. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought


Remember the time I told you about the day I took a vacation from work during which time I watched a movie I needed to watch for work about a man who was taking an extended vacation from work as a way of life but who was redeemed from lifelessness by a woman who embodied a younger generation’s practice of diffused ambition, so that a baffling heterosexual tendency could be saved for another day and the confrontation with not understanding the lover, oneself, labor, or what “a life” is could be delayed and preserved in a sweet promise not to give up on sick dogs and to hang around for whatever potential whiff of relief might emanate from anywhere?

Maybe mumblecore is right, that all life needs is a “whatever” at the points where it seems impossible—a gesture of optimism that can’t bear a lot, but that can indicate an otherwise that could become the something stacked right above the nothing.  Life, friends, is gestural. We must not say so.  A gesture is the performance of contact that makes a conjuncture of the abstract and the immediate.  Contact is a potential anchor, a movement that makes a moment stick or become passable, sometimes shaped toward the possible. Those haps can be a mere flicker or can build into atmospheres and environments for affective, imaginative, and politically collective activity, whether or not we pay attention to them. In the next few posts I’m going to engage some different ways of mediating contact’s gestural structuration of affect, its presentation of an opportunity to encounter the affective event. The aim is to brainstorm some extensions of the “structure of feeling” concept toward different aspects of the sensus communis that will undergird my next two books.

Under the skin, below the radar, beneath attention, but not attunement. Does making genres for contact matter, and how? I’m not referring to the endless discussion of things like web 2.0 world-making intimacy here, but activity prior to what gets taken in and becomes affectively reliable. Lingis focuses on the impact of voice, in a kind of direct but diffused overhearing: “What an extraordinary power, this power of the voice to put us in contact, not with our own mental images but with persons and things themselves! We catch on to the purring of the kitten, the frantic cries of the bird, the snorting of the distrustful horse, the complaint of the caged puma. We pick up the tone of the blackbird marsh, the hamlet meditating in the Himalayan mountainscape, the shifting dunes under twilight skies. As our words form, the tone of these things and events resounds in our voice.…[H]ere is this really amazing fact: it happens every day that someone exterior to me approaches and makes contact with me—the real me, the core me, whatever I can take to be me.”

I love that his casting of voice equals the tone of things and events in the world resifted and conjoined through speech—(but maybe not just speech). I often think, though, that Lingis believes too strongly in the continuity between his experience of his body and the concept he derives from it. But that is his thing, maybe the anthropologist’s thing, to believe that their affective perceptions are attuned enough to patterns that they can count their percepts as evidence of a reliably performative collective convention. I trust my body less as a generalizable clarity machine.  Aesthetic attention similarly requires tracking repetitions, calling them form, and assessing the affective conventions around them, the conventions of address and impact that might also bear a normative burden, or not; but the perception of form’s affective work does not require actually breathing it in  or assuming its form in the encounter’s real time. Attunement does not have to feel attuned, I think, if one’s relation to poetics comes via the aesthetic rather than from fully embodied observation. The form moves through the loose cluster of perceptions in which I move around, and I can sense something without taking it personally.  It is as though my method is about proximity, not polemics; I’m thinking of words like orthogonal, oblique, asymptote.  I am noting the toxic normative extension of the oblique to obliquity (that’s where the polemicist awakens). I’m not sure how hard this epistemo-professional distinction can be made to be, though, as my training comes from learning to pay attention in ways that cross the aesthetic, the ethnographic, and the psychoanalytic.

He could have said the opposite, in any case: it could be not that the world makes contact with the real me, but that whatever I take to be me is where I sense the impact of the gesture of the world, so that what’s “real” is not me or the continuity I rely on that the noise I make is “me,” but that I am a collection of gesture’s outcomes. I am what remains. The burden of personality, indeed, is in part to separate out habit’s active take-up from the ego’s task of protecting one from most of one’s self-experience.

