. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought

In the Air (1)

The fantasy of a common sense, a sense of a capacity or of something affectively general at the core of democracy, is not necessarily sentimental. But the drive to create a more capacious democratic sensorium so often tips into intimacy’s sentimental vernacular that its placeholder status as conceptual magnet, not origin or experience, is very hard to discipline–and the drive to discipline it is the source of so much social theory. The local occasion of this post is the Theatre Oobleck production of There Is a Happiness That Morning Is. The  play, riffing on Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, was classic Oobleck:  noisy, vital, and entirely intentional.  There wasn’t a supervalent moment in it, which was an achievement of sorts, since it is about love and fucking and freedom and  lyric poetry and death, and how they shape profound scenes of self-encounter that reveal enigmas of suffering and impaired autonomy at the heart of ordinary intimacy. But it was unsatisfying, because it aimed to be too satisfying: the writing overdramatized every emotion, including disbelief, as though to color within the lines must amount to blackening an entire page. In this it was exemplary of so much aesthetic and theoretical work that works over the emotions, attempting to drown out the affects and to claim that when we are authentic we feel one known thing at a time.

The problem of writing about this play is that any substantive discussion of it will make it more wonderful than any minute of seeing it. This is what critical engagement does: it adds value through staging interest that’s been magnetized to a form. It converts the event of form into a situation. In reading with a thing a transitional environment emerges that changes what attention can attend to. The encounter makes change prehensible, resonating toward a leavening sense of a concept whose potentiality is virtually affirmed even if the encounter itself fails to have much afterlife. But what I am trying to do is to think about the downsides of potentiality modes when they are tethered to a simplifying desire for emotions already normatively held in common to provide a foundation for (aesthetic or political) transformation.

And indeed, the writing was bold and vital; and the actors too were fearless, perfect in their mold/mode/moaning.The leading man—personifying Blake’s Songs of Innocence—seemed bigger than life-size, like a Bread and Puppets monster; the woman—exemplifying Songs of Experience—was like Zelda in Scooby-Do. He was the romantic, she was the reality principle, complete with a tumor cooking within her that gave her a month to live. Their transgression was to get so carried away by teaching Blake’s lyrics that they fucked on the campus commons in plain sight of everyone.  The dramatic problem was that the “Dean” of the “College” was demanding an apology.  The Dean was a nebbish who turned out to be one of those adorable romantic stalkers, like in What About Bob? He has a broken-heart attack on stage but only fake dies. The lovers break up and get back together, choosing to repeat their act of sex in public, but the lights go down as they embark on their striptease. So the questions the play posed were: which is better, the positivity of love or the negativity of fucking?  The positivity of profoundly crafted lyric poetry or the negativity of sentimental claptrap?  Negativity wins. But the play cannot bear its own commitment to releasing form to affect the commons.

Oobleck’s atmospheres always arise from outrage at destructive absurdity, yawning existential suffering, and above all a fear that the impact of alternativity or art won’t feel impactive.  But the friend with whom I went said, “This play was for people who don’t read books.” Its noisy aesthetic made it possible not to acknowledge the quiet menacing threat of non-sovereignty that threads through any encounter that seeks relationality:  watching it, you’d think that becoming undone-in-relationality is what only lovers, not audiences, or the rest of us, risk all the time. This play, in any case, was for people who want their events to feel like events, so that they feel solid amidst the scene of aesthetic/affective transaction and to confirm that they were around something important, as if events ought ideally to be hammers striking awfully hard in the vicinity of one’s head.  The image that I had was of a foam-encased mallet banging on simulated dirt.

Hating, as I’ve said, is a protest against airlessness. This was a play about love that tried to love love but chose sex, and then tried to love sex but found it too unbearable and thus ended up defacing both of its optimistic anchors. What’s left is the poetry whose membrane creates the atmosphere of heightened significance, but it was not given any air to create surprise or transformation:  Blake’s standing at the convergence of art and revolution was a condiment, really. What was convincing was the play’s desire to access the desire to break through normative form for genuine transformation through love and sex; but what was sad was that it could only deliver timidity, bluster, and (really) eloquent gesture.

You might protest that this encounter did what aesthetic encounters are supposed to do, produce a feeling in you that resonates toward a concept through which you can encounter a difference in the capacities of the world and beings in it. But it’s that whole desire for what kind of that-feelingin you that worries me here.  This is what stuck in my throat also in the last post on Lingis, the desire that contact will produce a transformative recognition that is immediately self-idealizable. Needing to gain reassurance that you are in you awesomely produces so much destructive aggression that—in the Oobleck play’s idiom–if love and lyric and sex don’t work, there better be a tumor in the wings to establish interiority’s object permanence, at least in the negative. The only real contact is contact with that tumor. The tumor is a stand-in for the transformative event that produces fearless being confronting life without guarantees. Here it’s a hollow, though, confusing noise with the leap of collective transformation.

Lots of art and theory misrecognize their gestures, inducing variations in conventionality and seeing them as originality and profundity, and seeing the achievement of simplicity as profoundly clarifying complexity. Mass modernity trains us to do that, but it’s also something fundamental in attachment, the drive to want anchors to be on the ground, not in the water.  We learn clichés about profound relationality and then learn to project all of our desires onto their teeny hooks. I want to not presume to know how it feels to be in common.

This post has gotten a little long so it’s going to split into two. I had no intention to write about this play: I was going to write less aggressively about a different aesthetic atmosphere I encountered in which I so respected the discipline of the artwork’s engagement with love and suffering and music and lyric, and where also the question of survival is central. What I’ve just described is not a negative case but a normative one trying so hard not to be, as was the Lingis too,where the affects of belonging staged in scenes of contact are reified in modes of emotional self-exemplification and self-recognition that make contact a comfort rather than an event. I realize I wanted to call this “(Sensus communis 2)” but we are in the middle not exactly of a series but a cluster of gestures that mean to feel out how attention to an affective event held in common might engender a freed-up sense of the collective sense from within which we could move toward a different kind of anchoring trust in collective life.

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[…] writes Lauren Berlant, “is a protest against […]

Pingback by Breathe « Flat 7

what if you just don’t believe in it? the commons is usually the place holder of someone else’s belief….

Comment by joan

D’accord. That’s why I was talking about fantasy and affective sense rather than the normative magnet,whether that be the earth/nature/materialist version or the vitalist version within democratic theory. Lots of work on this to follow (it’s the focus of my next six months, but I’m a slow thinker). Cheers!

Comment by supervalentthought

Reblogged this on Infrastructures of UnCommon Forms and commented:
Anchors in the ground rather than in water? Maybe not, or not in those terms. To be continued …

Comment by Angela Mitropoulos

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