. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought

A Teaching (III)

The days were long and the weeks were short during the term that has ended, the rhythms of which extend like a membrane across the late weeks’ email exchanges and hastily arranged furtive-seeming encounters with student beings suddenly stunned and muddled in the face of writing something now.  In the middle of all that I left to give a talk, and talked with my hosts about another scene of the university ordinary that I find baffling:collegiality. On this trip I asked a former colleague to tell me how she maintains such grace when the relation of structural to affective dynamics so often induces a mess involving lots of disavowal of aggression and vulnerability. She said that there’s no helping it, collegial mistrust is structural, and therefore so are abreaction and dysfunction. But I swear it isn’t:  only inequality is structural. The rest is an ineducation for which we are constantly paying intuition.

The day I returned, though, the fog lifted for a minute.  My friend Sarah Schulman visited town to do a reading and promote her two new books.  Her confidence in her truths thrusts me back into myself constantly, as I tend to think of multiple explanations for problems for which she has found genuinely beautiful clarities. I have only been in the same bodily space as Sarah four times in the last two decades: but each time has had an impact because she moves me, she too is constantly knocking her head against the wall of her objects so that they might move a little and she too always seems a little surprised that the optimistic returns leave her bruised and frayed. But she enjoys her victories.  She is not afraid of the return, more afraid of not having the encounter than of having it. Me too. And yet, there is the question of resilience.

I can’t remember what we talked about at dinner, except that I felt like I was the child learning moral lessons and she the impatient teacher calling a thing a thing and telling my noise of “what if” speculative pleasure to shut the fuck up. She didn’t really do that, but as things unfolded my sense grew that my capacities are also defenses. As we were leaving, she asked me what I wanted out of life, and I said, at the moment I am trying to learn how to write.  She said, do you have 20 minutes?  I could teach you to write in 20 minutes.  I started laughing, but she was serious.  So we sat in the car outside The Knickerbocker Hotel and she taught me how to write.  Here is a picture of what she drew.

sarah s

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A Teaching (II)

1.  I have been teaching this term two courses that I meant to be identical but at different levels of intensity and abstraction, but my intentions (I typed intensions, which is more correct, since my intentions have stretched) (and I told my students that there are no asides in the classroom) (which is the same thing as saying there is no no in the unconscious) have little to do with what has happened, absolute divergence. As I described in the last post, teaching classes is for me like writing: if, in advance, I overprepare, then become blank and excited before I set out the prospective shape of things, and if, during the time of extension, I find it all absorbing and difficult, and if, afterwards, I can’t exactly remember what happened, not even the affect, and if I have to excavate the encounter as though it involves material from a therapeutic hour, that’s when I know that something has happened.

2.  John Forrester claims that the analysand can only lie, as all the story she has is noise that fills the space of what she knows but cannot know yet, or bear to know. That is true about teaching, too. It is impossible to know who one is as a teacher. The relation between what one intended and what one did–even if one’s own sense of things were to govern the evaluation of efficacy–can’t be determined solipsistically, not only because we teach other people as singularities and as groups, not only because teaching them is so very different than reaching them, not only because the feedback loops are so varied and out of synch (when they’re not out of commission altogether), but also because the relation between information transmission and all of the other activities within the scene of teaching is mostly unconscious, seat of the pants, in the normative ether, and atmospheric, rather than eventilized. I cannot imagine myself as a student encountering myself as a teacher.
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A Teaching (I)

1.  So many scholars read anxiously, with a hope not to learn, not to be discomposed by learning. They fish in indexes looking for confirmation of not being trumped, they skim the surface hoping that no phrase catches them.  The aversion to an event to which one nonetheless comes–like the vague sadism that Adam Phillips describes as a quality of intellectuals who come to the world hoping once again to be disappointed–is a frustrating part of being in this world.  I am not invulnerable to this, but when I feel it I force myself to interrupt the desire to not have an encounter that is so often part of encountering’s activity. (See Lingis for a read of how this desire to protect an aversion to a potentially transformative encounter can be part of a rhythm of belonging.)

2.  I read for my classes for days, and then make intense notes to provide infrastructures for the session (that become destroyed invariably by an aside or an intervention that creates unexpected folds in thought).  But in the last hours of class prep, my teaching notes appear to me to be writing that came from the middle of a dream.  Toward the shifted explanation of what was I reaching? The work of reattaching to an elaborate pedagogical intention that I had yesterday turns out to be a lot like reentering a transferential relationship after a break.  A friend used to tell me that class prep was rote for him, a skimming over material. Sometimes reading feels like skimming, that Barthesian “abrasion” on the surface of the text.  I tell my students that it takes me decades, sometimes, to enable myself to let in a new thought, to let it reorganize fully the way I encounter a problem.  In the meanwhile, it’s managing being in the overpresence of a problem and yet at the kind of distance to which Primo Levi refers when he describes someone’s gaze at him as the deadly quiet staring of beings looking at each other through the wall of an aquarium.

