.  As as Colson Whitehead writes in The Intuitionist, the accidental catastrophes are a different thing, those are just plain humbling evidence of the ridiculousness of the claim to sovereignty.  But It’s the predictable catastrophes that are humbling and shaming.

And what about healing. Some things can be healed, rebuilt, refilled, and so on: but not to the point that they won’t have happened, creating precedents and tendencies. “Good as new” is a joke, a wish. Then, we confront how so much that could have been prevented is not fixable by will or available technologies, ever or soon or right away.  The bridge takes a year to be rebuilt, there’s already controversy over short cuts, and no one really knows where the soft spot will be, although when it shows up, no doubt some engineer or professor will get kudos for having been prophetic.  And the tooth gets pulled because there was no money for an implant or a crown:  thank god it was in the back of the mouth, so that the front teeth can provide the combover for what’s missing. And it will take a century to fix the oily beaches, if nothing else bad happens, and luckily some beaches have remained sufficiently clear that people can have their too short and too expensive vacations. And the sky might close its hole before the three degree rise or maybe there will be a genuinely natural catastrophe and the seams will become irreparable rips, and people won’t feel responsible.

But the economy, we are in control of that, or some institutions are: some compost of the regulators, the regulated, and the subjects of credit who wanted to take that risk rather than attend to the necessary repairs of the already built life, because they just wanted to. Maybe they needed to. What do we know, after all, about need and want and risk? I know a lot more these days about the cost of blinders than about what blinders enable, and we all need defenses.

I have been paying attention to the rippling recession’s affects on the end of the good life fantasy (here in and the forthcoming Cruel Optimism) and a new formation has emerged before me, amidst the archive overfilled with anecdotes about risk that everyone keeps a kind of secret about so that nothing is brought down on their heads until there is some kind of public reckoning. The list of financial suicides grows, but that’s the least of it.  There is a new recession grimace. It gets shown over and over, a facial gesture of the set mouth. The set mouth holds off a response, it’s a form of composure working out abashedness, shame, rage, determination, self-pity, the “who, me?” and the “why me?,”  and searing disbelief. The fixed visage reminds of the root of the word “grim” in the inhuman, haunted, uncanny: it marks the not-quite-criminal economic risk-taker who got caught, as the jargon goes, being exposed. The grimace arrives at the last moment before the mask falls, it’s a flash mask, even.

I want to understand more about the ambition to be exposed, as it is part of the non-sovereign aspiration. I might not be able to study it, though: I told a British friend that I was thinking about ambition as a state of non-sovereignty (insofar as conventionally ambition=anxiety plus desire plus normativity) and she said, “That’s such an American thing to to think about, we would find it vulgar.” What she meant was that studying ambition as an affect would mark one as performing the vulgar thing that one is trying to understand.  But I said to her, think about a person without ambition or any aim that would involve exposure to risk: people would call that state “depression,” which means that sometimes ambition isn’t seen as an aggressive object orientation but stands for mental health. I have a friend with a child who will not leave his house. He’s twenty-five, the “child.”  He has a good social life, mainly on the Internet, but not entirely. The parents seek medication for him, and worry at his risk aversion, his lack of ambition, his commitment to the lateral, the spreading, the diffused life.

The distribution of moral negativity and valorization around kinds of ambition is key to the reproduction of subjectivity under capitalism, key to the crisis in public education, key to the debate over whether publicness is just too expensive, key to the revelation that the whole structure of vocation and mobility that has sold higher education is more or less a shell game now, key to the question of the emotional costs of aspirational normativity, key to the reproduction of intimate normativity especially around concepts of having a life that seems attached to optimism. In the contemporary economy almost everywhere in the world, the economy solicits an aspiration for which it cannot provide materially and it becomes harder to hide in stories about merit, and easier to grimace (to grin and bear it), repeating the action of thinking that the impasse is temporary and soon things will work out again, because for most people and states, that’s what happened in the past and is the only available rationale for keeping on optimistically with the way things are.

The neoliberal market’s pedagogy of entrepreneurial risk or non-sovereignty is a University of Ambition.  The New York Times told a story some months ago about the time when all of this was fomenting. It was in the obituary for Paul Samuelson–Larry Summers’ uncle, and a real Keynesian. At the height of the Great Depression, Samuelson “regarded the teaching at [the University of] Chicago as “schizophrenic.” During the Depression, courses about the business cycle naturally talked about unemployment, he said. But in economic-theory classes, joblessness was not mentioned.

“The niceties of existence were not a matter of concern,” he recalled, “yet everything around was closed down most of the time. If you lived in a middle-class community in Chicago, children and adults came daily to the door saying, ‘We are starving, how about a potato?’ I speak from poignant memory.”  So much money and such expansion of the social welfare state has happened since then, and hunger is still expanding. The difference is that people don’t come to your door: we live in an era so bereft of neighborliness that beggars have had to be professionalized, to assume franchised posts on the street, and to learn the grateful comportment that service workers have also to use when they’re selling their clothing, coffee, or burger.

For a few days this summer I lived in the dark:  an electric storm took out the electricity, greedy bastard. It was an interesting time for me and the cat, moist and humid and then dry and hot, working at the library during the long light days and at night listening to the wind-up/battery radio, reading by flashlight, watching the water pressure diminish, meanwhile carrying suitcases full of work and water and treats up and down the ten flights of stairs, and checking in on my infirm neighbors. It was very quiet. I am a girl who had had the thought to get many powerful flashlights, so I and the cat were fine. I kept thinking, for some reason, of Hawthorne’s phrase, “Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato,” which I always found funny because of its diminution of that which in the human needs cultivating to something that a bit of starch and fiber requires. We lost the power, it turns out, because there isn’t enough city money to prune the trees that hang onto the electronic grid. Their flourishing diminishes mine, I guess, or there is less and less infrastructure even for all the potatoes to flourish: and flourishing is a good ambition, isn’t it? Even if its objects are at the terrible odds that require the risk of the political.