You would never know this from Lingis. Lingis writes that the experience of the self as an effect of contact makes one “thoughtful,” and he says the we honor the appellations that we ascribe to ourselves, when we take up the gesture of having been found and wanting that version of “me” to stick. But sometimes the thought passes.  Thoughts pass. We may wish that they pass into an archive so that we might really add up to something and have potential but who’s to say?  The mystic writing pad is a thing and a metaphor.  Even when we were committed to them, even when we paid attention, we could often not remember quite what they were, those gestures that reached us yesterday, the ones from others and the ones we made through which we encountered ourselves.In the pattern of contact called love, even, we pay attention sometimes not just to make memories (that’s rare) or to be good (that’s uneven) but to make a mood, a moment, or a potential event pass so that later forgetting will be possible. The forgetting of contact can be a sign of what’s wonderful or what’s horrible about love. Not adding up to something amidst all the things that hit us is also something, but it’s hard to narrate.  (This is what I love about Lyn Hejinian, but that’s another entry.)

When contact contributes to an archive of incomplete gestures for one to take up, it’s like a game my brother and I used to play, where we’d draw a fragment and then turn over the egg timer and have to finish it on separate blackboards or pieces of paper in any way we could in three minutes. There was no winning, there was just appreciation of the other’s swift ingenuity. Completing the gesture did not guarantee fidelity even when it seemed huge, like a revolution. Attending did not foreclose self-forgetting, but it also wasn’t “mere” seriality. Where did I hear that, what conversation was it where the woman, I think it was, across a table, I’m sure it was, said that she was writing on labia, which made her think about snails, which she then did some research on? I recalled this when I was trying to sense what the political reactionaries were imagining as they threatened to defund the pap smear, which is the same thing as trying to outlaw their own abjection–a futile, though fertile, passion, that. The connections seem obvious but they were not successful. Someone’s report of her own gesture toward something enabled an instance of self-contact that hallucinated an unrealized thought. It’s not just the slime/disgust/sex file of associations that got delivered:  it’s something about the tragedy of the unbearableness of sexuality and the ordinariness with which it rises up again and again as misogyny and erotophobia. But it was also sitting across the table and hearing someone grab for something, a concept yet unformed between two examples, and being moved by that. Thinking about impact and gesture and association, sometimes it is as though I have never talked, never slept.

In the airport I put a banana in my stomach, which was a wager with hunger and an error, but because bananas are about to become extinct I felt that the event deserved attention. Then today in the Times I read that bananas are radioactive, which changes the banana in me.

5 Comments so far
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i love it. it’s adding haptics to Ahmed’s haps, right? i’ve been playing around on the online etymology site, thinking about contact, contagion, and contamination, which may all too often be the flip side of an affective event–when it touches too closely, maybe. when it sticks in passing, and you can’t get rid of its effects.

Comment by Iyellit

for several seconds i wondered how she was writing on labia, and whose!

Comment by a broad

Your post made me think of Emerson’s conception of moods. Have you come across Branka Arsic’s chapter “Brain Walks: Emerson on Thinking” (_The Other Emerson_ 2010)?

Comment by Una11

This is an amazing post. As an avid reader of your work, I know that such insights inform your interventions in the reading of socio-economic contexts. I’m excited as to what will happen to these gems about “contact” when they are further refined through Berlantian rigor.

Comment by Ali Altaf Mian

I have to laugh at the radioactive banana. Every time I turn onthe tap (or drink any other kind of water) I remember that I’m being slowly poisoned by a million strange minerals–sort of like the Renaissance idea that every sex act kills you a little.

I love the idea of the hap–and of the life of contacts that are always askance or at an angle. But I also think that the body CAN be a clarity machine–not about measuring feeling–or believing in feeling (which floods in and seems completely permanent, and then passes–where did it go? ), but clarity in pausing, flowing into the little stop, the act of breath. That’s the moment when unfocusssed experience can come in a tad. It can be a moment of self-contact–of realizing: that’s breathing me–that’s my sound here and now.

Do I remember to do this? no no no–it’s too hard to slow down. But, I slowed down to read your blog, L–and loved its exhale. xxoo, patsy

Comment by patsy yaeger

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