. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought

Don’t Ask (Combover 4)

“Why do you keep washing his face, he’s not dirty, he’s hungry.”


What appears to be a daughter flings this dirt at what appears to be her mother, and for the millionth time, it sounds like: but it’s an empirical question, a queer question, I say to myself, what the relation actually is. It’s as though their sheer look-alikeness established the right to bicker mercilessly and in public–in this case, the airport gate waiting area. There’s a tenderness in all of it, too, though, and pride in ownership, with a worn-out kindness that the company perhaps shouldn’t have registered seeing. But I looked up. The older than me woman, thick with cake makeup so maybe not, tilts toward me and says, “Why do I do things like that? You should write about people like me,” and I said, “What would you want people to know?” and the younger woman says, deeply, “Don’t ask!” and we all laugh because Don’t Ask is always tragicomic.

Don’t Ask echoes Katie Stewart’s anecdote about someone saying I could write a book. “People are always saying to me “I could write a book,” she writes:

What they mean is that they couldn’t and they wouldn’t want to. Wouldn’t know where to start or how to stop. The phrase is a gesture toward a beginning dense with potential. They have stories, substories, tangles of association, accrued  layers of impact and reaction. The passing, gestural claim of “I could write a book” points to the inchoate but very real sense of the sensibilities, socialities, and ways of attending to things that give events their significance. It gestures not toward the clarity of answers but toward the texture of knowing. What a life adds up to is still a problem and an open question. An object of curiosity. (129)

I could write a book also means Don’t Ask. It is an offer to tell and a defense against telling. You don’t want to know, its secret partner, is about doubt that you could bear what the speaker has borne. Phrases like this are prophylactics against the reproduction of suffering that point to the threat nonetheless, protecting the present from having to absorb a  story whose impact would be overpresent. I have suffered something no stranger can sense; I have survived experiences beyond belief; I have a rich inner life that the world could not bear, that I have held back to spare others.  It would show how hard things are, which everybody knows but not in the way I know it. My composure holds us all together.The film Winter’s Bone is full of women who would say, Don’t ask, but they’d say it with a  look. In this case, also, the younger woman is protecting me from infection by the older woman’s story, although it’s too late for both of them.  It’s like Dorothy Parker’s, “Just say ‘I knew a woman once…”, to which the proper response is a nod that pretends to be, and might be, knowing.

My neighbors asked me if I were a writer, since I was sitting there typing. I said, not the kind that people read for pleasure; the kind that people are forced to read in school. The older woman looked at me and said, kindly, “Don’t give up, I’m sure you could write a best seller!” And I said, “I doubt it; I write about not understanding things.”  They thought that was hilarious—why would you do that?–and asked for an example. I said, “For example, if I were to write about you, I’d have to say I couldn’t guess a thing about you! Are you related? Are you best friends? Are you a family? I can’t even tell how old you are!” And they laughed, and the mother told her daughter about the Ivory Liquid ads, and they pretended to be hand models, and the kids looked up quizzically at them laughing because it was morning and it had already been a very long day.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell—coincidentally—got repealed last month, and a toxic form of secreted life was finally released from its incarceration by the law. It’s a bitter irony that this Clintonian stupidity gets undone while the US state tortures, solitarily confines, and leaks homophobic paranoia around Bradley Manning and the UK imprisons Julian Assange on sex charges (without bail, momentarily, which is what makes it politically suspicious even if the charges are true): meanwhile many democracies are intensifying the search for mechanisms that would legalize  more info-foreclosure. The ongoing democratic fight is in full throttle to maintain genres and media for free representation and free association, without which people cannot adequately participate in the operation of state/institutional power.  But it’s complex:  even free association, in the psychoanalytic sense, can only be an aspiration.

Plus, I’m not against secrecy. States, like people, need it, a hoard: a cushion where people can work out ideas and fail at an aim without the whole structure of personhood/policy collapsing in the shame/delegitimation of exposure to the kind of attention that can’t take in the whole context of deliberative action. The battle is really over how the state military/security apparatus should be protected from public oversight and what kinds of convergence there are and are not between state/national interest and the interests of democratic culture. Even though some nominate the “right to narrate” as a central feature of democracy, the right not to narrate, to keep it to yourself, is equally important for living freedom. Don’t ask. But when governments claim to require these spaces while denying them to citizens, we should take up the incitement of Anonymous to perform acts of karaoke citizenship, lip-synching back to the state its own words, refusing it our right to discuss amongst ourselves.

3 Comments so far
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“acts of karaoke citizenship” Amazing. Is this your coinage? Because I want to know who to cite when I inevitably re-purpose this expression…

(p.s. this makes me think differently about my own work on vagueness. I had thought about the “don’t ask” imperative as protective, too, but protective in the sense of lubricating sociality and preventing the release of details that could undo a (shared?) sense of togetherness. But you formulation, instead of being about the avoidance of potential antagonisms, is more about the possibility that something about the personal could overload the public/general/collective. Not necessarily about negative affects per se, but more about pointing to aporias, pressure points, and weaknesses that could produce new sites of damage. The notion of “prophylatic against the reproduction of suffering” is—aside from brilliant phrasing—also different from where I’ve been, conceptually. I’ve been thinking more about disrupting a collective sense of connectedness, while you’re shaping it (the presumed intentions, at least) as a form of mercy against unexpected and perhaps overwhelming empathy. And, of course, the expression you’re unpacking here is one that points to the trouble without describing it, while I’m working more with gestures that obscure the trouble entirely. Where we meet, though, is at vagueness/secrecy being used as a protective measure against an incoherence/complexity/contradiction that would somehow be too much; to much at the personal, collective, social, or mass-mediated level.)

Comment by theluisgarcia

You make me laugh: yes, it’s my coinage. As far as the other, yes, I think we’re both talking about how people manage to make or to mime making genuine contact on particular points on the grid without making all contact–what I call lubrication, you call liquidarity…

Comment by supervalentthought

[…] respected and established academic (whose work on intimate publics I adore) are not destined to be bestsellers. So the size of our readership – while quite modest in the blogosphere – is […]

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