. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought

Dissolving into…

My friend Katie wrote me that she was struck by the relation of optimism to humor in this blog. After yesterday I’d say to the humors, as I was steamy, then, with optimism drain–blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm, acidic energy generated by my frustrated desire to have a whole thought amidst institutional avalanches of need, demand, passive aggression, aggression, and obligation. Some things just won’t just flake away through inattention.

But mainly, I was so bollixed up by all I wanted and failed to say in the last entry that I hadn’t even gotten to say what I’d been thinking about that very thing: that is, humor, laughter, the comic, and their relation to the psychoanalytic and political interests of this project’s aim to understand problems of detaching from normative, durable, reliable forms of life. Laughter is a form of dissolution that would seem to indicate an attachment to a situation that generates pleasure. But not always, maybe not even usually.

Here’s a start toward another research thread. Even a suggestion of the comic puts me in a good mood. Thanks, Katie! (Katie even thinks that maybe these should be called The Optimism Papers, although that wouldn’t predict, say, the chapter on torture. On the other hand, torturing is the state’s ridiculous optimism about controlling the real, isn’t it? And yet, there are questions of tone: the structure and affect of optimism aren’t identical, and being precise about those divergences matters.)

All throughout writing The Female Complaint comedy haunted me, comedy as a subordinated subculture’s or overwhelmed individual’s lubricant for being in the room with and figuring out how to survive what’s presently overwhelming about the real. But I could only talk about the comic as an intensity, an extremity on the other side of melodramatic heightening, as in the Dorothy Parker chapter: “Listen, I can’t even get my dog to stay down. Do I look to you like someone who could overthrow the government?” This couplet cracks me up. But even Parker claims that comedy isn’t a weapon, but a failing shield. It’s hard for me not to feel all mixed up around Parker’s humor, sensing the fear and defense that radiates in the atmosphere of her sharp observation. But sometimes comedy is just a cigar, or whatever: delight, unmixed relief to be stretching out without a sense of wearing out.

People dissolve into laughter and into tears, among other things, I’d been thinking: the dissolution of bodily composure was always part of this research (Losing It and Unraveling were other early handles for this project) . Last Thursday I realized that Detachment Theory had to start with thinking about laughing. Maybe that would be the chapter on Lamb’s She’s Come Undone and Ellman’s Doctors and Nurses. But there’s so much in the archive for this book that could be about comedies of dissolution that are not merely Rabelaisian inversion.

In the Affect Publics reading group this week we read Bergson’s Laughter and Baudelaire’s “The Essence of Laughter.” Neither of these attended enough to ambivalent laughter, because I’m most interested in the knot that undoes someone’s sense of formal control in an enduring way, not just as an involuntary pulse. But Bergson’s interest in adjustment as the scene or situation of laughter seems a perfect referent for that part of this project. He writes that inelasticity and inflexibility on display produce laughter, as the subject being laughed at can’t adjust to his situation: he talks about the comic spectacle of “something mechanical encrusted on the living.” Bergson’s sense that the comic is produced by inelasticity where we would expect or even need to see adaptation works well with John Limon‘s great prediction: “the appeal of comedy may be traced to its imposition of geometrical perfectionism on compounded liminality.” Limon ends up talking about queer precision.

As I was reading I kept thinking about dissolving into tears/laughter, where the bodily fact one always faces in laughter involves watching someone live through this, exerting control and letting go, tipping over and getting back up. When getting back up happens, I mean.

Dissolving can take on so many forms of bodily action: for example, bending over in laughter. I knew a woman once who was so stiff that her laughter looked like a threat to her bodily integrity: we were all actually scared when she laughed, we wanted it to go away, because we were afraid that in the aftermath she would just be broken, a stick dissolved into splinters.

She was a teacher of ours. Actually, now that I think about it, I’ve had two depressive teachers like this, whose laughter wasn’t a relief but a release of something the person really could not contain but could not survive the release of. The other one would shake side to side like a possessed metronome. Both were high composure, high WASP, very controlling women: one suicide, one now debilitated, mentally alive when she is, but not pedagogically, professionally, or personally too functional. She can laugh at ducks, and occasionally at talks.

The Life drive
January 15, 2008, 7:03 am
Filed under: Affect Theory, Detachment theory, Love, psychoanalysis, Theory of this Blog, writing

Mood, a shallow, shadowy rancidity interrupted by adrenalin when needed. Cheery! Fakeness actually works. I started this post right before school started on Jan 7. These first three sentences summarize what’s to follow.


