. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought


The Book of Love is long and boring, no one can lift the damn thing . . .

Delaminated from week 1 lecture notes, Love Theory (Winter 2012)…

I am a love theorist. I sometimes feel dissociated from all my loves. I sometimes ask them to hold more of an image of me than I can hold. By “sometimes” I mean all the times. The image is the regressed form, not the narrative noise that comes later to try to apply adhesive to the fantasy and its representation in objects, so that I know I am an event that lives in the world. The love and the images available for it are in a Thunderdome death-love match, yet we act as though affect could be held within a steady-state space like meat on a hook, or the image of meat on a hook, since actual meat turns green. Most storage lockers are cold enough to slow down that decay, as we know from narrative and domesticity. Aggressions and tenderness pop around in me without much of a thing on which to project blame steadily or balance an idealization. So it’s just me and  phantasmagoric noise that only sometimes feels like a cover song for a structuring shape or an improv around genre. In love I’m left holding the chaos bag and there is no solution that would make these things into sweet puzzle pieces. See Phillips’ reading of attachment as the drive to return to the taste of another person: the “sweetness” love stands for binds itself to an infinity of objects and plots and strategies for investing the scene with a worthiness matching our intensity of a need for its nourishment.  This is why, perhaps too, Laplanche uses the word “metabolize.”

This is a philosophical “I”. I don’t feel like using “we,” because I fall into the banality pit when I do. (See Derrida on film on love. He should have trusted his first instinct to say nothing, since what he says is nothing, but he was being a good boy, and trying to maintain his availability for the interviewer’s idealization, the death in life of the call and response: he was trying to be loveable.  Maybe the phrases one offers as gifts are the best love because they metarecognize the demand for love in any call: but, in itself, the professor’s discourse is not an opening to the other’s inconvenience, and it is not love if it is not opened to that.) Continue reading



For example

I noticed, over the last few months, as my mother was dying, that I had taken pictures that seemed very specific. Now I am looking at the archive, as one appraises a drying hand after a manicure.

My mother died of femininity.  I told her that I would say this about her. She had said, “Will you write a book about me?”  and I asked if she wanted me to. She said “Yes. I want you to say that I left the world a better place because I had you!” I said I thought that this was a bad idea: people would think it an excuse to write about me.  She said, “Can you think of another topic?”  I offered this phrase about femininity, and explained why.  My brother-in-law thought that it would be better to say that my mother died from vanity rather than from femininity. I can see why he would prefer that story; it’s interesting to see how a label shifts the implication.

In her late teens she took up smoking, because it was sold as a weight-reduction aid.  When she died she had aggressive stage 4 lung cancer.  In her teens she started wearing high heels, to enhance the back arch and ass-to-calves posture whose strut transforms the whole body to a sexual tableau, shifting between teetering and stillness. Later, she had an abortion and on the way out tripped down the stairs in those heels, hurting her back permanently.  Decades later, selling dresses at Bloomingdale’s, she was forced to carry, by her estimate, 500 lbs. of clothes each day. Shop girls, you know, are forced to dress like their customers. They have to do this to show that they understand the appropriate universe of taste, even while working like mules in that same universe, carrying to their ladies stacks of hanging things and having to reorganize what their ladies left behind on the dressing room floor. She liked this job, because she liked being known as having good taste.

Continue reading



Affect Theory Roundtable Questions, MLA 2012 Authors: Lauren Berlant, Ann Cvetkovich, Jonathan Flatley, Neville Hoad, Heather Love, José E. Muñoz, Tavia Nyong’o

These are our questions for the MLA roundtable.  Section one takes up genealogies of affect theory; section two takes up the problem of affect in the historical present; section three takes up a variety of concerns about queer theory, sexuality, racialization, specific cases and archives, and modes of orientation that are in proximity to whatever we might call affect but in different idioms.  You can download them here.  mla roundtable 2011

745. Affecting Affect Theory is scheduled to take place at 1:45+3:00 p.m. on 08-JAN-12 in 615, WSCC; Washington State Convention Center, 800 Convention Place (Pike St. and 8th Ave.)

 ******

Affect Theory Roundtable Questions, MLA 2012

Authors:  Lauren Berlant, Ann Cvetkovich, Jonathan Flatley, Neville Hoad, Heather Love, José E. Muñoz, Tavia Nyong’o

I. Genealogies of Affect Theory 

1.  How do we think about the different trajectories of affect theory now, especially as the Deleuzian/Massumian project/idiom has become so important to its critical circulation?  How do we think the proximity of public feelings, minor affects, psychoanalysis, Sedgwickian syncretism (Buddhism, Tomkins, Klein), and affective labor’s version of affect-as-immateriality in relation to the Spinozan tradition?  How to keep the event of affect open to maintaining the multiplicity of traditions, trajectories, tendencies, and critical tactics? Is spanning all traditions important to ways we think about addressing future problems?

2. Affect vs/alongside mood, feeling, emotion etc. What are the stakes of synthesizing these different ways of talking to our about states of the sensorium?

3.  Cavell (a great affect theorist who is not often included in the genealogies of affect theory) says that professional philosophy has been emancipated from an obligation to be therapeutic, but that it should be haunted by that very emancipation.  What about the critical work we do: what about questions of theory and utility, of reparativity, of failure?