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Today I ran without music. When I run this way my head boils out, matter shooting everywhere like water on hot oil. Phrases reach me and mostly move away before I can trap and extend them into actual thoughts. Bracketed matter calls for its due.  Anger nudges wonder aside and has its own road rage. Connections appear and fade and I get excited and amnesiac. I mourn people and wonder how so and so is doing. I think about sex (but then I always stumble). I move between flat apprehension and hooking up well enough with the thought that I can sometimes get back home in time and make some notes.

The hardest thing is to brainstorm with oneself. Brainstorming is the skill I use in classrooms to get everyone in counterpoint, if not in sync, but it’s different to coordinate minds that work at different speeds in order to make some material commonly held. Brainstorming is my genre of jouissance in collegiality and friendship too, the work of staying in the conversation in real time that takes place when everyone’s alive enough to focus and then unfocus– to riff. The work of tracking oneself, though, when the ordinary compartmentalization breaks down enough to interrupt a habit of mind, requires a different rhythm of and skill for attentiveness. This general thought is the magnetizing rod for all of the non-sovereign unraveled, deflated, erupted, dispersed, and recessive material that will become Detachment Theory.

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My posts take forever to write, because they are trying to–my fingers want to type “to survive a genre,” but I meant to say “to invent one,” and that says it all about where I live. But the long duration also comes from the ways that a “post” is a mnemonic genre of its own, a recording of an instance in the pursuit of a problem. What would I need to understand to shift around this thing? Post-making enables me to track a point in my response to x, and how I thought to maintain fidelity to the pressure it incites. I am grateful to my readers for their bibliography and apercus, too: it might not seem that I’m responding sometimes, but it takes awhile to reorganize myself around a new complex thought.

My encounter with problems and the scene of writing provokes sometimes a zone of scarily quiet being in the world. But there is always a soundtrack–at the moment some loud person in a cafe who believes that her addressee is all that exists and to whom the rest of us are apparently failed trompe-l’oeil. (“I’m on a water and ice diet,” she told her friend, who’d dared to put milk in her coffee.) Today also, Pierre Boulez; Fred Anderson; and the new screechy P. J. Harvey collaboration. Also, this phrase cluster: I almost got out, I can’t believe I got out; I’m not sure whether I was trying to get in or get out. Amidst all of this Continue reading

Unworlding II

The rain was still torrential when I left the library to make my way to  the far northwest side of Chicago:  through the windscreen the traffic was in a slow chaos, cars shuddering from the beating wind and barely moving forward, the flooding streets outlining once again the urban infrastructure crumbling in real time. Potholes, puddles, and spray pounced out into sight as if the out there were a video game full of menacing threats to survival and not also ordinary life.

In the middle of all that a well-placed Shell station on Hollywood was processing a lot of traffic.  In the back right hand corner of the pumping area, though, a man stood just watching the cars. His gray and white cardigan and black cargo pants were becoming just dark with rain. He was tall, no longer young.  He seemed to have no relation to a car or the cars or to becoming soaked.  He was standing there just looking without watching.  It was easier to suss out what wasn’t happening than what was. I wanted to get out of the car and ask him something but couldn’t figure out the mechanics. Or the ethics.

Then things cleared up and moved on and so did the hard day of wondering about those scenarios of the ordinary that are predictable by now and yet feel immoveable too because their accumulation–as data, as exempla, as anecdote–does not lead to clarity, let alone transformation via something made live when the phenomenon turns trope. Continue reading


It is pouring with rain here right now.  Outside of the window of my library study thunder and lightning soften and expand the knot of the visible world, which recedes to a background behind the rain’s thick glass.  After awhile the university fades out, the possibility of which fading is one of the privileges of working at a university.

I am trying to write something other than this entry today, but something interferes with my surround of the material. The paper, called “Matter of Flatness,” is an early go at one of the scenes Detachment Theory will address, as it details how to think about non-sovereign personhood in some of its varieties of being unraveled.

The essay in question focuses on the emergence of a flat acting aesthetic among cinematically mediated queers.  It involves articulating flat affect as an effect of some combination of:

bad acting (low production values); casualized emotion; underperformed response; aspirational social belonging through performances of avant-garde detachment (Warhol), Punk-style refusal (Lipstick Traces), Goth nihilism, and bohemian coolness (Gen-X); nineties-style views of dissociation/PTSD; event-related affect management; and the attenuation that comes from living as a subject organized by longing and crisis amidst other scenes of longing and crisis that avail no traction or potential for rest in their normative terms of implicit belonging.