A few posts ago, I asked, “What happens to the life drive when it finds no traction for its optimism?” I learned about the life drive from an essay conversation on trauma between Peggy Phelan and Cathy Caruth, a beautiful thing. (Cultural Values 5, 1 (January 2001): 7-27). Caruth talks about fort/da not just as Freud’s symbolization of the traumatized subject’s attempt to experience affectively what she does not actually have, mastery over loss (the child’s father is away at war; the mother is out of the room). To Caruth, the child’s game with controlling and losing control of the top also demonstrates a drive to sustain life in the face of death. To face and to turn away from death is not to disavow anything, or to drown out contingency and vulnerability with the noise of play and presence, but to become two-faced. To face and turn away from death (vulnerability, contingency, the thinning out of fantasy) makes possible living on without guarantees.

Indeed the main consolation the life drive provides the traumatized subject is its assurance that there are no guarantees, since she otherwise feels bound by the guarantee of the repetition of her impossibility. The life drive offers the possibility of repetition’s interruption (however low the bar–as mere variation, for example, a vacation), of a surprise, an unpredicted affect, within trauma. This suggests the possibility in advance that the subject might, sometime, be detached from the imaginable field of experience now clotted with the desperately predictable activity of affect management.

And yet. Talking to my lonely friends on New Year’s Eve, I was reminded to stay aware that there’s a corollary question to do with another optimism of which traumatic repetition itself can be a ground, shaped by resignation and its corollaries–treading water, not stopping, being around, being homeless, drowning, being detached not as a relation but an enduring condition, the numb whatever of a humming defense. As we know, sometimes a defense represents the last stand of sphincteral control over personality’s mirage of intention.

A few of the people I talked to on New Year’s week were lonely. But they embrace their refusal of optimism about becoming otherwise. One is chronically ill, and has gotten quite fat and short of breath. The other is chronically depressed, and has been digging a hole to nest in righteously. The former’s life shuttles between depression and spectacle. She only overcomes when she’s going to be on display–a high school reunion, a family celebration—events for which she can prepare to be fabulous, and to hold the gaze and center stage.

Until now, anyway: now, she’s giving up even that inclination to interrupt her depression, isolation, and mentalized life. She’s post-fakeness. She says that she has accepted herself, by which she means she embraces expressing her cruelty and disappointment. She tells me that as a feminist I ought to be against fakeness. What I say is that her survival matters: her fakeness produced for her reminders of what the life drive felt like, a grandiosity that relaxed her enough to provide some time for the other pleasures, involving looking around and being curious about things, and being interested in what she saw and, frankly, telling me about it. The reports from her intelligence were always interesting. They didn’t amount to confidence or self-love or trust of others or the world, so it wasn’t everything. But her attentiveness drew her along through life, made the performance of observational intelligence seem like a good, a contribution to things, a call that could get responses.

I’ll talk about the other friend in some other post. But I’ve been thinking about Peter Kramer’s Against Depression, and his rage at the romance of depression that confuses the disease with authenticity and the subject’s dissolution with creativity: and I see this not only in the adolescent and intellectual embrace of depression as higher intelligence and realer realism but also in a massive disrespect for optimism as something that’s somehow unethical.

The Pathetic Imperative

Yesterday while driving to MLA to meet a friend whose family is slowly being worn to a nub–car accidents, drug abuse, suicide, and “natural causes” mark the meanwhile during which she’s gotten tenure, become a Buddhist, found and left lovers, considered getting another Ph.D, or writing three books, or changing jobs or buying more flats (in other words, her head’s full of noise even as her mouth sounds so clear)–a commercial came on the radio selling conscience and commitment towards foster kids.

In an age of increasing fear that new generations will fare worse than the ones that begat them, foster kids and certain populations of adoptee (bad luck if you’re born in Romania and good luck if you’re born in India) are not only being shunned as resources for family-making by the infertile but marked as populations so damaged from the get-go, so incapable of giving or receiving love, that it’s not worth cultivating individuals who hail from them. The exceptions are striking, as this segment on Romanian adoption from “Unconditional Love” attests: but the exceptions, the kids without devastating attachment disorder, can never really shake the seconds mark invisibly lasered on their foreheads. The brutal ease with which these humans are written off as unworthy of optimism slays me.

I’ve been reading lots about this problem of impaired attachment: that’s one of the research lines this blog will be tracking. A great assessment of the state of the neuropsychoanalytic literature can be found in recent work on “The Children of Duplessis,” orphans who were named mentally ill and institutionalized by the Canadian government in league with the Catholic Church (see bibliography below). Articulating neuropsychology and attachment theory, some contemporary work on these children is in its own way heartbreaking, as it tries gamely to show that not all subjects of trauma are traumatized by it, and that what happens in life can work dynamically, alleviatingly, with what didn’t happen during the child’s first 3-5 years (appropriate and reliable levels of stimulation and comfort whose absence can fundamentally change for the worse the capacities and responsivity managed by the hyppocampus and the amygdala). The plasticity of the brain works for and against the capacity to develop attachments as life goes on; the plasticity of the brain isn’t infinite, but expressed in changes to patterning, and as we know, personality is pattern, a cluster of habits, that is very hard to change and very hard to want to change.

