. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought

Being Alive

Contact.  I just saw the most anorexic woman I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot.  She was walking in 90 degree heat in full Gaga:  white face, red lip, yellow blonde streaks all beautifully blown out yet so sprayed that it barely touched the face it surrounded. Her face looked like an @. She was crossing the street wearing a yellow cape, black skirt, and black opaque tights over legs that could not possibly be thinner. The platform shoe gait was ungraceful, but it was haughty, and my first thought was competitive, as in, when I was anorexic I still could pass, people said, for a manic New York Jew: whereas this person really did look as though if she’d had to dodge a bike too sharply she would have snapped in two.

At Banff a group of us who liked each other turned out to have in our backgrounds the overlap of Oberlin and eating disorder, and I got the impression that the back is not too far a ground from the front for some of us. The curse of recidivism attaches to predators and eating disorders.  The revelation of that form of fort/da appeared in this group of people otherwise professionally linked when someone commented that another of us who had just walked by was surely bulimic, and the assurance with which she said this made me ask how she knew, and it was interesting.  She saw semi-circles around mouths and eyes. We were all eating at the time, which seemed to be proof of something, although it was proof of nothing.

I thought of all the things I know about the “deepest problems of modern life” that “flow from the attempt of the individual to maintain the independence and individuality of his existence against the sovereign powers of society, against the weight of the historical heritage and the external culture and technique of life,” and I thought about another kind of impact I’d been amassing as I continue to think about contact as the intensification of the encounter with non-sovereignty, so of course this series twist happened without quite being a project.  All summer I have been taking pictures of phrases that hit me and induced reveries and reorientations that made me both stupid and more alive.


I don’t feel responsible to teach you the entire thing once it’s already in me like a splinter. Simmel is an astonishing affect theorist, although the piece makes claims that I don’t buy about the difference between the rational and the appetitive. But when he’s describing the small waves, the turns toward and away from the too closeness of the world, his attention is just beautifully, finely and capaciously attuned to “the resistance of the individual to being levelled.” What a phrase. I reread this essay often and it always induces a dream state, because its sentences about dullness as fidelity to life are so intense with background affect that they deepen out all of the ordinary words. “There the phrase went beyond the content.” He doesn’t seem to censor much or earn space by expertise.  He is trying to explain something: how it could be that ordinary modes of attaching to the life that presents itself force on us a kind of life drive psychosis, a radical splitting that makes it possible to live on by leaching the intensity that ordinary contact otherwise engenders.  I am trying, as you know, to understand how people stay attached to lives that don’t work, and I am moving into looking at flatness.

At lunch we talked about triggers and what remains.  It was really enervating, and I commented at some point that there must be something to learn from this, about the impossibility, really, of knowing the difference between fort and da, and about how for Lacan the death drive and the life drive were part of each other’s sustaining cycle—although then I told a story about a friend whose son suffers from bulimia, from which she had also suffered.  She said to me: this boy would butter his bacon.  We all sat there grappling with the taste the phrase left on our tongues. I can’t get its wedge out of my head even now.  It teeters on the edge of a shelf.  All I can think to make a place for it is the sentence, “I used to joke that if they autopsied me, they’d see decades of Tab stored in my fat.” The joke is reciprocity and a deictic, but toward what, who knows.

What is fort/da, actually?  Refusing scarcity and performing plenitude in all phases of what’s imaginable returns us to sex, to optimism, to intimacy, and to the possibility of something other than negating negation in the construction of the subject who returns to the scene of the crime of not knowing whether a gesture builds or destroys. “Maybe there’s one more in me, let’s find out.”

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By the way, non-sovereign gratitude to Ann Pellegrini for introducing me to “Being Alive,” in her talk mobilizing it at Barnard’s “New Public Feelings Salon” panel. http://bcrw.barnard.edu/videos/

Comment by supervalentthought

On contact, I couldn’t help but think of Section 27 of Song of Myself, not the quahaug, exactly, but rather the last line:

To be in any form, what is that?
(Round and round we go, all of us, and ever come back thither,)
If nothing lay more develop’d the quahaug in its callous shell were enough.

Mine is no callous shell,
I have instant conductors all over me whether I pass or stop,
They seize every object and lead it harmlessly through me.

I merely stir, press, feel with my fingers, and am happy,
To touch my person to some one else’s is about as much as I can stand.

Comment by mlmcgill

That’s *so* interesting, because I’ve been doing a little Whitman reading this week myself and seeing him as usual, the sensualist who never feels the loss of his position as loss, but rather as something else to fold into what remains to be idealized. (Even in this passage he absorbs the electrical grid.) I had thought that he gets overwhelmed by longing, but not by contact; here, though, as you say, all the longing in the world is free limitless abjection and desire but one touch is the limit. Love the play on callous. Is he distinguishing the infinite pleasure of conducting the electrical touching of objects v. the overwhelming charge of even the lightest personal contact, do you think?

Comment by supervalentthought

I have been thinking a lot lately about the necessity of risk, perhaps even its desirability — not the kind of risk that is submitted to the actuarial imagination of modernity, but a practice or practicing that actually requires acknowledging interdependence and, thus, vulnerability. So, I wonder if the flatness you talk about so beautifully here is also connected to a flattening of risk. Of course, there is elimination of risk for some and then there is the handing off of risk to some others, whether through the bundling of sub-prime mortgages or the enlistment of some bodies to fight and die for “freedom” while some others can stay home shopping for free-market freedom. To be sure, it is important to analyze the bio-politics of risk, the global and racialized disparities in its distribution. But I am also interested in the psychic dimensions of risk (and would not see these as counter-posed to the political).

Comment by Ann Pellegrini

[…] Being Alive Affect Theory Roundtable Questions, MLA 2012 Authors: Lauren Berlant, Ann Cvetkovich, Jonathan Flatley, Neville Hoad, Heather Love, José E. Muñoz, Tavia Nyong’o December 9, 2011, 1:40 pm Filed under: affect, Affect Theory, Mood, psychoanalysis, sexuality, supervalent_thought, writing | Tags: affect, emotion, Glee, mood, Sedgwick, theory, Tomkins, writing […]

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