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Us living as we do, upside down…
Another try: I’ve been arguing that a person is a loosely-knotted cluster of impulses, reflections, apprehensions and prehensions moving through ordinary time (imagine a net with head, hands and feet). Sometimes the difficulty of managing this lability produces the self-image of an extreme solidity of form constantly under threat of dissolution by the fragile infrastuctures for maintaining fantasy. The latter is best exemplified by the iconic image of the combover subject. The subject of the combover stands in front of the mirror just so, to appear as a person with a full head (of hair/ideas of the world). Harsh lighting, back views, nothing inconvenient is bearable in order for the put-together headshot to appear. No one else can be fully in the room, there can be no active relationality: if someone else, or an audience, is there, everyone huddles under the open secret that protects the combover subject from being exposed socially confronting the knowledge that the world can see the seams, the lacks, and the pathos of desire, effort, and failure.
Who isn’t the combover subject? No-one. The combover subject literalizes the need for ordinary subjectivity to be allowed to proceed in its incoherence and contradictions as though it were in fact a solid structure. Even a philosophical skeptic like Cavell, at home with the failure of language to be adequate to its situation and its desire, finds satisfaction in style; and even a depressive realist like me, who sees her failure to be idealizable as confirmation of her good sense, takes comfort in encountering a version of herself that will not be delighted by surprise but by being the recognizable thing she has come to trust.
The sad paradox is that knowing all this does not move subjectivity toward some fiercely honest revelatory affective foundation for a repaired or healed internal fracture. I might say, here’s where I am contradictory. But I could be wrong: my honesty might be the very performance of the combover. I might say to my interlocutors (I always say), tell me where my thought or pedagogy does not work: but I may reject what I do not recognize as the project I have tried to groom. This is why, I suppose, in Cruel Optimism, I am so taken by the situation tragedy of adjustment: in the narrative modes of the literature of precarity we see the ways people try to maintain their fantasies of themselves in the face of the evidence that they are not adding up. (The analogy is the bald expanse that cannot be hidden by attempts to cover it.) Spreading economic and political precarity forces more and more people to face in public the dissolution of their combover fantasy. It might be a relief to face it (see depressive realism) but it is never only a relief: the lost safety net, the failed toupee or stylization, fantasmatic as it was, cannot provide a foundation for living. This is why we need to make better friends with our awkwardness and self-estrangement. Indeed, we have already made friends with it—we couldn’t proceed without it.
At conferences, during lectures, people fall asleep while listening, and it is not usually a commentary on the performance or content: it might be blood sugar, it might be disaffection, but most often it’s the soothing racket that allows the smooth arc of being read to to provide its own satisfaction. We listen, we think, our eyes flutter, and the will becomes bendy: until something catches us up, that is, and we fall, again, back into trying to focus, track, and be competent. In private scenes like this it is possible not to cover with an overunifying drama the hole that a thought created in intention, the sense of an opening in relationality that one can approach only from this side and that. A conference or any listening situation is a scene in which one hangs around catching things on the fly before pursuing them and then losing track, only to take up this thread and that one later.
We are trained to be embarrassed when someone points out our incoherence or the unfinishedness of thought in process, as though they’re an open zipper, a nakedness we hadn’t intended to reveal. The subject of the combover produces queasy comedy, because we know it could be us, is us. But the affect attached to the non-relation between predictable you and incoherent you could be otherwise, and the stakes of developing a comic space of grace (of self- and other-directed generosity) in sociality are not just affective but have analytic and political consequences. For whom is there give in the system of norms? Whose privilege enjoys the space of permission that enables a failed self-coherence to appear as a successful one. Insofar as the dramatic, self-inflated, sovereign subject’s reign as the figure of ordinary being refuses what’s fugitive and unraveled in ordinary affectivity and self-performance we are in a political situation that reproduces and valorizes authoritarianism tout court.
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