. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought

The Game (2)

2. This game is called “Watch Your Step.” I am not sure that it’s a game or that any of the games I’ve described is a game.  It’s more like a scene that stimulates games of encounter, which is to say, scenarios of risk. My thinking about this was world-shaken by Diana Taylor’s article on double-blind scenarios, which came out after her book, which I also loved, but as I was the editor for the smaller, later piece, my bones know it as deeply as a body would that has many times leaned toward its object. This is not objective knowledge.

The best a thought can do, after all, is to make itself available to be found, by documenting its encounter with something so well that it shifts things into a new proximity, as though words in a dictionary had suddenly slid down into each other’s definitions. That’s not too eloquent, but the event of eloquence has only a little to do with meaning emerging. I was researching what a “scene” is while editing Diana’s piece for a “special issue on the case,” which the University of Chicago Press refused to make into a book because they thought it wasn’t “sexy.”

When the man from the Press said this to me I sat outside and watched the yellowjackets hover over my Diet Coke, wishing, probably, that they could want actually to drink it, then giving up, then coming back, then giving up, then coming back to hover. Living with a cat has enlightened me to the acute state of wanting to want. The flight attendant just walked by with his US magazine, whose back cover says RETURN YOUR BRAIN in bright yellow capitals on a red page with the word BRAIN crossed out by a straight line that looks like bacon.

Before Diana, when I thought of the “scene” I saw it as eloquent beyond meaning. An opening scene, after all, sets the stage atmospherically, stretched across the words. At that point, which will eventually become “the beginning,” it is all noise. The scene–primal, crime, whatever–always entails a pressured accompanying sound that is probably the rushing of adrenalin at the disruption of confidence in what the world is disclosing. In my head its paradigm is the opening paragraph of The Golden Bowl, where The Prince walks down the street while his people work out the details of his marriage.

The Prince had always liked his London, when it had come to him; he was one of the modern Romans who find by the Thames a more convincing image of the truth of the ancient state than any they have left by the Tiber. Brought up on the legend of the City to which the world paid tribute, he recognised in the present London much more than in contemporary Rome the real dimensions of such a case. If it was a question of an Imperium, he said to himself, and if one wished, as a Roman, to recover a little the sense of that, the place to do so was on London Bridge, or even, on a fine afternoon in May, at Hyde Park Corner. It was not indeed to either of those places that these grounds of his predilection, after all sufficiently vague, had, at the moment we are concerned with him, guided his steps; he had strayed, simply enough, into Bond Street, where his imagination, working at comparatively short range, caused him now and then to stop before a window in which objects massive and lumpish, in silver and gold, in the forms to which precious stones contribute, or in leather, steel, brass, applied to a hundred uses and abuses, were as tumbled together as if, in the insolence of the Empire, they had been the loot of far-off victories. The young man’s movements, however, betrayed no consistency of attention–not even, for that matter, when one of his arrests had proceeded from possibilities in faces shaded, as they passed him on the pavement, by huge beribboned hats, or more delicately tinted still under the tense silk of parasols held at perverse angles in waiting victorias. And the Prince’s undirected thought was not a little symptomatic, since, though the turn of the season had come and the flush of the streets begun to fade, the possibilities of faces, on the August afternoon, were still one of the notes of the scene. He was too restless–that was the fact–for any concentration, and the last idea that would just now have occurred to him in any connection was the idea of pursuit.

The “scene” one makes is often in a city: the drug scene, the queer scene, and the hipster scene, for example, raise the expectation that bodily intensities and theatrics become heightened somewhere so that a group can find each other and be a certain way. Insider knowledges, phatic beings, styles, and in a way that induces envy. People don’t talk about “the housekeeper scene” or the “construction worker scene” even though it has been documented that in certain cities maids and men have also congregated for pleasure, expertise training, note comparing, minor entrepreneurship, seeing and being seen, and the like.

Then there are the primal scene and the scene of the crime, about which I have since written, all of which are defined by what can not be anchored in words, given an overwhelmed sensorium that knows that it cannot comprehend what is happening or has happened there. An incident collects and disperses. What is the event? If I can come up with phrasing and I try it out until it generates its concept. I could write a hundred pages on the opening paragraph of The Golden Bowl. It is a breathtaking crypt for so many former forms of life.

Fantasy dogwhistles, that’s what it does. It has little to do with plots, and everything to do with shaping the dynamic attachment of subjects to worlds and worlds to their mediations. Even if I am actively fantasizing, and in my fantasies I am talking, fantasy is very quiet. It is not what I think is making me get up and walk around the room. It is a structure of adhesion, sticky but not binding, very quiet, nothing more quiet–yet this is what I mean by noise–and with it I feel the limits of my senses, sovereignty, conceptualizing force.

All of which are grazing the world and sensing where action is and isn’t. But a scenario, that’s something different.  A scenario is the opposite of a scene, or more precisely, a scene turned into its opposite. In Taylor’s work a scenario is a scene that you imagine actively, a game of “What If?” If you play that game and spool out the consequences, it might actually change your relations to the objects you’ve moved with in the game. In The Golden Bowl the Prince is too exhausted to play “What if?” : that is the event of page one.

There is another organizing event, too, though.  Even as the Prince’s “undirected thought” provides the scene of page one, James’ narrator can’t bear being near it, his own creation, his own experiment. So the narrator—compulsively, one might say– pays more attention to the world in movement than his character can. He performs in a small space a person-and-a-half’s concentrated attention to potential anchors, which is why the writing is barely readable. He must see, must show, what The Prince can’t, won’t see. The scene is of a looking that is not a seeing. This teaches me something about teaching.

If you can bear to open yourself to playing “What if?”, the very proposition opens the object. But even more intensely than that, if you have power when you play the game of “What If?,” for example if you are a bully on the playground, or a colleague at a meeting, or a narrator, or a dude with a bomb, your capacity to make a scenario can change the world as it unfolds before you and all on whom you have impact. And not just politically, but in the dust made from many destroyed objects over centuries and also recently.

I know that sounds very heavy-handed. When realism is not free indirect but controls resources, the scenario expresses the weight of a heavy hand. A scenario in Diana Taylor’s view is not the same thing as a storyboard of a fantasy world laminated onto the real: it is power, not psychosis. It is not Proustian, either; nor Bergsonian, evoking memory’s thick secretion (see “The Game(1)”).  The scenario’s heavy hand on the real makes all fantasy realism the way in Brazil a dream is actionable in some community courts. It is an act seeking collective percepticide, a self-blinding to protect seeing.

Dick Cheney imagined a bad world, and then wargamed on an actual world. Cheney made war on the unbearable thing his imagination made, a tendency which is at the heart of conservative cultural politics too.  He tripped up as he fell into the fantasy where he still floats happy.  Argo is also a classic authoritarian scenario of the conversion of fantasy to a world held up by the “right” violence (It reveals this in reverse). Sometimes I wish for scenarios so hard that my eyes are squinting lemons desperate to unbear themselves into sugar.  But writing is harder than that.

(for Pam Thurschwell)

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