By the end of that list you almost forget the topic:  flatness. The point is that this animated mutedness forces a different approach to apprehending a person and an artwork.  Knowing what it isn’t doesn’t tell you what it is, though.  Gathering up all the forces necessary for explaining the scene right in front of you takes a lot of work, and the scene almost can’t bear the weight of what animates it.  Of course, psychoanalytically speaking, that’s what makes it a scene.

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Do You Intend to Die (IV)?

I know that only some of the writing on this blog is accessible and useful.  Research is like that, sometimes providing big clarities that open things up memorably, sometimes stacking more material between you and having a minimal handle on a problem. This is the last note for this series, because I have other writing to do, and other problems of approach and address to layer into this detachment project, still very much in its nascence. Explanation does not dissolve what’s incomprehensible about a thing.  At least for me, writing makes a vestibular system, a scene around which to move to get the contours of what’s hard about a thing.  Maybe a given instance achieves genuinely transformative recontextualization, and the problem looks significantly different after the analysis; usually it just outlines the body.

I’ve been thinking about aspects of this series seriously since last summer, when I heard a story that just blew me away.  But a friend told me emphatically that it didn’t belong on this blog, and instead should find a home in an autobiography that I have no plans to write. 

Now it is possible to fold it in. Because of intensifications in the crisis ordinary that have happened in the meanwhile, it now appears propped up among many cases, at the same time as I mean for its airing here to transform the taxonomy within which those cases have gained some clarity in the past few posts. Continue reading

Do You Intend to Die (III)?

1.  The Campaign Against Living Miserably

Every day digs me deeper into the bumpy surface of this situation. Today, just for fun, I was reading a wonderful Open Democracy post on the women of Greenham Common and then the post turned suddenly from a discussion of women’s emancipated political agency to a discussion of the global suicide epidemic among young men.  The interviewee, an activist called Jane Powell, is now working in Manchester UK with a project called–heartbreakingly, really–“the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM).” Sit there with that for a bit.

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Do you intend to die (II)?

1.  I was by myself when I fell, but I wasn’t alone. (Slogan for UK Telecare)

I have been trying and it has been trying to write the second installment of this post, as it is difficult to couple the distance and transference necessary for this stage of things, which requires some reporting on concepts, some associative building on them, and an emotional weather report about a case that feels exemplary of this historical moment in the U.S. but whose exemplarity is constituted partly by the form of its enigma.

The problem with writing across different, incommensurate, and oblique archives is striking the right tone of reportage:  dispassionate, passionate, comic-absurd, comic-slapstick, stentorian, melodramatic . . . No tone feels right ethically, which says something about tone itself, which is that it provides an affective epistemology of its own, holding the object just so, so that we can walk around it.  Tone is to voice as atmosphere is to the environment phenomenologists call a world.  In this case, though, to strike the “right” tone would be to risk homogenizing the incommensurate and describing the obscure so well that speculation looks like evidence construction. What follows is speculative, and I am a worm in an apple.

The question was about detaching. We were thinking about the intention to die.  We were thinking about a particular case of the intention to die, that of suicide.  There are other intentions related to risky addictive modes of physically self-undermining behavior that might also be characterized as part of the set of practices associated with intending to die (and writing in these tiny sixteenth notes makes me sound like a David Foster Wallace character, which scares me a little), but I think risky self-medicating behavior is as likely to be evidence of the drive to stay in proximity to life, to feeling, and to being present as it is to being dissociated and leaning toward the ultimate detachment. But one can’t tell from the outside whether a given form of self-interruption moves toward life or its dissipation, for a little perturbation can mount a grand defense: a shift in the tonalities of dissociation can pretend to be a shift from absence or numbness to presence, while being actually a shift between dissociative modes.

My wonderful student Anil told me lots about this before he killed himself a few years ago.  (He was my first adult-life personal encounter with this series.) According to him, his warmth and presence intellectually, pedagogically, and intimately were just as detached as were his depressive recessions from life; according to him, each style of attachment-defense provided pleasure and armor of its own sort.  I think he thought he would go on forever like this, living from a distance that often felt like too-closeness.  But what he had no language for, and what I have some research language for developing now, is why those attachment-defenses might not have kept him in life, despite seeming both enervating and animating.

Here are the keywords:  “affect regulation,” “ego depletion,” and “resiliency.”

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