So maybe not all traumatic events produce trauma for their addressees; perhaps all traumatized subjects don’t manifest the encounter the same way; perhaps it’s just a small percentage whose depression not just won’t but can’t respond to treatment. I can’t help but think that the widespread fear of a hardwired mental unhealth that can’t be undone, interfered with, managed, or turned toward flourishing is a symptom of some deeper knowledge people have about how uncapacious and maladaptive the world is to everyone, not just those who can’t perform the normative imperatives to produce and reproduce. I like using words like flourishing and capaciousness as a metric for what the conditions of social life ought to provide, because they seem so irrelevant to the tightening gyre that replaces the liberal/capitalist promise of building a good life with tinnily optimistic instructions for making, holding onto, and surviving the loss of a fragile one.

The commercial hit me so hard that I can’t remember it. Young kids with optimistic voices edited together in increasing density and speed said that they were foster kids (also called “waiting kids” in the literature) to whom no one has a primary commitment, that they had love to give and needs to receive it. The commercial ended with all of the young voices saying the phrase “Please don’t give up on us” with emphasis on the please and the pleading and with increased intensity that mimed, performed, and communicated anxiety.

Please don’t give up on us pleasedon’tgiveuponuspleasedon’tgiveuponuspleasedon’t…

The commercial reminded me of a belated response I had to Don’t Leave Me This Way, a great AIDS anthology I bought in the mid-1990s, one of the best ones next to Douglas Crimp’s AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism. At some point last summer I picked it up to browse and find out what I hadn’t yet learned and suddenly re-felt the anthem’s powerful disco realism about all the queer lives wasted, deemed incompetent and unworthy of intimacy and the good life, and then I started missing some individuals and the whole lot of the lost, and then, weeping, realized that the lyrics were the child’s lament about the adult world’s impaired attachments: Don’t leave me this way, I can’t survive, I can’t stay alive, without your love, don’tleavemethisway…


Children of Duplessis CBC Archive

Wikipedia Entry on Duplessis Orphans

Perry et al, “Seven Institutionalized Children and their Adaptation in Late Adulthood: the Children of Duplessis.” Psychiatry 69 (4) 2006: 283-301.

Low and Eth, Commentary on “Seven Institutionalized Children and Their Adaptation in Late Adulthood: The Children of Duplessis.” In Psychiatry 69 (4) (Winter 2006): 314-321.

Faceless book

Today I introduced Facebook to someone older than me and had a long conversation about what the point of networking amongst “friends” is. The person was so skeptical because to her stranger and distance-shaped intimacies are diminished forms of real intimacy. To her, real intimacy is a relation that requires the fortitude and porousness of a serious, emotionally-laden, accretion of mutual experience. Her intimacies are spaces of permission not only for recognition but for the right to be seriously inconvenient, to demand, and to need. It presumes face to faceness, but even more profoundly, flesh to fleshness. But on Facebook one can always skim, or not log in.

My version of this distinction is different of course, and sees more overlap than difference among types of attachment. The stretched-out intimacies are important and really matter, but they are more shaped by the phantasmatic dimension of recognition and reciprocity–it is easier to hide inattention, disagreement, disparity, aversion. On the other hand it’s easier to focus on what’s great in that genre of intimacy and to let the other stuff not matter. There’s less likely collateral damage in mediated or stranger intimacies. While the more conventional kinds of intimacy foreground the immediate and the demanding, are more atmospheric and singular, enable others’ memories to have the ethical density of knowledge about one that is truer than what one carries around, and involve many more opportunities for losing one’s bearings. The latter takes off from a Cavellian thought about love–love as returning to the scene of coordinating lives, synchronizing being–but synchrony can be spread more capaciously and meaningfully amongst a variety of attachments. Still, I think all kinds of emotional dependency and sustenance can flourish amongst people who only meet each other at one or a few points on the grid of the field of their life.

Thinking about yesterday’s reciprocity entry, I said to her that one point of Facebook is to inhabit the social as a place of play, of having a light impact, of being ordinary, of being acknowledged, of echoing and noodling, where the bar for reciprocity is so low that anyone could perform it by clicking. It’s a place where clicking is a sign that someone has paid attention and where dropping a line can build toward making a life. You know someone has imagined you today, checked in. You’re not an isolate. Trying to accommodate to my positive explanation, she said, I guess it’s like when churches organize prayer circles for impaired strangers, sending out love into the spirit world–it can’t hurt, but is it deep? Me: people value different evidence of having had an impact and of mattering to the world they’re imagining belonging to, and who can say what’s deep from outside of the transference? But I realized that I may be incoherent about this, and of course this problem, of figuring out how to talk about ways of being that are simultaneously openings and defenses, is central to this project. When people talk about modes of belonging they talk about desire but less so about defense.