4. In response to thoughts about genealogies and the increasing institutionalization of Deleuzian affect studies, I would like to take the chance to think in some detail about genealogies for public feelings/feel tank type affect studies. The Cavell thing got me thinking about other possibly overlooked figures. Continue reading



The Failure to Fail to Thrive is Life

I.  Kathryne Lindberg

Awhile ago a student killed himself and all I could do was take his parents to dinner—it was a nice dinner. Later a friend offed himself and all I could do was take his “next of kin” to lunch and to miss him. Then over a year ago, a lovely, lost while alive ex-student whose people I don’t know killed herself and all I could do was to email mutual friends and protect the loved ones who don’t know me from me for fear of a stranger’s extending a wound, which isn’t worth it.  Then my friend seems to have left her car a shell on a bridge with the keys still in it. She vaporized, although her daily friends reported that in recent sightings she was exuberant. A bipolar friend of mine calls us academics all extroverted introverts. Exuberant was the name of my first blog, which was a failure. In sum: a mood is neither anchor nor plot. (. . .)

II.  The Nervous System

Supervalent Thought has been, among other things, a project that tries to reintroduce dissociation as a mix of psychoanalytic, formal, affective, and performative modalities of detachment from the scene and sense of expressive continuity between outsides and insides, spaces that, like public and private, are effects rather than causes, differentially produced, and existing in projected perceptions of origin and event.  I wanted no longer to presume some naturalized feedback loop between inside and outside, as has been endemic to affect theory, missing the spray of things. Continue reading



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. Continue reading



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.

Continue reading



Contact

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. Continue reading



Combover (Approach 2)

Us living as we do, upside down…

Another try: I’ve been arguing that a person is a loosely-knotted cluster of impulses, reflections, apprehensions and prehensions moving through ordinary time (imagine a net with head, hands and feet).  Sometimes the difficulty of managing this lability produces the self-image of an extreme solidity of form constantly under threat of dissolution by the fragile infrastuctures for maintaining fantasy. The latter is best exemplified by the iconic image of the combover subject. The subject of the combover stands in front of the mirror just so, to appear as a person with a full head (of hair/ideas of the world). Harsh lighting, back views, nothing inconvenient is bearable in order for the put-together headshot to appear.  No one else can be fully in the room, there can be no active relationality: if someone else, or an audience, is there, everyone huddles under the open secret that protects the combover subject from being exposed socially confronting the knowledge that the world can see the seams, the lacks, and the pathos of desire, effort, and failure.

Who isn’t the combover subject? No-one. The combover subject literalizes the need for ordinary subjectivity to be allowed to proceed in its incoherence and contradictions as though it were in fact a solid structure. Even a philosophical skeptic like Cavell, at home with the failure of language to be adequate to its situation and its desire, finds satisfaction in style; and even a depressive realist like me, who sees her failure to be idealizable as confirmation of her good sense, takes comfort in encountering a version of herself that will not be delighted by surprise but by being the recognizable thing she has come to trust.

Continue reading



Combover (Approach 1)

I sat in at another conference recently, hearing lots of promising work, including a paper by Leo Bersani called “Illegitimacy” that pursues his current project, to understand what the Cartesian attempt to elevate thought over bodies, attachments, appetites, and sociality itself has wrought and what new social relations might be developed alternatively and in proximity to it. He has three models on offer these days for not reproducing the kinds of compensatory fantasy that allow one to feel autonomous, adequate to oneself, and separate/superior to the [enigmatic] other: one, a radically negative abandonment of the normative world, a project of becoming unnamable, illegitimate, and nonviable (he associates this with Edelman’s No Future); two, a sweet Bollasian affective sociality that focuses on effecting attachment in a way that does not require a full revelation of being; three, the Socratic model of impersonal narcissism that Bersani developed from Homos to Intimacies, involving the lover’s loving not just his own likeness seen in the lover (the Greek anteros  or “backlove”) but also loving in the beloved a virtual form of universal individuation that at once gives the lover narcissistic satisfaction but also, motivated by love, induces the lover to foster the beloved’s becoming more like himself.

These three models for sidestepping the bubble of ego inflation do not cohere:  they invoke different models of an alternative formalism that might be found in relationality. But all of them counter in specific ways what Leo calls normative personhood’s murderous drives to eliminate alterity.  In a fine theorist, non-coherence is never a failure, but an expression of an experimentality I love: the feeling out of a problem in real time, even in the mode of a propositional definiteness, is what makes theory intimate, when it is. In Epistemology of the Closet, Eve called such liveness to the whole body work of conceptual transformation the “pincers movement”:  one theory-driven claw forward, another claw lagging, such that movement keeps happening across a field made from scratches that don’t add up quite to an even plane. 

But being me, I would foreground non-coherence as a principle of being rather than a cumulative effect of serial finitude:  I never thought that the subject ought to be seen as in one state.

Continue reading



After Eve, in honor of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

On February 25, 2010, a small symposium gathered at Duke University to honor Eve Sedgwick.  There were four formal speakers—me, Tyler Curtain, Maurice Wallace, and Robyn Wiegman—and then many other testifiers and memorialists.  We were all listeners.  It was a moving and interesting night. As there were no plans by the event sponsors to publish the talks, the participants thought they’d like some record of their part in it to be part of a publicly held history not only of Eve, but of many overlapping affectional and discourse worlds.  We decided to publish them here and put out the word.  After the jump, After Eve…

after eve

Continue reading