7 Comments so far
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Great stuff, LB. It’s funny that a potato makes it into your discussion of non-sovereignty and ambition. I just watched Michael Pollan’s “The Botany of Desire” while folding laundry (speaking of anxiety + desire + normativity). The concept of the whole film is to imagine that domesticated plants have managed to domesticate humans, in a way. After following apples, tulips and marijuana—each of which have apparently succeeded in harnessing human desires to ensure their cultivation, propagation, and protection—he comes to potatoes. Pollan gives potatoes a more ambiguous sort of agency, which seems to arise from a particular sort of docile non-sovereignty. Whereas apples promised sweetness, tulips offered aesthetic pleasure, and marijuana offered forgetful bliss, potatoes offered affable passivity. They cheerfully grew in any climate, however cold, soggy, or undernourished; they didn’t demand much space to grow; they were hardy against the vagaries of weather. And yet, one of Pollan’s main claims in this section of the film is that the “monoculture” cultivation of the Russet potato has exposed the potato to another sort of passivity—pests and blight—which has bound human cultivators in tighter and tighter knots of biochemical/genetic intervention. While, for Pollan, it was clear that apples and tulips and marijuana were winners in their quest to flourish (with human support), potatoes weren’t given quite the same respect; Pollan’s vocabulary of agency and strategy and plant-human exploitation disappears at this point. I’m still trying to figure out what his strident advocacy for biodiversity means in the context of your comments here on ambition and flourishing, but potatoes are a surprisingly rich subject.

Comment by theluisgarcia

I love his choice of sustainability over the ascetic rule of the less and the proper. I want to make a joke about biodiverse publics and the potato public sphere, but I find it depressing to think about the conditions of solidarity emerging only in an era of disaster, attrition, and weak-voiced claim on the vast wealth that there is, that nonetheless refuses its origin and membership in the social. Yet the concept of the potato public still makes me laugh: something about the ambivalence toward the eye.

Comment by supervalentthought

What timing! Only a few hours ago I was speaking with a friend on neighborliness, neo-liberalism, and sickness; but we talked about fear, not optimism. She was rather critical of Freud for medicalizing the body, the other, the ordinary (though, to be fair to him, I think it was already long in the water). Suddenly there is danger all around, the body has become fragile, susceptible to sickness. Interactions pose threats. Technology poses threats. Life itself is a threat. We drift apart, talk less, become more fearful. We engage in interaction through sanitized, safe means. From the anonymity of a screen. We turn hysterical at imagined dangers from overseas, making them real in our aggressive hypochondria. Delicate things like democracy or social ties become even more brittle than they already were. Things fall apart.

Comment by Q.

my blogging’s killing me. Potatoes are killing me. This city’s killing me. My face is killing me. the rich are killing me. don’t fucking tell me what to do.

Comment by Twilight's Idol

I have just written a long comment here, Lauren which I then managed to delete. Curses. I finally managed to think through some of the issues you raise here and some of the resonances for me.

You write ‘It’s the predictable catastrophes that are humbling and shaming.’ This put me in mind of the community response to the bush fires we suffered here in Victoria Australia in the late summer of 2009. The government held a Royal commission that has just been finalized. Part of the process was to look into the leadership of those responsible for the bushfire response. Everyone agrees this particular series of bush fires, following a ten year drought, constituted an unprecedented catastrophe. It took 173 human lives.
One thing that jumps out at me after the event how much effort went into attempts to dishonour the then police commissioner, Christine Nixon who also happens to be a woman.

She had decided on the worst evening of the bushfires, before people fully realised the severity of those bush fires – she was not on duty – to go out for dinner with friends during which time she turned off her mobile phone for two hours.

There’s been a witch hunt. She should have known better. She should have been available etc etc. As it is no one knew how bad these fires would be until after the event. No one realised the extent of the devastation they’d wreak.

It seems to me when there is a catastrophe beyond our control we need to find someone to blame. This is a perfect example. If Christine Nixon had kept on her mobile phone that night, if she had not gone out for dinner, lives might have been saved, or so the argument goes. She should stand down. She should be punished.

Thanks Lauren for a terrific post.

Comment by Elisabeth

Elizabeth, it is funny, isn’t it, how the diminution of citizen agency in the age of distributed accountability produces in response media firestorms claiming that the governors have more sovereignty than they actually do. But one thing I think about democracy is that affectively one of its weirdnesses is the association of freedom with the freedom to delegate one’s own attention to the representatives, who must attend *in place of* the body politic so that people can just live absentmindedly (=freely) or without consciousness of its impotence. Wanting governors to be there, to be obsessed, to be saturated–it’s a strange demand, but completely consistent. How dare the governors think they can put their privacy first: we “pay” them so that we can have ours! Very strange. A public figure is public 24/7, we know this: they’re doctors always on call.

Comment by supervalentthought

‘I want to understand more about the ambition to be exposed, as it is part of the non-sovereign aspiration.’

It took me a couple of days to remember the Greek word for ambition (and I refused to consult the dictionary)…You know it I am sure…Filodoxia, friend of opinion (common) …opposed to (knowledge) (Plato’s Politeia ) … In thinking about this I wandered whether what plays in our mind when we feel un-confortable with ‘ambition’ is this old distinction…the funny thing when I was being taught classical Greek at school (in the 80s) conjugation of verbs was taught via ( via repetition)the verb dokeo from which doxa derives. But dokeo if I remember correctly also means to think…I am not sure whether the Greek ‘ambition’ opens a way to somewhere for you…I thought of just writing it down…

Comment by Elena

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