I sense that Facebook is about calibrating the difficulty of knowing the importance of the ordinary event. People are trying there to eventalize the mood, the inclination, the thing that just happened–the episodic nature of existence. So and so is in a mood right now. So and so likes this kind of thing right now; and just went here and there. This is how they felt about it. It’s not in the idiom of the great encounter or the great passion, it’s the lightness and play of the poke. There’s always a potential but not a demand for more.

Here is how so and so has shown up to life. Can you show up too, for a sec?

How can the “episodic now” become an event? Little mediated worlds produced by kinetic reciprocity enable accretion to become event without the drama of a disturbance. The disturbance is the exception. And that’s what makes stranger intimacy a relief from the other kind, which tips you over.

Another way to think about normativity.

For the last few years I’ve been writing about aspirational normativity—a concept that describes individuals’ motives for belonging to a general culture as something other than a will to power, ideology, or shallowness. Instead one can view it as an affective need or drive to feel held by the social world. To sense that one is held durably by the world is not a very high bar, just a specific one. It does not mean to feel recognized in the full range of your being. Nor does it mean merely to be acknowledged—bump into anyone on the street, act like an asshole, have a conversation with anyone, and you can feel that you have an impact without feeling especially welcome in the world. Sometimes feeling a connection is a relief from a general state of disconnection.

Instead, to feel held in this sense is to have an expectation that there will be some kind of confirming reciprocity in one’s exchanges and an experience of a confirming reciprocity that does not have to be personal or even feel good explicitly, and yet engenders satisfaction and optimism toward a better-than-survival kind of living. The expectation of good conversations or kind glances with strangers is a good example of a structure of reciprocity that is also the feeling of it. So is hearing that your taste for x is also someone else’s. But so much more than repetition of the same is involved in achieving and managing reciprocity. Finding in the world or in others what’s important to you releases you from the loneliness of your singular attachments, the attachments engendered by autonomic or instinctual moves toward the something that looks promising. Leo Bersani describes most beautifully the delicacy of such gestures toward self-extension.

But achieving an attachment that feels compelling is just one part of reciprocity: it could also be stalking! As we will see. The other part is expecting a return, in being able to be returned to, in expanding the idioms of return. The other part is the fear of return. In the project whose record of construction I’m making here, I’m writing about living with a drive to create conditions of reciprocity in a world where it cannot be presupposed—and not just because people have bad “caretaking environments” when they’re little. Reciprocity is not just in kind, a literal trade. To study it is to look for the idioms of exchange that work and what happens when they don’t. It is to look at the terms through which people make bargains with life subjectively–politically and affectively, without knowing it, often. I have been stunned in the last few years to collect a huge archive of aesthetic mediations of this situation—works that find people in a world where they can’t find a person, an intimate public, a political world, any durable conditions for sustaining optimism. And maybe they don’t want to, maybe sometimes being alone is a relief from the obligations of being durable. My claim is that this situation is both singular to individuals and increasingly sensed as a structural abandonment by general social worlds and political institutions.

Questions: What happens to the life drive when it finds no traction for its optimism? Is this why is there so much crankiness—anxious attachment disorder? Why do people feel that they won’t be heard capaciously and generously, and what are the effects of the presumption that one’s gestures will be ejected except by an intimate public? I am always shocked by the optimism that brings people back to the world one more time, to make connections with strangers that are hard to maintain with full intimates. At the same time I sense that even what Katie Stewart calls “little worlds” are desperately held on to, because to encounter the reciprocal feels rarer and more precious and more a function of stranger intimacy than of personal, face to face, biography.

Jessica Benjamin describes the affect of being held so beautifully in “What Angel Would Hear Me?: The Erotics of Transference,” (1994). Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 14: 535-557, and in Like Subjects, Love Objects. See also Christopher Bollas, The Shadow of the Object (New York: Columbia UP, 1989). I’ve written about aspirational normativity most explicitly in “Nearly Utopian, Nearly Normal: Post-Fordist Affect in La Promesse and Rosetta,” Public Culture 2007 19 (2): 273-301.

Here I extend some thoughts from the introduction to The Female Complaint. Bersani thinks crisply about self-extension in”Sociality and Sexuality,” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Summer, 2000), pp. 641-656. Eve Sedgwick’s work in “Pedagogy of Buddhism” takes off from an articulation of Silvan Tomkins’ thoughts about circuits of flow between subjects and the world and Melanie Klein’s “depressive position” to make a unrelated claim about the conditions of shame and attachment, but as usual I cavil at presuming that the experience of broken attachment is one of shame. See Touching Feeling (Duke UP, 2003). In this next project I’ll figure out how to do more than resist this closing down of affects of being cut off from a sense of reciprocal worldness.